Saturday, November 16, 2019


While he was notoriously difficult to work with, Josef von Sternberg (who borrowed the "von" from Erich von Stroheim) was a master craftsman and one of the greatest filmmakers of the early 20th century. While he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich (including his 1930 masterpiece, The Blue Angel), he made three films at the end of the silent era that stand among his very best

Much of his work before Underworld is either lost or truncated. After catching the eye of Charles Chaplin, Chaplin hired Von Sternberg to direct a comeback vehicle for his onetime lover, Edna Purviance called A Woman of the Sea. Chaplin was so displeased with the film that he never released it, and the film is now the only film connected with Chaplin to have been lost. Still, Von Sternberg did things his own way, and eventually landed a gig as a director-for-hire on the Paramount gangster picture, Underworld (1927). The film was an instant smash-hit that catapulted Von Sternberg into the upper echelon of filmmakers working at the time and helped popularize the gangster genre  The story of a charismatic gangster (George Bancroft) who begins to suspect that his girlfriend is in love with his best friend while he sits on death row, Underworld showcases Von Sternberg's mastery of light and shadow. Its luridly evocative look at honor among the gangsters and thieves who populate the Dreamland Cafe of Chicago is the stuff that old Hollywood dreams are made of, a shadowy tale of virtue among vice that The film is a masterwork of building tension, as Von Sternberg carefully lays the groundwork for the drama that will come to a head in its violent climax. He manages to convey so much information with so little (an entire jewelry store heist is conveyed in just four quick shots), lulling the audience into a kind of rhythm that pays off beautifully when they're all finally cornered during the climactic shoot-out.


In The Last Command (1928), Emil Jannings stars as a high-ranking Russian general who finds himself taking low-paying work as a Hollywood extra after the Bolshevik Revolution under the direction of his former rival (William Powell), a Communist spy now directing a film about the Revolution in America. Jannings won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor for his towering performance as a man becoming unhinged from reality, unable to tell the difference between the real Revolution and the make-believe one he finds himself recreating for the cameras.

While the film spends much of its time in an extended flashback to Grand Duke Alexander's glory days commanding the Czarist army against the Bolsheviks, where he falls in love with a beautiful spy, it's Janning's final scene that really sticks in the memory. There he is, commanding an imaginary army under the glare of the studio lights, lost in a world that no longer exists. It's easy to see why Jannings won the Academy Award, and Von Sternberg captures something really special here. While the film doesn't quite have the energy of Underworld, Jannings gives the film a morally complex center. In 1928 world sympathy laid more with the deposed Czarists than with the Communist revolutionaries, here depicted mostly as a bloodthirsty mob, but Jannings' performance is filled with both fire and humanity - he's a tyrant brought low, paying penance for a life of abusing those under him, and yet somehow we feel sorry for this man. Even his rivals realize this, after watching the madness consume him his onetime enemy can't help but be moved. It's a film unafraid to exist in shades of gray which looks even more remarkable in our own black and white times.


And finally we come to The Docks of New York, a film that demonstrates Von Sternberg's striking versatility. Whereas Underworld solidified the template for the gangster genre and The Last Command took us back to the Russian Revolution, The Docks of New York is a simple love story. George Bancroft reunites with with Von Sternberg as Bill Roberts, a stoker aboard an ocean liner who  falls for a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. He soon finds himself caught between his love for a woman and his love for the sea, but his own moral code eventually forces him to stand up to his old bosses and embrace a new life on land.

The Docks of New York is, at its core, a song of the working class. Released a year after F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, it recalls that earlier film's working class milieu while presaging Jean Vigo's seafaring romance, L'atalante, which would come five years later. Von Sternberg finds such beauty in the film's grungy locales (an early shot in which the action takes place in the reflection on the water is especially lovely), examining the often disarming moments of joy and happiness even amidst the harshest of conditions. He also revisits a similar idea from Underworld, putting the protagonists in a rowdy nightclub; except this time it's not a collection of high society criminals, but a truly seedy underworld of its own. And yet even in this rouge's gallery of thieves and murders Von Sternberg finds something of value, just as his two lovers find something in each other no one else can see. The fog-shrouded shores of New York provide Von Sternberg with his most beautiful canvas, and he delivers some of his most evocative work, his use of light and shadow no longer conveying the dichotomy between light and dark in men's souls but singing an eerie, wistful hymn to the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.

Taken together, these three films represent a stunning run of artistic successes for Von Sternberg, even if they represented increasingly diminished financial returns after the astronomical success of Underworld. Criterion's packaging of these early masterworks, much like their similar box set of Von Sternberg's later collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, is a veritable showcase for the filmmaker's work, his breathtaking ability to paint with light on full display on Blu-Ray, representing some of the finest work from one of cinema's greatest enfant terribles.

UNDERWORLD - ★★★(out of four)

THE LAST COMMAND - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK - ★★★½ (out of four)

3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman in Billy Woodberry's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS.

What's new on Blu-Ray and DVD.


In the 1960s, “nudie cuties” were a popular form of scintillating exploitation films before hardcore porn became mainstream in the 70s. This single-disc release from Kino Lorber includes two "classic" nudie-cuties from 1963, The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Adam and the Six Eves. Neither are what you might call "good," are of some historical interest. The Bellboy and the Playgirls was co-directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola making his feature film debut. Coppola helmed the color 3-D sequences, while Fritz Umgelter handled the bulk of the work. It's a rather bland film (especially considering it was basically supposed to be porn), and there's nothing you wouldn't see in a fairly tame R-rated film today, with topless women making occasional appearances as a hapless bellboy/aspiring house detective discovers that they're lingerie models in the midst of shooting a commercial.

Adam and the Six Eves features a lot more nudity, but still nothing particularly shocking by today's standards. The film centers around a chubby treasure hunter who stumbles across a desert oasis populated by beautiful women who are guarding a secret. The film has no dialogue, and is instead narrated by the man's wise-cracking donkey. Some of the one-liners are genuinely funny, but this is one strange film. Its director, John Wallis, never made another film, but in one fell swoop nearly becomes the Ed Wood of porn with the shoddily constructed cardboard sets and truly head-scratching framing device. But in the end, it's just an excuse to ogle naked breasts, and in that regard it delivers on its promise, even if the sight of the treasure hunting hero doing the ogling while his donkey makes fun of him is anything but erotic. Still, they're a fascinating piece of cinema history even if they will mostly be of interest for fans of psychotronic film.

ADAM AND THE SIX EVES - ★ (out of four) 


BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (Billy Woodberry, 1983)

Like its spiritual predecessor, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978), Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts focuses on a black working man in the African American Watts district of Los Angeles.  Except in this case, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is more of a *not* working man, because he finds himself perpetually un and under employed, spending his days at home with his harried wife, Andais (Kaycee Moore) and their children.

