Friday, September 15, 2017

From the Repertory | September 15, 2017

THE LOST WORLD (1925, Flicker Alley)

In 1929, a mere four years after the original theatrical release of The Lost World, the widow of one of the film's original financiers struck a bargain with First National to remove it from circulation and destroy all known prints. The theory is that that First National hoped to avoid overshadowing the release of the similarly themed new sound epic, King Kong, which would also feature visual effects by the one and only Willis O'Brien, ensuring that the silent Lost World would not be compared unfavorably with this new visual effects extravaganza. Thankfully, their efforts failed, and thanks to years of effort to piece together the disparate elements culled from various incomplete prints, we have a nearly complete restoration of The Lost World in all its glory.

Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who makes an appearance at the beginning of the film), The Lost World is the story of a professor who puts together a ragtag team of adventurers to journey into the Amazon in order to prove to the world that the dinosaurs he claims to have seen truly exist.  It's not among the finest of silent films, but it's undeniably fun, despite an uncomfortable blackface performance that will make modern audiences cringe. Yet what makes THE LOST WORLD so remarkable is its special effects. O'Brien's stop motion animation is every bit as stunning here as it would be in King Kong eight years later. Kong may be the better film, but Lost World paved the way for it.

THE LOST WORLD (deluxe Blu-Ray edition)
The film is a grand old-fashioned adventure and special effects showcase that makes a direct appeal to the young and the young at heart. It doesn't always hold up, and its pacing has a tendency to drag, but it's so visually impressive that it continues to endure today. It's hard to underestimate the influence of this film, as it continues to inspire modern films from Jurassic Park to Up.

Flicker Alley's new Blu-Ray is a typically impressive affair, loaded with special features and featuring a striking new transfer. The most notable special features are two early short films by O'Brien, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. O'Brien directed the stop-motion short film, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., for Thomas Edison in 1917, about two cavemen who are competing for the same woman. and while it may be rather primitive even by 1917 standards (this was, after all, two years after The Birth of a Nation), what is most impressive about it is the animated figures. An early example of just how truly talent O'Brien was, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. is an  astonishing showcase for for his craft. The figures are incredibly fluid, even believable, outshining the otherwise roughly-hewn film.

A much more cohesive showcase of Willis O'Brien's talents, this short film, coming merely a year after the much rougher R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is a bit of a dry run for  The Lost World. Framed as a story told by an uncle to his nephew, we are introduced by an explorer who is shown a lost world of dinosaurs by a mysterious ghost in an abandoned cabin. Feels like a tall tale that would be spun at bedtime to amuse children, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is both outlandish and wildly entertaining. Its impressive stop motion presages O'Brien's triumph on The Lost World seven years later, yet stands on its own as a spirited and evocative adventure.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

REBECCA (1940, The Criterion Collection)

Alfred Hitchcock's first American feature was also his only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It's no wonder either; working with uber-producer David O. Selznick, fresh off the success of 1939's Gone with the Wind, Hitchcock was given his most lavish budget and production resources of his career up to that point. The result is a fascinating hybrid of the two icons' styles, one that is neither fully Hitchcock or fully Selznick, yet still manages to bear the signature stamps of both.

Rebecca, based on the novel by  Daphne Du Maurier, features the sumptuous grandeur of a Selznick picture, and the macabre hallmarks of Hitchcock. Yet Hitchcock was famously exasperated by Selznick, and one can't quite escape the feeling that this wasn't quite the film Hitchcock wanted to make. Yet despite the thick layers of Selznick gloss, Rebecca is still a chilling Gothic romance, a ghost story with no ghosts, in which the never named Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is haunted by the memory of her new husband's first wife, Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine (left) and Judith Anderson (right) in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA.
We never see Rebecca, not even in pictures or paintings, yet her spirit hangs over every frame, as the new Mrs. de Winter is constantly compared and contrasted with the woman who came before her. And no one is more disappointed by the new Mrs. de Winter than the mansion's grim head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose relationship with Rebecca clearly went much deeper than that of servant and master. Hitchcock never shied away from homosexual themes (see Psycho and Rope for further examples), yet never is it more blatant than it is in the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Much of Hitchcock's personality is woven into the subtext of the film - slathered in Selznick gloss on the outside, teeming with dark psychological character drama on the inside. It's like a horror film in which nothing frightening ever really happens - the horror here being a haunting memory of a domineering human whose influence manages to extend beyond the grave. It is telling that Hitchcock never tells us the new Mrs. de Winter's name - Rebecca is the only name that really matters, denying the new Mrs. de Winter an identity of her own until the bitter end.

While Rebecca may not quite be top tier Hitchcock, it's impressive just how much of his personality he was able to infuse into the film in spite of Selznick's heavy hand. The sparkling wit of his British pictures is noticeably dialed back here, but it still manages to make some notable appearances. Hitchcock would go on to make better films in his ensuing decades working in America, but Rebecca remains an unusual gem in his career, a meeting of two cinematic titans who made a film that managed to feel like a product of both and neither of them at the same time.

The new Criterion Blu-Ray is an improvement on the already excellent MGM disc from 2012, and has a much smoother quality, featuring more striking contrast in the black & white cinematography; not to mention an entire second disc of special features that make this a must-have for Hitchcock fans.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TOM SAWYER/HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1973/1974, Twilight Time)

Colorful musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic tale, featuring toe-tapping numbers by the legendary Sherman Brothers and a score by the one and only John Williams. Presented by Reader's Digest, Tom Sawyer certainly has that sunny, all-American, and yes, abridged feeling of an issue of Reader's Digest; but there's also something undeniably charming and even innocent about its wistful view of a bygone era. While the songs may not be as memorable as the Shermans' best works (you likely won't be coming out humming the tunes like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but under the eye of director Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), Tom Sawyer has the sweep of grandeur of a musical in the classic Hollywood style, even if the songs don't always fit comfortably into the narrative.
Johnny Whitaker (left) as Tom Sawyer and Jeff East (left) as Huckleberry Finn in TOM SAWYER.
The direct sequel toTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn sees Jeff East reprise his role as the titular character, setting off on the Mississippi with runaway slave, Jim (Paul Winfield). By nature a darker story than Tom Sawyer, so its musical numbers seem even more shoe-horned into the narrative. Glosses over many of the book's racial themes in its quest to be a cheery musical, but the leads are strong (especially Winfield), and Harvey Korman and David Wayne inject some much needed energy in the film's second act as a pair of wily con men.

The problem with this pair of Reader's Digest films is that they just don't lend themselves naturally to the musical format. The Sherman Brothers make a valiant effort, but the songs just don't stick, and often feel out of place. Tom Sawyer benefited from its all-American sunny disposition and happy-go-lucky lead (East can't quite carry this film like Johnny Whitaker did as Sawyer), but Huckleberry Finn feels like its just trying too hard to make this story happy, when its saddled with the weight of America's original sin. Come for Winfield's soulful performance and a spirited second act, but overall this adaptation of Huck Finn doesn't quite live up to Mark Twain's original work.

