Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A scene from MANDABI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

(Ousmane Sembène, 1968)

Notable for being the first film ever to be filmed in an African language, Ousmane Sembène's Mandabi (The Money Order) is part grim satire, part absurdist tragedy; a Sisyphean portrait of a poor man's struggle to exist in a world designed to benefit the wealthy and the elite. Centering around Ibrahima Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), an unemployed man whose nephew sends him a 25,000 franc money order from Paris to distribute amongst the family, the film not only examines the way in which money changes human behavior, it eviscerates the absurdity of the bureaucratic state. When Dieng's friends and neighbors learn of the money order, the immediately descend on him to ask for money, but he finds himself unable to cash the money order since he doesn't have ID, a record of his birth, or the ability to read the agreements in order to get those documents. By the time he's finished, he's all but spent the entire money order just to cash it, ending up worse off than he was at the beginning of the film when he thought fortune had at last smiled upon him. 

Sembène was an intensely political filmmaker, and while he pulled his focus away from French colonialism after his previous film, the pointedly anti-colonial Black Girl, to take aim at, as he put it in a 1969 interview, "the dictatorship of the bourgeoise over the people." In that regard, Mandabi is perhaps one of the greatest communist films of all time, disguising beneath its absurdist humor a sense of righteous fury at the government roadblocks seemingly set up specifically to keep the poor in their place. Indeed, the very existence of Mandabi is something of a protest. By shooting the film in Wolof, rather than the customary French, Sembène is declaring that this is a Senegalese film made by and for Senegalese people. And although funders demanded that Sembène put together a French language version simultaneously, it is the Wolof version that has endured, giving a voice to African cinema that had not previously been heard. Senegal has an especially rich cinematic tradition, giving rise to Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki), his niece, Mati Diop (Atlantics), Safi Faye (Kaddu Beykat), among many others. While the specter of French colonialism hangs over many of the nation's defining works, there is often a deeply humane political sensibility at play that speaks their filmmakers' leftist worldviews, tackling the universally corrupting influence of money whether it be the promises of riches or how they affect human behavior. One might mistake Mandabi for a religious parable centering around a modern day Job, but that's what makes Sembène's communist worldview so bracing - the tone may be bitter, but there's a deep and abiding humanity at its core that is at once universally appealing and difficult to forget.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

A scene from TOUKI BOUKI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

TOUKI BOUKI (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

I was first introduced to Djibril Diop Mambéty's dazzling Touki Bouki (Journey of the Hyena) through the Criterion Collection's first box set from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. Watching Scorsese's introduction (once again included in this new standalone release), it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in his clear love and enthusiasm for this film, and it lives up to his effusive praise in every way. More abstract and perhaps more impressionistic than the socialist realism of the films of his contemporary, Ousmane Sembène, the films of Djibril Diop Mambéty have an almost otherworldly quality to them, fully part of the Senegalese landscape in which they take place, yet existing on a kind of dreamlike plane, alive with the sights and especially the sounds their characters encounter.

Like Sembène, however, Mambéty's films are also deeply political, often informed by the effects of French colonialism on his native Senegal. Touki Bouki follows the misadventures of a young couple who long to leave their impoverished existence in Senegal for the promise of a better life in France, a journey that is increasingly thwarted by seemingly cosmic circumstances. Their journey across Senegal on the back of a motorcycle mounted with cattle horns becomes a kind of modern day Odyssey, often accompanied by the cheery strains of Josephine Baker's "Paris, Paris," whose stark dichotomy with the events portrayed on screen strikes an absurdly comical commentary on the promise of riches that await them in France. Sound often played an key role in Mambéty's work, reportedly because his youthful trips to the cinema were made outside the gates where he could only hear the films, because he could not afford the cost of a ticket, and Touki Bouki s use of music is perhaps some of the most indelible in cinema history. It's so rich, so memorable, and so perfectly in tune with the film's thematic content - actively deepening the absurdity of the French promise in contrast with the poverty left behind by French influence in post-colonial Senegal. Mambéty made precious few films in his long career, directing only two features and five shorts between 1969 and 1999, but Touki Bouki remains his masterpiece - a mischievous yet haunted exploration of post-independence Senegal that deftly evokes the futility placing ones dreams in the the ideal of their formal colonizers. Where Sembène sought cold, hard truth, Mambéty sought emotional honesty, crafting a visceral experience striking visuals and daring aural soundscapes that sought to make sense of a world that no longer did.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

MANDABI and TOUKI BOUKI are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

THE PIRATE (Vincente Minelli, 1948)

Oft overlooked in the oeuvres of both Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate is perhaps one of the most unique musicals of its era. The film was  considered a major bomb at the time, losing over $2 million at the box office despite its bankable stars. And indeed, it features a considerably more convoluted plot than the average MGM musical extravaganza, switching back and forth between reality and fantasy with ease. Garland stars as Manuela, who is engaged to a wealth man she doesn't love, while fantasizing about marrying the pirate, Macoco. Kelly plays a traveling actor who fits the bill, and becomes Macoco's avatar in Garland's reveries, although the film purposefully doesn't do much to distinguish between what's real and what's not.

