Friday, October 30, 2020

Sacha Baron Cohen stars in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The prospect of a second Borat film, coming some 14 years after the original film became a cultural touchstone back in 2006 (and long after catchphrases "Very Nice" and "My Wife" became passé), seemed dubious at best. After all, who in the year of our Lord 2020 could still be fooled by a Borat prank? The answer, unsurprisingly, turned out to be none other than Rudy Giuliani, making what once seemed like a bad idea into one of the year's most essential films.

In the original Borat  Sacha Baron Cohen pulled the mask off of George W. Bush's America in gleefully subversive ways, holding a mirror up to the country and showing us the societal rot underneath the veneer of "compassion conservatism." In Donald Trump's America, the mask is completely gone - so what, if anything, is left to parody? Cohen's targets here are much more specific but also much bigger, with Borat targeting not only Giuliani (and humiliating him in grand fashion), but also Vice President Mike Pence. The plot finds Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) returning to America to atone for shaming his country in his original film by presenting Pence with a celebrated monkey. Instead, Borat's daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), stows away to join him on his quest, so Borat decides to give her to Pence as a gift instead.

Along the way, Borat encounters many every day Americans, and much as he does in the original film, entices them to agree and even build upon his openly racist views. When production is interrupted by the arrival of COVID-19, he bunks up with a couple of Trump supporters who espouse Q-anon conspiracy theories, attends Trump rallies and sings racist songs (much to the glee of the other attendees), and goes to a father/daughter dance where his sexually suggestive antics reveals some creepy behavior from the attending fathers. This time, however, Cohen achieves something almost more subversive than he did in the original film - he manages to find a glimmer of hope for our future amidst the grim surroundings. Rather than go along with his boorish antics, he encounters more people willing to push back against them. Whether it's the elderly Jewish women he encounters in a synagogue who provide him with a warm meal, or the kindly babysitter who watches after his daughter and gently pushes back against some of the ignorant anti-feminist views instilled by her father, or even the Republican women's meeting where the members extend warmth and compassion to the young immigrant girl - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm actually manages to display more than the worst of humanity.

Here, Cohen's targets are more powerful, and by actively seeking out bits of human kindness in the rubble of Trump's America, he actually manages to challenge Trump's hateful rhetoric not just by revealing how terrible it is (Trump has done that well enough on his own), he shows us that perhaps despite the ugliness Trump has brought out in us, that perhaps there is some good in us worth saving. That's what really sets Borat Subsequent Moviefilm away from Cohen's other, more nihilistic firebombs he's lobbed at America's hypocrisy - this film actually has a heart. His relationship with his daughter is actually quite sweet in its own way, and newcomer Maria Bakalova proves herself just as skilled as Cohen when it comes to enticing the powerful to make complete buffoons of themselves on camera. A new Borat film may have seemed like the last thing we needed in 2020, but Cohen proves that there was enough gas left in the tank to not only justify a second outing as the clueless Kazakh, but by tweaking the formula just enough, he's made it feel just as relevant and essential as it was in 2006. Not only is it deeply funny, it's also disarmingly moving - a damning yet hopeful portrait of America in 2020 that leaves us feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM | Directed by Jason Woliner | Stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Tom Hanks, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani | Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and language | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

ELIZABETH DEBICKI and JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic "TENET," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

The would-be savior of cinema turned sacrificial lamb to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christopher Nolan's Tenet was at one time set to draw audiences back to theaters after months of lockdown and quarantine. Instead, its anemic box office proven to be a warning to gun-shy movie studios, who promptly withdrew most of their remaining blockbuster titles from the 2020 calendar, effectively shuttering cinemas for the remainder of the year.

There's a certain irony in Nolan, whose purist views of the cinematic experience and devotion to 35mm film borders on the fanatical, unwittingly becoming the fourth horseman of the cinematic apocalypse, yet despite the fact that Tenet was released to mostly empty multiplexes across America in the middle of a global pandemic, its still something of a fascinating mess. Despite its scale, it isn't difficult to imagine Tenet underperforming at the box office even if everything were normal. It's a twisty, galaxy brained Nolan joint in the vein of Inception and Interstellar, but it's also surprisingly insular, featuring a convoluted time traveling plot that feels more obfuscating than cerebral. Nolan has often excelled at turning mind-bending concepts into accessible mass entertainments, but Tenet's refusal to adhere to its own internal logic feels mind-blowing and more sloppily constructed.

The plot, which centers around a CIA agent's (John David Washington) attempts to thwart an international plot involving "inverted" weaponry that moves backward through time, distributed by a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) working with an unknown force from the future, is fairly straightforward. But once the characters start moving both backwards and forwards through time, often simultaneously, Nolan's weaknesses as an action director become painfully clear. Make no mistake, Tenet is an often electrifying grand scale thriller that tackles bold structural concepts, but its execution is a decidedly mixed bag. When this thing works, it really works, but when it doesn't it's borderline incoherent.