TOM SAWYER - ★★★ (out of four)
HUCKLEBERRY FINN - ★★½ (out of four)

VARIETÉ (1925, Kino Lorber)

This rarely seen gem of silent German cinema is at once a melodrama and a stunningly designed work of art that rivals many of its contemporaries in terms of sheer cinematic ingenuity. While not part of the German Expressionist movement that was going on around the same time, there are certainly elements of German Expressionist design present in Varieté, especially at the beginning. This sordid tale of a trapeze artist (the great Emil Jannings) who leaves his wife and child for a beautiful dancer (Lya de Putti) is a soap opera at heart, but director E.A. Dupont has a true artist's eye. His evocation of the pageantry of the circus, and the pulsing energy of the fair, is nothing short of dazzling. And thanks to the gripping performances of Jannings and de Putti, Varieté becomes something much more than its story suggests. As was typical for many films of its era, it turns into something of a morality play by the end, but Dupont imbues the proceedings with haunting sense of ambiguity. It's an almost operatic tale of personal tragedy, made great by Dupont's keen visual innovations and sense of character.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review | "Wind River"

Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), steps behind the camera to direct one of his own scripts for the first time for Wind River; a murder mystery set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the desolate, snow-covered plains of Wyoming. His only other directing credit was the critically maligned 2011 horror film, Vile, but if Hell or High Water proved anything, it's that the man can write. While Wind River isn't quite the film the Hell or High Water is, there's still a strong sense of purpose and place, of the hard boiled inevitability of violence in a place that has fallen through the cracks of society at large.

Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a hunter with a haunted past who finds the body of a young woman in the middle of the frozen wastelands. Ill-equipped to handle a murder investigation, the tribal police calls in the FBI, who sends a rookie agent named Jane Banner to handle the case. When it becomes clear that they will be receiving no outside help, Jane asks Cory to help her track down the men who raped the young woman and left her to die, leading them both into the dark underbelly of a town that has been left to die every bit as much as their frozen murder victim.

Sheridan establishes an atmosphere of isolation right from the outset, and the film is anchored by strong performances by Renner and Olsen. There are a few moments that seem to betray Sheridan's relative inexperience behind the camera - a major dialogue scene is shot by a stationary handheld camera, resulting in a distracting lack of focus rather than the intended feeling of authenticity. And the film's postscript, informing us that there is no database for missing Native American women, is undercut by the fact that the film isn't really about that. So the film never quite earns the gravitas that it seeks, but as a tough-as-nails police procedural, it works. Wind River is an often gripping murder mystery that aims to be a deeper exploration of the plight of those on society's fringes (not unlike Hell or High Water). While it never quite matches its own ambitions, Sheridan still manages to deliver a crackerjack mystery that relies on characters rather than twists, turns, or shocks.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WIND RIVER | Directed by Taylor Sheridan | Stars Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, John Bernthal | Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On "Whose Streets?"

Activist Brittany Ferrell and crowd of protesters in WHOSE STREETS?, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

From The Dispatch:
A haunting look at how the death of one young man became a flash point for a movement that endures today. It is a remarkably assured debut for Folayan, who captures the protests with a sense of urgency. She knows this is a story that needs to be told, and she presents a powerful account of the protests that we never saw on the news. And even as the President of the United States tries to equate Black Lives Matter with Nazis and the KKK after the events of Charlottesville, “Whose Streets?” attempts to show the other side of the story.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review | "Marjorie Prime"

An elderly woman resurrects her long dead husband through hologram technology in Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime, a haunting and remarkable meditation on memory and mortality.

There's so much to unpack in this thing that it demands more than one viewing, and likely, more than one review. Based on the play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie Prime allows its characters - the elderly woman, her daughter, and her son-in-law, to relive their memories of their loved ones with a life-like digital approximation that they create by feeding it memories. The memories they give it are usually only the good memories, often which are fabricated in order to build the life they wish they had. It is simultaneously somehow devastating and life affirming, a treatise on the human inability to let go of the past, and our desire to control our own lives through selective memory, it is also a celebration how our loved ones are never truly gone, they live on through our memory. But how accurate are those memories? As Geena Davis' character points out, memories are like "photocopies of photocopies."

Jon Hamm (left) and Lois Smith (right) in FilmRise's MARJORIE PRIME.

Perhaps the film's most indelible moment comes as one character is busy feeding memories into a hologram. When the hologram questions why she is doing that, she responds simply - "to make you more human." The hologram later turns it around, querying her need to connect with people from her past. Upon hearing her response, the hologram replies - "Ah. You want to be more human too."

Marjorie Prime is a heartbreaking exploration of what it means to be human, of what it means to be alive. It's like a more philosophical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - beautifully encapsulating humanity at its most vulnerable. What is left of us, when all we have is our memory? What is left of us when memory is all that we are? This is a major film - a powerful and probing work that isn't afraid to ask Big Questions without providing overly sentimental or patronizing answers. From Almereyda's inquisitive screenplay, to the raw, honest performances by Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, and Jon Hamm, to Mica Levi's dream-like store, Marjorie Prime is a captivating work that unfolds like wisps of memory, desperately looking to the past for answers, companionship, common experience. What it finds is the beautiful and heartbreaking essence of human life.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MARJORIE PRIME | Directed by Michael Almereyda | Stars Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

From the Repertory | August 30, 2017

8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG (1997, Twilight Time)

Joe Pesci stars as a mafia hitman tasked with transporting eight heads to the boss, only to lose them in an airport terminal bag mixup. The poor sap who ends up with the heads is meeting his future in-laws for the first time, and chaos ensues when they discover the bag's contents.

A kind of screwball re-imagining of Sam Peckinpah's masterful 1974 film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is a lifeless dark comedy with no real sense of pacing or fun. Pesci is a hoot, but the film doesn't seem to know what to do with him, trapping him in a dorm room interrogating two doofuses for half the run time. The biggest problem is that it's just not funny. It's fun to watch Pesci get pissed off, but the script is a mess and there are only so many head jokes that can be made. It's a dark comedy, but in order to be a dark comedy, one must first be funny. 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is just unpleasant (not to mention outrageously culturally insensitive to the point of being borderline racist) - not really a gangster film, not really a romantic comedy, just a mishmash of lame set-pieces and never seem to jell into anything coherent.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

KID GALAHAD (1962, Twilight Time)

It is said that Elvis was disappointed by his acting career. Desperately wanting to taken seriously as a dramatic actor, he was instead typecast in frivolous musical comedies which were squarely in his comfort zone, but never really challenged him as a performer. Kid Galahad was a remake of a 1937 film by Michael Curtiz starring Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart, which was a serious gangster picture. Phil Karlson's take on the story was anything but. His Kid Galahad is a musical comedy, in which corn-pone country boy Elvis ends up boxing for a washed up promoter who's in serious trouble with the law. He becomes famous for his one punch knock-outs, but when the promoter finds the law bearing down on him, he conspires to throw the match and bet against his own fighter. Elvis sings, falls in love, and everyone goes home happy.

There's no denying that Elvis was a magnetic performer. However, the films he was in were often silly and even nonsensical. Kid Galahad seems to exist as an excuse to get him to sing, and little else. The story takes a back seat to the scenes in which Elvis sits down and sings (I hesitate to call them musical numbers, because it's just him singing for no apparent reason). Karlson took a dark story and turned it into a frothy, yet strangely flat, affair that feels like its spinning its wheels for most of its run time, flat-lining as it struggles to get to the next excuse to let Elvis sing.

