Blu-ray: ‘Liquid Sky’ on Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome

Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)

An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.

Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.

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Review: The People vs. Larry Flynt

[Originally published on Mr. Showbiz December 20, 1996]

From Disraeli and The Life of Emile Zola, through Madame Curie, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl, to Gandhi and Michael Collins, the biopic has been among Hollywood’s most venerated genres — the means of conferring cinematic immortality on history’s superstars and, more often than not, Oscar glory on the enshriners. Also more often than not, the filmmaking has tended to be as stodgy as the subjects were august.

The People vs. Larry Flynt knocks both of those traditions for a loop (we nearly said “into a cocked hat” but, in the present context, that might have been in poor taste). No one could pretend that Larry Flynt — ex-moonshiner, ex–strip-club operator, and owner-publisher of the encyclopedically raunchy Hustler magazine — is a candidate for respectability. And no way would Milos Forman — who previously made the vibrant Amadeus — adopt a conventional, reverential style or tone in bringing Flynt’s life and often dubious achievements to the screen. Yet the surprising, deliciously problematical, and finally exhilarating truth is that Forman’s boisterous serio-comedy attains complexity and, yes, nobility beyond the grasp of most hagiographies. It also ends up persuading us that its outrageous subject has, too.

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Amadeus

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 19, 1984]

A dark street; equally dark Panavision screen. Snow falling; offcenter, a street lamp. The cry “Mozart!” and a startling chord of music. Somewhere behind a door in Vienna, a forgotten old man named Antonio Salieri lifts a razor to his throat because, he maintains, many years ago he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Servants burst in, find him bloodied, bundle him off to a combination hospital and asylum. As he is bounced through the wind-whipped night streets, Salieri hears the music of his long-dead victim, brighter than the bright upper-story windows behind which a party of revelers dance and dance and dance.

The first thing to be said about Milos Forman’s new film Amadeus is that if you didn’t already know it was derived from a stageplay, you’d never guess it from watching the movie. It’s a vibrant, supple, splendidly cinematic thing—intimate, concrete, fluid, and wide-ranging in time and space as Peter Shaffer’s clever play could never have been in the most dexterous of stagings. At the same time, we must insist—since we are, after all, in such heavy-duty cultural territory—that the film goes about its business with a grace and assurance that seems cheeky only in seeming so effortless, so spontaneous, so … Mozartean?

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 13

“Stahl had a style of impressive gravity that could make a melodrama serious even for those disinclined to the genre (this shows especially in the great first version of Back Street, 1932), but the full effect of melodrama as Sirk conceives it derives from a constant contrast of tones: strong effects, vivid and sometimes audacious, alternating with subtler passages that do as much to carry the flow of movie.  Though much critical writing on Sirk concentrates on what might be called signature moments, where visual strategies for heightening are most evident and it is easy to readily identify his hand, what really elevates the director is the sophistication with which he conceives of the organic whole.” Concluding his two-part essay on Sirk at Universal-International, Blake Lucas highlights the many collaborators whose other work for the studio clearly showed the same talents they’d bring to Sirk’s films, and the masterly way the director orchestrated their contributions to his vision.

“Landing somewhere near the intersection of Spielberg and National Geographic, Terrence Malick and Sesame Street, Ballard’s work is hugely entertaining but exceedingly probing, sincerely engaged with reaching out to touch the world. These are films of excitement, but also of questions, of family, of environment. They are films of gentleness and intelligence. In fact, Ballard is arguably, along with Malick, one of the handful of cinematic transcendentalists currently roaming our planet, and if there’s ever been a time that needed transcendence, it’s now.” Stephen Cone sings the praises of Carroll Ballard’s films, which despite their constant pairing of man and animal are among the most humane ever made.

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Review: Submergence

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

I interviewed director Wim Wenders in the mid-’90s, and a sizable part of the conversation focused on an element of filmmaking he found supremely important: the sense of place. One can’t just parachute in somewhere and shoot a film; you need to know a location and understand it.

Well … hmmm. Wenders’ new film, Submergence, travels to a terrorist encampment in Somalia and a deep-diving submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Compared to Wenders’ explorations of his native Germany in Wings of Desire and The American Friend or his deep drilling of the American landscape in Paris, Texas, this is a tourist’s visit. It might explain why Submergence—though sincere and sometimes woozily affecting—feels like a skim over the surface.

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Review: Rogers Park

Reviewed by Andrew Wright for The Stranger

The smaller the scale of a portrait, the more the individual brush strokes tend to matter. The finely tuned relationship drama Rogers Park successfully captures a compelling slice of life where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains, just normal everyday folks with some recognizably unlovely facets to their personalities. Within its determinedly narrow scope, there are very few false moves to be found.

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Blu-ray: Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ ‘Cat O’ Nine Tails,’ ‘Deep Red,’ ‘Opera,’ and ‘The Church’

Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)

Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Synapse Films

Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.

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Quality up the Wazoo: ‘Hill Street Blues’

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1981]

If my editor hadn’t called my attention to it, the premiere episode of Hill Street Blues would very probably have come and gone without my notice. Hundreds of television series have. But he knew I liked Lou Grant, and this show “from the producers of Lou Grant” (the hypesters’ phrase) was, on the basis of preview, similarly successful in “being funny when it wants to be funny, and dramatic when it wants to be dramatic” (his phrase), and maybe I should take a look. It was getting a modified miniseries sendoff as part of NBC president Fred Silverman’s last desperate bid to turn around his network’s ever-worsening ratings drift and save his job. Who could say whether, if the numbers failed to materialize, Silverman wouldn’t replace it with a jiggle epic, or his successors ashcan it in a combined spirit of slate-cleaning and revenge?

