Saturday, August 01, 2020

GIRL CRAZY

(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)


MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID

(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


COME AND SEE

(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.


ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS

(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.



STRIKE UP THE BAND

(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.

VOLUME 4: MARIHUANA/NARCOTIC

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)


VOLUME 5: TOMORROW'S CHILDREN/CHILD BRIDE

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.

Friday, June 12, 2020

SPRING NIGHT, SUMMER NIGHT

(J.L. Anderson | USA | 1967)


Flicker Alley takes a rare foray outside the silent era with their latest Blu-Ray release, J.L. Anderson's rarely seen 1967 film, Spring Night, Summer Night. Originally set to open the 1967 New York Film Festival, the film was instead pulled in favor of John Cassavetes' Faces and recut by its distributer into an exploitation film called Miss Jessica is Pregnant.

The subject matter of the original film is certainly ripe with lurid possibilities - in which half-siblings Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and Jessie (Larue Hall) navigate the hothouse climate of economic depression in a depressed Ohio mining town, eventually finding themselves drawn to one another in unexpected (and ultimately taboo) ways. Anderson was a film professor working on a budget that would have made a shoestring look extravagant, and as a result Spring Night, Summer Night is often rough around the edges, its Italian neorealist roots stemming as much from its naturalistic aesthetic as from its nonprofessional actors. And yet there's something inescapably powerful about Anderson's observational style. His characters aren't well-spoken, they come from a poor, economically depressed town with few options and even less hope. That they find this small bit of happiness is a miracle in and of itself, and yet the discovery that Jessie is pregnant threatens to tear everyone apart. The non-professional actors lend a kind of hangdog weariness to their roles. Unable to find a place in the world, they carve out their own, and Anderson treats them with dignity and respect, refusing to judge them for the choices they make.

I was reminded in part of Dan Sallitt's 2012 film, The Unspeakable Act, which handles similar subject matter with comparable grace. It's easy to see how the film could be co-opted by producers with much seedier ideas who want to lure in curious audiences, but Spring Night, Summer Night is in fact something much more poetic - a hardscrabble yet deeply empathetic exploration of the seemingly hopeless outlook at the citizens of a small town with few economic prospects or room for personal growth, and the judgment and attacks lobbed at those who seek to carve out their own slice of happiness in order to survive. While I'm not convinced it's a long-lost masterpiece, Spring Night, Summer Night nevertheless represents the resurrection of an important piece of American independent cinema, a jagged, piercing look at small town life and the ruinous effects of economic depression that feels more relevant than ever.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available from Flicker Alley.




MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM

(Michael Curtiz | USA | 1933)

Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum is an early Technicolor horror film that was later remade by as the arguably more famous House of  Wax in 1953 starring Vincent Price.  The 1933 film featured Lionel Atwill (Son of Frankenstein) in the Price role as a demented sculptor named Ivan Igor whose partner burns down his beloved wax museum in a misguided insurance scam. Determined to rebuild, he is soon at the center of a string of disappearances as he tracks down unwitting victims who bear striking resemblances to his original figures. He becomes obsessed with his assistant's fiancee, Charlotte (Fay Wray), whose uncanny resemblance to his original Marie Antoinette figure leads to a shocking unmasking of the true nature of Igor's house of horrors. 

The early two-strip Technicolor process lends a kind of otherworldliness to the film, bathed in sickly greens and lurid, pre-code horror paranoia. Its pacing is a bit wonky, but Curtiz creates an often intensely unnerving atmosphere through sheer silence. With no musical score to guide the audience, we're often left adrift in Igor's madhouse, conjuring up some truly haunting imagery that has been beautifully restored on the new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

In his six years as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Pete Davidson has often been one of its most divisive figures. His very public struggle with mental illness has shone a light on important issues alongside a few tabloid-fodder romances and controversial jokes. His uneven and often irregular appearances on the show have given the impression that Davidson is somewhat difficult, and yet the producers and the cast have admirably stuck by him through thick and then.