Elvis wanted to spread his wings, and he clearly had the chops. Unfortunately, the films just wouldn't let him. Kid Galahad isn't terrible, but it's just so cookie-cutter that it lacks any personality of its own.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958, Twilight Time)

Fresh off a five year stint on the Hollywood blacklist, the great Martin Ritt returned with The Long, Hot Summer, adapted from three William Faulkner stories, and marking the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with star, Paul Newman. While the film is essentially a souped up, southern fried melodrama (produced by Jerry Wald, also responsible for the similarly scandalous, and ultimately superior, Peyton Place), it is marked by strong performances by Newman as a drifter running from his past, Orson Welles as a wealthy patriarch who takes him in, and Joanne Woodward as the daughter who catches Newman's eye.  Angela Lansbury also makes use of minimal screen time as Welles' independently minded mistress.

Ritt would go on to make better films, more focused and tightly directed, but The Long, Hot Summer is nevertheless an actors showcase, something Ritt excelled at. He had instinctual knack for knowing when to hold back and let Newman's blue eyes smolder. It may be a soap opera at heart, but its keen sense of place and character make it worthwhile.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

STATE FAIR (1962, Twilight Time)

Rogers and Hammerstein's only original movie musical, State Fair was originally made in 1945, before being remade and "modernized" in 1962 by Jose Ferrer, starring Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, Pamela Tiffin, and Ann-Margaret. Filmed in glorious Cinemascope, STATE FAIR is certainly a brightly colored spectacular, although the musical numbers are rather flat and unimaginatively staged. Some of the big numbers are staged with a static camera in front of a lot of dancers, a technique which felt dated even in 1962. It doesn't help that the songs aren't particularly memorable (and the less said about "Never Say No to a Man" the better).

Still, State Fair has its charms - following a group of country kids into the big state fair for a three day excursion that includes carnival rides, livestock competitions, and romance. The squeaky-clean Boone has an eye for the ever so slightly "trashy" showgirl, Ann-Margaret (quite a turnaround, considering the extremely conservative Boone refused to kiss a woman who wasn't his wife just five years earlier in April Love), while crooner Bobby Darin romance's Boone's innocent younger sister. They're attractive leads, to be sure, and not bad company for two hours. Still, the film itself feels a bit bloated, especially considering how the original 1945 film was meant to celebrate a more small-town affair than a big city extravaganza.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959, Twilight Time)

Widely condemned as obscene (but approved under the Hays Code anyway), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer is a deliciously sordid tale of madness and betrayal. Elizabeth Taylor stars as a young woman named Catherine who is driven mad after the death of her friend, Sebastian, while on a vacation the previous summer. Her aunt Violet (Katherine Hepburn), Sebastian's mother, hires a renowned neurosurgeon (Montgomery Clift), to lobotomize Catherine in order to relieve her insanity, promising him major funding for his crumbling hospital in return. But the more he interviews Catherine, the more he begins to suspect that Catherine is perfectly sane, and that Violet is trying to cover up a dark family secret.

Both Taylor and Hepburn received well deserved Oscar nominations for their performances, and indeed they are far and away the highlight of the film. Is there any entrance in the history of cinemas as grand or as memorable as Hepburn's descent from an elevator in the ceiling of her mansion? It's a psychological cat fight that borders on camp (Mankiewicz was also responsible for All About Eve), with the regal Hepburn clashing with the younger Taylor with venomous relish. The script by Gore Vidal, based on Williams' one-act play, is a thing of ferocious beauty, tackling issues of homosexuality, adultery, incest, and even cannibalism, in a potent witches' brew of subjects that were taboo in 1959. Its content even caused John Wayne to remark that the film was a "poison polluting Hollywood's moral bloodstream" and that it was "too disgusting even for discussion." And while this may seem quaint now, Suddenly, Last Summer remains a remarkably salacious descent into madness, thanks to Mankiewicz's harrowing direction and two towering performances by Taylor and Hepburn (playing second fiddle to another actress for the first time since the 1930's), who turn the film into a titanic showdown between two of the era's greatest personalities.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (1969, Kino Studio Classics) - Available Sept. 5

Perhaps one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking films ever made, Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a painful and powerful allegory for the exploitation of the poor in America. Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin star as an unlikely couple who find themselves partners in a Depression-era dance competition, that invites people to engage in a grueling dance marathon that can last months, dancing continuously until only one couple is left standing to claim a $1,500 prize.  The competition becomes something of a human spectacle, as people flock from all over to watch hundreds of desperate people dance for thousands of hours, putting life, limb, and sanity on the line for a tiny chance turn their fortunes around.

Based on the novel by Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is perhaps one of the most indelible depictions of the utter despair of cyclical poverty ever put on screen - right up there with Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D (a film which it rivals as perhaps the saddest of all time). Here, poverty becomes  a grotesque game, exploiting desperate people with nowhere else to turn for the entertainment of the masses. In fact, it's never been more terrifyingly relevant than it is now. Its characters are trapped in a vicious cycle from which they cannot escape (even discovering that if they win, they will be charged for their participation in the event), trying to claw their way out of poverty only to be dragged back down. Even when they win, they lose - having worked so hard for so little. It's a striking, haunting film that is often difficult to watch, but impossible to look away from. The central performances by Fonda and Sarrazin are magnetic, while Gig Young went onto win an Oscar for his multifaceted portrayal of the master of ceremonies, a world-weary carnival barker who is both sympathetic to their plight, but ultimately just another cog in a wheel of a system he cannot change.  The new Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics is a thing of beauty - featuring a lovely fine grain (giving it an evocative, film-like look) and muted color palate to reflect the film's depression-era setting. If there was ever a film that completely captures the utter desperation and despair of poverty, it's this one.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "Beggars of Life"

There's a reason why Wallace Beery gets top billing over the likes of Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in William Wellman's Beggars of Life. While he may not be the main character, he owns every second of that film. And he was the bigger star at the time, the role is so unglamorous (he's the villain of the piece for half the film), he makes the most out of a role that could have easily faded into the background.

As Oklahoma Red, a notorious hobo who runs a gang of tramps, Beery is something of a minor miracle, providing a major stumbling block for our heroes, Jim (Arlen) and Nancy (Brooks), two young people on the run after Nancy shot the step-father who raped her. Loosely based on Jim Tully's autobiography of the same name, Beggars of Life is an often grim look at the life of a hobo (a topic that was both romanticized and vilified at the time), following two young people who desperately want out of the tramping lifestyle, and one avowed tramp who is redeemed by their love.

Wellman's epic war film, Wings, went on to win the very first Oscar for Best Picture the same year, but Beggars of Life is perhaps a more impressive artistic achievement. While Wings is filled with stunning aerial photography and action sequences, Beggars of Life strikes a much deeper emotional chord. Brooks would later condemn Wellman's methods, after leaving for Europe where G.W. Pabst made her a star in his twin masterpieces, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl in 1929. But it's hard to deny that Wellman extracted a magnificent performance from her here, even if she is relegated to being dressed as a boy and looking distressed for most of the picture. Few actresses of the silent era were as magnetic as Brooks, and she clearly knew how to command the screen with little more than a look.

