Friday, December 09, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"

As he had done with war movies in his breakout hit, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman set out to make a revisionist Western that completely upended the conventions of the genre in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Altman chose the source material, "McCabe," by Edmund Naughton, for its conventional Western structure, in hopes of using those stereotypical western tropes to fashion a brand new vision of the American west.

The result is unlike anything else in American cinema, a wholly organic and lived-in film that seems to have appeared through the fog of time. Altman intentionally exposed the negatives, giving the film an ethereal, otherworldly look (beautifully rendered on Criterion's gorgeous new Blu-Ray), as if everything we are seeing is viewed through a slight haze. The cinematography of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, along with intricately detailed production design by Leon Erickson, create an evocative sense of time and place, transporting the audience into another world.

Warren Beatty's McCabe is about as far from the archetypal western hero as you can get. He's a smooth-talking businessman with a self-styled reputation as a deadly gunslinger. But at heart he's little more than a mealy-mouthed coward, constantly hiding behind smooth talk and a ridiculously over-sized fur coat. So when a major out-of-town business shows up at his new brothel, co-founded with English madame, Mrs. Miller, with the intent to buy, McCabe is thrown into an impossible situation. The businessmen will not take no for an answer, and McCabe finds himself presented with a choice - stand up for little guy against a monopoly and face death, or do as he has always done and run away.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a fascinating upending of the romanticism surrounding the American west and its ideals of masculinity. It's also a startlingly relevant critique of American capitalism, as big business devours small businessmen with ruthless effeciency. If they can't buy out the competition, they will destroy it at all costs.

It all culminates in one of Altman's finest set pieces - an improvised showdown in a surprise blizzard, that may be one of the most striking finales in all of American cinema. Of course, this showdown is everything the typical shoot-em-up Western finale is not. It's almost eerily quiet, played without music (we had become accustomed to the film's haunting use of Leonard Cohen songs up to this point) Altman's place in the New American Cinema of the 1970s cannot be overstated. His loose, hangdog style, the overlapping dialogue, his almost lackadaisical indifference to plot conventions (the main "plot" of the film isn't introduced until halfway through), were revolutionary. And while McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a box office bomb in 1971, it remains one of of the towering cinematic works of the decade.  A bleary-eyed, hazy evocation of the American west as seen without Hollywood's rose colored glasses. It has become a cliche to say that "they don't make 'em like this anymore." But in this case, the old cliche is wholly appropriate. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one-of-a-kind.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster 
  • New making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew New conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell 
  • Featurette from the film’s 1970 production 
  • Art Directors Guild Film Society Q& A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen 
  • Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond 
  • Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro 
  • Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review | "The Eyes of My Mother"

A horror film of a different kind, Nicolas Pesce's extraordinary film debut is a deeply disturbing and chillingly conceived piece of work. Set on a rural farm in Portugal, The Eyes of My Mother tells the story of a young girl named Francisca, whose mother, a successful surgeon, is murdered before her very eyes. After her father captures the killer and ties him up in their barn, Francesca decides to take care of her new friend, by becoming the surgeon her mother always dreamed she would become. As the years roll on, Francesca's victims mount, as she desperately searches for a real, human connection the only way she knows how - dissection.

Shot in eerie, evocative black and white, The Eyes of My Mother feels like a feminist twist on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the killer discovers that the "final girl" is even more of a monster than he is. There's a certain surreal quality to it all, even if there aren't any overtly surreal elements. Pesce dispenses with filmmaking basics like establishing shots to set-up locations, and cuts away from scenes at moments that feel intuitively wrong, often showing us the aftermath of important actions rather than the actions themselves.

A scene from THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Pesce intentionally avoids the story's inherent violence, focusing instead on its consequences. He is more enamored with the ordinariness of Francisca's life around the ghastly events that have come to define it. Imagine Psycho without the murders, instead focusing on Norman's life with his mother, where the infamous are almost an afterthought. The result is jarring and somewhat disorienting, yet we never feel as though we are ever in less than capable hands. Pesce's unique choices create a certain dreamlike quality, of interconnecting scenes held together by gossamer strands of logic, veering quickly into a world of nightmares.

You'll find no jump scares here, no things that go "bump" in the night. The Eyes of My Mother is a haunting slow-burn of a film, one that eats its way under the skin with sadistic precision. Everything about it just feels off somehow, and Pesce's insistence on showing the prelude and the aftermath of the violence rather than the violence itself gives us the feeling that we're bearing witness to something we're not supposed to see. Each shot is framed like a photograph, a snapshot into the mind of someone who is deeply disturbed, but feels as if their life is completely normal. Yet underneath its otherworldly beauty is something sick and twisted, a shocking examination of madness that is unlike anything we've seen before.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER | Directed by Nicholas Pesce | Stars  Kika Magalhaes, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak, Will Brill | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, December 2, in select cities.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "The Squid and the Whale"

Anyone who doubts that we are currently living in a new golden age of cinema need look no further than this year's Criterion Collection releases. Ignoring the films that were released as part of their partnership with IFC Films, Criterion has released five films from the 2000s on Blu-Ray in this year alone - Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), Stig Björkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and now Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (2005).

You'd be hard-pressed to find a comedy as unrelentingly dark as The Squid and the Whale, an acerbic look at the dissolving of a family set in New York in 1986. Clearly a deeply personal work for Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale examines the deeply toxic effects of two parents warring over divorce proceedings on the children caught in the middle. In this case, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is unflinchingly loyal to his father, Bernard (Jeff Bridges, never better), a pompous author turned college professor whose writing career never took off the way he believed it should, while young Frank (Owen Kline) is more drawn to his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), a softer spoken aspiring writer whose open nature has been just as destructive to her family as Bernard's arrogance.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The selfishness of these two parents is on full display, too concerned with scoring points against each other to notice that their children are in pain. Walt has turned his father's sense of intellectual superiority into a mask for his own feelings of inadequacy, plagiarizing a Pink Floyd song at a school talent competition and dismissing his new girlfriend's tastes to build himself up. Frank, on the other hand, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen on library books and lockers around the school, acting out in increasingly troubling ways that remain invisible to his warring parents, who continue to use the children as pawns in their own short power struggles, where "it's MY night" becomes a familiar joint-custody refrain that trumps both child's wishes.

