Monday, June 14, 2021

Frank Lloyd sure did love purple melodrama, didn't he? The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who helmed two Best Picture winners, Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and won two Best Director statuettes for The Divine Lady (1928) and Cavalcade, had a sensibility that was perhaps more suited to the silent era, dealing in big emotions and ham-fisted explorations of topical social issues. 

In Children of Divorce (1927) he tackled, you guessed it, the devastating effects of divorce on children. Set in a divorce colony in Paris (which were apparently a very real thing), Children of Divorce follows the exploits of three children left behind by divorced parents who grow up to be deeply scarred by their experience. Reunited as adults, Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, and Gary Cooper end up as a love triangle, with the more worldly Bow and virginal Ralston vie for the affections of Cooper's handsome heir. Married to Bow in a moment of deception but longing for Ralston, Cooper is forced to confront his own desire not to pass on his own trauma to his children through the divorce he experienced as a child. 

There's a lot of social drama finger-wagging here, and naturally the "loose" woman is punished in the end, but many of Lloyd's worst instincts (on full display in Cavalcade) are curbed by the uncredited hand of Josef von Sternberg, a much more elegant filmmaker who was called in by Paramount for reshoots and editing tweaks after they were appalled by Lloyd's original cut. The result is a film that teeters on sanctimony but is rescued largely by the chemistry between Bow and Cooper (who were dating at the time), with Bow as the current "it-girl" and Cooper a handsome newcomer who knew how to command the screen (and he's much more compelling here than he as the symbol of macho stoicism he later became). 

The film was originally released on a special Blu-Ray edition by Flicker Alley several years ago, which has since sold out. It has now been re-issued as an MOD disc for those who missed the original release. And while I don't think Children of Divorce is some overlooked masterpiece, it's an intriguing film in its own right, if for no other reason than for the magnetic performances of its two stars and the uncredited rescue job by von Sternberg, who succeeds in blunting Lloyd's penchant for speechifying, even if the overall effect remains drudgingly moralistic. It's a beautiful restoration, undertaken by the Library of Congress in 2010 and lovingly transferred by Flicker Alley - and offers a tantalizing glimpse into the early careers of two of Hollywood's most luminous stars.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHILDREN OF DIVORCE | Directed by Frank Lloyd | Stars Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, Gary Cooper, Einar Hanson, Norman Trevor, Hedda Hopper | Now available on Blu-Ray MOD from Flicker Alley!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Just when it seemed like the idea of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings had gone completely creatively bankrupt, along comes Craig Gillespie's Cruella, a surprisingly nimble origin story for infamous 101 Dalmatians villain, Cruella DeVil. While Maleficent (2014), and its sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), sought to upend its source material's narrative by turning its villain into the hero, Cruella takes a different approach, not trying to justify her evil deeds as much as explain them - giving her a Devil Wears Prada-esque origin story that pits the aspiring fashionista and budding villain Estella (Emma Stone) against a ruthless, established fashion designer (Emma Thompson) in a battle for dominance of the London fashion scene. 

While Cruella certainly doesn't break any new ground, it's one of Disney's most effortlessly entertaining live action films in recent memory. Gillespie, who became a Hollywood breakout after helming I, Tonya in  2017 (but has a solid track record of moderate successes like Lars and the Real Girl and The Finest Hours under his belt), directs the film with a bit of wicked glee, reveling in Cruella's bad girl aesthetic as she clashes with her would-be mentor for dominance and a bit of revenge for her role in her mother's death many years earlier. The film hints around and the origins of Cruella's history with Dalmatians, but stops short of explaining her desire to turn them into fur coats, an omission that is refreshing for not over-explaining every bit of IP lore, but makes the final transition into 101 Dalmatians feel like quite a leap from the character we've just spent nearly two and a half hours with. Therein lies Cruella's biggest problem - it's simply too long, and although the two Emmas are absolutely smashing together, the build up to the final showdown feels overstuffed with revelations, twists, and flashbacks that bog the otherwise fleet-footed story down. 

Nevertheless, it's difficult not to like a film that allows Emma Stone and Emma Thompson to chew the scenery in this way. Glenn Close may forever be the definitive live-action Cruella, but there's a certain delight to be had in watching these two world class actresses having the time of their lives as two cutthroat fashionistas willing to do anything it takes to be number one, even if that means leaving a few dead bodies in their wake. It's all surprisingly dark for a Disney film, but one has to give credit to Gillespie, who made an unsympathetic character like Tonya Harding so complex and nuanced in I, Tonya, for humanizing Cruella without excusing her actions. 

Stone is terrific in the role, but its Thompson who steals the show, managing to channel both Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and Daniel Day-Lewis' Reynolds Woodcock from Phantom Thread into a new, deliciously megalomaniacal creation. Come for the lead performances, stay for the sumptuous costumes by Jenny Beavan that seem to top themselves in each subsequent scene. It ultimately may not be reinventing the wheel, but Gillespie manages to breathe enough new life into Disney's live action remake formula with some stylistic tweaks and a darker, more grown up tone that is a consistent pleasure to watch. It may not be punk rock, its Disney for chrissakes, but I'll take this over their dreary shot for shot remakes of animated classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King any day.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CRUELLA | Directed by Craig Gillespie | Stars Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser | Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements | Opens Friday, May 28, in theaters and streaming via Disney+ Premiere Access

Monday, May 24, 2021

Sylvia Sidney and Frederic March in MERRILY WE GO TO HELL. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

In 1932, Dorothy Arzner was the only woman directing films within the Hollywood studio system. While her none of her films were ever major hits, and many have been forgotten in the decades since, they are nonetheless responsible for launching the careers of such legendary actresses as Clara Bow (Get Your Man), Katherine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), and Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), while bringing a much needed feminist perspective to the studio system that was lacking in many films of the period. 