So the fact that Davidson is at the center of a new film from Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Vigin, Knocked Up) was met with some incredulity from those who were already skeptical of his work. But The King of Staten Island bears little resemblance to Davidson's sometimes scattershot appearances on SNL. In fact, it often feels like an exorcism, a semi-autobiographical therapy session designed to put Davidson's checkered past behind him. "The movie is like my love letter to my mom and trying to end that part of my life." Davidson said in a recent interview. And indeed, “The King of Staten Island” imagines an alternate world in which Davidson doesn't discover comedy while paying tribute to those people that shaped his life.

Davidson stars as Scott, a twenty-something aspiring tattoo artist from Staten Island who is drifting through life, a constantly burden to his harried mother (Marisa Tomei), mostly content to sit around, smoke pot, and play video games while the world by without him. His father was a firefighter who died in a fire years earlier (Davidson's real-life father was a firefighter who died on 9/11), and Scott has grown to resent that he didn't get to grow up with his father present. But when his mother starts dating another firefighter, Scott is forced to confront his demons and the years of pent up anger that have led to his aimless lifestyle, with its broken relationships and fleeting connections, and at long last seek a more fulfilling life.

The King of Staten Island is perhaps one of Apatow's most mature and accomplished works, more in the vein of Funny People and This is 40 than Trainwreck or Knocked Up. It's funny of course, but there's a sense of wistful melancholy at work here that really sets it apart. Apatow creates a fully realized, lived-in world of slackers and everyday heroes, paying tribute to the unsung working-class heroes like firefighters and nurses who spend every day making a difference without any recognition or reward. In that way, The King of Staten Island plays like Davidson's tribute to his family and his hometown, a tip of the hat to the people who made him who he is, and an apology of sorts for being so difficult.

The film may be a comedy, but there's something deeply moving about its portrait of quiet working-class heroism. Davidson isn't so much overcoming his circumstances as stepping up to them, honoring the regular men and women who gave him opportunities he never appreciated. Apatow adopts an observational, conversational style, crafting a wise and warm comedy that isn't so much full of set-ups and punchlines as it is naturally flowing humor that comes out of its fully drawn characters and realistic situations. Apatow has always been a strong comedic voice, but The King of Staten Island is disarmingly strong; a perceptive and smartly written (by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus) love letter to Davidson's family that feels like a comedic revelation. It's time to start taking Pete Davidson seriously.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND | Directed by Judd Apatow | Stars Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, Maude Apatow | Rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images | Opens Friday, June 12, On Demand.

Indie filmmaker Dan Sallitt hasn't made a feature film since 2012's The Unspeakable Act, but the long-awaited arrival of his latest film, Fourteen has unfortunately arrived in the middle of a global pandemic that has narrowed the already small audience for his films.

A film critic himself, Sallitt is well regarded in the film critic community, and The Unspeakable Act  was very popular amongst the denizens of Film Twitter, myself included. But Fourteen is a somewhat trickier animal, its somewhat arch rhythms and cold characterizations make it much more difficult to warm up to. It's a film of strong theory, but often somewhat emotionally distant. The film centers around a pair of young women in their late twenties who have been best friends since they were 14 years old. Mara (Tallie Medel) is a teacher's aide constantly seeking work as an elementary school teacher. Jo (Norma Kuhling) has more stable employment as a social worker but is more emotionally troubled. She's irresponsible, unreliable, and often flaky; whereas Mara, less successful by societal standards, seems more well-adjusted to her somewhat unstable millennial lifestyle, constantly fluctuating between jobs and romantic partners.

Fourteen takes an almost neo-realist look at the ebbs and flows of their lives through the years, skipping forward through time in the blink of a single cut, that is nevertheless deeply rooted in the language of American independent cinema. Sallitt is a precise observer of human behavior, and his portrayal of a friendship forged by the forced proximity of middle school put under the pressures of real life, is consistently filled with wise insights into the nature of human connections and the general ennui of millennial life, seeking stability where there is none to be found.

