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Blu-ray Review: Sinister 2

A negligible horror time-killer receives a top-shelf refurbishing courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

3.5

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Sinister 2

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister has a becoming sense of minimalism, particularly for the contemporary American horror genre, following Ethan Hawke as he wanders a haunted house, slugging down bourbon while watching snuff movies on an ancient 16mm projector, conjuring a pagan demon in the process. There’s no belabored climax, no extraneous sets or characters, and remarkably little exposition. Derrickson staged an elegantly low-rent fusion of The Conversation and The Shining, adding to the stew a chillingly vague creature that suggested an especially debauched 1980s hair-band rocker.

Sinister 2 commits the classic horror-sequel blunder, confusing scariness with rank unpleasantness. Producer Jason Blum, co-writer Derrickson, and director Ciarán Foy predictably double down on the series’s potential for literal-minded cruelty in an effort to compensate for an unavoidable lack of mystery. After all, fans of Sinister will obviously already know from the outset why the children in this film have a weird propensity for watching snuff movies in the basement of their unconvincingly retro rural farmhouse.

Sinister 2 marks time with its increasingly ridiculous recreation of snuff movies, until the climax involving a family’s brutal mass murder by one of its own, per the tradition of the series. Not exactly a wonderful night at the multiplex, though one of the “kill films” is so desperately lurid as to merit a dishonorable shout-out, reveling in the suffering of victims who’re nailed to the floor of a church while rats burrow through their stomachs. This sequence strikingly fails to shock, despite the calculated, eager-to-please ghastliness of its conception.

More ghoulish is Sinister 2’s pervasive, nearly gleeful matter-of-factness about such atrocities, allowing the audience to accept the machinations of a child who tries to burn his family alive as merely a matter of course for a debauched sequel. The murderous child in question, played by Dartanian Sloan, is so clearly a sociopath from the outset that his devolution into a monster carries no emotional weight. Which is a shame, as there’s quite a bit of unexplored subtext inherent in this premise, which ostensibly concerns a broken home and the cycles of violence that reverberate in the wake of a violent husband and father’s abuse.

Watching Sinister 2, one also comes to appreciate how significantly Hawke served the first film. The actor’s ongoing appearances in genre movies continue to carry a charge because his pretenses as a privileged, self-conscious artiste have yet to entirely dissipate. Watching Hawke in a film like Sinister or The Purge one suspects that he’s amused by the seeming arbitrariness of his presence in such a disreputable project, and that amusement informs the narratives with refreshing comic tension.

James Ransone and Shannyn Sossoman are capable and likeable performers, but they don’t complement Sinister 2 in such a surprising fashion. Hawke barely bothered to sell his sketched-in caricature of a role, astutely allowing the audience to accept his character as being indiscernible from his own public profile, imbuing Sinister with star-wattage. Ransone and Sossoman are character actors, though, attempting to ground their roles in some sort of emotional reality, and there simply isn’t any reality to play in something this cynically inhuman. This film craves the sort of urban-legend gravitas that Hawke provided its predecessor, but Sinister 2 swallows its leads up, leaving behind only derivative ugliness.

Image/Sound

The image sports deep, luscious blacks and the sort of oxymoronically polished grit that abounds in contemporary horror films with an uncommitted jones for the roughness of their 1970s-era forefathers. Sinister 2’s formal style is derivative yet quite lovely to behold, offering gorgeous tableaus of misery. The washed-out colors are rendered with exquisite glare, and set textures are uncommonly precise, most unnervingly in the abandoned church that prominently figures in the narrative. The soundtrack deftly handles the usual horror-movie jump tactics, though tomandandy’s score classes up the joint considerably with frightening mixtures of scratching and bass-y gurgling. This mix has effective, appropriate weight, suggesting an entity that’s tangibly pushing and holding the images down on the screen.

Extras

The audio commentary by director Ciarán Foy covers the basics pertaining to his hiring, the casting of the actors, the score, the set design, and the like. It’s a diverting but forgettable listen. The deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurette are even less remarkable, though there’s a certain admirably cheeky perversity in including all the film’s fake snuff footage as a standalone supplement.