1932's Merrily We Go to Hell was Arzner's fourth collaboration with actor Frederic March, here gamely playing the part of Jerry Corbett, an aspiring playwright whose reliance on alcohol constantly threatens to sink him and everyone around him. Sylvia Sidney is Joan Prentice, an heiress who falls in love with him and gives up everything to be with him, even though he disappoints her at nearly every turn, often showing up late to functions, showing up drunk, or not showing up at all. Joan believes in Jerry when no one else does, wanting nothing in return but to hear the words "I love you" ("gee, you're swell" is all he can ever muster), and in turn Jerry slips back into his hard drinking ways, pining for an actress who once broke his heart. 

Fearing she will lose Jerry forever, Joan agrees to letting him see his one time lover (Adrianne Allen) on the side, an experiment in open marriage that ends disastrously and threatens to bring Joan's world crashing down around her. It seems that no matter how much time, love, and energy she invests in Jerry, he is simply unable to make even the most minimal effort for anyone other than himself.

Merrily We Go to Hell grapples with themes of alcoholism and infidelity in ways that are surprisingly frank for the time, even in pre-code era Hollywood. Arzner deftly illustrates the sacrifices that women were often forced to make in the decidedly patriarchal ideals of marriage (many of which still endure today), where the men are given leeway to do whatever their heart desires, while the women were expected to be good little housewives who support him no matter what. Merrily We Go to Hell takes that idea to its logical extreme, and the result is often hard to watch, as Jerry's self-destruction coupled with Joan's selfless devotion becomes nearly unbearable. Naturally, it paints in bold strokes to make its point, going from romantic comedy to tragedy in the span of 83 minutes, but its emotional core rings true. It's a bruising film, made even more so by Sidney and March's devastatingly truthful performances, skewering society's skewed gender standards and expectations for a "happy" marriage. It's clear where Arzner's sympathies lie, and for a society that continues to value the perspectives of men, Merrily We Go to Hell feels like an uncompromising punch in the gut in ways that will likely feel revelatory to men, and all-too-real to women. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MERRILY WE GO TO HELL | Directed by Dorothy Arzner | Stars Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March, Adrianne Allen, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Dorothy Arzner: Longing for Women, a 1983 documentary by Katja Raganelli and Konrad Wickler 
  • New video essay by film historian Cari Beauchamp 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Judith Mayne

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Amy Adams as Anna Fox in THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. Courtesy of Netflix.

Originally slated for release in October of 2019, Joe Wright's The Woman in the Window was lost in the shuffle of Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, before finally being sold off to Netflix to be unceremoniously dumped on the streaming service this past week, nearly three years after completion of principal photography. 

Based on the best-selling 2018 novel by A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window tells the story of an agoraphobic psychologist named Anna Fox (Amy Adams) who believes she witnessed a murder in the apartment across from hers. After reporting the murder to police, she is told not only did the murder never happen, but that the woman she believes she saw killed never existed, causing her to question her own reality and finally face the trauma of her past. The story borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, along with films like Steven Soderbergh's Unsane and other contemporary book club book club selections like The Girl on the Train. Protagonists questioning their own sanity is nothing new, and The Woman in the Window brings nothing new to the table, taking it's pulpy source material and failing to find anything  particularly interesting within its pages, despite a screenplay by Tracy Letts.

Adams is in fine form but the script does her no favors, the expository dialogue working overtime to flesh out the novel's intricacies. It's certainly beautiful to look at. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) shoot the film like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but you'll find none of Sirk's abilities to translate soap opera trappings into trenchant social commentary. By the time the film reaches its wild conclusion, it feels like it has gone completely off the rails, with its monologuing villain and hyperactive violence that is so cartoonish that it seems completely at odds with the rest of the film. 

For a film about internalized trauma it certainly explains itself in the most blunt fashion, relying on ludicrous plot contrivances and coincidences to drive the action forward. Adams, and indeed Wright, seem completely  lost as to how to tackle the material, whether to play it straight or embrace its trashy aesthetic. It's a fine line that has been walked to much greater success before (think David Fincher's Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but here it the result is listless and deeply uninterested in the story it's trying to tell. It's not the epic disaster that it's reputation suggests, it's just a dreary and uninspired thriller will likely be quickly forgotten. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW | Directed by Joe Wright | Stars Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Julianne Moore, Fred Hechinger, Tracy Letts | Rated R for violence and language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Released in the Greatest Year for Movies© that was 1939, Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn at perhaps the height of their stardom (not to mention Olivia de Havilland, who co-starred in Gone with the Wind the very same year) was viewed as something of a letdown as in the wake of Curtiz's 1938 output, which included such all-timers as The Adventures of Robin Hood (which was nominated for Best Picture) and Angels with Dirty Faces (for which he received a nomination for Best Director). 

Elizabeth and Essex reunited Curtiz with his Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, de Havilland, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold for another historical epic that landed much differently than the jaunty escapades of Robin Hood. Where Robin Hood was light and fleet-footed, Elizabeth and Essex seems ponderous and self-serious; and indeed, it's certainly a much darker story, detailing the tempestuous romance between Queen Elizabeth I (Davis) and the Earl of Essex (Flynn). It has the sprawling battle scenes and high drama, but it's ultimately a film about two people, separated by title and power, doing everything they can to wound each other, whether out of jealousy or some misplaced sense of duty. For Elizabeth, Essex was a dashing younger man, for Essex, Elizabeth was path to greater power. Whether or not the two are actually in love makes up the film's central conflict, as palace intrigue continually keeps them apart, along with Essex's hubris and Elizabeth's mistrust and determination to divorce feelings from her royal duty.

It's certainly a sumptuous production - Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops and were rewarded with five Academy Award nominations in below-the-line categories like Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Score. But it failed to garner much attention for its most notable elements, specifically Bette Davis' towering performance (she was nominated instead for Dark Victory, losing to Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind). Davis, hidden under heavy makeup and playing a much older character, is at her diva-licious best, managing to chew the scenery while imbuing her character with a real sense of conflict. That the film ultimately ends tragically is almost a given, but The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is surprisingly heavy. Yet one can see  Curtiz establishing the groundwork for Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth decades later, itself an overripe melodrama with a towering performance at its center. 

Historical accuracy has never been at the forefront of films about Queen Elizabeth, but Curtiz's film is perhaps better than it gets credit for. It's certainly a bit repetitive, the back and forth between Elizabeth and Essex begins to feel like a familiar pattern by the end, but Davis and Flynn are just so good here that we truly become invested in their characters. It's a historical epic with the heart of a character piece, and the chemistry between Davis and Flynn elevates what could have easily become a turgid spectacle. Curtiz always had an eye for human relationships, and he creates a palpable sense of loneliness and isolation in the way he frames Davis. Trapped by tradition, power, and distrust, her Elizabeth is as much a tragic figure as the ill-fated Essex, each a sacrifice to the inhuman ideal of monarchy. It is an often overlooked film in the careers of nearly all the major participants; but now, gloriously restored in a new Blu-Ray edition from Warner Archive, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex shines again.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX | Directed by Michael Curtiz | Stars Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive!

Friday, May 14, 2021

Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann's THE FURIES. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Coming off a string of film noir detective joints like T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948), Anthony Mann turned his attention to the Western genre, beginning a string of films that would carry him through the 1950s and ultimately come to define his career. The Furies was the third film Mann directed in 1950, after Side Street and arguably his most popular western, Winchester '73, starring James Stewart. It's certainly an unusual entry in the genre - more in line with revisionist westerns like Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (also starring Barbara Stanwyck) from later in the decade than anything else at the time. 

The Furies is, first and foremost, a melodrama and a romance, its western trappings (taken from the 1948 novel by Niven Busch), almost coming across like window dressing. The film centers around Vance Jeffords (Stanwyck), tempestuous daughter of cattle baron T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his final performance). Willful and spoiled, Jeffords all bun runs her father's expansive ranch, The Furies, as her father fends off squatters and creditors by issuing worthless "TCs" as a kind of IOU. Deeply in debt and facing foreclosure, T.C. is faced with either doing business with Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) the son of his mortal enemy who has eyes for Vance (or is it her father's ranch?) or watching his mighty empire crumble to dust. Vance is likewise torn between two men, handsome Mexican homesteader, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), whose family has been squatting on the Furies, and a love/hate relationship with Darrow. But when T.C. brings home a wealthy woman (Judith Anderson) with an eye for marriage, Vance feels her position as her father's favorite threatened, and begins to conspire to win the Furies for herself, by any means necessary.

Mann brilliantly centers two deeply flawed characters at the story's center, even hinting at a possible incestuous relationship between Vance and T.C. But T.C.'s abuses eventually become too much to ignore, as he violently throws the squatters off his land, cruelly targeting the Harrera family in order to take revenge on Vance. The Furies was a continuation of Mann's fascination with Shakespeare's King Lear, with T.C. the clear Lear figure, a lion in winter whose waning power is threatened once the sharks sense weakness and begin to circle. For much of its runtime, The Furies is a brutal tale of intergenerational struggle for power, the Furies becoming a deeply corrupting influence on all who seek to control them. Curiously, Mann undoes much of the moral ambiguity in the final act which ties things up too neatly and retroactively lionizes T.C. in a truly bizarre way that seems totally incongruous to not only the character, but to the film's view of him up to that point. It almost feels like a studio mandated happy ending that just does not fit, and it undermines the integrity of the film in troubling ways. 

The result is a deeply unusual film, one filled with fire and fury that curiously pulls its punches at the last minute, displaying Mann's gritty sensibilities in striking ways while sacrificing its carefully crafted themes in a misguided attempt at a happy ending. Existing in a dark moral gray area for much of its runtime, The Furies ultimately ends up with a pat Hollywood ending that leaves what could have been a western masterpiece as a strangely unsatisfying "what if?" There are so many things to love here - Stanwyck's fiery performance, Huston's jovial menace, Judith Anderson's layered performance as the sympathetic would-be usurper of Vance's crown, Victor Milner's striking, Oscar nominated cinematography; taken together these elements push The Furies to near greatness, only to stop just short. Mann would continue to tinker with his ultimate paean to King Lear in films like The Man from Laramie (1955) and Man of the West (1958), and in a project called The King, that never came to fruition. But The Furies remains a fascinating entry in the Western genre; flawed, powerful, and haunting, a meditation on the all-encompassing corruption of capitalism that, in perhaps the most American fashion, ends up paying tribute to the very figures it set out to condemn.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FURIES | Directed by Anthony Mann | Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Thomas Gomez | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2008 featuring film historian Jim Kitses 
  • New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith (Blu-ray only) 
  • The Movies: “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” a 1967 television interview with director Anthony Mann 
  • Rare on-camera interview with actor Walter Huston, made in 1931 for the movie-theater series Intimate Interviews 
  • Interview from 2008 with Nina Mann, the director’s daughter 
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos (DVD only) 
  • Trailer 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Robin Wood and a 1957 Cahiers du cinéma interview with Anthony Mann, as well as a new printing of the 1948 novel by Niven Busch on which the film is based