Andais wants him to get a job, while Charlie insists there's no work to be found. This leads to Charlie wandering listlessly through the streets of Watts, and eventually into the bed of a neighbor, leading to a titanic clash between Charlie and Andais that has far-reaching consequences for their family. Moore is so good in this scene, her feelings so real and raw, that Woodberry was reportedly unable to capture a third take. The first take was interrupted when Hardman improvised grabbing Moore, an act that so enraged her that she channeled her emotions into a fiery second take, resulting in a scene that feels almost uncomfortable in its veracity. Woodberry filmed it all in one, single take, with the camera wandering around the Banks' kitchen as if the audience is an unseen third party bearing witness to a domestic dispute that we shouldn't be seeing, but can't possibly escape. In those nearly 10 uninterrupted minutes, Moore channels the energy of a woman who has had enough, fed up with her deadbeat husband's excuses and releasing years worth of pent up frustration.

What makes Bless Their Little Hearts so remarkable is Woodberry's attention to the smallest details, the way in which the fly-on-the-wall nature of the film creates what I like to call a kind of poetry of the mundane. Woodberry sets out to capture a very specific time and place, in this case the African American Watts neighborhood, and the lives of th people in it who are just trying to get by. Poverty is rampant and jobs are scarce, and Woodberry follows his characters as they attempt to find things to fill their empty time. The grainy, black and white cinematography adds another layer of verisimilitude, and every frame is alive with a kind of jittery energy teeming with life, constantly threatening to burst forth from the screen. Woodberry is an unheralded virtuoso, and Bless Their Little Hearts is a revelation that can at long last be given its due.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

GEBO AND THE SHADOW (Manoel de Oliveira, 2014)

Manoel de Oliveira was 104 years old when he directed Gebo and the Shadow. It would end up being the Portuguese master's final film, but it's the work of a filmmaker who remained prolific and vibrant right up to his last day, churning out such late-period masterworks as Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2010) and The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) well into his hundreds. De Oliveira was the last remaining filmmaker from the silent era - his first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial was released in 1931, four years after the advent of sound but before it had fully caught on in Portugal.

Over 80 years into his career, the influence of silent film was still keenly felt in de Oliveira's work, mainly in his use of blocking. De Oliveira never moved the camera around much, carefully composing the minimal amount of shots he needed to convey his meaning, often leaving the camera in one place for an entire scene. And yet what could easily be seen as a blocky, static mise-en-scene comes alive, its characters perfectly placed in their surroundings so that their words come to vibrant life. Each frame of a de Olivera film could be hung on a wall as a painting, and Gebo and the Shadow  is no different. It's an understated family drama about an old man named Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) whose son, Joao (Ricardo Trêpa) has run away from home and descended into a life of crime. Gebo tries to hide the unsavory details on Joao's life from his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), but eventually everything comes to light when Joao shows up back at home unannounced. De Oliveira deftly explores the family dynamics while crafting a moving tale of a man willing to do anything to protect his family.

It tends to get lost a bit in its sometimes rambling dialogue scenes, but de Olivera never loses sight of the plot for long, bringing it all back for a powerful ending that explores the shadow children can cast over a family's entire existence. De Oliveira concocts striking images (the disembodied hands emerging from the darkness in the opening scene feel like something straight out of the silent era) in very confined spaces, leaving us with a film that should feel cramped and claustrophobic but instead feels consistently vibrant and alive, a testament to the extreme talent of its director who ran rings around much younger filmmakers for nearly a century.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LION KING (Jon Favreau, 2019)

The original animated film holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who grew up in the 1990s, and it remains one of Disney's finest achievements of the era. The remake brings very little new to the table - adding a few lines of dialogue here, a reworked song there, but for the most part this new Lion King is content to be a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, hitting all the familiar notes fans of the original have come to expect but offering nothing new of any real note. The more realistic animation is certainly eye-popping, but the characters lose something in their transition to more life-like incarnations. They're less expressive and engaging as "real" animals; as such, the film lacks the emotional core that made the original so endearing.

In fact, the entire film lacks a certain elegance in its translation to photo-real animation. For all the epic vistas the film shows us, it's impossible not to recall its animated counterpart, and the way in which the colorful drawings of the original Lion King expressed the emotions and feelings of the narrative with such grace. This new Lion King is often thuddingly literal - simply tracking characters trotting through musical numbers rather than bursting into swirls of color and song. For a film full of such breathtakingly real images, the musical numbers are often flatly staged, the realism constantly undercutting the story's vibrant emotions and narrative drive.

GRADE★★ (out of four)

TOY STORY 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

The idea of a homemade toy finding a home among Bonnie's "real" toys is an appealing one, but it's a conflict that is resolved all-too-quickly in favor of the film's action/adventure plot. The film's villain, a creepy antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody's voice box, is perhaps one of Pixar's most intriguing antagonists. Rather that follow their usual formula of revealing a seemingly benign character to be evil, TOY STORY 4 takes the opposite approach with Gabby Gabby, giving her a poignant twist that subverts what Pixar has conditioned audiences to expect.

Nevertheless, there's a strange sense of "been there, done that" to the whole thing. Toy Story 4 is moderately engaging, and it's always nice to spend time with these characters, but it mostly feels like an afterthought to the original trilogy, attempting to take the story in new directions that it didn't really need to go. The existential drama of toys trying to find their purpose and their place has given the series some truly gut-wrenching emotional moments, but nothing in Toy Story 4 reaches the level of Toy Story 3 s crushing denouement. It feels as though we've already said goodbye to these characters, so saying goodbye again doesn't have quite the same impact as it may have otherwise. It's as if we just said a tearful goodbye to a relative and watched them drive off into the sunset, only to return to run back into the house real quick because they forgot their keys. It's nice to see them again, and we all had a good laugh, but the previous goodbye was much more emotionally satisfying.

GRADE★★½ (out of four)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Aydin Doğu Demirkol and Hazar Ergüçlü in "The Wild Pear Tree."
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In his follow-up to 2014's Palme d'Or winning Winter Sleep, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns his camera inward for a fascinating and  deeply introspective exploration of the very nature of art itself.

The Wild Pear Tree is ostensibly about a young man trying to differentiate himself from his deadbeat father, a man whose sometimes harebrained schemes and constant state of debt make him something of a laughing stock in their rural Turkish village. But beneath the surface it's about much more than that. Upon his return home from college, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) is immediately met with requests from neighbors to remind his father to pay them back the money they borrowed from him. He soon learns his father has embarked on a quixotic quest to dig a well on top of a hill where the villagers insist there is no water. Embarrassed by his father's seeming incompetence, he sets off on his own potentially impossible dream of publishing a book, but meets with resistance and failure at every turn.

