DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’

4 by Agnes Varda Agnes Varda, a key director of the French Wave, never belonged to the group proper. By her own admission she had seen less than two dozen films before she embarked on her own first feature, La Pointe Courte (1954), a study of a marriage on the rocks starring Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret. Instead she remained – and remains – happily on the fringe following her own muse and defying expectations with glee. Her debut feature debuts on DVD in new Criterion box set 4 by Agnes Varda, along with three of her best and most well known features. From the easy rhythms and delicate naturalism of Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), her first critical success, to the rosy romanticism of the controversial Le Bonheur (1965) to the harsh beauty and alienation of Vagabond (1985), Varda shows herself a hard director to peg. Where Cleo, the story of a ninety minutes in the life of a flighty pop singer (Corinne Marchand) as she awaits the results of a cancer test, gives us rounded, vivid characters in the bustling real world of Paris, Le Bonheur, a lovely tale of a tragic love triangle, offers archetypes in a sun-drenched Eden, an impossibly idyllic world where even tragedy is transformed into a happy ending. The immediacy of Cleo becomes distanced in Le Bonheur and reaches its apex in Vagabond, where Varda’s removed observations chart (in flashback) the lives touched on by Sandrine Bonnaire’s drifter, who seems incapable of actually connecting with anything around her. Where Cleo suddenly clings to the life she sees with different eyes while awaiting news of her cancer test results, Bonnaire’s vagabond seems to skip along the surface, alienated from everything and everyone around her. Even the playful techniques so effective in Cleo (intertitles marking off and punctuating the scenes) and Le Bonheur (flashcuts, out of focus portraits, visual wordplays) are stripped away for the sobering drama of Vagabond. What ties these films together is a richness of detail and a consistency of style – a compelling form created for each individual film.

It’s featured on my MSN DVD column, along with other highlights this week. The John Frankenheimer Collection offer the DVD debuts of The Young Savages and The Train along with previously released discs The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin.

“The Young Savages” (1961), his sophomore theatrical feature, is a social drama produced by and starring Burt Lancaster as a passionate district attorney who investigates the racially charged murder of a blind Puerto Rican gang member by three Italian teens. Lancaster also produces and stars in the World War II resistance drama “The Train” (1965), a gritty, vividly directed thriller about a resistance leader (Lancaster) who reluctantly risks his agents and civilian hostages to stop a Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) from looting French art treasures during the German retreat from France.

Continue reading “DVD of the week – ‘4 by Agnes Varda’”

New reviews: ’27 Dresses’

New review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: 27 Dresses

The movie is like Jane’s perfect wedding: it delivers everything you expect on a timetable you can predict to the minute. It’s filmmaking as a cross between a carefully choreographed dance and an elaborate pageant, where we all agree to pass off Heigl, the dream girl of “Grey’s Anatomy,” as the plain sister.

Read the rest of it here.

Also new this week: my review of Jerzy Skolimowsli’s 1971 Deep End, recently revived and shown in a newly-struck print. The review is on this site. See below or click here.

Deep End – Caught in the undertow

deependposter_0823200709181.jpgDeep End (1971)

directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

An unearthed classic of early seventies cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski’s darkly satirical psychological drama of young lust, sexual callousness, obsession, and fantasy is a different kind of coming of age film. 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) gets his first job, as an attendant in the Men’s private baths of a dreary, clammy public swimming pool in suburban London. His tips, however, come from the middle-aged women in the other section, who pay generously for him to (in the words of his gorgeous co-worker Susan, played by Jane Asher) “just go along with the gag, that’s all they want.” All Mike wants is Susan.

Polish director Skolimowski is a curious cult director without a cult, the creator of another weird and creepy film deserving resurrection – the 1978 psychological mind game The Shout – who last had limited arthouse success in 1982 with Moonlighting, starring Jeremy Irons. He’s arguably had more popular success as an actor (most recently in Eastern Promises) than as a director, where his themes are reminiscent of the early work of his Polish film school comrade, Roman Polanski.

Deep End combines Skolimowski’s own darkly psychological interests with a perfectly British sensibility rubbed raw. He punctuates the veneer of social realism with cheeky sexual metaphors, from the red he injects into the film like a flush of lust and desire to the goopy spurt of an ineffectual fire extinguisher, which serves as the final punctuation of a scene of frustrated coitus. Cat Stevens sings a few songs with the group The Can, but they’re a lot darker that those he did for Harold and Maude, another film about a young virgin in a relationship with an older woman.

