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


(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.


(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


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)


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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Biospherians (left to right): Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, SallySilverstone and Bernd Zabelposing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990. Courtesy of NEON.

In 1991 a group of enthusiastic dreamers built what would become known as Biosphere 2, a massive internalized ecosystem meant to emulate Earth's atmosphere, in an attempt to study what it would be like to live in an enclosed ecosystem on another planet. Depending on who you ask, the mission was either a spectacular success or an abysmal failure, but regardless of the ultimate outcome it makes for fascinating viewing in Matt Wolf's new documentary, Spaceship Earth.

The group started as a commune of hippies in the 1960s who brought their talents together to build their own desert community before branching out by building a ship and going on to build and design everything from hotels to art galleries around the world thanks to the funding of a generous family benefactor. Inspired by works of science fiction, they turned to their most ambitious project yet - a sprawling recreation of Earth's atmosphere where eight intrepid explorers would spend two years sealed into an entirely self-contained environment to simulate life on another planet. The project was met with much anticipation from the public, and ultimately a great deal of controversy as disagreements arose over their methodology, calling into question the legitimacy of the experiment.

Wolf doesn't ask too many hard questions - dismissing many accusations leveled against the group out of hand without delving too deeply into them. The suggestion that the group was some sort of cult is mostly laughed off, and the lack of real scientific method that went into the experiment is fairly glossed over in favor of a more awe-struck examination of the participants and the utopian vision that drove them. For those of us who were either too young to remember it or not even born when it happened, there's an undeniable air of discovery to this odd little piece of history, and it's hard not to find their goals admirable, if perhaps a bit naive.

The film takes a turn with a bit of modern relevance when the wealthy backers eventually take over the product, led by none other than Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump and the architect of his unlikely 2016 presidential run. That's the point at which Spaceship Earth becomes the most fascinating - a portrait of idealism brought crashing back down to earth by capitalist greed. There are clearly many more avenues to explore here, and Wolf leaves several very big stones mostly unturned, but it's hard to resist the sheer boldness of the project, whose data (especially regarding climate change and greenhouse gasses) has been suppressed for the last two decades by Bannon. It's a mildly diverting documentary that makes for some intriguing quarantine viewing, painting a big picture but ultimately failing to ask big questions. Clearly this is a story worth telling, but the glossing over of the shortcuts taken by the participants ultimately leaves more questions than answers, and leaves us wanting to know the rest of the story.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPACESHIP EARTH | Directed by Matt Wolf | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Hulu.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Wonder Bar is an odd entry in Busby Berkeley's impressive run of pre-code musicals for Warner Bros. For one, it's a huge downer, with its murder/suicide plot ending the film on a strangely sour note for a Depression-era toe-tapper; and it simultaneously manages to combine one of Berkeley's best musical numbers with one of his absolute worst.

Coming on the heels Berkeley's legendary 1933 run of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight ParadeWonder Bar (along with his last, and lesser known, film of 1933, Roman Scandals) feels at once tired and inspired, with its typical showbiz plot surrounding the scandals and drama in a Parisian nightclub, making it one of the biggest mixed-bags of the legendary choreographer's career. Al Jolson stars as Al Wonder, night-club owner and entertainer extraordinaire, who presides one the titular nightclub and all its comings and goings. He's in love with one of his Dolores del Río, as is fellow performer Dick Powell, but she's dealing with the fallout of her own relationship with onstage partner, Ricardo Cortez, who's planning on running off with Kay Francis.  Warner stalwarts Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert provide comedy relief as two henpecked American businessmen attempting to ditch their wives for a night on the town.

Of all the pre-code Warner musicals, Wonder Bar is perhaps the most overtly sexual, with its cheeky double entendres practically jumping right off the screen; not to mention it features the most blatantly queer moment I've seen in a pre-code film, in which a man taps on another man’s shoulder to “cut in” with his dance partner, and instead waltzes off with the man, leaving the woman standing on the dance floor. Jolson then turns to the camera and shrugs “boys will be boys.” It’s a funny moment without being a punchline, and impressive for the way it treats such a thing as normal in gay Paris in a major Hollywood production in 1933. It also features one of Berkeley's most dazzling musical set pieces in "Don't Say Goodnight," a dizzying masterpiece that features hundreds of dancers, 60 massive columns moving independently, and an octagon of mirrors that multiplies the dancers into infinity.

