Thursday, April 09, 2020

I was a young teenager just becoming aware of the world of cinema outside my local multiplex in the year 2000 when Spike Lee's Bamboozled was released. I remember picking up my copy of Entertainment Weekly, then my weekly Bible and window into films I could only read about, and reading Lisa Schwartzbaum's negative review of Lee's latest film. "it’s also his own angrier, less persuasive version of the revolutionary TV series 'In Living Color,'" she sniffed, "which redefined modern, racially charged satire a decade ago." While Schwartzbaum was my favorite critic at the time, her pan of Bamboozled seemed to reflect the prevailing critical winds of the time, that the film was somehow an outdated satire of racial stereotypes that were no longer an issue, its depiction of blackface in popular culture lashing out in empty provocation many years too late.

Yet history has proven Bamboozled to not be regressive, but prescient. And in the 20 years it took me to finally see Lee's film after first reading that review as a high school freshman, it seems that Lee's blistering critique of the racism embedded in American culture has been more than vindicated.

There's a kind of broad comedic tone to Bamboozled that is at once wildly funny and deeply uncomfortable. Its plot recalls The Producers, in which black TV writer Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is tasked with making his show pitch "more black," and responds by sarcastically delivering an outrageously offensive modern day minstrel show complete with black actors in blackface. The problem is the producers love it, and it isn't long before the network has a bonafide hit on its hands, with white audiences embracing the stereotypes of shiftless Mantan (Savion Glover) and his lazy sidekick, Sleep ‘N’ Eat (Tommy Davidson). Soon Americans are wearing blackface again and critics have embraced the show as harmless satire, seemingly missing the point of its deliberately cruel racist tropes. But Lee isn't here to make us laugh in the vein of a Mel Brooks comedy. The jokes here hurt, and they sting on multiple levels.

It seems that message went over the heads of many critics back in 2000, because a quick glance at the film's Rotten Tomatoes page reveals a 51% rotten rating and an array of negative reviews from mostly white critics who turned up their noses at Lee's confrontational style. And indeed, Bamboozled is not an easy film to watch. Its grainy, digital video style is off-putting and occasionally quite ugly (with the exception of the blackface scenes, all slickly produced, a haunting irony all its own), and Wayans' stiff performance as Delacroix, a black man trying desperately to fit into a white world, seems almost too ridiculous to be believed. It's as if Lee wants to knock us off our feet, to make us uncomfortable, to rub our faces in the vast evil of American racism and the legacy of its original sin.

And that is, of course, entirely the point. There's nothing pleasant about Bamboozled. It works overtime to throw the audience off balance, to alienate us in almost Brechtian fashion, holding us at arm's length but demanding our attention as if saying "don't look away, you need to see this." This is easily Lee's angriest film, every frame nearly trembling with barely controlled rage at a system that continues to ignore its racist past. That Lee's film was dismissed in its time because of that anger speaks volumes, the stereotype of the angry black man causing white critics and audiences to dismiss a message made all the more essential by their indifference.

Bamboozled does not a pleasant evening at the movies make, but in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless others in the ensuing two decades, not to mention the seemingly never-ending parade of politicians who have dressed up in blackface since the film was released, it feels more necessary than ever. Its inclusion in the Criterion Collection may not widen its reach beyond the cinephiles already predisposed to accepting Lee's message, but its arrival on Blu-Ray feels especially timely; a film widely ignored in its time returning at a time when its message feels even more urgent, its ferocious satire now carrying an even more mischievous glint as if to say "I told you so." Ignore its warnings now at your own peril.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BAMBOOZLED | Directed by Spike Lee | Stars Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tommy Davidson, Michael Rapaport, Thomas Jefferson Byrd | Rated R for strong language and some violence | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features Include:

  • New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Ellen Kuras and approved by director Spike Lee, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Lee 
  • New conversation between Lee and film programmer and critic Ashley Clark 
  • New interviews with choreographer and actor Savion Glover, actor Tommy Davidson, and costume designer Ruth E. Carter   
  • On Blackface and the Minstrel Show, a new interview program featuring film and media scholar Racquel Gates   
  • The Making of “Bamboozled” (2001), a documentary featuring Lee; Glover; Davidson; actors Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rapaport, and Damon Wayans; and other members of the cast and crew 
  • Deleted scenes, music videos for the Mau Maus’ “Blak Iz Blak” and Gerald Levert’s “Dream with No Love,” and alternate parody commercials created for the film 
  • Poster gallery and trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by Clark

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

A scene from Vsevolod Pudovkin's MOTHER, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Vsevolod Pudovkin is perhaps one of the lesser known of the great Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s. Not as lauded in cinephile circles as Sergei Eisenstein nor as prominent in film history as Lev Kuleshov or Dziga Vertov, Pudovkin was nevertheless one of the most poetic of the Communist filmmakers of the early 20th century whose work sought to laud both socialism and the glories of the Bolshevik revolution when its victory was still fresh.

Pudovkin, much like Eisenstein, was heavily influenced by the films of D.W. Griffith, but aimed to expand beyond Griffith's achievements in order to reach a new, heightened level of cinema. In his essay, "Griffith, Dickens, and the Film Today," Eisenstein writes: "This was the montage whose  foundations had been laid by American film-culture, but whose full, completed, conscious use and world recognition was established by our films. Montage, the rise of which will be forever linked with the name of Griffith." For Eisenstein, Soviet film culture began with Griffith and was built upon, and even perfected, by himself and his contemporaries; among them, Pudovkin, whose adherence to the Soviet ideals of montage elevated his films to a unique level of cinematic poetry.

Whereas Eisenstein's films often focused on the plight of the working class and how their struggles both glorified and justified the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Pudovkin's films feel much more revolutionary, focusing on how workers and peasants became radicalized by working conditions under the Czar. Pudovkin is less concerned with the results of the revolution than he is in the circumstances that gave rise to it. For him, the political was also deeply personal, and he often foregrounded individuals to be representative of the collective rather than focusing on the collective as a whole. In his debut feature, Mother (1926), Pudovkin adapts a novel by Maxim Gorky about an idealistic young man whose efforts to organize a workers' strike against oppressive conditions in a factory runs him afoul of the authorities. His mother, at first discouraging of his political organizing, eventually becomes radicalized by the deeply unfair treatment of her son by the Czarist state, and eventually joins the 1905 Russian Revolution.