Continue reading “Deep End – Caught in the undertow”

DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’

Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is not the first survivalist drama of man hunting man, but it is arguably the definitive, most visceral and primal example of the genre. Part Run of the Arrow (the story is inspired by a real event in American history but shifted to turn of the century colonial South Africa) and part The Most Dangerous Game, director/star Wilde strips the set-up to the essentials. There are no names in the safari crew and all we know of the Man is that he wants out of the safari biz and return to his farm, and that he has a wedding ring. You can’t miss the influence of the film on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which trades the searing austerity and matter-of-fact savagery of the African veldt and jungle for the lush South American rain forests and adds complications, but otherwise charts the escape of a captured man from warriors hunting him down, first as sport, and then as vengeance.

I reviewed the new Criterion disc in my MSN DVD column and you can find the review here:

The film is notorious for the tortures unleashed upon the captured hunters for tribal sport and spectacle, but the blunt slaughter of elephants is as grotesque as any of the cruelties faced by the humans. Wilde so effectively matches his beautifully shot film with the wildlife footage of the animal food chain in action that the most telling difference is the contrast in film grain. The restored digital transfer looks great and the color balance helps match the otherwise disparate film sources.

[Note: click on titles for the complete review; click on DVD cover to find it on Amazon]

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Naked Prey’”

Seattle Film Critics (a small, disorganized group of them, anyway) pick their top films of 2007

There is no more “Seattle Film Critics Awards,” and no formal body to put their stamp on the year in review as a group. But there are still many fine Seattle film critics and they like to make lists. I do too, but even more, I like to talk about movies, so I have an annual ritual where I invite a small group of colleagues (those who are both friends and film critics, and who like to engage in friendly but passionate debate) to offer their lists and their reasons. And then we debate the night away.

Here are the results of the Axman’s Tenth Annual Seattle Film Critics Top Ten Party, an unofficial, purely personal event that in no way stands in for the critical consensus of the Seattle Film Critics at large, merely those few critics that I prefer to spend a few hours arguing with. This year, those few included: Jim Emerson, Kathy Fennessy, Robert Horton (unable to attend but sent his list), Richard T. Jameson, Dave McCoy, Kathleen Murphy, Jeff Shannon, Tom Tangney, Andy Wright (unable to attend, sent his list), and me, Sean Axmaker.

What follows is the compilation list of films. There is no “weighting” of points (as in the Village Voice list), merely a simple hierarchy: a first place pick receives 10 points, a second place pick 9, and so on to a tenth place pick of 1 point. Ties are weighed accordingly, assigned two spots on the list and then the added points split between them. This has no official standing or bearing on anything. It’s just interesting to see the critical mass of this particular gathering. And the critical mass – in 9 of 10 lists – is weighted overwhelmingly toward…

no_country_for_old_men_coen.jpg1) No Country for Old Men (87 points, 9 lists, 8 “Best Film” picks)

2) (tie) There Will Be Blood (39 points, 5 lists, 1 “Best Film” pick)

– Zodiac (39 points, 6 lists)

4) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (27 points, 5 lists)

5) Away From Her (26 points, 4 lists, I “Best Film” pick)

6) Into the Wild (25 points, 4 lists)

7) Once (23 ½ points, 5 lists)

8.) I’m Not There (21 points, 3 lists)

9) Inland Empire (19 points, 3 lists)

10) Grindhouse (18 ½ points, 3 lists)

11) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (17 points, 2 lists)

12) Margot at the Wedding (16 points, 3 lists)

No other films appeared on more than two lists. The top films that appeared on two lists follow:

Eastern Promises and Superbad (12 pts), 12:08 East of Bucharest (11 pts), Exiled (9 ½ pts), Breach, The King of Kong, Atonement (8 pts). The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Lust, Caution placed highly on a single list apiece for 8 pts.

The following lists are as presented and adjusted for ties – the list is 10, no more, no less, unless the person stacked multiple titles in the “10” spot and split the votes accordingly.

