Review: You’ve Got Mail

[Originally written for Film.com in 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.

I saw You’ve Got Mail in a spanking-new multiplex located in a spanking-new downtown development, a place with an atrium and coffeeshop and Tiffany’s and J. Peterman. It’s the kind of gleaming, upscale mall that drove out (or will drive out) all the little shops and longtime dives that used to define the downtown of a city. It doesn’t really matter what city I’m talking about, because the downtown of my city could now be the downtown of AnyCity, blessed as it is with Planet Hollywood and Old Navy and a Starbucks on every corner.

The new development also has a Barnes & Noble at ground level. Well, gee, how ironic. You’ve Got Mail is about the owner of Barnes & Noble – er, “Fox Books” – opening a new megastore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is untroubled by the fact that his new store will drive the little booksellers out of business, including The Shop Around the Corner, a funky children’s book nook. It’s owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who declares war on Fox and his heartless methods.

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Criterion Blu-ray: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.

Criterion Collection

Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.

Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.

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Review: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 28, 1983]

I approached last week’s invitational screening of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez with a sense of grim duty. I’d had three chances to see the film over the past year or so—on PBS-TV, in the Eighth Seattle International Film Festival, and earlier this month at the Tenth Telluride Film Festival—and I’d breezily given it a miss every time. Too many danger signals were ringing in my ears: the threat of earnest boredom and laundered aestheticism implicit in the PBS sanctification, for one; and the frequency with which Third World indictments of Anglo injustice have substituted politicized rant for legitimate drama. Also, an independent, primarily documentary-oriented filmmaker had directed the picture, and filmmakers of this stripe often display a self-righteous contempt for narrative obligations—as though narrative were not the answer to a universal hunger for form and illumination, but merely something foisted on the cinema by that imperialist monster “Hollywood.” If The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was tainted by any of the aforementioned syndromes, I wasn’t anxious to sit down in front of it.

I rehearse these (well-founded) antipathies in a spirit of endorsement, for I suspect they are shared by more than a few discerning filmgoers, and I would urge such persons not to give Gregorio Cortez a miss this time around. It turns out to be a fine, powerful, superbly crafted movie, with a universal dramatic impact far beyond any narrowly ethnic or political reference. Even more surprisingly, though by no means incidentally, it’s also an exciting, original addition to the honor roll of that supposedly moribund genre, the Western.

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Review: Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz in 1998]

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

There are moments in Saving Private Ryan when the warfare becomes so intense and all-consuming that the very air seems filled with battle. Shrapnel hangs there, every shard in razor-sharp focus, as if molecules of the film itself had been startled out of the emulsion. “Din of battle” ceases to be a cliché and becomes an implacable, immediate truth, until the senses, along with reason, give up attempting to process the assault of information and sensation and a lulling roar of water fills our ears. No mainstream American film has ever painted a more horrific or documentarily persuasive picture of modern combat. And no Hollywood film within recent memory has achieved such richness and originality of texture, such a compelling amalgam of passionate human drama and awesome technique.

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Blu-ray: ‘Curse of the Cat People’ from Shout! Factory

Curse of the Cat People (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.

Shout! Factory

This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.