Perhaps that's why the film didn't go over well with audiences in 1948, because it's almost too smart for its own good. But its metatheatrical musical stylings border on the avant-garde under Minelli's nimble direction, and while the film certainly has some cringe-worthy sexual politics in hindsight, it's also a much better film than its reputation suggests - sending up swashbuckling epics with a wink and a splash of glorious Technicolor.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SHOW BOAT (George Sidney, 1951)

This colorful Golden Age musical hasn't aged particularly well, and not just because of its cringe-worthy racial stereotypes and idealistic view of the antebellum South. There are some glorious moments here, to be sure, William Warfield's stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" chief among them, but the film is poorly plotted between its lavish musical numbers. It all but buries a plot about a black showgirl  (played by the very white Ava Gardner) passing for white in sundown towns along the river where her romance with a white man is criminalized, and its central romance between the captain's daughter and a swarthy river gambler never really takes off. 

It piles on the Technicolor spectacle, with each number feeling like a finale (at least until the actual, rather anti-climactic ending), making for an experience that feels bloated and over-stuffed, full of flash and visual pizazz but lacking any real stakes or sense of emotion. The same cannot be said, however, of the new Warner Archive Blu-Ray release, which is an absolutely stunning improvement over the old DVD release which came from a faded, damaged print. The new Blu-Ray is absolutely pristine, showcasing the dynamic colors present in Sidney's dazzling Golden Age musical. The film itself is still not great, but the gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer is enough to recommend taking a trip on this old show boat - it's a feast for the eyes and ears if nothing else.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (Jack Conway, 1935)

The Academy loved Charles Dickens adaptations during this time, nominating A Tale of Two Cities for two Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing, just a year after showering love on David Copperfield. And while Jack Conway's A Tale of Two Cities remains, perhaps, the most well regarded (along with 1938's A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen), it has an air of stuffiness so common in studio prestige pics. It's certainly a sumptuous production - Conway pulled out all the stops in his big budget recreation of the storming of the Bastille for his French Revolution drama, but the human drama feels staid and somewhat inert. 

It's a spectacle at heart, about French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), who renounces his rank and heads to England to study, where he falls in love with Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) who is also being courted by Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman). When Darnay is imprisoned by revolutionaries upon his return to France, Carton devises a plan to rescue him, even if it means going to the guillotine in his stead. Produced by David O. Selznick, A Tale of Two Cities is a grand melodrama, filled with big emotions and stirring set pieces, but it's also incredibly dry, which holds it back from standing alongside many other classic Hollywood spectacles of the day. The Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Archive is crisp and beautifully rendered (the storming of the Bastille remains an all time great set piece), but the film itself feels terribly dated.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021


It's become almost cliche to refer to films about mass shootings as "timely," but with new ones happening in America seemingly every week (a routine we're sadly settling back into after a COVID-induced break in the violence), it seems these films will somehow always feel ripped from the headlines. To its credit, Megan Park's The Fallout is one of the few films I've seen about the aftermath of a traumatic event that really deals with the fact that people grieve in different ways - and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Exploring the ways in which a teenage girl's life changes in the aftermath of a school shooting, The Fallout is naturally a tough watch - in equal turns raw, warm, bittersweet, and even funny. It really nails the rollercoaster emotions in the aftermath of tragedy - the PTSD, the sadness, the anger, and the ever-present nagging fear, Park navigates them  all with great wisdom and grace. 