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in Frank Borzage's HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

There are few filmmakers who could juggle so many genres, not just in their careers but in a single film, with such grace as Frank Borzage. Borzage, who won the very first Academy Award for Best Director in 1929 for 7th Heaven (and again in 1932 for Bad Girl) had a reputation for making incisive love stories. An eternal optimist, Borzage was the kind of filmmaker who believed deeply in true love, and managed to convey that on screen without an ounce of sentimentality. Love certainly conquers all in Borzage's films, but he displayed a keen understanding that it wasn't always an easy road. 

History is Made at Night is a strange animal - it's a love story, a melodrama, a comedy, and a disaster picture picture all rolled into one, featuring tonal  shifts that would have given the audience whiplash in the hands of a less capable director. There's a certain bliss to going into this film blind, experiencing its unusual pleasures organically and with no expectations, because what Borzage achieves here is nothing short of wizardry. It begins with socialite Irene Vail (Jean Arthur) leaving her possessive husband, a shipping magnate named Bruce (Colin Clive), who sends his goons to frame her for infidelity so he can stop the divorce and force her to remain with him. She is rescued, however, by a passerby named Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), the headwaiter of a local restaurant in Paris. The two form an almost instant bond, one that Bruce becomes determined to break at all costs, including committing a murder and framing Paul. Eventually reunited in America, Paul and Irene become determined to set things right and live happily ever after, that is until Bruce conspires to sink his own ship on its maiden voyage in order to send the couple down with it. 

It's such a wildly unlikely scenario that could only happen in Hollywood, but Borzage handles it with such charm and wit. Boyer and Arthur are a magnetic pair, and Leo Carrillo provides memorable comic relief as Paul's boss and best friend, the world-renowned chef, The Great Cesare. Yet perhaps the standout here is Clive, Dr. Frankenstein himself, in one off his final performances. Clive, suffering from alcoholism and mere months away from his untimely death from tuberculosis and pneumonia at the age of 37, is terrifyingly intense here as the jilted, jealous husband, who is himself an alcoholic. It's an almost painful performance to watch in hindsight, but Clive is tremendous here, displaying a towering talent cut down far too soon. 

That Borzage was able to juggle so many disparate elements into such an endearing picture is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. History is Made at Night takes high drama to nearly ridiculous heights (a jilted ex-husband ordering a steam ship captain to go into an ice field at top speed in hopes of sinking the ship to kill his ex-wife and her new beau is the very definition of "extra"), but by God this thing works, and not only merely works, it works like gangbusters. It lays out a kind of epic romantic template that would be followed by James Cameron in Titanic decades later (there's no way Billy Zane's Caledon Hockey wasn't inspired at least in part by Clive's Bruce Vail). It grounds its wild plot with endearing characters, charming comic relief, and a deep and abiding belief in the power of love to conquer all. You'll find no cynicism or irony here, Borzage plays it 100% straight, and the result is something quietly enchanting, a guileless and wide-eyed paean to romance whose innocence never feels in any way cloying - it's just pure classical Hollywood magic.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT | Directed by Frank Borzage | Stars Charles Boyer, Jean Arthur, Leo Carrillo, Colin Clive | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New conversation between author Hervé Dumont (Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic) and film historian Peter Cowie 
  • Interview from 2019 with critic Farran Smith Nehme about director Frank Borzage’s obsession with romantic love 
  • Audio excerpts of a 1958 interview with Borzage from the collection of the George Eastman Museum 
  • Radio adaptation of the film from 1940, broadcast by The Screen Guild Theater and starring Charles Boyer 
  • Restoration demonstration 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Dan Callahan

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in Sony Pictures' HERE TODAY. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Written and directed by Billy Crystal, Here Today stars the venerable comedian as an aging comedy writer named Charlie Berns who is privately facing the onset of dementia. 

Facing not only the loss of his career but the memories of late wife, Charlie sets about to write a memoir of his life in order to preserve them, but the pressures of his job and his rapidly progressing condition make it difficult for him to work. That is until he meets Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish) in one of those "win a date with a celebrity" auctions, and what begins as a minor annoyance soon becomes an unlikely friendship that will change them both.