Continue reading “Seattle Film Critics (a small, disorganized group of them, anyway) pick their top films of 2007”

Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List

I’ve contributed Top Ten lists to four different organizations already: MSN, IndieWire, the Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll, and Senses of Cinema (not yet published as of this writing). The process has remained fluid throughout, and not just due to differing rules for the different groups. I’ve allowed myself to challenge my own evaluations, and the reasons behind them, for each list, shifting films up and down the list, swapping out different titles in the final spots, rethinking what it is that makes a “best film,” and understanding what I want to represent as “cinema” with such a list.

That ends with this, my final list, the one that I prepare for my annual “Top Ten” event, a small party/debate that I have been hosting for a few film critic friends of mine for ten years now. It’s by design a small gathering of people I enjoy talking to and arguing with, who take movies seriously and are articulate enough to make a discussion not just lively, but invigorating and challenging. The results of that event will follow in a later posting. Here is the list I presented at the event, supplemented with notes, comments, runners-up, and links to reviews and other writings (where available).

1. No Country For Old Men (Ethan and Joel Coen)
A model of simple, strong, evocative storytelling pared down to the bone and character and meaning radiating from every image, every movement, and every moment, “No Country” is cinema in every sense of the word. Part of the thrill is the feeling that it’s all spinning out of your grasp, it’s rushing out of control, in a film that refuses to rush anything. You never feel it’s out of the control of the Coens, whose methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story, and Roger Deakins delivers simple and stark images, a desert that sometimes feels like it’s lawless frontier. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss may seem smart, but is just smart enough to outrun the trouble dogging his trail, a minor league talent in a major league showdown. The Coens don’t offer that comforting sense of cosmic justice or thematic completeness that most crime movies provide, even those films about chaotic situations where the violence spills out of the confines of the protagonists. And that’s the point. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t know, and that’s far more dangerous. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, retires because, he says, no longer understands the kind of violence and characters that he faces with the explosion of the drug trade through the borders. The Coens (and McCarthy’s story) remind us that it’s not the violence that’s changed, only the players.

My Seattle P-I review of No Country For Old Men is here.

2. Into the Wild (Sean Penn) Continue reading “Top Ten of 2007 – My Final List”

Kick the Bucket – New reviews

The Bucket List may not be the worst film of 2007 (2008 for Seattle), but it is easily the worst film coming from such a pedigree: Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star and Rob Reiner directs (okay, Reiner hasn’t been a sign of quality for years now; really, what happened?). The film is a dying wish fantasy with two old men (only one of these old men is grumpy) facing terminal illness, and one of them (the grumpy one, of course) a conveniently placed billionaire to fund the whole deal.

Chambers (the reflective mechanic played by Morgan Freeman) inadvertently reviews the film in a remarkably prescient comment lobbed at Nicholson’s tiresome character: “Edward, I’ve taken baths deeper than you.” He could have been talking about the lukewarm bath of a film he found himself in.

As Chambers reminds us, the bucket list — an inventory of things to do before you kick the bucket — is “supposed to be a metaphor,” but this is a film that takes everything literally. Cole uses his unlimited checkbook to make Chambers’ dreams come true with a barnstorming world tour by private jet of the wonders of the world. They are spectacularly un-wondrous scenes, no thanks to conspicuously indifferent computer effects to match the film’s glib insincerity.

These two cutely eccentric movie oldsters verbally parry, philosophize and bond over dinners in Paris and motorcycling across the Great Wall of China. And for all Cole’s spiritual apathy — strange in itself considering his library of inspirational literature — that old cliche rears its familiar head: Just as in foxholes, there are no atheists in American movies about terminal illness.

The review is at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Also this week: capsule reviews of the documentaries War Made Easy and Billy the Kid and the surprisingly endearing Japanese juvenile romantic drama Honey and Clover, co-starring Yu Aoi of Hula Girls and Hana and Alice.

The gentle conflicts and easy rhythms and small triumphs over personal adversity are low-key almost to a fault, and the smitten stares and unrequited crushes and creative crises suggest high school melodrama as much as young-adult drama, but that restraint also is part of its comfortable charm. It’s cute and sweet without getting saccharine and avoids the contrived complications of American stories of students charging the emotional and sexual minefields of adult relationships and responsibilities (no one here even makes out, let alone sleeps together).

All three capsule reviews can be found here.

Rebels Without a Cause: The Wild Angels

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels took the outlaw culture of the biker movie into nervy, nihilistic territory. Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) presides over a chapter of Hell’s Angles, a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress, but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

Real members of the Venice chapter of Hell’s Angels fill out the gang and provide the stunt riding, which helps give the film its rough and ready character, but it’s the anarchy of this gang and the chaos they leave in their wake that makes it so memorable.

