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.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.  

No other film in recent memory has inspired quite as much passionate online discourse as Todd Phillips' Joker. The film has stirred up something of a firestorm of controversy, with supporters and detractors firmly entrenched in their positions between "masterpiece" and "trash." Yet I can think of few recent films less worthy of such debate than Joker.

Neither dumb nor brilliant, Joker is an impressive feat of smoke and mirrors, but little more than that. It borrows liberally, and sometimes thrillingly, from the filmography of Martin Scorsese (specifically The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver), but it lacks the soul that always marks a Scorsese picture. As directed by Phillips, Joker wants to be a film about Big Themes and Big Ideas, but it lacks the courage of its own convictions, dipping its toe in the water of social criticism but never fully taking the plunge. The result is a thematically muddled film that lacks a point of view and isn't nearly as profound as it clearly thinks it is.

It all centers around the origins of Batman's greatest nemesis, the Joker, represented in this version of events by one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled man whose dead-end job as a clown-for-hire constantly makes him a source of ridicule. Arthur dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, but when a video of his disastrous performance gets showcased on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), it begins to look like the world is conspiring against him, leading Arthur to lash out in increasingly violent ways. It isn't long before his murderous tendencies spark a movement in Gotham City that spirals out of his control, turning him into a kind of folk hero for a political ideal of which he wants no part.

As a whole, Joker is a consistently unnerving,  darkly beautiful evocation of 1970s New York, built around an incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix whose slow descent into madness is mesmerizing to watch. Ditto Hildur Guðnadóttir's haunting score, whose sickly cello laments are perhaps the film's greatest asset, burrowing under the audience's skin and emerging as a kind of eerie window into the music of the Joker's soul.

When regarded simply as a super villain origin story it's often quite compelling, but it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny when it tries to tackle BIG THEMES. It mostly works on its own merits but falls apart when applied to our current moment. Joker tries to tackle inequality and class warfare, mental illness, and society's role in creating mass murderers, but it doesn't seem to have any actual ideas about any of those things, blithely throwing in moments that seem like broad attempts to comment on America's volatile political climate, but these are often surface-level nods to real world relevance with nothing to back them up. Phillips seems doggedly determined to have his cake and eat it too, to make a cinematic comment on our world while keeping politics at arm's length. He's playing Scorsese dress-up without bothering to capture the deep understanding and empathy that Scorsese always displays for even his most despicable characters. As a gritty comic book tale Joker mostly works on its own merits, but when it tries to match Scorsese's righteous fury, it feels like little more than a pale imitation.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

JOKER | Directed by Todd Phillips | Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy, Douglas Hodge | Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Our Hospitality (1923) was only Buster Keaton's second feature film (the third if you count 1920's The Saphead, which was merely an actor-for-hire job rather than a Keaton original), yet it stands out as one of his finest achievements in front of or behind the camera. 

Following Three Ages, which was released earlier the same year and featured three standalone shorts, Our Hospitality was Keaton's first attempt at sustaining a single plot over a feature length, and the result is often astonishing, the work of a filmmaker clearly ready to breakaway from short films and tackle bigger ideas. Keaton took inspiration for the film from the legendary feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families, casting himself as Willie McKay, who was whisked away as a baby (played by Keaton's own son) to New York to escape the wrath of the Canfield family. When he reaches the age of 21, he learns that he's the heir to his family's estate, and returns home to collect his inheritance, only to discover that he's inherited a rundown old shack and a blood debt that the Canfields are determined to collect at all costs. The situation is complicated by the fact that he unknowingly fell in love with a Canfield daughter (Keaton's wife, Natalie Talmadge) on the train, and soon finds himself a guest on the Canfield estate, and the target of their rather unusual hospitality.

While Three Ages poked fun at epic filmmaking, Our Hospitality feels almost effortlessly sprawling, a tale of ancient rivalry set against the back drop of the Blue Ridge Mountains circa 1830. Keaton's attention to detail lends the film a striking period authenticity, almost as if we're watching the film unfold live in the 19th century. He also employs period contraptions to great comedic effect - the train ride home on an original English steam engine is truly hilarious, with Keaton sustaining the comic momentum for nearly 20 minutes with a series of escalating gags that presages his work on The General three years later. His pedal-less bicycle, a "gentleman's hobby horse," is also a wonderfully goofy evocation of his character, a feckless dandy who's about to become the ultimate fish out of water.

It all culminates in a massive climax on a roaring river that seamlessly combines Keaton's breathtaking stunt work with a waterfall set built on a soundstage. Keaton, of course, did all his own stunts, and nearly died several times while making the film, but his lack of regard for life and limb resulting in a thrilling and wildly funny film. The iconic comedian once explained that he moved away from the wild set piece stunts that defined his short films when he transitioned to features, namely because they lacked the verisimilitude he believed necessary to telling a feature length story. But in Our Hospitality he manages to strike the perfect balance between death defying stunts and a compelling story. It's essentially a comedic twist on Romeo and Juliet, but with Keaton's unique charm and a beautifully rendered sense of time and place, it becomes a showcase for one of cinema's great comic filmmakers, whose stone-faced visage and droll sense of humor created a timeless work of art whose unique silliness continues to echo through the ages. It has all been gorgeously preserved on the new 2K restoration on the new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films, much of the extraneous grain, dirt, and debris have been removed from the negative and the print looks crystal clear. It's a top notch presentation of one of Keaton's best, and also includes two Keaton shorts and several behind the scenes documentaries. It's a must for Keaton fans and for all enthusiasts of silent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

OUR HOSPITALITY | Directed by Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone | Stars Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Joe Roberts, Francis X. Bushman, Jr. | Not Rated | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on Oct. 15.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

By the late 1980s, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami had not yet reached the level of international arthouse fame he would achieve in the 1990s with films like Close-Up (1990) and A Taste of Cherry (1997). While working as the head of Iran's Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, he accepted an offer to direct a film based on his own screenplay that would become Where is the Friend's House? (1987), an unassuming drama about a young boy who sets out to return his friend's homework notebook after the friend is humiliated in front of the class by their teacher after he left his notebook at home and threatened with expulsion if it should ever happen again.