More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of August 3

In 2013 Taschen commissioned Jonathan Rosenbaum to write an original essay on each of Jacques Tati’s features for a planned book on the director. Five years later and the book is nowhere in sight, so Rosenbaum has posted his typically thorough, insightful comments on his website: Delving into the color restoration of Jour de fete (“How adding colored elements and a new character could compensate for the absence of a full-color image is an intriguing puzzle. But Tati’s compositional strategy was an intrinsic part of his genius, making him a worthy grandson of van Gogh’s framer; he was an instinctive artist with an uncanny sense of how seemingly unconnected aspects of a film could connect with one another in aesthetic terms.”); noticing the experiments careening beneath Mr. Hulot’s Holiday’s seemingly slick, entertaining surface (“Hulot, in short, could just as well be anyone else for this gag to transpire—and the notion that everyone could be funny, and not just a talented mime who dominated every shot and sequence, was central to Tati’s comic philosophy.”); exploring the satire of Mon Oncle (“Because Mon Oncle is more explicitly a satire than any of Tati’s other films, one could argue that is correspondingly somewhat less poetic and more prosaic. But one kind of poetic vision that is threaded beautifully through the entire film might be described as the poetry of disorder, and this is represented above all by the roaming paths of dogs in both neighborhoods, which are explicitly contrasted with the strict, orderly procession of cars on the highway.”); offering his latest paean to the endlessly rewarding PlayTime (“In the case of PlayTime, this might say that this became a philosophical as well as a physical vision, practical as well as metaphysical, which essentially sprang from a conviction that everyone in the world was funny coupled with a regret that not everyone had discovered it yet. Becoming a man with a mission, he saw his job as showing some people how they might better appreciate the world they were living in.”); saluting art triumphing over economically mandated compromises in Trafic (“The film’s uncommon achievement, in other words, at least on many occasions, is to blend together fictional and non-fictional elements into a seamless whole, demonstrating the Tati’s genius in organizing his materials could be every bit as adroit as his genius for either finding or inventing them. All three processes are intricately interwoven in the film as a whole.”); and arguing there’s much more going on in Parade than the documentary recording of some circus acts (“And in fact, it could be argued that Parade does have a story, even if, like PlayTime, it doesn’t exactly have a hero — or, rather, its “hero”, as in PlayTime, consists of all the people in the movie and all the people watching the movie. And to accept that as a premise means rethinking a lot of things, including what we mean by a movie, what we mean by a circus, what we mean by a show, and what we mean by spectacle in general. And in its unpretentious way, Parade gets us to reconsider all of these things.”).

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Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Every kid at the gay-conversion-therapy center must draw an iceberg. If they can fill in the huge, below-water section of the iceberg with reasons for their homosexual activity, they will better understand how they could have slipped from the straight path. And then they will be “cured.”

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the iceberg is a running joke, born of despair. The teenagers trapped in the therapy center try to think of gay-causing explanations they can write on their icebergs—a childhood trauma? an overbearing parent?—and sometimes borrow other kids’ scrawlings (how well I remember being a Catholic schoolboy and trying to come up with two or three credible transgressions to offer up in the confessional every week, so I would sound believably sinful). You have to wonder whether the organizers of God’s Promise, the fictional gay-conversion school, have really thought through this iceberg metaphor. Are the teenagers the icebergs, or are they the ships steaming toward a collision?

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Review: Generation Wealth

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

If you look at recent headlines and conclude that society is about to implode, the new documentary Generation Wealth is here to confirm your worst fears.

This movie is a mosaic of distorted values and conspicuous consumption. I would say it’s like being locked in a room showing a repeated loop of Keeping Up With the Kardashians episodes, except I’ve never sat through that show (which may explain the thin threads of innocence I have left). The Kardashians turn up in Generation Wealth, along with a roster of plastic-surgery fanatics and affluent men whose cigar-smoking evidently replaces some other primal need. I know Freud said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” but he hadn’t seen this movie.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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Review: Mission: Impossible — Fallout

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

The first Mission: Impossible movie came out in 1996, and its athletic star is now 56 years old. The numbers tell us this franchise really ought to be out of gas.

It seems Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie are not good at math, because the tank is full in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the sixth installment of the series. This hellzapoppin’ sequel delivers a string of unlikely but wonderfully executed stunts; it’s a summer movie that knows exactly what it’s doing.

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

“The pioneers who made these movies did so despite the industry’s early male domination and, for a time, they flourished. The scholar Shelley Stamp, who curated the Kino Lorber set, believes that at least two questions are worth considering when we talk about what happened to these women: “Why did they disappear?” and “Why have we forgotten them?” Speaking by phone recently, Ms. Stamp said that the disappearance happened fairly rapidly. By the early 1920s, a group of studios were consolidating power by buying up theater chains. This in turn shut out independent filmmakers, including women and people of color.” Manohla Dargis surveys the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers series playing in New York and draws our attention to some remarkable directors who contributed so much to early film before being fired from their jobs and written out of the history books for their gender.

“Wanda never falls prey to self-pity, or the chic despair of some of the woman-adrift films of the period.  There’s a kind of raw energy in the journey’s very futility. And in the fact that she remains mysterious and unknowable, reminding us afresh of the inadequacy of the categories by which we find meaning—and an illusion of mastery—in experience.” One more recent master who flirted with obscurity has since been rediscovered and hailed, and Criterion celebrates the restoration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda by asking a clutch of woman essayists and artists (including Molly Haskell, quoted above) how powerfully they were shook by the film’s unsparing portrait of a woman so silenced and hollowed out by patriarchy there’s nothing left to her but drift.