And yet one can't escape the feeling that despite its meticulous construction, Fourteen feels more rooted in ideas than in emotions. Its portrayal of two friends on diverging paths who no longer share the same connection they once did often feels painfully accurate, and Sallitt deftly avoids unnecessary dramatic embellishments, but it's difficult to settle in with two characters that feel more like millennial archetypes that living, breathing people. There are some undeniably lovely grace notes here (Mara relating the story of her friendship with Jo to a friend later in the film is an especially devastating moment), but the film's somewhat elliptical nature often holds the audience at arm's length. It's a keenly observational study of human friendships that can't quite stick the landing, its denouement never quite fully conveying the heavy weight of what we've just witnessed. The ideas are there, but without an emotional grounding it feels more like a theoretical exercise than a fully realized film.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)



FOURTEEN | Directed by Dan Sallitt | Stars Tallie Medel, Norma Kuhling, Evan Davis, Willy McGee | Not Rated | Now playing in virtual cinemas nationwide.

Monday, May 25, 2020

There have been few more controversial Supreme Court cases in the modern era than 1973's Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States and set off a culture war that has been raging ever since. At this point I'd wager most folks know where they stand on the issue of abortion, but fewer know the real story of Jane Roe (nee Norma McCorvey) and how she unwittingly became one of the most contentious figures in American politics.

In the new documentary, AKA Jane Roe, her story finally takes center stage, away from the glaring lights of the culture war, with its many complicated facets on display. When she was recruited as Jane Roe in the early 70s, McCorvey was working as a prostitute when she became unexpectedly pregnant. Unable to procure a legal abortion, she sought help from underground abortion doctors, but decided against it when she saw the filthy, dangerous conditions of the back alley clinic. She never got the abortion she sought, but her struggle became the flashpoint for the abortion rights movement as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, winning the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy for generations of women after her.

The film examines McCorvey's early life, growing up gay, sexually abused, and destitute in the rural south. After helping to codify the right to an abortion into American law, she was mostly ignored by the pro-choice movement. She was too unpredictable, too rough around the edges, too crass to be an effective spokesperson, they thought. And so Jane Roe became more of a symbol than a real person. That is until she was recruited by an evangelic anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue, who paid her hundreds of thousands of dollars to renounce Roe v. Wade and become an anti-choice crusader.

AKA Jane Roe serves as McCorvey's own candid "deathbed confession," acknowledging that her conversion to anti-choice zealotry was a scam and that she had, in fact, been manipulated into betraying the very cause that bore her name. It's a portrait of a complex, complicated woman who never asked for the national spotlight in which she found herself. Here was a woman who lived a life of abuse who was neglected by the very movement she helped to victory, manipulated by bad-faith actors on the opposing side, and forced to end a long term relationship with her beloved partner, Connie, by the right-wing evangelists who saw her as little more than a trophy. In that way, the documentary almost plays as a personal tragedy set against the backdrop of national political unrest.  And while I wish director Nick Sweeney had asked some harder questions of the dying McCorvey, who dismisses her time advocating against abortion as using the very people who were using her, her troubled life tells a very different story.

Why did she throw millions of women under the bus after such a sweeping victory? It can't have just been for the money, can it? Sweeney sifts through decades worth of personal reflections, interviews with friends, family, and the anti-abortion leaders who sought to use her for their own ends, to paint a startlingly complex portrait of a woman with a troubled and complicated legacy. As her final statement before her death in 2017, AKA Jane Roe dispels the right-wing myth of her anti-choice conversion once and for all, but it also leaves just as many questions as it answers. Perhaps that's the way McCorvey would have wanted - fiery, flawed, and never quite ready for prime time, she was not a typical activist or a camera-ready symbol of resistance. She was a fully formed human being filled with troubles, pains, and contradictions of her own. In other words, she was perhaps the most indelible symbol of the very women Roe v. Wade ultimately helped; the regular people whose struggles the cameras rarely capture in the ongoing political battles surrounding abortion. In AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey finally gets to tell her story in her own words and on her own terms, and the results are as fascinating, as frustrating, and as full of life as she was. It's a moving, must-watch experience.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


AKA JANE ROE | Directed by Nick Sweeney | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Hulu.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A still from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (1896)

While the Netflix original series, Hollywood, is playing revisionist history with the origins of the motion picture industry, other distributors are working hard to get cinema's real overlooked pioneers the spotlight they deserve.