Overall

A negligible horror time-killer receives a top-shelf refurbishing courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann Director: Ciarán Foy Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Running Time: 98 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 12, 2016 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat on the Criterion Collection

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer and a series of extras that contextualize its politics.

3.5

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Le Petit Soldat

The perception of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Godard’s seminal debut feature, Breathless, and the fact that it didn’t even see the light of day until three years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thriller—in the same nominal, oblique way that Breathless is a gangster film—Godard’s sophomore feature tells the story of Bruno (Michel Subor), a French photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which he’s affiliated suspects him of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.

Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godard’s infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldat’s grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.

Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets. Less instinctual, though, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat’s images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.

In the early days of the Nouvelle Vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du Cinéma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that sparked Le Petit Soldat’s production. Keen to counter this criticism, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeria’s fight for independence, France’s reluctance to grant them such, and both side’s use of torture to extract information from the opposition—all of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.

The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the left’s rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the right’s proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godard’s attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject.

For Godard, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as his personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion by landing on the left—and that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.

Image/Sound

For Le Petit Soldat, cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked with natural and available light, which resulted in images of variable clarity, yet the Criterion Collection’s transfer counters that by maximizing contrast and texture. Outdoor scenes feature slight fluctuations of detail endemic to the film’s source material, though for the most part the image remains stable and looks surprisingly good in night scenes, which sport healthy grain but no crushing artifacts. Indoor scenes are richly textured and display a wide variety of sharply contrasted grays. The film’s contrapuntal audio is even crisper, showing off the remarkable range of sound elements that Jean-Luc Godard was readily capturing so early into his career.

Extras

A 1965 interview with Godard finds him reflecting on the film’s hostile reception even among left-wing publications, as well as the inspiration he takes from real-world events. A 1963 interview with Michel Subor focuses on his collaborations with Godard and how the actor admires the filmmaker’s quirks and challenging personality. Also included is a 1961 audio interview with Godard that emphasizes the popularity he enjoyed after the release of Breathless. Finally, an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott considers how Le Petit Soldat kickstarted Godard’s career-defining preoccupation with all things political.

Overall

Godard’s bracing sophomore feature receives a wonderful hi-def transfer from Criterion and a series of extras that contextualize its controversial politics.

Cast: Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Paul Beauvais, Georges de Beauregard, László Szabó, Jean-Luc Godard Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: House by the Cemetery Receives 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

5

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House by the Cemetery

Several generations of fanboys have heralded Lucio Fulci as “the Godfather of Gore” (pace Herschell Gordon Lewis), and there’s splatter aplenty on display in The House by the Cemetery, from the opening murder set piece (a knife to the back of the skull that emerges from the victim’s mouth) to the penultimate killing (a major character gets their throat torn out). But it would be grossly reductive, not to mention flat-out wrong, to dismiss the film as mere gore-delivery system.

As with previous entries in the loosely linked “Gates of Hell” trilogy (City of the Living Dead and The Beyond), with their concern for the all-too-porous boundaries between the living and the dead, Fulci refracts influences both cinematic (The Amityville Horror and The Shining) and literary (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and any number of Gothic-inflected haunted-house tales) through the lens of his own darkly poetic sensibility. Fulci and his co-writers betray a fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended. None of the “Gates of Hell” films conclude with the restoration of moral or, indeed, cosmic order found in more conventional (read: conservative) horror films, and The House by the Cemetery’s haunting finale suggests, in the words of co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, that life is an ode to death as savior.

The setup is properly archetypal: New Yorkers Lucy and Norman Boyle (Fulci regulars Catriona MacColl and Paolo Malco), along with their young son, Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move to New Whitby, outside of Boston, so that Norman can continue the research of his colleague, Dr. Petersen, who not long before murdered his lover and then killed himself in the same “old, dark house” that the Boyles are now renting. The film, though, isn’t without a sly sense of humor. Witness the name of its monstrous mad doctor: Freudstein. The “mad doctor” epithet elucidates the cognomen’s latter component, but the Freudian aspects within the film are more manifold. Naturally enough, a free-floating feeling of the uncanny permeates the film, as in the numerous instances of déjà vu when the residents of New Whitby believe Norman has been there before, and surrounds the figure of Ann (Ania Pieroni), Bob’s eerie babysitter.

