Thursday, August 31, 2017

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

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.
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

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

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

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)

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (Twilight Time, 1972)

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)

THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Criterion, 1962)

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)