They are truly rebels without a cause, a tribal gang that we watch devolve into primitive savagery in the wake of the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill.

“We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a party.”

The empty eulogy becomes an epigraph for a defiant anti-establishment rebellion fallen into decadence and anarchy and Heavenly Blues proceeds to preside over the desecration of a church and the systematic trampling of every boundary of decency that Corman could push past censors in 1966. The Wild Angels becomes a portrait of emptiness and hostility, a social revolution spiraling into narcissism and self-destruction.

Director/producer Roger Corman was more than a B-movie legend. From 1955 to the late ’60s, he was America’s most prolific low-budget director, and he grew more ambitious and more inventive throughout the decade. The eight features in this box set, on four two-sided flipper discs in four thinpak cases, collect many of his best films, two of them making their DVD debut here. The most notable is Bloody Mama (1970), his wickedly weird twist on the “Bonnie and Clyde” outlaw gangster picture, with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, who loves her demented sons so much she sometimes sleeps with them. Don Stroud and Robert De Niro are two of Ma Barker’s boys, and Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle and Diane Varsi co-star. Previously released but even more essential are Corman’s notorious biker classic The Wild Angels (1966) and the quintessential 1960s head film The Trip (1967), written by Jack Nicholson and starring Fonda as a burned-out TV director who drops acid under the protective watch of Dern and Dennis Hopper. The trippiest film of the bunch is Corman’s hippy apocalypse Gas-s-s-s (1970), a groovy satirical road movie set in a future where everyone over 25 is killed by an experimental weapon, and a group of peace-loving hippies goes looking for utopia amidst the fashionable fascists that have taken root. It was his last film for his longtime studio home, AIP, because it (along with “The Trip” and “Bloody Mama” before it) was re-edited behind his back.

The DVD pictured above is actually out of print, but you can still get it on a biker double feature with Hell’s Belles and in the 5-disc, 10-film Roger Corman Collectionbox set, an odd collection that includes Corman’s other great counter-culture classics The Trip and Gas-s-s, his perverse take on the Ma Barker story Bloody Mama, and his great black comedy A Bucket of Blood.

I reviewed the box set for MSN.

Read the entire review here.

‘Zodiac’ – DVD of the Week

Zodiac debuts in a 2-disc special edition.

When Zodiac was originally released in a bare-bones, single-disc edition six months ago, I suspected that a special edition would follow. After all, this is a painstakingly crafted David Fincher film, and Fincher… well, he likes DVD and he’s happy to share his work and let the audience peek behind the curtain. And why not? Fincher is appropriately obsessive in his attention to detail as he recreates seventies San Francisco and American culture, right down to his filmmaking choices, which evokes the period cinema without aping it. One of the most technically accomplished directors working today, he avoids all temptation to impress us stylistically to draw us into a complex story and a complicated investigation that spans years and reverberates through the culture even longer.

I really couldn’t pick out the new footage in the extended cut, which is only a few minutes longer. Fincher talks about some of it in his commentary, but there are no major new scenes and the structure and storytelling are essentially the same.

My MSN review is here.

Also new on DVD this week: Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a visually spellbinding science fiction film that overcomes a creaky B-movie plot with sublime imagery; Clive Owen in the gonzo action blast Shoot ‘Em Up, an adrenaline-driven affair that refuses to take itself seriously; and Emanuele Crialese’s gorgeous Golden Door. I also want to call out Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, an expressionist juvenile prison drama by way of Jean Genet, and a film he called his masterpiece. On TV, the first season of the Showtime/BBC co-production The Tudors and the FX comic drama The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, debut, as well as all four mysteries in the An Unstuitable Job For a Woman series, starring Helen Baxendale as P.D. James’ fledgling detective Cordelia Gray.


My complete DVD column can be found here.

Remembering George MacDonald Fraser

I just learned that screenwriter and novelist George MacDonald Fraser, author of the “Flashman” ribald historical romps and screenwriter of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (not mention Lester’s screen version of Frasier’s Flashman novel Royal Flash), died Wednesday at the age of 82.

