Thursday, November 26, 2020

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Glenn Close ("Mamaw”), Amy Adams (“Bev”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

Based on J.D. Vance's popular 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy has managed to become the latest lightning rod in the culture wars for its depiction of poverty in rural Appalachia. Embraced by conservatives as  a portrait of the "silent majority" left behind by the political establishment, the film has become something of a cause célèbre for Trump supporters and critics of "the left" (especially in Oscar blogger circles), who accuse the film's detractors of being "coastal elites" who look down their noses at the white rural working class.

The problem is, of course, that none of that is true. Hillbilly Elegy is, if anything, a condescending piece of victim-blaming that positions its characters as casualties of their own lack of self-control, and that the only way to overcome their circumstances is to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get out in order to pursue a better life. Rural Appalachia is looked down upon as a dead-end, where "getting out" is in and of itself a success story. 

The film follows Vance from childhood to college, raised in a hardscrabble existence by his indomitable grandmother (Glenn Close) while trying to help his often abusive mother (Amy Adams) overcome a crippling addiction to heroin. Through sheer force of will, his grandmother inspires him to work harder and overcome his circumstances, eventually leading him to Yale law school and a lucrative career at a prestigious law firm. It's a classic rags-to-riches story, that unfortunately comes at the expense of an entire region, throwing impoverished mountain folk under the bus as merely a circumstance that must be overcome in order to succeed in life. 

Ultimately, it's the bootstrap myth disguised and an inspiring story of a boy from the hollers of Appalachia who makes good and goes to Yale. But its measure of success and self fulfillment is shallow and short-sighted, ignoring the systemic factors cause poverty and encourage addiction. That Hillbilly Elegy has been turned into a symbol of the culture war by conservatives betrays not only their ignorance of rural Appalachia, but their utter contempt for people living in poverty. 

Although its biggest issues comes formats POV, with Vance positioning himself as the pure of heart hero who rises to the top in spite of his surroundings, the film itself looks and feels like a TV movie of the week from the 90s. Director Ron Howard was probably ill-suited to this material. Saddled with a weak screenplay that hangs its flashback structure on ham-fisted narration that often sounds like rejected ideas from treacly inspirational posters, the film sidelines its strongest performers and hangs the entire film on relative newcomers who just can't keep up. Close is acting the hell out of this, but the film itself is dull as dishwater, its over-the-top histrionics veering more into soap opera material that can't even be bothered to at least be interesting. As someone who actually lives in rural Appalachia and works directly with impoverished communities, Hillbilly Elegy often feels like a coastal fantasy of what "hillbillies" are really like. Close's performance is as close to authenticity as the film ever gets. And while Howard does his best to scrub the book's political posturing, it still reeks of the most insidious kind of classism, leaving behind a bland and lifeless film that has little to say. It's not just that the film doesn't seem to understand rural Appalachia, it's that it doesn't even seem to try, creating a self-satisfied piece of poverty porn that betrays the very people it claims to exalt.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

HILLBILLY ELEGY | Directed by Ron Howard | Stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins | Rated R for language throughout, drug content and some violence | Now playing in select theaters and streaming everywhere on Netflix.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

H.K. Breslauer's The City Without Jews premiered in 1924 with little fanfare and to even less acclaim. An adaptation of the novel of the same name by Hugo Bettauer, the film was a quietly angry condemnation of anti-Semitic sentiment brewing in Austria, and a stark warning about the effects of encoding anti-Semitism in to law. But while the film proved popular (despite notoriously poor-quality prints due to the rushed nature of its premiere), Bettauer was attacked a few months after the premiere, and ultimately murdered a year later by a Nazi, and the film fell into obscurity. It's last known exhibition was in 1933 in Amsterdam, organized as a condemnation of Hitler's Nazi party.