Yet despite the acidic tone, The Squid and the Whale is a disarmingly funny film, one that offers a wealth of insight into the modern American family. Baumbach writes with often scathing wit, but it comes from a place of love for these people, for this place, for this family. He is not belittling them, he is mourning them. As they tear each other apart for their own selfish ends, they can't see past their own needs long enough to realize that deep down they really do care. Baumbach's humor here is bruising, we laugh often because we are shocked at the characters' behavior. But it all feels so painfully real that it's hard to shake. Baumbach doesn't delve into histrionics, each character feels fully formed, each a product of a life lived long before the film begins. There's an almost organic quality to it all (it was shot on purposefully grainy Super 16 film, beautifully rendered by the new Blu-Ray), like home movies we shouldn't be watching. We laugh that Bernard crashes his son's date and talks them into seeing the racy Blue Velvet instead of more family friendly Short Circuit, but there is a underlying melancholy to it all, an understanding of the great damage being wrought in the name of love. It's a powerful work, a film whose humorous exterior belies a deep understanding of family dynamics that continues to resonate today.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)

On Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on November 22.
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Robert Yeoman and director Noah Baumbach, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD 
  • Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interviews with Baumbach and actors Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, and Laura Linney 
  • New conversation about the score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips Behind 
  • “The Squid and the Whale,” a 2005 documentary featuring on-set footage and cast interviews 
  • Audition footage 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and a 2005 interview of Baumbach by novelist Jonathan Lethem

Friday, October 28, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Cat People"

Val Lewton made a career out of turning trash into treasure, taking lurid horror titles given to him by B-movie hucksters and making them into first rate dramas. He tackled "Jane Eyre" in I Walked with a Zombie, while turning his eye toward deeper psychological issues beneath a veneer of horror.

Cat People has very little to do with its own premise - about a Serbian immigrant whose native superstitions lead her to believe she is a descendant of Serbian witches who turn into bloodthirsty panthers when aroused. Whether of not she actually turns into a literal panther is beside the point here, because Lewton (with the help of director Jacques Tourneur) isn't making a horror movie, he's making a psychologically astute study of the fear of female sexuality.

Irena is a woman afraid of intimacy, having been told that any arousal will lead to death. This can be read as a metaphor for religious sexual oppression, but it can also be read as a condemnation of society's denial of women's sexual agency. Irena is not in control of her own sexual desire, and to gain any control of it is to lose control of her own life.


It's no mistake, I think, that the ultimate symbol of female sexuality here is a cat, one that will devour any man who dare arouse it. Freud would have had a field day with this film, and honestly it's amazing that this actually got made within the studio system in 1942.

The film is ultimately marred somewhat by the presence of a studio mandated appearance by an actual panther at the end of the film (an unnecessary conclusion against which Lewton fought), removing some of Tourneur's chilling, shadowy ambiguity. But even with that moment of thudding literalism, Cat People remains one of the most sexually and psychologically astute films of its time, tackling female sexuality in a way that was unheard of at the time, and in many ways still is today.

Lewton would later produce a 1945 sequel, Curse of the Cat People, with director Ray Wise, a film which is arguably a superior work in its examination of childhood anxiety. But there's just something undeniably magnetic about Cat People, and it has never looked better than it does in the crisp new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It's a classic chiller that deserves a fresh look, and Criterion gives it the sprucing up it so richly deserves.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historian Gregory Mank, with excerpts from an audio interview with actor Simone Simon 
  • Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, a 2008 feature-length documentary that explores the life and career of the legendary Hollywood producer Interview with director Jacques Tourneur from 1979 
  • New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the look of the film Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

From the Repertory - 9/6/16

New and notable Blu-Ray and DVD releases.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA - Encore Edition (1974, Twilight Time)

Still smarting from the critical and popular failure of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, notorious cinematic maverick Sam Peckinpah turned in what is perhaps the angriest and most nihilistic film of his career. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a ferocious howl of a movie, the artistic equivalent of throwing your hands in the air and asking if anything is worth it.

In the film, Warren Oates plays Bennie, a despondent bartender who sets out to Mexico with his on-again/off-again girlfriend in order to answer the call of a local kingpin who issued a hit on the man who impregnated his daughter. His girlfriend, a local prostitute with whom he has been unable to emotionally commit, tells him that Alfredo Garcia is already dead, hoping to leave the quest behind and run off into the sunset together. But Bennie refuses, doggedly pursuing the bounty that he believes is their ticket to happiness. It is a quest that will leave dozens of bodies and collateral damage in its wake, and by the time Bennie finally gets his quarry, the losses he has incurred makes him wonder what the point of it was to begin with.

You'll be hard to pressed to find a film more cynical or bleak than Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. And indeed, it is often an oppressive, depressing experience. But beneath the raw, gritty exterior conjured by Peckinpah is a real existential crisis that is one of the most remarkable examples of a filmmaker grappling with his own demons on screen. Its villains are corporate money men, stand-ins for producers and fascists, embodied by the Nixon-loving suits who send Bennie on his suicidal quest. Peckinpah tackles head on the soul-crushing effects of violence, but also the body-count of his own career. Was it all worth it? What did it all mean? Is there a point to any of this? Peckinpah arrives at no answers, but the film itself stands as a bitter testament to the man's genius. Peckinpah may have wondered if it was all worth it, but the mere existence of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the filmmaker's most pure and personal work, proves that it absolutely was.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BROKEN LANCE (1954, Twilight Time)

Spencer Tracy stars as Matt, the grizzled patriarch of the Devereaux clan, a family of ranchers whose land comes under threat by a local mining company whose mill is polluting the streams and killing the Devereaux cattle. Enraged, Matt leads a posse against the mining company, leading to a generational clash that threatens to sink both his fortune and his family.