Then, too, there’s Freud’s suggestion that the uncanny (“un-home-ly”) is the opposite of the domestic, the familiar (in several senses) rendered unfamiliar, and therefore akin on the level of aesthetics to the formalist principle of defamiliarization. In The House by the Cemetery, the nearby graves quite literally invade the home, when Lucy discovers the headstone for the Freudstein crypt in the middle of their living room. At film’s end, when Bob escapes from the cellar through a rather vaginal-looking crack in the tombstone, the moment is a kind of rebirth, into the gray and wintry realms of the undead. By the same token, the monster inhabiting the cellar embodies the return of the repressed, whatever has been shoved deep down into the depths of the unconscious—here, quite possibly, Bob’s anger and resentment toward inattentive, even neglectful parents.

Fulci also accomplishes the act of rendering things unfamiliar throughout his dreamlike film by disavowing the linear mechanics of narrative logic. Inattentive viewers have always complained that Fulci’s infernal trilogy are incoherent texts, filled with dangling plot threads and unexplained leaps of logical faith, which indeed they are. Putting that down to rank incompetence, though, would be to mistake technique as the lack thereof and consistently misconstrue the sense of the playful and surreal that runs through even Fulci’s most graphic and brutal films, whether the Donald Duck-voiced killer in his grindhouse post mortem that is The New York Ripper, or the self-reflexive mise en abyme of The Cat in the Brain, wherein Fulci plays himself as a maestro of the macabre trapped within an endless nightmare constructed from cut-and-pasted gore scenes drawn from his lesser-known films.

Nor is Fulci above bits of self-aware parody that stick it to the conventions of Gothic horror, a sensibility that’s best evidenced here in the amusingly protracted bat-killing scene: Norman repeatedly stabs the flying rodent latched onto his hand with a steak knife until what seems like gallons of syrupy blood gush out, which Fulci follows with a smash cut to a smarmy realtor, glimpsed in an earlier scene, yawning in boredom.

The House by the Cemetery concludes with a quote allegedly drawn from the works of Henry James: “No one will ever know whether children are monsters or monsters are children.” It’s a false attribution, naturally, but one that nevertheless keys into the film’s layers of Jamesian ambiguity, of the “Is it real or all in your head?” variety, and invites comparison to Jack Clayton’s excellent film adaptation of James’s most famous story, The Innocents. Though Clayton’s film epitomizes the restraint and suggestiveness of the best psychological horror films, seemingly at antipodes to Fulci’s full-frontal assault of explicitness, both films have the capacity to burrow under your skin and plumb deep into your unconscious.

Image/Sound

Blue Underground’s 4K upgrade of their 2011 Blu-ray marks another quantum leap in presenting cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s stunningly atmospheric work: Black levels are truly deep and tenebrous throughout, without a trace of murky blocking or crush. The already impressive clarity and color saturation get a further boost, with plenty of heretofore illegible details (like food labels and signage) clearly standing out. And the brightness of those rainbow-hued stained-glass windows in the Boyle home will practically make you squint. There are three audio options: Master Audio mono tracks in English and Italian, as well as a repurposed English 5.1 surround mix, which does a discreet but admirable job of separating and channelizing Walter Rizzati’s synth-organ score, as well as ambient sound effects like Freudstein’s piteous mewling and that bizarre recurrent wolf call. And there’s always the Italian track if you’re one of those viewers whose bane of existence is the shrill, vapid voice provided by whoever supplied the voice for flaxen-haired moppet Bob Boyle.

Extras

The bounteous extras, both old and new, are spread across two Blu-ray discs, with Blue Underground porting over all the bonus materials from their earlier release of the film. Most of the lead actors get their own brief interview featurette, either alone or in tandem, as do husband-and-wife co-writers Elisa Briganti and Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Salvati and a handful of special effects artists. They’re all listenable and informative, especially the interview with Briganti and Sacchetti. And the deleted scene is an extension of the bat-killing sequence, presented without any audio, and it adds precious little to the festivities.

