Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Perhaps one of the most famous of the German Expressionist films, Paul Wegener's The Golem: How He Came into the World is one of the most visually striking films of the silent era. With its curved architecture and unique set design, it stands alongside The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Metropolis as one of the quintessential examples of Expressionism in film. 

Few other films of the era took such a radical approach to its overall design. Nothing in the film is practical or "realistic," from its twisted staircase to the misshapen buildings of the ghetto in which it is set. And yet everything about the film seems based in a kind of recognizable milieu that makes its off-kilter sets seem like something out of a dream, as if we're wandering through the haunted landscapes of our subconscious mind.

The story is inspired by Jewish folklore, in which a rabbi brings to life a monster made of clay in order to defend the Jewish people from persecution. It is believed that the Golem myth provided the basis for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and there are certainly some parallels in Wegener's Golem that foreshadow James Whale's take on Frankenstein 11 years later, especially in the Golem's interactions with children near the film's end. Because the rabbi makes a deal with an evil spirit to bring the Golem (played by Wegener himself) to life, he loses control of the creature and must deal with the personal consequences of summoning a monster to do his bidding, even if his intentions were noble. It's a classic morality play, a warning about fighting evil with more evil, and the personal toll of revenge played out in the increasingly ominous streets of the ghetto.

Wegener had previously tacked the Golem myth in 1915's The Golem, a film now mostly lost to time, which took place in the 20th century after the ancient creature was reawakened. This 1920 prequel, The Golem: How He Came into the World,  explores the original 16th century  myth of Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) and the consequences of human arrogance in creating life. As one of the earliest remaining feature length horror films (released not long after seminal Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), it holds a special place in film history, and remains one of the most beautifully designed and evocative films of its time, and it hasn't lost any of its eerie luster in the century since its release. Wegener was not a particularly prolific filmmaker (the 1920 Golem is his most widely seen surviving film), but his vision was undeniable, and Kino Lorber's new Blu-Ray breathes new life into the now 100 year old film with a flawless new  4K transfer of the German release version, featuring three scores, as well as the shorter US release version and a comparison essay between the two cuts of the film.

F.W. Murnau adapts Moliere's classic play of religious hypocrisy in 1925's Tartuffe, which frames Moliere's original story as a film-within-a-film inside another narrative. While Tartuffe wasn't the first film to conceive of such a device (Buster Keaton's 1924 comedy, Sherlock, Jr., is the earliest example I've been able to find), it is somewhat unique for its time - making it a rare film in which most of action takes place in a film that other characters are watching.

The modern day framing device centers around an unscrupulous housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) trying to convince her wealthy master (Hermann Picha) to cut his grandson (André Mattoni) out of his will and leave everything to her, because the young man has chosen to become an actor. Upon learning of the housekeeper's scheme, the grandson disguises himself as the leader of a traveling film troupe on tour with a film version of Tartuffe  bringing the film to his grandfather's home in order to open his eyes to the housekeeper's scheme.

The resulting version of Tartuffe is heavily abridged from Moliere's classic text. The basic idea is the same - Tartuffe (Emil Jannings) is a  religious zealot who uses his piety to control others and drain them of their wealth. When he arrives at the home of his latest victim, Orgon (Werner Krauss), Orgon's wife (Lil Dagover) immediately recognizes Tartuff for the charlatan he is, and sets out to expose him to her brainwashed husband. The story mostly focuses on her attempts to reveal Tartuffe's true nature, leaving the meat of Moliere's text cut down to a sort of Cliff's Notes summary. The essential thematic content remains the same, but Jannings' choice to play Tartuffe as a gruff, boorish brute rather than a charismatic, manipulative cad seems to undercut the story's essential message about being wary of charming hypocrites who disguise their true nature in false piety.

Murnau is, of course, an incredible visual stylist, and the golden-tinted hues of Karl Freund's cinematography are often breathtaking. But Tartuffe is ultimately one of Murnau's minor works - its all-too-brief 74 minute running time barely giving the story time to breathe, and the normally terrific Jannings seems miscast here, his penchant for overacting smothering the legendary character. The framing device also seems unnecessary - its attempt to connect Moliere's themes to modern times feels redundant, taking precious minutes away from the already truncated story it sets out to tell.

THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD - ★★★½ (out of four)
TARTUFFE - ★★½ (out of four)

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In 2002, a student reporter working for her high school newspaper, The Hilltop Beacon, inadvertently uncovered a massive embezzlement scheme while working on a puff piece about a new construction project at her high school in Long Island.

That embezzlement scheme ended up being the largest public school fraud in American history, with over $11 million stolen from the school system's budget to fund luxury homes, lavish vacations, and other extravagant expenses for administrators and their families. The scheme reached the highest levels of the school district's administration, and serves as the inspiration for HBO's new film, Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, and directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds).

The film originally debuted at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival before being picked up by HBO for distribution. Yet despite skipping theaters for a television premiere this past weekend, Bad Education (not to be confused with Pedro Almodovar's 2004 film of the same name) is an engaging tale of corruption, vanity, and hubris that gives Jackman one of his meatiest roles to date. Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, beloved educator and school superintendent, whose penchant for taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of his district's students put his schools on the map and fueled a surge in early acceptance decisions to some of the nation's top universities.

After discovering some discrepancies in the school's expense accounts, the school board comes to realize that Assistance Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been cooking the books in order to fund her lavish lifestyle. But Tassone steps in to cover for Gluckin in order to keep the situation out of the press, ostensibly to preserve the school system's reputation and maintain their budget for the next school year. That's when Bad Education really starts to get interesting - slowly revealing its protagonist's motivations as it delves deeper into this wide-ranging scandal. At first, Finley plays his cards close to the vest, but as the true depth of the fraud becomes clear, he turns the film into a fascinating character study of people who do very bad things for the "right" reasons.

Everyone involved here seems to think they have the best interests of the students and their community in mind, deluding themselves into thinking that they're good people who aren't really doing anything wrong, as if their professional strengths somehow offset their personal failures. In the film's greatest twist of irony, it is that very encouragement of student involvement that the young reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) to dig deeper into the district's spending and discovering millions of dollars worth of hidden expenses buried in a seemingly innocuous breezeway expansion for the high school. While the film is stylistically more straightforward than Finley's last film, his slow-burn portrait of a man whose flaws as an administrator are uncovered by his own strengths as an educator, is deeply engrossing. Jackman has never been better than he is here, portraying Tassone's slow unravelling barely masked by his vain obsession with appearance - a man hiding who is truly is on many levels. Bad Education is worth watching for Jackman's performance alone, but he anchors a ripped-from-the-headlines story of true crime with an emotional center that is hard to shake. The road to hell is truly paved with good intentions, and Jackman's multi-faceted performance reveals the conflict of a deeply troubled man undone by his own success.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAD EDUCATION | Directed by Cory Finley | Stars Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Annaleigh Ashford | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on HBO.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Commissioned by Shanghai's Expo 2010, Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew is a bracing blend of documentary and narrative styles that weaves a fascinating tapestry of Shanghai's rich and troubled history; from its glory days as an international shipping port to the second Sino-Japanese War at the outset of WWII, to the Chinese civil war in the 1940s, to the Cultural Revolution at the hands of Mao Zedong's Communist Party.

It is, perhaps, not exactly the bright and sunny portrait of a modern cosmopolitan city that the Shanghai Expo hoped for, because as Adam Nayman points out in his essay "The Name of this Film is Talking Heads: Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew" (included in the liner notes in Kino Lorber's new Blu-Ray release), nearly all of the stories featured in the film's 18 interviews are about exodus, people fleeing the city in times of upheaval and strife.

What the film does instead is paint a portrait of a nation in flux, using Shanghai as a prism through which to view the radical cultural shifts that have occurred in China over the last century. There are few more prominent chroniclers of modern China than Jia - his films have covered everything from the building of the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life (2006) to the evolution of industry in 24 City (2008) to his more personal chronicle of a Chinese family coping with generational change in Mountains May Depart (2015), Jia has keenly observed the shifting sands of life in modern China with the eye of an anthropologist and the hear of a poet. Of all his films, I Wish I Knew most closely resembles 24 City with its deft combination of documentary and narrative styles, juxtaposing Jia stalwart Zhao Tao (Ash is Purest White) wandering amongst the foggy gray vistas of Shanghai's World Expo Park with the childhood recollections of Shanghai expatriates. Politicians, soldiers, former revolutionaries, criminals, and citizens from all walks of life reflect back on their lives and the circumstances that lead them away from Shanghai.