His major claim to fame is a dozen comic novels featuring Sir Harry Flashman, accidental hero and rotter of the first order whose instinct for self-preservation was matched only by his blind lust and sexual adventures. the character, appropriated from “Tom Brown’s School Days” (he was the school bully who tormented hero Tom), winds up at the center of major historical events in each novel, such as the Charge of the Light Brigade in “Flashman at the Charge.” He brought that same sensibility and penchant for deflating heroic postures and aristocratic dignity to his collaborations with Richard Lester.

But in addition to these (and other) cheeky historical satires, he wrote serious memoirs (such as “Quartered Safe Out Here,” about his experience as soldier in Burma in World War II) and even a book on Hollywood’s historical epics (“The Hollywood History of the World“) that arrived at the almost contrarian conclusion that, for all of the liberties that studio costume dramas have taken with history, they got it right more than they got it wrong. Considering how much Fraser loved and respected history, his argument demands some attention at the very least.

Obituary in the Telegraph:

The fag-roasting bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes’s 1857 tribute to Dr Arnold’s Rugby, was last seen being expelled for drunkenness. Age had not improved him. Fraser’s appropriation in 1969, Flashman, joyously confirmed him as a thoroughgoing rotter and cad of the first water.

The book and its 11 sequels purported to be the memoirs of General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, discovered in a saleroom at Ashby-de-la-Zouch and entrusted to Fraser for editing.

This device allowed Fraser to pilot Flashman through a picaresque series of encounters with some of the choicest episodes of Victorian history. Thus, the first novel took as its background the First Afghan War – for Flashman an odyssey of self-preservation justified by his being the sole survivor of the Retreat from Kabul.

(…)

George MacDonald Fraser was born at Carlisle on April 2 1925. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. George was educated at Carlisle Grammar School and Glasgow Academy, where his performance as Laertes was distinguished by his unscripted defeat of Hamlet in the pair’s duel.

In 1943 he joined the Border Regiment and served as an infantryman in North Africa and with the “Forgotten” Fourteenth Army in Burma. He was eventually commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders.

Some of his finest writing is contained in his graphic recollections of his Burma service, Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), in which the affectionate portrait of his Cumbrian comrades demonstrated his keen eye for character and acute ear for dialogue. John Keegan, in The Sunday Telegraph, justly called it “one of the great personal memoirs of World War II”.

Read the complete obituary here. Also, obituaries in The Guardian, the New York Times, and The Washington Post.

For more background and information, check out The Flashman Society, and the GMF biography therein.

Thanks for the heads up on this, Nick!

DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?

Have you been waiting for the industry to settle on a standard before committing to a new high definition DVD system? Warners, the last of the studios to release its HD offerings in both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, has tipped the balance (ostensibly past the point of return) by announcing its commitment to the Blu-ray format solely. They will honor their HD DVD commitments through the end of May, and then drop the format, leaving only Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Dreamworks Animation supporting HD DVD.

“The high-definition DVD war is all but over,” opens the New York Times piece by Brooks Barnes.

Hollywood’s squabble over which of two technologies will replace standard DVDs skewed in the direction of the Sony Corporation on Friday, with Warner Brothers casting the deciding vote in favor of the company’s Blu-ray discs over the rival format, HD DVD.

In some ways, the fight is a replay of the VHS versus Betamax battle of the 1980s. This time, however, the Sony product appears to have prevailed.

“The overwhelming industry opinion is that this decides the format battle in favor of Blu-ray,” said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, a market research firm in Seaford, N.Y.

You can also get more information in this Variety article:

Warner Bros. will throw all its weight behind Blu-ray later this year, a decision that could serve as a death blow to the rival HD DVD format.

Continue reading “DVD News – Blu-ray triumphs?”

New reviews – ‘All My Love’

I have the pleasure of offering one of the first reviews of a feature film from a Seattle filmmaker: Brian Short’s “impressionist documentary” All My Love, which makes its theatrical debut this week at the Northwest Film Forum.

Shooting in the deserts of the American Southwest, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, as well as urban Berlin, Short creates a visual play of beautiful imagery and shifting scale, and then digitally manipulates the material to play with texture and color and clarity. He evokes the visual textures of Stan Brakhage, the godfather of American experimental cinema, in some of his imagery, but with different tools and a distinctively different gestalt.

Read the rest here.

The Village Voice/LA Weekly 2007 Film Poll is up.

I played with my list once again for this poll, and you can find it here.