The Magnificent Ambersons

4 May, 2015 (04:02) | by Robert Horton, Essays, Orson Welles | By: Robert Horton

[Originally published on The Crop Duster]

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

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Aftereffects: Joshua Oppenheimer’s Shorts

3 May, 2015 (07:28) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Essays | By: Sean Axmaker

‘The Globalisation Tapes’

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire

American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.

“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.

Continue reading at Keyframe

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The Orson Welles Bookshelf

2 May, 2015 (09:21) | Books, by Sean Axmaker, Orson Welles | By: Sean Axmaker

There are more published books on Orson Welles than on any other film director past or present.

The above statement is based on my own anecdotal, far-from-exhaustive and thoroughly unverified research, mind you and yes, it’s possible that Alfred Hitchcock tops him (if so it’s a close call), but why let the details get in the way of a dramatic statement? Welles certainly didn’t. Maybe that’s one reason for so many books—there’s so much myth behind the man.

Orson Welles, reading

There’s also so much career behind him. Welles made his name in theater and radio as a director, writer, producer and actor before coming to Hollywood, and he had a fascination with complex, contradictory characters who shaped their public images. His debut feature was built on the struggle to find the “key” insight to explain the character and motivation of a public figure and discovering a multiplicity of facets. Welles himself spun fictions around his own story, creating an aura of myth around the “boy wonder” genius that was taken for fact by many critics, while Hollywood (through gossip columnists and trade papers) created its own story: the “failed” genius who defied the system and was brought low by his own hubris. For most of his life, writers were content to print the legend(s), but there was is grist for multiple takes on his life and art in separating fact from fiction alone, never mind challenging clichés and preconceptions that have settled into common knowledge.

Now I should confess that I am somewhat obsessive when it comes to Welles. I own more than fifty books—biographies, studies, monographs, scripts, essay collections—on Welles, and that’s far from a complete accounting. For the vast majority of folks interested in delving deeper into the life and career of Welles, however, one book will suffice, at least as a starting point. The question is where to start?

Continue reading at Keyframe

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 1

1 May, 2015 (09:50) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

‘Nadja à Paris’

“When I attempt to describe my years in Paris, no one believes me, I can tell. It was too Hollywood-dream perfect. Here is Nadja coming out of the student restaurant, minding her own business, and who should appear next but Eric Rohmer who stops her (“Why you of all people?” they ask) and within minutes he wants to make a film about her life.” Before she died last year Nadja Tesich, the subject of Rohmer’s 1964 documentary Nadja à Paris, collaborated with Lucy McKeon on a lovely account of that time, that city, and the director who seemed to give her free rein even while crafting his own “portrait” of the young student.

“One of the grim proverbs of noir is that you can’t escape yourself. There are no fresh starts, no second chances. But noir also demonstrates the instability of identity, the way character can be corrupted, and stories about facial transformations harbor a nebulous fear that there is in the end no fixed self. If noir is pessimistic about the possibility of change, it is at the same time haunted by fear of change—fear of looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger.” Imogen Smith examines a collection of noirish films that play on the theme of plastic surgery, from Joan Crawford’s improbable transformation in A Woman’s Face to Seconds’s promise of a new identity to come with your new face. (“There is never a moment in the movie when this seems like a good idea.”)

That Night’s Wife invokes the social consciousness that marked not only many of Ozu’s early works but most serious Japanese films of the thirties. Like the country’s art and literature, its cinema of this era often spoke to the plight of people living in economic conditions that were partly a result of the worldwide Great Depression. […] That Night’s Wife may concern a crime, but it’s above all a work of empathy.” As were the other two crime dramas from Criterion’s new collection of early Ozu, Michael Koresky shows.

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Film Review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

30 April, 2015 (05:28) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Robert Horton

Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow

The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Misery Loves Comedy’

30 April, 2015 (05:24) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Larry David

“Do you have to be miserable to be funny?” That’s the question at the center of Kevin Pollak’s documentary, signaling a somewhat different approach to the culture of comedy and comedians. (A veteran stand-up performer himself, Pollak also acts on TV and in films including The Usual Suspects.) With Robin Williams’ startling suicide still a fresh wound (the film is dedicated to him), it’s a fair question and a serious one. If comedy is tragedy plus time, is stand-up comedy a kind of higher math used to survive that equation?