Edward Dmytryk's unassuming direction, supported by Joseph MacDonald's breathtaking Cinemascope camerawork, give Broken Lance a kind quiet dignity, making a character-driven western where the action takes a back seat. Perhaps most interestingly, however, are its undercurrents of racial tension, embodied by Matt's Native American wife (an Oscar nominated Katy Jurado), and his mixed race son (Robert Wagner). It is racism towards the Devereaux family that brings the tensions to a boil, an almost radical theme for 1954, and the film also throws in an environmental message to boot (pollution lights the match, racism throws on the gasoline). It may come as no surprise, then, that Dmytryk was part of the original "Hollywood 10," although he later named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

However, it is Tracy's ferocious performance that really carries the film. Tracy is a force of nature here, seemingly embodying the volatile yet hopeful spirit of the American West all at once. He's as tender and loving to his wife as he is hard on his sons (one minute he's whispering sweet nothings to his wife, the next he's beating his disobedient sons with a bullwhip and threatening to hang them for cattle rustling). Broken Lance is very much a product of Hollywood studio system in the 1950's, but it's also a testament to just how good that studio system could be.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LAST DETAIL (1973, Twilight Time)

Two sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) tasked with escorting a young, naive recruit (Randy Quaid) to military prison, decide to give the boy one last hoorah before he goes away for eight years. It turns out, the boy's sentence is a monumental injustice - eight years for attempting to steal $40.

Therein lies the core of Hal Ashby's wise and wonderful, The Last Detail, a kind of world-weary comedy that barely seems to muster the energy to give a resigned chuckle at the unfairness of the ever-present system. Released at the tail-end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Watergate scandal, The Last Detail is filled with disillusionment, as Americans were facing a world in which they could no longer trust the institutions they once revered. The film is drolly funny of course, and Nicholson's lively performance is one of the finest of his distinguished career. Ashby gave the film a kind of downbeat naturalism, from a nimble screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown). But despite its comedic prowess, a kind of melancholy hangs over the entire affair. Even as the three men live it up with booze and women, getting into scraps and raising general hell, we know where it all ends, and we don't understand it anymore than they do. These are men who have given their lives to the Navy (although they couldn't quite tell you why), but are increasingly baffled by a soulless system in which they are merely pawns. It's a fascinatingly layered comedy, one whose befuddlement at the human condition reflected the frustration of an entire nation. It's one of the great, unheralded masterpieces of the 1970's, subtly defining the decade with a wry, knowing smile.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

NO HOME MOVIE (2016, Icarus)

As Chantal Akerman's final film, No Home Movie takes on a kind of double poignancy - not only is it a chronicle of her mother's last days, but her own last days as well. Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit of a slog, comprised of a series of shots from inside her mother's house, quietly eavesdropping on her day-to-day activities. The scenes lack context and therefore emotional resonance, even if the film's fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude has a kind of mesmerizing quality. Still, the film's sense of authenticity is offset by its tedium. This may not be a typical home movie, but even if Akerman's goal was to capture the movements of reality that make up a life, it often feels like the leftovers from a home movie's cutting room floor.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

WEINER (2016, Sundance Selects)

Disgraced former Congressman, Anthony Weiner, allowed a documentary crew to follow him during his ill-fated, 2014 campaign for mayor of New York. The result wasn't quite the comeback narrative he was hoping to capture; instead, Weiner is a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a train wreck in real time, chronicling perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping examples of baseless political hubris of the modern era.

Why did a promising, charismatic young politician who seemed to have everything going for him, throw it all away for a few online kicks? And why did he do it again after his public mea culpa in the middle of his much-heralded come-back? The filmmakers offer no answers, they don't even give him any rope with which to hang himself. They simply step back and observe while he fashions his own rope, throws it over the gallows, and leaps off the scaffolding all on his own.

There's no way the filmmakers could know that Weiner would once again become embroiled yet another sexting scandal on the heels of the film's release, finally ending his marriage to top Hillary Clinton aide, Huma Abedin; but the timing of the latest Weiner scandal makes the film even more of a fascinating study of raw talent shockingly thrown in the dirt and beaten like a dead horse. We're not just watching a car wreck here, we're watching a 90 car pile-up on the freeway at rush hour. Weiner is at once painful, painfully funny, horrifying, and utterly, completely, depressingly riveting.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Monday, September 05, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler"

Fritz Lang's gargantuan crime drama, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, clocks in at a whopping 270 minutes, which may seem like overkill given that it's not a serial like The Spiders  or an epic legend like Die Nibelungen, but it remains a fascinating exercise in pure entertainment. Lang is clearly having a blast here, even if he tends to get a little sidetracked in the myriad subplots.

The story of Dr. Mabuse is great fun, chronicling the evil deeds of a mad underworld kingpin whose powers of persuasion and mastery of disguise lead him to take over the city's gambling dens and cheat players out of thousands. Eventually this leads to him attempting to control world stock markets, which raises the eyebrows of a local prosecutor, who sets out to track down the mysterious criminal, leading to a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in the dark underbelly of Weimar-era Berlin.


Lang subtitled the two halves of the film with A Portrait of the Age" and "A Play About People of Our Time," and indeed, the film attempts to pull back the curtain on the societal rot at the heart of the Weimar Republic (which would fall to the Nazis a decade later). In Lang's Berlin, everything exists in the shadows. That which does not exist in the shadows is controlled from the shadows. These are themes Lang would return to throughout his career, from Metropolis to M to The Big Heat, and the play out on a grand scale here. While Lang would later streamline the ideas put forth here in the film's superior 1933 sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his original film isn't without its pleasures.


At four and a half hours long, it's a bit unwieldy and often unfocused, especially in its second half. But it's hard to deny Lang's mastery of framing and structure. It may be less visually inventive that some of his other films of the decade (it came merely a year after Destiny, and two years before Die Nibelungen), but his use of shadow and space still features elements of Expressionist ideas, even as Lang levels a pointed critique at the movement at the end of the film's first half. Ironically some of the sets used in early scenes of the film even look like they were lifted directly from the set of Robert Weine's expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Even still, Lang managed to create one of the screen's most indelible villains in the form of Dr. Mabuse (are there any eyebrows in all of cinema as expressive of those of Rudolf Klein-Rogge?). His presence helps make Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler one of Lang's most purely entertaining films, and it moves along at an often breakneck pace in spite of its bloated run time. It may not have invented the crime drama or the police procedural, but it certainly helped solidify its structure and form, molding the genre as we know it today.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on September 13.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Chimes at Midnight"

Orson Welles had a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare that culminated in 1965's Chimes at Midnight, which examined the life and times the Bard's lovable, oafish drunk, John Falstaff. Historically a comic supporting character, Falstaff is here reimagined as a tragic figure, a lonely, aging playboy whose love of wine, women, and song has left his soul empty.

