Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Riz Ahmed in SOUND OF METAL. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 2020, there's something about Darius Marder's Sound of Metal that just doesn't quite sit right. It's certainly a unique spin on "triumph over adversity" tropes, in which its protagonist learns to stop seeing the "adversity" as a burden, but its point of view leaves much to be desired in its quest for acceptance. 


Riz Ahmed stars as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses the majority of his hearing. Facing a life without music, Ruben desperately seeks any way of regaining his hearing so he can continue with his career. He ends up at a support group for deaf people lead by Joe (Paul Raci), where he becomes a mentor to deaf children and begins to learn how to accept the silence of his newfound life. But the siren song of the drums is too strong, and he embarks upon an experimental treatment in order to get his hearing back, no matter the cost.


Sound of Metal treats Ruben like an addict chasing the next high; except instead of drugs, the addiction is hearing. While there is certainly something refreshing about seeing a film in which a disability isn't seen as a negative, the film's quest to counteract ableism feels somewhat misguided. Ruben's decision to undergo surgery to regain his hearing is seen as a betrayal by his newfound friends in the support group, and the film judges him harshly for it. But of course he wants to hear - music is his life. Yet the film frames his decision as a relapse. It almost feels like a galaxy-brained, very online Twitter hot take, because while there's nothing wrong with accepting his disability, there's also nothing wrong with him wanting to return to his passion. The film's lack of ambiguity in this area is its biggest downfall, because it fails to give an emotional justification for its central thesis. 


The film has received a lot of praise for its sound design, which is admittedly impressive in the way it reflects Ruben's own journey of self- acceptance. Yet the way in which in transitions from full audio, to muffled, to silent, and back again is inconsistently applied, which is symptomatic of the film's overall lack of point of view. It wants to be all things at once without ever fully committing to any of them. Its moments of silence or audio distortion offer tantalizing glimpses into what the film could have been, but it never embraces the silence in the same way it expects of its protagonist. 


Had this simply been a film about a man learning to accept his newfound inability to hear, or the story of a man coming to terms with his drug  addiction, it would perhaps have been more interesting, but by combining the two, and equating them with each other, Sound of Metal severely stumbles, casting unnecessarily harsh judgment on a character who simply wants to play music again. Rather than simply letting go, the film seems to flagellate him for wanting to hear, and its grim tone and stylistic flourishes can't make up for a rather maudlin script. While the performances are certainly strong (especially by Paul Raci as Ruben's mentor), the film's muddled politics undercut its emotional impact by refusing to embrace the ambiguity of its protagonist's plight.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


SOUND OF METAL | Directed by Darius Marder | Stars Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric | Rated R for language throughout and brief nude images | Now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime. 

Friday, January 08, 2021

James Steward and Margaret Sullavan in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN
(1957)

The first Hammer horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein ushered in a new era of horror in 1957, spawning a series of legendary films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee that would run for nearly twenty years. Here Cushing is mad doctor Victor Frankenstein and Lee is his monstrous creation, bringing a different shade of tragedy to the character from Karloff's immortal interpretation of the character from the Universal monster series from nearly two decades prior. 


Hammer's take on the classic monster characters is decidedly more gruesome than Universal's, and Cushing's Frankenstein is a more deranged figure, drunk on his own power to create life. Lee's monster is more deliberately murderous, but also clearly more upset by the fact of his own existence. Director Terence Fisher creates an indelible gothic atmosphere, lighting the film for black and white but shooting in color, creating haunting elongated shadows that contrast beautifully with the vibrant Eastmancolour cinematography. Now on Blu-Ray for the first time (and in 3 different aspect ratios), The Curse of Frankenstein is an essential piece of horror history beautifully preserved and restored by Warner Archive.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four) 


THE HARVEY GIRLS
(1946)

Strangely one of Judy Garland's lesser-known musicals, The Harvey Girls finds Garland traveling west for an arranged marriage to a man she met in the personal ads, where she meets a band of "Harvey girls," waitresses headed to the same frontier town to establish a restaurant and bring a hint of civilization to the Wild West. Once there, however, she discovers that her erstwhile fiancĂ© is not what she expected, and joins the Harvey girls to work in the new restaurant. But a rivalry with a local brothel, led by stern madame Em (Angela Lansbury) and her entrepreneur lover, Ned (John Hodiak) threatens to destroy the entire town as Garland begins to fall in love with Ned, and competition with the brothel begins to threaten a crooked judge's financial interests. 


The film traffics in some questionable politics regarding the meaning of "civilization," but handles the brothel with surprising sensitivity, mostly due to Lansbury's incredible performance. Garland shines as always, but it's Lansbury who steals the show, bringing emotional shading to a character that could have easily been one dimensional, and the film ends on a note that refuses to judge her for her choices. Add to that a toe-tapping score by Lennie Hayton with songs by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer (who won an Oscar for "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe") and you have a solid period musical characterized by strong performances and beautiful rendered Technicolor cinematography.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four) 


THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER
(1940)

It's difficult to refer to any film, even the very greatest, as a "perfect film," but few fit the bill so beautifully as Ernst Lubitsch's sparkling romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner. Every element seems to be working at peak quality, from the performances to the script to the cinematography, it's one of the all-time great comedies. Remade nearly 60 years later as You've Got MailThe Shop Around the Corner tells the story of two pen pen pals who fall deeply in love, completely unaware that they are actually each other's arch rivals as co-workers at the same department store in Budapest, Hungary.


Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are sublime as the hapless lovers, competing for the attention of store owner Mr. Matuschek (the incomparable Frank Morgan) and longing for each other through their romantic letters at night. It's such an effervescent, easily lovable film, full of memorable characters and witty dialogue. But like its fellow Stewart-led Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful LifeThe Shop Around the Corner goes to some dark places, which make its emotional highs feel all the more earned. It is perhaps the most indelible example of the legendary "Lubitsch touch," a testament to the simple magic that the filmmaker was able to conjure in his films. Its arrival on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive should be a cause for celebration for film fans, and the presentation preserves its lovely black and white tones.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four) 


All films now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive!