The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 5

Harlan County, U.S.A. is filled with sounds recorded this way—the voices of local people speaking, shouting, and singing; the hard breathing of protestors running in fear and the rasping breaths of people with black lung; the noise of people laughing, crying, and screaming; and the sound of instruments like fiddles, banjoes, and guitars, calling birds, chirping crickets, and barking dogs; the noise of the vehicles that carry workers into the mine and the grinding machines that dig the coal and the conveyor belts that carry the coal out; the sound of car engines, the crack of pistol fire, and the rat tat tat of machine guns; and the echoing thunder of a mine exploding. These sounds slide into each other without pause. They form layers. Often emerging at first without visual referents, they conjure missing spaces and alternate times. They produce emotions.” Grace Elizabeth Hale does a magisterial job exploring Barbara Kopple’s use of sound in Harlan County, U.S.A., not just to draw the viewer in but to simultaneously reject the documentary tradition of portraying Appalachia as populated by exotic victims of fate (in which goal, Hale informs us, Kopple leans on the work of such indigenous film collectives as Appalshop) and to include the filmmaker herself as both a participant and recorder of the events. Via David Hudson.

“So we have a director of some ambition. That inference is backed up by some flashy moments in earlier 1910s work. In 1916 Taylor released a remarkable nine features, and during my DC stay I saw what remains of four of them. Although they’re in parlous shape, they show a lively pictorial and dramatic intelligence. Are they auteur films in the strong sense? At least we can say that Taylor, like many other directors, was channeling just that exuberant creative energy that Richard evokes. Certain moments in two of these movies have genuine flair, and one film is an all-out stunner. I had never heard of any of them.” Sifting through the remnants of what may have been the filmmaker’s annus mirabilis, or for all we know merely another stretch of admirable if clumsy innovation and occasional inspiration, David Bordwell finds William Desmond Taylor deserving to be remembered for much more than his still unsolved murder.

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Review: A Quiet Passion

A biopic of Emily Dickinson sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would be if it unfolded along conventional lines. But what if it were as unconventional as Dickinson’s poetry? I don’t mean a movie that is la-di-dah “poetic,” with out-of-focus shots of blossoms falling as classical music plays. What if the cinematic approach to the poet’s life could approximate her eccentric punctuation—full of dashes where commas usually roam—her abrupt shifts in focus, and her piercing gaze at eternity? If you could do that you’d have A Quiet Passion, an appropriately odd film from the British director Terence Davies.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

SIFF 2017: From ‘The Big Sick’ to ‘The Young Karl Marx’ – over 400 movies in 24 days

The 43rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 18, with the opening night gala presentation of Sundance and SXSW hit The Big Sick from director Michael Showalter and writer/star Kumail Nanjiani.

24 days later, the North American premiere of Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx takes the closing night spot at Cinerama on Sunday, June 11.

In between, 233 features films (including 58 documentaries) and 163 short films from 80 countries will screen across 12 venues in Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, and Shoreline.

Welcome to SIFF 2017, still the biggest and longest film festival in the United States. It’s got something for everyone, from world premieres to restorations of classic movies, from movies for families to gonzo midnight movies that are definitely not for kids. There are comedies and dramas and thrillers, true stories and fantasies and stranger-than-fiction documentaries.

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Review: Godspell

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Without having seen Jesus Christ Superstar yet, I’m hardly in a position to state definitively how the Savior is doing with and being done by the moneychangers and popcorn vendors this Year of Our Lord. Of Godspell in particular the main thing to be said is that, while the movie of “the smash off-Broadway musical” confirms all but the direst expectations engendered by the trailer and flower-power photo spreads, it’s not quite as cloying as it threatened to be. The opening five minutes or so—the gathering of eight young urban Apostles in answer to a neo–John the Baptist’s joyous call—has been conceived and executed by director-adapter David Greene most adroitly and, more to the point, with a beguiling yet unprecious ingenuity that arouses genuine excitement and anticipation in any viewer agreeably disposed to make a leap of faith in the interest of having a good cocklewarming time. Regrettably, the saucy, freshly scrubbed faces of the troupe are soon a-daub with kindergarten cosmetics, and their playground-theater antics, however genial, shortly wear out their collective welcome through sheer sameness. They’re nice kids and all that, and a few of the updated, acted-out parables are amusing, and Greene’s direction does manage the difficult feat of remaining ingenious without tipping too frequently into frippery or flippancy.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 28