Jenna Ortega gives an incredible performance in the lead role - her character constantly trying to hide her grief beneath humor and ironic detachment, but the pain shows through the cracks, and it's a marvel to behold. What really struck me, though, is that the scattershot ways she tries to cope with the trauma - drugs, sex, humor, lethargy - are never judged. While others channel their grief into activism and judge her for not following that path, the film allows her space to grieve in her own way. It also acknowledges the lingering affects of trauma - hidden but always present, always ready to re-emerge through unexpected triggers. It's teen drama sheen belie a disarming emotional complexity. There have now been two mass shootings in America in the span of a few days since I saw this film, and I've returned to it several times in my mind - especially its haunting denouement that derails a seemingly happy ending with the idea that this is a problem that will continue in perpetuity, the wounds never fully healed. Never has a film so indelibly captured the  sheer primal terror of a school shooting, coupled with such a realistically uneven path of grief for its young protagonists. It lets kids be kids - volatile, irreverent,  finding love and even humor in the midst of the fallout - but it's that razor sharp exploration of the fickle messiness of trauma, told with such heart, that really makes the film standout. It will be a tough watch for many, and there will doubtless be more shootings before the film is finally released, but it's an essential, cathartic watch nevertheless.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HERE BEFORE (Stacy Gregg, Ireland)

Andrea Riseborough delivers a stellar performance in the otherwise middling sort-of supernatural thriller, Here Before, that casts Riseborough as a grieving mother who comes to suspect that her next door neighbor's daughter is actually her own deceased child who passed away in a car accident years before. As she sinks deeper into paranoia, tensions rise at home with her exasperated husband and her terrified son, and as she grows ever closer to the little girl, her relationship with her neighbors begins to deteriorate, revealing damaging secrets that threaten to destroy them all.

The film is a little too clever for its own good, so the twists it telegraphs never quite land, but it's an eerie mood piece with a firecracker performance by Riseborough at the center. Riseborough is truly best in show here, and while Here Before goes through the routines of turning a mother's grief into horror, Riseborough's powder keg of suppressed anguish is something to behold. The film's screenplay cuts too many corners and hinges on too many contrivances, but under Stacey Gregg's elegant direction it manages to sustain itself through its melancholic atmosphere and Riseborough's wrenching performance.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE SPINE OF NIGHT (Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King, USA)

The Spine of Night is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films, a go-for-broke animated fantasy epic that swings for the fences with its bold ambition. It's also one of the biggest WTF films in years, featuring graphic, over-the-top violence, and explicit, almost constant nudity, coupled with an incredibly dense, time jumping plot about a primal world where rival clans vie for the power contained in a mysterious flower, The Spine of Night is, to put it mildly...a lot.

It's certainly a wild ride, often playing like an epic conceived by a bunch of high schoolers who were stoned out of their minds and were like "you know what would be EPIC!?" And, frankly, it kind of is in a weird way. The mythology is convoluted as hell but the craft is incredible. The rotoscoped, hand drawn animation is awesome to behold. There's just such a singularity of vision here that it's impossible to ignore, even though I'm not sure that makes it "good." It's certainly unique and deeply earnest - featuring sometimes sincere and sometimes oddball turns by Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, and Patton Oswalt. The Spine of Night is almost like a teen boy's ultra violent fever dream come to life on a grand scale. It's beautiful, edgy, incomprehensible, and mesmerizing all at once - a singular achievement, if an oppressive one, consumed by the vastness of its vision but so full of complex lore than it will likely lose all but the most die-hard fantasy fans. Is it worth the journey? Absolutely. But beware, it's a test of endurance destined to be one of those "I was there moments," for better or for worse.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

SWAN SONG (Todd Stephens, USA)

Based on a true story, Todd Stephens' Swan Song is a warm, big-hearted paean to gay elders and pioneers that casts Udo Kier as a flamboyant hairdresser who escapes from his nursing home for one final job - styling his one time favorite client for her funeral. Like a queer version of The Straight Story (ironic, I know), Kier wanders a landscape filled with ghosts - memories of the partner he lost to AIDS, ramshackle gay bars on the verge of gentrification, reliving his traumas and his glory days as the "Liberace of Sandusky" Ohio.

The film features a powerhouse performance by Kier, along with a strong supporting turn by Jennifer Coolidge as a one time rival, and pitch perfect needle drops of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" and RuPaul's "Sissy that Walk." Swan Song is a gloriously, unashamedly queer film, a hilarious and bittersweet ode to gay pioneers who came before, and the modern queer landscape they helped create. It's a rare thing to see a film deal so directly with gay elders, and when they do, it tends to look at them when they were young. But Stephens gives this elderly diva the send off he deserves; a film filled with joy, heart, and hope, that finds life where there was once only despair. Swan Song is one of this year's best films to date, and the queer crowd pleaser we deserve.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

THE END OF US (Henry Loevner, Steven Kanter, USA)

The lockdown romantic comedy you didn't know you needed and definitely didn't ask for is better than it has any right to be. Starting out in March 2020, Nick (Ben Coleman) and Leah (Alison G. Vingiano) are coming to the end of a four year relationship, until the COVID lockdown scuttles Nick's plans to move out and forces the two to become roommates on the outs. Their relationship is tenuous at best for a few weeks, but they soon find a way to rekindle their friendship and make the most of things - that is until Leah starts Zoom dating which causes Nick to realize that he still has feelings for her, setting up yet another make or break conflict within the confines of their quarantine.