But then comes "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule," a cringe-worthy parade of racist stereotypes featuring Al Jolson in blackface as a former slave who goes to heaven with dozens of children as blackface angels. It's racist even by 1933 standards (watch out for the giant dancing watermelon), and even discounting the racial stereotypes it isn't even particularly clever by Berkeley's standards. It lacks the sparkle of his best comedy numbers like "Hollywood Hotel" (from Footlight Parade) and "Pettin' in the Park" (from Gold Diggers of 1933 , and is generally a lackluster climax for a film that summarily wraps up with a murder/suicide that's supposed to be a happy ending for its characters.

As it stands, Wonder Bar is a fascinating curio, structured like a high class soap opera in the vein of Grand Hotel sprinkled with a good dose of naughty pre-code humor, but once "Don't Say Goodnight" is over, the story doesn't seem to have anywhere to go. The cast is capable, and Berkeley delivers a knockout around the midpoint, but the screenplay can't seem it unravel its tangled romantic subplot, and the climactic 10-minute long blackface number is a hard sit that adds nothing to film. Worth watching for Berkeley aficionados and fans of classic musicals, but it lacks the escapist flair of his best work with its strangely downbeat ending.

Cinema Obscura is a regular feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Perhaps one of the most famous of the German Expressionist films, Paul Wegener's The Golem: How He Came into the World is one of the most visually striking films of the silent era. With its curved architecture and unique set design, it stands alongside The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Metropolis as one of the quintessential examples of Expressionism in film. 

Few other films of the era took such a radical approach to its overall design. Nothing in the film is practical or "realistic," from its twisted staircase to the misshapen buildings of the ghetto in which it is set. And yet everything about the film seems based in a kind of recognizable milieu that makes its off-kilter sets seem like something out of a dream, as if we're wandering through the haunted landscapes of our subconscious mind.

The story is inspired by Jewish folklore, in which a rabbi brings to life a monster made of clay in order to defend the Jewish people from persecution. It is believed that the Golem myth provided the basis for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and there are certainly some parallels in Wegener's Golem that foreshadow James Whale's take on Frankenstein 11 years later, especially in the Golem's interactions with children near the film's end. Because the rabbi makes a deal with an evil spirit to bring the Golem (played by Wegener himself) to life, he loses control of the creature and must deal with the personal consequences of summoning a monster to do his bidding, even if his intentions were noble. It's a classic morality play, a warning about fighting evil with more evil, and the personal toll of revenge played out in the increasingly ominous streets of the ghetto.

Wegener had previously tacked the Golem myth in 1915's The Golem, a film now mostly lost to time, which took place in the 20th century after the ancient creature was reawakened. This 1920 prequel, The Golem: How He Came into the World,  explores the original 16th century  myth of Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) and the consequences of human arrogance in creating life. As one of the earliest remaining feature length horror films (released not long after seminal Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), it holds a special place in film history, and remains one of the most beautifully designed and evocative films of its time, and it hasn't lost any of its eerie luster in the century since its release. Wegener was not a particularly prolific filmmaker (the 1920 Golem is his most widely seen surviving film), but his vision was undeniable, and Kino Lorber's new Blu-Ray breathes new life into the now 100 year old film with a flawless new  4K transfer of the German release version, featuring three scores, as well as the shorter US release version and a comparison essay between the two cuts of the film.

F.W. Murnau adapts Moliere's classic play of religious hypocrisy in 1925's Tartuffe, which frames Moliere's original story as a film-within-a-film inside another narrative. While Tartuffe wasn't the first film to conceive of such a device (Buster Keaton's 1924 comedy, Sherlock, Jr., is the earliest example I've been able to find), it is somewhat unique for its time - making it a rare film in which most of action takes place in a film that other characters are watching.

The modern day framing device centers around an unscrupulous housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) trying to convince her wealthy master (Hermann Picha) to cut his grandson (André Mattoni) out of his will and leave everything to her, because the young man has chosen to become an actor. Upon learning of the housekeeper's scheme, the grandson disguises himself as the leader of a traveling film troupe on tour with a film version of Tartuffe  bringing the film to his grandfather's home in order to open his eyes to the housekeeper's scheme.