In one particularly memorable segment, we are introduced to a woman named Huang Baomei who came face-to-face with Chairman Mao himself after being selected to participate in a propaganda piece as a "model Communist worker," and was invited to attend the opera with him. Jia also interviews fellow Chinese auteur, Hou Hsiao-hsien, about his 1998 film, Flowers of Shanghai. The art inspired by Shanghai plays a key role in I Wish I Knew as Jia uses clips of Hou's film as well as propaganda works like To Liberate Shanghai (1959) and Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town (1948) to paint a picture of the city's evolution over time through art.

There's something quite subversive in the way that Jia illustrates the city's ever-changing culture through the eyes of those who lived it, bearing witness to a nation's struggle through the shifting identities of one of its most famous cities. Even the title is something of a shrug, attesting to the city's ephemeral impenetrability. For a film meant to celebrate Shanghai, I Wish I Knew instead mourns the city it could have been, a potential constantly undercut by social unrest. By focusing on dissidents and underworld figures of Shanghai's shadowy past, Jia refuses to toe the party line of the city's "glorious" history without ever running afoul of the Chinese  censors. The result is something nebulous and melancholy, cagey about its true intentions but nonetheless direct in its depiction of the social unrest of the 20th century through one city's shared experiences. It's a vital, vibrant work, densely layered with memories of a not-so-distant past, full of disquieting revelations and warnings for the future. I Wish I Knew is a city symphony in a minor key, reminiscent of Pennebaker and Ruttman, that searches for the soul of a people and finds a microcosm of a century of upheaval and uncertainty.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

I WISH I KNEW | Directed by Jia Zhangke | Stars Zhao Tao | Not Rated | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Available Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on April 28.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

After receiving four Oscar nominations in 2012 for his directorial debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, including Best Picture and Best Director, Benh Zeitlin seemingly disappeared from filmmaking, only surfacing a few times to produce or compose scores for a few indie films that never saw wide releases. Now eight years later he has returned to directing with his sophomore feature, Wendy, a modern re-imagining of Peter Pan that puts young Wendy Darling (Devin France) at the center of the narrative.

Here, Wendy is the daughter of a rural train station waitress who dreams of hopping on a passing train and exploring the world beyond. She spins tales of fantastical worlds reached by lost boys who ride the rails to freedom, never growing up, existing in a kind of limbo of eternal childhood in the memory of those they left behind. Inspired by her stories, Wendy and her brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin) hop on a freight train bound for nowhere, and encounter Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) and his gang of lost boys, who take them to a deserted island far away, where their days are filled with magic and adventure.

That is until one day they discover the island is also populated with adults, children who lost their sense of hope and wonder and grew old, forgetting what it was like to be young. A series of tragedies and setbacks puts them on a collision course with the Neverland adults, leading to the rise of Captain Hook and the creation of a myth that will inspire them to stay young at heart even as their bodies grow old.

There's something inherently appealing about this reworking of the Peter Pan myth, but coming eight years after the sensational Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wendy feels like a regression, a half-drawn sketch of a much deeper exploration of a familiar tale. Not only is it visually unappealing and sloppy in its execution, it often feels like a retread of the ideas and themes already explored in Beasts. Wendy even delivers a near beat-for-beat recap of the famous “Once there was a hushpuppy” monologue. The whole thing just feels torpid and uninspired, a germ of an idea that never made it past the development stage.

Young Devin France is a strong lead and a great discovery, but she’s cast adrift in a film that doesn’t know what to do with her. It brings nothing new to the story to justify its reframing, and its new mythology feels half-baked. Wendy's musings on growing up and adulthood are underlined and written in bold, but the story is lifeless and broadly drawn, taking vague inspiration from the legendary pages of J.M. Barrie's novel and removing all its sense of wonder and cohesion. Moments clearly designed to be moving and profound fall flat because they haven’t been given the proper context to be earned, as if it's forcing the Pan myth to fit its own story rather than radically reimagining it. Even the score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer feels like an almost note-for-note reprise of their thrilling musical themes from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