If that description made you roll your eyes, you're definitely not alone. The End of Us definitely feels "too soon" but benefits from the freshness of the memories of the early days of COVID. We're essentially locked down with the characters so they're thankfully not insufferable. Some real human moments here courtesy of a likable and capable cast that finds plenty of honest moments from all-too-familiar COVID angst. It's a unique breakup comedy whose beats mostly feel truthful and earned, never feeling forced or overly cutesy in its application of recent history, and ultimately leading to an unexpectedly wise exploration of relationships, and how even failed romances can help us grow as human beings. It's a laid back and agreeable romantic comedy that, like its characters, manages to make the best out of a terrible situation. One only hopes this doesn't become a trend.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GAIA (Jaco Bouwer, South Africa)

Mother Earth takes her revenge in this South African body horror film that plays out like The Happening by way of The Descent. Two park rangers head into a primordial forest planning to study the trees, and instead find a father and son living in a kind of primitive, post-apocalyptic state. At first they appear to be doomsday preppers living off the grid and away from the prying eyes of modern technology, but it soon becomes apparent that their elaborate traps are not meant for the rangers, and that a darker, more ancient evil lurks within the forest, one that is preparing to assert itself on a much larger scale and is merely waiting on the right vessel to carry it out into the world. 

Featuring grotesque creature design that feels like something out of Hannibal, Gaia is a psychedelic eco-horror fantasia that works its way under your skin and stays there. It's a kind of environmental morality play writ larger, in which earth is essentially taking its revenge on humanity, but it keeps its focus small scale and intimate, mixing pagan and Biblical lore into something deeply unsettling. It often feels like the film Annihilation wanted to be but never quite was, an often abstract but less thematically nebulous film that seems to tremble with both awe and horror at the awesome power of nature, at once ancient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. Gaia is an unnerving yet beautifully filmed descent into madness, signaling director Jaco Bouwer is a thrilling new voice in modern horror, having crafted one of the most unique horror films to come along in quite some time. It's a primal and terrifying work of art.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Based on director Wes Hurley's own experiences growing up gay in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union, Potato Dreams of America is a beguilingly idiosyncratic queer coming-of-age tale that may be a little rough around the edges, but it's so full of heart that it's difficult to resist. From his days as a young lad in Russia where he was bullied at school for being different, to his flight to America after his mother signs up to be a mail order bride, landing them in a conservative American home that's as oppressive as anything he experienced behind the Iron Curtain, Potato longed for a place where he could simply be himself. He finds religion as a young boy, and conjures up an effeminate Jesus as an imaginary best friend, and watches American movies every night, viewing America as a land of happy endings (and attractive men). 

While his dreams of a better life in America don't exactly come true the way he imagined as a young, film-obsessed gay boy in Russia, but he finds acceptance in unusual and unexpected places. Troublingly, it begins with an anti-communist bent that feels a bit misplaced, but rhymes well with the eventual anti-gay sentiment he encounters in America. Just as Russia's problem wasn't communism itself, neither are the problems he encounters with Christianity representative of the entire faith - and his new puritanical step-father has one of the most satisfying arcs for a bigoted character I've seen in a while, even if the change seems a bit abrupt, and the meta ending mirrors Almodovar's Pain and Glory without the dramatic heft, but the film is such a singular and unusual vision that its odd pacing and oddball energy quickly become positives rather than negatives, as if Hurley simply decided to toss out the classical Hollywood rulebook and make a film that was true to him (the transition from the characters' lack of Russian accents in Russia to their conspicuous Russian accents in America, for example, is jarring - but makes thematic sense as it highlights their cultural alienation). It's just so full of joy - the joy of self-discovery, the joy of filmmaking, the joy of queerness itself, that it deftly overcomes its occasional tonal bumps to provide a warm and lasting impression. Potato Dreams of America is an utter delight.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SEE YOU THEN (Mari Walker, USA)