While not as long as his career in front of the camera, Crystal's career as a director is long is not particularly prolific - Here Today is only his 4th film since 1992. And while there's nothing groundbreaking here, it's a pleasantly inoffensive "opposites attract" buddy comedy with a decidedly schmaltzy tinge. For a film about a comedy writer, its surprisingly light on laughs (even during the SNL-esque comedic segments that are genuinely supposed to be funny), and for most of the running time the film has difficulty balancing its comedic elements with its more serious themes. Still, Crystal and Haddish make for a fine pairing even when working with such thin material, and their friendship really gives the film a lot of heart. It may tread familiar beats, but it packs a surprising emotional punch thanks to an unexpectedly nuanced performance by Crystal, who conveys a great range of pain masked by a funny man's persona. His rapport with Haddish holds the film together even when the script can't quite support emotions its trying to convey. By the end, Here Today seems to fit like an old glove; well-used but warm, familiar, and comforting, filled with celebrity cameos and nostalgic references. Even when it threatens to veer into schmaltz, overplaying its hand in ways that occasionally feel forced, the balance of old school and new school comedy represented by Crystal and Haddish makes for a pleasing combination, even if Haddish feels somewhat trapped by a script that doesn't quite seem to know what to do with her particular talents.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

HERE TODAY | Directed by Billy Crystal | Stars Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Sharon Stone, Penn Badgley, Kevin Kline | Rated PG-13 for strong language, and sexual references | Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

ANOTHER THIN MAN (W.S. Van Dyke, 1939)

The third entry in the venerable Thin Man series finds Nick and Nora Charles  juggling life as new parents during a weekend getaway in which they inevitably get sucked into solving a mystery. At this point, the conceit is beginning to wear a little, um...thin, and the introduction of the baby into the mix does little to enhance the story as he disappears for most of the running time. Another Thin Man lacks the effortless sparkle of its predecessors, with the mystery taking more focus and shrouding the film in a darker air of intrigue. 

William Powell and Myrna Loy are a delight as always, even if their repartee doesn't feel quite as witty as in the previous two films, and they make the most of what they're given. Another Thin Man hews closely to the tried and true formula, and it mostly works thanks to the charm of its leads. Director W.S. Van Dyke, who also helmed the first two films in the Thin Man franchise, as well as the next entry, Shadow of the Thin Man, was well known for his ability to crank out films quickly, relying on single takes and even filming actors interacting without their knowledge to make scenes feel spontaneous. Its part of what gives the Thin Man series its charm, but these films work best when focusing on its central sleuths rather than the mystery itself, which tends to pull focus for the franchise's third entry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)

Mostly remembered as the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture with sound, 1929's The Broadway Melody actually spawned three name-only sequels from MGM that capitalized on its success - Broadway Melody of 1936Broadway Melody of 1938, and finally, Broadway Melody of 1940. While not as technically impressive as Warner Bros' Gold Diggers series that ran from 1933-1938 under the watchful eye of legendary choreographer, Busby Berkeley, the Broadway Melody series managed a second Best Picture nomination for Broadway Melody of 1936 (easily the best of the series), before going out with Fred Astaire topping the bill in 1940. 

Broadway Melody of 1940 follows the "struggling performer makes good" formula that drove the previous entries in the series, with Astaire and George Murphy starring as two nightclub hoofers who dream of making it big on Broadway. But when a mixup leads Murphy to get Astaire's dream job (with his dream partner), Astaire has to set things straight with the show's absent minded owner (the always delightful Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan) before the creditors come calling. Astaire and Eleanor Powell make a great team, and their final number "Begin the Beguine" is perhaps one of the legendary star's most graceful set pieces, but the film itself feels rather tired, and the formula for these large scale showbiz musicals that dazzled in the 1930s was beginning to wear thin.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

DOCTOR X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Michael Curtiz directs this spooky mystery set around a medical school where each student of Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) becomes a suspect in a series of grisly murders, leading the doctor to attempt to recreate the murders in his lab with the help of his beautiful assistant, Fay Wray. Much of Doctor X feels like a dry run for Mystery at the Wax Museum (1933), which featured much of the same cast as well as rare two-strip Technicolor cinematography (the result of a stock quota Warner Brothers needed to use within a certain time frame). Both films are similarly atmospheric and feature grotesquely disfigured who steal corpses from the morgue, but Doctor X is a more exposition-heavy film, with a good chunk of the 76 minute running time devoted to Lionel Atwill leading detectives around the school and introducing them to potential suspects. 

Still, while Mystery at the Wax Museum may be the strongest of Curtiz' unofficial horror trilogy (which also includes 1936's The Walking Dead), Doctor X is still a gruesome little chiller, made even more lurid by the sickly green hues of its early Technicolor. Warner Archive's new Blu-Ray features a stellar new restoration, detailed in the UCLA before/after restoration reel, also included on the disc along with a documentary about the horror films of Michael Curtiz, and Doctor X's place as the first in the unofficial trilogy. It's a fascinating look behind the method of one of the Golden Age's of Hollywood's busiest and most reliable filmmakers, as well as Warner Bros' reluctant ventures into the horror genre to compete with Universal's burgeoning monster series.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

EACH DAWN I DIE (William Keighley, 1939)

A reporter on the verge of throwing the lid off a massive organized crime conspiracy gets framed for murder in William Keighley's Each Dawn I Die, which cast James Cagney in a familiar tough guy role but this time as a good guy. Once inside the prison Cagney faces brutal guards, constantly beating prisoners and threatening them with "the hole," while coordinating with outside forces to prove his innocence and bring down the crime ring. He partners up with Hood Stacey (George Raft), a gang boss and murderer whose conscience leads him to help his newfound friend lead a revolt against the cruel prison guards in order to help Cagney expose the real villains. 

