Rene Clair’s Hat Trick

15 March, 2015 (13:53) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

A triumvirate of early sound comedies—Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À Nous la Liberté (1931)—made René Clair’s reputation as France’s master of modern screen comedy. They explored the possibilities of the new audio dimension as an expressive element without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery of the height of the silent era. To American audiences, it was like Clair burst forth upon the international scene fully formed. But that’s because his final silent film—and his first comic masterpiece—The Italian Straw Hat (1927) did not arrive stateside until much later, and then in a version cut by an entire reel.

‘The Italian Straw Hat’

Filmmaking was not Clair’s original ambition. He intended a literary career and didn’t consider film a serious undertaking. When he took bit parts in a few films as a lark (including a couple of late serials by the great Louis Feuillade), he changed his name to separate it from his journalism and writing, from Chomette (his given name) to Clair (“light”). But he got bitten by the film bug and started rubbing elbows with the artists of the avant-garde, which led to an invitation to direct a short film to play between the two acts of a Dadaist ballet by Francis Picabia. Entr’acte (1924) is filled with cinematic tricks and playful imagery and it features appearances by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Georges Auric and a score by Erik Satie. Those are impressive credentials and Entr’acte is a landmark of avant-garde cinema of the twenties but apart from a brief revisit to non-narrative filmmaking in La Tour (1928), his love letter to the Eiffel Tower, it’s not where Clair’s heart lay. For that, look to his directorial debut Paris qui dort (1923), a comic fantasy set in a Paris that has been frozen in time by a science fiction ray gun (a prototype for Dr. Horrible’s freeze ray?).

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Review: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

15 March, 2015 (10:00) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 13

13 March, 2015 (09:22) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

‘Death Proof’

“With the woman’s dainty toes center screen, the foregrounded width of the image, and the lovingly worn texture of the film itself—one of Grindhouse’s gimmicks was that it would look like a crummy old 35mm print unearthed from some dusty, ill-maintained archive—Death Proof is from its very first shot the ultimate Tarantino fetish film.” Michael Koresky has a lovely reading—formalist, but alive to humanist ironies and complexities—for “the lowest-grossing, least discussed, and perhaps most misunderstood work” of Tarantino’s career.

“Classical Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, subject of a recent retrospective at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is charged in pages upon pages of film history and criticism with codifying modern Hollywood spectacle, often through the lens of Old Testament biblical narrative. However, bookended by his prolific (and oft revered) silent work, and his late career showmanship are a string of virtually un-regarded films that push the director’s ideology into something bordering Naturalism.” Daniel Watkins looks at the unique tug-of-wars between civilization and the call of the wild in DeMille’s This Day and Age, Four Frightened People, and Reap the Wild Wind.

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Film Review: ‘Wild Tales’

12 March, 2015 (05:27) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Leonardo Sbaraglia in ‘Road to Hell’ episode

The opening sequence of Wild Tales sets up a Twilight Zone-style series of revelations, compressed into just a few minutes. Passengers riding on a suspiciously underfilled plane begin to realize that there might be a reason for their presence there, beyond the obvious business of getting to a destination. Writer/director Damián Szifrón wants to get his movie started with a bang, and he does—in fact, the rest of this anthology feature doesn’t live up to the wicked curtain-raiser. But there are enough moments of irony and ingenuity to explain why the Oscar voters made this Argentine entry one of the five nominees in the Foreign Language Film category (it lost to Ida).

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Film Review: ‘Beloved Sisters’

12 March, 2015 (05:22) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Hannah Herzsprung and Florian Stetter

Last year brought a lot of chatter about cinema’s obligations to historical accuracy. Did Selma distort Lyndon Johnson’s role in the civil-rights struggle? Did American Sniper sanitize the Iraq War’s most lethal sharpshooter? Whatever the answers, we can conclude that the further we get from the historical period in question, the less discrepancies seem to matter. Which is why few people will fret over whether the historical characters in Beloved Sisters actually got it on as a threesome.

There’s no definitive proof that German writer Friedrich Schiller was snuggling up with his wife’s sister, but this movie certainly likes the idea.

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Film Review: ‘Kung Fu Elliot’

12 March, 2015 (05:14) | by Robert Horton, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Elliot Scott

In the geek-show school of documentary, strange pockets of humanity are uncovered so we can laugh at the foibles of people who are not us. Either you feel bad for laughing, or you reject that sort of condescending approach altogether. (Or you feel superior to other people, I guess.) Kung Fu Elliot invites audience mirth at the expense of its collection of Nova Scotia oddballs, but you might not feel so guilty about your laughter by the time the movie reaches its bizarre, late-hatching revelations. There’s some creepy stuff going on in Halifax, folks.

