The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 4

The latest issue of cléo is dedicated entirely to the maker of its namesake, Agnès Varda. In addition to Kiva Reardon’s interview with the director (“Looking at others is the first step of feminism—not being selfish, not being mirror-oriented. Looking at other people. Discovering what they do to make a living. Or how they behave.”), Sarah-Tai Black rehabilitates Salut les Cubains (“… her distinct ability to explore the curiosities and intimacies of the film image is no less apparent in Salut les Cubains than in her later, more critically attended work.”); Nouran Heshem explores the gendered take on cancer in Cléo from 5 to 7 (“Varda tackles the cancer taboo by illustrating the fraught connection between illness and gender”); So Mayer places Documenteur in a career-long trope of Varda’s reflections and teasing self-portraits (“Perhaps one of Varda’s answers, then, is that she is not alone: there are other women inventing and introducing themselves as well, observing and refracting each other.”); Joseph Pomp explores Varda’s experimental series of television shorts Une minute pour une image (“Surrealist wit consorts with a spirit of wanderlust and creativity in much of Varda’s filmography.”); and Eloise Ross finds Varda reclaiming the practice of flaneur from men in her short Les dites cariatides (“At a distance and in close-up, she films “women” who hold up balconies or the façades of buildings – all who do so without visibly bearing strain in their bodies or expressions”).

“In a tradition ranging from the kitchen-sink realist films of the late ’50s and early ’60s to the contemporary works of Mike Leigh and Andrea Arnold, English movies set among the working classes have tended to have fatalistic trajectories and miserabilist aesthetics, underlining their drabness to reflect their characters’ sense of hopelessness and to visually convey a lack of upward mobility. But there’s that rainbow in Beautiful Thing, and it’s unmistakable. Years before the “It Gets Better” movement, Macdonald’s film hinted at a bright future in the most cinematically improbable of places.” Michael Koresky’s survey of Queer cinema gets to 1996, Hettie Macdonald’s Beautiful Thing, and the underappreciated subversive power of joy.

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Summer Movie Preview 2018

Preview by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Deadpool 2

In 2016’s Deadpool—a refreshing whiff of unfiltered R-rated sarcasm—Ryan Reynolds got to merge his tongue-in-cheek image with an antihero character who could break the fourth wall and mock other Marvel Comics franchises. The sequel has—somewhat alarmingly—parted ways with Deadpool director Tim Miller (subbing in Tim Leitch, of the listless AtomicBlonde), but Reynolds appears to be in charge. Josh Brolin—also doing megavillain duty in Avengers: Infinity War—plays the bad guy. If the movie is half as inventive as its marketing campaign (which included an issue of Good Housekeeping magazine “guest-edited” by Deadpool), we’ll be fine. (May 18)

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SIFF 2018: Stop me before I screen again!

The 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 17, with the opening night gala presentation of Goya-winning feature The Bookshop with Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and Bill Nighy from Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. As in previous years, it launches at McCaw Hall and is followed by the opening night party.

24 days later, it closes on a local focus with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan (played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix) and directed by Portland-based filmmaker Gus Van Sant, at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian on Sunday, June 10.

In between, 248 features (including 66 documentaries), 164 short films, and 21 VR/360 works from 90 countries are scheduled to screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline. (These numbers are subject to change as additional films may be added at the last minute, and in rare cases films may be withdrawn or cancelled).

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2)

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Young Peter Parker, still a newcomer to his role as Spider-Man, asks his mentor Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) to explain why a villain is pummeling New York. “He’s from space,” says Tony. “He came here to steal a necklace from a wizard.” End of explanation. Back to saving the universe.

If only snarky Stark could have been in charge of telling the Marvel Comics saga, it might not have taken 18 movies to set up Avengers: Infinity War—which itself is only the first half of the series’ climactic opus. In a way, of course, Stark’s voice (in the invaluable person of Robert Downey, Jr) has been telling the Marvel story; these movies have usually taken a sarcastic squint at their own ludicrousness, while at the same time expecting us to stay emotionally invested in their gallery of superheroes.