What sets Mother apart from, say, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, which depicts the same 1905 Revolution from a different perspective, is that by centering the action on one character Pudovkin achieves a much more powerful emotional catharsis. The climactic scene, in which the mother stands alone against charging Czarist forces, her flag held high and defiant, is one of the most deeply moving images in all Soviet cinema. It makes the Revolution not only feel viscerally present, but deeply personal, an act of defiance against tyranny borne out of heartbreak caused by an unjust system. Mother isn't simply cut from a revolutionary cloth because those were the politics of the day, there's a real passion here for the cause of socialism, one that still resonates today. The familiar techniques of Soviet montage are here - the quick, rhythmic cuts, the opposing close-ups, the use of editing to create emotional juxtaposition and suggestion of simultaneous action in a visual cacophony of action (pay close attention to the thematic significance of the thawing ice floes in spring intercut with images of marching workers), but Pudovkin consistently employs these techniques for something more lyrical. He brings the full weight of capitalist oppression to bear and examines its ravages on not just all striking workers, but on one particular family (although the use of a mother as a stand-in for Mother Russia is not an accident), building their struggle up to an emotional crescendo that rams home the importance of not only the 1905 Revolution, but of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution as a whole. "This is what we're fighting for," Pudovkin seems to be saying, "and this is how far we've come."

A scene from THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG. Courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Pudovkin's second feature, The End of St. Petersburg (1927), widens the scope somewhat. Commissioned to honor the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution (see also Esfir Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, also available from Flicker Alley, and Eisenstein's October: Ten Days that Shook the World), The End of St. Petersburg still takes an on-the-ground approach to depicting the events of October 1917, giving us a portrait of spontaneous peasant rebellion rising up against the Czarist government, an event that changed St. Petersburg from Petrograd, and eventually to Leningrad in honor of Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Less intimate perhaps than Mother, The End of St. Petersburg still depicts much of the action from the perspective of one peasant family who is forced to move into the city when their farm life is no longer enough to support themselves. There, amidst the ghastly luxury of the elites (constantly juxtaposed with the dire conditions of the poor and working class) they are swept up in the Revolution and help to reclaim St. Petersburg for the people.

By focusing just on the events in St. Petersburg, rather than taking a wider look at the Revolution as a whole (specifically what was going on in Moscow) Pudovkin is once again able to take a bottom-up look at how these events affected the common people, and how much they drove events that benefitted their own position, rather than the top-down approach of focusing on military action and leadership. While this is hardly unique to Pudovkin (Eisenstein took a similar approach in Strike and Old & New), his films display a real passion for the plight of the proletariat, feeling less like propaganda and more like communist apologia, focusing less on the politics of the Bolsheviks and more on the basis for the Revolution in the first place. It is also in The End of St. Petersburg, perhaps more so than any of Pudovkin's films, where the idea of class solidarity comes most into play - working class soldiers refusing to fire on striking workers despite the orders of their superiors. While we all know now how the great Bolshevik experiment would turn out in the hands of bad faith actors like Josef Stalin, the idealism at work in Pudovkin's films is inspiring in ways that reach beyond mere adulation of communist ideology.

The third film in Pudovkin's "Bolshevik Trilogy," Storm Over Asia (aka Heir to Genghis Khan) was released in 1928 and is arguably the director's most well-known film. It was criticized at the time for its focus on ethnographic study of Mongolian nomads in the first half, in which Pudovkin spends a good chunk of the film's two hour running time exploring the day-to-day life of indigenous Mongolians under British occupation. And yet it is that very attention to detail and adherence to a certain kind of realism that makes Storm Over Asia so special. It is first and foremost an anti-imperialist film, examining the fight for Mongolian independence that was occurring simultaneously with the Russian Revolution.

It is also the film in which the influence of Griffith is most keenly felt, in the thundering climax in which the Mongolian forces face off against the agents of imperialism, juxtaposed against scenes of an actual storm, with gale-force winds bowing the trees to their will. Its ethnography, almost documentary-like realism does not blunt its revolutionary fervor. In fact it is Pudovkin's depiction of Mongolian life, less exoticism than kitchen-sink drama, that makes its climax so powerful; where imperialists attempt to use a young man they believe to be a descendant of Genghis Khan in order to quell a peasant uprising. It's the least directly tied to the Communist cause of the three films, instead focusing on anti-Imperial solidarity against oppression around the globe. By focusing on non-white characters, Pudovkin also dismisses the inherent racism with which such cultures were viewed at the time, a move that seems revolutionary in and of itself, equating Mongolians' struggle with the struggle of working class people everywhere. This is class solidarity in action, and the whirlwind finale is as emotionally overwhelming as anything in Griffith's filmography.

The new Blu-Ray release by Flicker Alley includes all three films in the "Bolshevik Trilogy," as well as Pudovkin's 1925 short film, Chess Fever, a satirical piece about the Russian chess fad that was going on at the time. The transfers of all three films is impressive, but it is perhaps Storm Over Asia that has benefitted the most, with its new 2K master and evocative score by Timothy Brock. Perhaps most impressive, however, is discovering these films in our own troubled times, and seeing just how relevant their message of working class struggle still is today. The struggles faced by workers in Czarist Russia, fought against by the Bolsheviks, isn't all that removed from the modern world as we may think. The revolutionary spirit of the Bolsheviks lives on, embodied here by three nearly hundred-year-old films, that remind us that the political is always personal, and that while the oppressive spirit of capitalism and imperialism endure today, so too do the ideas of class solidarity that Pudovkin championed. Perhaps the world hasn't changed quite as much as we think.

MOTHER - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG - ★★★½ (out of four) 

STORM OVER ASIA - ★★★★ (out of four)

The Bolshevik Trilogy is now available on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Originally released in theaters on March 6, Disney/Pixar's Onward had the unusual misfortune of having its theatrical run interrupted by a global pandemic. It was still at the top of the box office when most theaters shut down around March 19, making it Pixar's lowest grossing film to date. It's unfortunate because Onward is quite a lovely film, even if it doesn't quite measure up to the studio's greatest triumphs like WALL-EFinding Nemo, Up, Toy Story 3, Inside Out, and Coco.

As a result of the pandemic, Disney ultimately decided to cut their losses and debut the film on its streaming service, Disney+, months ahead of schedule, which means its now available for free to anyone with a subscription at a time when it should have still been in theaters. This is an unprecedented move for a major studio, but it's also an opportunity for people who are sheltering in place, especially those with children, to enjoy the film sooner rather than later from the comfort of their own homes.

Set in a world of mythological creatures where magic has all but been forgotten amongst the more immediate magic of modern technology, Onward tells the story of two brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who couldn't be more different. Ian is a shy bookworm, Barley is a boisterous adventurer with a love of fantasy and lore. On Ian's 16th birthday, their mother gives them a final gift left by their late father: a magic staff that will allow their father to come visit them one last time for 24 hours only. Thrilled to finally meet the father who died before he was born, Ian activates the staff but botches the spell, only managing to resurrect his father's legs before the magic crystal is depleted. So Ian and Barley set off on a quest to find a new crystal, their father's legs in tow, with only 24 hours before he disappears forever.

Naturally, the journey ends up being much more important than the destination, and Ian learns that despite years of longing for the dad he never had, he missed the dad who was right in front of him all along. Onward is a charming adventure about brotherly bonding, family ties, and searching for magic in a world that seems to have forgotten what magic really is, which is an interesting message coming from a studio that has spent the past few years shamelessly recycling its own past through nostalgic remakes of beloved films. Still, there's something strangely comforting in this time of national uncertainty to be found in this film about rediscovering simple magic in a world governed by technology.