Yet despite its flaws, Tenet is nothing if not fascinating, and Nolan's go-for-broke gamble of having two planes of action moving in different directions through time is riveting (harkening back to his breakout film, Memento), even if it isn't always cohesive. The thundering score by Ludwig Göransson takes center stage in the film's overwhelming sonic landscape, and is responsible for many of Tenet's most jaw-dropping moments. And despite many reports of "humorlessness," the film is often quite funny, trafficking in a droll kind of "blink and you'll miss it" humor that offers a welcome respite from the film's grim sense of weight. And while the threads Nolan weaves don't always successfully connect, the grandiosity of his vision is hard to shake. Tenet takes risks; they don't always pay off, but for those who have been able to experience it in a theater, it offers a return to a kind of big screen magic that home movie viewing just can't replicate. That it ultimately bites off more than it can chew is almost beside the point, but even in its imperfections Tenet is the kind of risky, unwieldy mainstream entertainment that we rarely see anymore in a time of increasing artistic homogenization. Is it the savior of cinema? No. But it's a good reminder of what we stand to lose.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TENET | Directed by Christopher Nolan | Stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020


(Nora Ephron | USA | 1996)

Made in the wake of John Travolta's mid-90s, post-Pulp Fiction career renaissance, Nora Ephron's Michael is a strange animal indeed. The second of two 1996 films in which Travolta stars as a man with extraordinary powers (the other being Jon Turteltaub's Phenomenon), Michael casts him as the titular archangel sent to earth for one last mission. Travolta's rude, crude take on the character is...unique, to say the least, but Ephron pulls much of the focus away from him and onto an anemic romance between jaded tabloid journalist William Hurt and wide-eyed aspiring writer, Andie MacDowell.

Michael, it turns out, can only use his powers so many times before draining them completely and returning to Heaven, so naturally a good bit of the film involves getting him to his final destination before he expires. But this happens so long before the end of the film that any emotional buildup that may result from this is squandered. Michael is, of course, the most interesting character in the film, and without him the central romance just doesn't have the power to carry the story. Jean Stapleton also shows up for an all-too-brief cameo near the beginning and nearly steals the whole show, but Ephron's insistence on doubling down on the romance as the center of Michael's quest feels anti-climactic. Michael is an unfocused mess that, despite a few highlights, is one of Ephron's weakest films.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


(George Cukor | USA | 1952)

George Cukor directs this romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn as Pat, a star golfer with a major problem - she can't perform when her fiancee is around, leading her to constantly choke in high-pressure situations when he's around. Unwilling to give up on herself, she hires an unscrupulous sports agent named Mike (Spencer Tracy) who promises to rocket her to the top of the tennis circuit - but her fiancee problem remains. And it yarns out that Mike may just be able to help her with that problem too.

Pat and Mike was the seventh collaboration between Hepburn and Tracy, and remains one of their lesser films, despite top notch talent in front of and behind the camera. Coming hot on the heels of Adam's Rib (1949), one of their most successful comedies, Pat and Mike feels a bit tired, and its lackadaisical pacing feeds into the general sense of ennui. The tennis scenes are especially tedious, and the sparking wordplay that made Adam's Rib such a delight is all but missing here. An appearance by Aldo Ray as a dim-bulb jock also fails to add much color to the proceedings, and he sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise understated comedy.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


(Harold S. Bucquet | USA | 1945)

Without Love isn't the strongest film that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made together, but it is one of their most effortlessly charming collaborations, allowing them both to play to their strength and focus on their legendary chemistry to create something that feels laid back and comforting. Tracy is a scientist helping make weapons during World War II, Hepburn is a widowed who mistakes him for a servant upon their first meeting. They enter into a marriage of convenience that slowly blossoms into a real romance as they work closely with each other over the years. Lucille Ball is also present in a small but pivotal supporting role that ultimately fails to leave much of an impression.

In fact, Without Love is often so droll and casually paced that it often seems to disappear within itself, but the care with which director Harold S. Bucquet treats the central relationship is apparent, and Tracy and Hepburn consistently shine. They make an otherwise straightforward romance seem genuine and heartfelt, even naturalistic. One almost forgets that they're longtime collaborators in real life, and Without Love makes great use of their unique relationship.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

It has taken 22 years, but Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, which premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, has finally been released in the United States, and it couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. Set in the midst of a fictional pandemic, The Hole follows two neighbors, one upstairs, one downstairs, who are forced to navigate their new reality as the ennui of quarantine sets in. Their only connection is a hole that opens up in the floor between their apartments while a technician is working on their pipes to fix a leak, soon becoming a symbol of both hope and madness.

Discovering the film in 2020 in the era of COVID-19, as opposed to its original international release in 1998, casts a different light on things. Having just gone through the an actual global pandemic during which many of us were stuck in our homes for months on end, The Hole feels less like science fiction and more within the realm of reality. Tsai's particular aesthetic, with its languid long-takes and deliberate pacing, adds to the overall sense of stagnation - its characters adrift within the confines of their own four walls where time has lost all meaning, their only human connection coming from a hole in the ground (or in the ceiling, depending on their unique perspectives) as the virus slowly erodes their sense of humanity.