Each Dawn I Die is a Production Code era film that smartly keeps Cagney on the wrong side of the law while allowing him to be the hero, taking a gritty look at prison conditions in the process. Here, the prisoners are the heroes in a story of corrupt district attorneys, cops, and politicians who are little more than petty bullies willing to do anything to hold on to power. Cagney is at his best here, and his partnership with Raft makes for a strong love/hate relationship that drives the picture forward. It may not be one of Cagney's most famous roles, but it's one of his most indelible. The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray also includes a delightful "Warner Night at the Movies" package that includes cartoon shorts, newsreels, and trailers from 1939, along with a fascinating featurette that puts the film in context with Cagney's already established gangster persona from the pre-code era.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available at the Warner Archive Amazon Store!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

(Edward Dmytryk, 1947)

Antisemitism was not a topic often covered in Hollywood films in 1947. Even in the wake of WWII, the topic of racism was often treated in hushed tones and implications, such as in John Huston's 1942 film, In This Our Life, in which Bette Davis blames her own hit and run on a black man in order to escape justice, one of the earliest films to illustrate weaponized white privilege, albeit without ever mentioning the word "racism." Ten years earlier, Warner Brothers, wary of distribution in Hitler's Germany, stripped its Oscar winning Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola of any mention of antisemitism in the Dreyfuss Affair, reframing Alfred Dreyfuss as simply a fall guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than a man targeted for being Jewish.

Fast forward a decade to 1947, when Warner Bros. released Crossfire, a  film noir mystery about the murder of a young soldier who became the target of an intensely antisemitic officer. Adapted from the novel by Richard Brooks, Crossfire doesn't bury bigotry in the subtext, instead tackling it head-on and acknowledging the officer's hateful motives in no uncertain terms. It begins subtly, with Robert Young's hard boiled detective picking up on phrases such as "guys like that," and snide comments about the soldier's heritage as he searches for his murderer. Director Edward Dmytryk treats antisemitism not unlike the way Spielberg treats the shark in Jaws, an unseen threat circling the periphery of the film before its big reveal, and the impact feels like an earthquake. It's not a gimmick, it's an incisive portrait of how bigotry is treated with a wink and a smile by those in the know, how its ideology is assumed by those who subscribe to it, weaseling its way almost unnoticed into our most respected institutions. Like the best noirs, Crossfire makes great use of shadow (filming the opening murder entirely in silhouette to hide the killer's identity), and was ultimately rewarded with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Ryan), and Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame's sharp turn as a haunted bar girl. The film would ultimately lose Best Picture to Gentleman's Agreement, which also tackled antisemitism in a new, post-WWII awareness, but with a glossier Hollywood treatment than Dmytryk's gritty noir.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DAMN YANKEES (Stanley Donen, George Abbott, 1957)

Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and if Lola ordered a pristine new Blu-Ray transfer of her legendary musical, Damn Yankees, then this new release from Warner Archive is just what the doctor ordered. Directed by Staney Donen (Singin' in the Rain) and George Abbott (who helmed the original Broadway stage production), Damn Yankees tells the story of a middle aged real estate broker who makes a deal with the devil to become the world's greatest baseball player to help his beloved Washington Nationals to victory. The catch? He gets turned into his younger self and must leave his old life, and his beloved wife, behind. 

Faithfully adapted from the Broadway musical with much of its original cast intact (save for up and coming Warner star, Tab Hunter), including Gwen Verdon as Lola and Ray Walston as the devilish Mr. Applegate, Damn Yankees is classic Hollywood entertainment with a toe-tapping score and consistent amiability that makes it hard to resist. While the film's proscenium blocking keeps it from from reaching the heights of Donen's Singin' in the Rain, Bob Fosse's choreography is allowed to unfold organically with minimal directorial interference, making it a kind of Broadway artifact, translated nearly verbatim (minus a couple of songs reportedly out of Hunter's range) to the screen. Fosse himself even makes a rare appearance in the film's signature number, "Who's Got the Pain," alongside is muse and future wife, Verdon. The film's Technicolor cinematography really pops on Warner Archive's new Blu-Ray, and while the disc is pretty bare bones (with no special features), it's the best this film has ever looked, making it a must own for fans of Broadway musicals and classic Hollywood alike.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ISLE OF THE DEAD (Mark Robson, 1945)

Val Lewton is, perhaps, one of the greatest forces in horror cinema, yet he is rarely given his due. Acting as a producer on B pictures throughout the 1940s and 50s, Lewton was given a series of lurid titles and given free reign to crank out whatever product he could. The results were some of the most psychologically astute and beautifully filmed horror pictures of their time, from Cat People to I Walked with a Zombie to The Leopard Man, Lewton took material that should have been little more than quota quickies and turned them into eerie meditations on life and death. 

Some of his most indelible work was done with Boris Karloff, including The Body Snatcher (1945), Bedlam (1946), and 1945's Isle of the Dead, a supernatural horror film starring Karloff in which, true to Lewton form, the real horror isn't so supernatural after all. Karloff stars as General Pherides, a Greek military man who visits a lonely island to visit the grave of his late wife, only to find it overrun with a mysterious plague, which he attributes to the presence of a kind of vampire, and vows to track her down. What follows is a haunted and shockingly timely exploration of grief that becomes a terrifying descent into madness, grounded by a knockout performance by Karloff at its center, as a man coming unravelled by fear of his own making. It's a moody and riveting piece of psychological horror that has been lovingly restored to near pristine quality. It's a hidden gem from both the career of Karloff and Lewton that, in the age of COVID, stands ripe for rediscovery.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive!