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Review: Avengers: Infinity War (1)

Reviewed by Andrew Wright for The Stranger

So it’s finally here, and it’s goddamned enormous. Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s attempt to put an exploding bow on 10 years of corporate synergy, is a lurching, ungainly colossus of a blockbuster, with far too many characters and storylines stretching across a series of planets that resemble 1970s prog-rock album covers. The thing is, though, while you’re watching it? None of these elements feel like debits. Sometimes, excess hits the spot.

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Review: Zama

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

A man stands beside a South American river, striking a distinguished pose in his 18th-century Spanish finery. You can guess his thoughts: Aren’t my boots impressive? See how my cocked hat radiates authority? Am I not the picture of a New World conquistador? But the longer we watch the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the less grand he seems. Within a minute, he’ll be crawling above the riverbank to spy on the women bathing below, until they chase him away with angry shouts of “Voyeur!” Behold the hapless Don Diego de Zama (played by Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a mid-level flunky in Spain’s colonial government. He wants success, he wants women, but most of all he wants to get out of this humid backwater.

Zamaa terrific film that plays like a fever dream—will deny him all of these.

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Blu-ray: ‘Basket Case,’ ‘Ichi the Killer,’ ‘Macon County’ justice, and ‘The Hidden’ with Kyle Maclachlan

Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)

Arrow Films

Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.

Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 20

“In the middle of this backstage scene, a typically Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious girl refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. At the last minute, this black hat will be put on Marta, who wears it without complaining, while her colleague is forbidden to parade. But, as we shall see, that Marta obeys here doesn’t mean she’s happy. In Chytilová’s films, each woman is irked or pleased at different things. Each woman has to find her own way to cope, resist, flee, or rebel. Each woman has to craft her own response, strategy, or escape. And there is no right decision for all, just as there is no single revolution that fits everyone.” The protagonist of Vera Chytilová’s student graduation film Ceiling, which chronicles a day in the life of a fashion model, doesn’t share the freewheeling rebelliousness of the director’s celebrated Daisies, but as Christina Álvarez López shows, she’s no less able to reclaim her agency in a world ever ready to control and punish women.

“Even those slapstick two-reelers that seem thrown together on the set by men who would never have called themselves artists were intuitively finding their way to a form. James Agee argues the case when he describes a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler directed by McCarey that was devoted almost entirely to pie-throwing: “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.” Replace custard pies with words—words as projectiles, soaring, tumbling, overlapping, collapsing—and you have The Awful Truth, right up to the Sennett-style chase that ushers in the ending of the film with a pileup of chaos and pure motion.” Molly Haskell offers sublime auteurist salute to Leo McCarey, finding a wealth of personal experiences, pet themes, and of course his luminous humanity folded into the effortless brilliance of The Awful Truth.

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Review: You Were Never Really Here

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix continues his dogged campaign to be our crustiest actor. Nothing tops his disheveled turn as “Joaquin Phoenix” in the similarly titled pseudo-documentary I’m Not Here—ever the gold standard for an actor trashing his own good looks—but Phoenix looks remarkably awful in this new thriller, which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His hired killer is a pot-bellied, nest-haired wreck, raising the question: Is cultivating the “gutter-sleeping hobo” look really the best way for a hit man to slip in and out of dicey situations? Director Lynne Ramsay has suggested that her goal was to upend our expectations of the smooth, sleek professional assassin. If so, she and Phoenix have succeeded.

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Review: Thoroughbreds

Heathers meets American Psycho” reads the drop quote on the poster of Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer/director Cory Finley. It’s a tasty little tag and accurate enough, in its way. There’s a wicked satire under the cultivated surfaces and carefully groomed front, but a chilly alienation sets this teen-killer thriller apart from the flamboyant films of the quote.

Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The WitchSplit) star as Amanda and Lily, estranged childhood friends who reconnect in unusual circumstances.