Welles combined "Richard II," "Henry IV," "Henry V," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," to examine Falstaff not as a supporting character, but as the star of his own story, one in which he faces both mortality and his own irrelevance. Still a subject of ridicule (he wanders around a battle, nearly blind, in his comically oversized armor), Falstaff's antics often take on a strange sort of melancholy. In Chimes at Midnight, Falstaff is no mere clown, he's a man whose life of excess has finally caught up with him.


One could draw parallels between Falstaff and Welles himself (who delivers one of his most towering performances here). Welles was nearing the end of his career, and had never truly been able to escape the shadow of his first film, the legendary Citizen Kane. Chimes at Midnight came after a period of self-imposed exile for Welles, and was meant to be something of a comeback. While it has been largely forgotten in the years after its release, it now stands as a testament to the man's immeasurable talent, reaching back to the experimental days of his youth. The centerpiece battle sequence feels like something out of Eisenstein, with its kinetic, Soviet-style editing. One can feel Welles' energy and passion, but there is a sense of regret that hangs over Chimes at Midnight that is impossible to ignore, as if Falstaff has become a metaphor for Welles himself - larger than life, but facing the uncertainty of a future in which he may no longer have a place.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles
  • New interview with actor Keith Baxter New interview with director Orson Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, who appeared in the film at age nine
  • New interview with actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • New interview with film historian Joseph McBride, author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?
  • Interview with Welles while at work editing the film, from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Michael Anderegg

On Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on August 30.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Destiny"

Upon seeing Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), Luis Bunuel was quoted as saying that "it opened my eyes to the poetic expressiveness of the cinema. When I saw Destiny, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies."

If nothing else, we can thank Lang for giving us Bunuel's entire career, but more than that, Destiny is a stunning early masterpiece from an artist who would also give us Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, M, and The Big Heat. It's easy to see why Destiny so inspired Bunuel (young Alfred Hitchcock also cited it as a key influence). Like many German films of the period, it feels like a legend come to life - telling a sprawling story about a young couple who meet with Death along a rural country road. When Death takes the young man, his fiancee begs him to return her love to life. Death agrees that if she can save the life of one of the next three people he is due to visit, then he will give her back her fiance. What follows are three separate tragic love stories set in three different locations - Persia, Italy, and China, where she desperately tries to save three different men from Death in order to save the man she loves.


Destiny is one of the most visually striking films Lang ever produced, which is no small feat. Death's lair is an evocatively designed cavern filled with burning candles of varying height, each representing a life waiting to one day be snuffed out. Its entrance is a long, steep staircase through a wall, framed by Lang as a kind of dark stairway to Heaven. The special effects work is also particularly impressive, and not just for the time period. Lang pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the camera, and while the techniques may seem basic now, they're remarkably effective.

While not a strictly Expressionist film, one can nevertheless feel the Expressionist influence on the stark uses of light and shadow. Lang especially uses silhouette to great effect here, combining it with color tinting in often haunting ways. The restored color tinting, along with the new 2K restoration by  Anke Wilkening on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, come to life on the new Blu-Ray release by Kino Lorber. What makes Destiny so compelling, however, is the fact that Lang paints death not as a monster preying on his victims, but as a weary angel, tasked with carrying out the Lord's dirty work for all eternity. This version of Death despises his work, and has been made hard and bitter by years of being surrounded by misery.



In that way, the film becomes a kind of spiritual meditation on the nature of death, of its inevitability as much as its cruel sense of fairness. In the end, we all meet the same fate, no matter how far we run, young or old, rich or poor, we all meet our destiny alone. Yet rather than being cynical or downbeat, Lang finds a kind of otherworldly beauty in Death's cold embrace. Destiny is visionary filmmaking, the work of an artist exploring the possibilities of a new and burgeoning art. Lang was a consummate visual storyteller, so much so that the intertitles almost become unnecessary to understand the plot. Each frame is a work of shocking beauty, making it one of Lang's most indelible cinematic works.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

On Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on August 30.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Mountains May Depart"

There is perhaps no director who has so perfectly captured the changing landscapes of modern China than Jia Zhangke. From the literal shifting landscapes caused by the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life (2006), to the dissolusion of industry in 24 City (2008), to generational conflict in A Touch of Sin (2013), Zhangke's camera has captured a nation in transformation.

The opening credits of Zhangke's latest film, Mountains May Depart, don't occur until 45 minutes into the film, signaling to the audience that what we have been watching up to that point was, in fact, an extended prologue. Zhangke family melodrama spans three decades, and is divided into three different segments; 1999, 2014, and 2024, each shot in a different aspect ratio, widening the frame as the years wear on.
Zhao Tao in MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Each of Zhangke's films seems to operate within the construct of a different genre. As his first melodrama, Mountains May Depart is the story of a family, whose changes and conflicts reflects that of the new China in which they live. It starts out as a love triangle between three friends, where a woman named Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, in a mesmerizing performance) is forced to choose between two men; one wealthy but jealous and temperamental, one poor but kind and just. She chooses the wealthy man, a coal magnate, who eventually leaves China behind with her son, while the poor manis hit hard by China's loss of industry. Meanwhile, he son is caught in the middle, growing up without even knowing his own native Chinese language, separated from his mother, and set adrift abroad.

Zhangke captures a sense of melancholy about a nation for whom rapid change has created a loss of identity. He turns the film's melodramatic structure into a requiem for the China he once knew. Mountains May Depart is a film of cultural ennui wrapped in the tale of one family's struggles - creating a conflict deeply personal intimate. In that way, it becomes not just a personal tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire nation.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART | Directed by Jia Zhangke | Stars Sylvia Chang,  Dong Zijian,  Liang Jingdong,  Zhang Yi ,Zhao Tao | Not Rated | In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Friday, August 19, 2016

From the Repertory - 8/19/16

New and notable Blu-Ray releases.

I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963)

Is there any film whose title has taken on more inadvertent poignancy than I Could Go On Singing? As Judy Garland's final film (featuring a title tune by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the duo who also gave her her immortal signature tune - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") I Could Go On Singing now stands as a bittersweet swansong for one of Hollywood's most beloved and tragic figures.

As Jenny Bowman, an American singer in London who reconnects with an old love and the son she left behind, who doesn't know she's his mother, Garland pours her soul into a role that could have very easily been a stand-in for Garland herself. Bowman's domineering spirit, her overwhelming need to be loved, her often complicated relationship with her own children, have haunting echoes into Garland's own life. The result is a testament to the enigma that was Judy Garland. And boy does she ever go out on a high note. After a confessional monologue that was mostly improvised (is it Bowman or Garland speaking?), she takes the stage to an adoring crowd, and belts out the title song, "I Could Go On Singing." She didn't, as it turns out. But she left us with a final statement that is perhaps one of cinema's great farewells.

