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

Laughter in Hell

Picking some highlights from MOMA’s ongoing retrospective of Universal pictures from the ’30s, Imogen Sara Smith looks at three films apiece from a pair of directors deserving greater attention. The cinematic flair of Edward L. Cahn enlivens three explosive portraits of society collapsing: Law and Order, Afraid to Talk, and Laughter in Hell. (“In these films it’s as though people are so consumed by the fight to survive, or by the determination to forget their worries, that they have no time for private emotions. Society itself is so anxious, so hysterical, so compulsively bitter, that it takes the place of individual psyches. Everyone is part of one big nervous breakdown.”) While Seed, Back Street, and Only Yesterday have Smith marveling at John M. Stahl’s invisible manipulation of emotions and his facility with shifting empathy among his characters. The female ones at least; John Boles remains mostly a dull cad in all three. (“The three rarely screened Stahl films form a set of variations on a theme, female devotion and self-sacrifice. They treat this theme with unusual nuance and ambivalence, both accepting the great loves—whether maternal or romantic—to which the women give their lives, and looking with a cool and even cynical eye at how little they get in return.”

“What’s established in a film like Au Hasard Balthazar is a teeter-totter rhythm, an oscillation between the film you’re watching and another taking place over your shoulder, sliding into view with a lithe camera movement, or a cut that elides the passage of time. In short, what often comes across in reviews as stiff, boring art movies are exactly the opposite: not empty but teeming, not cold but visceral, not dry but saturated.“ With Au Hasard Balthazar hitting 50, Jamie N. Christley praises how Bresson’s total command keeps slipping the film’s message, and even its ostensible ever-enduring protagonist, out of our grasp. And Leigh Singer compiles a gallery of Bresson’s key techniques, screenshots of potent dissolves, blank faces, and so many expressive hands. Via Movie City News.

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SIFFtings 2016 – Week 2

SIFF celebrates its Renton Opening Night on Thursday, May 26 with a screening of the comedy My Blind Brother at the IKEA Performing Arts Center, followed by a party at the Renton Pavilion Event Center. Because SIFF isn’t just about the movies. It likes to party too.

And on Friday, May 27, SIFF extends its reach to Shoreline for the first time this year and it kicks off with a Shoreline Opening Night screening of The Tenth Man (Argentina), a lighthearted drama of a New York-based Jewish-Argentinian man returning home to Bueno Aires for Purim. Screenings take place at the newly-renovated theater on the Shoreline Community College campus (building 1600; see the Shoreline CC map), which is said to be state-of-the-art. I’ll be verifying this weekend; as a Shoreline resident myself, I’m thrilled to see the festival in my backyard. Campus parking is free for visitors after 4pm on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a follow-up to the devastating documentary Streetwise, received its World Premiere at SIFF. More than thirty years after that acclaimed exploration of the culture of homeless teenagers in Seattle, Tiny revisits Erin Blackwell, the poster girl of Streetwise—literally, her stone face behind vintage second-hand fashions was the defining image of the film. Director Martin Bell and photographer Mary Ellen Mark profile Ms. Blackwell as struggling mother with ten children, still fighting to get by. Martin Bell is scheduled to attend screenings.
Sunday, May 29, 4pm, Pacific Place; Monday, May 30, 11am, Pacific Place.

Chinese filmmaker Xu Haofeng brings the North American premiere of The Final Master (China) for three screenings across the city. Xu co-wrote the award-winning The Grandmaster with director Wong Kar-wai and his action choreography for The Final Master won an award at the Golden Horse Film Festival.
Saturday, May 28, 6pm, Uptown; Sunday, May 29, 6:30pm, Shoreline Community College Theater.

Also making its North American premiere is Eternal Summer, a road trip crime movie through Northern Sweden. Filmmaker Andreas Ohman is scheduled to attend all screenings this weekend.
Friday, May 27, 7pm, Lincoln Square Cinemas; Saturday, May 28, 1:30pm, Pacific Place; Sunday, May 29, 6:30pm, Pacific Place.

