Friday, July 31, 2015

Film Capsule: Edgar G. Ulmer's The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)


The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

In the annals of American International Pictures, few films stand as valiantly lame as this shoestring sci-fi drive-in novelty by the virtuoso of no-budget genre productions, Edgar Ulmer. Shot in under a week in the Dallas desert, the film mounts a ludicrous plot concerning a notorious safe-cracker (Douglas Kennedy) sprung from prison and sent to a remote farmhouse where a mad US Army major (James Griffith) conducts invisibility experiments which he plans on utilizing to blackmail the government into enlisting a legion of untraceable minions. With just a few locations and the most primitive of special effects, the cast and crew is able to rather heroically exceed these limitations while pushing past the narrative’s inherent absurdity. Ulmer was, as Andrew Sarris once noted, the unintentional master of the maudit, and this charming oddity, like nearly all of the director’s work, rises impressively from its own ashes. (August 1, 5pm; August 4, 9:15pm at Anthology Film Archive’s AIP tribute) [BK Mag]

Friday, July 17, 2015

Interview: Sean Baker


On paper, Sean Baker’s fifth feature might sound like a parody of the contemporary American micro-budget indie: the day-in-the-life urban tale of two transgender sex workers—starring unknowns, shot with an iPhone 5, and set on Christmas Eve. But the capsule description of Tangerine, which premiered at Sundance in January, doesn’t do justice to the brashly staged, compassionate film that Baker has made with his lead actors, Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, both plucked from the streets of Los Angeles. Rendered in hyperrealist hues, the characters’ dramas send them careening across Hollywood’s sex district on conflicting missions which test their friendship as they attempt to reclaim their futures.

Baker has spent the last decade-plus illuminating a variety of subcultures and minority groups which usually receive little onscreen representation beyond shopworn character types. His breakthrough film, Take Out (04), follows a Chinese immigrant over 24 hours as he attempts to pay off a smuggling debt by making an ever-increasing number of food deliveries. Prince of Broadway (08) similarly tracks the day-to-day grind of a New York street hustler who’s forced to balance personal and professional commitments when his infant son is unexpectedly left in his care. In the years since Baker moved from New York to Los Angeles, his aesthetic ambition has only grown as he’s approached ever more provocative subjects with admirable nuance. In Starlet (12), a tranquil vision of the adult entertainment industry, a sun-drenched San Fernando Valley plays backdrop to a fable of friendship between a twenty-something porn star and an elderly woman. Tangerine, his boldest experiment yet, again portrays people on the social margins struggling to make a buck, bringing openhearted empathy to a headlong depiction of love and loyalty in a hard-bitten setting.

On Friday, Tangerine opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following a full day of Baker’s three most recent films on Thursday. In Los Angeles before his press tour on the East Coast, Baker sat down with me to discuss his entire career and the process by which he arrives at such invigorating cross-sections of the foreign and the familiar. Our conversation took place at a popular Hollywood espresso bar, just a mile from Donut Time, where much of Tangerine’s action transpires.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Film Capsule: John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Directed by John Ford

This vivid midcentury Technicolor western from the genre’s greatest practitioner paints an epic portrait of servitude and sacrifice with an emotional precision rare for productions of such magnitude. Starring John Wayne as an aging US Cavalry Captain tasked with escorting his commanding officer’s wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) across enemy territory in the wake of the Battle of Little Big Horn, the film enacts personal drama on a historical scale, interweaving action, comedy, and romance with an air of nostalgia yet with an equally felt integrity. Ford’s images, rarely so consciously impressionistic, are equal parts Remington and Van Gogh, all florid tones and operatic shades. That the film is able to parlay its somewhat leaden voiceover narration into a deeply moving meditation on masculinity and professional pride speaks not only to Ford’s masterfully imagistic storytelling but also to the natural rapport of the actors—many of whom, including Wayne in a disarmingly emotional performance, were never better. (July 6, 7pm and July 7, 4:30pm at MoMA’s “Glorious Technicolor”; July 12, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Essential John Ford”) [The L]