It's a film of muddled mythology and listless characterization, burying its sense of childhood magic in drab new trappings that feel bland and uninspired. It's certainly disappointing as a belated follow-up to Zeitlin's incredible debut, but by bringing nothing new to the table or having anything else to say in its reworking of Peter Pan, it feels like an incomplete concept in search of a heart that it never quite finds. Just as the lost boys desperately search for a mother, so too does Wendy fruitlessly search for a point of view that it never manages to find.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WENDY | Directed by Benh Zeitlin | Stars Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin | Rated PG-13 for brief violent/bloody images | Now available to download or stream on demand.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

In some ways, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know represents a very particular time in movie history. Released in 2005, the film has come to seem emblematic of a certain type of quirky Sundance indie that became so ubiquitous in the early 2000s. July, an unclassifiable performance artist who dabbled in something akin to multimedia art installations and "video chain letters" before turning to filmmaking, may come across on the surface as an insufferably twee figure, filling her films with oddball characters making seemingly random philosophical musings about the nature of life, love, and death. But there's an authenticity to her work that sets it apart from many of her contemporaries. 

Taken at face value, Me and You and Everyone We Know feels representative of "Sundance quirk," its performance art aesthetic at once self-consciously strange and even pretentious in its cornball new age reflections on a world that doesn't come close to resembling any recognizable reality. And yet beneath the film's veneer of melancholy, candy-colored weirdness, July conjures something deeply and disarmingly human, instantly recognizable and yet wholly indescribable. All of her characters seem stunted somehow; emotionally, socially, lost and adrift in a world that doesn't quite seem to have the answers they seek. But through art, technology,  sex, or a simple gesture of kindness, each finds a kind of kinship and connection in the most unexpected of places.

July herself stars as Christine Jesperson, a lonely performance artist who moonlights as a cab driver for a company called Eldercab, where she drives elderly customers around for their daily errands. One day she meets Richard (John Hawkes) a single father who works as a shoe salesman at a generic mall department store, and strikes up a casual friendship that constantly threatens to become something more. His children, teenage Peter (Miles Thompson) and seven year old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) are facing issues of their own. Peter is grappling with a budding sexuality and a sense of social awkwardness, while Robby has begun an online relationship with a middle aged woman who has no idea she been chatting via online messenger with a child. Their young neighbor, Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), spends her time collecting kitchen appliances in a hope chest for a dowery for her future husband husband, while Peter's school friends, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), get their first brush with adulthood through a flirtation with an older man.

July has a unique way of handling salacious material in such a way that makes it feel at once innocent and beautiful. Young Robby's online conversations regarding the sharing of poop should make us feel queasy, and yet there's something almost naïve about it that doesn't feel dirty at all. Everyone in the film has a kind of childlike guilelessness about them, a group of lost souls floating through life desperately searching for some kind of human connection, platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise. Yet its unique sense of innocence don't come off as cloying, striking a delicate balance between emotional honesty and eccentricity. July’s observations never feel like manufactured oddities - rather they feel like splintered reveries of a strange and beguiling world of small-scale wonders. Here, lost souls tumbling through space briefly bump up against one another, guided by July's singular vision and performance art aesthetic that feels at once off-kilter and incisive.

Criterion's new Blu-Ray release is truly stunning, rescuing the film from early aughts DVD bleariness and giving it new life, its brightly colored palate more vibrant than ever. Also included are two of July's early short films, The Amateurist (1998) and Nest of Tens (2000), along with selections from her video chain letter, Joanie 4 Jackie. There's simply nothing else out there quite like Me and You and Everyone We Know,  a film both timeless and yet distinctly of its time, transcendent and yet familiar, at once emblematic of cutesy Sundance indie treacle and an utter subversion of its vapidness. But perhaps most of all, it's a film that feels weirdly out of time, empathetic and kind, adrift in its own singular sense of sadness and hope, obsessed with death and yet completely accepting of its inevitability. And now its back, ripe and ready for the reevaluation it so richly deserves as one of the very best debut films of the new millennium.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW | Directed by Miranda July | Stars Miranda July, John Hawkes, Brandon Ratcliff, Miles Thompson, Carlie Westerman, Brad William Henke | Rated R for disturbing sexual content involving children, and for language | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on April 28. 

