Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

[originally published December 28, 2010]

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

Read More “Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week”
Posted in: Film Reviews

“Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family

[originally published November 20, 2008]

“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.

Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.

The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years – they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

Read More ““Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family”
Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

Read More “Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir”
Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2023: One Last Silent Movie Party at the Castro Theatre?

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another joyous gathering of silent cinema fans, historians, scholars, and all stripes of movie buffs. Launched in 1995, the festival has grown from a single-day event to—excluding two years of Covid shutdowns—an annual, five-day celebration. It’s about the movies, of course, and this year SFSFF presented 20 features and seven shorts. But it’s also about the silent movie experience. All shows were accompanied by live music, from solo piano to small combos to a 10-piece mini-orchestra for the closing-night event, playing both archival music and original scores, many composed for the screenings.

Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask, from 1929, opened the festival with a bittersweet farewell to the silents. The film, the swashbuckling final silent feature to star Douglas Fairbanks, has added resonance for SFSFF audiences because of the legacy of the Castro Theatre, the festival’s home for its entire 26 years. The new owners of the movie palace in the heart of the Castro district have controversially chosen to remove the seats and level the floor to turn it into a concert venue, which would effectively end its suitability as a screening space.

In many ways, The Iron Mask’s selection was a fitting farewell, as Fairbanks’s older kind of hero is shaped by loss and disappointment but still driven by duty and honor and, of course, friendship, to fight the good fight one last time. The final images are at once joyous and melancholic, a celebration of what has been accomplished as the end comes.

Continue reading at Slant Magazine

You can also read the essays written for the festival program book at the SFSFF website here.

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le Fou – Love, hate, action, violence, death

[Originally published on TCM.com on November 19, 2007]

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.

Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard’s earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou (1965). Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.

Pierrot le Fou is a road movie, a crime fantasy, a cultural satire, a tale of consumerist alienation and bourgeois apathy, and a femme fatale noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope, shot in the bright sunlit canvas of broad daylight. Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, plays Ferdinand, a former teacher pushed into an advertising career by a wealthy wife with high-society values: “You’ll do as your told,” she demands as they get ready for a party where she hopes he will be offered a job, and he bristles at the empty life he inhabits, escaping only through his books. Anna Karina, Godard’s one-time muse and wife (their divorce became final before the shoot was over), is Marianne Renoir, niece of Ferdinand’s brother-in-law and the family babysitter.

Read More “Pierrot le Fou – Love, hate, action, violence, death”
Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’

Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema (1989), his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.

Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Released by Olive Video. Available on DVD from Amazon.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBD

A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.

Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father

Read More “Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’”
Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Industry, Interviews, Science Fiction, Technology

“Breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself” – An Interview With Douglas Trumbull

On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.

Revived and expanded from an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.

Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).

Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.

Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.

In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.

At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.

Douglas Trumbull at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, 2005

Sean Axmaker: You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?

Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.

Read More ““Breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself” – An Interview With Douglas Trumbull”
Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’ on Shout! Factory

A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.

Read More “Blu-ray: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’ on Shout! Factory”
Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber

The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.

Read More “Blu-ray: ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’ on Kino Lorber”