Review: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio

Many things can be said about Alejandro G. Iñárritu as a filmmaker, but that he’s timid isn’t one of them. The Revenant, the director’s follow-up to Birdman, is as far from a cushy post-Oscar victory lap as one can possibly get, featuring extended takes in hellish locations, stunts seemingly lifted from a snuff film, and well-documented reports of tormented extras. Judged on a scene-by-scene basis, it often feels like one of the most amazing movies ever made, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography capturing every vivid facet of nature’s teeth and claws.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Review: S*P*Y*S

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

The only thing of interest in S*P*Y*S—and it’s of sooooooo little interest—is the mystery of how such sharp guys as Kershner, Gould, and Sutherland ever got mixed up in it; or, beyond that, how, having recognized what a mire they were in (and they must have recognized it, sooner or later), they failed to distribute more clues to their disenchantment as disavowals of any responsibility. Since I’ve tossed more than my share of bouquets toward directors, I’ll continue to play it the auteur way and throw my biggest stink bomb at Irvin Kershner. No semblance of focus or structure is to be detected in the film, and it does seem proper to blame the director for that. Even when a competent, well-intentioned director has his film messed up in production or post-production by the proverbial front office, traces always remain: the occasional sequence left intact, a broken-backed but discernible emotional rhyme scheme in the performances, distinctive niceties in the selection of angles here and there, the way corners of shots get filled up. And I didn’t see nothin’ like that in S*P*Y*S, nowhere, no way.

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Blu-ray / DVD: Sicario

SicarioSicario (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), a violent, chaotic, adrenaline-fueled thriller set in the brutal violence of the drug war on the American border with Mexico, is a film that constantly seems to be spinning out of control. That’s not entirely by design, I fear, but it is purposeful. From the opening scene, where a missing persons rescue operation headed by FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) sends the team into a Mexican drug cartel safehouse, a sinister mausoleum hidden behind the chalkboard the walls, and a booby trap that takes the life of one of her men, we are thrown into a world where the rules no longer apply.

We are suddenly tossed along with Macer, a driven but idealistic veteran of an FBI strike force, into what appears to be a black ops campaign driven by the CIA. She is requested by a cagey company man named Matt (Josh Brolin, who tosses off his evasions with an amiable grin that hides his endgame), ostensibly an “advisor from the DOD,” and like her we are racing to keep up with the events. Borders are crossed (both physical and moral), information is withheld, and she suspects something bigger (and likely illegal) under the official cover of the operation. The American team has apparently chosen to fight the Mexican cartels with their own tactics, acting on information and advice from a former cartel man with a score to settle with the Mexican mob. Benicio Del Toro plays the advisor, Alejandro, holding his cards close to his chest but never lying to Macer.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Parallax View’s Best of 2015

Welcome 2016 with one last look back at the best releases of 2015, as seen by the Parallax View contributors and a few notable Seattle-based film critics.

Soren Andersen

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Spotlight
3. The Revenant
4. Ex Machina
5. Chi-Raq
6. Steve Jobs
7. Kingsman: The Secret Service
8. Goodnight Mommy
9. The Martian
10. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
(more at The Seattle Times)

Sean Axmaker

1. Clouds of Sils Maria
2. Carol
3. Phoenix
4. Taxi
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
6. Spotlight
7. 45 Years
8. Mustang
9. Jauja
10. Ex Machina
And ten more that almost made the list: Brooklyn, Experimenter, Girlhood, Inside Out, It Follows, Love & Mercy, The Martian, Queen & Country, Sicario, Timbuktu
Also lists at Village Voice Film Poll and Keyframe

David Coursen

(alphabetical)
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Chi-Raq (Spike Lee,US)
Leviathan (Russia, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Love and Mercy (Bill Pohlad, US)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US)
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, US)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine)
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
Honorable Mention: Carol (Todd Haynes, US)