Special Features: 

  • High-definition digital master, approved by director Miranda July, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New documentary featuring a conversation between July and filmmaker Lena Dunham about July’s artistic beginnings and the development of her debut feature 
  • Open to the World, a new documentary about the 2017 interfaith charity shop and participatory artwork July created in collaboration with Artangel 
  • July Interviews July: Deauville, 2005, a discovery from July’s archives, newly edited Footage from the 2003 Sundance Directors Lab, where July workshopped the film, with commentary by July
  • The Amateurist (1998) and Nest of Tens (2000), short films by July 
  • Four films from July’s Joanie 4 Jackie video chain letter, and a documentary about the project 
  • Deleted scenes 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: Essays by artist Sara Magenheimer and novelist Lauren Groff

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

It's no secret that theaters are struggling right now. With movie screens darkened across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, independent theaters are especially feeling the negative effects of the nationwide lockdown. This has put many arthouse theaters in an increasingly dire position, but thanks to the ingenuity of some of the nation's independent distributors, you can still support your local indie theaters through "virtual cinemas." Essentially a pay-per-play streaming service, these online theaters allow independent theaters to bring first-run arthouse films into your living room, sharing a cut of the profits with the distributors, in order to stay afloat during this unprecedented crisis.

The a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is one such locally owned, independent movie theater that needs the community's support. They're currently showing an array of independent and foreign films for you to enjoy from the comfort of home, including Diao Yinan's riveting new gangster drama, The Wild Goose Lake, which was a hit at last year's Cannes Film Festival where it played in competition (ultimately losing the Palme D'Or to eventual Oscar winner, Parasite).

Set in China's Wuhan province, The Wild Goose Lake tells the story of Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), a two-bit mobster who accidentally shoots a cop during a territory dispute with a rival gang. Now hunted by both the police and unscrupulous mobsters out to collect the handsome "dead or alive" bounty on his head, Zhou is forced to go on the run. His guide into the Chinese underworld is the mysterious Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), a woman whose motives remain unclear, but that doesn't stop the two of them from forging a strange kind of relationship as they navigate their newfound world of uncertainty and betrayal.

The film has all the trappings of a classic Hollywood film noir, complete with dark underworld intrigue, a mysterious femme fatale, and a propensity for violence (a man gets impaled by an umbrella at one point, and if that isn't a resounding recommendation I don't know what is). One thing I find particularly satisfying about contemporary Chinese cinema is that filmmakers aren't afraid to use color in creative ways (see also last year's similarly dazzling neo-noir, Long Day's Journey into Night). Whereas much of American cinema equates monochrome grays with gritty drama, Diao instead bathes The Wild Goose Lake in a striking palate of neon, its vibrant pinks and greens bleeding off the screen in a haunting evocation of the seedy underbelly of the world it depicts.

Yet despite its stylistic cues from American film noir, I couldn't help but be reminded of German filmmaker Fritz Lang's 1931 film, M. That film, which featured Peter Lorre as a murderer being hunted by both police and criminals alike, helped lay the groundwork for film noir as we know it, taking inspiration from the work of the German Expressionists and their striking use of light and shadow. But Diao takes the moral ambiguities at the heart of noir one step further - turning his crime drama into a sociopolitical critique of the Chinese police state. Here, the cops are often incompetent at best, sadistic at worst, using their manhunt as an excuse to curb civil rights and even posing for pictures with the bodies of men they've killed, bringing down the full weight of the state for an accidental shooting in ways they never would had Zhou's bullet hit its intended criminal target.

This is a world of moral criminals and amoral police, snitches and backstabbers, where the line between criminal enterprise and legitimate businesses is often indistinguishable. Diao wraps his scathing indictment of Chinese state capitalism in a package of sensationally choreographed action and nearly operatic violence that may have helped its underlying themes go unnoticed by the Chinese censors, but make no mistake; The Wild Goose Lake is not just a bone-crunching action film, it uses its criminal underworld setting as a way to juxtapose "legitimate" businesses and institutions with gang activity, exposing their inherent illegitimacy and throwing the entire system into question. And in a world turned upside down by a pandemic, at long last exposing our system's glaring flaws for all to see, I can't think of any message more timely.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WILD GOOSE LAKE | Directed by Diao Yinan | Stars Hu Ge, Gwei Lun-mei, Liao Fan, Wan Qian, Qi Dao | Not Rated | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas nationwide from Film Movement.