Truman (Spain/Argentina) arrives with five Goya Awards to its credit, including Best Picture. Director Cesc Gay scheduled to attend screenings at the Egyptian only.
Sunday, May 29, 4:30pm, Egyptian; Monday, May 30, 6:30pm, Egyptian; Friday, June 3, 9pm, Shoreline Community College Theater.

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Review: The Lobster

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in ‘The Lobster’

During his preliminary interview upon arrival at the program, David is asked the big question. If he does not fall in love with someone during his 45-day stay, what animal would he like to be transformed into? David chooses the lobster. His reasons are fully thought-out: Lobsters live for 100 years, they remain fertile, and they have blue blood, like aristocrats. Plus, he likes the sea. He’s been swimming for years.

The Lobster is like this: full of specific detail, but coy about saying what the hell is actually going on. It’s the first English-language film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2009 Dogtooth was a fine exercise in making skin crawl. Like that film, The Lobster comes on like a vaguely sinister George Saunders story, where it takes a while for the actual parameters of this self-contained world to disclose themselves. So we’ll tread lightly on blowing the plot.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBDA Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.

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TV: ‘Lou Grant’ farewell

The first season of the seventies TV series Lou Grant debuts on DVD this week. To mark the long-awaited debut, Parallax View is featuring a pair of pieces about the series originally published during the run of the series. The first piece was published on Monday, May 24.

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 7, 1982]

My wife just told me that Lou Grant is going to be on in Lou Grant‘s time slot this week. This is something new and different. It had looked as if CBS, not content with having cancelled one of the best dramatic series in television history, wouldn’t even let it die in its own bed: for the past few weeks, the 10pm Monday berth has been consecrated to pumping ratings life into a piece of dreck called Cagney and Lacey. Lou’s fans had begun to wonder whether they’d have a chance to bid him farewell.

Actually, part of me has always been getting ready to live with Lou Grant‘s cancellation. Fear of that eventuality brought me out of the closet in November 1977 to do my first television review. This terrific show had been on for about a month and hardly anyone I knew, people who ought to like and value it, was watching. (They didn’t know about it; it was on too late for a weeknight; “I only watch public television.”)

Quality in television scored one of its rare victories that season: Lou Grant survived despite slow-building ratings. On ABC or NBC it would have been chopped after thirteen weeks, if not sooner. But CBS had a tradition of nurturing distinguished slow starters (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Lou Grant, if not Lou Grant, had been born). The network remained patient. Critics spread the word and so did more and more regular folks. The show’s viewing strength grew. Come one miraculous week in the summer of ’78, a Lou Grant rerun copped number-one position in the Nielsens and Ed Asner beamed at us from the cover of People.

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TV: Lou Grant – hail

The first season of the seventies TV series Lou Grant debuts on DVD this week. To mark the long-awaited debut, Parallax View is featuring a pair of pieces about the series originally published during the run of the series. The companion piece is here.

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]

He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.

A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”

Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”

“California….”

He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.

As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.

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Review: The Mother and the Whore

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The Mother and the Whore is a sort of New Wave marathon, a three-and-a-half-hour return to the French cinema of the Sixties as well as to the generation of youth with which it was often concerned. Here that generation has reached the Seventies (and its own thirties) and is finding, once more, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jean-Pierre Léaud, that ever-evolving icon of the New Wave, is at the center of the action as an intelligent young Parisian making a career out of post-adolescence with long talks and occasional pickups in sidewalk cafés and other Left Bank environs. At the outset, Alexandre (Léaud) is living with, and apparently off, a boutique operator (Bernadette Lafont), while also making attempts at reconciliation with a previous lover (Isabel Weingarten). Soon, though, he begins a third and increasingly complex relationship with a Polish nurse (Françoise LeBrun) and eventually finds himself bedded down with both LeBrun and Lafont in the latter’s apartment. The three-way relationship undergoes a series of unresolved convulsions which focus increasing attention on Veronika (LeBrun), whose wearily selfconscious mixture of warm allure and abrupt despair perhaps make her both the mother and the whore of the title.