Bob Cumbow

(in no intending order)
Phoenix
Brooklyn
Ex Machina
Spotlight
Sicario
Slow West
Carol
The Big Short
Bridge Of Spies
Jauja
Also: The Walk, Mr. Holmes
Endings: PhoenixCarol
Disappointments: SpectreThe Hateful 8
Surprises: Mission Impossible: Rogue NationPredestination
Guilty Pleasure: San Andreas
Actors: Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Ronald Zehrfeld (Phoenix), Rooney Mara (Carol), Saorise Ronan (Brooklyn), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Emily Blunt (Sicario), Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies), Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes)
Director: Christian Petzold (Phoenix)
Music: Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies; Carter Burwell, Carol; Howard Shore, Spotlight; Alan Silvestri, The Walk; Andrew Lockington, San Andreas

John Hartl

45 Years
Spotlight
Brooklyn
Sicario
Trumbo
Carol
Ex Machina
Bridge of Spies
Inside Out
99 Homes
A second 10: The Walk, Joy, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Phoenix, Tab Hunter Confidential, Rosenwald, I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Big Short, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Most miraculous restoration: The Apu Trilogy.

Robert Horton

1. 45 Years
2. Son of Saul
3. Bridge of Spies
4. Experimenter
5. It Follows
6. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Ex Machina
8. The Assassin
9. Spotlight
10. The Duke of Burgundy
The second 10, just missing: The droll Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence; Mad Max: Fury Road, maybe not as good as the fanboys say, but definitely good; the straightforwardly lovely Brooklyn; Viggo Mortensen in the magical Jauja; Bone Tomahawk; Mississippi Grind; the devastating documentary The Look of Silence; The Hateful Eight; the pictorially astonishing The Revenant; and—why not—Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
(via Seattle Weekly)

Richard T. Jameson

1. It Follows
2. Clouds of Sils Maria
3. Spotlight
4. Bridge of Spies
5. Room
6. The Assassin
7. 45 Years
8. Son of Saul
9. Jauja
10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Close and by all means a cigar: Bone Tomahawk, Brooklyn, Blackhat, Mad Max: Fury Road, Phoenix, Ex Machina, Sicario
Pix: Saiorse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Brooklyn; Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, 45 Years
(via Framing Pictures)

Jay Kuehner

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2. Carol (Todd Haynes)
3. Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
4. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
5. The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid)
6. Heaven Knows What (Benny and Josh Safdie)
7. The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher)
8. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
9. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
(via Keyframe)

Moira Macdonald

(in alphabetical order)
45 Years
Brooklyn
Carol
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Grandma
Inside Out
Room
Shaun the Sheep Movie
Spotlight
The Third Man/ Tales of Hoffmann
(more at The Seattle Times)

Brian Miller

Favorite moments at Seattle Weekly

Kathleen Murphy

(in no intending order)
Brooklyn
Phoenix
Clouds of Sils Maria
45 Years
It Follows
Room
Son of Saul
Jauja
Bone Tomahawk
Mad Max: Fury Road / The Assassin
(via Framing Pictures)

Bruce Reid

1. Experimenter
2. Taxi
3. It Follows
4. The Hateful Eight
5. Welcome to New York
6. Blackhat
7. Clouds of Sils Maria
8. Timbuktu
9. Queen and Country
10. Maps to the Stars

In my absolute favorite scene of the year Stanley Milgram sits and reads from Speak, Memory the famous opening line of how we’re all our lives suspended between oblivions. Behind him two assistants lower lab equipment into a crate with the professional solemnity of undertakers.

In my second favorite scene a figure loping down a road, dressed in a ridiculous, baggy frog costume complete with bulging eyes, is revealed to be the last-act badass whose coming has been threatened throughout the movie.

One of those films made the list below; the other, Miike’s entertainingly unhinged Yakuza Apocalypse, didn’t quite. But both show off the quality that marks my favorite movies: an apparent legibility that, looked at more closely, resists any definitive reading. The ending of Milgrim’s most famous experiment is framed (literally, through a window that carves another screen inside the screen we’re watching) as a death; but one of the movie’s many points is that lives carry on, quite fulfillingly, after their supposed defining moments have passed. And when the muppet suit comes off there’s another surprise, and a further bad guy to confront.