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Perpetual Motion: ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’

The greatest action movies—the ones that can make you feel like simultaneously applauding and waving a lighter in the theater—tend to be those most adept at seemingly losing control, somehow maintaining a fluid anything-can-happen vibe while also sporting atomic clock choreography. The ecstatically touted Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an amazingly entertaining blockbuster in a whole lot of ways, but it never quite escapes the flowchart stage. Even at its most astounding, you’re still aware of just how much pre-planning must have been required at any given moment in order to keep Tom Cruise from enthusiastically shuffling off from this mortal coil. That said, if you’re in the mood for sheer kinetic oomph, this is really, really tough to beat. Oh my god, that bit with the helicopters.

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Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Review by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.

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

When one site offers two articles of note, I usually try to yoke them with a shared theme. Sometimes they make it easy (see the next entry), and sometimes Criterion has Amy Taubin on the prescience of sex, lies, and videotape on our current mediated intimacy and the future outline of Steven Soderbergh’s career (“In fact, there is barely any nudity, and the sex scenes are so elliptically edited that they are more exciting for what we don’t see than for what we do. And yet sex, lies, and videotape is something of a skin flick. Soderbergh often frames the two central characters, Ann (Andie MacDowell) and Graham (James Spader), in extremely tight close-ups, held long enough for the skin of their faces to become naked indexes of their inner lives. They blush, they sweat. We know what their cheeks would feel like if we were to touch them with our fingers as we do with our eyes. I’ve never seen—before or since—skin that alive in a movie.”); and Nick Pinkerton on the pleasures of seeing Giuliano Montaldo and his cast (Cassavetes, Falk, Rowland, Britt Ekland) rub against the grain of genre conventions in Machine Gun McCain. (“The movie’s locations, like its cast, are an ungainly mix. The exteriors testify to the fact that the Italian crew shot quite extensively in the States: The movie opens in rather uninspired fashion looking south down Park Avenue, and contains views of the streets and back alleys of New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—particularly the strip joints on Telegraph Hill. […] Interiors, on the other hand, were largely shot in Rome’s Incir-De Paolis and Dear Studios, and with these the documentary impulse is abandoned for theatrical gel-splashed impressionism—see the lemony yellow light of the Vegas hotel where Adamo goes to lean on a casino boss, or the red of the go-go bar where McCain picks up his new ladyfriend after dropping another would-be Romeo with a flat of the palm to the dome.”) In which case all I can offer is, here you go.

Movie culture dies twice over at Mubi: lugubriously and with a willful lack of kick to its perversity in Greg Cwik’s take on Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (“These are parasitic creatures, entitled and idiotic, so narcissistic even their sex feels cold. (Ellis has called the film “cold and dead,” because it is about cold and dead characters.) The Canyons is salacious but unsexy, an erotic film that turns you off. Characters are demarcated by who they fuck, by who they want to fuck, by who they fuck over; they are devoid of any semblance of morals or psychology, and this interior vacuity is, again, part of the film’s epochal allure.”); in frenzied, disjointed, typically essayistic fashion in Godard’s The Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company, as seen by Jeremy Carr. (“But Grandeur et décadence is exceptional in that the incessant variety of pictorial means (the discordant cutting, the obstinate camera placement, the layered dissolves, etc.) seems to reflect the high-strung sensibilities of the film’s primary characters, as they likewise struggle to balance compound details in a way that is somber and frantic, constantly theatrical, and ultimately laughable. It’s a haggling strain for all involved, and Godard renders that exertion in the film’s own hysterical constitution.”).

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Cut to the Chaste – ‘sex, lies, and videotape’

[Originally published in 7 Days on August 9, 1989]

sex, lies and videotape was released this week in a Criterion special edition on Blu-ray and DVD. Parallax View republishes this archival piece to mark the occasion.

Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for sex, lies, and videotape during an eight-day drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles, and the movie he made from it retains the hurtling urgency of its genesis. This is true despite the fact that it’s not a fast-moving film by any means. Its principal mode of action is conversation—people talking about sex, candor, responsibility, fidelity, contentment—and there’s no attempt to jazz things up with camera stunting. A little more limpidness in the cinematography, a little more attention to the piquant charms of place, and we might take it for an hommage to Eric Rohmer. Yet sex, lies, and videotape is an American original, beating a supple, nervy tattoo on the funny bone of contemporary values.

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