But it was Pabst who would truly lead Brooks to greatness. Here, Beery is undeniably the star; taking a gruff, lecherous character like Oklahoma Red (who initially takes in Jim and Nancy with an eye for forcing himself on Nancy), and turning him into an unlikely hero - a complicated man with conflicted emotions whose heart is reached by a tale of true love. It's a beautiful performance, filled with wit and soul, perhaps one of the greatest of the silent era. Beggars of Life features some fantastic action sequences (beautifully shot by Henry Gerrard, also responsible for  the evocative camera work on Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1932 adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game), but it is Beery who is the heart and soul of the film. In an era when emotions were often theatrically projected to the cheap seats, Beery created an indelible character whose journey feels wholly realized and painfully real. Kino Lorber's new Blu-Ray features a gorgeous restoration that perfectly captures Gerrard's lovely framing and melancholy imagery. It's one of Kino's best Blu-Discs yet, featuring an in-depth essay by Nick Pinkerton, as well as two audio commentaries featuring William Wellman, Jr., and Thomas Gladysz, founding director of the Louise Brooks Society. They offer illuminating insight into a forgotten gem of the silent era that is now ripe for rediscovery.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review | "Nocturama"

Bertrand Bonello's stunning film about seven young radicals who execute a series of bombings in Paris, before holing up in a downtown department store, is one of the most devastating and haunting portraits of modern radicalism ever put to film. These seven young people, of varying ethnic backgrounds, are homegrown terrorists with no real end-game or clear-cut ideology. The acts of terror they commit are only referred to as "what we had to do," and Bonello cleverly leaves the "why they had to do it" part conspicuously absent.

Every action is cut for maximum psychological tension, from the opening buildup to the act itself (often executed without dialogue, through rhythmic editing jumping back and forth through time), to the party-like atmosphere of the aftermath - drinking, cavorting, and dancing the night away as the police descend upon their corporate hideout, to the final, eerie SWAT team raid; a scene edited to emphasize the shocking power of each gunshot (often using repetition to maximize their impact from multiple points of view).

That the young terrorists choose to hide out in the ultimate symbol of hollow capitalistic success, a skyscraper shopping mall, is no coincidence. That they seem to revel in its excesses, seemingly oblivious to their own hypocrisy, is no coincidence either. While Bonello never clearly states why they pulled off such a massive terrorist attack, there are clues in their actions. It's a rage against a machine seemingly has no time for them, and no desire to listen to what they have to say.

Nocturama never excuses the actions of its protagonists. But it does examine the seeds of radicalism, and its destructive consequences, with clear eyes and a cold heart. By the time the inevitable state reprisal finally arrives, we still know nothing of the motives of the young radicals, and we realize that the world at large will never know either. Robbed of a voice, they act out in the only universal language - violence. The shocking violence of the response only helps to cement their powerlessness, and perpetuate a cycle of violence where there could have been dialogue and understanding. While the terrorism displayed here bears little resemblance to modern terrorism as we know it, Nocturama is still a chilling look at the cyclical nature of violence, and the failure of governments to listen to their people.

Bonello offer no judgment here (much like in his excellent 2011 film, House of Tolerance). The film exists in a disquieting moral gray area. Every character is guilty of an atrocity. Yet there is an eerie sense hanging over the film that begs for understanding.  A little listening goes a long way. In Nocturama, no one listens to anyone. The bombings are a result of anger with no outlet, and with no real understanding of that anger. They just know that the system is stacked against them, and they lash out in hopes that anyone will listen. That no one ultimately does is perhaps the film's greatest tragedy, and the cycle of violence continues...

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

NOCTURAMA | Directed by Bertrand Bonello | Stars Finnegan Oldfield, Vincent Rottiers, Hamza Meziani, Manal Issa, Martin Petit-Guyot, Jamil McCraven, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurie Valentinelli | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

From the Repertory | 8/10/17

My reviews of some notable recent Blu-Ray releases of classic and catalogue titles.

THE CRIMSON KIMONO (Twilight Time, 1959)

Looking back on the original 1959 marketing for The Crimson Kimono, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of racist exploitation film. The posters screamed "YES this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" as if it was meant to make the audience clutch its pearls and buy a ticket to see just what on earth could have possessed such a nice white girl to kiss a Japanese boy instead of a white boy.

The film itself, however, is nothing like that. Naturally, the idea of a white girl and a Japanese boy was a bit scandalous in 1959, with WWII not quite 15 years in the rear view mirror. But director Samuel Fuller sought to provide a deeper exploration of racism and the inherent societal expectations of love. He wraps his tale of forbidden love in a crime story, in which two cops (one white, one Japanese) fall for the same sketch artist while on the trail of a murderer who shot a stripper down in the street. It's a sordid, hard boiled crime drama, with hints of film noir skirting around the edges. But at it's heart, it's a love story - one in which the decidedly white woman only has eyes for the Japanese man. While the studio tried to pressure Fuller into making the white male lead into a jerk in order to give her a reason to fall in love with the Japanese man, Fuller resisted, insisting that she needed no other reason than that she preferred him to the white man. The resulting film is a fascinating exploration of racial tensions at the time, especially in the wake of WWII, when Japanese Americans still were not fully trusted.

Fuller added yet another layer to the story, however. Because he is so used to racism, the Japanese cop assumes his partner's jealously over his relationship with the woman is due to racism, when in fact it was due to his own feelings for her. Fuller also wanted to explore "reverse racism," something our more modern sensibilities have lead us to understand doesn't exist. Fuller, and most of America at the time, may not have understood the difference between racism and prejudice, but he managed to make compelling drama out of the idea that anyone can feel hate, especially when they are conditioned to be hated by the majority. One might feel queasy about such a plot in today's political climate, but Fuller treats the material with dignity. The Japanese man's mistrust of his lifelong best friend is borne out of the way he has been treated by a society that does not trust him. While Fuller doesn't quite go that far into the themes he tackles (this was, after all, 1959), it's a surprisingly astute exploration of race relations of the time. Fuller was inspired by D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, a film even more problematic by modern standards (less so, perhaps, than Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, but I digress), but I'm a firm believer that art should be judged by it's own time, not by our's. The Crimson Kimono is a noir-ish thriller with the heart of a social drama, making for a fascinating genre hybrid that showcases Fuller's innate ability to make films that were so much more than the sum of their parts.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


Woody Allen's uproarious adaptation of Dr. David Reuben's 1969 self-help bestseller, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) is an episodic comedy that takes titles of Reuben's chapters (Allen famously never actually read the book) and turns them into comedy gold. Covering such questions as "Do Aphrodisiacs Work?" and "Are Transvestites Homosexuals?," Allen finds the humor in sex with his trademark neurotic wit.

Like most anthology films, some are stronger than others, but Allen is clearly having a blast playing around with different genres, from sci-fi/horror in "Are the Findings of Doctors and Clinics Who Do Sexual Research and Experiments Accurate?" (a take-off on The Blob in which villagers are terrorized by a giant man-eating breast) to the game show format of "What's my Perversion?" (imagining a game show in which celebrity contestants try to guess the guests' sexual fetishes), to the Antonioni-inspired "Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?" (in which Allen's wife can only achieve orgasm in public places).

But the two highlights here are the final segment, "What Happens During Ejaculation?," a hilarious, Inside Out-esque adventure that imagines the brain a giant command center (lead by a deadpan Burt Reynolds) preparing the body for a sexual encounter, and "What is Sodomy?," a surprisingly tender short starring Gene Wilder as a doctor who has fallen in love with a sheep.

In "What Happens During Ejaculation?," Allen stars as a sperm, imagined here as a paratrooper about to leap into the unknown, facing imminent deployment as the body's various organs work together to complete the sexual encounter. It's easily the funniest segment of the bunch (not to mention the most creatively inspired), even if the previous segment felt like a more natural denouement.