For this limited edition, Blue Underground has inclued four major new supplements, including a predictably lively, informative, and often colorfully opinionated commentary track by Troy Howarth. The film historian makes a persuasive argument for The House by the Cemetery’s “poetic” qualities, especially when it comes to Fulci’s dynamic use of the 2.35:1 frame. In a Q&A from 2014 at the Spaghetti Cinema Film Festival, actress Catriona MacColl fields questions about her career, working with Fulci, and the afterlife of his films. Co-writer Giorgio Mariuzzo discusses his working relationship with Fulci. And author Stephen Thrower delves into the literary and cinematic influences on The House by the Cemetery, its place within Fulci’s filmography, and examines the shooting locations (with some enjoyable then-and-now snapshots). But the extras don’t stop there. Blue Underground truly pimp out their packaging with a 3D lenticular slipcase, an illustrated booklet with essay by Michael Gingold on the film and its legacy, and a CD disc that contains the entire Walter Rizzati score.

Overall

The House by the Cemetery remains prime real estate for horror film aficionados.

Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Carlo De Mejo, Lucio Fulci Director: Lucio Fulci Screenwriter: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci Distributor: Blue Underground Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: January 21, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Rian Johnson’s Neo-Noir Breakout Brick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino.

3.5

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Brick

Rian Johnson’s Brick places the hard-boiled pulp of noir into the mouths of first-wave millennials. The genre’s contradictory blend of laconicism and loquacity proves to be easily transposed to bright but aimless teenagers of the early aughts; a generation pumped full of antidepressants and amphetamines from childhood, these high schoolers add a narcotized, chemically addled variation of noir’s naturally numbed emotional tenor. The hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), could be called precocious if he weren’t so detached, as if Max Fischer got so deep into one of his fabricated roles that he got lost in it. Yet beneath his façade of hyper-cool right out of a Dashiell Hammett novel is a scared, baffled young man struggling to deal with the death of his drug-addicted ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin).

The film presents its Orange County high school setting as a cesspit of vice in which a host of addicted teens are manipulated by a group of popular kids and dope pushers. And right away it makes clear that one of Johnson’s great strengths is his keen ear for replicating the beats and intonations of classic pulp detective fiction. Cornered by a group of ne’er-do-wells, Brendan feistily spits, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Supporting characters speak such dialogue with a hard edge reflective of their types—femme fatale, stool pigeon, local hood—but Gordon-Levitt locates the pain simmering under the surface of Brendan’s flippant hostility, imbuing it with the confused pain of a young man dealing with death for the first time.

At its best, Johnson’s direction plays up noir tropes while reflecting that underlying pathos, as when he captures theater nerd and designated femme fatale Laura (Norah Zehetner), dressed in a bright red cheongsam that stands in sharp contrast to the more muted clothes of her peers, lit to seem like the only person in the room as Brendan stares at her. Likewise, later encounters with a heroin kingpin (Lukas Haas) find a perfect balance of the intimidating and farcical, regularly blanketing the young man in shadow while also undercutting his menace with a bright, static scene at his family table as his mom (Reedy Gibbs) serves him cookies.

Elsewhere, though, the showy tics that would go on to define Johnson’s early work can occasionally grate. Close-ups on various objects—a pair of shoes, a cigarette tossed out of a car onto asphalt—imbue the quotidian with menace, but to redundant effect. Likewise, in-camera effects garishly disrupt Brick’s measured pace with sudden, dissonant outbursts of violence that feel too self-consciously cool compared to the largely detached tenor of the film. Johnson would keep this overactive approach all the way through guest slots helming episodes of Breaking Bad, and to revisit Brick in the wake of his less antic, more cohesively stylized work on films like Looper and Knives Out is to see just how much he’s matured as a filmmaker.

Brick, in some ways, recalls the first films of Christopher Nolan, who likewise emerged as a maker of filmic puzzles and noir mystery updated for the 21st century. But where Nolan prefers to spring his surprises by withholding information, often to the point of narrative incoherence, Johnson likes to give sharp viewers enough clues for them to solve the case before the end. And for all the film’s literary brio and technical pizzazz, Brick shows a keen interest in character that always shines through the style, and an empathy for even the most debased of the blank-faced, directionless people who surround Brendan.