The monotony of their existence is broken up only by musical sequences that pop up unexpectedly, using the drab apartment building as a background for glittery lounge numbers, as if the characters are breaking from reality within the confines of quarantine, if only for a moment. The Hole masterfully channels the existential dread of quarantine in the midst of a pandemic in ways that have proven eerily prescient. And while the virus at the center, which makes its victims exhibit roach-like aversion to light, isn't exactly COVID, there are some unnerving similarities. Tsai's Kafakaesque existential nightmare turns quarantine into a uniquely harrowing love story, its digressions into abstraction in turn terrifying and rapturous. In the age of the novel coronavirus, The Hole has taken on a new power, a glimpse into the surrealism of self-isolation that finds both profound beauty and abject horror in the face of the unknown enemy lurking just outside, whose immediacy has only become more urgent in the two decades since its original release.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE HOLE | Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang | Stars Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-Sheng, Miao Tien Hui-Chin Lin | Not Rated | In Thai w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas everywhere.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Class Action Park chronicles the so-bizarre-it-can-only-be-true story of New Jersey's infamous Action Park, a kind of do-it-yourself theme park that was so unsafe that it was responsible for countless injuries and even several deaths, earning it the nickname, "Class Action Park."

The whole thing was the brain child of Eugene Mulvihill, an unscrupulous developer who envisioned a park where the guest controlled their experience, going as fast and being as daring as they wished. The problem was that the park was designed by people who had no engineering degrees, putting "wouldn't that be cool" wish fulfillment into at the forefront of all the park's attractions, resulting in poorly designed thrill rides would result in scrapes, bruises, broken bones, missing teeth, and even death from being launched from rides or electrocuted in poorly wired water attractions.

Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III examine the park from both a standpoint of kooky nostalgia from the point of view of former employees (many of whom were inexperienced teenagers who often ran the rides while intoxicated, if they supervised them at all) and guests who share bizarre childhood memories of the park's idiosyncrasies. Things take a serious turn in the back half, however, as they interview the family of 19 year old George Larsson, Jr. who was killed when he was launched from a faulty Alpine Slide vehicle and landed on some nearby rocks. Suddenly, the fun and games come to an end and the darker side of the film begins to come to light.

At its best, Class Action Park is an indictment of unrestrained capitalism. Muvilhill was a ruthless businessman who would beat anyone who opposed him into submission, dragging out court proceedings when injured guests sued him so that they would eventually give up. If he did lose, he would refuse to pay, forcing them to pay to have their money collected. In many ways, Action Park was the ultimate embodiment of the excesses of the 1980s, a perfect storm of capitalist greed and Reagan-era deregulatory policies. And yet the filmmakers can't quite seem to strike the balance of humor and horror inherent to the story. After it explores Larsson's death, the film struggles to return to the humorous childhood memories and snarky observations about its poor design and lax management. There's something kind of crass and a bit unseemly in the way it tries to view the park through the nostalgic lens of the "good old days when we were wild and free." to its credit, it does acknowledge the park's issues and the tragedies that for whatever reason did not shut the park down (it was in operation from 1978 to 1996), but its tonal shifts are often dizzying and don't seem to treat the subject with the gravity that it deserves.

GRADE -★★½ (out of four)

CLASS ACTION PARK | Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III | Featuring Chris Gethard, Jason Scott Sadofsky, Jimmy Kimmel, Johnny Knoxville, Alison Becker, John Hodgman | Not Rated | Now  streaming on HBO Max.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The South of France becomes a deceptively idyllic setting in Jean Renoir's 1935 film, Toni, a prototypical piece of Neo-realism that eschewed the trappings of impressionism that had been en vogue with the French in the 1920s. Renoir's goal was "a style as close as possible to daily encounters," a somewhat revolutionary idea for 1935 that would ultimately endear Renoir to the New Wave filmmakers who would come along two decades later.

There's a certain pastoral quality to Toni that Renoir would later revisit in A Day in the Country the following year, yet the lovely countryside stands in stark contrast to the oppression and exploitation of foreign workers happening just beyond the periphery of the typical tourist destination. The film tells the story of Toni (Charles Blavette), an Italian migrant worker who immigrates to France seeking more stable work. Yet the lucrative jobs promised to the immigrants from all over Europe do not bring the promised prosperity, instead leading to despair and ultimately tragedy. Toni enters into a comfortable but passionless relationship with a local innkeeper, but soon finds himself drawn to Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish immigrant who lives on a farm run by her uncle. Just when they're starting to fall in love, however, Toni's boss, the quarry foreman Albert, attacks Josefa and forces her to marry him. Toni, in turn, weds the innkeeper. But as life moves on, Albert becomes more and more abusive, and Toni's unrequited feelings for Josefa lead him to protect her at all costs, with tragic results.

Although the film was supported by French communists at the time, thanks to "script girl" and editor, Marguerite Houllé, who arranged a screening of the film with Renoir in the Soviet Union, it is not an explicitly socialist film. The conditions the workers of the quarry face are explicitly shown to be a vicious cycle of heartache that are clearly not the "better life" the immigrants hope for, but it isn't necessarily through direct exploitation by the capitalist class. The film is more subtle in that regard than the films the Soviets were making, but it is made very clear that dark things were going on beneath the tourist area's glossy veneer, just in the shadow of the playgrounds of the rich and famous. We are not shown, for example, the workers being directly exploited or oppressed - but the idea remains; immigrants are enticed with the promise of a better life, only to be cast aside as life moves on, the bourgeoisie blissfully unaware.