"What is Sodomy?" is perhaps the most famous segment, and it's not difficult to see why. It tackles a shocking and even revolting subject with such humanity that it's difficult not to be moved by it. Wilder's performance is so gentle and so affecting that it's easy to forget that we're watching a film about bestiality. The episodic structure of the film may dampen the film's over all impact, but "What is Sodomy?" is the one that lingers, even after the other segments have faded away. A lot of that is due to Wilder, who finds something strangely tender in an an extreme situation. That is, perhaps, what is most notable about Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask - it's ability to take the most absurd sexual situations, and make them somehow relatable. We all have our perversions, and Allen is here to find the humor and the humanity in one of our most sacred and widespread obsessions.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


A social faux-pas becomes the total unravelling of civilization in Luis Buñuel's devastating upper-class satire, The Exterminating Angel. The bourgeoisie was a favorite target of Buñuel's, and they were never more savagely lampooned than they were here, trapped in a room after a dinner party, unable to leave because of a simple breach of etiquette that causes them all to lose their grip on reality.

Buñuel confines them in a social trap of their own devising, caught in a web of absurd social mores from which they cannot escape, bound by baseless niceties and classist prejudice created by a senseless social order. And it is only when they turn to equally baseless superstition in which they have absolute faith that they are able to escape (if only temporarily). That they immediately get stuck once again, this time in a church, is no coincidence. Not only is Buñuel satirizing the upper class here, he's also turning a withering eye upon the church, and the blind faith in an institution that ultimately traps its faithful in a confining social and spiritual construct.

The Exterminating Angel takes the surrealism of Buñuel's earlier works and turns it into a kind of comic absurdity. While Buñuel actively eschewed any kind of rational interpretation of films such as his debut work, Un Chien Andalou, he boldly uses his surrealist sensibilities in service of an incendiary message, creating a darkly hilarious evisceration of a social order that no longer has any basis in reality.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GHOST WORLD (Criterion, 2001)

Have you ever felt like a movie was made just for you? Like the filmmaker somehow understood everything about you and made a film with you in mind? Ghost World is that for me. I was 15 when I first saw it, and it was a revelation to my teenage mind. I showed it to everyone I knew. I showed it to my family. I showed it to friends. After I grew up I showed it to my wife. One day, when they're older, I will show it to my children. But none of them ever seemed to appreciate it the way I did. And while I know it is a film with a fervent following, Ghost World feels like it's mine, something that speaks directly to me in a way no one else can understand. Which is fitting, somehow. That is part of its magic and its beauty, I think - its ability to speak to and for those who don't quite feel at home in mainstream society. While I wouldn't say that necessarily describes me - I've always felt a certain disconnect between popular culture and societal standards, and the things I find worthwhile.

I like to think I've grown up since then, but there's just something so special about it and it's rebellious spirit, railing against the lack of authenticity in a soulless culture that has forgotten what really matters, always in the pursuit of empty consumption. Thora Birch, Scarlett Johannson, and Steve Buscemi have never been better, and the screenplay by director Terry Zwigoff and author Daniel Clowes remains one of the most biting yet sensitive portrayals of misanthropy ever seen on screen. It's characters are in search of authentic human connection, but most importantly they are in search of themselves - desperately looking for a niche in a world that insists on putting them into boxes. Ghost World is so good it hurts, and remains to this day one of my all-time favorite films.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

PRIZZI'S HONOR (Kino Lorber, 1985)

A mafia hitman and his new wife discover that they have each been hired to kill the other, in John Huston's penultimate film, Prizzi's Honor. Angelica Huston won an Oscar for her performance as a mafia daughter with a crush and a vendetta. The narrative meanders a little but, but Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner are in top form. Nicholson's working class thug is a thrilling departure, although the love story between he and Turner never really congeals enough to make the drama compelling. A dark comedy, to be sure, but it all ends on a surprisingly dour note that it never quite earns.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

SILKWOOD (Kino Lorber, 1983)

Meryl Streep received the fifth of her many Oscar nominations for portraying Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower at a nuclear facility who died under suspicious circumstances in 1974. Her story comes to life in Silkwood, Mike Nichols' conventional but undeniably compelling drama that hits all the notes one expects from these "one person vs. the corporation" films, but does so with a kind of grace that keeps it from being too plodding or preachy.

The film is overlong, and takes a while to get to the point, but there's something admirable about the way it takes its time to setup the characters and their particular circumstances. Streep is reliably excellent, as is Kurt Russell as her boyfriend, and Cher as their roommate. A top notch cast, and a strong, Oscar nominated script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, keep Silkwood from sliding into cliche "Lifetime movie of the week" territory.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

STALKER (Criterion, 1979)

What to make of Andrei Tarkovsky's enigmatic science fiction masterpiece, Stalker? At once a haunting religious allegory and a chilling dystopian vision, Stalker is truly an experience like no other.

Ostensibly a film about three men attempting to journey to the site of a purported alien crash, Stalker's eponymous character is a guide who takes travelers deep into the heart of what is only known as "the Zone," in order to find a fabled Room that is said to grant people's innermost desires. Along the way they face deadly traps and shifting passageways designed to thwart them on their way to happiness, and only the stalkers can see them safely to The Room. Is he a prophet, leading people to the promised land? Is he a false prophet, playing on their hopes and dreams? Is he just a misguided man with misplaced faith?

Stalker dares not only to question religion's role in our world, but to pose the question - "even if our faith in God is in vain, was it still in service of a greater good?" Is a lie an evil even if it brings joy and hope? And what if, in the end, it turns out to be true? Shot in gorgeous, golden sepia, and later (in the Zone) in lovely, muted color, Stalker is a masterwork like no other. The new Criterion Blu-Ray is absolutely flawless, bringing each golden shot to breathtaking life. Like all Tarkovsky's films, it is a slow, deliberate work. Yet not a shot or a sound is wasted (the use of sound here is especially stunning). It's like something out of a dream, guiding us through a haunted, desolate landscape that eerily presages the Chernobyl disaster that would occur seven years later. It's a mesmerizing, utterly un-categorizable work that is undeniably the work of a master artist at the peak of his powers.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Friday, June 30, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "Ugetsu"

I first encountered Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu when I was a sophomore in college, sometime around 2005. While I had been interested in film for years already, college really helped expand my horizons. I was just beginning to take classes for my film studies minor, and my school library was stocked full of Criterion DVDs. I was in heaven.

I was unfamiliar with Mizoguchi at that point in my life. I had no knowledge of his silent films, or early social dramas like Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy (something I have remedied in subsequent years). But Ugetsu was one of those rare films that immediately became one of my all-time favorites. I was in awe of Mizoguchi's craft, and it made me hungry for more.

Ugetsu came at the peak of Mizoguchi's career - he won the Golden Lion three years in a row for The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), a trio of masterpieces that showcase a consummate artist at the height of his powers. For this reviewer, however, Mizoguchi never topped Ugetsu, a haunting, supernatural love story that is as beautiful as it is tragic.

The film is a combination of Japanese ghost stories, one about an aspiring samurai who forsakes his family to pursue his dream, leaving his wife to take up prostitution to make ends meet. The other is a potter fleeing war with his family, who is seduced by a mysterious noble woman who turns out to be a ghost. Released eight years after the end of WWII, Ugetsu is as much a cautionary tale as it is a medieval legend.  Weary and plagued by war, these peasants give in to lust and greed, seeking a better life but ultimately waylaid by their own desires. Mizoguchi explores their fate through mesmerizing long takes and a quiet, eerie atmosphere, awash in fog and foreboding. Pay close attention to where he places his camera - unblinking, never judging, but always displaying a deep compassion for its characters humanity. The first time I saw Ugetsu, I wept profusely. Yet even in its tragedy, Mizoguchi finds a strange and otherworldly beauty.  Its use of the supernatural almost feels more metaphorical than literal - representing a man always chasing dreams rather than paying attention to what is right in front of him.