"Jenny gives more love than anyone," her ex-lover said of her, "but she takes more love than anyone can possibly give." The same could have been said about Garland. If only she knew just how beloved she really was.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943)

Busby Berkeley's first color film is everything you would expect it to be - a vibrant, Technicolor fantasia that makes every use out of the swirling, twirling visuals to create bursts of stunning, colorful magic.

Released in 1943 at the height of WWII, The Gang's All Here was Berkeley's antidote to the the growing darkness of wartime. Just as his lavish musicals of the 1930s lifted America's spirits during the Great Depression, The Gang's All Here took a look at soldiers and the women who loved them with toe-tapping musical glee. As is typical with Berkeley, plot is almost beside the point, the central romantic triangle feeling almost like an afterthought to the spectacularly staged musical numbers. I challenge anyone to find a musical number as visually stunning (or as blatantly suggestive) as the dazzling centerpiece, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," which features lines of chorus girls dancing with giant, phallic bananas. It's a wild burst of colorful energy that is pure Berkeley, and one of his most wildly surreal set pieces. While the film doesn't quite match up to his legendary run of the 1930s, it's hard to ignore the infectious energy of this late period triumph.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963)

Mostly remembered now as the film that made Sidney Poitier the first African American Best Actor Oscar winner, Lilies of the Field is the heartwarming story of a drifter named Homer Smith who meets a group of German nuns in the countryside who escaped East Berlin and came to America. What begins as a pit stop for water becomes something much more, as the nuns decide that he has been sent by God to finish their rural chapel, and enlist the reluctant drifter to stay and help.

The film's original advertising proclaimed Lilies of the Field to be "perhaps the most extraordinary story of courage, conflict, and devotion ever filmed." That may have oversold it a little, but there's something quietly endearing about this little film that goes beyond Poitier's powerhouse performance. He's certainly the anchor of the film, but it is his tempestuous relationship with the nuns that give the film its emotional center. Occasionally adversarial, occasionally friendly, always rooted in mutual respect, Homer and the nuns represent a kind of culture clash that, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement no less, has more to do with faith than race. There's a kind of Western vibe at work here - Poitier the rootless wanderer who drifts into town at just the right time, only to ride off into the sunset when his task is through. His task, it turns out is far more than just building a chapel, it's building a community, a rock on which to build a church. It's a beautifully understated work, built on the dignity of Poitier's warm gravitas, and told with a gentle and disarmingly moving confidence. It may be remembered mostly for Poitier's historic Academy Award, but beyond its trivia night significance, it's one of the era's unheralded gems.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE MAN WITH THE SEVERED HEAD (1973)

Also known as Crimson in its edited American release, Juan Fortuny's Euro-trash horror re-imagining of Frankenstein is borderline unwatchable. Not even one of those "so bad its good" type of movies, The Man with the Severed Head is just plain bad - a strangely uneventful film about a mad doctor who performs a head transplant on a dying crook, replacing his head with that of a psychopath, turning him from a petty criminal into a murderous maniac who isn't in control of his own actions.

The French version is slightly longer, with more nudity and gore, but that still doesn't turn this wannabe exploitation movie into anything worth watching. It's a dramatically inert, awkwardly paced work that, like most exploitation movies of its era, never delivers on the lurid promise of its title, and doesn't even have the good taste to be tasteless enough to be interesting.

GRADEzero stars (out of four)

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952)

The same year that he directed the legendary western, High Noon, Fred Zinnemann also directed this lyrical and understated adaption of Carson McCuller's play, The Member of the Wedding. About half the length of the play's gargantuan 3- hour running time, Zinnemann's film is more light on its feet (if less focused on recital issues), a touching an brilliantly acted piece of southern gothic that examines the awakening of a 12 year old girl, whose older brother is getting married and leaving home. Mad with jealously, confusion, and adolescent romanticism, young Frankie plans to run away with them, baring her soul to her African American housekeeper, and the young boy who lives next door.

Zinnemann displays a similar restraint as he did in the same year's more famous High Noon, yet here it's in service of something much more personal. Zinnemann replaces the American iconography of High Noon with the politics of gender and race, rendered indelibly by the masterful performances of the play's original Broadway cast - Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and young Brandon de Wilde, who just the next year would enter into Western iconography himself by crying "come back, Shane!" While the film does not go as deep as the play on which it is based, it allows these fine actors to carry the stellar screenplay with great warmth and heart. The film often betrays its stage roots, with its single setting and long stretches of dialogue, but Zinnemann wisely steps back and allows the actors to carry it. And boy are we ever on good hands.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990)

Tom Stoppard penned the screenplay (adapted from a novel by John le Carre) for this lovely, subdued spy drama about a boozed-up British ex-pat living in Russia (Sean Connery, in one of his most delicate performances), who is recruited by British intelligence and the CIA after he is given a secret manuscript by a beautiful and mysterious Russian citizen (Michelle Pfeiffer). THE RUSSIA HOUSE eschews the chase scenes and shoot-outs usually associated with espionage thrillers for dazzling wordplay, character-driven intrigue, and a strong emotional core, as the newly minted spy Connery begins to fall in love with the woman he's supposed to be spying on.

It's also a striking political thriller, a film whose plot revolves around a manuscript that reveals that the Russians are completely unable to engage in war, and that the Americans are engaged in an arms race essentially with themselves - a fact the CIA means to cover-up. Released in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin wall, The Russia House was one of the first American films to be shot in post-Soviet Russia. It took a daring, if understated, view of a world that was no longer black and white, but whose shades of gray were reflected in the hazy drabness of early 90s Moscow, and set to the aching noir-ish tones of Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Review | "Our Little Sister"

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating - there is no more clear spiritual successor to legendary Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, than Kore-eda Hirokazu. Through films like Still Walking, I Wish, and Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu has inherited the mantle of the foremost chronicler of the Japanese family, crafting touching, often heart-wrenching, explorations of familial relations and their often complex dynamics.

Despite a plot ripe for soap-opera histrionics, his latest film, Our Little Sister is perhaps one of Hirokazu's most subdued films. That's saying something for a filmmaker whose trademark is a kind of restrained serenity, but here he never tips the scale toward overt emotionalism as he has in previous films.