There's something quietly radical about what Renoir achieves here. He isn't painting in broad strokes or underlining his points in dark ink, but he is clearly making a leftist critique of the prevailing capitalist narratives of the day in ways that still resonate some 85 years later. There's a certain inevitability to its despair that presages De Sica's work in Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., highlighting societal ills in such a way as to illustrate much larger points; about class, about gender inequality, and the often impossible choices facing the marginalized. The Rules of the Game would be a much sharper societal critique of the bourgeoisie for Renoir, but Toni is no less powerful for its comparative subtlety, deconstructing the attractive veneer of a world that promises everything and gives nothing but grief and heartache in return. This is Renoir at his most class conscious, subverting the narrative of opportunity for all and laying bare the hypocrisies of capitalism.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2006 featuring critics Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate 
  • Introduction by director Jean Renoir from 1961 
  • Episode of Cinéastes de notre temps from 1967 on Renoir, directed by Jacques Rivette and featuring a conversation with actor Charles Blavette about the film 
  • New video essay about the making of Toni by film scholar Christopher Faulkner 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau

Saturday, August 01, 2020


(Busby Berkeley, Norman Taurog, 1943)

Mickey Rooney stars as Danny, a spoiled rich kid from New York who gets shipped off to a remote, all-male boarding school out west so he can focus on his studies and get away from his hard-partying, womanizing ways. Much to his surprise, however, the first person he meets is the dean's beautiful daughter, Ginger (Judy Garland) and becomes instantly smitten.

The problem is that the arrogant Danny becomes an immediate target for the other boys at the school, who all adore Ginger, and Ginger is more than a little amused by Danny's haplessness. But everyone is forced to come together to save the school, which will be closed down unless they come up with a large sum of money in a short amount of time. The solution? Put on a show, of course - and everyone has a grand time putting on a grand, Busby Berkeley choreographed western themed musical just in the nick of time.

Girl Crazy was the last and possibly the least of the collaborations between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (although Rooney referred to it as his favorite in a 2007 introduction included on the Blu-Ray), but it does feature a classic George and Ira Gershwin score (featuring the iconic song, "I Got Rhythm") from the original 1930 Broadway production starring Ginger Rogers, Allen Kearns, and Ethel Merman in her Broadway debut. Still, Berkeley was fired from the film after choreographic the "I Got Rhythm" finale (which was shot first), and as a result the film never quite achieves the same effortless charm his earlier collaborations between Rooney and Garland, including Babes on Broadway, Babes in Arms, and Strike Up the Band. They certainly made for an irresistible pair, however, even if Rooney's character here isn't one of his most likable.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


(Mervyn LeRoy, 1952)

Perhaps Busby Berkeley's last great triumph, this 1952 biopic of legendary swimmer, Annette Kellerman starring Esther Williams reunited Berkeley with director Mervyn LeRoy who directed one of his greatest pre-code triumphs at Warner Brothers, Gold Diggers of 1933.

While Million Dollar Mermaid never quite reaches the delirious Depression-era razzle dazzle of the first Gold Diggers  it's nevertheless a throwback to those Warner Brothers extravaganzas that put Berkeley on the map. Williams' climactic performance at the Hippodrome is a gorgeous Technicolor spectacle complete with multi-colored smoke, leaping water curtains, and a co-ed group of synchronized swimmers that brought a new dimension to Berkeley's highly precise style. This film would be the last of its kind for Berkeley, whose brand of big budget, sky's the limit choreography had begun to go out of fashion by the end of the 1930s, but what a breathtaking throwback it is, hearkening back to the great choreographer's glory days with a new and ravishing addition of color. The film's badly faded cinematography has been restored to its Technicolor glory in Warner Archives' glorious new Blu-Ray restoration, which brings the film's true beauty into focus for the first time in years, making it a noticable improvement over the somewhat faded DVDs derived some damaged prints that are currently on the market. Million Dollar Mermaid is truly one of the most beautiful films of the 1950s, and it's a pleasure to watch Berkeley indulge his more expressionistic tendencies with a full palate of breathtaking color. Its drama may feel occasionally overcooked (the central romance never quite clicks due to Mature's lack of charisma), but Berkeley's choreography coupled with Williams' undeniable charm (not to mention a strong turn by Walter Pidgeon) gives it the added dimension it needs to soar. Sometimes you can teach old dogs new tricks.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Both films are now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive!

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Cameraman (1928) marked both the end and the beginning of an era for Buster Keaton. It was the first film Keaton made at MGM after the dissolution of Buster Keaton Studios, the independent studio Keaton had run throughout the 1920s along with producer Joe Schenck, who sold his contract to mega studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1928. As a result, it was the last film over which Keaton was able to exercise complete creative control, and the last film that would involve all the major crew members that had helped him make some of his greatest masterpieces. 