Ugetsu is a masterpiece. Not just one of the finest examples of Japanese cinema, but one of the all time classics. Mizoguchi's craftsmanship remains unparalleled, providing a deep and powerful exploration of human folly that achieves an almost mystical status. Like watching an ancient folktale being born right before our eyes, it remains one of cinema's most uniquely beautiful experiences. The long-awaited Criterion Blu-Ray adds no special features to the original 2005 DVD, but the new 4K restoration is absolutely breathtaking, and worth the upgrade for any fan of the film or the filmmaker. While Criterion has faithfully released Blu-Ray editions of Sansho, Oharu, and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, in recent years, the arrival of an HD transfer of his greatest work is cause for celebration.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary by critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns 
  • Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, a 1975 documentary by Kaneto Shindo 
  • Two Worlds Intertwined, a 2005 appreciation of Ugetsu by Masahiro Shinoda Process and Production, a 2005 interview with Tokuzo Tanaka, first assistant director on Ugetsu 
  • Interview from 1992 with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 
  • Trailers 
  • An essay by film critic Phillip Lopate (Blu-ray and DVD) and three short stories that influenced Mizoguchi in making the film (Blu-ray only)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

From the Repertory | 6/22/17

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992, Kino)

For a film that clocks in at over two and a half hours, Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise feels strangely rushed. Chronicling the first two voyages to the New World by Christopher Columbus, 1492 has a lot of ground to cover. Clearly in a hurry to get to the actual voyage, Scott never really gives the film time to breathe, or the sense of discovery and adventure to feel truly momentous (despite a glorious score by Vangelis).

Ignoring for a moment the fact that the film is basically a hagiography a man who in reality was a brutal murderer (it shifts blame for Columbus' atrocities to Adrián de Moxica), the film is either too long, or not long enough, depending on how you look at it. Scott is just trying to cram too much in here, and the result feels hurried, like a wildly historically inaccurate Cliff's Notes account of the Columbus story. On the plus side, the film is lovely to look at, beautifully shot by Adrian Biddle (although the Blu-Ray presentation feels a bit lackluster) and sumptuously designed by production designer Norris Spencer and costume designers Charles Knode and Barbara Rutter. And did I mention how amazing Vangelis' score is? It feels like it's building a legend, yet the film itself often feels like it's racing to catch up to its own ambition. Scott is a magnificent visual stylist, but 1492: Conquest of Paradise fails to dig deeper into its protagonist's mindset. It casts him as a simple dreamer, but ignores the actual history and ramifications of his "discovery." The result is a beautifully constructed drag that never seems to become the grand epic it truly wants to be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

INFERNO (1953, Twilight Time)

Roy Ward Baker's Inferno is a lean, mean piece of work. The tale of a widely disliked millionaire who is left for dead in the middle of the desert by his wife and her lover after falling and breaking his leg, Inferno is a grueling character study that follows his struggles to make it back to civilization.

While Baker is best known for directing A Night to Remember, along with a host of B-horror pictures, Inferno is a unique beast all its own. Released in 3D in 1953, the film avoids most of the hokey visual gimmicks that were a hallmark of the 3D craze during the era, instead focusing on its protagonist's growth during his time in the desert. A vain, aloof, selfish man, he discovers new depths to himself as he struggles to survive. At first, it is a desire for vengeance keeping him going, but he soon discovers that he has much more to live for than he ever realized.

The central performance by Robert Ryan is excellent. While the film itself hasn't survived in the best condition (even on Blu-Ray, much of its Technicolor cinematography has faded to a pale blue), it remains a tautly directed thriller featuring well drawn characters and a compelling plot. The phrase "they don't make 'em like this anymore" has become a cliche, but in this case it's true - they really don't. 20th Century Fox didn't invest much in 3D after this first foray into the already waning craze, but this was no throwaway exploitation film. It's a gritty ode to the resilience of the human spirit, and the capacity for great change in the face of great adversity.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MAN IN THE MOON (1991, Twilight Time)

The Man in the Moon marked both the film debut for young Reese Witherspoon, and the final film for legendary filmmaker Robert Mulligan. Mulligan is perhaps most famous for helming To Kill a Mockingbird, in The Man in the Moon, he paints another indelible portrait of a young girl coming of age in a small southern town.

Witherspoon is nothing short of remarkable - a natural talent from the very beginning. As a 14 year old girl feelings the pangs of first love in the form of an older boy who has eyes for her sister instead, Witherspoon delivers a fully realized and wholly believable performance that heralded the arrival of a major talent. Mulligan's sensitive direction feels like an anachronism, something out of the 60's rather than the 90's, but the resulting film feels so natural, so lived in, it's like a time capsule in the best possible way. It's a slower paced film about a slower way of life. We watch young Witherspoon learn and grow, and feel as if we have become  a part of this close-knit, rural family. It's a beautifully crafted look at childhood romance and the pain of learning life's hard lessons. Few filmmakers have captured the American south quite like Mulligan, and The Man in the Moon is his graceful, deeply moving farewell.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (1978, Twilight Time)

Nick Nolte stars as a Vietnam veteran who finds himself smuggling drugs from Vietnam back to the States for a war-addled photographer (Michael Moriarty) and his wife (Tuesday Weld). The wife, it turns out, has become an addict while her husband was away, and Nolte finds himself drawn to her as they run away from a gang of thugs out to steal the drugs for themselves.

Released only 3 years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, effectively surrendering the country to the North and ending the war, Who'll Stop the Rain has a melancholy, world-weary air, as if the continuation for the war for those who lived through it was all but inevitable. Nolte is fantastic, as are Moriarty and Weld (not to mention Anthony Zerbe as the cooly calculating villain), but the film itself is something of a mixed bag, occasionally feeling likely a cheaply constructed thriller using Vietnam as a selling point. Still, director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant's Woman) brings a wider sense of tragedy to the proceedings, as a long and grueling war continues to claim victims long after it's over.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE YEAR OF THE COMET (1992, Twilight Time)

A wine historian and a charming rogue go on the run in pursuit of the world's most expensive bottle of wine, which is also being in pursued by a band of criminals who believe it contains a formula they need to complete a new fountain of youth drug. The plot is silly, of course, but there's a certain charm to Peter Yates' and William Goldman's caper. Unfortunately, it's brought down by wooden lead performances that just can't sell the film's inherent outlandishness. Beautifully shot by Roger Pratt, and featuring a lovely score by Hummie Mann, but they're in service of a film that's just a bit too silly for its own good. Goldman's script features some sparkling one-liners, but the film's mix of action and romantic comedy often comes off as contrived rather than charming. Still, while it may be less than the sum of its parts, many of those parts are surprisingly entertaining, especially as the film nears its climax.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From the Repertory | 5/16/2017

A recap of some of the last month's new and notable Blu-Ray releases.

ANOTHER WOMAN (1988, Twilight Time)
Among Woody Allen's dramas, Another Woman is perhaps one of the least known. Yet, in my opinion, it is his finest dramatic achievement, one that steps away from the almost self-conscious emulation of Ingmar Bergman in Interiors and asserts Allen as a dramatic force all his own. Sure, Bergman's influence is all over this thing (it's shot by Sven Nykvist for God's sake), but rather than be a slavish recreation of Bergman's style, Another Woman feels much more completely Allen's.