Stylistically, the film often feels more like a Dreamworks film than anything Pixar has ever made, the character design and more pop culture oriented humor doesn't quite feel as timeless as the very best Pixar films, but it's a pleasant and consistently entertaining film that has that "comfort food" sheen that's hard to resist; and in such a dark time it often feels like just the balm we nee to take our minds off our troubles if only for a couple of hours.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ONWARD | Directed by Dan Scanlon Stars Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Octavia Spencer | Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements | Now available on digital download and streaming on Disney+.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of us are living our lives. With many either working from home or otherwise stuck inside in an attempt to "flatten the curve," a lot of folks are turning to their trusty streaming services to stay entertained while in self-imposed quarantine. Thankfully, many streaming services have plenty of new content ready to be released in the next few months (if you haven't started Tiger King on Netflix're missing out), and there are few wells of content quite as deep as Disney's.

The latest original film on Disney's streaming service, Disney+, is Stargirl, an adaptation of Jerry Spinelli's popular young adult novel of the same name. It was a novel I was quite taken with when I was younger, its message of embracing your idiosyncrasies and celebrating the things that made you different resonating deeply with my teenage self. Watching the film adaptation some 15 years laters lands a little differently, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact what fascinates me about films aimed at teenagers that celebrate non-conformity is, well, how conformist they ultimately are.

Director Julia Hart (Fast Color) brings some lovely grace notes to this story of an unusual girl that calls herself Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal) who moves into a boring town and shakes up the lives of the students of Mica High School. She leaves a special imprint on Leo (Graham Verchere), who has spent his entire life trying not to stand out. The two couldn't be more opposite, but soon Stargirl helps Leo embrace his own unique spirit, and inspires the entire school to look at the world in new ways, revitalizing the tiny town and leaving an indelible imprint that none of them will ever forget.

In other words, Stargirl is absolutely the prototypical "manic pixie dream girl" who's more of a device than an actual person. She's "strange" simply because she wears mismatching colors and plays the ukulele. And catalyst that eventually causes the school to turn on her is that she tried to do something nice for someone. Perhaps it's the rose-colored glasses through which I view the novel and its effect on my 18-year-old self, but Stargirl the film lacks the aching melancholy that made the book such a lovely and elusive thing.

On the other hand, the two young leads are appealing, and Hart does manage to find some lovingly grounded moments between the two of them that eschews the more manic sensibilities of your typical Disney teen drama. Yet it's hard to shake the familiarity of it all, its generic design and construction sitting very comfortably alongside the multitude of similar films currently streaming on Disney+. It's a mildly charming way to pass the time, but it feels like empty calories, a film light on real drama or conflict whose central premise doesn't really stand up to a lot of scrutiny. Was the book like this? Or was I just younger and less discerning? After seeing the film adaptation, my nostalgic side is afraid to go back and find out. It may be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon stuck inside, but its themes of being unique and true to yourself feel lost in a film that's trying so desperately to fit in.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

STARGIRL | Directed by Julia Hart | Stars Grace VanderWaal, Graham Verchere, Giancarlo Esposito, Maximiliano Hernández, Karan Brar, Annacheska Brown | Rated PG for mild thematic elements | Now streaming exclusively on Disney+

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Venus Xtravaganza in Jennie Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Drag culture has become so mainstream in recent years that it's almost easy to take for granted, forgetting than in the not-so-distant past it was a mostly underground form of entertainment held in underground bars where gay men and trans women could be themselves.

Consider, for a moment, the implications of Jennie Livingston's seminal queer documentary, Paris is Burning, a portrait of New York's drag ball scene of the 1980s, and its importance in the gay community of the time - specifically the black and latinx queer community. Released in 1990 in a country still running on the fumes of the Reagan era and the AIDS crisis still very much an every day reality, Paris is Burning is at once hopeful and tragic, a look behind the sequined curtain of a culture that was still very much hidden in the shadows, and the profound effect it had on the men and women who adorned its halls, wearing everything from nightgowns to suits - serving "realness" nightly while the straight world moved along around them unaware.

At a time when "RuPaul's Drag Race" is a mainstream hit and drag queens regularly attend "Drag Queen Story Hours" at local libraries, the time of Paris is Burning may seem like ancient history. But these things are still met with controversy even today, and Livingston's fly-on-the-wall examination of recent history is a potent reminder of both how far we've come and how far we still have to go. Consider the story of Venus Xtravaganza, a plucky young Puerto Rican trans woman whose dreams of getting married in a white gown are cut down when she is tragically murdered near the film's end. Her death is a sobering reminder of the dangers of being queer in America not only in the 1980s but in 2020, when murders of trans women of color are still commonplace. Consider also the fact that "RuPaul's Drag Race" controversially excludes trans women from competition, favoring cis gay men instead. But here she is embraced - there's no gatekeeping in these halls, just celebration of gender and sexuality in all of its infinite variations. In some ways this haven feels even more progressive than our own time in its acceptance without question of each character's identity, be it feminine, masculine, something in between, or something different every night.

The film also introduces us to Dorian Corey, an aging drag queen who dispenses stately pearls of wisdom while applying eye makeup and lamenting the younger generations ignorance of the great Hollywood divas of the past, Octavia Saint Laurent, a transgender woman who aspires to a modeling career, and Pepper LeBeija, whose cheeky insights lead us further into the world of the Harlem drag balls. It's almost like gazing into the world of the Weimar Era Germany, a world of dazzling decadence that forms a kind of oasis in the midst of great turmoil, where queer men and women are free to be themselves.

Yet its celebratory air is tinged with tragedy. Haunted by the specter of AIDS and the murder of Venus Xtravaganza, Paris is Burning is both an exuberant portrait of gay culture and queer defiance during a time when visibility was low and discrimination was high, and a deeply moving exploration of the lives of people who were forced to create their own families and networks of support in a world that didn't try or want to understand them. In the ensuing years so many ideas introduced here have entered the popular lexicon. Even straight people have appropriated words like "shade," "voguing," and "realness" (a reference to the verisimilitude of one's drag ensemble), and Paris is Burning documents their origins in the black and latinx drag ball scene, making the film not only a classic of queer cinema but a touchstone of LGBT culture. This may not be where it all began, but it's an essential document of a very specific point in history, when AIDS was ravaging  the community and the culture stood on on the precipice of a popular coming of out of its own, these queens dared to be themselves by becoming someone else for a brief shining moment under the glaring lights of a Harlem nightclub; and their honesty, their audacity, and their unvarnished soul-baring captured by Livingston is a kind of collective realness that can't be faked.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

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

  • New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Jennie Livingston, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New conversation between Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris 
  • Over an hour of never-before-seen outtakes Audio commentary from 2005, featuring Livingston, ball community members Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja, and film editor Jonathan Oppenheim 
  • New interview with LGBT film historian Jenni Olson 
  • Episode of The Joan Rivers Show from 1991, featuring Livingston and ball community members Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Ninja Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and a 1991 review by poet Essex Hemphill

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Pre-Code era Hollywood, those glorious few years between the advent of sound in 1927 and the adoption of the restrictive Hays Code in 1934, has always had a reputation for being a naughty free-for-all of vice and sin. While the films were still somewhat restricted by social mores of the time (at least compared modern standards) there's something arguably more loose, unrestricted, and fresh about them that is unmistakable - a willingness to take risks and explore subjects in more explicit ways that simply wasn't possible after the adoption of the Production Code.