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Videophiled: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Silence de la Mer’ on Criterion

29 April, 2015 (15:53) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

SilenceLe Silence de la Mer (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature by Jean-Pierre Melville, was both a labor of love based on novella that was considered an almost sacred text by the French Resistance and a maverick, self-financed gamble to break into the film industry as a director. A decade before the nouvelle vague, Melville laid the groundwork for the movement with an independent production that incorporated the limitations of resources into the fabric of the filmmaking.

Set mostly in the small farmhouse of a middle-aged Frenchman (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane) where a polite, cultured German officer (Howard Vernon) has been billeted, the film features only one character who speaks on camera (the rest of voice-over narration and reflection, thus limiting the necessity of live sound recording for most scenes). The French hosts offer their own resistance by refusing to speak in the officer’s presence, or even acknowledge him. “By unspoken agreement, my niece and I decided to change nothing in our lives, not the slightest detail, as if he didn’t exist. As if he were a ghost.” Instead of taking it as a slight, the officer treats it as an invitation to indulge in monologues on art and culture (he was a composer as a civilian), the barbarity of the German people, and his dream that French influence will civilize his culture. German though he may be, he is no Nazi and the film is as much about his disillusionment with his own people as it is about the strange and beautiful relationship between these people who might have liked and even loved one another in a different life.

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A Neglected Western: ‘Colorado Territory’

29 April, 2015 (05:38) | by Peter Hogue, Essays, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh, Westerns | By: Peter Hogue

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.

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‘He’s from back home': Man and Myth in ‘High Sierra’

27 April, 2015 (05:26) | by Rick Hermann, Essays, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh, Westerns | By: Rick Hermann

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.

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Venerable, never: Richard T. Jameson Remembers Richard Corliss

26 April, 2015 (10:19) | by Richard T. Jameson, Obituary / Remembrance | By: Richard T. Jameson

Richard Corliss

The Variety headline read: “Richard Corliss, Venerable Time Film Critic, Dies at 71.” Why was this jarring? Not the news itself: that had already been broken by Corliss’s own magazine, which published a proud and affectionate eulogy for an invaluable colleague and assembled some highlights from his three-and-a-half decades’ work at 50 Rock. The fact that his age was 71? A year or so ago, his longtime friend David Thomson had teased him in print about closing in on 70, so one could do the math for oneself. No, the problem was the adjective: “venerable.” Yes, it means honored, esteemed, admired—all apt, and earned many times over. But part of the word’s etymological backstory has to do with being old, perhaps stodgy. That was never Corliss, never imaginably could be. Read him at age 21, read him at 71, read him anywhere in between, and you’re in the company of a sensibility insatiably curious, nimble as a springbok, focused as a base runner, fresh as a croissant on a sunny Cannes morning.

Continue reading at RogerEbert.com

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Silents Please!: ‘Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas’

26 April, 2015 (08:23) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

Silent Ozu – Three Crime Dramas (Eclipse 42) (Criterion, DVD) is an apt companion piece to Criterion’s previous set of silent Yasujiro Ozu films on their Eclipse line. The artist called the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, famous for the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his sound films, was a voracious film buff more interested in Hollywood movies than his own national cinema early in his career and he thrived in a great variety of genres. The previous Eclipse set collected a trio of family comedies. This one offers three gangster films: Ozu noir, so to speak, inspired by the late silent crime pictures by Josef von Sternberg and American pictures. These films are more intimate character pieces than the gangster romantic tragedies of their American cousins, but they are lively productions directed with a dynamic style he stripped away through the 1930s.

Walk Cheerfully (1930) mixes the gangster drama with character comedy in the story of a hood named Ken the Knife (Minoru Takada) who vows to go straight when he falls in love with a “good” girl. His old girlfriend, who sports a Louise Brooks bob, isn’t happy about being dumped and decides to get revenge on them both. In fact, there’s a lot of American influence in the film, from the storytelling to the camerawork (from tracking shots to oblique, dramatic camera angles) to fashions; these hoods are as sporty as their Hollywood counterparts with their flashy suits and fedoras and swaggering attitudes. This is a bright picture, as the title suggests. The mob isn’t happy that Ken and his partner (Hisao Yoshitani) have left the gang but for all the obstacles, this is on the more lighthearted side of the gangster genre.