Two exes agree to meet after nearly 13 years apart in an attempt to smooth over the past. Only one of them has since come out as transgender, a wrinkle that suddenly puts their incompatibility into sharper focus. Such is the premise of Mari Walker's See You Then, a haunting trans spin on Richard Linklater's BEFORE films, featuring the guileless sense of possibility of Before Sunrise coupled with the world weary sense of unexamined pain of Before Midnight

What begins as an evening of warm reminiscence and understanding about why their relationship abruptly ended ultimately devolves into the two women peeling a scab off an old wound, as Walker beautifully explores femininity, trans womanhood, and motherhood through the eyes of her two broken characters - cisgender artist Naomi (Lynn Chen) living a life that transgender Kris (Pooya Mohseni) longs for, without appreciating it or understanding the unique hurdles Kris must face to get there. By its very nature, the film is talky and often meandering, but the emotional impact it builds to is shattering. Chen is remarkable (didn't realize how much I'd missed her since Saving Face almost 17 years ago) and relative newcomer Mohseni brings a quiet dignity to the film. See You Then deals with a lot in a short time frame, but it makes the most of it of its brief running time. The years of regret and loss shared by these two women is palpable, no longer romantically compatible but inexorably linked by their pasts, they offer a deep emotional well for Walker to explore what it means to be a trans woman in America, and how even the most routine relationships can have lasting effects. It's a lovely and perceptive debut film for Walker.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


The tragedy of 9/11 has never really been examined through such a uniquely queer lens as it is in Adam Baran's documentary short, Trade Center, a haunting reverie on New York's hidden gay past as told by the men who once frequented the popular cruising spots that dotted the old World Trade Center campus. Trade Center paints an utterly enrapturing queer portrait of old New York now lost to time, forever changed by the surveillance state and the newly sanitized modern architecture of the Freedom Tower that now stands in place of the fallen Twin Towers. There's something wistful and bittersweet about the tales of anonymous sex that once took place in the bathrooms and secluded stairwells of the Trade Center, examining a once thriving underground queer culture that only exists in memory, wiped away by George Bush and Rudy Giuliani in the name of fighting terrorism and "cleaning up" the city. It may only be 9 minutes long - but it carries with a lifetime of memories - Trade Center is powerful, essential viewing.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

The SXSW Film Festival continues through March 18, 2021.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Oliver Hardy and Mae Hotely in 1915's LUCKY STRIKE

Some of my fondest memories of my grandfather involve watching Laurel & Hardy shorts on his couch on Saturday mornings. Other kids looked forward to Saturday morning cartoons, but I looked forward to Saturday morning Laurel & Hardy on AMC, back when AMC stood for (and actually meant) American Movie Classics. When I wasn't with my grandparents on Saturdays, he would tape them for me to watch later, and I still have VHS copies of these old AMC programs with some of Laurel & Hardy's most iconic films - the Oscar-winning The Music Box, Block-Heads, Berth-Marks, Men-o-WarCounty Hospital - I loved watching the two legendary comedians get themselves into another nice mess, and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to get out of it again. Whether they were trying to sneak away from their wives to go to the lodge, or trying to convince a vengeful husband that they weren't actually flirting with their wives, or trying to fix something around the house only to make the problem ten times worse, Laurel & Hardy created templates that would be followed by filmmakers, comedians, and sitcom writers for decades to come. 

Yet one rarely thinks of Laurel without Hardy, or Hardy without Laurel. It's always "Laurel and Hardy," and never just Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. However, the two actors weren't always a comic duo. Both men cut their teeth on silent films, before eventually being teamed up by Hal Roach just before the dawn of the sound era, resulting in some two decades of classic comedy. The films the two men made separately are not nearly as well known as the films they made together, and many of those early solo shorts have been long unavailable. But now thanks to the remarkable new Blu-Ray collection from Flicker Alley, fans and newcomers alike can discover the origins of Laurel and Hardy through their solo works dating all the way back to 1914.

The two disc set devotes an entire disc to each actor, showcasing their growth as individual performers from supporting players to solo artists, tracing them from their somewhat inauspicious beginnings all the way through 1926, one year prior to the official beginning of their partnership with 1927's Duck Soup (the pair had previously appeared in films together, but never as a comedy duo). The earliest film included in the set is 1914's Mother's Baby Boy, which stars Babe Hardy (as he was billed early in his career) as a spoiled mama's boy who enlists the help of his family to deal with some rather persistent bullies who interrupt his fumbling attempts at courting. Many of Hardy's early films involve mistaken identities and lower class characters who fall in love before striking it rich - bringing other suitors to their door before ultimately deciding to stick with the ones who loved them when they were poor (The Servant Girl's LegacyLucky Strike). While Hardy hadn't yet developed the fussy pomposity that would define his Laurel and Hardy persona, these earlier films often came with much happier endings than the fates that befell his characters in later years. 