Keaton would later describe selling out to MGM as "the worst mistake of my life," and while The Cameraman is not among the strongest of Keaton's feature films of the 1920s (his final masterpiece, Steamboat Bill, Jr., was also released in 1928), it's the last film that contained that unique Keaton spark. MGM reportedly saw Keaton more as a star than a creative force, a sad clown to be directed rather than direct, and mostly cannibalized Buster Keaton Studios for scrap, reassigning the crew to other projects, never again giving Keaton creative control over one of his own projects. As a result, one of the greatest comedians of the silent era simply faded away, reduced to glum cameos in MGM projects, never again ascending to the heights of his earlier career.

The film centers around Keaton's titular cameraman, a tintype photographer who trades in his still camera for an ancient movie camera in order to become a newsreel cameraman in order to win the heart of the beautiful secretary (Marceline Day) who works in the newsreel office. Hijinx naturally ensue as Keaton attempts to learn his craft on the fly, with predictably disastrous results. But when a local gang war breaks out, Keaton finally finds his opportunity to impress the bigwigs, snag the job, and win the girl. Or so the thinks.

Keaton reportedly had to beg MGM's production head, Irving Thalberg, to allow him to scrap the extraneous plots thrust upon him by the studio's throng of writers, and he eventually won every battle he fought on The Cameraman  but one can't help but detect a but of exhaustion in this, the last of Keaton's major silent comedies. Just as the filmmaker's ideas were were bursting at the seams a decade earlier just before he transitioned from shorts to feature filmmaking, one can almost feel Keaton's exhaustion here. There are some lovely moments of inspiration to be found here; Keaton trying to change into his swimsuit in a cramped closet with another bulky swimmer, jumping on a firetruck to go film a fire only for it to pull back into the firehouse, filming a riot while standing on a collapsing platform without ever losing his poise - his flair for comedic timing and sight gags remain unparalleled among the great silent comedians.

Yet there's a certain poignancy here - knowing what Keaton sacrificed in order to make this film. He would never again enjoy such creative freedom and as a result his work and career became greatly diminished. It's an important missing piece in Keaton's oeuvre, but it represents a turning point in his career from which he would never recover, one last great hurrah with the gang. Its moments of whimsy and delight land with as much grace as any gag in his earlier work, but it feels very much like an artist working against the grain, finding diamonds in the rough. And although Keaton emerged from his experience making The Cameraman with his dignity mostly intact (it is a fine comedy and did well for MGM), the sacrifices he made to get it done were enormous. The ingredients are all here, but it's not quite the same, and it never would be again.

The new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection also includes Spite Marriage (1929), the first film made without his usual crew for MGM, which offers a fascinating contrast to The Cameraman, as well as a host of other extras.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE CAMERAMAN | Directed by Buster Keaton, Edward Sedgwick | Stars Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


(Elem Klimov | USSR | 1985)

The grim visage of young Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a 13-year-old Belarusian boy who goes off to defend the Soviet Union from the Nazi invasion of WWII, is one of the most searing images of Elem Klimov's barn-burning 1985 masterpiece, Come and See.

Flyora begins the film as a young, fresh-faced boy whose playful digging in the sand to find buried weapons left by dead soldiers in a seemingly long-forgotten war almost seems like a childhood war game; two boys playing at being soldiers in a fantasy world far removed from reality. But this is no fantasy - and soon Flyora finds himself dragged from his home to join the war effort with other resistance fighters from his tiny village. By the time the film ends, Flyora has gone from boy to man, but not in the typical hero's journey sense. Instead he ends the film a gaunt, hollow shell of the boy we met - his face covered in worry lines and crows feet - as if he's aged decades over the course of two hours.

And what a harrowing two hours it is - watching Come and See is an unrelenting experience, yet it's filled with a kind of grim, haunting beauty that's hard to shake, recalling Tarkovsky almost religious sense of weight (especially in Ivan's Childhood) in its remarkable evocation of horror and utter despair. Flyora's journey from innocence to cold, hardened killer is designed to be a warning - as he eventually devolves into the very thing he's fighting against. There are no winners in Klimov's vivid wartime nightmare - it tears down everyone and everything it touches. Few films can claim such a brutal and indelible impact - but Come and See has often been overlooked by critics and audiences since its release in 1985. And yet its one of the decade's crowning glories - a war film from the ages that Criterion has helped usher out of its relative obscurity with its recent theatrical re-release and new Blu-Ray edition that places the film squarely in the pantheon in which it belongs. One of the defining masterpieces of the 1980s has finally been given the home video treatment it deserves. Long unavailable, it is now ripe for discovery by a new generation of cinephiles  as one of the greatest war films of all time.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available from The Criterion Collection.


(Michael Curtiz | USA | 1948)

Doris Day made her screen debut in Michael Crutiz' delightful seafaring musical, Romance on the High Seas (1948), starring as a young woman hired by a wealthy socialite (Janis Paige) to take her place on a cruise so she can stay behind and spy on her husband (Don DeFore), who she suspects of infidelity. Unbeknownst to her, her husband similarly suspects her of cheating on him, so he hires a private eye (Jack Carson) to trail her onto the ship. Lots of mistaken identities and ensue as Carson's private eye falls for Day's plucky singer, despite thinking she's his employer's wife the whole time.