We’re always told that movies, capturing real people moving through real environments, tend away from the mysterious and toward the concrete in a way that the other arts aren’t hampered. Except the camera’s eye can make even concrete glow with mysteries. I fell in love with the films above for the way they tracked down hallways in prisons and apartments, refusing to distinguish between the two; for the expertly timed closing of a piano lid; for the anxious way its actors clutched fishbowls, and the nonchalance with which they grasped cameras; for clouds roiling down a mountaintop, which you’d think would be beyond a director’s control; for a skyscraper flickering in a dying woman’s eyes. But it’s not just pianos and hallways, fishbowls and clouds and cameras, or even flicker. It never is.

Andrew Wright

1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. Blackhat
3. Carol
4. The Hateful Eight
5. It Follows (Reviewed for the Portland Mercury)
6. Bridge of Spies (Reviewed for The Stranger)
7. Tangerine (Reviewed for The Stranger)
8. Bone Tomahawk
9. Creed
10. Sicario

Lists of lists:

Village Voice (poll and lists)
Roger Ebert.com
Variety
Keyframe Best Feature Films of 2015
Keyframe Daily Lists and Award 2015 Index

Polls
Film Comment
Indiewire Poll
Roger Ebert
Sight and Sound
Time Out London

Other lists
2015 additions to the National Film Registry
Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Ten Best Films of … 1925
New York Times Year in Culture

DVD: Resurrecting ‘Julien Duvivier in the Thirties’

JulienDuvivier“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.” – Jean Renoir

Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (Eclipse, DVD) collects four films by the French filmmaker, once a giant of French cinema with a string of popular and critical hits in the thirties and a successful foray into Hollywood in the forties. He’s been largely forgotten as filmmaker even with though one of his biggest hits, Pépé le Moko (1937), remains a revered (and oft-revived) classic of gangster romanticism and a precursor to film noir. He was an innovator in the silent and early sound eras and helped create the poetic realist style that defined the great French cinema of the late 1930s and influenced American film noir. He was championed by the likes of Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles, but in the 1950s, as the young film critics who would drive the nouvelle vague in France developed their auteur approach to cinema, Duvivier was branded as part of the old “tradition of quality,” “le cinema de papa” that the aspiring filmmakers fought against. This set of four films, all starring actor Harry Baur, may not lift his reputation back up to heights of his success, but they do show that he was a versatile, creative filmmaker who, at his best, found innovative and expressive ways to tell moving and entertaining stories.

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Blu-ray/DVD: The strange Japanese worlds of ‘Tokyo Tribe’ and ‘Jellyfish Eyes’

JellyfishJellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.

Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.

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Review: The Abdication

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

I saw a sneak preview of The Abdication on Friday, August 9; when the title, unaccompanied by any credits or similar words of explanation or orientation, hit the screen, a ripple of laughter moved through the audience as they took their reference from the day’s headlines. It wasn’t the last unintentional laugh Anthony Harvey’s colossally miscalculated chamber epic drew that evening. Admittedly a two-character play involving the self-deposed Queen Christina of Sweden and the Vatican prelate, Cardinal Azzolini, assigned to decide her worthiness to be embraced by Mother (or Father) Church didn’t sound like the most auspicious pretext for a film, and tricking up that claustrophobic core with pedantically “imaginative” cuts and dissolves to stylized memory-visions of incidents in the ex-queen’s past—itself a pretty stylized procession of events—has only undercut whatever personal and ideological majesty the confrontation might have had. Indeed, no one connected with The Abdication seems to have had a very clear grasp of the ideology involved and, worse still, of how they felt about that ideology.

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Review: Zardoz

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.

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Restorations, revelations, and revivals of 2015 – Celebrating film history discovered and rediscovered

We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.