The new issue of cléo is organized around the theme of “soft,” realized by such diverse analyses as Mallory Andrews on the ingenious costuming choices of 9 to 5’s Ann Roth (“Each woman leaves the office early to commiserate at a local bar. Judy and Doralee have covered their outfits in matching cream jackets, and the lapels on Doralee match those of Violet’s blazer. Any earlier animosity has been pushed aside, the cream colours acting as a uniform for a three-woman army.”) and Veronica Fitzpatrick’s admiring take on Ex Machina’s ambiguity towards machines, women, and rape (“Much of Ex Machina’s criticism has hinged on whether it’s a feminist revenge parable or an objectifying robot fantasy, but both readings threaten to flatten the complexity that we, like Caleb, are asked to feel without explaining.”). Elsewhere, Jaime Chu highlights the dizzying tactility in Jane Campion’s filmography (“In her films, Campion reminds us of what hands do: they clasp, they rub, they catch, they soothe, they kill, they possess, they hurt, they hold, they remember.”); Justine Smith praises the tensions between repression and erotic arousal in nunsploitation (“Somehow, the fusion of pain and pleasure made “sinful” desires feel more acceptable—the punishment was built into the act itself.”); and Sophie Meyer cuts through metaphor to assess the films that break the phallocentric norm by celebrating soft cock (“While early reviews drew attention to the unprecedented sex acts of the opening minutes, it is in the closing minutes that the film enters truly new territory, of a tenderness that is also explicitly erotic and embodied….”)

“The film’s history is a drama in itself, part thriller, part tragedy. It involves an American Army base, the late-night pilfering of film canisters, a screening that left Mike Nichols in tears and a fatal review. The long final act ends in redemption at the hands of Martin Scorsese (among others) and includes the film’s long-delayed television premiere, on HBO2 on Monday, April 24. This is the story according to the 89-year-old Mr. Ophuls, anyway, and he tells it—by phone recently from his home in Southern France—very convincingly, with frequent bouts of wheezing laughter.” With Marcel Ophuls’s Memory of Justice receiving a long overdue rediscovery, Mike Hale recounts the film’s troubled production and disastrous reception.

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Preview: Seventh Art Stand

Alongside the woven objects and 16th-century painted tiles in the Seattle Art Museum’s Islamic Collection hang a series of entirely modern artifacts. Iraqi artist Qasim Sabti’s “Book Cover Collage” pieces are rendered from the remains of books retrieved from Baghdad libraries in the wake of the 2003 bombings. They stand as proof of the ability of art to travel: These pieces have come all the way from a Baghdad street to a well-manicured Seattle art museum to testify. Before that, the books themselves came from all over the world to bring beauty, history, or subversive ideas to Iraq. The isolated word “Gulliver” peeks out from one collage, indicating the presence of literature’s most famous traveler.

Movies are also great travelers, and the global reach of cinematic art gets a boost in May through a national project organized partly by the Northwest Film Forum and the New York distributor Abramorama. The Seventh Art Stand is an initiative, hosted by dozens of U.S. independent theaters and film societies, to make “an act of cinematic solidarity against Islamophobia.”

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: The silent horror of ‘Behind the Door’ restored

Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.

Flicker Alley

Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.

The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 21

“I found a lot of prototypes of noirish images during my recent trawling through Library of Congress films from 1914-1918. In this era, it seems, filmmakers competed to create striking, even shocking, lighting effects. Later directors and cinematographers would adopt many of them as proven tools for boosting their scenes’ emotional power.” David Bordwell finds noir—both the visual cues of expressionist shadow and key themes—another of the many film styles presaged in the burst of creativity during the 1910s.

“It’s filmed from behind Godard so that we only see the back of his head, with Miéville facing the camera and answering questions. But she is not under interrogation. She disputes some of his claims, turns the questions back around, attempts to untangle his thorny philosophies. She is an audience surrogate, certainly, but she is also revealing her importance to the work they make together, allowing herself to come out of her partner’s shadow and sit in the center of the frame. At any moment she might look right at the camera—and by proxy right at us. Who is soft and who is hard?” Craig Hubert considers the films of Anne-Marie Miéville, which have much more to offer than mere satellites of her collaborations with Godard.