Our Little Sister is the story of three sisters, who discover they have a teenage half-sister through one of their late father's affairs. Rather than shun her, they offer her a place to live, and give her a new lease on life by putting aside their distaste for her mother, the woman who broke up their family.

Left to right: Masami Nagasawa as Yoshino Koda and Suzu Hirose as Suzu Asano © 2015 Akimi Yoshida, SHOGAKUKAN, FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK INC., SHOGAKUKAN INC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Despite some brief objections from their own mother, Hirokazu mostly avoids the drama inherent in such a potentially explosive situation, and instead focuses on the developing relationship between the four young women. It is ultimately a film about the bonds of sisterhood, and Hirokazu guides it with remarkable grace. Family relationships are a strong theme in Hirokazu's work, much as they were in Ozu's, and while Hirokazu sometimes skirts sentimentality in ways that Ozu mostly avoided, it's hard to ignore the strong bond that unites their body of work.

Like Ozu's work, Our Little Sister a slow burn, taking its time developing its characters and watching them grow, and it lacks a final "payoff" moment, but it rewards our patience with an undeniable charm. It's a lovely and lyrical film that deftly avoids emotional fireworks for something much more honest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

OUR LITTLE SISTER | Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu | Stars Haruka Ayase, Suzu Hirose, Kaho, and Masami Nagasawa | Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language | In Japanese with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 8/19, at the Ballantyne Village in Charlotte.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "The New World"

Like most of Terrence Malick's filmography, The New World is a film whose beauty often defies words. It doesn't matter if you watch the more streamlined theatrical cut or the more abstract extended cut, The New World is a monumental work in any form. While Malick cut down the film for its theatrical release, the extended cut almost feels like a different film entirely - more loose, more elliptical, more in line with Malick's more recent works like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups.  All three versions of the film, the first cut, the theatrical cut, and the final extended cut, are all included on Criterion's sumptuous new Blu-Ray package, which also includes and informative comparison of all three cuts.

Still, there's more of a plot-like structure here than there is in his later work, and The New World may mark his finest balance between plot and abstraction. Perhaps it is because the story he tells here is so familiar. The story of Pocahontas has been a part of American lore for centuries - the Native American princess who fell in love with John Smith, saved him from being executed by her father, and went on to marry John Rolfe before dying in England, a world away from her pristine homeland of what is now Virginia.


You can almost divide the film into two parts. The first half is about discovery - of a new world, of a new love, of one's self. It is awash in wonder and beauty (made even more breathtaking in its new 4K restoration on the Blu-Ray), and the heart-pounding, breathless yearning of first love. The second half is about disillusion, the death of innocence, and ultimately, the discovery of a new kind of love, less about unbridled passion and more about stability. Some may call the "settling," but Malick passes no such judgements here. Malick is the great cinematic observer, a poet-philosopher whose vision is presented through questions, musings, and a never-ending search for answers, both earthly and divine.

As is typical of Malick, the central love stories, between Pocahontas and Smith, then Pocahontas and Rolfe, are much more than they appear to be on the surface. Malick has constructed them as metaphors for the discovery of America - from its initial, untouched promise, to "destruction of Eden" that marks the end of the Natives' idyllic paradise, to the eventual acceptance of a new way of life, one that is not necessarily bad, but not as good as what came before.


In a sense, The New World is a deeply American love story, in which America is the object of desire. It is at once an elegy and a romance for a bygone world, one whose ramifications echo into our own world still today. Malick has much to say about the nature of love and desire here. But he also has a great deal to say about the nature and origins of America. Don't expect a political screed - Malick is far too lofty a filmmaker to sully himself with such mundanities. No, Malick reaches for the heavens, for an ideal. The New World is a search for the American soul, and we are still searching for it today. In today's heated political climate, it is a film that feels all the more vital - a probing, lyrical exploration of what makes us, as humans, as Americans, as inhabitants of this mortal plane, who we are.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration of the 172-minute extended cut of the film, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick and featuring material not released in theaters, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rays 
  • High-definition digital transfers of the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut of the film, supervised by Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays 
  • New interviews with actors Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher 
  • New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West 
  • Making “The New World,” a documentary shot during the production of the film in 2004, directed and edited by Austin Jack Lynch 
  • New program about the process of cutting The New World and its various versions, featuring interviews with editors Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, and Mark Yoshikawa 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

From the Repertory - 7/26/16

CAT BALLOU (Twilight Time)

Elliot Silverstein's delightfully silly western parody also has the distinction of being a classic western in its own right. There's Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda), a timid schoolteacher-turned-outlaw who hires a legendary gunslinger (Lee Marvin, in an Oscar-winning performance) to help her avenge her dead father. The gunslinger, naturally, turns out to be a tired old drunk, but that doesn't stop them from forming a crack shot gang that goes head to head with a corrupt local government.

Narrated in song by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as a couple of troubadours, Cat Ballou is one of those films that can't help but leave a smile on your face. Fonda adds weight while Marvin is a terrific, cast-against-type comic foil (not to mention is hilariously menacing role as the film's noseless antagonist). It manages to work as both a comedy, a musical, and a rip-roaring action adventure, which is no small feat. It's a lovably scruffy western send-up with a heart as big as the desert and an infectious sense of whimsy. (★★★½)


COWBOY (Twilight Time)

Billed as a "real western," Delmer Daves' Cowboy set out to paint a true picture of the American west. You'll find no gunslingers or saloon brawls here - Daves' film is a examination of the cowboy mythos that upends Western genre stereotypes and instead finds its drama through trials and tribulations of a group of cattle drivers. Glenn Ford is a hardened cattleman, Jack Lemmon is a city boy who longs for the romance of the cowboy life, only to discover that it is nothing like he imagined. What ensues is a battle of wills between two men who begin as adversaries but end as friends, finding common ground in their unique visions of leadership and masculinity.