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Blu-ray: ‘Woman on the Run’ and ‘Too Late for Tears’ restored

The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.

toolateIn Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.

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

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s ‘Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach’

With a new collection of their writings and MOMA mounting the first complete retrospective of their films, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are the subjects of a pair of pieces at Artforum. P. Adams Sitney offers the overview on a career that never compromised or offered an easy way in for the viewer. (“One sometimes gets the impression that they were forever challenging themselves to find texts that made complacent resolutions less and less amenable, and then to offer them up to cinema so nakedly that their skeletal structure could not be eluded.”) And James Quandt tries to fit Sicilia! in with the couple’s musical films. (“Aside from a folk song and the Beethoven string quartet that introduces and ends Sicilia!, the film avoids nondiegetic music, but it is itself structured as a chamber work in four movements, and the idiosyncratic delivery of the baroque dialogue often hits the ear as discordant ariettas and semi-recitatives.”) Film Comment, meanwhile, offers an excerpt from the aforementioned collection, a letter from Huillet to Nuances magazine on the impossibility of viewing artpieces at museums hanging them up behind occluded glass. (“It was horrible: each painting was now under armored glass, and often damaged in the process (new little cracks, etc.). When we protested this madness, saying that it’s better to risk a—rare—act of madness than to make the paintings invisible—reflections, etc.—and surely damage them, we were told, grudgingly: It was a requirement of the insurance….”)

Canon City is an art film made on the terms of an unpretentious hardboiled procedural—a breathless true-crime piece in which Hadley’s delivery of the word “dreaming” lands perfectly on a dissolve from a real cell block to a prison cell set.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky plunks for Crane Wilbur’s prison-escape film, which, with the invaluable help of John Alton, straddles blunt docudrama and the heightened use of “spaces that double as metaphors,” as one of Poverty Row’s great triumphs.

“Maybe even more than MGM anticipated, it was perfect Depression-era escapism: one of those thirties movies that take place in drawing rooms where the ceilings are about twenty feet high, where men are always in formal wear and women, even in the afternoon, wear floor-length lounge gowns and speak in that bright, quick, affected accent that no real American ever used.” Charles McGrath recounts how Van Dyke’s brisk engagement, a script that expanded upon Hammett’s witticisms, and impeccable casting (including a change in Asta’s breed) made The Thin Man less a whodunit than a classic screwball comedy of marriage draped around a murder mystery.

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SIFFing: Parallax View’s SIFF 2016 Guide

The 42nd Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 19, with the opening night gala presentation of Woody Allen’s Café Society (in its North American premiere), and closes 24 days later on Sunday, June 12 with Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker. In between there are (at last count) 181 feature films, 75 documentary features, 8 archival films, and 153 short films. All told: 421 films representing 85 countries (as of opening night).

Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to SIFF resources from around the web. We will update a few times a week.

* Updated Sunday, June 12 *

SIFF Week by Week, Day by Day:

SIFF 2016: Audiences give ‘Captain Fantastic’ the Golden Space Needle Award (Sean Axmaker, Parallax View) NEW
Selections for the Fourth Week of the Seattle International Film Festival (Robert Horton, Seattle Weekly) NEW
SIFF 2016: Highlights of the final weekend (Moira Macdonald and John Hartl, Seattle Times) NEW
The 11 Best Films to See During SIFF’s Closing Weekend (staff, The Stranger) NEW
Recommended SIFF: Viggo, Viggo, Viggo AND Viggo! (Amie Simon, Three Imaginary Girls) NEW
SIFFtings 2016: Final Weekend (June 10-June 12) (Sean Axmaker, Parallax View) NEW
Some short SIFF reviews, part four (Chris Burlingame, The SunBreak) NEW
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SIFFtings 2016 – Week One

The 42nd Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 19 with a gala screening of Woody Allen’s Café Society, direct from Cannes where it was the opening night event. That would generally be considered a coup for SIFF but the glitz is tarnished thanks to allegations of child abuse by Allen against the children of Mia Farrow. The controversy isn’t new but was effectively swept under the rug by a willing media until Ronan Farrow turned the spotlight back on his biological father and called out the media for letting the accusations slide as the film opened at Cannes. Nicole Brodeur writes about it at The Seattle Times, and I recommend Matt Zoller Seitz’s personal essay on his struggle to grapple with the art of Allen versus the actions of the artists. As for Seattle, neither Allen nor any of the stars will be attending the film.