Jean-Pierre Leaud in ‘Out 1,’ restored and released in 2015

The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.

This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.

1 – Out 1

Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.

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Review: The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern

What’s he done this time? As a filmmaker who creates experiences that aren’t remotely like anything else out there, Quentin Tarantino has earned the curiosity. Like ’em or loathe ’em, Tarantino’s movies exist in their own distinctive, vacuum-packed world, strange missives from an unfettered imagination. He’s unfettered because his movies keep making money, but I wonder what the faithful will think of The Hateful Eight, a typically outrageous but even-chattier-than-usual extravaganza. Most of the film’s 187 minutes (with an intermission) take place inside a snowed-in frontier trading post, although the scenes outside Minnie’s Haberdashery are just as talkative and—despite the Western vistas in the background—claustrophobic.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara

The Price of Salt is a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith (using the pseudonym Claire Morgan) about a lesbian romance. It sold a lot of copies in an underground way, and must’ve had great subversive punch as both a tale about “a love that dare not speak its name” and one in which the gay protagonists were not subjected to either a straightening “cure” or guilt-ridden suicide. In 2015, that layer of illicit discovery is impossible for Todd Haynes’ movie adaptation to resurrect. The Portland-based director instead presents a period piece that presents its passions in impeccably designed scenes that contain remarkably few surprises.

The romance simmers between Therese (Rooney Mara), a department-store salesgirl with vague notions of becoming a photographer, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant lady currently divorcing her respectable husband (Kyle Chandler).

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Concussion

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith

Concussion joins the small collection of investigative films arriving at the end of 2015, with Spotlight and Truth and the German picture Labyrinth of Lies. This one might actually move the needle on its subject. The true story chronicled here looks at Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who established a connection between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. That research has already led to changes in NFL rules and increased scrutiny of former players. All those shots to the head, all those concussions—acknowledged or, frequently, not—have created a class of ex-players struggling with depression, erratic behavior, and memory loss.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Daddy’s Home

Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini

Will Ferrell hasn’t exhausted the comedy of emasculation just yet—his argyle-sweater-vest-clad persona still has some comic juice. Still, it was probably wise to reteam him with his The Other Guys co-star Mark Wahlberg, as the latter’s alpha-male swagger seems to bring out the best in Ferrell’s passive-aggressive boob. In Daddy’s Home the comedy is strictly PG-13, and even that seems overly protective. Brad (Ferrell) works at a smooth-jazz radio station—the movie gets points just for that glorious touch—and is determined to be the world’s best stepdad to the two dismissive kids of new wife Sara (Linda Cardellini). The little tykes can’t stand his chipper enthusiasm for family bonding. Enter Dusty (Wahlberg), Sara’s tattooed, chopper-ridin’ ex, who blows in from parts unknown and might want to re-enter the family portrait.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: L’Invitation

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

A despicable type, this M. Alfred Lamel, un vrai p’tit prick. Lamel (Jean Champion) is assistant manager of the small office whose members are invited to a housewarming party by one of their coworkers. A prissily mustachioed, self-important, touchy, puritanical little man, he’s also efficiently sealed off from any threat of real human contact. What finally surprised me about Claude Goretta’s L’Invitation—and a few more surprises along the way wouldn’t have hurt this rather slow-moving Franco-Swiss movie at all—was that Lamel, le salaud, came closer to engaging my interest, my sympathy, even, than any of the other carefully assorted characters “unmasked” during the escalating anarchy of the party. Since even Lamel is something of a stick figure, I’m a bit puzzled by the critics’ fondness for the adjective “Renoiresque” in describing Goretta’s rather too neat little film. In Lamel’s character, as in none of the others, I found a trace of that Renoiresque freshness and unpredictability otherwise drained off almost entirely by Goretta into the admittedly fetching star turn delivered by François Simon (Michel’s richly talented son) as a mysteriously smiling, omniscient barman hired specially for the occasion.

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