It wasn't until 2015 that a complete print of the film was discovered in a Parisian flea market, and subsequently restored via a crowdfunding campaign by the Filmarchiv Austria, at long last making its home video debut from Flicker Alley. The City Without Jews is something of a revelation, a small scale allegory set in the fictional country of Utopia, which is in the throes of an economic crisis. Looking for a scapegoat for their woes, the people blames the city's Jewish population, and the Chancellor (Eugen Neufeld) is persuaded by an unscrupulous Councilor (Hans Moser) to expel the Jews from Utopia. However, once the Jews are gone, the country falls into even deeper economic ruin. Cut off from the rest of the world, the Chancellor looks for a way out, which is eventually presented to him by a young Jewish man (Johannes Riesmann) whose Gentile wife still lives within the city walls. He returns to the city in disguise with a plan to save Utopia,  and return the exiled Jews to their rightful homes. 

While the film comes to a somewhat easy conclusion - its upbeat  ending somewhat at odds with the prevailing winds of the era, a fact that is all-too-clear in retrospect. But you have to respect its desire to curb rising anti-Semetic sentiment of the time by warning of the dangers of anti-Semitism (even if its argument is more from a financial standpoint than a moral one). Some have criticized the film for itself relying on anti-Semitic tropes of conniving Jews in its portrayal of the hero's rather underhanded plan to distract the Councilor and lobby the Chancellor (a controversy well-chronicled in the Blu-Ray's comprehensive liner notes), but to modern eyes this comes across as a fairly standard plot device. 

In fact, much of the film is a pretty standard affair, making it less of a long lost revelation and more of a historical curio. Still, its touches of German Expressionist inspiration and topical boldness make it a must-watch for silent film enthusiasts. That it resurfaced on the cusp of the Trump era is something of a chilling bit of serendipity, as so many of its depictions of anti-Semitic propaganda and demonization of "foreigners" for the country's economic problems ring frighteningly close to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the modern Republican Party. Seeing it so boldly laid out in 1924 really hammers home just how dangerous and volatile our current situation is. Flicker Alley's Blu-Ray presentation is impeccable as always, reinforcing their status as one of the top tier (and oft overlooked) speciality home video distributors. From the lovely transfer to the exhaustive liner notes and special features, Flicker Alley continues to impress by releasing fascinating rarities in deluxe editions that wouldn't have otherwise seen the light of day.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Flicker Alley.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Gary Cooper stars in Warner Bros.' "Sergeant York."

(Warner Archive)

Michael Patrick Jann | USA | 1999

A box office flop in 1999, Michael Patrick Jann's lone feature film, Drop Dead Gorgeous, has become something of a cult classic in the ensuing decades thanks to its darkly hilarious examination of privilege in small town America. Styled as a mockumentary in the tradition of Christopher Guest, Drop Dead Gorgeous plunges us into the cutthroat world of teen beauty pageants where contestants are literally willing to kill in order to take the crown. 

Kirsten Dunst stars as pure-hearted Amber Atkins, who finds herself competing against the murderous Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), daughter of pageant coordinator Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Allie) whose family all but owns the entire town. Also along for the ride are Amy Adams, Ellen Barkin, Allyson Janney, and Brittany Murphy (not to mention TV's Adam West), making it one of the most indelible comedic casts of the 90s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is an acidic, gleefully misanthropic comedy that pulls no punches in its razor-sharp satire of beauty pageant drama. Its arrival on Blu-Ray should be something to celebrate for the legions of fans who have discovered it on home video over the last 20 years - it's scathing wit and take-no-prisoners sense of humor have aged incredibly well (even if Alley has descended into MAGA clown world in the years since its release, almost becoming a caricature of her character here), and the film is ripe for rediscovery from new fans who continue to discover its  wickedly unique pleasures.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

(Warner Archive)

Frank Borzage | USA | 1940

Frank Borzage is perhaps one of the most overlooked great filmmakers of the golden age of Hollywood, consistently churning out darkly fascinating proto-noirs that explored the dark sides of human nature. His 1940, The Mortal Storm, dealt frankly with the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi threat before the USA had even entered WWII. The film follows Germany's descent into fascism through the eyes of an average German family. Patriarch Roth (Frank Morgan) is a kindly university professor. His lovely daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan) is close with several of his students, including beau Fritz (Robert Young) and best friend, Martin (James Stewart). Things get complicated for them after Hitler becomes the new German chancellor, as Fritz joins the Nazi party along with Freya's brothers, and Martin resists the new political reality. It isn't long before Professor Roth's teachings that all races are biologically the same attracts the scorn of the Nazis, and the family is soon torn apart by their divided allegiances, leading Martin and Freya to attempt a daring escape with Fritz in hot pursuit.