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Silents Please!: ‘The House of Mystery’ from Flicker Alley

25 April, 2015 (08:11) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère) (Flicker Alley, DVD) – Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences. Louis Feuillaude was a master at making surreal pulp thrillers like Fantomas and Les Vampires but Judex moved him toward epic storytelling with more mature themes (his later serials, which are even more adult if less exciting, are sadly unavailable in the U.S.).

Albatross, a French studio founded by Russian immigrants who fled the communist revolution, produced some of the most sophisticated films on the twenties, including the serial The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice. The opening credits tease the audience by presenting our hero in multiple disguises before revealing the face of Ivan Mosjoukine, suggesting he is something of a Judex or Fantomas. In fact he’s Julien Villandrit, the scion of a manufacturing family who marries his sweetheart Régine (Hélène Darly) and takes over the family textile mill. All seems well as we jump to “Seven Years Later” and find his longtime associate Henri (Charles Vanel) going all Iago, planting the seeds of doubt in Julien’s mind over the attentions of an elderly banker (Sylvia Gray) toward his wife. What seems unseemly has a rather touching explanation but it takes a dramatic turn when Julien is framed for murder and sent to prison while Henri remains free to pursue Régine. Nicolas Koline plays the woodsman Rudeberg, a photographer whose hobby gives him the leverage to blackmail his way into a steady job. It’s not quite as mercenary as it seems—it’s all to give his troubled son a shot at an education and a better life than him—but it means hiding the evidence proving Julien’s innocence and incriminating the true killer.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 24

24 April, 2015 (09:49) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Sean Axmaker

“Nobody’s more responsible for the final outcome of the recording than Harry, just as nobody was more responsible for the final shape that The Conversation took than Murch. As an editor, he magicks emotional tone out of thin air.” Charles Bramesco plunks for alternate authorship of one of Coppola’s masterpieces, finding The Conversation’s themes so tied to the play of editing, and its technique on that score so masterly nimble, why not credit it to Walter Murch? Staying at The Dissolve, Judy Berman considers the factors that made Dogme 95 so congenial (as these things go) for women directors. (“In keeping with Dogme’s declaration that genre movies were “not acceptable,” each [woman-directed Dogme film] also flagrantly subverts the conventions of romantic comedy—the genre that brought Bier to prominence, and the cinematic niche that simultaneously welcomes and traps women directors.”)

‘The Conversation’

“As much as he has ever done before, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu explores the fluctuating roles in a family: who is in charge, who is subservient, who is the breadwinner, who is the dependent, and what is the proper, or the best, familial arrangement?” Jeremy Carr celebrates the familiar consolations of Ozu’s last film. Via David Hudson.

I’m assuming it’s the same Jeremy Carr who also writes up Some Came Running for Mubi, focusing on the “conflicting oppositions” between high and low, respectable and demimonde, that permeate the film and begin with its star.

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Videophiled: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

23 April, 2015 (17:25) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix), written and directed by California-based and Iranian-born filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, is a genre film with a fresh approach and a distinctive cultural texture: a vampire movie from a female director who stirs American movie references into her stylized Iranian street drama.

The Girl (as she is identified in the credits), played by Sheila Vand (Argo), walks the streets (and at one point rides a skateboard) of the ominously-named Bad City in a chador, but underneath wears a striped blouse that could have been borrowed from Jean Seberg in Breathless and her basement room is adorned in pop music posters. Arash (Arash Marandi), the son of a heroin addict father in debt to a drug-dealing pimp, seems to model himself on James Dean, right down to the white T-shirt, black leather jacket and blue jeans. (The pimp, meanwhile, who fashions himself an East LA gangbanger.) Of course they cross paths and The Girl, who exercises a measure of morality in choosing her meals, allows him to woo her. Why not? They’ve both already robbed the same gangster (she took jewelry and his CDs, he grabbed the cash and the drugs).

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Film Review: ‘Amour Fou’

23 April, 2015 (05:04) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Christian Friedel and Birte Schnoeink

In November 1811, in accordance with their suicide pact, the great German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist shot and killed Henriette Vogel on the shores of the Kleiner Wannsee outside Berlin. Then he shot himself in the head. There are undoubtedly many ways you could tell this story, and some of them would be of the lip-trembling, violins-keening variety. Amour Fou isn’t that. Instead, Austrian director Jessica Hausner has fashioned a formal, feminist, wickedly humorous variation on history.

The movie suggests that Henriette (the placid Birte Schnoeink) is a Napoleonic-era version of a 1950s American housewife.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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