Ceylan crams a lot of soul searching into the film's 3+ hour running time. Sinan isn't always a likable protagonist - he's full of himself and the arrogance of youth, completely assured of his own brilliance and convinced that the world around him doesn't understand. His father is similarly self-possessed but approaches life with a greater sense of humility. It is up to Sinan to reconcile his own shortcomings with those of his father, while finding some semblance of wisdom in his father's tenacity. All the while he's grappling with the very idea of art and his own feelings of inadequacy. The question "am I really an artist?" has plagued the subconscious of many a creative person, and Sinan's growing suspicion that he may be an imposter fuels much of his arc in the film.

Aydin Doğu Demirkol in "The Wild Pear Tree."
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Like all of Ceylan's films, The Wild Pear Tree is often breathtaking in its beauty, featuring expansive wide shots and an overall sense that its characters are but small players in a much larger world, often moving through the frame in long, leisurely paced tracking shots, sight lines seemingly stretching off into infinity. Its sweeping cinematography and wide angle deep focus shots also serve to make its shallow focus close ups have all the more impact, as Ceylan frequently uses zooms to convey subtle shifts in mood and character emotion. Whereas Winter Sleep was awash in the muted tones of winter, The Wild Pear Tree employs much warmer tones, and Ceylan makes subtle use of lens flares - the blue light playing off the rich autumnal color palate.

It's often quite talky, any film this chock full of ideas and musings was bound to be, and it sometimes feels like Ceylan is really wrestling with some of these ideas himself, using the film to think out loud as a form of self reflection. Yet for all its philosophizing and intellectual banter, it's the sense of quiet that really lingers. The sound of wind rustling in the trees permeates the soundtrack, their gentle susurrus lulling us into a kind of meditative state appropriate for contemplating its myriad ideas. It’s big and wordy and a bit unwieldy, but it’s so full of artistic angst and insecurity in which an artist grapples with the meaning of art and whether or not he is fit to even be called an artist. It's a nervy, jittery, restless work from a filmmaker determined to never stop probing, reflecting, and seeking answers. Art is the ultimate act of nakedness, each new work opens oneself up to ridicule and heartbreak. It's that risk that provides the thorny center of The Wild Pear Tree - what if, after all that work, you turn out to have completely missed the mark? But no amount of greatness comes without risk, and by the time the film has reached its haunting final shot, it becomes achingly clear that art, be it film, or writing, or music, or even digging a well against all odds, will always be worth it if you persevere.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WILD PEAR TREE | Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Stars Aydın Doğu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yıldırımlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin | Not Rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Monday, November 11, 2019

It's somewhat surprising that it has taken Hollywood this long to produce a major biopic of Harriet Tubman, perhaps one of the most extraordinary women to have ever lived. Her story is so rife with danger and drama that it seems tailor made for the big screen. Then again, maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that the story of a black woman, no matter how famous, has been largely ignored by Hollywood, despite a major push to get her on the $20 - a campaign put on hold by a Trump administration that seems more interested in preserving the genocidal legacy of President Andrew Jackson than honoring one of history's great liberators.

There have been quite a few films dealing with slavery over the last few decades, from Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Lincoln to Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, a film that sought to repudiate the legacy of one of Hollywood's biggest, and most racist, successes, D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic of the same name, which painted the end of slavery as a great blow that destroyed the South and necessitated the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to protect it, and gave birth to not only the idea of the blockbuster film, but to a new era of the KKK. Yet all of these films were centered on men, or benevolent white saviors. The story of Harriet Tubman, a black woman who escaped slavery and helped liberate hundreds of enslaved people through her work on the Underground Railroad and with the Union Army during the Civil War.

And so, perhaps most appropriately, it has taken a black woman to step up and tell Harriet's story. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Black Nativity) has taken the story of the woman known as "Moses" and turned her into a modern day superhero; and while the results are somewhat mixed, Harriet Tubman feels like the superhero we need right now, and as embodied by an phenomenal Cynthia Erivo, she exudes a kind of steely righteous fury that fits right at home in our current moment.

Of course, Harriet takes quite a few dramatic liberties with Tubman's story, in the process giving it a somewhat conventional arc complete with a lovely but at times overbearing score by Terrence Blanchard that seeks to turn every moment into a swelling crescendo of emotion. Yet there's something undeniably rousing about the way Lemmons directs this, as if she's directing a superhero film with Tubman as the hero. She's like a Civil War era Avenger, rescuing enslaved people and leading the Union Army into battle against hapless slave owners. There's some debate to be had about the merits of overdramatizing a story that was already incredible without any embellishment (in reality, the identity of "Moses" was never discovered, meaning the pursuit by her former masters that serves as the film's central conflict was mostly manufactured to give the film a specific villain), but Erivo is so good and Lemmons so passionate that it's hard not to get swept up in the story, even if one occasionally wishes the film had more confidence in its protagonist's own ability to carry it. Harriet also takes the time to try and understand the economy of the pre-Civil War era South, and how it was propped up by slavery. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act allowing former enslaved people to be extradited from free states illustrates the fact that the North was not some magic anti-slavery utopia, but the script has a tendency to over-explain things by building exposition a little too awkwardly into the dialogue.

However, it feels somehow appropriate that a black woman is at long last given a larger-than-life treatment like so many white male historical figures before her. What Tubman achieved was by all means remarkable, even if much of the manufactured drama around her threatens to turn the story into a relatively standard Hollywood melodrama. But under Lemmons' capable direction, Harriet is a solidly crafted and entertaining film, one whose "you go girl" sensibilities may seem more constructed for a modern audience than for the woman Tubman really was, that nevertheless embraces Tubman's status as a folk hero and celebrates her with a rousing and often moving tale of passion and resistance in the face of extreme oppression. Harriet Tubman is the the hero we need right now.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HARRIET | Directed by Kasi Lemmons | Stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters | Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Cinema history is littered with filmmakers who turned the camera on themselves - stories of tortured artists, great men burdened great talent. It would be easy to dismiss these films as mere vanity projects, tales of self-aggrandizement by mostly male filmmakers who see themselves as saddled with great genius that no one else could possibly understand. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Fellini's 8 1/2, although Tarkovsky's Mirror and even Von Trier's The House that Jack Built could arguably comfortably in that category.

However, there's something much more humble and self-reflective in Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, an ostensible act of self-reflection that seems to flow directly from the filmmaker's heart rather than his own ego. It's a film about a legendary Spanish filmmaker (natch) named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who finds himself at the twilight of his career. His last few films haven't achieved the same lofty acclaim as his earlier work, and he finds himself reflecting on the mistakes of the past - discarded friendships, a painful childhood, relationships that faded away. He dulls the pain with drugs and alcohol, addictions that threaten to derail any hope of a comeback, as he faces the prospect of obsolescence, a once great artist fallen into obscurity, a mere shadow of his former self.