Spinning off from their successful box set, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Kino Lorber has released several new collections focusing on individual filmmakers. First up, Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of last year's documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, a true pioneer who became the first woman to direct a film and run her own studio. Volume 1 focuses on Guy-Blaché's years at Gaumont, one of France's leading studios in the early days of cinema. Here we are treated to some of Guy-Blaché's earliest films, including several that she has only recently received credit for. Most notably among them is 1896's The Cabbage-Patch Fairy, in which a fairy checks on a cabbage patch full of babies. At only 1-min long, the film is considered the first narrative film, a departure from the actualities and scenes of daily life that were common in the earliest days of cinema. While there isn't a plot, it does conjure an obviously fictional scenario that sets it apart from other films of the period. Guy-Blaché would revisit the idea with less success in 1902's Midwife to the Upper Class, establishing the idea of cabbage patch babies as an early trademark.

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Consequences of Feminism (1906)
The set also includes some of her most incisive work in the form of comedies that poked fun at social issues of the day. On the surface, Alice Guy-Blaché's 1906 silent short, The Consequences of Feminism, seems like a warning about the dangers of feminized men. Guy-Balché  creates a world where men inhabit stereotypically feminine roles - doing the laundry, watching the children, gossiping in their hat-making circles; while the women smoke cigars, read the newspapers, and sexually harass the men without consequence. Therein lies the sly genius of this film. The Consequences of Feminism isn't a warning against feminism, as it initially appears to be.  By the end of the film, the men have had enough, and stage a revolt to take back their "rightful" place. It is, in fact, an argument for the necessity of feminism, a bold choice for 1906. By casting men in the feminine roles, Guy-Balché shows men just what it was like to be a woman in that time. By turning the stereotypes on their head, she cleverly subverts the conventions of the time, arguing that if men wouldn't stand for this sort of treatment, why should women? It's certainly a compelling argument. And even in the more enlightened 21st century, its subversive social criticisms still ring true.

Volume 1 also includes some rare glimpses into the world in which they were created, with Alice Guy Films a ‘Phonoscène’ in the Studio at Buttes-Chaumont, Paris (1905) providing a unique window into the early filmmaking process, and several "phonoscenes" of singer Félix Mayol. It's really hard to distinguish between Alice Guy-Blaché's Félix Mayol photoscenes (and she made several) because they're all just a few minutes of him standing on a stage singing, but the chronophone syncing of sound to picture, especially in 1905, is jaw-dropping, and their value as historical record is hard to deny. Guy-Blaché wasn't trying to be a filmmaker here so much as a historian, documenting popular performers of the era for posterity. And not only can we see him, but we can hear him - a voice echoing down through the centuries. It may not sound like much, but in many ways it's truly stunning.

A scene from Alice Guy-Blaché's The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ (1906)
Volume 2 focuses on Guy-Blaché's years at Solax, the production company she founded with her husband after moving to America. As head of the studio, she helped establish the house style for all films made there during her tenure. This also shows a period of creative growth for the filmmaker; not only does she excel in domestic comedies, but she begins to branch out into other genres such as westerns (Parson Sue) and historical epics like The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ, with somewhat mixed success.

Her passion play wasn't credited to her until recently, but her attempt at a historical epic is surprisingly dry, taking a "stations of the cross" tableau aesthetic that isn't half as interesting as the comedies she was making around the same period. It's impressively mounted and and the sets are well constructed, but it's so strenuously respectful and static that it never really blossoms. She just doesn't feel like she's comfortable with the material, and the results are surprisingly passion-less, handsomely mounted and clearly laying the groundwork for the epic film but otherwise rather cold and distant.