Blu-ray Review: Jaromil Jireš's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)


A work of both visceral immediacy and lingering allure, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a uniquely influential film, one of intoxicating sensation and unconscious immersion—and one, for that matter, often recognized and referenced more than actually seen. Directed by Jaromil Jireš and released just as Soviet suppression of socialist ideology spread to a similarly strict regulation of the arts, this surrealist fantasy from 1970 represents both the spiritual culmination of the Czech new wave and a brave bid for a newly liberated filmic sensibility. Based on a novel by the poet Vítězslav Nezval, the film paints its portrait of a young girl's sexual awakening in highly allegorical strokes, through a mix of gothic imagery, folkloric cues, and mythic conceits. Divorcing narrative from an expositional tradition, Jireš, one of the most pointedly political of all Czech filmmakers, instead frames his young protagonist's story as a nested, episodic reverie, as a dream within a nightmare with allusions to the grip of communism which threatened to (and eventually did) claim an entire generation of provocative new directors.

Film Review: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015)


This piece appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Cinema Scope.

The sounds of silence reverberate loudest in The Assassin, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature in eight years. The film’s opening image, of a donkey quietly grazing in a field, immediately suggests an acute awareness of natural ambience. This impression manifests itself as the most frequently felt resonance in a work largely built around aesthetic absences and abstractions. A simmering, sumptuous ninth-century-set wuxia inspired by a popular work of Tang Dynasty chuanqi literature, The Assassin finds Hou returning to the historical drama after a prolonged, post-millennial period of more contemporary cultural and romantic concerns, as well as to matters concerning China’s distant past following the fin-de-siècle fever dream of The Assassin’s most direct stylistic and thematic corollary, Flowers of Shanghai (1998).

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: June/July 2015


RARE FRENCH NEW WAVE CLASSIC AT CINEFAMILY | 611 N Fairfax Ave.

On July 5, Cinefamily’s recently launched ‘La Collectioneuse’ series—a monthly program dedicated to excavating the most arcane corners of classic French cinema—presents an unprecedented Los Angeles screening of Jacques Rivette’s 1976 film Duelle, one of the rarest masterworks of the nouvelle vague. Starring Bulle Ogier and Juliet Berto as graceful goddesses battling over the possession of a magical red diamond, this unclassifiable gothic-fantasy-occult-psychodrama provocatively pushed narrative storytelling to an unforeseen vanishing point.

WESTERNS FROM WILLIAM A. WELLMAN | 10899 Wilshire Blvd.

Featured at the Hammer Museum throughout June are films by Hollywood journeyman William A. Wellman. Of particular interest in these remaining weeks is a June 28 western double-bill featuring the 1954 impressionistic snowbound adventure Track of the Cat (with Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright) and the 1943 cowboy classic The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan.

FRENCH FILM NOIR AT THE AERO | 1328 Montana Ave.

The four-night series “The French Had a Name for It: Rare French Film Noir, 1948-1963” is the highlight of the month at Santa Monica’s Aero Theater. Among many pleasures, the event offers an evening of Brigitte Bardot films directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Truth) and Claude Autant-Lara (Love Is My Profession) on June 19, as well as a June 21 pairing of two films (Deadlier Than the Male and Chair de Poule) by the underrated Julien Duvivier.

GENRE MATINEES AT LACMA | 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

The next month of Tuesday Matinees at LACMA features a diverse array of genre classics. Screening digitally the afternoon of June 23 is the star-studded film noir Road House (featuring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark), while the beginning of July brings digital presentations of two Vincent Minnelli musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis (July 7) and An American In Paris (July 14). The highlight of the month, however, is a 35mm screening of Robert Aldrich’s Hollywood crime classic The Big Knife, also starring Lupino, along with Jack Palance, Jean Hagen and Shelley Winters. [THR]