Stan Laurel in 1923's WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD

Laurel's disc begins with 1918's Bears and Bad Men, in which Stan plays a bit part as a village idiot. This straight-faced, dim-witted persona carries through many of his films, on into the Laurel and Hardy era, but it's fascinating to watch that develop as producers pushed him as a kind of Buster Keaton knock-off. While Laurel's solo films don't quite have the same visionary comedic prowess that Keaton was working with at the time, sharp-eyed Laurel and Hardy fans will notice the seeds of ideas that would later be explored in some of the duo's classic comedies taking root here. Pay attention to Stan's workplace hijinx in 1922's The Egg, and how they presage the sawmill antics of 1933's L & H classic, Busy Bodies. Laurel was often considered the creative brains behind the operation, while Hardy was more of an affable actor-for-hire, which is perhaps why Laurel's films feel more like a staging ground for better things down the road. 

Yet neither Laurel or Hardy would find the success on their own that they would ultimately find together, and there often seems to be something missing from this collection of curios, and that's each other. Laurel needed Hardy as much as Hardy needed Laurel, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when watching them perform solo. These aren't bad films by any stretch of the imagination, but they lack the spark that the two found when working as a team. Flicker Alley's beautifully restored Blu-Ray set is a must-have for fans of Laurel and Hardy, if for know other reason than to discover why they worked so well together by understanding what they lacked apart. Laurel and Hardy films have a special kind of magic, that rare spark of two performers who each brought to the table something the other lacked, and managed to achieve greatness together. Laurel and Hardy were lighting in a bottle, and here we get to see their humble beginnings in one fantastic package. 

Laurel Or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is now available from Flicker Alley!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is based on the 1979 novel of espionage and romance by Eileen Chang. Coming on the heels of Lee's Oscar success Brokeback MountainLust, Caution marked a return to his home country of Taiwan for the filmmaker, but this time the response was much more muted than the major accolades that were showered upon his previous Taiwanese film, the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The film was ultimately disqualified by the Oscars from contending as Taiwan's official submission to the Best International Film category for not being "sufficiently Taiwanese," and failed to garner any other Oscar nominations outside of that category. Maybe it was the more restrictive NC-17 rating and its graphic sex scenes that kept it from gaining traction with the Academy, but revisiting it now nearly 14 years after its original release, it's clear that the film was robbed. There are so many artists who worked on Lust, Caution that were working at the very top of their game; from Rodrigo Prieto's rich cinematography, to the impeccable costume design by Lai Pan, to Alexandre Desplat's haunting score (perhaps his finest work to date) the film is a constant feast for the senses.

Yet it's the work of the principal cast that give the film its heart. Tang Wei (who beautifully navigates er character's journey from guilelessness to world-weariness) stars as Wong Chia Chi, a university student whose theatre troupe hatches a plot to assassinate local police chief, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Using Wong as bait in an extended undercover operation, her job is to seduce the married man and lure him into a trap. After their initial plot in Hong Kong fails and the students disperse, Wong Chia Chi encounters Mr. Yee once again in Shanghai. Enlisted by the resistance for a much more sophisticated undercover operation, Wong finds herself drawn into an intense affair with Mr. Yee, one that ranges from rape to unbridled passion, and the two begin to meet for regular rendezvous . Mr. Yee's caution soon gives way to lust, threatening to evolve their relationship in to something much deeper, putting the entire operation in jeopardy.

The sex scenes in Lust, Caution are often as sensual as they are disturbing, with Wong's relationship with Mr. Yee walking a tightrope between manipulation and genuine affection. But therein lies the underlying critique of fascism, as Wong's flirtation with authoritarianism in the form of Mr. Yee, a man both terrifying and alluring, ultimately leads to ruin. It's a delicate dance, and Lee navigates it beautifully, never blaming Wong for her choices as Mr. Yee has an undeniable appeal. Lee has consistently demonstrated a certain talent for exploring human relationships, and Lust, Caution is perhaps one of his thorniest, most complex works, the central relationship feeling at once exploitative and yet undeniably sexy, real and yet rife with unspoken danger. At last getting its rightful due with the gorgeous new Kino Lorber Blu-Ray, Lust, Caution is a film that feels ripe for re-discovery. In a world where fascism is once again appealing to so many, there are disturbing lessons to be learned here among the film's sensuous pleasures. It emerges now as one of the most accomplished, and consistently overlooked, films of Lee's illustrious career.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LUST, CAUTION | Directed by Ang Lee | Stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang | Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality | Available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber on March 30!