Watching The Mortal Storm on the eve of the 2020 election as I did may not be the best idea, because despite the fact that the film ends with a glimmer of hope, it is often unrelentingly bleak, dealing frankly with the way in which the rise of Nazism not only ripped families apart, but systematically dismantled democracy and free thought by challenging facts and science as the 1930's equivalent of "fake news." In fact there are so many shocking parallels between the fascist rhetoric on display here and the modern Republican Party under President Donald Trump that the film has taken on a chilling new relevance. Released in 1940, the film appeared on American screens over a year before the USA entered the war, but it was a harrowing and clear-eyed depiction of the Nazi threat, featuring strong turns by Sullavan, Stewart, and especially Frank Morgan. Fresh off his legendary turn as the Wizard of Oz, Morgan's performance here as a kindly professor struggling to keep his family together is a thing of great beauty and sadness - full of humanity and haunted resignation over what he knows is to come. The Blu-Ray release from Warner Archive also includes the knock-out animated short, Peace on Earth (1939), an Oscar-nominated anti-war film starring some baby squirrels learning about the devastating consequences of "man's last war," which is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of animation of all time. Seek this one out.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

(Warner Archive)

Barbet Schroeder | USA | 1990

Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune is as distant and icy as Jeremy Irons' Oscar-winning performance as suspected murderer Claus von Bülow, but like Irons' inscrutable steeliness, it's also endlessly compelling. Based on the book by Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), the film chronicles Dershowitz's appeal to get von Bülow's conviction for killing his wife, Sunny (Glenn Close), overturned based on faulty evidence presented by the state.

Along the way, however, he begins to suspect that von Bülow may actually be guilty, despite the faulty evidence that lead to his conviction. Close narrates the film as the deceased Sunny, offering no answers but attempting to keep her character central to the narrative, as this is all  really her story. But the narration often comes across as a bit contrived in an otherwise taut procedural thriller. It's difficult in the year 2020 to see Dershowitz (who famously defended the likes of Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump in recent years) portrayed as a hero and advocate for social justice, but Dershowitz's recent past also gives the film's ending an even more ominous timbre, as von Bülow's innocence remains very much in question.

The new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive enhances the film's chilly blue hues and rescues the film from a bleary, early 90s soap opera aesthetic. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director for Schroeder, but missed out on Best Picture in favor of Awakenings and mega-hit Ghost, but there's something about its moral ambiguity that remains haunting and startlingly relevant.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

(Warner Archive)

Howard Hawks | USA | 1941

Gary Cooper won the 1941 Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Alvin York, a hayseed ne'er-do-well from Tennessee who finds religion, turns his life around, then goes from conscientious objector to WWI hero after singlehandedly apprehending hundreds of German prisoners all on his own, in Howard Hawks' Sergeant York. It was the most nominated film at the 1941 Academy Awards, ultimately winning 2 of its 11 nominations, losing Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley (which also famously bested Orson Welles' Citizen Kane). It was also 1941's biggest box office success, its popularity no doubt stemming from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that year, officially pulling the United States into the Second World War.