It's reminiscent in many ways of Howard Hawks' Red River; and while Cowboy isn't quite on that level, its certainly a strong upending of typical genre techniques. Daves brings a kind of gritty realism and strong sense of framing, using the terrific performances of Ford and Lemmon to explore masculine rivalries and western mythos. At only an hour and a half, it feels strangely brief and comes to a somewhat abrupt conclusion, but Cowboy is about the evolution of a man more than the western backdrop it employs. There's an unmistakable earthiness to Daves' works that sets it apart from the likes of Hawks and Ford. Daves eschewed the romanticism of the West, represented here by the wide-eyed Lemmon, and instead gives us a hard dose of reality, represented by the grizzled Ford, who has no time for such lofty ideas. He has a job to do, and no time for city-slickers looking to play cowboy. It's a simple yet powerful theme, one that allows Daves to get right to the heart of the film's title, one that may seem presumptuously general (a western called Cowboy?), but actually gets right to the essence of an American myth. (★★★½)

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (Criterion)

When a heavenly clerical error results in boxer Joe Pendleton being taken from Earth prematurely, he is returned to life in the form of a corrupt millionaire, and given the chance to redeem the crooked sinner and find true love in the form of his old nemesis. A hugely influential Hollywood comedy (it went on to inspire such films as Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth), Alexander Hall's Here Comes Mr. Jordan is as delightful and effervescent as they come.

Effortlessly charming (thanks in part to the peerless Claude Raines) and endlessly imitated, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a fantasy comedy with a surprisingly complex take on the afterlife and the nature of fate. There's just enough black comedy here to keep it spicy, but the ultimate message is one of optimism and hope. There's a real sense of romantic longing here, of a man in love with a woman but unable to tell her, that strikes a chord, giving the film a kind of missed connection resonance that still rings true today. The new Blu-Ray edition by the Criterion Collection cleans it up beautifully - the glistening black & white is flawless. (★★★½)

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Twilight Time)

Hammer Horror turned its attention from classic movie monsters to the world's greatest detective in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles, which reunited the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes and Henry Baskerville, respectively. Hammer was perhaps the perfect studio to capture the gothic nature of what is arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous Holmes mystery.

Director Terence Fisher captures the mist-shrouded eeriness of the English moors, adding a tinge of horror to the proceedings that, true to the novel, turn out to be grounded in reality. Cushing is a stellar Holmes, nailing his balance between arrogance and charm, and adding just enough menace to give the proceedings that certain sense of horror. It drags a bit in the middle, especially during the long stretches in which Cushing isn't present. Still, its terrific use of Technicolor (that blood!) and its strong performances make this Hound of the Baskervilles on of the most indelible incarnations of Doyle's immortal detective. (★★★)

THE PLAYER (Criterion)

Robert Altman takes on the Hollywood establishment in this merciless satire about a studio exec who becomes embroiled in a scandal after he murders a jilted writer who was threatening him.

Altman structures the The Player like a film noir, but one that feels like a tune on a piano being played slightly off-key. This is a fantasy world crafted by people who are completely out of touch with reality, and it is as if the film we are watching is a potboiler cooked up in the board room of the very characters we are watching. It's a sly and biting satire of Hollywood's shallowness and artistic (not to mention moral) bankruptcy. Featuring a veritable who's who of early 90s star cameos, The Player is the darkest and most ruthless Hollywood satire since Sunset Boulevard. It also looks especially great on Blu-Ray, the folks at Criterion working their magic to take this film out of the early 90's and making it feel startlingly contemporary. This is one film that hasn't lost its bite. (★★★½)

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (Twilight Time)

James Garner is a smooth talking, quick witted gunslinger who arrives in a lawless town just in time for a gold rush, signs up to be sheriff, and sets about cleaning up the streets in this nimble western send-up. The plot of Support Your Local Sheriff is a mirror of High Noon, as Garner arrests a member of a local family, who decide to rustle up a posse to ride into town to rescue him. But instead of a meditation on masculinity, we get a a laid back, lackadaisical comedy imbued with an effortless charm by Garner, and director Burt Kennedy's sharp sense of comedic timing.

Kennedy was well versed in the western genre, having directed John Wayne in The War Wagon (and several years later in The Train Robbers), and Henry Fonda in Welcome to Hard Times, so Support Your Local Sheriff doesn't feel like a western send-up, it feels like a real western. That's part of what makes its easy-going humor so effective, it fits so naturally into the world around it. Its comedy arises from the characters rather than through slap-stick or high concept pratfalls. Kennedy deftly uses character interplay and Garner's no-nonsense sass to bring natural comedy from a familiar western plotline, so the result is less parodic and more authentic. That's why the film works so well, it's a loving tribute to the genre rather than a satire, lovingly poking fun at genre stereotypes while existing squarely in the world it so effortlessly lampoons. (★★★½)

THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT (Twilight Time)

Michael Cimino made his directorial debut under the watchful eye of Clint Eastwood in 1974's Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, a combination road movie/heist caper about a grizzled criminal on the run (played with steely resolve by Eastwood) and a young upstart drifter (an Oscar nominated Jeff Bridges). With two jilted former partners hot on their tail, the two set out to find an old stash old gold hidden in the desert, setting them off on a journey that will bond the two men in ways they never expected.

With famously economical star and producer Eastwood holding Cimino back from the excesses for which he later became known, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is surprisingly economical and straightforward, lacking the indulgence that sometimes plagued the director, but maintaining his sharp focus on masculine friendships. There is a distinct homoerotic undercurrent here between Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Bridges' Lightfoot. But even if you ignore that subtext (and it's pretty hard to ignore), Cimino still keeps the action focused inward, developing the relationship between the two men with great care. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is an action film, but it's one where explosions, car chases, and violence seem almost beside the point. This is a tale of friendship, a character drama masquerading as a heist movie, that features some of the most subtle performing Eastwood has ever done. For those who missed the now out of print Blu-ray from Twilight Time, this reissue will be welcome news. (★★★)


WOMAN ON THE RUN (Flicker Alley)

After a man witnesses a mob hit, he goes on the run to save his own life, and is pursued by police in hopes of using him as a witness. Unable to track him down, the police turn to his estranged wife (Ann Sheridan), who wants nothing to do with him. She is eventually convinced by a reporter to help track the man down. Followed by both the police and the mob, both searching for her husband, she soon finds herself in an underworld of lies and murder that threatens not only her husband's life, but her's as well.