Image/Sound

Steve Yedlin’s cinematography mixes muted, naturalistic tones with sudden bursts of expressionistic color, and Kino’s Blu-ray superbly captures this contrast. Brendan’s sallow, shut-in complexion is so textured that it’s impossible to miss the physical toll his obsession takes on him, while bits of color like Laura’s dress and the bright colors of the theater kids’ dressing room pop from the tans and off-whites that surround it. The shadows that shroud the film’s second half are rendered with no visible crushing, and black levels are consistent throughout. The disc comes with audio in lossless 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround. Both mixes are crisp and well balanced, with the surround mix conjuring a more paranoid tone in its distribution of ambient effects across all channels.

Extras

Kino’s disc comes with an audio commentary with Rian Johnson, actors Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson offers the most consistent insights into the film, detailing his inspirations, writing and shooting methods, and more. By moderating the rotating guests on the track, he’s able to prevent overlap in their input. Johnson also introduces a collection of eight deleted and extended scenes. By his own admission, little was fully excised from the film, so most of the 20 minutes of footage consists of scenes in the final cut that last far longer, often adding little more than additional mood at the expense of the final cut’s pacing. Finally, footage from Zehetner and Segan’s audition tapes are included.

Overall

Rian Johnson’s debut feature receives an excellent home-video package from Kino, with a great A/V transfer that highlights the filmmaker’s aesthetic skills.

Cast: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin Director: Rian Johnson Screenwriter: Rian Johnson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Corbucci’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values.

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The Specialists
Photo: Kino Lorber

The landscapes of Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns—be they the isolating, snow-swept mountains of The Great Silence or the arid, dusty terrains of Django, The Hellbenders, and The Specialists—serve as brutally expressionistic backdrops to an Old West where concepts like justice, honor, and community are the things of folk tales. Greed and vengeance are the governing forces in these unforgiving cinematic worlds, where loyalty only goes as far as a dollar has bought it. Even the sanctity of the dead isn’t honored, with coffins serving as camouflage for Gatling guns in Django and a safeguard for counterfeit money in The Hellbenders. Corbucci’s vision of the West is a Darwinian hellscape of dog-eat-dog maneuvers, double crosses, and ruthless displays of violence. If his films border on nihilistic, it’s only because the Italian director’s portraits of bloodlust and insatiable cravings for money cut to the core of the true American frontier values that still reverberate in our culture today.

Early in The Hellbenders, Joseph Cotten’s Colonel Jonas, a Confederate soldier looking to fund a reboot of the just-ended Civil War, and four of his loyal soldiers murder an entire battalion of Union soldiers carrying half a million dollars that’s to be destroyed before new money can be printed. Following the slaughter, Jonas coolly walks up to his men, shoots the two who aren’t his blood relatives, and, with a fistful of bloody cash in his hand, gleefully states, “A fresh start, boys, a fresh start.” The myth of the West is typically propagated by tales of redemption, ingenuity, justice, and hard work, but Corbucci subverts that myth by presenting the notion of the “fresh start” offered by the American frontier as one which necessarily courts violence, greed, and theft. Money and land are the currencies in the land of opportunity and no amount of integrity and diligence can do as much to help get your hands on either as a bullet.

If family appears to be the sole unifying force in The Hellbenders, even that’s only for a spell, as there’s power in numbers when trying to navigate a coffin full of stolen cash through enemy territory. Where the coffin that Django’s protagonist drags around is cracked open to literally unleash a furious flurry of bullets, the one escorted by Jonas and his sons (Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, and Angel Aranda) in this film more insidiously cultivates violence through temptation, as its contents warp the minds of everyone who remains in its orbit. Money is the inexorable temptress, more pernicious than the devil himself. Late in the film, a drifter, responding to the question of where he’s from, says “From under a rock. That’s where they say we all begin, crawling out from underneath something.” Corbucci’s view of mankind is one where the rock has just been lifted and all the horrifying instincts of humanity are revealed.