There is no trace of ego in what Almodóvar achieves here. Pain and Glory almost feels like an exorcism, an autumnal reverie filled with pain and regret, of mistakes made and loves lost. And yet there's a glimmer of hope as Almodóvar wrestles with his demons through the medium he loves. It's a film as much about the healing power of cinema as it is about Almodóvar himself. As Mallo reckons with his conservative, Catholic upbringing (with Penelope Cruz memorably embodying his long-suffering mother), and his sexual awakening as a child in the form of a handsome illiterate painter he teaches to read, and ultimately his own addiction to drugs, one can almost feel Almodóvar breathing a great sigh of relief, laying it all bare on screen in a gripping sort of personal and artistic catharsis.

This is easily Almodóvar's finest work since Talk to Her (2002). It combines the maturity of an elder statesman the distinctly queer sensibilities that helped establish him as one of the greats in his early, more overtly sexual, work. Many of those films starred Antonio Banderas as the central figure of sexual desire - here he embodies Almodóvar, joining his old friend as an aging muse, evoking the anguished soul of an old friend whose career helped launch his own. Banderas has never been better, delivering a wistful and haunted performance filled with quiet longing and flagging sexual voractity , a distinguished former sex symbol of another time who still carries the steely glint of his former glory.

It is through Mallo, an obvious avatar for Almodóvar himself, that the filmmaker subverts the trope of the struggling genius and the women who inspired him, putting a queer twist on what has become a kind of cinematic indulgence for straight filmmakers. Here we see a gay filmmaker baring his soul and exploring the roots of his own sexuality in ways once only afforded to straight artists, and the results are bracing and often deeply moving. This is not the same Almodóvar who made Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987) - this is a film that finds the filmmaker in a much more reflective mode, more reminiscent of his work in Bad Education (2004), a film with which Pain and Glory shares a similar thematic outlook. Yet by the time the film reaches its wrenching, revelatory conclusion, Almodóvar manages to re-contextualize everything we've just seen. It's one of the most stunning film endings of the year, and yet it's so quietly earth-shattering that its power is almost disarming. It's the kind of film that cements Almodóvar in the pantheon of great artists, and it does so without ego or pretense, an understated glory that finds devastating beauty in the wreckage of a lifetime of mistakes and missed opportunities as only the cinema could have given us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PAIN AND GLORY | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar | Stars Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, Penélope Cruz, César Vicente | Rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and language | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Not to be outdone by the burgeoning horror genre spearheaded by second-tier upstart Universal, prestige studio MGM decided to capitalize on the popularity of their monster films by hiring Dracula filmmaker Tod Browning to reunite with his star, Bela Lugosi, to deliver a new vampire film about a mysterious Count preying on provincial villagers from his forbidding castle.

Mark of the Vampire starts out as an almost defect remake of Dracula  or at least the sequel Lugosi never got, featuring some of the same villagers warning travelers to stay indoors at night and away from the castle of Count Mora (a third-billed Lugosi). The castle itself is like a smaller version of Dracula's, complete with the same massive spider webs and menagerie of spiders and possums crawling through the ruins. This time, however, the Count is given a "daughter" in the form of Luna (Carroll Borland) who preys on the young women of the village. Her newest target is Irena (Elizabeth Allan) the daughter of a local nobleman who was killed under mysterious circumstances the previous year, with two unexplained puncture wounds on his neck. This brings Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) and Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) on the case, one a vampire skeptic, the other a true believer, to get to the bottom of the crime, leading to an unexpected revelation that turns the entire film on its head.

That's where the film diverges most from Dracula  In fact, Browning's last-minute twist was kept such a secret that not even the actors were let in on it, leading them to play their roles completely straight until the last minute. Suffice it to say that this is not a traditional vampire film, even if it has all the trappings of one, but it's clear that's exactly what the actors thought it was. Lugosi's role is mostly silent until the last minute or so of the film, and he spends most of it standing around looking menacing. What really distinguishes the character of Count Mora from Count Dracula, however, is the conspicuous bullet wound on the side of his head that is never mentioned in the film at all. It is said there was a subplot that suggested that he had been shot because of a romantic relationship with his own daughter, but that it was excised by MGM before the film was released, which explains why the film is only an hour long, rather than the reported 80 minute runtime it was reported to have at the time. The missing 20 minutes of the film have never been found or released, so it's impossible to know what they contained, but it definitely feels like something is missing, with the action in the film's final act feeling especially truncated.

The big twist also makes little sense, turning an otherwise straightforward horror picture in the Universal style into a convoluted detective story buried under a layer of overly complicated intrigue. One can't help but wonder if those missing 20 minutes would have fleshed out the narrative a bit more, because as it stands it feels slightly stunted, an evocative and atmospheric pseudo-remake of Dracula whose power was ultimately undercut by studio meddling. It's important to remember that those early Universal horror films - DraculaFrankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, were all released before the adoption of the Hays Code. The cuts to Mark of the Vampire were likely the result of MGM's nervousness about the newly adopted Code, and Browning, whose last film, Freaks (1932), was a major flop for the studio, was powerless to stop it. Still, his knack for crafting eerie atmospheres is on full display here, and the eerie cinematography by James Wong Howe rivals and at times surpasses Karl Freund's work on the original Dracula, awash in deep shadows and creeping fog.

In a world where Lugosi never got a proper sequel in which to reprise his most iconic role, Mark of the Vampire scratches a certain itch. But in its truncated state it feels more like the scraps of a much better film,  a victim of the Production Code whose true form may never see the light of day.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Before Spaghetti Westerns became all the rage in Italy (and abroad), the peplum (or sword and sandal) genre enjoyed a brief period of popularity. Inspired by the American Biblical epics that were in fashion in Hollywood in the 1950s, the peplum films took Greek myths and reimagined them in much the same way that Spaghetti westerns reinvented the American western. 

For a time in the early 1960s, there was an attempt to blend peplum with horror, which is how Mario Bava came to helm Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), a sequel to Vittorio Cottafavi's Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis (1961) starring Reg Park as eponymous mythological hero. After returning home from battle, Hercules discovers that his love, Daianara (Leonora Ruffo), has lost her mind, and that his only hope to save her lies in the depths of Hades. Unbeknownst to him, her guardian, the evil King Lico (Christopher Lee, dubbed by another actor ), has cursed her with the intention of stealing her for himself.