A wonderfully engaging film noir, long thought lost after the only surviving American print was burned in a fire in 2008. It has now been resurrected by the Film Noir Foundation and released on Blu-Ray for the first time by Flicker Alley. The roller coaster finale (a favorite climactic location for noir films of the period - see also 1953's Man in the Dark 3D) is especially thrilling, releasing 70 minutes worth of tension that makes for a tightly crafted joyride of a film. (★★★)


ZELIG (Twilight Time)

Woody Allen faithfully recreated newsreel style documentaries in this faux-examination of a man named Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who was so eager to please that he literally became like whoever he is around. If he's around a black man, he turns black. If he's around a fat man, he turns fat. If he's around a doctor, suddenly he's a doctor, too. Of course, these changes don't always work out for him, and an intrepid doctor sets out to cure him at all costs.

Zelig is almost pure Allen id, an exploration of his own eagerness to be liked. What makes the film so special, however, is its painstaking recreations of old newsreel footage. With the help of cinematographer, Gordon Willis (who received an Oscar nomination for his work), Allen nails the style and tone of self important biographical documentaries (often interviewing real intellectuals like Susan Sontag). It's all so perfectly executed that it never feels as if we're not watching a real documentary, and Willis captures some evocative images that feel as if they were pulled right from the mists of time. It's a fascinating experiment, filled with Allen's trademark visual wit and intellectual predilections. It is perhaps Allen's most stylistically daring films, and unlike Shadows and Fog, it doesn't get so caught up in its own style that it ignores its own story. While the documentary style doesn't necessarily lend itself to emotional connection, here, Allen probes the depths of human desire for love and acceptance, and the results are often stunning. (★★★½)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Arabian Nights"

It's difficult to judge Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights as separate films, especially its first entry, Volume 1, The Restless One, because it's really just the first part of a much larger whole.  Easily Gomes' largest canvas to date, the Arabian Nights trilogy is an ambitious, sprawling work that confronts the Portuguese austerity measures that resulted from the global recession, and plunged much of the country into poverty.

Gomes takes the structure of the ancient tale of Scheherazade and re-purposes it into something adventurous and new. Utilizing documentary techniques, Brechtian alienation techniques, and surreal metaphorical flourishes, Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One weaves an immersive, humorous, and often angry portrait of a nation at a specific point in time whose corrupt leaders have lead them into poverty and ruin. Taken on its own, it often feels aimless and scattershot, but when viewed as part of a larger whole, it's spectacular - a wholly unique work of artistic activism. There's really nothing else like it.


The second volume in the trilogy, The Desolate One, stands on its own much better than The Restless One. Here, Gomes continues to explore the desolation of Portugal at the hands of government austerity measures through a series of stories as told to the king by Scheherazade, but the results are more streamlined and memorable here. The vignettes are longer, allowing them to establish themselves in deeper ways, and more focused on narrative, rather than switching back and forth between fiction and documentary. While the effect was often exhilarating in The Restless One, The Desolate One goes deeper.

In one engrossing sequence, a judge tries to get to the bottom of what seems like a simple crime, only to uncover a trail of corruption and misdeeds (some of which involve a genie and a talking cow) so wide-reaching that it causes her to break down in despair.  It is perhaps the finest sequence in the entire trilogy, exposing the complexities of the Portuguese economic crisis for which everyone and no one is to blame. The film culminates with the tale of a dog, transferred from master to master, loving each in turn as if the previous owners never existed. Here, Gomes explores the passage of time in such a poignant way, using magical realism to blend fantasy with the cold, realities facing Portugal today. This is where Arabian Nights really comes into its own - bracing, angry, hilarious, moving, and above all, highly original.


As a whole, Arabian Nights is a fascinating piece of cinema, but its third and final installment, The Enchanted One, goes off the rails in comparison to the previous two films. Here, Gomes abandons the structure of the work up until now, and introduces Scheherazade as an actual character, caught between modern day and antiquity. Her stories here focus more on documentary style, in this case relating the tale of a group of bird-catchers who spend their time catching chaffinches.

This is where The Enchanted One misses the mark - its focus on the chaffinches is strangely un-involving and unfocused (especially strange given how riveting sequences of The Desolate One were. Arabian Nights ends with a whimper rather than a bang, seemingly losing sight of its own righteous indignation at the injustices facing the people of Portugal after its economic crisis. Taken as a whole, it's a tremendous work, but it doesn't quite stick the landing in its final installment.

THE RESTLESS ONE - ★★★
THE DESOLATE ONE - ★★★½
THE ENCHANTED ONE - ★★

All three films are now available on a 3-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set from Kino Lorber.

Review | "The Measure of a Man"

Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man sort of feels like something you might miss if you blink. It's a work of such subtle power, it's dramatic weight so imperceptible, that you almost don't realize what it's doing to you until the final shot. Much of that power is due to Vincent Lindon's beautifully understated performance as unemployed, working class family man, Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), who has been out of work for months and is barely scraping by on a €500 a month unemployment check.

Angry that his skills are getting him nowhere, and that unemployment continuing education classes have been useless, Thierry becomes increasingly desperate for work, eventually accepting a position as a loss prevention officer at a soulless corporate big box store. At first the job seems straightforward - catch people shoplifting, apprehend them, and hopefully settle the conflict by getting them to pay rather than calling the authorities.


But soon Thierry realizes that his job is more than just catching petty thieves pocketing phone chargers on their way out of the store, he's also being asked to keep tabs on the employees as well. Management, it seems, is looking to downsize the company, and rather than making cutbacks elsewhere, they ask loss prevention to monitor the employees and report on even the tiniest infractions. This puts Thierry in a moral dilemma - is he willing to sacrifice the jobs of others in order to preserve his own? Is he willing to put people in the very situation he just climbed out of in order to provide for his own family?

It's a disquieting question, one for which Brizé provides no answer. Brizé directs with a kind of unobtrusive, observational naturalism reminiscent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. He allows Lindon's performance to carry the film, the moral weight of his choices forming the core of the film without ever drawing attention to themselves, until Brizé hits us with the chilling implications of his dilemma in the film's final moments. Even then, there is a certain sense of the mundane to the moment - this is just another day at the office for Thierry. This is his life now. But at what cost? He has sold his soul to the devil, and he may not even know it. In The Measure of a Man, it is the small choices that make you who you are. Just doing your job may not feel like anything wrong, but at what point will the small chips in your moral fabric finally break you? It's all written on Lindon's haunted face, but Brizé wisely leaves it to the audience to decide - he presents us with an unassuming but surprisingly sharp moral quandary, a nagging question of honor that's hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MEASURE OF A MAN | Directed by Stéphane Brizé' | Stars Vincent Lindon | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens today in select cities.