What does any of this have to do with the film? Maybe nothing, maybe everything, depending on how you separate your engagement with popular art from the artists who create it. But by putting the film in the opening night spot, SIFF has made a statement of sorts whether it meant to or not. It was announced weeks before the embers of the controversy were fanned back to life, but those embers were always there, even if we (and I include myself) were willing to conveniently forget about it.

The festival really begins on Friday, May 20 as movies play in eight venues radiating out from Seattle Center to Capitol Hill, Ballard, and Bellevue. On Thursday it adds Renton and Friday it leaves Ballard for Shoreline, with Kirkland and Columbia City taking part later. But for now, let’s take a look at some of the highlight in this first week.

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SIFFting Throught SIFF

‘Captain Fantastic’ – shot partly in Washington State, featured at SIFF 2016

The Seattle International Film Festival long ago embraced its role as a kind of floating civic carnival. For 25 days—25 days—the fest spreads itself out over multiple venues, luring people indoors during what I have been told is a beautiful time of year. There’s a kind of madness at loose here, from the sheer number of films (something in the neighborhood of 250 features this year, from 85 different countries) to the variety of events involved: visiting filmmakers, tributes, panel discussions, live music events, sing-alongs, and many parties. People spend their vacation time to attend the nation’s largest film festival, bagging as many movies as they can according to some staggering mathematical algorithms (most movies are screened two or three times). Inevitably, the films range from good to bad to indifferent, and given a festival this size, there are a discomfiting number of indifferents. Can we make some generalizations about the behemoth that is SIFF 2016?

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray / DVD: ‘Deadpool’ and ‘The Witch’

DeadpoolBDDeadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.

It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.

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Cracker Crumbs

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

At least half of Seattle knows by now that the Seattle Film Society did not show Animal Crackers as originally announced for May 18. They know because at least half of Seattle was planning to come see Animal Crackers at St. Mark’s Cathedral. This is what happened.

Animal Crackers is the one among the thirteen films of the Marx Brothers that has not been in general release for years. Like its predecessor Cocoanuts, it was based on—it virtually is—a stage show the boys did late in the Twenties. The original producer was Paramount Pictures, the studio that produced all of the first five Marx films (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, Duck Soup). Paramount no longer distributes its post-silent, pre-1950 films; they were picked up for nontheatrical distribution and TV leasing by Universal MCA. Because of some hassle involving the copyright on the preexisting stage material, Universal has never troubled to clear the way toward officially rereleasing Animal Crackers. Hence its increasingly conspicuous absence on the repertory circuit otherwise wellnigh glutted with Marx Brothers movies.

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Review: The Exorcist

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

by Gregory Dean Way

Two priests chant “The power of Christ compels you!” as the possessed child floats in the air above her bed. The shot is a static one, both visually and behaviorally, one of the few inert moments in a film full of forward energy: The child remains rigid, resistant to the droning incantation. Paradoxically, it is at this most static moment that The Exorcist hints at truly coming alive as a worthwhile experience, by suggesting the agony of endurance that its symbolic battle of good against evil requires. However, one’s hopeful expectations go unfulfilled: The child gravitates downward far too soon; the potential for truly subjective, protracted participation by the viewer in the elemental confrontation of this two-hour picture is cast aside (one suspects because of the filmmakers’ fear of an impatient, negative viewer response to unfamiliar, nonlinear film experience). That The Exorcist should cast aside (i.e., spend so little time developing) one of its thematically most significant moments, yet sum to overkill its moments of more cretinously comprehensible shock, is a telling comment on the locus of Friedkin and Blatty’s concerns.

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