Romance on the High Seas is an easy-going crowd pleaser, and it's easy to see why Day became such a huge star - her effervescent, folksy charm feels almost effortless, and Curtiz uses it to great effect here, balancing its  farcical plot threads with ease. The Busby Berkeley musical numbers aren't really anything to write home about, and are mostly static  when compared to his grand scale choreography of the 1930s, but the film isn't the same sort of lavish spectacular, favoring intimate, diagetic  scenes of shipboard lounge singing than using music to tell the story.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.


(Busby Berkeley | USA | 1940)

Busby Berkeley's High School Musical - a rollicking musical extravaganza featuring Mickey Rooney as a young drummer whose dream of becoming a drummer takes off when he organizes a high school band to compete in a competition, where he is noticed by legendary big band leader, Paul Whiteman. Judy Garland is his faithful best friend, whose unrequited love for him constantly relegates her to second place as he keeps his eye on the prize.

Rooney and Garland are full of effervescent charm, and Berkeley delivers some of his strongest numbers of his MGM period, from the ingenious dancing fruit number (reportedly conceived by Vincent Minelli) to the grand finale at Whiteman's band competition. An utter delight from start to finish that showcases Rooney as the muti-talented star that he was, and gives star-on-the-rise Garland (fresh off the success of The Wizard of Oz) a chance to show off her range. It occasionally feels like its two-hour runtime is about 30 minutes too long, but its digressions are so amiable that it's hard to say what should be cut. Garland and Rooney, along with William Tracey (The Shop Around the Corner), June Preisser (Babes in Arms), and Larry Nunn (The Major and the Minor) recreating a turn-of-the-century melodrama at a high school talent show is such an unadulterated joy and one of the funniest set pieces of Berkeley's illustrious career. Don't miss this one.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Dwain Esper's NARCOTIC (1933). Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Continuing their line of exploitation pictures from the 1930s, Kino Lorber and Something Weird have released two more volumes in their wildly entertaining home video series, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture.

While the last round included such notorious films as Reefer Madness and Mom and Dad, these two new discs feature four films that may be lesser known, but are no less lurid - in some cases, perhaps even more so. And while they may not be great cinema, most of them have an irresistible entertainment value that makes these historical curiosities so bad they're actually good.


Dwain Esper made multiple "issue drama" exploitation films in the 1930s, including Maniac (1934), Narcotic (1933), and the short film, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband (1937). His 1936 film, Marihuana, is as much a takeoff on Reefer Madness (1936) as Esper's own Sex Madness would be two years later. Essentially a "slippery slope" drama, Marihuana (subtitled Weed with Roots in Hell), follows the exploits of a teenage girl who dabbles in marijuana and ends up as a heroin addict who kidnaps her own child. It's as weird and wild as one may expect, and in the best Esper tradition makes little sense - divorcing each of its characters from any logical human behavior in order to push his own particular agenda. It has the distinction of being one of the most unintentionally hilarious of these sanctimonious "issues of today" films of the period due to the sheer outlandishness of its plot, but ultimately it's a slog even at 58 minutes.

Of all of Dwain Esper's moralistic exploitation films of the 1930s, Narcotic is perhaps the "best," although I use that term loosely because you know going in basically what you're going to get here. It follows the journey of a doctor whose fascination with addiction leads him onto the slippery slope of becoming an addict himself, as he "studies" drug parties and opium dens under the guise of science, before succumbing to the very vices he's researching. The finger-wagging moralism is still here, although Esper seems to latch onto something vaguely more realistic here, even if the film itself plays on cringe-worthy  stereotypes and half-truths to get its point across.

MARIHUANA -★ (out of four)

NARCOTIC -★★ (out of four)


Tomorrow's Children (1934) is an interesting curio from the "socially conscious exploitation" genre from the 1930s, that takes a rather unique look at the horrors of eugenics from a decidedly skewed lens. While most films of this kind used sex and drugs as a way to entice in audiences with a lurid premise wrapped up in a moralistic veneer, Tomorrow's Children is something else altogether, putting forced sterilizations in the spotlight from a more religious version of morality than one of bodily autonomy.

The film centers around a family of ne're-do-wells who are singled out for sterilization by the state because of rampant mental illness, alcoholism, and criminal behavior that are present in nearly every member of the family -  that is except for Alice, the family's bright, well-adjusted daughter, who is engaged to be married. Targeted for sterilization, she sets out to plead her case in court before it's too late.

The film essentially takes a stance similar to arguments used by anti-abortionists, arguing against sterilization from the point of view of "you can't play god and interfere in the reproductive process" rather than "the state shouldn't be able to control people's bodies," but as a melodrama it's actually one of the most engaging exploitation films of the period. The performances are universally strong, and the film feels less like an amateur production and more like an actual film that just happens to be on a muckraking cause.