Hercules in the Haunted World starts out very much in the vein of the peplum film for its first 20 minutes or so, as men in togas and sandals clang swords while Hercules throws wagons at them. It's almost as if Bava was a director-for-hire trying to stick with someone else's established style. But then around 20 minutes in the film becomes something else altogether, a dazzling descent into a neon-lit underworld in which Hercules and his faithful sidekick, Theseus (Giorgio Ardisson) must face the trials of Hell in order to retrieve Hercules' lost love. It is here where Bava's signature style bursts forth in full force, as the peplum trappings fall away to reveal a full-fledged horror film. While Hercules isn't as boldly inventive as Bay of Blood or Black Sunday, it represents an eerie, surreal vision of the afterlife as only Bava could have envisioned it.

The new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber also includes the British version of the film, Hercules in the Center of the Earth, as well as the original Italian language version (which features Lee's real voice). The bright colors really pop, as Bava often combines two strong, contrasting colors in one frame to create an image of striking depth and garish beauty. It's an engaging twist on a genre that was already becoming tired by 1961, made fresh again by Bava's own unique sensibilities.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD | Directed by Mario Bava | Stars Reg Park, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo ,Giorgio Ardisson | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

About two thirds of the way through The Secret Life of Pets 2, I began to wonder why this film was giving me such a headache. The "camera" seemed unsettled, in constant motion, the editing rushing from one shot to the next. I began to time the shots, and it soon became clear that film had very few shots that lasted more than 3 seconds. We barely have time to register what we're seeing before it leaps to the next shot. It's maddening, it's painful, it's downright ugly.

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial old man yelling at the cloud, I began to think that it's no wonder younger audiences are so averse to older films when they’re being conditioned into strobe-light filmmaking from an early age. Anything less seems slow and boring if that’s all you know. Of course, quick cuts don't necessarily make for a bad film. The Soviets began using rapid-fire editing back in the 1920s to help create rhythm and mood, to get to the heart of the emotions of the moment. But The Secret Life of Pets 2 is not Battleship Potemkin, and Illumination stalwart Chris Renaud (Despicable Me, The Lorax) is not Sergei Eisenstein. The editing here is distracting rather than immersive, a trick used to appeal to short attention spans rather than to create a visceral audience reaction.

It doesn't help that the story of The Secret Life of Pets 2 is as all-over-the-place as its editing. The film picks up from its charming predecessor with dogs Max (Patton Oswalt, stepping in for a disgraced Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) enjoying their newfound life together with their owners. Things changer, however, with the intdurctlon of a baby named Liam who completely changes the dynamics of their little family. Had the film stuck with this it might have retained some of its predecessor's "Toy Story but with dogs" appeal. Instead, it sends Max, Duke, and family off on a vacation in the country and nearly forgets about them entirely. The focus then shifts  to psycho rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), who now fancies himself a superhero, and is commissioned by a new dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to come rescue a circus tiger being abused by by an evil Russian ringmaster named Sergei (Nick Kroll).

It's an odd diversion, one that keeps the lead characters out of the narrative for much of the film as they learn about country living from a wise old farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford). It likewise forgets about little Liam and his relationship with Max and Duke, but that doesn't stop the film from trying to milk a sentimental ending out of it that might have worked had the development of their relationship been given any attention at all. It's a huge swing and a miss for Illumination, whose messy stories, sardonic dated-before-it-even-comes-out humor, and near-uniform style have made their films nearly indistinguishable from one another. The Secret Life of Pets skated by on an amusing premise that its sequel all but abandons in favor of a frenetically edited, scattershot story that's more likely to leave audiences with whiplash than in stitches.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS | Directed by Chris Renaud | Stars Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll, Pete Holmes, Harrison Ford | Rated PG for some action and rude humor | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital download.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the film JUDY.
Photo by David Hindley. Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions.

Musical biopics are a dime a dozen, but continue to be popular with audiences if the runaway success of Bohemian Rhapsody or the strong grosses of the superior Rocketman are any indication. Their familiar formulas coupled with familiar popular entertainers seem to be a winning mix that keeps drawing audiences back to theaters again and again. 

Judy reaches back a bit further than 70s icons Queen and Elton John to tell the story of the last years of Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger), child star, actress, and singer from the Golden Age of Hollywood. By the time we meet Garland in the film, the year is 1968, and her glory years are long behind her. Her final film, I Could Go on Singing, had been released five years earlier, and Garland had become notorious for being an unreliable performer due to her abuse of drugs and alcohol. Judy introduces us to a faded star desperate for one last chance to prove her worth - and to reclaim her children from her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), by earning enough money to provide them with a stable home instead of dragging them from town to town on tour while living out of hotels. She embarks on a residency at a theater in London hoping to recapture some of her former luster, but her dependence on pills threatens to derail her comeback, as well as any chance she may have had to reclaim her family. 

Director Rupert Goold gives the film a flashback structure, a common biopic trope, that chronicles young Judy's time at MGM, and how the pressures to remain thin and productive saddled on her by Louis B. Mayer facilitated her addiction to pills and created a world in which "Judy Garland" was merely a fantasy image projected on a screen. Nothing around her was real, not even her name, and she spent a lifetime trying to find something tangible in her life she could hold on to, to no avail. It's a tragic story, but the flashback structure undercuts its power somewhat when dialogue could have given us the same ends. For an example, see the magical realism employed by Dexter Fletcher in Rocketman, which combined the story's past and present in ways that conveyed the essence of Elton John's reality rather than the thudding literalism of Bohemian Rhapsody.

Much of the buzz surrounding Judy has centered around Zellweger's performance, and rightly so; she's uncanny as Garland, delivering a performance that transcends mimicry and digs down deep into a legendary performer's soul. But credit must be given to Goold as well taking a familiar story and imbuing it with enough soul deliver an emotional sucker punch of an ending. It's pure schmaltz, but it takes the film to previously unexplored heights, becoming not just a tale of addiction and loss but of a performer reaching out the screen to grasp immortality. The film could have done well with some streamlining and concision, but the way in which it acknowledges Garland's status as the original gay icon then pays it off in the final moments is a thing of beauty is a move that lifts Judy up from the doldrums of the typical biopic and elevates it to something altogether sublime. 

Judy may not cover any new ground, but it has plenty of heart, which along with Zellweger's monumental performance helps it overcome its occasionally choppy structure and awkward pacing. Zellweger is a marvel, but the film takes us out on a high note that sends us out of the theater and over the rainbow, creating a soaring and deeply moving tribute to one of the greatest performers of all time. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

JUDY | Directed by Rupert Goold | Stars Renée Zellweger, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley, Bella Ramsey | Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Maleficent, Disney's 2014 reimagining of their own animated Sleeping Beauty; recasting the villain, Maleficent, as the hero of the story - a misunderstood fairy who had once been in love with Aurora's father, King Stefan, but fell victim to his relentless ambition. The film grossed over $700,000,000 worldwide, so a sequel seemed all but inevitable, even if there was no more story left to tell from the original Sleeping Beauty.