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Review: Free Fire

Roughly 90 percent of Free Fire is set inside a rundown warehouse, the location for a big shoot-out between warring outlaw factions. It’s as though director Ben Wheatley decided—either embracing or spoofing a tired cliché—to stage an entire movie in the spot where action pictures invariably end up anyway. We get to know this place reasonably well in the course of the 85-minute film, and you might expect the layout to be precisely oriented for the audience. If Kathryn Bigelow had directed, we would know exactly where everybody was, how far the distance between shooting perches, and the location of the exits. That kind of geographical approach gives the audience clarity.

With Wheatley’s film, it’s a free-for-all.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Video: Framing Pictures – April 2017

Film critics and Seattle film mavens Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy and Bruce Reid discuss Raw, the first offering by French director Julia Docournau, and offer a master class on veteran filmmaker Walter Hill and his new thriller, The Assignment. Also, get to know Emily Dickinson in the Oscar contender A Quiet Passion.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The Seattle Channel records and presents many of these a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

You can also watch it on the Seattle Channel website.

Keep up with the discussion at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

 

Review: Kid Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as The Conformist, Taking Off, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 14

“A meeting—formal or informal, routine or hastily gathered, tedious or contentious—amounts to a Wiseman signature, like a shootout in a Tarantino movie or a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow comedy. When a group of people gather in a room, the business of the world is being done (or postponed or discussed or avoided, which amounts to the same thing). More crucial, it is being witnessed, by the camera and the audience, so that essential information can be imparted about the workings of law and order, art and politics, knowledge and power.” To celebrate a Film Forum retrospective of Frederick Wiseman, A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis trade off mini-essays on his methods and the glorious films that result.

“The experience of walking through this entire exhibition is not unlike that of watching a Scorsese film: the rapid-fire barrage of information and images, of textures and sounds, seems to replicate his style. (So many materials clustered so close together can even have the effect of making you move through the exhibition faster, in an attempt to take it all in in one trip—thus also giving your visit the rhythm of one of his films.)” Bilge Ebiri takes a walking tour of MoMI’s Martin Scorsese exhibit, a collection of movie memorabilia either taken from the director’s productions or from his personal collection (including Vertigo’s bouquet of flowers) as ramshackle and far-ranging as you’d expect when such intense cinephilia is distilled down to a few measly floors of museum space.

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Review: Colossal

The big concept within Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is clever enough that the movie might’ve rested on it alone. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about a woman who steps into a kiddie park in her hometown and causes a giant reptilian monster to emerge in South Korea. So it’s got that going for it. But once Colossal sets its conceptual hook, it pushes its zany premise into authentically uncomfortable territory. It’s actually about something.

The woman in question is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a frazzled millennial at loose ends. Scolded by her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) about her incorrigible partying, she moves out of their New York apartment and back to her parents’ house in a town upstate.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Sacco and Vanzetti

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

When challenged that the American and rightwing villains in his State of Siege were too thoroughly villainous and the leftwing revolutionaries too absurdly decent and clean-cut, Costa-Gavras disingenuously replied that he saw nothing terribly wrong in that: why shouldn’t the Left indulge itself with black-and-white entertainments when the Right had been doing so for years? Sacco and Vanzetti can cop the same plea, but it has plenty more to recommend it. John Simon named the film on his 1971 Ten Best List because, he maintained, it dramatically brought to light a reprehensible miscarriage of justice callously perpetrated by officials of the government which ought never be forgotten.

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Review: Raw Meat

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

I must confess to being one of those horror film addicts who occasionally even resort to the ozoners in search of the one sleeper that will justify all those wasted hours spent in the scurrilous company of Aztec mummies, moth-eaten werewolves, and green slime. Which is how I came to see Raw Meat—despite its title and the American-International imprimatur. Actually, the presence of Donald Pleasence and Christopher Lee, not to mention obvious parallels—in what little I knew of the plot—to the notorious Night of the Living Dead, did nothing to shore up what little resistance I manage to maintain against a seemingly insatiable appetite for the usually tasteless additions to this genre.

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