Perhaps one of the most notorious exploitation films the 1930s, Child Bride tells the story of a teacher on a crusade in her tiny mountain community to outlaw the practice of child marriage. Most of the story revolves around her, and it takes nearly 42 minutes of the film's 62 minute running time for the film to get around to the "child bride" part of its title (a common practice among these lurid  exploitation films), but when it finally gets around one of the local hillbillies attempting to marry a 12-year-old girl, things get extremely uncomfortable very quickly. Not just because of the subject matter (clearly the film is against the practice of child marriage), but the young star spends a good 5 minutes skinny-dipping while her suitor leers at her from the cliffs above.

It's the most infamous scene in the film, which is already easily the most disturbing of the exploitation films in Kino's Forbidden Fruit series. A great many of the films have become quaint with age, but Child Bride is a different animal altogether, and when the camera begins to leer at young Shirley Mills from the POV of her pedophilic suitor, the film ceases to be a goofy grind house curio and becomes something truly, darkly exploitative. The film was banned in many cities, but enjoyed a kind of cult popularity in grindhouse theaters across the country as its reputation grew. Don't let curiosity get the better of you on this one - avoid it like the plague.

TOMORROW'S CHILDREN -★★½ (out of four)
CHILD BRIDE - zero stars (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Yu Junsang, Lee Youyoung, and Kwon Haehyo in Yourself and Yours
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Originally released in 2016 but only now finding its way to the United States, Hong Sangsoo's Yourself and Yours takes the filmmaker's fascination with fractured storylines and reshapes it to focus on characters rather than events. The film centers around a painter named Youngsoo (Kim Joo-hyuk) who becomes jealous after hearing that his girlfriend, Minjung (Lee Yoo-young), was seen out having drinks with another man. They break up, but when one of Youngsoo's friends confronts her later in a restaurant, the young woman claims not to be Minjung at all, but her twin sister. 

This sets off a series of events in which Minjung and the mysterious young woman are mistaken for each other, leaving the audience to wonder if Minjung really has a twin, or if she is somehow dissociating from her traumatic experiences. Both women genuinely seem to have no recollection of meetings or conversations held by the other. Does Minjung really have a twin? Or is something else going on here?

Hong never focuses on the mystery - whether or not Minjung has a twin or if it's actually her all along isn't really the point (although it should be noted that the mysterious twin sister is never given a name), what interests him instead is how the ambiguity around her character affects how she is perceived by the audience. Since we don't know who she is at any given moment (or if she is even two different people at all), we begin to focus on how she is responding to events.

Rather than a fractured, elliptical narrative, Yourself and Yours hinges on a fractured, elliptical character; a woman struggling to overcome addiction and alcoholism, who is trying desperately to become a better person. In essence she really is two different people, and Hong deftly explores her attempts to reconcile her past with the future she wants to create. It's one of Hong's most lovingly nuanced works, a film filled with longing and regret that finds great beauty in the in-between moments, the lingering glances and subtle changes in expression that exist between the deceptively mundane dialogue and jaunty score.

Coming on the heels of Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), Yourself and Yours finds Hong in a transitional period, when the filmmaker was grappling with a very public divorce following his affair with actress Kim Minhee during the filming of Right Now, Wrong Then (an event that would greatly inform his next three films - On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire's Camera, and The Day After). There's something deeply wistful about the way in which it deals with being in a relationship with someone you no longer feel like you know - almost as if they're a completely different person. Yet Hong consistently refuses to tip the scales in favor of either Youngsoo or Minjung, instead striving for a palpable sense of empathy for both characters, each attempting to reconcile their own newfound sense of uncertainty with something akin to grace.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

YOURSELF AND YOURS | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Kim Joo-hyuk, Lee Yoo-young, Kim Eui-sung, Kwon Hae-hyo | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas from Cinema Guild.

It has been nearly a year since the release of a Hong Sang-soo film in the United States - the prolific filmmaker often releasing one or two films a year for the last decade. Hong took a rare year off in 2019 (although two of his films were released in the states last year), and although he only has one new film slated for release in 2020 (The Woman Who Ran, which does not currently have US distribution), June will see the release of not one, not two, but three Hong films in the US, with Grasshopper Films taking on 2014's Hill of Freedom and 2006's Woman on the Beach, and Cinema Guild releasing 2016's Yourself and Yours stateside for the first time .

This is, of course, big news for Hong fans, who are currently being treated to an embarrassment of riches; offering up three missing pieces to the puzzle of the filmmaker's expansive filmography. Of course, retroactively seeing how these films fit into the arc of Hong's career is a puzzle box worthy of one of his own elliptical narratives, and both Hill of Freedom and Yourself and Yours offer newfound insights into later films that have already been released in the United States. Hill of Freedom  for instance, feels like a direct precursor to his most recent film, Grass, while sharing similar DNA as 2016's Right Now, Wrong Then, a film that has since proven to be one of the most pivotal of his career.