The Specialists opens on a similar image of debasement, with a group of Mexican raiders throwing four men into a pit of mud followed by a dollar coin, with whoever retrieves the dollar remaining the sole survivor. In rides a mysterious man in black, Hud (Johnny Hallyday), to save the day, but as soon as the bandits are run out of Blackstone, we learn that the supposed hero isn’t welcome here either, as his brother was recently lynched for robbing the town’s bank. This time around, money isn’t in a coffin, but buried somewhere in Blackstone, yet its very presence has the same destabilizing effect on all of the townspeople.

Signifiers of civilized behavior abound in The Specialists, from the town’s pacifist Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) and seemingly upstanding banker, Virginia (Françoise Fabian). And along with the return of their stolen money, even the townsfolk seem to only want law and order. But while Hud and a one-armed Mexican bandit, El Diablo (Mario Adorf), appear as the likely villains, greed spreads like an airborne disease throughout the film, ultimately infecting the whole town with a callous sense of self-preservation.

As Corbucci masterfully navigates through a series of double-crosses, he strips away his characters’ veneers of civility, tolerance, and virtuousness to reveal the nasty impulses lurking beneath. When the filmmaker shows a group of proto-hippies forcing all of Blackstone’s citizens to strip at gunpoint and crawl in the dirt, it’s a stark condemnation not only of American greed and opportunism, but of the ways those evil, barbarous inclinations are often deceitfully couched in supposed pursuits of peace, justice, and social order.

Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders and The Specialists are now available on Blu-ray.

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Review: Fritz Lang’s House by the River on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

The film is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Lang’s canon.

3.5

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House by the River

“I hate this river,” says the nosy Mrs. Ambrose (Ann Shoemaker) as the tide of the water circles “that filth” (the carcass of a dead cow, it seems) around her house for what is probably the umpteenth time, to which her next-door neighbor, frustrated writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward), replies, “It’s people who should be blamed for the filth, not the river.” And with that Fritz Lang and screenwriter Mel Dinelli neatly unpack House by the River’s theme of moral responsibility a mere three minutes into the picture. This hand-holding is widespread in many of Lang’s later work (The Blue Gardenia and Clash by Night being the most egregious examples), but it’s the sort of thing that’s easily absolved given the many fascinating ways the filmmaker visually extended his themes.

Made in 1949 for Republic Pictures, House by the River not only shows its modest origins but the frustration of its maker. Lang wanted to cast a black woman in the role of Emily Gaunt (the part eventually went to Dorothy Patrick), the maid that Hayward’s character accidentally kills mere moments after trying to seduce her, but the suits at Republic recoiled at the idea. Ironically, the very fear of miscegenation that the director wanted to address—call it the elephant in America’s living room (or the one floating around its house)—frustrated his ambitions. Unable to subversively work a critique of America’s racial problems into the film’s fabric as he had done for Fury, Lang had to settle for building House by the River’s routine melodrama into a snappy commentary on moral depravity and eye-for-an-eye retribution.

Stephen convinces his brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him dump Emily’s body in the river outside his home. The man’s relief that his indiscretions—adultery and murder—appear as if they’ll go unpunished considerably strokes his ego, to the point that he begins to channel the whole affair into his latest unpublished novel. (Early in the film, Mrs. Ambrose advises that he make his stories “racy” and, later, some woman makes an off-the-cuff comment about writers doing their best work when they channel the truth.) But when Emily’s body floats to the surface and begins to circle the house that Stephen shares with his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), it’s not just the plot of his novel that thickens. It’s here that his moral crisis begins to take on new angles. The film’s 88 minutes aren’t nearly enough to sufficiently flesh them all out, or connect them in a truly meaningful way, but Lang’s visuals pick up some of the slack.

Lang too often tries to belie his low budget, which usually exposes his sham (he grafts what sounds like audio from a 100-person reception onto a nine-person party scene), and though he’s unable to give the logic by which the titular river circulates around Steven and Mrs. Ambrose’s house a truly expressive visual justification, it doesn’t matter given how splendidly he equates the river to a floating id of primitive, unconscious fears and desires. The director’s chiaroscuro imagery sinisterly evokes Stephen’s bourgeoning madness, from the parallels between Marjorie and Emily’s entrances in the film to the maddening links between Emily’s hair as it swivels in the water and the curtains inside Stephen and Marjorie’s house. Stephen gets his due, and when he does, Lang evokes it as a case of beyond-the-grave retribution. Mrs. Ambrose might say, “What comes around, goes around.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration significantly improves on their previous DVD in terms of clarity, depth, and contrast. There’s still a bit of murky flicker noticeable in some of the darker scenes, but, on the plus side, there’s also more information visible on all four edges of the frame throughout. The two-channel Master Audio mono mix cleanly delivers the dialogue and gives a resonant boost to George Antheil’s moody score.