The resulting version of Tartuffe is heavily abridged from Moliere's classic text. The basic idea is the same - Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) is a  religious zealot who uses his piety to control others and drain them of their wealth. When he arrives at the home of his latest victim, Orgon (Werner Krauss), Orgon's wife (Lil Dagover) immediately recognizes Tartuff for the charlatan he is, and sets out to expose him to her brainwashed husband. The story mostly focuses on her attempts to reveal Tartuffe's true nature, leaving the meat of Moliere's text cut down to a sort of Cliff's Notes summary. The essential thematic content remains the same, but Jannings' choice to play Tartuffe as a gruff, boorish brute rather than a charismatic, manipulative cad seems to undercut the story's essential message about being wary of charming hypocrites who disguise their true nature in false piety.

Murnau is, of course, an incredible visual stylist, and the golden-tinted hues of Karl Freund's cinematography are often breathtaking. But Tartuffe is ultimately one of Murnau's minor works - its all-too-brief 74 minute running time barely giving the story time to breathe, and the normally terrific Jannings seems miscast here, his penchant for overacting smothering the legendary character. The framing device also seems unnecessary - its attempt to connect Moliere's themes to modern times feels redundant, taking precious minutes away from the already truncated story it sets out to tell.

THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD - ★★★½ (out of four)
TARTUFFE - ★★½ (out of four)

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In 2002, a student reporter working for her high school newspaper, The Hilltop Beacon, inadvertently uncovered a massive embezzlement scheme while working on a puff piece about a new construction project at her high school in Long Island.

That embezzlement scheme ended up being the largest public school fraud in American history, with over $11 million stolen from the school system's budget to fund luxury homes, lavish vacations, and other extravagant expenses for administrators and their families. The scheme reached the highest levels of the school district's administration, and serves as the inspiration for HBO's new film, Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, and directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds).

The film originally debuted at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival before being picked up by HBO for distribution. Yet despite skipping theaters for a television premiere this past weekend, Bad Education (not to be confused with Pedro Almodovar's 2004 film of the same name) is an engaging tale of corruption, vanity, and hubris that gives Jackman one of his meatiest roles to date. Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, beloved educator and school superintendent, whose penchant for taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of his district's students put his schools on the map and fueled a surge in early acceptance decisions to some of the nation's top universities.

After discovering some discrepancies in the school's expense accounts, the school board comes to realize that Assistance Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been cooking the books in order to fund her lavish lifestyle. But Tassone steps in to cover for Gluckin in order to keep the situation out of the press, ostensibly to preserve the school system's reputation and maintain their budget for the next school year. That's when Bad Education really starts to get interesting - slowly revealing its protagonist's motivations as it delves deeper into this wide-ranging scandal. At first, Finley plays his cards close to the vest, but as the true depth of the fraud becomes clear, he turns the film into a fascinating character study of people who do very bad things for the "right" reasons.

Everyone involved here seems to think they have the best interests of the students and their community in mind, deluding themselves into thinking that they're good people who aren't really doing anything wrong, as if their professional strengths somehow offset their personal failures. In the film's greatest twist of irony, it is that very encouragement of student involvement that the young reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) to dig deeper into the district's spending and discovering millions of dollars worth of hidden expenses buried in a seemingly innocuous breezeway expansion for the high school. While the film is stylistically more straightforward than Finley's last film, his slow-burn portrait of a man whose flaws as an administrator are uncovered by his own strengths as an educator, is deeply engrossing. Jackman has never been better than he is here, portraying Tassone's slow unravelling barely masked by his vain obsession with appearance - a man hiding who is truly is on many levels. Bad Education is worth watching for Jackman's performance alone, but he anchors a ripped-from-the-headlines story of true crime with an emotional center that is hard to shake. The road to hell is truly paved with good intentions, and Jackman's multi-faceted performance reveals the conflict of a deeply troubled man undone by his own success.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAD EDUCATION | Directed by Cory Finley | Stars Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Annaleigh Ashford | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on HBO.