Blu-ray: Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ on Criterion

The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?

I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.

The Criterion Collection

The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.

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Review: Roma

The opening shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a self-contained masterpiece—no surprise, considering the mind-boggling opening shots of Children of Men and Gravity, the Oscar-winning director’s two previous features. Here, our focus on a section of elegant floor tiles is interrupted by a wash of water that flows in waves across the floor, a mysterious image that turns out to be a housemaid washing up the exposed entryway at a Mexico City house, a favorite spot for the family dog to do its (apparently prodigious) pooping. As the water accumulates, the image changes, and we can now see the reflection of the sky above the entryway.

The water, the sky, the dog poop—everything will play a role in this intimate yet somehow epic film, which Cuarón has said is based on his childhood memories of Mexico in the early 1970s. 

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Review: ‘The Favourite’

Along with its other wicked attractions, The Favourite serves as a corrective to all those fluffy period movies where pretty costumes and set design function as the cinematic equivalent of a bubble bath. The art direction is plenty handsome here, too, and the film will likely collect a few Oscars for its physical production. But The Favourite uses its lavish backdrops in order to show off the nastiest sides of human behavior—this is a beautiful dinner spread with a rat as its centerpiece.

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Bernard Bertolucci’s ‘Partner’

[originally written for NoShame Films, August 27, 2005]

Our subject is primarily life, but if you feel that life’s missing something, steal a camera and try to give life a style.

Partner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s third feature film, has always been one of the most elusive of the director’s endeavors: a forthrightly experimental work—”a film that comes from the head,” in Bertolucci’s own phrase, “a totally deconstructed film”—that willfully declines to satisfy audiences’ conventional expectations regarding narrative and emotional identification with characters. Nominally based on the Dostoevsky novella The Double, the movie centers on—and largely transpires in the imagination of—a rather priggish young drama teacher in Rome played by Pierre Clémenti. Clémenti also plays the wilder, looser alter ego who begins to share the teacher’s life and, to an extent, identity; both go by the name of Giacobbe (or Jacob, in English-language commentaries).

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Review: Green Book

You know an actor’s in the groove when a simple grunt conveys not only an entire character arc, but a movie’s essential meaning. Such a moment comes late in Green Book, and it’s one of a thousand things to savor about the performances in this film.

The groan emerges from the beefed-up body of Viggo Mortensen, playing a Bronx wiseguy named Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip). It’s 1962, and Tony has been hired by a black jazz pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), to act as chauffeur during a concert tour. But Tony’s duties are not merely to drive a car; as a nightclub bouncer and a guy who knows his way around a brawl, it’s understood that Tony may have to provide protection for Shirley when the trip ventures into the American South.

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Review: Robin Hood (2018)

The Sheriff of Nottingham is throwing a big party, and Maid Marian asks Robin Hood if he’ll be attending. She tells Robin she “got an invite” to the party, and at that point I think I mentally checked out of the new Robin Hood. It’s bad enough that people use “invite” as a noun in 2018. But unless this is a Mel Brooks version of ye olde tale, using current slang to tell the Robin Hood story qualifies as an automatic tune-out.

The saga of Robin Hood has been around for almost a thousand years, and if it can withstand Kevin Costner’s accent, it can withstand this haphazard new film. The emphasis here is on a youthful Robin, an origin story that shows us how he came to be the legendary robber. 

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Chained for life: Bertolucci regrets rien in ‘The Dreamers’

[Originally written for Queen Anne/Magnolia News, 2004]

There is a moment in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution when the protagonist, the scion of an Italian noble family, learns that a friend has taken his own life. He had been speaking with the young man only hours before and declined his fervent proposal that they go again to see Howard Hawks’s Red River. Bertolucci cranes up and backs off from his hero; then his camera pivots on the young man’s figure, slowly describing 90 degrees of arc around him as he looks out at a changed world.

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Review: Luna

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), October 30, 1979]

Cinema comes so naturally to some filmmakers. Bernardo Bertolucci once revealed that he dreamed camera movements years before laying hands on a camera. But even without this confessional nudge, his aptitude for the medium, his kinesthetic thrall with luminosity, surfaces, colors, trajectories, is apparent in the films he has made. Opera has been a frequent touchstone in his work, existentially and aesthetically, but he doesn’t need it as a brief for grandiosity or vividness of style: it is as natural for Bertolucci to soar as it is for others to walk.

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Bernardo Bertolucci

[originally published in a booklet for the DVD release of Partner by NoShame in 2005]

The political and the sensual meet in the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci. His visually dense and stylistically labyrinthine films are among the most beautiful — and the most provocative (The Last Tango in Paris) — ever made.His career straddles canvases both epic (1900,The Last Emperor) and intimate (Luna, Besieged), from defiantly Italian stories that reverberate with the echoes of Italy’s Fascist past to international dramas that explore culture,history, and spirituality around the world. All of them are beautifully crafted works attuned the texture of experience and the magic of the moment.

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What to stream: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ on VOD, ‘First Reformed’ on Amazon, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ on Hulu

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

A Chinese-American professor (Constance Wu) collides with the culture of the ultra-rich in Singapore when she meets her boyfriend’s family in Crazy Rich Asians (2018, PG-13), the hit romantic comedy based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan. Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh co-star. Now on Cable On Demand and VOD, also on DVD and at Redbox.