There's only one problem - young Ahmad (Babek Ahmadpour) has no idea where his friend Mohammad (Ahmed Ahmadpour) lives. He sets off from his hometown of Koker to the neighboring village of Poshteh to track down Mohammad, along the way meeting a series of unhelpful and uninterested adults, culminating with an encounter with a lonely old man who becomes Ahmad's guide into an unexpectedly magical world, a beautiful and mysterious maze on the road of life. It was this film that truly heralded the arrival of Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema, perhaps one of the greatest films about childhood ever made. Kiarostami captures such a sense of innocence and pure love for one's friends, a love consistently unappreciated by the adults around them. Every adult Ahmad encounters seems wholly unsympathetic to his act of selflessness, determined instead to instill a kind of blind obedience to "build character" that he clearly already has. Their attempts to mold him into adults like themselves is barely disguised abuse, because the cycle they seek to perpetuate is to create more self-centered adults who'd rather mind their own business than help those around them.

Its final image is one of such profound beauty that it rivals the iconic freeze-frame ending of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, perfectly capturing the sublime, gossamer belief in basic human kindness inherent in childhood, here fully realized despite all attempts by jaded adults to snuff it out, breaking a cycle of cynicism and selfishness the oblivious adults seem determined to save in older to uphold a bleak status quo.

A still from AND LIFE GOES ON. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Kiarostami would become a major filmmaker before returning to this world in 1992's And Life Goes On (aka Life, and Nothing More). The filmmaker often resisted the moniker of "The Koker Trilogy," a title bestowed on this triptych by critics, but all three are inherently and unavoidably connected - completely able to stand on their own yet so much richer as a whole. Rather than directly follow up Where is the Friend's House?, Kiarostami based And Life Goes On on his experiences directly following the 1990 Gilan earthquake that claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 Iranians. The film centers around a filmmaker and his son traveling to a devastated Koker to check on the welfare of the young actors from Where is the Friend's House? in a kind of blending of documentary and fiction that Kiarostami does so well, leaving one to wonder where one ends and the other begins.

The script is reportedly based on interactions Kiarostami had with his on the road to Koker, and yet the film is anything but heavy or tragic. It's a kind of testament to the resilience of the Iranian people, who all seem to be carrying on with life as normal, the earthquake's devastation simply another obstacle to overcome in everyday life. While not a sequel to Where is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On returns to one of that film's key visual motifs - a zigzag hill leading from Koker to Poshteh that Ahmad must continually cross in order to achieve his goal of finding his friend. This hill comes to represent a kind of Sisyphean task of human existence that the films' characters must overcome nevertheless. There's a kind of playfulness here that belies the seriousness of the task at hand, and yet under Kiarostami's masterful eye the film becomes a sort of wry celebration of the Iranian people's determination to keep going under even the most brutal of circumstances. It never answers its central question, leaving the meat of the story in the journey rather than the destination, a sort of discovery of the self and of the nation on the road to Koker. Life continues, even in the face of great adversity. They go on because they must.

Mohamad Ali Keshavarz as the Director in THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

The question of Ahmadpour's safety is quickly answered in Kiarostami's 1994 follow-up, Through the Olive Trees, although the revelation is almost an afterthought. Based on his experiences while filming And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees once again centers on a filmmaker patterned after Kiarostami (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz). While working on And Life Goes On, the director encounters a major roadblock when one of his actors is unable to perform when paired with an actress he had previously proposed to, only to be rejected because her family disapproved. As his set is disrupted and his filming schedule falls behind, the director is forced to use creative measures to coerce the actors to give him the performance he needs to complete the film.

Kiarostami uses a kind of meta-textual exploration of his own filmmaking process to explore not only the idea of creation itself, but of the gossamer intricacies of human relationships. Each subsequent film in the Koker Trilogy interrogates the film before it. They're not sequels, but they do build upon their thematic content, acknowledging the existence of the previous films while charting their own unique course, allowing Kiarostami to use his own experiences to reflect on the simple beauties of the human comedy. In Through the Olive Trees he takes a love story fraught with tradition turns it into something warm, humane, and wryly funny, a bemused reverie on love and romance in an ever-evolving Iran.

The new box set from the Criterion Collection is one of the most beautiful the company has ever produced, effortlessly intertwining the three films in the package in a way that subtly reflects their thematic connections. It's a lovely way to continue the thematic content over into their presentation, resulting in one of their finest releases of 2019. It's a must-have for fans of Kiarostami, offering a window into his filmmaking roots and a rare glimpse into the lives of the Iranian people.

WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE? - ★★★★ (out of four)
AND LIFE GOES ON - ★★★½ (out of four)
THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES - ★★★½ (out of four)

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