Rouben Mamoulian's The Song of Songs (1933) is one such film, a delightfully risqué love story about a virginal girl from the provinces (Marlene Dietrich) who falls in love with a worldly artist (Brian Aherne) after he convinces her to pose nude for his latest sculpture. Their romance is interrupted by a wealthy baron (Lionel Atwill) who purchases the sculpture and decides to make Lily his own by any means necessary, and pays the starving artist off to make him move away in the night leaving her helpless and alone. Through it all her only comfort was Solomon's "Song of Songs," a notoriously erotic Biblical love poem whose meaning she never quite understands until she experiences physical love for the first time.

The film is surprisingly sexually frank, even by the standards of 1933 - the year that finally caused Hollywood to bring down the hammer and enforce the Production Code the following year. The scenes in which Richard sculpts Lily tingle with eroticism, as his hands caress the curves of the nude statue, Dietrich trembling with each stroke as if it were her own body. Sensuously shot in evocative black and white by Victor Milner, The Song of Songs captures each longing glance, each sigh of desire, exploring the couple's sexual dance with both a frankness and a sense of slyness that make it one of the period's most direct films.

Dietrich's performance is also one for the ages. She was always more than the sex symbol vixen history has recorded her as, but she's incredible here, playing against type as the winsome farm girl whose evolution into a hardened and worldly baroness is the film's central tragedy, a woman turned into a sex object for the enjoyment of the men around her all in the name of art. There's something disarmingly personal about Lily's journey and Dietrich, now several years removed from the voluptuous siren of von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, embodies it with a quiet power and a barely constrained sense of rage. Mamoulian's layering of sexual tension accompanied with his withering eye toward the destructive power of the male gaze makes The Song of Songs a fascinating case study in gender roles of the 1930s, often working on several levels at once; on the surface an erotic drama and just underneath a rather scathing critique of Hollywood's treatment of women that's somewhat undercut by its own ending in which the couple finally reunites and all is forgiven. But it's hard not to admire the gutsiness of what Mamoulian achieves here, crafting a film that is ultimately a critique of itself and the very audience that's watching it. The Production Code would render such a film impossible in just a year's time, but here Mamoulian and Dietrich are free to explore the dark underbelly of artistic exploitation while still finding a kind of painful beauty in the pursuit of sensual desire. It's a hidden gem ready for an overdue rediscovery thanks to the lovely new Blu-Ray now available from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE SONG OF SONGS | Directed by Rouben Mamoulian | Stars Marlene Dietrich, Brian Aherne, Lionel Atwill, Alison Skipworth, Hardie Albright | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Betty Gilpin in Universal Pictures' THE HUNT.

Originally slated for release in 2019, Craig Zobel's The Hunt came under fire on conservative media for its story of liberals kidnapping Trump supporters and hunting them for sport. The film eventually even caught the attention of President Trump himself, who issued a condemnation of the film from his Twitter account, causing a controversy that eventually led to the film being pulled from the schedule altogether.

Now the film has finally found its way into theaters, using the controversy as its main marketing draw, and to the surprise of no one who actually watched the trailer rather than just listening to the president's unhinged rambling on social media, The Hunt is more of a satire of liberals than it is of conservatives, casting the "liberal elites" as the villains and the hunted "deplorables" as the heroes on the run. It's not hard to see that Zobel is going for some sort of "both sides" condemnation of our polarized electorate, casting the Trump supporters as wild-eyed conspiracy theorists whose worst fears have come true, and the wealthy liberals who hunt them as privileged elitists whose disdain for other side has lead them into an insular world of fake news just as bad as what they claim to be against.

The problem is that its satire is so broad, so blunt, and so misguided that absolutely nothing works. This is a film in which a villain, tasked with posing as an American ambassador, actually carries a box labeled "bribe money," which he uses to pay off foreign military agents. Subtle and clever this film is not. The idea is that an innocent text message exchanged among friends who run a powerful multinational corporation leak to the press, leading fringe right-wing conspiracy theorists to concoct a wild story about "liberal elites" hunting conservatives for sport at a manor house in Vermont. They call the theory "Manorgate," and it spreads like wildfire on conservative media. After losing their jobs in order for the company to save face, the liberals actually decide to hunt conservatives at a manor overseas for revenge, getting back at those who brought them down by making the conspiracy theory come to life.

This plan backfires spectacularly when they accidentally kidnap the wrong woman, mistaking Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a special ops veteran  who served in Afghanistan, for another woman of the same name who made disparaging remarks about ringleader, Athena (Hilary Swank) on Twitter. Lots of blood, guts, and gore are splattered across the screen as Crystal calmly wreaks vengeance on the people trying to kill her, determined to get back home at all costs. Gilpin turns in a strong performance; her laid back demeanor and Mississippi drawl seemingly at odds with the over-the-top decadence around her, but the film itself is one of the worst pieces of garbage to clog up multiplexes in recent memory. Zobel's brand of satire is messy and obvious, taking a kind of "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to see what lands, and very little, if anything, actually does.

The depiction of the liberals in the film is straight out of the Fox News "latte-sipping liberal" stereotype playbook, coming across as the kind of caricature that someone who thinks "did you just assume my gender" is the height of humor would come up with. The conservatives are likewise broadly drawn, shown as racist, gay-hating, gun-toting hicks that are everything the people trying to kill them think they are. For a film that seems to be pleading for understanding, its utter condescension toward everyone in the film consistently undercuts its message. No one wins here and everyone is terrible, and that kind of nihilism not only makes The Hunt an unpleasant watch, it also seems to suggest that everyone is just as terrible as the other side believes. It doesn't seem to actually understand where anyone in this film is coming from. One of the liberals actually refers to one of her partners as "comrade," as if a bunch of wealthy white liberals would actually co-opt the language of Marxism. This kind of utter lack of understanding of who it's depicting and why results in a film that has no idea what it's trying to say, but it's saying it loudly and constantly -  proudly ignorant, arrogantly self-assured, with nothing to back itself up; just like the people its attempting to lampoon. The Hunt is reprehensible trash, neither as edgy or as smart as it thinks it is, offering up little more than empty shock value with nothing the least but constructive or interesting to say. This one's not worth risking the spread of coronavirus - stay home and avoid this film like the plague.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)

THE HUNT | Directed by Craig Zobel | Stars Emma Roberts, J. C. MacKenzie, Hilary Swank, Justin Hartley, Ethan Suplee, Macon Blair, Betty Gilpin, Glenn Howerton | Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The surface of Céline Sciamma's captivating period romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is somewhat deceptive. At first it appears to be a stiff and staid costume drama, a film of stiff upper lips and even stiffer fabrics. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, Sciamma peels back the layers to reveal something deeply passionate, even fiery, beneath its mannered veneer.