Sergeant York is a fairly standard Hollywood war film, tracing York's life in the Tennessee backwoods to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in Europe. Cooper is undeniably great in the title role, but is frequently upstaged by Walter Brennan (who bears a striking resemblance, physically and vocally, to Mark Rylance here) in an Oscar nominated role as York's kindly rural pastor. The war scenes are appropriately harrowing, with the gritty muck of the trenches feeling especially evocative and palpable. The film's biggest problem is that it takes so long to get there, spending an inordinate amount of time exploring York's life in Tennessee before he's shipped off to war in the film's latter half. Hawks does well establishing York's arc from religious pacifist to accepting his role as a soldier, but he would also handle the ramifications of violence more indelibly in Rio Bravo and Red River. Sergeant York is clearly American wartime propaganda, often scoring battle scenes with jaunty renditions of "Yankee Doodle" courtesy of composer Max Steiner, but Cooper's understated performance grounds the film and delivers some solid emotional moments in a film that desperately needs some tightening. That his charisma keeps the film compulsively watchable is as much a testament to Cooper's talent as it is to Hawks' keen understanding of character development. The film has been lovingly restored in this new Blu-Ray release from Warner Archive, which sharpens the black and white cinematography by the great Sol Polito, who lends the film such an indelible atmosphere in its wartime scenes.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


Abbas Kiarostami | Iran | 1997

A man drives across the dusty outskirts of Tehran looking for a stranger to help bury his body after he commits suicide in Abbas Kiarostami's Palme d'Or winning Taste of Cherry (1997). The first Iranian film to receive the honor, Taste of Cherry firmly cemented Kiarostami's place as a major figure in world cinema. Kiarostami never reveals the motivations behind Mr. Badii's suicidal intentions, instead allowing the audience to fill in the blanks through a series of philosophical conversations with his passengers that offer a tantalizing window into the emotional state of a man who does not appear to be a man contemplating ending his life. 

Kiarostami is a master of blending reality and fiction, melding the act of making film with the film itself in works such as Life and Nothing More (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994), and playing with the audience's perceptions of reality in his later films, Certified Copy, Like Someone in Love, and 24 FramesTaste of Cherry is no different in that regard, playing its cards close to the vest while presenting the fleeting nature of life through the eyes of a man who is ready for it to end. The ending is ambiguous in the most lovely Kiarostami tradition, but its segue into behind the scenes footage is as exhilarating as it is disorienting. It's as if the film is on the verge of revealing all the answers of life itself, and then pulls back at the last second, returning the mystery to the audience. In doing so it attains a kind of haunting mysticism, profoundly shifting the audience's perception of reality. It's Kiarostami's finest work, and one of the best films of the 1990s.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

(Warner Archive)

William Diertle | USA | 1942

Glossy MGM historical drama chronicles the life of Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States, who followed Abraham Lincoln in office, by all historical accounts, managed to fuck things up royally in the wake of the American Civil War. You couldn't tell that, of course, from this heavily white-washed and lionizing account which recasts Johnson as a Southern anti-slavery crusader who sought to repair ties with the South after the Civil War, but was opposed by Northern Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens (Lionel Barrymore) who wanted to punish the rebel states.

Despite being impeached by the House of Representatives (although narrowly acquitted by the Senate), and being generally regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history, William Dieterle's Tennessee Johnson frames him as a misunderstood man of the people, a former tailor with no formal schooling who rose through the ranks of government on a platform of ensuring voting rights for all (white men) in the country. While slavery is barely mentioned, the film dismisses Johnson as being anti-slavery and leaves it at that, completely ignoring the fact that much of his political rise was on the back of a reactionary amendment to Tennessee's state constitution adopted in the wake of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in order to disenfranchise people of color. Johnson's ultimate refusal to give into Radical Republicans' demands that former slaves be granted the right to vote eventually gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws in the South, all but cementing institutional racism into the very fabric of the nation for hundreds of years to come. 

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that Tennessee Johnson basically gets the heroes and villains of this story completely flip-flopped, it's also extremely dull, representing the worst of MGM's glossy prestige drama instincts. There's just nothing that interesting going on here. Van Heflin is mildly compelling as Johnson, but by excising Johnson's presidency of its actual drama, in favor of this bland bit of high gloss revisionist history, it's now little more than a historical curio.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Warner Archive releases are available at the Warner Bros. Shop or wherever DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.
Criterion releases are available at the Criterion Shop or wherever DVDs and Blu-Rays are sold.