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Review: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman

11 March, 2015 (10:01) | by Claudia Gorbman, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Movietone News contributor

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

“My stepmother and I used to go to these … spiritualistic meetings, and get messages from …”—a little hand gesture—”yonder. They went into trances and said that Liszt was standing in back of me.” The 73-year-old reminisces about her childhood in California: receiving piano lessons so that she’d stop biting her nails; finding gratification playing at her stepmother’s séances “because ladies would come up afterwards and hold me in their arms.'” Antonia Brico’s articulate recollections always link music to love, and this documentary, inspired by her former student Judy Collins and put together by Jill Godmilow, communicates from start to finish Antonia’s enormous capacity for both music and love. Her life as a conductor really began in 1930. A Movietone newsreel presents her as she performed Dvorak’s D minor symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. A montage of newspaper headlines then illustrates the immense critical success the “American girl” enjoyed—although we learn that security in success would never grace her career. Back in the United States, despite resistance on the part of the male-dominated musical establishment, Antonia recounts how she managed to conduct two concerts in New York. More rave reviews. But the third never occurred because the male soloist poutishly declared that he would never sing under a female’s direction. Only slightly daunted, Brico’s next claim to fame was the founding of the Brico Symphony Orchestra, the all-women enterprise that made headlines for a couple of years and sparked a raging, publicity-studded controversy between Brico and Jose Iturbi on the relative competence of men and women musicians. A silly but endearing animated entr’acte invades the screen: “The Great Kettledrum Contest of 1937,” a grueling cartoon duel between a barrel-chested maestro and a demure young maestra. Guess who outplays whom.

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Videophiled: Alain Resnais’ ‘Life of Riley’

10 March, 2015 (13:14) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

LifeofRileyLife of Riley (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) – It is curious that Alain Resnais, who was the most narratively experimental and ambitious of directors at the birth of the nouvelle vague in France, spent the last two decade of his filmmaking career melding cinema and theater in productions that are both highly theatrical and uniquely cinematic. Life of Riley, the final film from the director (he passed away in 2014, a few months after the film’s debut), is his third adaptation of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn and, like his penultimate feature You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012), revolves around the theater. In this case it’s an amateur production, a play within a play that we only get in glimpses of rehearsals interrupted by disagreements and digressions. The biggest digression is their friend George Riley, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never appears on screen but his presence looms over the film and his actions stir the drama between the three couples of the story: suburbanites Kathryn and Colin (Sabine Azéma and Hippolyte Girardot), wealthy friends Tamara and Jack (Caroline Sihol and Michel Vuillermoz), and George’s ex-wife Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) now living on a farm with the older Simeon (André Dussollier).

“Drama” may not be the right word. The play itself is a pleasant frivolity, a mix of bedroom farce (without the bedrooms), romantic comedy, and self-aware theater that opens on the first day of rehearsals and ends after closing night, with a coda that brings us back to the themes of mortality and emotional connection. Resnais was 90 when he made the film and it is surely no coincidence that his final two features raise a glass to life by facing death and mortality.

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Review: The Yakuza

9 March, 2015 (07:11) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

First things first: The way they say it in the movie is yaw-ku-zah and, as a headnote explains, the Yakuza were roughly parallel to the western’s good badmen—gamblers, con men, drifters with short swords and no samurai code of bushido to sustain them, sometime Robin Hood figures who stood between the defenseless and the marauders who would prey upon them. Yakuza stories within a modern gangster framework are immensely popular in the Japanese cinema, and Paul Schrader, former editor of the American film magazine Cinema, wrote a comprehensive survey of the genre for a Film Comment of about a year ago. Remarking therein that anyone who’d seen a few examples of this relentlessly formalized genre could write one himself, Schrader spoke from experience: his own The Yakuza, touched up a smidge by Robert Towne and formally permissive enough to incorporate some double-dealing American gangsters along with its Japanese pro- and antagonists, looked a likely enough successor to the kung-fu cycle in popularity that Warner Brothers paid a hefty price for the screenplay ($300,000, according to Newsweek).

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Milestones: ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

8 March, 2015 (17:13) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

InLandHeadHuntersIn the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.

Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).

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Milestones: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

8 March, 2015 (13:12) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

ConnectionThe Connection (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from Shirley Clarke, turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater as a play within a play into an innovative work of cinema. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and this is Volume One of Milestone films’ Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke. It’s actually their third disc release—the documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967), a landmark of queer cinema, and Ornette: Made in America (1985), were ready for disc before The Connection—but it really is ground zero for the project and her career.

In this adaptation, a filmmaker and his cameraman (William Redfield and a largely off-screen but present Roscoe Lee Brown in his film debut) film a group of junkies in a New York loft as they await to score heroine (paid for by the filmmakers) from their drug dealer, a flamboyant character named Cowboy (Carl Lee). While they wait, the men trade-off delivering soliloquies to the camera, a jazz quartet (which includes composer Freddie Redd on piano and brilliant sax solos by Jackie McLean, both reprising their roles from the stage play) periodically launches into impromptu jams, and the director spouts off about film theory and authenticity without having any idea about the world he’s trying to capture. They alternately provoke the filmmaker, who has never so much as a taken a puff of marijuana, and perform for the prowling handheld cameras, and then slip off to the bathroom to discretely shoot up.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 6