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

GODZILLA battles KONG in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “GODZILLA VS. KONG,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures release.

It's somehow fitting that the film that resurrected the box office after a year of being decimated by COVID-19, was the fourth installment of a franchise that had seemingly been written off. Warner Bros. Monsterverse, which began in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, eventually leading to Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The latter two were met with less enthusiastic reviews (although I remain a staunch defender of King of the Monsters) and ever decreasing box office returns, making Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong a likely culmination of Warner's attempt to take classic movie monsters like Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah into their own Marvel-style universe of clashing kaiju.

With the the vaccination rollout resulting in theaters reopening their doors, Godzilla vs. Kong had the fortune of being the first blockbuster release to open theatrically since the darkest days of the pandemic, revitalizing the box office in ways that Tenet couldn't quite manage last summer. And it's a good thing too because it's actually quite good, delivering every ounce of bonkers kaiju mayhem one could want in a film that its a giant lizard against a giant ape for a titanic battle royale in downtown Hong Kong. While some will dismiss it as silly, like Michael Dougherty's King of the Monsters before it, Godzilla vs. Kong actually seems to understand the DNA of Toho's Godzilla series. While the environmentalism at the heart of Toho's kaiju pictures, which were originally born out of the grief of the twin nuclear disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is less pronounced in their American counterparts, Godzilla vs. Kong's outrageous sci-fi plot and corporate villains driven by hubris and greed would feel comfortably at home in Toho's Heisei period of the late 80s and 90s.

It's hard to believe that in 2021 we're watching the continuation of cinematic ideas first conceived in 1933 and 1954, but it's gratifying to see these two venerable creatures still bringing in crowds. Here you've got King Kong wielding a battle axe facing down Godzilla and his nuclear breath, drenched in neon light and accompanied by a wailing synthetic score by Tom Holkenborg, surrounded by a human plot that involves an evil multinational corporation and a hollow earth (one of the most stunningly realized sequences in a major Hollywood blockbuster in years); Godzilla vs. Kong is outrageous, over the top, and wholly spectacular. It delivers on its promise to provide bone-crushing kaiju action, while simultaneously delivering one of the most shamelessly dorky, unapologetically weird studio entertainments in recent memory. Everything about it is big, bold, and  completely un-subtle, world's away from Edwards' grounded, terrifying take in Godzilla. But this is exactly the same direction the Toho films go - a serious reboot followed by increasingly outrageous sequels, and Warner's Monsterverse is following that model to a T. What it lacks in Godzilla's sense of scale and King of the Monsters' epic grandiosity, it makes up for in sheer guts, going all-in on the sci-fi oddities to deliver something strangely beautiful and consistently thrilling. Wingard's downtown showdown would feel right at home in films like 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah or 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, and features the return of a classic Godzilla villain that really takes the film to the next level. The movies are back, and with the film's strong box office success, even with its day and date streaming premiere on HBO Max, it's likely we haven't seen the last of Godzilla and King Kong.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GODZILLA VS. KONG | Directed by Adam Wingard | Stars Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language | Now playing in theaters nationwide and streaming on HBO Now.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A scene from MANDABI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

(Ousmane Sembène, 1968)

Notable for being the first film ever to be filmed in an African language, Ousmane Sembène's Mandabi (The Money Order) is part grim satire, part absurdist tragedy; a Sisyphean portrait of a poor man's struggle to exist in a world designed to benefit the wealthy and the elite. Centering around Ibrahima Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), an unemployed man whose nephew sends him a 25,000 franc money order from Paris to distribute amongst the family, the film not only examines the way in which money changes human behavior, it eviscerates the absurdity of the bureaucratic state. When Dieng's friends and neighbors learn of the money order, the immediately descend on him to ask for money, but he finds himself unable to cash the money order since he doesn't have ID, a record of his birth, or the ability to read the agreements in order to get those documents. By the time he's finished, he's all but spent the entire money order just to cash it, ending up worse off than he was at the beginning of the film when he thought fortune had at last smiled upon him. 

Sembène was an intensely political filmmaker, and while he pulled his focus away from French colonialism after his previous film, the pointedly anti-colonial Black Girl, to take aim at, as he put it in a 1969 interview, "the dictatorship of the bourgeoise over the people." In that regard, Mandabi is perhaps one of the greatest communist films of all time, disguising beneath its absurdist humor a sense of righteous fury at the government roadblocks seemingly set up specifically to keep the poor in their place. Indeed, the very existence of Mandabi is something of a protest. By shooting the film in Wolof, rather than the customary French, Sembène is declaring that this is a Senegalese film made by and for Senegalese people. And although funders demanded that Sembène put together a French language version simultaneously, it is the Wolof version that has endured, giving a voice to African cinema that had not previously been heard. Senegal has an especially rich cinematic tradition, giving rise to Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki), his niece, Mati Diop (Atlantics), Safi Faye (Kaddu Beykat), among many others. While the specter of French colonialism hangs over many of the nation's defining works, there is often a deeply humane political sensibility at play that speaks their filmmakers' leftist worldviews, tackling the universally corrupting influence of money whether it be the promises of riches or how they affect human behavior. One might mistake Mandabi for a religious parable centering around a modern day Job, but that's what makes Sembène's communist worldview so bracing - the tone may be bitter, but there's a deep and abiding humanity at its core that is at once universally appealing and difficult to forget.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

A scene from TOUKI BOUKI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

TOUKI BOUKI (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

I was first introduced to Djibril Diop Mambéty's dazzling Touki Bouki (Journey of the Hyena) through the Criterion Collection's first box set from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. Watching Scorsese's introduction (once again included in this new standalone release), it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in his clear love and enthusiasm for this film, and it lives up to his effusive praise in every way. More abstract and perhaps more impressionistic than the socialist realism of the films of his contemporary, Ousmane Sembène, the films of Djibril Diop Mambéty have an almost otherworldly quality to them, fully part of the Senegalese landscape in which they take place, yet existing on a kind of dreamlike plane, alive with the sights and especially the sounds their characters encounter.