Comedies were the Solax house speciality, and Guy-Blaché proved herself quite adept at them. Liquor gets mistaken for lime juice in her 1911 comedy, Starting Something, in which a series of people accidentally get gassed in quick succession. This early Solax film showcases Guy-Blaché's razor sharp comedic timing, and her use of repetition here make Starting Something a consistently funny short, building up dramatic tension but putting everyone back exactly where they started every few minutes. It just gets funnier and funnier as it goes along, and Guy-Blaché's refusal to switch things up mid-film makes the comedic action all the more potent. She also began to tackle three hankie dramas around this period. Take The Coming of Sunbeam, for example, a 1913 melodrama that features a grumpy old man suddenly finding out that he has to care for his young granddaughter after the untimely death of her parents. Resistant at first, he soon comes around and the two become inseparable, that is until she falls gravely ill. Reminiscent of Guy-Blaché's Falling Leaves from the previous year, but without it's more lyrical grace notes, The Coming of Sunbeam is still a beguiling little film, and the central pairing of the old man and the little girl is hard to resist.

There are so many gems to discover here, and both discs represent a veritable treasure trove of some of Guy-Blaché's most indelible work. These are must-own discs for any serious student of cinema, not only is Guy-Blaché one of the pioneering women of the art form, she was also one of its principal movers and shakers, starting off as a secretary and becoming one of the most influential figures in early film, helping to steer it away from amusing novelty to serious art form. This is an A+ collection that belongs on every cinema lover's shelf.

Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers - Alice Guy-Blaché Volumes 1 and 2 are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE

John Huston | USA | 1967

You have to give John Huston credit for his commitment to making idiosyncratic passion projects, but even in a career as varied as Huston's, the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye stands out.

Starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor as a cuckolded military commander and his free-spirited wife, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a disarmingly horny exploration of sexuality and desire that makes the most of its post-Production Code leniency. Brando, frustrated by his wife's constant infidelity, finds himself drawn to a young private (Robert Forster in his screen debut), who is known for going horseback riding naked in the woods around the base. Forster, in turn, has eyes for his CO's wife, and often lurks outside their house to peep on Taylor's dalliances.

Originally released in a golden-tinted version (the figurative "golden eye" of the title), the film was eventually given a wide release with a more typical color palate to appease mass audiences. Warner Archive's new 2-disc Blu-Ray release gorgeously restores Huston's original vision alongside the general release version. The golden version gives the film a heated, otherworldly quality, as if its characters are wondering around in some sort of erotic dream, lost in a tangled web of their own unexplored desires. You have Brando slowly losing his grip on reality, Taylor flaunting her infidelity while completely dominating her husband - a figure of authority to everyone but her, and Forster as a young enlisted man who has much greater confidence than his commanding officer. It's an odd, dream-like film, and its unusual structure is occasionally uneven, but it's hard not to respect its bold vision. It's almost as if this is the film Huston's character from The Other Side of the Wind was making; a troubled, thorny, deeply personal exploration of the darkest recesses of the human psyche, and the results are hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BLOOD ON THE MOON

Robert Wise | USA | 1948

Robert Mitchum and Barbara Bel Geddes star in Robert Wise's 1948 western, Blood on the Moon, a surprisingly gritty oater that casts Mitchum as a hired gun who slowly begins to realize that he may be on the wrong side of the conflict.

Recruited by an old friend to help run a local cattle baron out of business by preventing him from removing his herd from an Indian reservation by the legal deadline (thus forcing him to sell the cattle for pennies on the dollar), Mitchum unwittingly finds himself falling for the baron's beautiful and headstrong daughter (Bel Geddes). As his relationship with her deepens, begins to understand that he isn't sticking up for the little guy at all, and is in fact the villain in someone else's story. It's an interesting twist on the lone gunslinger archetype, long before the trope would be subverted by the revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and 70s.

Wise was an incredibly versatile filmmaker, fitting right in across various genres, from horror (The Haunting, The Curse of the Cat People), to musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), to science fiction (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), so it should come as no surprise that he was equally adept at westerns as well. It's that workman-like adaptability that made him one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his time, although he is rarely given his due by auteurists. He had a knack for getting under his characters' skin, and in Blood on the Moon, Mitchum manages to find a sense of moral ambiguity to his amoral gunslinger that elevates the film above your typical western B-movie. Wise's commitment to a surprising amount of violence for 1948 gives the film actual stakes, and you can feel the conflict within Mitchum boiling over as the world he thought he knew no longer seems to make sense.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE and BLOOD ON THE MOON are now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.