Ethan Hawke is a priest facing a spiritual crisis in the provocative First Reformed (2018, R), a personal drama from filmmaker Paul Schrader. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereNow streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Sorry to Bother You (2018, R), the feature debut of hip-hop artist turned filmmaker Boots Riley, is a social satire as comic fantasy starring Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer who finds the secret to sales success and rises up the ladder of a soulless corporation. Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer co-star. Streaming on Hulu.

The British miniseries version of the classic Little Women, starring Emily Watson as the mother of four sisters, originally played on PBS in the U.S. and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

For something a little less serious, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet offers more cheesy films for Jonah Ray and the bots on the Satellite of Love to heckle. Six new episodes on Netflix.

FilmStruck, the premiere streaming service for American and international classic movies, ends its service after two years on Thursday, November 29. Criterion has announced a plan to restart its own service in Spring 2019 and Warner Media (parent company of Turner Classic Movies) promises to bring back its classics in a new streaming service in a year, but until then this is the end. If you’re a subscriber, time to see those films on your watchlist or browse through the catalog one last chance to stream some of the greatest films ever made.

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Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

The holiday season is already arranged around rituals, so it makes sense that we come back to the same movies every year. In certain households annual showings of A Christmas Story or Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life are as rigorously observed as the lighting of Advent or Hanukkah candles. I’m not necessarily comparing religious belief with the secular comforts of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, but let’s just say there are different kinds of gospel.

A scan of the streaming services reveals a collection of acceptable films, but I’d like to point out how thin the tree is. Netflix has a scattering of bona fide holiday classics, for instance, but after that you’ve got a whole lot of chintzy-sounding movies with “Christmas” in the title. Given the recently announced demise of the classic-film service Filmstruck, it would be nice if someone reminded these providers that movies existed before 1980.

Nevertheless, here are a few titles for the Christmas stocking, and maybe a couple of lumps of coal.

White Christmas

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play entertainers who put on a show for their former military commander at a snow-less winter resort. Definitely a time capsule from a vanished era (1954), this Irving Berlin musical has great production numbers, eye-popping color, and the enduring fascination (for me, anyway) of Crosby’s hepcat patter. Netflix

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What to stream: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘Kominsky Method’ on Netflix, ‘The Children Act’ on Amazon

Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, FilmStruck, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …

Netflix broke with its policy for the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, R), the American frontier comedy from the Coen Brothers. Initially planned as a six-part series featuring the likes of James Franco, Liam Neeson, and Tim Blake Nelson, it was reworked as an anthology film and released to theaters a week before the streaming debut.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of the darkest movies by Joel and Ethan Coen, and also among the silliest,” observes New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. “It swerves from goofy to ghastly so deftly and so often that you can’t always tell which is which.

Streaming on Netflix.

Emma Thompson is superb as a judge facing a conflict between the professional and personal in The Children Act (2017, R), a powerful drama adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel. Reviewed on Stream On Demand hereStreaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Michael Douglas is a has-been actor who reinvents himself as a Hollywood acting coach in The Kominsky Method: Season 1. Alan Arkin co-stars in the Netflix Original comedy from creator Chuck Lorre.

Two new British co-productions explore fluid sexuality in the modern world. The Hulu Original series The Bisexual: Season 1 stars creator Desiree Akhavan as a lesbian New Yorker in London struggling to come out at bisexual. All six episodes now streaming on Hulu.

The cheeky British comedy Sally4Ever: Season 1 from creator Julia Davis, who stars as a seductive free spirit who tempts a suburban woman into a wild affair, begins on HBO with new episodes each Sunday.

Megan Griffiths’ Sadie (2018, not rated), an independent drama about an angry teenager (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who sabotages the romantic prospects of her single mother (Melanie Lynskey) while her soldier father is overseas, is now on VOD. Shot in Washington State, the film co-stars John Gallagher Jr.

Classic picks: Sidney Lumet directs the Oscar-winning satire Network (1976, R) with Faye Dunaway and William Holden and robbery-gone-wrong classic Dog Day Afternoon (1975, R) with Al Pacino and John Cazale.

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Reviews: Widows

Widows probably works best as a three-minute trailer (punchy and funny) or a longform miniseries (deep and complicated). It’s a movie, though, which means we’re stuck with a fitfully engaging, 129-minute feature that only occasionally gets out of gear. The film is actually based on a miniseries, broadcast in England in the 1980s. Adapted here by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn and director Steve McQueen, Widows tries to be a lot of different things: heist thriller, feminist statement, social-issue diagnosis. That’s a lot to bite off, and 129 minutes isn’t enough time for proper chewing.

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Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western sendup so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner spinning around inside it.

But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves from comedy into something else, something kind of amazing. Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, Buster Scruggs is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.

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Review: Firelight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, September 4, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

 “What is it about this house? The moment I walk in, I want to kill myself.” The speaker (that entertaining old blusterer Joss Ackland) is not an important character in Firelight, and he’s half-kidding, but we take his point. The Goodwin estate, somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century English countryside, is a pretty glum place. Nobody ever looks comfortable, or even at home there. The master of the house (Stephen Dillane) even hazards a joke about it: “All these huge rooms and we live our lives within three feet of the fire.” But then, that’s because screenwriter and first-time director William Nicholson has determined that no scene in the movie should lack a visual—and almost always verbally underscored—reference to his movie’s title and wishfully poetic central image. 

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