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Review: Babylon Berlin

The most expensive German TV series ever produced, Babylon Berlin, is Weimar noir, a detective drama turned conspiracy thriller set against the backdrop of decadence, poverty, and corruption in 1929 Berlin just before the Nazi party rode the swell of nationalism to power. Think Cabaret meets L.A. Confidential as produced by UFA, recreating a cultural moment that is about to implode.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a Cologne cop working with the Berlin vice squad, is a World War I vet who conceals his shellshock tremors with black market morphine. He’s a tarnished hero on a covert mission to track down a pornography ring blackmailing a politician back home, but then pretty much everyone has shadows over them.

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Blu-ray: ‘Liquid Sky’ on Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome

Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.

Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.

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Review: The People vs. Larry Flynt

[Originally published on Mr. Showbiz December 20, 1996]

From Disraeli and The Life of Emile Zola, through Madame Curie, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl, to Gandhi and Michael Collins, the biopic has been among Hollywood’s most venerated genres — the means of conferring cinematic immortality on history’s superstars and, more often than not, Oscar glory on the enshriners. Also more often than not, the filmmaking has tended to be as stodgy as the subjects were august.

The People vs. Larry Flynt knocks both of those traditions for a loop (we nearly said “into a cocked hat” but, in the present context, that might have been in poor taste). No one could pretend that Larry Flynt — ex-moonshiner, ex–strip-club operator, and owner-publisher of the encyclopedically raunchy Hustler magazine — is a candidate for respectability. And no way would Milos Forman — who previously made the vibrant Amadeus — adopt a conventional, reverential style or tone in bringing Flynt’s life and often dubious achievements to the screen. Yet the surprising, deliciously problematical, and finally exhilarating truth is that Forman’s boisterous serio-comedy attains complexity and, yes, nobility beyond the grasp of most hagiographies. It also ends up persuading us that its outrageous subject has, too.

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Amadeus

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 19, 1984]

A dark street; equally dark Panavision screen. Snow falling; offcenter, a street lamp. The cry “Mozart!” and a startling chord of music. Somewhere behind a door in Vienna, a forgotten old man named Antonio Salieri lifts a razor to his throat because, he maintains, many years ago he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Servants burst in, find him bloodied, bundle him off to a combination hospital and asylum. As he is bounced through the wind-whipped night streets, Salieri hears the music of his long-dead victim, brighter than the bright upper-story windows behind which a party of revelers dance and dance and dance.

The first thing to be said about Milos Forman’s new film Amadeus is that if you didn’t already know it was derived from a stageplay, you’d never guess it from watching the movie. It’s a vibrant, supple, splendidly cinematic thing—intimate, concrete, fluid, and wide-ranging in time and space as Peter Shaffer’s clever play could never have been in the most dexterous of stagings. At the same time, we must insist—since we are, after all, in such heavy-duty cultural territory—that the film goes about its business with a grace and assurance that seems cheeky only in seeming so effortless, so spontaneous, so … Mozartean?

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

“Stahl had a style of impressive gravity that could make a melodrama serious even for those disinclined to the genre (this shows especially in the great first version of Back Street, 1932), but the full effect of melodrama as Sirk conceives it derives from a constant contrast of tones: strong effects, vivid and sometimes audacious, alternating with subtler passages that do as much to carry the flow of movie.  Though much critical writing on Sirk concentrates on what might be called signature moments, where visual strategies for heightening are most evident and it is easy to readily identify his hand, what really elevates the director is the sophistication with which he conceives of the organic whole.” Concluding his two-part essay on Sirk at Universal-International, Blake Lucas highlights the many collaborators whose other work for the studio clearly showed the same talents they’d bring to Sirk’s films, and the masterly way the director orchestrated their contributions to his vision.

“Landing somewhere near the intersection of Spielberg and National Geographic, Terrence Malick and Sesame Street, Ballard’s work is hugely entertaining but exceedingly probing, sincerely engaged with reaching out to touch the world. These are films of excitement, but also of questions, of family, of environment. They are films of gentleness and intelligence. In fact, Ballard is arguably, along with Malick, one of the handful of cinematic transcendentalists currently roaming our planet, and if there’s ever been a time that needed transcendence, it’s now.” Stephen Cone sings the praises of Carroll Ballard’s films, which despite their constant pairing of man and animal are among the most humane ever made.

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