Thursday, March 04, 2021

While there's an argument to be made that Airport and its imitators like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are the templates of the modern disaster film, you'd have to go all the way back to 1936 with W.S. Van Dyke's lavish MGM disaster spectacle, San Francisco to see the formula's cinematic origins. Setting a love story in front of the impending San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the film was such a runaway success that 20th Century Fox nearly lifted the storyline wholesale for In Old Chicago the very next ear, with both films getting nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

In all, San Francisco was nominated for six Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Original Story, Best Assistant Director, and won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording. It's certainly a handsome production, with the dashing Clark Gable in the leading role as Blackie Norton, an unscrupulous nightclub owner vying for the affections of singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) with a rival theatre producer. Tracy co-stars as Father Mullin, an old friend of Blackie's who is perhaps the only person who sees the good in him. The great San Francisco earthquake ultimately tears them apart and forces them together, but it doesn't happen until the last 15 minutes or so of the nearly two hour film, which means much of the runtime is spent with these characters' petty dramas, which would become the hallmark of so many disaster films that are long on build up and light on payoff. Thankfully, the earthquake and resulting fire are impressive achievements, even if the denouement feels rushed and overly saccharine, with lots of hymn-singing and a last minute religious conversion for the atheistic Blackie. It's the kind of tacked on bit of self-importance that often characterized lavish studio pictures of the early Production Code period, and it feels like the writers simply didn't know how to end the film and chose to do it as quickly as possible.

San Francisco feels like something of a relic now.  Gable's character is such an abusive cad (an element that received some pushback from the screenwriters after seeing how Van Dyke was directing the film) that it's difficult to become invested in the love story, and Gable reportedly hated his leading lady so much that he would often eat garlic before having to kiss her on camera, which explains their overall lack of chemistry. Gable was a born movie star, but it's pretty clear none of the actors were particularly invested (Gable is said to have only done the film because he was in debt to Louis B. Mayer after the studio head paid off one of his many mistresses). It's really only of interest now due to its influence on the disaster genre, combining turgid melodrama with the grand backdrop of a natural disaster. Mark this one as "for Oscar completists only."

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

SAN FRANCISCO | Directed by W.S. Van Dyke | Stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Rosamund Pike as Marla. Courtesy of Netflix.

There has been a lot of debate amongst film critics lately about the difference between depiction and endorsement, and where the line is drawn between glorifying evil characters and condemning them. Thanks to moral outrage from pearl clutching prudes aghast at the amorality of Hollywood, the Production Code once dictated that all characters who did bad deeds get their comeuppance in the end, and no film could portray bad people in such a way that could potentially make them look good. That's how gangster movies like 1933's The Public Enemy fell out of style. And even though the charismatic but brutal James Cagney got what was coming to him in the end, the film was barred from be re-released after the Production Code was enforced, and the heyday of the gangster picture was replaced with films that focused on cops and "G-Men" whose job was to catch the baddies those pre-code films had turned into heroes.

It's something we still wrestle with today - are movies merely morality plays in disguise? Or should films be allowed to put amoral people im the spotlight? It's a gray area, of course, and one that J Blakeson's I Care a Lot explores gleefully. But this is a reminder that just because someone is the protagonist of a piece does not make them the "good guy," and that depicting their evil doesn't mean that the film is endorsing their actions. In I Care a Lot, Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson (a role for which she recently won a surprise Golden Globe for Best Actress)  who makes a living by railroading unsuspecting senior citizens and having herself appointed as their legal guardian, dumping them in nursing homes while she liquidates their estates for her own gain. She messes with the wrong person, however, when she Jennifer Peterson (Diane Wiest), who is not the sweet old lady she appears to be, and finds herself the target of Peterson's mob boss son, Roman (Peter Dinklage). Not intending to be beaten at her own game, Marla goes toe to toe with Roman, resulting in a truly wild battle of wits and ruthless cunning that threatens to destroy them both and everything they love. 