Set in the 18th century, Portrait of a Lady on Fire chronicles the lives of two women, one a painter (Noémie Merlant), the other a wealthy debutante (Adèle Haenel) engaged to be married to a man she has never met. The painter, Marianne, has been hired by Héloïse's mother to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send to her betrothed for approval. But Héloïse has other ideas, already having refused to sit for one artist in protest of her arranged marriage. Marianne is then tasked with painting Héloïse in secret, posing as a companion hired to keep her company and nothing more. But soon Marianne finds herself with much more than a companion; drawn to enigmatic and melancholy Héloïse, trapped in a societal system in which she does not want to participate, the artist slowly falls in love with her subject. As they defy both family and society, they must also face a ticking clock as Héloïse prepares to leave the island to be united with her new husband and begin her new life.

There is a sense of prim propriety in every frame - the emotion restrained as society would have dictated at the time. There is only music in two key scenes, resulting in a kind of hushed silence that hangs over the film, broken only by tentative conversations shared between the two protagonists. Sciamma finds the passion in stolen glances, verbal tete-a-tete between painter and muse, a cautious exploration of feelings left unsaid. Its inner world is unleashed when Marianne and Héloïse read the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the doomed love of the Greek heroes forming the backbone of the deep, poetic longing the two lovers share. It is through that lens that the film builds its emotional center, through a prism of longing and memory, regret and resignation, a dreamy recollection of a love affair long past slowly returning through the haze of time.

Sciamma has crafted a period piece that doesn't feel like a period piece; all the trappings are there - the costumes, the production design, but while she crafts the film like a Merchant-Ivory drama, it's the deep well of emotion coursing just beneath the surface that makes it so special. It's a film of restraint, of buried emotion, exploring the ways in which women were expected to speak and behave, and then boldly reading between the lines. It manages to be smoldering and sexy and deeply romantic more because of what the characters don't say and don't do than what they actually do. Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes repressed sexuality and emotion and turns it into the stuff of great romance, of star-crossed lovers seizing their moment of burning passion and holding onto the embers for the rest of their lives.

“Do all lovers feel as though they’re inventing something?” Héloïse asks Marianne during one scene in the film; and indeed, Sciamma seems to be inventing love anew, giving us something at once familiar, like the lingering memory of lovers long past, and vibrantly, thrillingly new, a love story that is wholly its own. She not only invites the painter to see herself through her subject's eyes, she invites us to reexamine life through the female gaze, and look at love anew. For a film of such delicate quietude to achieve such earth shattering power is something truly special indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE | Directed by Céline Sciamma | Stars Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino | Rated R for some nudity and sexuality | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, March 06, 2020

MOM AND DAD (1945)

For decades the underground movie circuit has popularized  B-films from the 1930s and 40s that sought to exploit their subjects under the guise of being "educational." 

From the short-lived "nudist camp" sub-genre to didactic screeds against the evils of sex and drugs, these schlocky grindhouse films have been a staple of midnight movie screenings since their rediscovery sometime around the end of the Production Code, a set of rules many of these films were able to subvert by pretending to have educational value beyond their obviously titillating nature. Audiences flocked to these films for reasons perhaps less savory than their makers intended, but one can't help but imagine the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing, slyly undercutting Production Code rules by covering up exploitation thrills in finger-wagging moralism. Kino Lorber has partnered with Something Weird Video to brings several of these midnight classics to Blu-Ray for the first time in their new series, Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, featuring some of the most well-known films of the era.


Perhaps one of the most infamous "educational" films to be embraced by the exploitation circuit, Mom and Dad (1945) tells the story of a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand all because her mother refused to allow her to be taught sex-ed.

Easily one of the best films of its kind, in that it actually feels like a real movie in places rather than simply a didactic finger-wagging screed, Mom and Dad is nevertheless an often self-important piece of propaganda that fancies itself more progressive than it really is. While it reserves much of its ire for the puritans who refuse to allow their children to learn about the facts of life, its essential message of abstinence makes its in-your-face presentation of graphic STD wounds and images of childbirth feel just as moralistic as the scolds it claims to rebuke.

On the other hand, unlike many of its contemporaries who sought to warn parents about the dangers facing the youth of its day, Mom and Dad has an actual story with real actors who are actually mildly compelling. It's something of a fascinating time capsule, as it pauses for an intermission in which a spokesperson would stand up and lecture the audience on "hygiene," before segueing back into the film to show several educational videos on childbirth, syphillis, and gonorrhea that feature some truly stomach-churning images, and are a big reason why the film was such a big hit on the midnight movie circuit, ultimately going on to become one of the highest grossing films of the 1940s. Selected for preservation by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry as "historically significant," it remains an intriguing window into the world of sex education in the 1940s and how many of the puritanical ideas of bliss through ignorance that it critiques are still widely prevalent even today.

GRADE -★ (out of four)


Perhaps one of the most infamous exploitation films of all time, Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda piece, Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) became a midnight movie sensation in the 1960s due to its unintentionally hilarious depiction of the "dangers of marijuana." The film was designed as a warning to parents about "public enemy number one," and centers around a young man who is made to believe that he committed a murder while high on pot. The film is strictly an amateur-hour production, filled with laughably over-the-top acting and a silly sense of self-righteousness that make it the perfect exploitation camp classic.

Also included on this new release from Kino Lorber as part of their "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture" series is Dwain Esper's 1938 film, Sex Madness, a film that takes the moralistic lecturing of Reefer Madness to new heights in its crusade against extramarital sex and the scourge of gonorrhea. Featuring graphic depictions of STD wounds, and a plot about a group of teenagers whose inability to say "no" lead to life-long afflictions of venereal disease, ruining marriages and destroying their lives for one night of passion. Even more amateur-ish than Reefer MadnessSex Madness may spend most of its brief running time wagging its finger at its audience, but its sensationalistic subject matter was clearly designed to titillate while preaching a very different message, which is part of what makes these films so goofy. They're not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but they're such a joke now that it's hard not to get a kick out of them.

REEFER MADNESS -★ (out of four)
SEX MADNESS - ½ star (out of four)


A biracial woman falls in love with her boss, but her beauty is consistently diminished by those around her for "looking like another race," despite having a nice body. So she devises a plan to get her boss to go to a nudist camp with her so she can show him her body and convince him to fall in love with her, only to face competition from a pair of beautiful tourists who stumble across the camp by accident.

Unashamed is a truly bizarre curio that came out of the nudist camp craze of the late 1930s that allowed nudity to be shown on screen for "educational purposes." Its racial politics are incredibly cringe-worthy even for 1938, especially in the way it treats its protagonist as an object of pity and her biracial heritage as some sort of disability (despite easily being the most beautiful woman in the film). But its real sin is being completely dramatically inert - like many exploitation films of its ilk, it's simply boring. You'll see plenty of butts and breasts, but that's really all the film is interested in, despite all the lip service it pays to the "health benefits of nude living." There's a goofy good time here if you're in the right frame of mind, but otherwise it's a bit of a slog.

In Elysia, Valley of the Nude, a reporter goes to a nudist camp to write a piece about the nudist lifestyle, and becomes enamored with the easy-going people he finds there. Billing itself as an educational film, Elysa is an exploitation picture through and through, in which much of the cast remains nude for the entire length of the film, with strategically placed objects and cheeky angles keeping their genitalia just out of view. This being 1934, the only way to get butts and breasts on the screen was through the lens of an educational piece on the health benefits of nudism, so most of the film is a dry lecture from the professor giving the reporter a tour of the camp - but you can bet most people who went to see it didn't go to learn about how exposure to sunlight can cure what ails you - they went to see nubile young men and women cavorting in the nude, and there's plenty of that to go around, despite the film itself being a dry as dust.

UNASHAMED -★ (out of four)
ELYSIA: VALLEY OF THE NUDE - ★ (out of four)

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

Monday, March 02, 2020

Universal's attempts to retool its classic monster films the 1930s and 40s for a modern audience has been something of a mixed bag. From the 2010 remake of The Wolfman failed to find an audience despite an Oscar win for its impressive makeup design, and the attempt to start a Marvel-style "Dark Universe" with the 2017 Tom Cruise vehicle, The Mummy, fell flat with both audiences and critics. 

Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man is a different animal altogether. Rather than try to remake what's already been done or fit into a previously established universe by forcing connections to films that haven't been made yet, Whannell has completely reinvented the classic H.G. Wells story, using the basic premise as a jumping-off point for something completely original. Originally brought to the screen in 1933 by director James Whale (Frankenstein) with Claude Raines in the title role, The Invisible Man was one of the most playful and mischievous  entries in the classic Universal Monsters series. In the 2020 update, Whannell takes the basic premise of a mad scientist who invents a way to become invisible and takes it in a different direction, reframing the narrative around the scientist's wife, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), who begins the film by escaping her abusive ex and going into hiding with friends.

It isn't long before she receives news of Adrian's suicide, and believes she is finally free of his grasp. But soon strange things start happening in the house - objects move on their own, covers are pulled off her bed in the night, and Cecilia can't escape the feeling that something, or someone, is watching her every move. Convinced that Adrian has found a new way to torment her by inventing a way to become invisible, she attempts to prove his existence to her closest friends, but her insistence that an invisible dead man is torturing her makes her look insane, as Adrian isolates her from her family and friends bit by bit in increasingly devious and violent ways, leaving her to stand alone against her abuser.

The entire plot of this new Invisible Man is a brilliant metaphor for emotional abuse and gaslighting. No matter how much Cecilia insists to her friends that she's being abused, no one believes her because they literally can't see it. She even begins to question her own sanity as Adrian isolates her from her network of support. That's what makes the film so utterly terrifying - its plot may be science fiction, but it's based in a razor-sharp evocation of real-life trauma, and that makes its scares so much harder to shake. Whannell expertly builds the tension with sparing use of special effects, letting the unseen presence of the invisible man loom large even when he isn't there, keeping the suspense so tautly wound so that when it does finally payoff the eventual scare lands with that much more power.

But none of it would have worked if not for the powerhouse performance by Elisabeth Moss at the center. Moss is a wonder, crafting a perfectly calibrated portrayal of a woman coming unraveled, questioning her own sanity and culpability in a web of abuse from which there is seemingly no escape. She's so good it's as if she's taking on the entire patriarchy single-handedly, standing against an invisible enemy of male aggression and rage even when everyone around her is telling her it's all in her mind.  By telling the story from the victim's point of view rather than the monster's, and by foregrounding her journey rather than focusing on the inherent science fiction elements of his invisibility, Whannell has created something truly, deeply frightening, a monster movie in which the monster feels like a real threat, an evil that could be lurking around any corner. And not just because he's a literal invisible man, but because of the very real threat of patriarchal abuse and gaslighting that he represents - attacking women both physically and emotionally and then manipulating them into thinking that it was somehow their fault, or that maybe it was all their head. That constant questioning of reality is what makes the film so unnerving, and as Whannell builds tension past the point where other films would have offered a cheap payoff, he instead continues to turn the screw, resulting in a film that's not only scary, but genuinely surprising. In an age when monsters are very real, centering their victims' narrative not only robs them of their allure, it also makes their presence much more insidious and horrifying. That's the way to honor the legacy of the Universal Monsters (who were often tragic, misunderstood figures); not by trying recreate yesterday's boogeymen, but by acknowledging that today's monsters aren't always quite so obvious, and that's far more scary than any fictional manifestation of evil could ever be.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE INVISIBLE MAN | Directed by Leigh Whannell | Stars Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Benedict Hardie | Rated R for some strong bloody violence, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Harrison Ford and Buck in THE CALL OF THE WILD. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Jack London's classic tale of survival in the Yukon territory has been adapted for the screen more than once, but surprisingly there seems to be no single definitive version of The Call of the Wild despite being one of the most famous adventure novels of all time. A 1976 version starring Charlton Heston seems to be the highest profile, but the rest are mostly TV movies that failed to make much of a splash.

The latest iteration, starring Harrison Ford as Klondike prospector, John Thornton, seeks to change that in a new big screen adventure from 20th Century Fox, now flying under new Disney management as 20th Century Studios. It's fitting that the film has now found a home under the Disney banner, because it fits right in with such classic Disney adventure films as The Incredible JourneyThe Swiss Family Robinson, and Homeward Bound; and while its impact may be somewhat blunted by the overuse of some questionable computer imagery to its render canine hero, at it heart it's a tried-and-true tale of survival and the romance of the untouched wilderness.

While Ford may receive top billing, the hero of the story is Buck, an oversized mutt who finds himself kidnapped from the lap of luxury and on his way to the Klondike at the height of the Gold Rush, where he is sold as a sled dog to a pair of intrepid mail carriers (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) and learns to embrace the wild dog within. He soon finds himself teamed up with Ford's grizzled prospector, who came to the Yukon Territory not in search of gold, but in search of himself after the death of his son. Together they head off the map in pursuit of the adventure of a lifetime, pursued by a vengeful dandy (Dan Stevens) who believes they're hiding the secret to a fabled treasure hidden deep in the unexplored wilderness of the Yukon.

Buck is a completely computer generated character, and his obviously animated look can be distracting at times, with his expressive interactions with his owners make him almost human (not surprising, given that much of the character was created through human motion-capture technology), but if you can get past the lack of believability, The Call of the Wild is a charmingly old-fashioned adventure that's often unexpectedly low-key. Director Chris Sanders, making his live-action debut after helming such animated fare as How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch, isn't afraid to let the narrative unfold at a deliberate pace, taking the time to step back for some nice character moments, making the action set-pieces feel all the more perilous.

Despite its over-reliance on visual effects to create its central character, it's an unhurried and straightforward narrative, a welcome respite from the often apocalyptic stakes that so often dominate films with budgets this size. The script may lean too heavily on Ford's narration (and in the end it doesn't make a lot of sense), but Ford remains every bit the appealingly gruff star he's always been, and it's difficult not to become swept up in the grand romantic sweep of it all. It often feels like a throwback to the cinema of a simpler, less complicated time; an old school adventure about a big dog with an even bigger heart that feels tailor-made for the old cliché - "they just don't make 'em like this anymore."

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE CALL OF THE WILD | Directed by Chris Sanders | Stars Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Colin Woodell, Karen Gillan, Omar Sy, Raven Scott, Wes Brown, Cara Gee | Rated PG for some violence, peril, thematic elements and mild language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, February 21, 2020

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Spotlighting some of this month's notable home video releases.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (The Criterion Collection)

Before the release of Pain and Glory last year, All About My Mother (1999) stood as Pedro Almodóvar's most personal film, an aching and warmhearted tribute to motherhood, and especially his own beloved mother, who passed away later that year. While Pain and Glory dealt more directly with Almodóvar's life (and his relationship with his mother, specifically), All About My Mother took inspiration from his life and turned it into an ode to motherhood itself.

After her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), is tragically killed in an accident while trying to get the autograph of one of his favorite actresses, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), heads to Barcelona to start a new life. Once there, she becomes a kind of surrogate mother to a motley band of misfits - a pregnant nun with HIV, a transgender sex worker, and lesbian actress Huma (Marisa Paredes), whose co-dependent relationship with her drug-addicted girlfriend, Nina (Candela Peña), leaves her looking for direction and stability. It is here where Manuela grows closer to her son than ever, recapturing the spirit of what it means to be a mother, and coming to terms with her own inner trauma.

It is Huma's face that we see emblazoned on a mural, her red lipstick stark against her pale face, Manuela dwarfed and illuminated by her Technicolor grandiosity in a similarly striking red coat. That image has come to define the film in many ways - first of all in Almodóvar's trademark oversaturated Technicolor brilliance and second for its singular sense of melodramatic melancholy. All About My Mother is a melodrama, make no mistake, rooted in classical Hollywood and steeped in references to films such as All About My Mother and A Streetcar Named Desire. It's the fantasy of a young boy growing up queer, surrounded by powerful women of all stripes and raised on a diet of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And yet, for all the film's purple prose and soap opera dramatics, Almodóvar never loses sight of his characters' simple humanity. It's also a spiritual sequel of sorts to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but here Almodóvar's exploration of friendships between women feels more complete, more real - less a caricature and more deeply felt - a film of longing for a lost childhood by a filmmaker honoring the women who made him who he is, and a thing of great and tremulous beauty.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)


Looking back on cinema's great romances - Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Brief Encounter, you'll be hard-pressed to find one as uniquely tragic as Serge Gainsbourg's unconventional and completely uncompromising Je t'aims moi non plus (1976).

Its romantic leads are gay truck driver, Krassky (Joe Dallesandro), and  tomboyish truck stop waitress, Johnny (Jane Birkin), whose chance encounter leads to an unusual and unexpected romance that defies gender and sexuality, even as it arouses the jealousy of Krassky's partner, Padovan (Hugues Quester). At the initial meeting, Krassky mistakes Johnny's slight, tank top-clad frame for a man's, but is taken aback when he discovers that she is, in fact, a woman. Yet he can't help but be drawn to her boyish masculinity, and the two embark on something that is at once new and frightening for them both, as Krassky finds himself unable to perform sexually unless he takes Johnny from behind, a source of both frustration and comedy-by-repitition.

What makes the film so remarkably ahead of its time is the way it critiques the very idea of gender and deconstructs sexuality into something thoroughly modern and forward thinking. In Gainsbourg's sweltering, deeply horny vision, sexuality and gender are fluid, and the attraction between Krassky and Johnny transcends both. It's a carnal attraction, even when it runs up against the practical physical barriers of genatalia - but they even manage to find a way around that. They desire each other in a deep, almost animalistic way, and the refuse to let something as simple as what sex organs the other one has get in their way.

Gainsbourg addresses sex in such a frank and uninhibited way that it's astonishing - Je t'aims moi non plus relishes in the languid nudity of its two leads in a way that feels carnal yet un-exploitative. The film manipulates the stereotypical social signals of gender - she has short hair, he has long hair - in often subtle ways, undercutting masculine/feminine iconography in order to create its own language. It's as if Gainsbourg is exploring the very idea of sexuality - what it means to feel attraction and lust for another human being, to connect on a level beyond sex, and he does it in a consistently electrifying loose, hangdog style that emphasizes the carefree nature of their existence. It's one of the great unheralded cinematic romances of all time - a love story like no other that deserves a place in the canon of all-time classics.

GRADE -★★★★ (out of four)

THE OSCAR (Kino Studio Classics)

The Oscar remains perhaps one of the most infamous Hollywood disasters of all time, a star-studded spectacle, parts of which were actually filmed at the 1964 Academy Awards, and adapted from a popular novel by Richard Sale, the film was a box-office and critical bomb that nevertheless went on to be something of a camp classic.

The film centers around the rise of movie star Frank Fane (Stephen Boyd), a devil-may-care conman who spends life on the road with his partner Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett) touring a two-bit burlesque act that soon puts them on the run from the law. That's where he stumbles into acting, his unapologetic boorishness catching the eye of a casting director who gets him on stage and eventually in front of the camera. But when faced with the prospect of waning popularity and the loss of a lucrative contract, he hatches a scheme with the help of a ruthless private eye (Ernest Borgnine) to ensure that he will win an Oscar and maintain his status in the cutthroat world of Hollywood, no matter who he has to throw under the bus.

Filled with hilarious melodrama and overripe dialogue, The Oscar features cameos from the likes of Edith Head, Frank Sinatra, Merle Oberon, Nancy Sinatra, Hedda Hopper, and Bob Hope in an attempt to capture the sweep and grandeur of Hollywood, but it's all just too silly to take seriously, descending into soapy histrionics that feel like they seem like they were written by someone who has no grasp on human interaction or relationships. Still, it's worth watching for the truly bizarre plotting and dialogue, which plays like a bad daytime soap opera complete with dramatic music stingers. And despite its scathing reviews, the film still managed to eke out two Oscar nominations - one for Art Direction and another for perennial nominee Edith Head's costumes.

GRADE -★ (out of four)


Perhaps one of the most infamous exploitation films of all time, Louis J. Gasnier's 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda piece, Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) became a midnight movie sensation in the 1960s due to its unintentionally hilarious depiction of the "dangers of marijuana." The film was designed as a warning to parents about "public enemy number one," and centers around a young man who is made to believe that he committed a murder while high on pot. The film is strictly an amateur-hour production, filled with laughably over-the-top acting and a silly sense of self-righteousness that make it the perfect exploitation camp classic.