6 March, 2015 (11:02) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Errol Morris

“But I like film. And I like visual storytelling. I’m sick of interviewing. I am really sick of it. I’m not gonna say I do it better than anybody else, but I do it differently than anybody else. I am good at it, for whatever reason. There are a lot of different reasons, but if that’s all I’m going to do for the rest of my life is stick a camera in front of people and say to them, “I don’t have a first question, what’s your first answer?” I think I would be very sad.” It’s Errol Morris week at Grantland. (Why? Read on.) Alex Pappademas conducts one of the directors typically wide-ranging, philosophically tinged interviews, quoted above; Wesley Morris might be a little hard on the humorlessness of the director’s recent efforts, but he provides a good overview and the best summation of the differences between Errol Morris and Werner Herzog you’re likely ever to get. (“He believes in the movies’ power to produce reversals of fortune, to showcase remorse, to embarrass and shame a corrupt power structure and actors within it.”); while Mike Powell considers some highlights from the more that 1,000 ads Morris has directed. But the meat of the matter is what prompted the celebration in the first place: the debut of six shorts made for ESPN films. They’re still rolling out, but up already are quintessentially Morrissian (Morrisesque? Morrissey?) takes on tabletop electric football; the swiping of a Jordan jersey from a stadium’s rafters; a legendary streaker; and what a mascot’s life looks like from the cavernous perspective of Mr. Met’s head.

Grantland corrals three different writers to pull off their salute; David Cairns takes it upon himself to conduct his self-described René Clément week, but spreads it across three websites. At The Chiseler, a defense of Clément from the New Wavers and a brief overview. (“The subterfuge of the tales of wartime resistance (no fewer than six features, a third of Clément’s output) spills into the thrillers, where Ripley/Delon is just one of a whole series of schemers weaving insanely complicated webs (like those spiders given Benzedrine).”) At his own site, Shadowplay, a cheer for the girlfight in Gervaise and a consideration of Le Mura di Malapaga (“…a kind of compendium of Gabin’s greatest hits: he’s on the run for murdering his lover, making it play like either a sequel to GUEULE D’AMOUR or an alternative reality version of LA BANDERA”). Then at MUBI, an attentive write-up on The Glass Castle. (“The movie is superbly designed by the great Leon Barsacq—note how, as Morgan frets in her now-stifling marriage, every little item of design is curled, clenched and worried into knots around her.”)

“Taken with cinema, but not taken in by it, the Godard who holds forth and fields questions in A True History is also the brother from another planet, at once straightforward and cryptic, an epistemologist of cinema, wondering why the film frame became a square and why lenses are round. ‘There is no opposite of an idea,’ he remarks…. ‘So an idea goes everywhere.’” Ostensibly reviewing a pair of books—Michael Witt’s on Godard and the publication of Godard’s talks delivered in 1978 at Montreal’s Concordia University—J. Hoberman offers one of the better appreciations of what the director’s been up to in the decades since. Via Movie City News.

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The Salvation: Color of Old Blood

5 March, 2015 (06:22) | by Kathleen Murphy, Film Reviews, Westerns | By: Kathleen Murphy

‘The Salvation’

In Dogme director Kristian Levring’s harrowing 2000 film The King Is Alive, a clutch of mismatched folk variously afflicted by modern-day angst are stranded in the great void of an African desert. For distraction, they decide to perform King Lear, Shakespeare’s wrenching tale of despair and madness. For these lost souls, it’s the narrative containment of the play’s spiritually corrosive content that looks like something they might hold on to.

The Salvation, Levring’s strangely numinous Danish take on the American western, displays a similar faith in the power of fiction, to show and contain chaos and horror, ceremonially, artfully. That power in some fashion saves us—like the ritual of consuming a god’s blood and body. The ambiguous salvation promised in the movie’s title may well refer to the good work art can do for us.

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Film Review: ‘Buzzard’

5 March, 2015 (05:40) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Joshua Burge

Funny and bizarre enough to attract a cult following, Buzzard is also off-putting enough to keep its micro-indie cred. I think it might be the real thing. There are some recognizable influences, like the ratty-couch ambience of early Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, with more than a touch of James Gunn’s wacky/hostile Super mixed in. But for all that, it only takes a few minutes of watching Buzzard to suspect there’s a stubbornly original filmmaker on the scene—namely Michigan writer/director Joel Potrykus, whose second feature this is.

We are in the world of Martin Jackitansky, a conniving slacker who seems to belong to a previous generation.

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Film Review: ‘The Salvation’

5 March, 2015 (05:35) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Westerns | By: Robert Horton

Mads Mikkelson

As a Western shot by a Danish crew in South Africa, The Salvation already has a hodgepodge air about it. The movie never quite overcomes that sense of being assembled from different directions, but—with the help of two charismatic stars—it does conjure up its share of evocative genre moments. The hook is set early, as a terrible act of frontier violence and instant retribution blows apart the world of Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen). Now Jon and his brother Peter (cool customer Mikael Peresbrandt, a Hobbit veteran) are targeted for revenge by a very bad hombre (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose henchmen have the usual traits of bad hygiene and lousy marksmanship. There’s also a woman, played by the thankfully ubiquitous Eva Green, who does not speak. A wordless role is no problem for this French actress, who looks as though she might set fire to the entire worthless town with a glance.

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