That leaves Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to forge its own creative path, and the results are somewhat mixed. The film picks up a few years after the original - Aurora (Elle Fanning) is now Queen of the Moors, having been adopted by Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as her own daughter. When Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing Brenton Thwaites without anyone really noticing) proposes to Aurora despite Maleficent's objections, it seems as if a new era of peace and unity is at hand for the magic folk of the Moors and the adjacent kingdom of Ulstead. But Phillip's mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) has other plans, cursing her husband, King John (Robert Lindsay), and framing Maleficent in order to start a war between the two kingdoms and eradicate the fairies once and for all.

While Ingrith's motivations remain muddled (outside just being evil), seeing Pfeiffer ham it up with Jolie as two warring queens is great fun, even if the two share precious little screen time. Their initial meeting is a a deliciously acidic verbal tete-a-tete that lets the two great actresses trade barbs with relish. But the film drags in the middle as Maleficent is separated from the main plot for much of the film, off on a journey of self discovery in the land of her people - the dark fae.

Just as the original Maleficent built in themes of rape and trauma, Mistress of Evil also reaches for real-world relevance by exploring the ways in which those in power distort the truth and weaponize the prejudices of the people in order to exert absolute control. This leads to an attempted genocide whose imagery eerily recalls the gas chambers of the Holocaust. The appropriateness of appropriating such images for a children's film is somewhat suspect, but one can't help but admire the way in which director Joachim Rønning (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) attempts to imbue what could have been just another fantasy sequel with a sense of real weight.

Unfortunately much of that weight is undercut by flat staging and unimaginative cinematography, an issue present in many modern Disney films that all seem to be striving for a homogenous "Disney look." The daytime battle sequences are far too brightly lit, the harsh lighting and daylight setting seemingly undercutting the seriousness of its thematic elements. There are some elements to enjoy here, but one can't help but feel that we've seen this film before - more specifically in Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda 2, which handled its themes of genocide and finding one's place in the world with much more dignity and emotional power. You have to give them credit for taking on relevant themes, and Mistress of Evil does reach some dark places, but in the context of a bright and sunny family-friendly Disney film, it never really has the chance to dig down as deep as its ideas require.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL | Directed by Joachim Rønning | Stars Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ed Skrein | Rated PG for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and brief scary images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928) was the last film the legendary filmmaker made during the silent era, although it would be well into the sound era before he would abandon silence altogether. The production was famously fraught with difficulties, with Chaplin being forced to reshoot much of the film due to a processing error, and a series of personal setbacks that left Chaplin noticeably tired and gaunt.

Yet it is a testament to Chaplin's consummate talent and creative genius that The Circus not only exists, but is a great film. Chaplin had long desired to make a film about the circus as a way of honoring the clowns and acrobats who inspired his onscreen persona. The resulting film, about a tramp who ends up as the unwitting star of a circus after being mistaken for a pickpocket, is one of Chaplin's most personal works, a wistful and ultimately bittersweet ode to circus performers that also reveals some of Chaplin's own insecurities as an artist. Here, his Tramp becomes an unwitting star, an affable nobody who stumbles into stardom. He doesn't even know he's funny - and as such gets employed a  stagehand because the ringmaster knows he'll mess up something in glorious fashion, much to the delight of the audience. Once he realizes that the crowds are flocking to see him, he has to fight to be given the credit he deserves. Even then, he is alone, and the film ends with him watching the woman he loves go off with the more handsome acrobat, while he shuffles off into the sunset alone, yet strangely fulfilled.

In fact the final shot of The Circus is almost the exact mirror of the iconic final image of his next film, City Lights (1931), which ends on a more upbeat note. It's a deeply funny film, and the climactic tightrope walk featuring a troop full of monkeys is one of Chaplin's most impressive set pieces. But there's something undeniably sad about the whole affair. The Circus came at a time of transition not only for Chaplin, but for cinema as whole, as the silent comedian faced a landscape shifting to sound and potentially leaving his ilk in the dust. As it turned out, Chaplin was one of the few silent comedians to survive the transition to sound, enjoying some of his greatest silent successes well into the sound era. But one can imagine The Circus as a film about an existential crisis - a work of deep soul searching by a performer grappling with the deep-seated insecurity of "am I funny?"

The answer is "of course," and that is why audiences are still watching Chaplin's films today. The Circus is the last of Chaplin's silent comedies to receive the Blu-Ray treatment from Criterion, following The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times, and while it may not be as famous as some of those masterworks, it remains a fascinating window into who Chaplin was an artist - representing some of his greatest innovation and his most personal artistic predilections. Criterion's Blu-Ray presentation is typically excellent, featuring in-depth explorations of the film's visual effects and interviews with Chaplin himself from the film's 1969 re-release, by then mostly a recluse. It's an interview tinged with sadness and regret, much like the film itself, a sad clown masterwork that masks its tears with a smile.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s 1969 rerelease version of the film, featuring an original score by Chaplin, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance 
  • Interview with Chaplin from 1969 New interview with Chaplin’s son Eugene Chaplin 
  • In the Service of the Story, a new program on the film’s visual effects and production design by film scholar Craig Barron 
  • Chaplin Today: “The Circus,” a 2003 documentary on the film featuring filmmaker Emir Kusturica 
  • Excerpted audio interview from 1998 with Chaplin musical associate Eric James 
  • Unused café sequence with new score by composer Timothy Brock, and related outtakes with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin 
  • Newly discovered outtakes featuring the Tramp and the circus rider 
  • Excerpts from the original recording session for the film’s opening song, “Swing Little Girl” 
  • Footage of the film’s 1928 Hollywood premiere 
  • Rerelease trailers 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Benedict Wong and Will Smith in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Cinema history is full of gimmicks designed to lure audiences away from their television sets and into theaters. Some, like Cinemascope, stood the test of time. Others, like Cinerama, did not, while 3D has enjoyed a few short-lived revivals over the decades, it's never proven particularly enduring. In the age of streaming, filmmakers and studios continue to try to find ways to keep the theatrical experience relevant, setting it apart from what audiences can experience in their own living rooms.

Ang Lee has been on the cutting edge of the quest for ever more impressive cinematic technologies for several years now. He, along with Peter Jackson, seem to have cast their lot with High Frame Rate photography. In the case of Lee's latest film, Gemini Man, that means the film is running at 120 frames per second, a huge jump from the usual 24 frames per second of the typical feature film. The effect is one of hyperrealism and stunning clarity - some have compared it to watching a soap opera because the typical "flickering" effect our eyes are accustomed to while watching a film is missing, making the action smoother and more fluid. This can take some time for the eyes to adjust to, things tend to look like they're moving too fast because our eyes aren't having to work as hard. 