So I took the look. Hill Street Blues: Cop show. Thirteen series regulars identified up front, most of them unfamiliar and most of them frozen in slantwise TV grin. Handheld camera, Action News editing, and overlapping mutters on the soundtrack during the morning briefing that opens the show—manneristic bad signs for the jaundiced viewer, though they did seem to make for an appropriate grab-shot naturalism here. What the hell, give it a chance.

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Review: A Quiet Place

The horror films that linger into the wee small hours after watching are often the simplest ones. A Quiet Place, director/co-writer/actor John Krasinski’s startlingly good monster movie, quickly establishes a lean, mean scenario and then cranks up the tension. This is a ruthlessly efficient primal scream generator that somehow doesn’t leave the viewer feeling ill-used, and audiences are going to go bananas.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of April 6

“The stories also share common thematic concerns, regarding jealousy, marital fidelity, interpersonal power dynamics, and shifting loyalties across triangular relationships – often there is a Charles and a Hélène (Audran played four different Hélènes), whose relationship is disrupted by a complicating Paul. Bourgeoisie rituals come under anthropological interrogation; domestic geography is surgically precise (dwellings, simple and palatial, are meticulously designed); and there is Chabrol’s signature delight in lingering over meals, especially at crucial junctures. Almost invariably, there is murder, always, there is guilt, the weight of which is shared by more than one character.” Jonathan Kirshner runs through the dozen films of what he dubs Chabrol’s “second wave,” from Les Biches to Innocents with Dirty Hands, to signaled the director’s return to prominence after some years of indifferent work for hire. Via David Hudson.

“Clarke may have prefigured the reaction of audiences when, with the film still two long years from completion, he described 2001’s making as “a wonderful experience streaked with agony.” It was all that, and more: a feat of sustained innovation, even improvisation, led by one of the most controlling and obsessive directors in movie history. That MGM, traditionally the stodgiest of studios, gave Kubrick the freedom to set off toward an end point even he wasn’t entirely sure of—and this was half a decade before Hollywood would make a thing of indulging visionary young directors—is almost as astonishing as the film that resulted.” Bruce Handy recounts the years of rewriting, research, and overruns that resulted in Kubrick’s 2001.

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Review: Outside In

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.

They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.

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Blu-ray: A pair of ‘Ringo’s and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’

A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray)
A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)

Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.

Arrow Films

In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.

Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of March 30

“When Haddish was 13, she and her siblings were placed in foster care; she spent almost two years living in group homes and with foster families until her grandmother gained custody of the kids. Money remained tight, so they technically remained in the foster-care system (hence the taxes line [in her standup]). When her foster-care subsidy ran out, Haddish left home. As a young adult, she became homeless three times, living in her car. ‘I think that was God teaching me a lesson over and over,’ she says. And, as often happens when Haddish reflects on the profound hardships of her life, she cuts up, laughing. ‘I wasn’t paying attention the first two times.’” Caity Weaver’s profile of Tiffany Haddish can’t help but note how performative Haddish’s genial public persona is, another dazzling showpiece from an actor talented enough to pull off anything, smart enough to know what plays, and tempered enough by life’s hard knocks to chart out her success to the dollar.

“In an essay for Artforum from 1993, Arthur Jafa recalls telling a friend, “[Menace II Society] makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby Show.” The level of violence alone is enough to make that distinction. The Hughes Brothers’ camera repeatedly takes us right up to where we don’t want to be. When Caine is shot for the first time and goes into shock, we are on the ground with him, as though we’re coughing up the same blood. Bullets have consequences. But what Jafa was also getting at is the preciousness of Boyz in comparison to MenaceBoyz n the Hood’s sense of tragedy is meant as a cautionary tale to black men making poor choices. We grieve because those choices mean the wrong people sometimes get shot and killed, or because good people get mixed up in bad situations created by bad people. In Menace, tragedy is ubiquitous to the point of meaninglessness.” Mychal Denzel Smith rates the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society the best of the hood films for its welding of an emotional honesty to a genre story in a way that freed it from the burdens of homilies and inspirational uplift that have weighed down so many liberal filmmakers’ depictions of race.

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wes Anderson returns to the world of stop-motion animation with his latest feature, Isle of Dogs. If you’re familiar with Anderson’s rigidly arranged chocolate-box technique, you can guess why animation appeals to him. For starters, it allows total control over the image, with nary a lock of hair (or piece of fur) out of place. Anderson’s fondness for squared-off, symmetrical compositions looks less strange in a cartoon (see 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) than it sometimes does in live action. And with animation, Anderson can fully indulge his decidedly non-realistic style (stretched to its live-action limit in the dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel): he can exaggerate color, design, and behavior without literalists howling.

Here’s another theory about why Anderson returns to animation in Isle of Dogs: It gives him cover for making his most dramatic film yet.

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Review: They Remain

Flip through a few recent Best of Horror collections at random, and you’re likely to hit a healthy smattering of Laird Barron. Barron, who sets many of his stories in the Northwest, is a ferocious talent, specializing in an upsetting, lysergic melding of two-fisted adventure scenarios and slithering Lovecraftian remnants. They Remain, the first filmed take on the author’s work, manages to replicate a gratifying amount of that distinctive vibe, infusing the story with large doses of free-form agoraphobic anxiety. It lingers.

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