Hill of Freedom centers around a woman named Kwon (Seo Young-hwa), who has just discovered a stack of letters sent by Mori (Ryo Kase), a Japanese citizen who has returned to Korea to propose to her. But she drops the letters and begins to read them out of order, piecing together a fractured narrative as told by Mori. Hong is a master of manipulating the fluidity of time and crafting new narratives from disjointed storylines. At only an hour long, Hill of Freedom a masterclass in narrative economy, showcasing Hong at his warmest and most experimental. It's also one of his funniest films to date, and Hong uses the broken pieces of Kwon and Mori's story to craft something disarmingly lovely, a kind of hodgepodge of romantic longing and misunderstanding that puts the entire relationship into focus by viewing it through a kaleidoscopic lens. It's one of Hong's shortest films, but it's also one of his most incisive, its gentle ruminations expanding far beyond its seemingly modest scale.

In his 2014 review, Richard Brody compared Hill of Freedom favorably with the work of Alain Resnais, an observation with which I concur. But to me it most resembled the early work of Eric Rohmer, whose legendary Six Moral Tales took similarly askance views of human relationships in comparatively brief running times, their ideas laced with more conflict and pain than their sometimes lighthearted exteriors suggested. Like Rohmer and Resnais, Hong guides this small-scale wonder with a hint of mischief and a knack for deconstructing narratives and reconstructing them into something new and wonderful, a rearranged puzzle where all the mismatched pieces somehow fit together perfectly to form a new and fascinating whole.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HILL OF FREEDOM | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Ryô Kas,e Moon So-ri, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Eui-sung | Not Rated | In Koren w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas everywhere from Grasshopper Film.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Photo by David Lee. Courtesy of Netflix. © 2020 Netflix, Inc.

There are few filmmakers whose filmographies feel as tailor made for our moment in history as Spike Lee's. From Do the Right Thing to Bamboozled to BlacKkKlansman, Lee's films are filled with a sense of urgency and righteous anger that continues to be relevant even decades after their release. Take, for instance, his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, a slice-of-life look at simmering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood on a sweltering summer day that culminates in the murder of an unarmed black man by the police. It's a shattering film, one that, tragically, hasn't aged a day, featuring themes so up-to-the-minute it could have been released this week and been every bit as essential and vibrant as it was thirty years ago.

The arrival of a new Spike Lee joint in the midst of massive national upheaval born out of yet another murder of an unarmed black man by police officers seems somehow providential, a necessary artistic reminder of the violence waged against black bodies by the government of the United States of America. Da 5 Bloods, now streaming exclusively on Netflix, is Lee's take on the Vietnam War, centering around four black veterans who return to the Jungles of Vietnam nearly 50 years after their original tour to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade.

But the body of Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman) is ultimately just a pretense - the real reason for the pilgrimage of the surviving five "bloods" is a buried treasure of gold bars they were once tasked with retrieving for the US government, but instead made a pact to bury it and return one day to use the gold as reparations for centuries of slavery and institutional oppression. Retrieving their lost gold isn't as easy as they thought, however, as they are forced to reckon with the still-painful legacy of America's intervention in Vietnam, and the use of black soldiers as an arm of American imperialism while the government continues to perpetuate institutional racism against black people at home.

Da 5 Bloods is a blistering homage to films like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, allowing Lee to use the language of quintessentially American genres like the Vietnam war film and the western as a tool for critique of American sacred cows. Lee cuts through the haze of false patriotism to examine not only the war's legacy in Vietnam but on its legacy of trauma for the black soldiers who were sent to fight in the name of a country that cared little for them, fighting a lost cause for no reward and little gratitude. The mission at the heart of Da 5 Bloods is an attempt to reclaim agency, but it runs afoul of the dark and tangled legacy of American imperialism. The film is ultimately a descent into madness with the corrupting power of money at its center, mirroring mounting paranoia of Sierra Madre and the creeping insanity of Apocalypse Now.

Nowhere is this transformation more indelibly realized than in the performance of Delroy Lindo as Paul, a Trump-supporting veteran whose desire to atone for the sins of the past is as strong as his desire for personal gain - his refusal to reckon with the real legacy of the war driving him to a kind of madness that recalls Marlon Brando's searing performance in Apocalypse Now. And yet Lee, despite clearly holding political views that are diametrically opposed to the MAGA positions of Lindo's Paul, refuses to judge the characters. Instead, Paul is another piece of the tragic tapestry woven in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and you can feel Lee grappling with its calamitous effects both for the black community and for the soul of the nation as a whole. It's not only a powerful, elegiac tribute for the black soldiers who served in Vietnam, but a haunting and complex examination of the war's dark legacy, both for America and for people of Vietnam.

Arriving right now, in this moment, with reparations at long last becoming a mainstream idea, with the legacy of systemic racism and America's complicity in its perpetuation coming to the fore, Da 5 Bloods feels like a necessary lightning rod. It may not be the kind of film that changes hearts and minds, but its examination of the Vietnam war (and American cinema) through a modern lens puts the conflict in a fresh perspective that feels fundamental to our current era in time, reminding us all that the current unrest didn't happen in a vacuum - but is part of a greater system of injustice that has been mounting for centuries.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DA 5 BLOODS | Directed by Spike Lee | Stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Lê Y Lan, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman | Rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.