The effect is certainly realistic, but one can't help but wonder - what's the point? There are parts of Gemini Man that look so tangible and real that it's as if we could reach out and touch Will Smith - but this fidelity to absolute realism seems to erase the cinematic artistry. Sure it looks real, but where's the style, the visual wizardry, the panache? Gemini Man looks real but lifeless, even flat, a disappointing turn of events from a filmmaker like Lee who is an accomplished visual stylist. It's a feat of technical competence rather than cinematic artistry - and therein lies the problem at the heart of the HFR technology - in order to make it look real one must erase everything about a film that makes it cinematic, and if they story is weak then there's really nothing to go on. It's nothing but empty calories.

The story of Gemini Man isn't strong enough to step up and carry the film. Will Smith stars as assassin Henry Brogen who is targeted by his own government after one of his targets turned out to be an ally that rogue elements within the organization had framed for liquidation. The agent they send to kill him, under the auspices of the clandestine Project Gemini, is an exact clone of Henry; younger, blessed with all his skills but without his worldweary pain. As Henry fights to stay alive and clear his name, he must also confront himself, both literally and figuratively, and come to terms with his life of death and destruction, leading to a final showdown with the man who taught him everything.

Will Smith as "Junior" in Gemini Man from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

There's an interesting idea here, in which a man-vs-self conflict gets played out quite literally as a man confronts himself, his past, and eventually his "father," in order to come to terms with the man that he has become. Yet the film is hampered by a generic script and an overall sense of blandness. Lee knows how to direct an action sequence, and the centerpiece motorcycle chase is indeed spectacular, but the film becomes more and more insular, leading to a climax in the aisles of a hardware store that feels oddly small scale. Smith's doppelgänger, a wholly digital creation rather than a product of de-aging technology, looks stunningly real when he's not moving, but his facial movements betray his digital nature. There's just something off about him that never quite feels reel, and it becomes a distraction from Smith's performance as the real Henry. Clearly computer generated visual effects have improved at an impressive rate, but they still can't quite create a fully believable human character, no matter how real he looks when he's standing still. 

Lee has always been a strong filmmaker, which makes it all the more surprising that Gemini Man is as weak as it is. It feels like a showcase for emerging cinematic technologies rather than a film in its own right. It never fully grapples with the psychological conflicts at its center in its quest to impress the audience with its technical prowess, and the effect cold and anonymous, lacking any semblance of personality or any real sense of creative passion. It's proof-positive that impressive technology can only carry a film so far.

GRADE - ★★  (out of four)

GEMINI MAN | Directed by Ang Lee | Stars Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen Benedict Wong | Rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, October 11, 2019

There are few filmmakers that can so deftly juggle wildly disparate tones and genres as South Korea's Bong Joon Ho. Bong's films work on so many layers, peeling back genre trappings to reveal piercing social critiques embedded within their deft blending of cinematic styles. Whether it's a monster movie with a soul (The Host), a story of a girl and her giant pig who take on the meat industry (Okja), or an eerily prescient thriller about a train turned refugee concentration camp (Snowpiercer), Bong's sensibilities have always rested with the marginalized and forgotten people of the world.

In his latest film, Parasite, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Bong builds his narrative around a lower class family whose employment prospects look increasingly dim. Having just lost their job putting together pizza boxes for a local pizza company, and their dingy basement apartment becoming little more than a prison with bad wi-fi, they begin looking for alternative forms of employment. Opportunity knocks when son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) finds a job working as a tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of the wealthy Park family, he jumps at the chance. It isn't long before he's found a way to slyly recommend the rest of his family members for positions in the household. First his sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as the art therapist for spoiled son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), who in turn conspires to get the family chauffeur fired in favor of her father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). They at last secure family matriarch, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a position as the maid after convincing the wealthy mistress of the house (Cho Yeo-jeong) that her old house keeper (Lee Jung-eun) is hiding a nasty case of tuberculosis.

Safely having infiltrated the Park family's sumptuously appointed home, their family connections safely hidden, Ki-taek's family is seemingly on top of the world, all gainfully employed and funneling as much of the Park's money toward their own. But when the family's old maid returns to the house one rainy night while the Parks are on vacation, she reveals a dark secret that will upend all their lives, and change the dynamic between the two families forever.

On the surface, the title Parasite seems to refer to Ki-taek's family, whose simple act of subterfuge helps them trick their way into the Park family's lives. But as the film goes on, it forces the audience to re-contextualize and re-analyze everything it has seen before. Is Ki-taek's family the parasite, or is it perhaps the Park family, whose wealth is totally built on the backs of the poor, completely dependent on working class stiffs to do their bidding. Bong never exalts Ki-taek's family as some sort of paragon of working class martyrdom, nor does he portray the Parks as mustache-twirling corporate villains. Instead, they form a kind of symbiotic relationship, completely dependent on one another for survival, and yet only one side is truly being exploited, have-nots kept underground in squalor in order to prop up the haves who quite literally live above.

Parasite begins as a seemingly light-hearted family comedy, Ki-taek's brood spending their time desperately searching for the one spot in the house with a wi-fi signal, and chasing off drunks who constantly piss in front of their window. Even their ingratiation with the Park family plays a bit like a farce. But Bong slowly turns the film into something else, a dark thriller built around an outlandish premise that finally comes to a head in a shocking eruption of violence, before switching gears yet again into a kind of reflective socially conscious tragedy. It's a film very much rooted in class consciousness and income inequality, an issue that continues to rise to the forefront not only of our own politics here in the United States, but in countries around the world. Bong masterfully blends these divergent genre elements into one wildly original whole, crafting an incisive indictment of income inequality and the wide gulf between the classes that is as bitterly funny as it is achingly sad. It's a tale of two families living side by side who couldn't be further apart, with one family propping up and enabling obscene wealth they could never hope to accumulate in a thousand lifetimes. That's the real tragedy at the heart of Parasite, it may be about tensions between the haves and the have-nots, but it's a stark reminder that the have-nots need the haves just as much as the haves need the have-nots, and that such extreme inequality can only ever lead to simmering resentment that will inevitably boil over. And that leaves us all to question just who the real parasites are.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PARASITE | Directed by Bong Joon-ho | Stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, Lee Jung-eun, Chang Hyae-jin | Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens today, 10/11, in select cities.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Leo Penn and Sally Forrest in Ida Lupino's NOT WANTED.