Also included on this new release from Kino Lorber as part of their "Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture" series is Dwain Esper's 1938 film, Sex Madness, a film that takes the moralistic lecturing of Reefer Madness to new heights in its crusade against extramarital sex and the scourge of gonorrhea. Featuring graphic depictions of STD wounds, and a plot about a group of teenagers whose inability to say "no" lead to life-long afflictions of venereal disease, ruining marriages and destroying their lives for one night of passion. Even more amateur-ish than Reefer Madness, Sex Madness may spend most of its brief running time wagging its finger at its audience, but its sensationalistic subject matter was clearly designed to titillate while preaching a very different message, which is part of what makes these films so goofy. They're not "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but they're such a joke now that it's hard not to get a kick out of them.

REEFER MADNESS -★ (out of four)
SEX MADNESS - ½ star (out of four)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG from Paramount Pictures and Sega. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Sega of America.

Once scheduled for release last Thanksgiving, Paramount's Sonic the Hedgehog was delayed until Valentine's Day of this year due to fan outcry over the design of the titular blue hedgehog. Granted, the beady eyes and human-like teeth seen in the original trailer last spring was a far cry from the design of the iconic Sega video game hero, but by all accounts the retooling of the special effects cost north of $30 million and bankrupted the visual effects company that designed them.

It's a sad situation all around, because now that the film has been released, it's clear that the revamp just wasn't worth it. Sonic the Hedgehog is the epitome of soulless studio product, a paint-by-numbers action comedy that feels like the reheated leftovers of an early 2000s buddy comedy. It's mildly entertaining at times, mostly due to Jim Carrey's delightfully unhinged performance as the villainous Dr. Robotik, but the lifeless script gives him little to work with, awkwardly shoe-horning in product placement for everything from Zillow to Olive Garden.

Adapted from the popular series of video games, this iteration of Sonic (Ben Schwartz) is an intergalactic rodent whose power has turned him into a fugitive from his home planet. After living alone on Earth for several years, during which he forms one-way "friendships" with locals he has never actually met, an accidental power surge alerts government authorities to his presence. In turn, the government sends Dr. Robotnik, an evil scientist bent on studying Sonic to uncover the source of his power and use it for his own nefarious gain. So Sonic turns to small town sheriff, Tom Wachowski (James Marsden) for help, and the two end up on an adventure to reclaim Sonic's magical rings so he can escape Earth and find a new save haven where his power will be protected. But as the two grow closer, they soon find themselves forming a unique friendship and learning that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.

It's a tried and true message, but the way Sonic frames seems to suggest that following your dreams isn't worth it (neither seem to have any real connection to the small town they call home). But its muddled message is the least of its problems - its biggest issue is the fact that it's so generically constructed that any of its set pieces could be lifted and plopped into another film wholesale without missing a beat. Its standout sequences, in which time seems to slow down due to Sonic's speed while he defeats a room full of bad guys, is copied almost verbatim from Quicksilver's scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. It's all competently put together by first-time feature filmmaker, Jeff Fowler, but the script is so bland that the end result almost can't help but be anything but generic. It reeks of a cynical studio ploy to sell toys and boost video game sales without any thought for giving the film a personality of its own, recalling other human/CGI animal buddy movies like Hop and Peter Rabbit, which weren't that great to begin with. It's good to see Carrey backing this manic form, but you're likely to leave the theater with a nagging sense of déjà vu, having just sat through yet another assembly-line studio Frankenstein with little on its mind besides raking in cash on the back of an established piece of intellectual property.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG | Directed by Jeff Fowler | Stars Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Lee Majdoub, Neil McDonough | Rated PG for action, some violence, rude humor and brief mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's LE PETIT SOLDAT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Hot off the success of Breathless that heralded the arrival of the French New Wave to the world, Jean-Luc Godard defied expectations with his sophomore feature, Le Petit Soldat, and began what would become a lifelong passion for using cinema as a revolutionary political tool. However, unlike later films like La Chinoise, Tout va Bien, or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard doesn't yet seem to have a fully formed worldview. 

Originally shot in 1960 on the heels of Breathless, Le Petit Soldat wouldn't be released until 1963 due to objections from French censors who deemed the film's politics to be seditious. Where Breathless was a fresh and stylish caper in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, steeped in the classical Hollywood idiom that had so fascinated Godard as a critic, Le Petit Soldat is a grim, gritty film that takes a deep dive into simmering tensions in France resulting from the conflict in Algeria. Constructed as a spy film, Le Petit Soldat takes a right-wing French terrorist (Michel Subor) and a left-wing supporter of the Algerian cause (Anna Karina) and makes them fall in love against the backdrop of social unrest in Geneva. Controversially, it is the Algerians who are seen committing atrocities against the French, in an extended  sequence in which Stubor is tied up in a bathtub and tortured in order to extract information. While it is mentioned that the French also committed atrocities against the Algerians, and the film was banned in part because of a scene in which Karina insists that the French will lose because "have no ideal," it was this sense of moral ambiguity and "both sides-ism" in the face of colonialism that shows Godard as an artist without a fully formed ideology.

While this would certainly come later after Godard famously embraced Marxism-Leninism and the teachings of Mao Zedong, Le Petit Soldat is perhaps more interesting for what it foreshadows in Godard's career than anything contained in the film itself. Karina is a vision, of course, and Godard's camera eyes her lovingly. In fact, it is rumored that Godard actually extended the shoot in order to court her (they would be married the next year), according to cinematographer Raoul Cotard in Colin MacCabe's 2003 biography of the filmmaker. But it spends much more time with Stubor's right-wing radical, with relatively little criticism, a strange deviation from Godard's later work and a sign that Godard wasn't quite sure what he was trying to say here at all - the film's moral relativism is often more frustrating that fascinating, and its lack of a point of view makes its moral equivocations between imperialists and insurgents seem murky rather than insightful.

One could call this film the beginning of Godard's political awakening, but it's not fully formed - it's the work of an artist searching for his voice, for his ideology, looking for the ever-shifting truth that cinema brings at 24 frames per second. This idea of shifting truth is very much present in Le Petit Soldat, but it's as much due to Godard's lack of real political awareness than it is an intentional thematic device. It's a film with an author in search of a theme, and he would find it eventually, but only years later, leaving Le Petit Soldat as something of a fascinating artifact, a planted seed in Godard's career that would blossom into something much more radical and pointed later on as he left the aesthetic artifice of cinema behind to embrace its power as a tool for a revolution that would never come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

LE PETIT SOLDAT | Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | Stars Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, László Szabó | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features:
  • High-definition digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Interview with director Jean-Luc Godard from 1965 
  • Interview with actor Michel Subor from 1963 
  • Audio interview with Godard from 1961 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Nicholas Elliott