Sometimes "deliciously evil" is just what we need out of a movie, and that is exactly what I Care a Lot delivers - a nasty shot in the arm of bad people doing bad things to each other that is enormously satisfying, where people whose success depends on the misfortune of others ultimately find their own undoing. Pike has created such an indelible, fully realized character, and Wiest does so much with her limited screen time that it reminds us of what a creative force she truly is. There's a certain amoral vim and verve to the proceedings that is at once horrifying and thrilling, allowing us to revel in the characters' evil while also recoiling from their monstrous deeds. I Care a Lot exists in a fascinating moral gray area that pulls no punches. Clearly we're not supposed to "like" these characters, but it's an undeniably fun ride watching what level of cruelty the characters escalate to next. Movies are not necessarily meant to reflect our morality back to us, sometimes they allow us to enter the world of wholly immoral characters and engage with them on their own terms. That's what makes I Care a Lot such a wildly entertaining film, because we're not really rooting for anyone, we can really focus on the journey. With a vivid color palate, Pike's ice cold demeanor, Wiest's mischievous twinkle, and Dinklage's unbridled rage, the audience is transported into a world where terrible people are terrible to each other, trapped in the zero sum game of human exploitation, where the only winners are those who decide to take the ride with them. This is one hell of a movie. 

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

I CARE A LOT | Directed by J Blakeson | Stars Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest | Rated R for language throughout and some violence | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Disney's latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, somehow feels like both a fresh new direction for the Mouse House, and a nostalgic throwback to their more action-oriented output from the early 2000s like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. And not just because composer James Newton Howard has returned to provide the score - the
re's something decidedly more grown-up feeling about Raya that targets a slightly older demographic than Disney's animated musicals.

The story centers around a young woman in a mythical kingdom of Kumandra that has been torn apart by warring factions vying for control over a magical stone once created by a race of dragons to protect the world from an evil force known as the Druun, that turns every living thing it encounters into stone. Tasked with protecting the stone along with her father, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is betrayed by a newfound friend, leading to the warring kingdoms breaking the stone and dividing it amongst themselves, destroying the barrier that kept the Druun at bay and unleashing them upon the world and turning her father to stone. Determined to set things right, Raya now wonders the wastelands of Kumandra searching for the various pieces of the stone to put them together and reunite her kingdom. Along the way she encounters Sisu (Awkwafina), the last surviving dragon whose goofiness is only matched by her incredible magic powers, who accompanies Raya on her journey.

While the animation is often jaw-dropping, there's a lot going on in Raya and the Last Dragon, often to its own detriment. The film spends a lot of time laboriously explaining its mythology and the world in which it is set, resulting in an often convoluted plot that is leaden with expository dialogue. The cast is terrific, with Tran and Awkwafina providing equal amounts of humor and pathos that make their characters easy to root for and give the film its heart. And the action, courtesy of directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), is often quite thrilling. But the narrative is so overstuffed that none these moments land with the gravity that they should. The way Hal and López Estrada combine animation styles offers a glimpse into what the film could have been, but these moments are too few and far between to have any real impact. It also delves into some timely but extremely bland themes of unity, in which the only way for the evil to be defeated is if rivals put aside their differences and trust one another, even if they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy multiple times. It makes sense for a Disney movie, but there's something frustratingly centrist about its messaging. And while it may sound aspirational coming from a children's fantasy, arriving at time when people are extremely divided along political and ideological lines on existential issues, to say that the only way to survive is to trust this person who has tried to kill you and destroy everything you've worked for multiple times seems to veer into some uneasy "both sides" territory.

On the other hand, Raya and the Last Dragon will be accompanied both in theaters and on Disney+ by the animated short, Us Again, which manages to pack more emotional resonance into 6 minutes than Raya manages with 100. Centering around an elderly couple rekindling their love of dancing with the help of some magical rain that transforms them into their younger selves, Us Again plays out like the epilogue that Carl and Ellie from Up never got. It's a tearjerker about reclaiming life and rekindling passions in the  tradition of the best Disney shorts, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see it show up in the Best Animated Short category at next year's Academy Awards. Raya will also likely be a Best Animated Feature player, and it's certainly not the worst film to come out of Disney Animation. But it almost feels like too much of a good thing, a fascinating concept with some strong vocal talent in dire need of streamlining and script editing. And it's especially good to see Tran getting a starring role to show off her talents after getting shafted by Disney in The Rise of Skywalker thanks to racist backlash against her character in The Last Jedi. Young audiences will likely be dazzled by the often jaw-dropping animated action on display, but its overly-complicated world building doesn't give it a firm enough foundation to rise above the much stronger players in Disney's recent canon. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON | Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada | Stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk | Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements | Opens in theaters and exclusively on Disney+ on March 5