While perhaps best known to general audiences as an actress in films like High Sierra and They Drive by Night, Ida Lupino also had a successful career as a director at time when the profession was very much seen as a man's job. Lupino became the only woman to helm a classic film noir (1953's The Hitch-Hiker), and even founded her own independent production company, The Filmmakers, along with her husband, Collier Young, with whom she co-wrote many of her film's screenplays. 

It was with The Filmmakers that Lupino flourished as a director, cranking out low-budget "issue dramas" that took sensational material and embed with with a heart and soul. Lupino wasn't unlike Val Lewton in that regard, although her pared down, steely style more closely resembles the work of Raoul Walsh, who directed her in several films. Yet Lupino's lurid subject matter wasn't imposed on her by some studio head out to make a quick buck - she was the studio head, and she had a knack for taking juicy, ripped from the headlines subjects - teen pregnancy, hitchhiking murders, bigamy - and turning them into cinematic gold.

Yet unlike many similar films of the late 40s and 50s, which took a "there but for the grace of god go I" point of view toward societal issues, Lupino's films replaced pity with empathy, and she treated her characters with compassion rather than judgement.  Her first film, Not Wanted (1949), is the perfect example of the sense of compassion Lupino brought to her work. The story of Sally Kelton (Sally Forrest), an unwed mother who falls for the wrong man, a smooth-talking piano player (Leo Penn, father of Sean) with no intention of sticking around, Not Wanted deftly avoids the exploitation aesthetic of many similarly themed films of the period like She Shoulda Said No! (1949). Fearful that she will be viewed as "damaged goods" and ruin her reputation, Sally gives her baby up for adoption, a decision she regrets so much that it begins to tear her life apart, leading to a rash decision that lands her in hot water with the law.

It's a remarkably sensitive handling of the subject matter for 1949. Naturally, marriage is seen as the ideal for Sally, so a romantic subplot involving a young man (Keefe Brasselle) who loves her no matter what provides a backbone for the film. Yet it never feels as though Lupino is looking down on Sally for her decision. It's as if she understands and sympathizes with her plight and refuses to judge her for her actions. It's a remarkably sensitive film, one that seemingly runs against the grain of the social mores of 1949. Neither celebrating or condemning Sally's actions, it simply asks for compassion and understanding, and Lupino displays it in spades.

Keefe Brasselle and Sally Forrest in Ida Lupino's NEVER FEAR.

Later that same year Lupino tackled another social problem, and this time it was one she was intimately familiar with. Never Fear (1949) tells the story of an energetic young dancer named Carol Williams (Sally Forrest), who is diagnosed with polio at the height of her career. Faced with losing her ability to walk and never dancing again, she withdraws from the world, including her fiancé and dance partner, Guy Richards (Keefe Brasselle). Once she arrives at the Kabat-Kaiser Institute for treatment, she meets Len Randall (Hugh O'Brien), who is likewise stricken with polio. There she is faced with a choice, leave her abled fiancé for someone who better understands her plight, or leave Len and try to re-integrate into the world she once knew.

Never Fear is an often tough-minded film that has the gloss of a "human resilience" drama, but in Lupino's steady hands it reaches much deeper. Carol spends much of the film not wanting to be a burden on anyone, and finds a kindred spirit in Len, a man who has accepted his disability and refuses to let it hold him back. But he can't give her the life she once dreamed of, which makes Never Fear a much thornier film than it seems at first glance. But like Not Wanted before it, the film refuses to simply pity its polio stricken protagonists, and allows Carol to reclaim agency over her own life - even if she (and the audience) are ultimately unsure about the decision she finally makes.

Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, and Edmond O'Brien in Ida Lupino's THE HITCH-HIKER.

When asked to make a favorite among her own works, Lupino often pointed to The Hitch-Hiker, and indeed, it is a feverish noir thriller that helped perpetuate a fear of hitchhikers that has lasted to this day. Its protagonists, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), have the misfortune of picking up murderous hitchhiker Emmet Myers (William Talman) while on a fishing trip in the mountains. Myers forces them to drive him into the Mexican desert so he can make his final escape, but threatens to kill the two men if he catches wind on the radio that the police have connected their disappearance with his string of kidnappings and murders.

It's a white-knuckle, edge-of-your seat high wire act that showcases Lupino's unique ability to take inspiration from real-life events (in this case, hysteria over hitchhikers) and turn them into cinematic gold. It is here that her direction most resembles Walsh's, straightforward, assured, and gritty, awash in seedy crime genre suspense but almost uncannily focused on the plot and hand. Lupino's direction is economical but always empathetic, placing her focus on the slowly unravelling victims and their mounting realization that their lives are on the line, rather than the terrifying villain (who's always watching even when he's sleeping thanks to a bum eye that never closes). It's as grim and efficient as anything Walsh ever directed, and firmly puts Lupino in the realm of some of the best noir directors.

Edmond O'Brien and Ida Lupino in THE BIGAMIST.

The last film in the set, 1953's The Bigamist, is perhaps its most difficult. The film centers around a man named Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien) who is trying to adopt a baby with his wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine) because she is unable to conceive children. But as the adoption agency investigates the family to determine their suitability, they uncover a dark secret - Harry is actually living a double life, with another wife (Lupino) and child in another city where he often travels for business. What seems like a pretty straightforward issue becomes disarmingly complicated under Lupino's direction, who refuses to treat this as the issue of black and white morality that it appears to be.

She actually makes us feel sympathy for Graham, as she takes what could be seen as an "aw man I'm sorry I got caught" excuse and delves deep into the roots of what caused his betrayal. In The Bigamist, he isn't seen so much as a rotten philanderer as a complicated and conflicted man who got in over his head. "I don't know whether to despise you or feel sorry for you," the inspector says at one point. And the audience is in much the same position. While viewers' reactions will likely vary greatly, Lupino refuses to take sides, and the result is a film that exists in a surprising moral gray area rarely seen in 1953. It's all made even more fascinating by the fact that Lupino and her husband/co-writer Collier were going through a divorce while the film was being made, with Collier's new girlfriend, Joan Fontaine, playing opposite Lupino as the other woman. The Bigamist displays an incredible restraint and sense of forgiveness that showcases Lupino's unique humanist talents.

Putting all four films together in one set really shines a light on one of the 20th century's most unheralded woman filmmakers. Each film has been beautifully restored for the Blu-Ray release. While Lupino was not a flashy visual stylist, her deceptively simple compositions belie a deep understanding of character psychology. This is Kino's most impressive release of 2019, and an essential set for any cinephile.

NOT WANTED - ★★★½ (out of four)
NEVER FEAR - ★★★ (out of four)
THE HITCH-HIKER - ★★★½ (out of four)
THE BIGAMIST - ★★★½ (out of four)

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