Friday, April 10, 2020

For years, Jesus Christ Superstar was a Holy Thursday tradition for my family growing up. It's been a few years since I've been able to continue that tradition, but this week I decided to resurrect the tradition and revisit the film. It has always been my favorite screen adaptation of the story of Jesus, but this time it struck me differently than it ever had before; it felt somehow more radical, more subversive, and ultimately more hopeful. 

The story of Jesus has often been plagued by a strenuous sense of reverence in the Biblical epics of old, the notable exceptions being Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Nicholas Ray's more politically minded King of Kings (1961). But Jesus Christ Superstar is a different animal altogether, a metatextual meditation on Jesus' humanity as told by a group of hippies putting on a play in the Israeli desert.  Like Last TemptationJesus Christ Superstar explores the inherent conflict between Jesus' divinity and his humanity, with Jesus' signature number "Gethsemane/I Only Want to Say" becoming an impassioned argument between Christ and his Heavenly Father about the necessity of his sacrifice. The juxtaposition of Jesus as both divine savior and simple man from Galilee struggling with his own human frailty and the burden of such a massive responsibility thrust upon him. Here, he questions if he even wants to be the savior of humanity, because the humanity on display almost seems beyond all hope.

And that's what really sets Jesus Christ Superstar apart. The thing that struck me the most watching the film this time was the way it illustrates the inherent selfishness of the movement that sprung up around him. Even amongst his disciples, the constant refrain is “what can you do for me Jesus?” - almost as if they had missed the point of his message entirely. Nearly every number has Jesus preaching a message that his followers immediately spin into “won’t you do THIS for ME Jesus?” The radical service, the message of the the triumph of the meek and marginalized against the authorities and the elites, ultimately becomes much smaller and insular in the hands of flawed humans - the potential for massive change centered around the least of these becomes a message simply of personal salvation without looking beyond what it can do for them.

With so much of modern Christianity centered around the idea of simply believing in Jesus above all else, I found this particularly haunting. "I believe in you and God so tell me that I'm saved" Simon pleads in "Simon Zealotes," as if his whole reason for being there is to save his own skin. Evangelists often ask "do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" But what that really means often gets lost in the quest to win converts rather than actually spreading Jesus' radical, anti-establishment message, one that constantly advocates for "the least of these" and stood against powerful elites who used faith to make money off the backs of the poor and marginalized. This Jesus feels tired, weary from not only the expectations placed upon him by his followers, but from having to explain himself over and over again on seemingly deaf ears. While his disciples vie to be the most loyal and the most believing, Jesus is laying out a roadmap for a better world, and the reaction seems to consistently be "yeah but what can you do for me?"

I think somewhere among the desert ruins, sparse sets, and anachronistic costumes, director Norman Jewison and the songwriting team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice arrived at a profound truth about Christianity. It may not be a "Christian" film in that it adheres strictly to religious doctrine, or seeks to convert its audience, but hidden amongst the catchy tunes is something at once painful and deeply moving, a portrait of a broken humanity, selfish and self-aggrandizing, interested only in how the savior can save them. And he makes the choice to die for us anyway. Therein lies the heart of Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera with a distinctly 70s aesthetic that nevertheless has more to say about the nature of Jesus than any number of ponderous Biblical epics or sanctimonious faith-based films that are so prevalent today. It holds a mirror up to the audience - and for those of us who are Christian dares to ask us why? Do we believe out of fear for what we are told could happen if we don't? Are we asking what Jesus can do for us? Or what we can do for Jesus? Are our prayers selfish or selfless? In the film it is only Mary Magdalene, here portrayed as a prostitute, an outcast, looked down upon even by the disciples, who gives Jesus what he needs here and now - washing his feet while his followers preen and posture about what battle to fight next, completely unable to see the savior's message of simple service and humanity. They don't seem to understand that Jesus has already won the war, and given them a blueprint for a more hopeful future - "Sing me your songs, but not for me alone. Sing out for yourselves, for you are blessed." And yet rather than get to work building it themselves they wait for him to do it for them.

"I believe in you and God so tell me that I'm saved!" They exclaim. It doesn't register that they already are. What the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar asks is "what next?"

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+.