Like Sembène, however, Mambéty's films are also deeply political, often informed by the effects of French colonialism on his native Senegal. Touki Bouki follows the misadventures of a young couple who long to leave their impoverished existence in Senegal for the promise of a better life in France, a journey that is increasingly thwarted by seemingly cosmic circumstances. Their journey across Senegal on the back of a motorcycle mounted with cattle horns becomes a kind of modern day Odyssey, often accompanied by the cheery strains of Josephine Baker's "Paris, Paris," whose stark dichotomy with the events portrayed on screen strikes an absurdly comical commentary on the promise of riches that await them in France. Sound often played an key role in Mambéty's work, reportedly because his youthful trips to the cinema were made outside the gates where he could only hear the films, because he could not afford the cost of a ticket, and Touki Bouki s use of music is perhaps some of the most indelible in cinema history. It's so rich, so memorable, and so perfectly in tune with the film's thematic content - actively deepening the absurdity of the French promise in contrast with the poverty left behind by French influence in post-colonial Senegal. Mambéty made precious few films in his long career, directing only two features and five shorts between 1969 and 1999, but Touki Bouki remains his masterpiece - a mischievous yet haunted exploration of post-independence Senegal that deftly evokes the futility placing ones dreams in the the ideal of their formal colonizers. Where Sembène sought cold, hard truth, Mambéty sought emotional honesty, crafting a visceral experience striking visuals and daring aural soundscapes that sought to make sense of a world that no longer did.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

MANDABI and TOUKI BOUKI are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

THE PIRATE (Vincente Minelli, 1948)

Oft overlooked in the oeuvres of both Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate is perhaps one of the most unique musicals of its era. The film was  considered a major bomb at the time, losing over $2 million at the box office despite its bankable stars. And indeed, it features a considerably more convoluted plot than the average MGM musical extravaganza, switching back and forth between reality and fantasy with ease. Garland stars as Manuela, who is engaged to a wealth man she doesn't love, while fantasizing about marrying the pirate, Macoco. Kelly plays a traveling actor who fits the bill, and becomes Macoco's avatar in Garland's reveries, although the film purposefully doesn't do much to distinguish between what's real and what's not.

Perhaps that's why the film didn't go over well with audiences in 1948, because it's almost too smart for its own good. But its metatheatrical musical stylings border on the avant-garde under Minelli's nimble direction, and while the film certainly has some cringe-worthy sexual politics in hindsight, it's also a much better film than its reputation suggests - sending up swashbuckling epics with a wink and a splash of glorious Technicolor.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SHOW BOAT (George Sidney, 1951)

This colorful Golden Age musical hasn't aged particularly well, and not just because of its cringe-worthy racial stereotypes and idealistic view of the antebellum South. There are some glorious moments here, to be sure, William Warfield's stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" chief among them, but the film is poorly plotted between its lavish musical numbers. It all but buries a plot about a black showgirl  (played by the very white Ava Gardner) passing for white in sundown towns along the river where her romance with a white man is criminalized, and its central romance between the captain's daughter and a swarthy river gambler never really takes off. 

It piles on the Technicolor spectacle, with each number feeling like a finale (at least until the actual, rather anti-climactic ending), making for an experience that feels bloated and over-stuffed, full of flash and visual pizazz but lacking any real stakes or sense of emotion. The same cannot be said, however, of the new Warner Archive Blu-Ray release, which is an absolutely stunning improvement over the old DVD release which came from a faded, damaged print. The new Blu-Ray is absolutely pristine, showcasing the dynamic colors present in Sidney's dazzling Golden Age musical. The film itself is still not great, but the gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer is enough to recommend taking a trip on this old show boat - it's a feast for the eyes and ears if nothing else.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (Jack Conway, 1935)

The Academy loved Charles Dickens adaptations during this time, nominating A Tale of Two Cities for two Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing, just a year after showering love on David Copperfield. And while Jack Conway's A Tale of Two Cities remains, perhaps, the most well regarded (along with 1938's A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen), it has an air of stuffiness so common in studio prestige pics. It's certainly a sumptuous production - Conway pulled out all the stops in his big budget recreation of the storming of the Bastille for his French Revolution drama, but the human drama feels staid and somewhat inert. 

It's a spectacle at heart, about French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), who renounces his rank and heads to England to study, where he falls in love with Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) who is also being courted by Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman). When Darnay is imprisoned by revolutionaries upon his return to France, Carton devises a plan to rescue him, even if it means going to the guillotine in his stead. Produced by David O. Selznick, A Tale of Two Cities is a grand melodrama, filled with big emotions and stirring set pieces, but it's also incredibly dry, which holds it back from standing alongside many other classic Hollywood spectacles of the day. The Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Archive is crisp and beautifully rendered (the storming of the Bastille remains an all time great set piece), but the film itself feels terribly dated.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive!