Videophiled: ‘The Immigrant’

7 April, 2015 (16:28) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Editor

ImmigrantThe Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)

If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue: Revisiting Raoul (Walsh)

6 April, 2015 (10:00) | by Peter Hogue, Essays, Raoul Walsh | By: Peter Hogue

Raoul Wash

My contributions to MTN#45 (the “Raoul Walsh issue”) were riding the crest of what was, at the time, my freshly discovered enthusiasm for Warner Brothers films of the Thirties and Forties, including especially William A. Wellman’s pictures from the pre-Code era, Raoul Walsh’s films from some of the best years of his career (1939-1949), and almost anything with James Cagney in it. I’d already written about some of this in “Life with Warners” (MTN#6). Me and My Gal (Fox, 1932) and Gentleman Jim (Warner Brothers, 1942), first encountered amid a wonderful flood of studio-vault re-releases circa 1970, were the tipping points for my ventures into Walsh territory.

In 2015, those enthusiasms have continued vitality for me, and I’m still very interested in Walsh. But I’m less inclined to view Walsh’s directorial persona (or Walsh the auteur) in the relatively exclusive terms laid out in MTN#45. Part of this is a matter of my having come to think of Walsh and a number of other favorite directors among his contemporaries—Allan Dwan, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway—less as movie authors than as gifted overseers of the “genius of the system.”

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Raoul Walsh by Peter Hogue (1974)

6 April, 2015 (09:52) | by Peter Hogue, Essays, Raoul Walsh | By: Peter Hogue

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Interviewer: One critic, Andrew Sarris, has said, “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.” Do you feel that’s too precious a criticism, or that it’s on the nail?

Raoul Walsh: I guess it’s so. Everyone has his own impression of things. Maybe the guy was drunk.

In Manpower, a movie about powerline repairmen, there’s a funny scene at a diner. Various workmen are ordering their meals. The counterman shouts each order back to the cook, but—in the time-honored tradition of the American greasy spoon—he translates each request into the surrealistic lingo of short-order chefs. A cup of coffee with cream is “a blackout, and blitz it!” A hamburger to go is a “cow and convoy”; a bowl of chili “with plenty of peppers”—”one Mexican heartburn.” A cut of beef, “juicy and with no fat” = “one impossible”; hash is “take a chance”; and a bowl of cherries, “one George Washington!” Some comedy involving a slot machine intervenes, but the camera returns to the counter where the head lineman, thinking of his wife, makes a request of his own: “Gimme a nice little bottle of wine—and giftwrap it.” The counterman turns toward the kitchen and, facing the camera in closeup, shouts, “The grapes of wrath—in a sport jacket!” End of scene.

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No Hiding: Mohammad Rasoulof

4 April, 2015 (10:59) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Mohammad Rasoulof is the very model of the filmmaker as defiant activist, an Iranian artist who confronts injustice and repression through his cinema knowing full well the consequences of such an act.

‘The White Meadows’

In the 1990s, when Iranian cinema first broke out of film festivals and museum programs and started appearing in arthouses, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi worked within the severe government-imposed limitations on subject matter (everything from politics to physical contact between the sexes) by focusing on films about children and rural life. Other filmmakers hid messages and social commentary in genre trappings and metaphor.

With The White Meadows (2009), Rasoulof confronted Iran’s oppressive culture through the metaphor of a surreal and savage Gulliver’s Travels journey, an allegory that was not lost on audiences. The next year he was arrested, along with fellow cinematic rebel Jafar Panahi. And like Panahi, he responded with another cinematic provocation. The even more audacious Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) strips away the metaphor to portray Iran’s government as an authoritarian regime in direct, confrontational terms. These two films are among the most daring—and the most powerful—Iranian films of the past few decades.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 3

3 April, 2015 (10:40) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

“In 1932, he landed a job shooting posed promotional stills from a film-in-progress called “The Shadow of Pancho Villa.” The results were the quick-and-dirty products of many hands, but a few were strikingly staged: panoramic tableaus of peasant-revolutionaries, their faces half-hidden by sombreros, standing in low-horizon landscapes under towering, cloud-filled skies. They looked better than anything in the film itself. A new talent had arrived.” Holland Cotter tours an exhibit at New York’s El Museo del Barrio dedicated to the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; the museum’s own site offers a wealth of film clips from one of the most consistently great eyes in movie history.

From the archives of Gabriel Figueroa

“To document this behind-the-scenes story is not to say In the Land of the Head Hunters is a dismissible bad object. In fact, knowing its history makes it an even more essential a document to us. Its lessons, however, must be shifted from those in front of the camera and more toward its creators. Turning to the archive is work that uncovers, redevelops, and rethinks history—not to reject what made it.” Peter Labuza manages a fresh take on the Birth of a Nation discussion by sidestepping it altogether for a look at Edwin S. Curtis’s own masterpiece-cum-racist-tract from the year before. Via Mubi.

In the course of two brief excerpts—at Vice and BOMB—from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “autobiographical novel” Where the Bird Sings Best we encounter lion tamers, bee keepers, phantasmal rabbis wandering a dimension called the Interworld, despairing mothers forsaking God, tarot card readers, sexuality healthy and perverse, and frequent, brutal violence. Precisely what you’d expect, in other words. Via David Hudson.

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Film Review: ‘Welcome to New York’

2 April, 2015 (05:59) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Gérard Depardieu and friends

In the early minutes of Welcome to New York, Gérard Depardieu’s performance as a VIP called Devereaux appears designed to elicit a variety of animal comparisons: pig, bear, bull, rhinoceros. His character grunts and wheezes, an overgrown satyr whose sex addiction can’t be satisfied, regardless of how many prostitutes or innocent bystanders fall into his path. Say this for the well-traveled, enormous Depardieu: He’s the most interesting thing about this bizarre film, and he exposes his baser instincts (and his corpulent body) with fearless abandon.

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Film Review: ‘Danny Collins’

2 April, 2015 (05:55) | by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Al Pacino

“The following is kind of based on a true story a little bit.” There is a germ of truth to the opening disclaimer to this simultaneously hackneyed and likable rock-’n’-roll redemption tale. There really was a guy who, 40 years after the fact, discovered that John Lennon had written him a letter telling him to stay true to his art. Danny Collins simply replaces English folk singer Steve Tilston, who never found fame or riches but did remain true to the music, with a fictional American folk-rock sellout with plenty of regrets.

Al Pacino plays Danny as a music celebrity living high on his legacy, doing what looks like a lounge-act version of Mick Jagger on the casino circuit. He’s on showbiz autopilot, performing his greatest hits for the AARP demo with a voice like gravel, numbing the monotony with lines of blow and fifths of booze

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Film Review: ‘Effie Gray’

2 April, 2015 (05:53) | by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Dakota Fanning

It’s no coincidence that Dakota Fanning’s Euphemia (nicknamed “Effie”) looks like she stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. Within the first few minutes of Effie Gray, she lives out her storybook fantasy and becomes the teenage bride of John Ruskin (Greg Wise), the 19th-century art critic who championed the upstart painters of the pre-Raphaelite movement. (He also praised J.M.W. Turner, earning the critic a small, lisping appearance in Mr. Turner.) John is serious, cultured, talented, and passionate in his love of art. A life with him will sweep Effie out of rural Scotland and into the center of London’s cultural elite—or so naive Effie believes. John meanwhile appears to view her as a lovely social prop for his budding career. He quite literally flees from any physical or emotional engagement with his wife.

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Film Review: ‘3 Hearts’

2 April, 2015 (05:41) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni

The missed rendezvous: such a potent storytelling device, such a tantalizing chance to imagine what might have been if only Character A had been on time or Character B had waited another five minutes. Romeo and Juliet has a whopper along these lines, and the device works even when not depicted—like between the action of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, for instance. One of my favorites is in Jules and Jim, in which a missed assignation is a brief plot beat, a mysterious “what-if” in the course of the great aching journey of François Truffaut’s classic. I wonder whether director (A Single Girl) might have been thinking of that moment in Jules and Jim with his latest film, 3 Hearts. Here a missed connection is central to the passionate tale we’re watching; its ripples keep expanding through the rest of the movie.

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The Top Ten Films of the Next Decade

1 April, 2015 (10:03) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays | By: Sean Axmaker

[In 2010, I penned this whimsical piece as an April Fool’s Day feature for a site—which shall remain nameless—that no longer preserves the legacy of its contributors. Five years later I revive it for another run for the April Fools. I present it as written with no adjustments to subsequent history, which means the Dennis Hopper reference remains in tribute. Enjoy! – Sean Axmaker]

What a long, strange trip it will be. Markets peak and crash like yo-yos. Snowfall in Florida. Canada’s startling leap into geopolitical domination. China’s merciless foreclosure on the southern provinces of Mexico. North Korea’s transformation into the world’s largest theme park. The rise of New Jersey. The bankruptcy of California. The rise of curling from cult oddity to America’s new favorite pastime. Sarah Palin’s embarrassing slide to shopping channel sales personality. Steven Seagal’s surreal political run before signing on as Sarah’s on-air sidekick.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well okay, you can make this stuff up, and that’s the fun of looking ahead. I mean, why wait until the last minute to make a ten best list? To get a jump on the rush, we’ve put on our prognostication caps, hit the flashforward button and come back from the future with this snapshot of the ten best films of the 2010s. We were just as surprised as you at the results.

Neo is back!

The Matrix: Devolution (The Wachowski Siblings)

After the bizarre journey of Larry Wachowski’s transformation into Lana and a hermit-like retreat following the debacle of Speed Racer (only recently resurrected as a subversive blast of cinematic surrealism), the Wachowski Siblings relaunched their brand with a return trip to the virtual world that made their fame and fortune. Drawing liberally from the New Testament, the French New Wave, and various volumes of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” Devolution pairs the messianic Neo with a sassy Southern society lady (Sandra Bullock, back with Keanu Reeves for the first time since Speed) who gets caught in the program while playing what she thinks is a cutting edge version of Fantasy Football. Impressed with his ability to surf the web and dodge bullets at the same time, she tries to adopt the jacked-up orphan and ends up marrying him rather than face deportation. The virtual romantic comedy of cyber-geddon took the country by storm: Titanic meets Tron with a dose of southern comfort and a flashback soundtrack that turned “Freedom of Choice” and “Mongoloid” into anthems for the new generation of techno-rebels.

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Videophiled: Hard science and soft-headed people in ‘Interstellar’

31 March, 2015 (22:52) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.

Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and ghost the haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.

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Review: Rancho Deluxe

30 March, 2015 (08:45) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.

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Love Among the Ruins: 1975 in Review

29 March, 2015 (12:55) | by Kathleen Murphy, by Peter Hogue, by Richard T. Jameson, by Richard Thompson, by Rick Hermann, by Robert C. Cumbow | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

“We might pass this way again”—the line from the song recurs throughout Stations, Roger Hagan’s exquisite documentary that stood out at this year’s Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest and later graced a Seattle Film Society showing of Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore. I seem to be passing this way again whenever a yearly assessment of the Seattle film experience falls due in January. 1975, like other recent years we’ve lived and watched through, didn’t feel in the present the way a lot of years look in the past, like a (to compound as many metaphors as possible in this silly season) cornucopia of good movies clamoring to light our way to eternity. Which is not to say that getting up a Ten Best List has been especially difficult for me, or that 1975 has failed to generate many more movies than ten that I want to pay my addresses to.

The little films, for instance, those small-scale endeavors that make no pretensions for themselves and seem ready in advance to kid any pretensions we might make for them; not award-winners or even likely nominees, not Ten Best types as long as “Best” implies more than a conviction that one will fondly remember them. But film years, and film consciousness, don’t get fleshed out without the likes of Rafferty and the Gold-Dust Twins (Dick Richards, Alan Arkin, Sally Kellerman, Mackenzie Phillips), Rancho Deluxe (Tom McGuane, Frank Perry, William A. Fraker, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Slim Pickens, Elizabeth Ashley, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright), W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (Burt Reynolds, Art Carney, Thomas Rickman, John G. Avildsen), and A Boy and His Dog (L.Q. Jones, Harlan Ellison, Don Johnson, Tim McIntire, Blood). In some private last analysis I prize such movies above the more generally noticeable and certainly commendable likes of Jaws, The Return of the Pink Panther, and Farewell My Lovely because it requires no last analysis to make me uneasy about, respectively, empty manipulation, however proficient, or betting a sure thing, however accomplished that sure thing may be, or gilding a generic lily even when the gilding is as affectionate and surprisingly unpretentious as Richards’ (director of Farewell as well as Rafferty).

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 27

27 March, 2015 (11:01) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

‘Beyond the Lights’

“She’s exploring relationships that take years of self-reflection and conflict to reach a flawed but harmonious state. As a result, love at first sight doesn’t mean instant happiness; it’s simply the spark that inspires a long and thorny journey toward mutual connection, an endgame that transcends fleeting feelings like lust and infatuation.” Glenn Heath, Jr. praises how Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights manage to be among the best romances in recent memories while upending some of the genre’s ickier, stickier conventions.

Josephine Decker’s rise from mumblecore star to acclaimed director of Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely seems rapid, but behind the ascent lay years of grappling with her faith, documentary filmmaking (a particularly painful experience), and playing the accordion. Aaron Hillis’s profile fills in the background. Via David Hudson.

The November issue of lola finishes its protracted rollout, with, among other items, Yvette Bíró on the “skillful storytelling” (a devastating critique in context) of Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust; David T. Johnson arguing for the Romantic soul of Upstream Color, and its fragmented suggestions of the “[I]narticulable, inexpressible, inexhaustible, infinite”; and David Davidson exploring the philosophical schism—“l’art d’aimer against rigorous, formal analysis”—that divided Cahiers du cinema and Positif.

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Film Review: ‘Serena’

26 March, 2015 (08:22) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Jennifer Lawrence

A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper was made available through Video On Demand before it played theaters in the U.S. This might lead to conclusions about a) how dramatically the release model for Hollywood films is changing, or b) how quickly superstars can drop from the stratosphere. Neither is true. Serena is simply a one-off botch, signifying nothing about the value of VOD or its stars’ undiminished red-hotness. Shot in 2012, it’s being dumped because it’s a major bummer, despite the cast. Based on a novel by Ron Rash, it has an outdated style and subject matter—the kind of thing that might have worked in the 1930s, which is when the story is set. In fact, the setting of the thing vaguely recalls that of Come and Get It (1936), a timber-baron drama with the ill-fated Frances Farmer’s best role.

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