Wednesday, September 23, 2020


MICHAEL

(Nora Ephron | USA | 1996)

Made in the wake of John Travolta's mid-90s, post-Pulp Fiction career renaissance, Nora Ephron's Michael is a strange animal indeed. The second of two 1996 films in which Travolta stars as a man with extraordinary powers (the other being Jon Turteltaub's Phenomenon), Michael casts him as the titular archangel sent to earth for one last mission. Travolta's rude, crude take on the character is...unique, to say the least, but Ephron pulls much of the focus away from him and onto an anemic romance between jaded tabloid journalist William Hurt and wide-eyed aspiring writer, Andie MacDowell.

Michael, it turns out, can only use his powers so many times before draining them completely and returning to Heaven, so naturally a good bit of the film involves getting him to his final destination before he expires. But this happens so long before the end of the film that any emotional buildup that may result from this is squandered. Michael is, of course, the most interesting character in the film, and without him the central romance just doesn't have the power to carry the story. Jean Stapleton also shows up for an all-too-brief cameo near the beginning and nearly steals the whole show, but Ephron's insistence on doubling down on the romance as the center of Michael's quest feels anti-climactic. Michael is an unfocused mess that, despite a few highlights, is one of Ephron's weakest films.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


PAT AND MIKE

(George Cukor | USA | 1952)

George Cukor directs this romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn as Pat, a star golfer with a major problem - she can't perform when her fiancee is around, leading her to constantly choke in high-pressure situations when he's around. Unwilling to give up on herself, she hires an unscrupulous sports agent named Mike (Spencer Tracy) who promises to rocket her to the top of the tennis circuit - but her fiancee problem remains. And it yarns out that Mike may just be able to help her with that problem too.

Pat and Mike was the seventh collaboration between Hepburn and Tracy, and remains one of their lesser films, despite top notch talent in front of and behind the camera. Coming hot on the heels of Adam's Rib (1949), one of their most successful comedies, Pat and Mike feels a bit tired, and its lackadaisical pacing feeds into the general sense of ennui. The tennis scenes are especially tedious, and the sparking wordplay that made Adam's Rib such a delight is all but missing here. An appearance by Aldo Ray as a dim-bulb jock also fails to add much color to the proceedings, and he sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise understated comedy.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


WITHOUT LOVE

(Harold S. Bucquet | USA | 1945)


Without Love isn't the strongest film that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made together, but it is one of their most effortlessly charming collaborations, allowing them both to play to their strength and focus on their legendary chemistry to create something that feels laid back and comforting. Tracy is a scientist helping make weapons during World War II, Hepburn is a widowed who mistakes him for a servant upon their first meeting. They enter into a marriage of convenience that slowly blossoms into a real romance as they work closely with each other over the years. Lucille Ball is also present in a small but pivotal supporting role that ultimately fails to leave much of an impression.

In fact, Without Love is often so droll and casually paced that it often seems to disappear within itself, but the care with which director Harold S. Bucquet treats the central relationship is apparent, and Tracy and Hepburn consistently shine. They make an otherwise straightforward romance seem genuine and heartfelt, even naturalistic. One almost forgets that they're longtime collaborators in real life, and Without Love makes great use of their unique relationship.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

It has taken 22 years, but Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, which premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, has finally been released in the United States, and it couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. Set in the midst of a fictional pandemic, The Hole follows two neighbors, one upstairs, one downstairs, who are forced to navigate their new reality as the ennui of quarantine sets in. Their only connection is a hole that opens up in the floor between their apartments while a technician is working on their pipes to fix a leak, soon becoming a symbol of both hope and madness.

Discovering the film in 2020 in the era of COVID-19, as opposed to its original international release in 1998, casts a different light on things. Having just gone through the an actual global pandemic during which many of us were stuck in our homes for months on end, The Hole feels less like science fiction and more within the realm of reality. Tsai's particular aesthetic, with its languid long-takes and deliberate pacing, adds to the overall sense of stagnation - its characters adrift within the confines of their own four walls where time has lost all meaning, their only human connection coming from a hole in the ground (or in the ceiling, depending on their unique perspectives) as the virus slowly erodes their sense of humanity.

The monotony of their existence is broken up only by musical sequences that pop up unexpectedly, using the drab apartment building as a background for glittery lounge numbers, as if the characters are breaking from reality within the confines of quarantine, if only for a moment. The Hole masterfully channels the existential dread of quarantine in the midst of a pandemic in ways that have proven eerily prescient. And while the virus at the center, which makes its victims exhibit roach-like aversion to light, isn't exactly COVID, there are some unnerving similarities. Tsai's Kafakaesque existential nightmare turns quarantine into a uniquely harrowing love story, its digressions into abstraction in turn terrifying and rapturous. In the age of the novel coronavirus, The Hole has taken on a new power, a glimpse into the surrealism of self-isolation that finds both profound beauty and abject horror in the face of the unknown enemy lurking just outside, whose immediacy has only become more urgent in the two decades since its original release.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE HOLE | Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang | Stars Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-Sheng, Miao Tien Hui-Chin Lin | Not Rated | In Thai w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas everywhere.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Class Action Park chronicles the so-bizarre-it-can-only-be-true story of New Jersey's infamous Action Park, a kind of do-it-yourself theme park that was so unsafe that it was responsible for countless injuries and even several deaths, earning it the nickname, "Class Action Park."

The whole thing was the brain child of Eugene Mulvihill, an unscrupulous developer who envisioned a park where the guest controlled their experience, going as fast and being as daring as they wished. The problem was that the park was designed by people who had no engineering degrees, putting "wouldn't that be cool" wish fulfillment into at the forefront of all the park's attractions, resulting in poorly designed thrill rides would result in scrapes, bruises, broken bones, missing teeth, and even death from being launched from rides or electrocuted in poorly wired water attractions.

Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III examine the park from both a standpoint of kooky nostalgia from the point of view of former employees (many of whom were inexperienced teenagers who often ran the rides while intoxicated, if they supervised them at all) and guests who share bizarre childhood memories of the park's idiosyncrasies. Things take a serious turn in the back half, however, as they interview the family of 19 year old George Larsson, Jr. who was killed when he was launched from a faulty Alpine Slide vehicle and landed on some nearby rocks. Suddenly, the fun and games come to an end and the darker side of the film begins to come to light.

At its best, Class Action Park is an indictment of unrestrained capitalism. Muvilhill was a ruthless businessman who would beat anyone who opposed him into submission, dragging out court proceedings when injured guests sued him so that they would eventually give up. If he did lose, he would refuse to pay, forcing them to pay to have their money collected. In many ways, Action Park was the ultimate embodiment of the excesses of the 1980s, a perfect storm of capitalist greed and Reagan-era deregulatory policies. And yet the filmmakers can't quite seem to strike the balance of humor and horror inherent to the story. After it explores Larsson's death, the film struggles to return to the humorous childhood memories and snarky observations about its poor design and lax management. There's something kind of crass and a bit unseemly in the way it tries to view the park through the nostalgic lens of the "good old days when we were wild and free." to its credit, it does acknowledge the park's issues and the tragedies that for whatever reason did not shut the park down (it was in operation from 1978 to 1996), but its tonal shifts are often dizzying and don't seem to treat the subject with the gravity that it deserves.

GRADE -★★½ (out of four)


CLASS ACTION PARK | Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III | Featuring Chris Gethard, Jason Scott Sadofsky, Jimmy Kimmel, Johnny Knoxville, Alison Becker, John Hodgman | Not Rated | Now  streaming on HBO Max.