Gena Rowlands gives one of the most remarkable performances in the Allen canon as a college professor whose work on her novel is interrupted by the sounds of sessions from the psychiatrist's office next door wafting through the air vents. Propriety propels her to block off the vents at first, but soon she becomes enamored with the drama unfolding next door, as she listens to the struggles of a young woman whose life begins to mirror her own. She soon begins to see her life as the sham that it is, having reached 50 years old and having much less to show for it than she though. From her philandering husband (whom she stole from another woman), to her unwitting flirtations with other men that have threatened to destroy relationships, she left a path of emotional destruction in her wake without ever being self-aware enough to see it.

Another Woman is a fascinating character study, mostly free of Allen's trademark neuroticism, yet ripe with some of his most astute introspection. At first, the narration seems distracting, but by the end it becomes clear how vital it is as a window into its protagonist's soul, her story spilling onto the pages of the novel she is writing. The chilly distance with which Allen directs feeds directly into the her own detachment from humanity, something which slowly breaks down over the course of the film. It's a brilliant work, one that often doesn't get the credit it deserves, even among Allen's devotees. While Crimes & Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters have their champions, when it comes to Allen's dramatic output of the 1980's, in my opinion Another Woman has no peer.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966, Twilight Time)
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau star in Billy Wilder's acerbic insurance fraud satire, The Fortune Cookie. A comedic riff on some of the same themes that drove Wilder's Double Indemnity, The Fortune Cookie tells the story of a cameraman (Lemmon) who suffers a mild concussion after being hit by a football player while filming a game form the sidelines. His brother-in-law, known as "Whiplash" Willie (Matthau), is an unscrupulous, ambulance chasing lawyer, who convinces him to fake more serious injuries in order to sue his employer and the football team for 1 million dollars.

Matthau would go on to win an Oscar for his performance as the fast-talking Willie, and it's easy to see why. This was the first collaboration in what would become a lifelong friendship for Lemmon and Matthau, and their chemistry here is readily apparent. While it doesn't have quite the same impact as Double Indemnity, but Wilder's dark comedy cuts deep, taking no prisoners among lawyers and insurance men - both sides using ethically dubious tactics for the sake of money, neither taking stock of the man at the center of the madness. There's a dark sort of melancholy at the heart of the film, readily apparent by the film's rather downbeat finale. But it's also deeply, almost painfully funny. The saddest part, however, is perhaps the fact that nothing has changed. Wilder remains as much ahead of his time as he was of it, skewering human foibles with a withering eye.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TAMPOPO (1985, Criterion)
The term "food porn" is often used to describe films or TV shows that showcase delicious-looking food, and does not usually refer to actual pornography featuring food. Juzo Itami's Tampopo, however, skirts that line with its unusual blend of eroticism and culinary delights. Billed as a "ramen western," Tampopo follows two itinerant truck drivers who happen upon a struggling ramen shop, and set about helping the shop's widowed owner improve her skills to become the greatest ramen cook in the land.

An ecstatic celebration of food in all its forms, Tampopo shifts back and forth from Tampopo's quest to have the best ramen shop, to tales of sexual exploits involving a gangster's food fetish, and a group of young women taking an etiquette class who get an unexpected lesson in how to eat ramen.  It's a wild and uniquely Japanese culinary fantasia, but it's also not particularly cohesive. Its disparate elements don't always add up, and often distract from the main narrative. It's undeniably mouth-watering, and its exploration of the eroticism of eating is particularly memorable, but the individual elements never really add up to a satisfying whole. Nevertheless, it's a hard film to watch and not leave hungry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH (1941, Twilight Time)
Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth star in this delightfully frothy musical romp about a choreographer (Astaire) who falls in love with a beautiful dancer (Hayworth), after having to pretend to be in love with her thanks to one of his his philandering producer's schemes to hide his infidelity from his wife. Before things go too far, he ends up drafted into the army, but finds himself reconnecting with his former flame through his producers continued machinations.

While the plot is somewhat disjointed, it's ultimately beside the point. What people are here for is to see Astaire and Hayworth dance - and dance they do. Unfortunately the numbers are few and far between, relying instead on Astaire and Hayworth's comedic chops and considerable charm to carry the convoluted plot. Still, it's hard to go wrong with this pair, and while the dance numbers don't have the energy and verve of a Busby Berkeley number, it's easy to see how this film made Hayworth a star. Plus the crisp black and white cinematography is dazzlingly rendered on Twilight Time's new limited edition Blu-Ray. You'll Never Get Rich is a film that's easy to recommend based on its stars alone, and the jazzy Cole Porter score makes for a toe-tapping good time.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

From the Repertory | 4/23/17

New and recent Blu-Ray releases, week of 4/23/17.

ANATAHAN (1953, Kino Lorber)
The final film by the legendary Josef von Sternberg, Anatahan tells the true story of 12 Japanese soldiers who are shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. Unaware that the war has ended, the men begin to fight a war of their own, torn apart and driven to near madness by their affection for the island's single female inhabitant, the lovely Keiko.

The men refer to her as the "Queen Bee," and to themselves as the "drones," but their devotion soon devolves into jealousy and murder, slowly stripping away the humanity of each of the island's inhabitants. The dialogue is completely in Japanese, without subtitles. The dialogue is interpreted by an unseen narrator, who is one of the castaway soldiers. The effect of the ever-present narrator is somewhat alienating, but it also cements Von Sternberg as a decidedly non-Japanese observer - an outsider looking in.

The film was originally released in censored form in 1953, before Von Sternberg's preferred director's cut finally saw the light of day in 1958. It contains a surprising amount of nudity for a film of the time (more of which is documented in outtakes available on the new Kino Blu-Ray), but it feels natural and even integral to the plot. One can easily see how the men, trapped on the island with only one woman, were driven to madness by their own toxic masculinity. The film itself is both hampered and helped by its omnipresent narration, almost as if we are looking at a great film through a window or a filter. This adds a thematic layer to its structure, but its almost Brechtian alienation effect is at times distracting. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating formal experience, and a deeply personal project for Von Sternberg.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

BEHIND THE DOOR (1919, Flicker Alley)
"I told him...that if I ever caught him I'd skin him alive; but he died before I finished... Damn him!"

There are few films from the silent era as startling or as darkly gruesome as Irving Willat's Behind the Door, a WWI revenge thriller released only one year after the Great War ended. The film follows Oscar Krug (the extraordinary Hobart Bosworth), an American taxidermist who has the misfortune of having German heritage just as the USA declares war on Germany. Attacked by the neighbors he once called friends, Oscar volunteers for the military, and is made captain of a ship. Distraught, his wife stows away on the ship in order to stay with him during the war. When his ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, the two are cast adrift in a lifeboat, only to be rescued by an enemy vessel. Rather than save them both, the U-Boat captain takes Oscar's wife, and casts him back out to sea to drown, sending Oscar on a bloody quest for revenge.

Despite the fact that some of the film remains lost, Behind the Door is a harrowing experience. It may tame by today's standards, but it's hard to deny the visceral impact of its horrific climax. Willat pulls no punches when it comes to the horror that awaits the U-Boat captain at Oscar's vengeful hands. The film was something of a sensation at the time, quickly gaining an infamous reputation for its grim subject matter. Yet there is a tenderness underneath its bloody exterior. At its heart, Behind the Door is a love story, one that continues just as strongly after death. Willat stages action sequences with a true master's eye - the scene in which the townspeople attempt to kill Oscar for his German heritage is especially thrilling, illustrating the depth of the suspicion and bigotry that was directed at those of German descent (some things, it seems, never chance). The restoration on the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray is simply stunning, utilizing illustrated placeholders to take the place of the missing scenes, helping the story continue almost seamlessly. Behind the Door is a forgotten treasure, a haunting tale of love and vengeance that stands as one of the most gruesome and disturbing films of the silent era.

Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)

COMES A HORSEMAN (1978, Twilight Time)
Alan J. Pakula took an archetypal Western scenario and placed it in the latter days of World War II, as two warring land-owners are suddenly faced with a new threat when agents from a major oil company threaten to take their ranches for the natural riches underneath. At first, you almost don't notice that Comes a Horseman takes place in 1945 rather than the 1800's. The characters lead a simpler way of life, fighting over land rights for their cattle. Jane Fonda stars a Ella Connors, a rancher who teams up with a fellow landowner named Frank 'Buck' Athearn (James Caan) after his partner is gunned down by ruthless cattle baron, J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards). Ewing has been after Connors' property (not to mention her hand in marriage) for years, and is determined to live up to his legendary father's accomplishments, and is willing to stoop to any means to get his way. But when the oil company comes knocking, Ewing and Connors find themselves unlikely allies in a battle for their very way of life, even as Ewing seeks to make a deal with the devil.

Comes a Horseman is ultimately a tale of can-do American resilience, even in the face of soulless corporate expansion. While the story is a classic Western structure, Pakula doesn't give us typically defined heroes or villains. We first meet murderous cattle baron Ewing as he is burying his son, who was killed in action in WWII. It is a tender moment, later undercut by his reprehensible actions, yet Pakula is making a point that he is a human too, not some mustache-twirling visage of evil. All the characters are struggling to carve out a living on the American plains (breathtakingly photographed by the great Gordon Willis), and Pakula treats them with all with humanity. They are holdovers from a forgotten way of life, facing obsolescence through encroaching modernity. The film also features a fantastic, Oscar nominated turn by Richard Farnsworth, making the transition from stuntman to character actor, in a quietly towering performance.

The film itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It moves in fits and starts, and the ending, while a stark reminder of the resilience of the American west, comes out of left field. It's undeniably a solidly crafted drama, beautifully shot and acted, but it never quite seems to figure out where it wants to go or what it wants to be, reaching a violent climax that feels strangely unearned, even by the standards of the western archetypes it seeks to emulate.

Grade - ★★½ (out of four)

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966, Twilight Time)
The great William Wyler, never one to get stuck in any one particular genre, tried his hand at the caper film in 1966's How to Steal a Million, an effervescent romantic heist picture starring Peter O'Toole as a charming society burglar and Audrey Hepburn as the uptight daughter of an art forger.  When Hepburn's father loans out one of his forged sculptures to a museum, he soon realizes that the museum plans to have it professionally inspected before it is insured, thereby putting not only his reputation as an art dealer, but his freedom in jeopardy. In order to save her fathers, Hepburn plans a daring heist with the help of O'Toole's charismatic rogue, whom she caught attempting to steal one of her father's forged Van Goghs from their living room.

The two stars a clearly having a grand old time, and the film gets great mileage out of their boundless charm. Wyler wisely allows O'Toole and Hepburn to command the screen, letting How to Steal a Million coast on their combined magnetism and elegance (buoyed along by a sprightly score by John Williams, here credited as "Johnny Williams"). Over the course of his long and storied career, Wyler proved himself a master chameleon, adept at almost any genre he touched. How to Steal Million is no different, a graceful and fleet-footed caper that is light, frothy, and oh-so-delicious.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

MOBY DICK (1956, Twilight Time)
Gregory Peck stars as the legendary Captain Ahab in John Huston's solid 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick. Perhaps a more straight-foward approach to the story than Melville's more philosophical text, Huston does a remarkable job of capturing a sense of time and place, not to mention the existential dread at the heart of the work. Peck is in fine form as Ahab, while Friedrich von Ledebur is also excellent as the cannibal, Queequeg.

Yet the real star here is cinematographer Oswald Morris (Lolita), who shot the film with a washed-out color scheme that almost looks black and white, evoking paintings of the sea from the 1800's that inspired the overall visual style of the film. It's beautifully capture on Twilight Time's Blu-Ray release, which restores the film's unique color palate for the first time in decades. The film's visual effects also hold up surprisingly well. While the crew frequently struggled with the whale (not unlike the crew of Jaws would nearly two decades later), but the sparing use of the animatronic creature elevates his status as more of a mythic idea than an actual living being. While it ultimately loses some of its narrative drive in the middle section, Huston's take on the Great American Novel is surprisingly light on its feat - a thrilling portrait of single-minded obsession that still resonates today.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971, Twilight Time)
The title of The Panic at Needle Park refers to a time when heroin supplies were running low in New York City's infamous "Needle Park," leading addicts and junkies to turn on one another in order to score their next fix. Al Pacino made his film debut in Jerry Schatzberg's harrowing film, as a heroin addict who introduces his new girlfriend to a dangerous world of drug addiction that threatens to destroy her life. It sounds a bit like an after-school special, with a "don't do drugs, kids" sense of moral propriety, but that's not what this film is at all. There's an almost documentary-like sense of realism at work here. It's raw, gritty, and most of all, painfully honest. It provides no easy answers for its characters, no trite moralizing or judgement. The film simply drops us into these characters' lives, then pulls us back out again without any real sense of resolution.

Of course, there is no real resolution for these characters. They feel completely authentic and the performances are uniformly excellent. It's easy to see why Al Pacino went on to become a major star - he's magnetic here, and totally believable. It's a tough sit, often feeling aimless, which is a result of its verite-like style. And while it sometimes seems to be spinning its wheels in 70's-era miserablism, it's hard to take your eyes of the central performances, and the truly alarming descent into the ugliness of addiction at its core. It feels like something out of a time capsule; a portrait of a specific place and time, capturing the lives of the people of Needle Park in the 1970's in a deeply human, and sometimes heartbreaking, way.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

PEYTON PLACE (1957, Twilight Time)
"It's about time you learned that girls wanna do the same things as boys. And they have the right to know how."

Based on the controversial best-seller by Grace Metalious, Peyton Place would go on to become a long-running prime time soap opera. But not before being turned into a sumptuous, Oscar-nominated film, which captured all of the drama, romance, and sordid secrets of the small New England town of Peyton Place. Sure it's sudsy, but what delicious scandal it offers up, examining the lives of a small town in 1941, in the months leading up the outbreak of World War II.

The film doesn't have a single overarching story, choosing instead on focusing on various Peyton Place citizens and their individual stories, as they navigate life in a judgmental, conservative town. Girls fall in love with boys they can't have, a new progressive principal threatens to shake up the school, and gossip nearly ruins lives, as war looms in Europe, far away from their tiny problems. While toned down from the novel, the film explores topics that were pretty hot-button in 1957, from sexual education, to abortion, to rape. Yet despite its heavy subject matter (and 2.5+ hour running time), Peyton Place remains remarkably light on its feet, ingratiating the audience to small town life, and giving each character, no matter how small, a rich life of their own. It makes us feel a part of this charming but old-fashioned community, and it tweaks their close-mindedness in an ultimately warm and loving way. It's not the incisive social commentary of, say, Douglas Sirk, but there's something undeniably enchanting about the stories it tells. Once you fall in love with Peyton Place, you may never want to leave.

Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)