Extras

The big new extra here is a commentary track from film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who begins by addressing the nature of Stephen’s assault on Emily, the film’s complicated take on sexual politics and sexual violence, and how it fits into the larger discourse of “rape culture.” She also delves into the film’s formal and thematic links to Fritz Lang’s larger body of work, and the ways in which House by the River straddles the borderline between noir and Gothic melodrama. There’s also an interview from 2005 with producer and film historian Pierre Rissient, who was largely responsible for resuscitating interest in House by the River, one of Lang’s lesser-known and at the time unavailable films. He describes hearing Lang verbally recreate the first 10 minutes of the film practically shot for shot, the effect it had on French New Wave filmmakers like Claude Chabrol, and the interesting connection he made when he finally tracked down the source material’s author in his Thames-side home.

Overall

Now looking better than ever, House by the River is a fascinating, bewitching, and hitherto largely neglected entry in Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Peter Brocco, Howland Chamberlain Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Mel Dinelli Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1950 Release Date: January 14, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China on Shout! Blu-ray

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

4

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Big Trouble in Little China

John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a relative outlier in the director’s poetically bleak filmography, a martial-arts adventure slash monster-comedy extravaganza that suggests an Indiana Jones movie that’s been mounted on a more intimate scale. Look deeper, though, and Big Trouble in Little China recalls the spirit of the work of Carpenter’s beloved Howard Hawks (who made the similarly uncharacteristic Land of the Pharaohs) in its obsession with a team unity that eclipses the efforts of any singular individual. Indiana Jones may have touches of erudition and the help of friends, but he’s unquestionably the man of action at any given moment, while this film’s Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is more of a wannabe, a truck driver with a John Wayne bluster who talks tough and has authentic courage, while having no clue what he’s doing.

An early scene in Big Trouble in Little China is perhaps purposefully misleading. Jack is in San Francisco’s Chinatown playing pai gow with a group of Chinese-Americans. Jack wins and takes their money, suggesting that he will be the cocksure American of the movies who’s at ease wherever he goes, besting people at their own rituals. This a warm and funny—read: Hawksian—scene in which we’re allowed to revel in the somewhat contentious energy of these men. One of the Chinese-Americans is something of a friend of Jack’s, Wang (Dennis Dun), who loses big to him in a double-or-nothing gambit. Then, Wang and Jack are swept into a bizarre quest in which the American is nearly rendered the sidekick, forcing him to get by mostly on nerve. The film is both a celebration and parody of macho American ego.

It’s amazing how loose and charming a screen adventure can be when filmmakers are willing to play around and deflate a hero’s pomposity, even if they ultimately enjoy it. Accompanying Wang to the airport, still hoping to get his money, Jack hits on a gorgeous woman, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and is promptly shot down for being drunk. When Chinese gangsters kidnap Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), at the airport, Jack faces the gangsters and gets his ass kicked (though he is out-armed and outnumbered). Later, a wise and benevolent old sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), delivers a bunch of exposition about Chinese black magic and the legacy of a demon named Lo Pan (James Hong), Jack says he feels like an outsider and everyone, especially Gracie, agrees. Eventually, Jack fires a machine gun into the air, finally feeling in his element, and sends a part of the ceiling crashing down on his head. And so on.

W.D. Richter’s screenplay abounds in clever one-liners that Carpenter skillfully under-emphasizes, while Russell, who’s played many un-ironic action heroes, embraces Jack’s foolishness with a lovely and graceful sense of abandon. In other words, Carpenter has it both ways: Jack is never more dashing than when crossing the master threshold of idiocy.

At the time of its release, critics complained that Big Trouble in Little China was neither an adventure, a comedy, nor a horror film, and that its characters were merely types, which is very much the point here. The stakes of the quest to rescue Miao Yin and Gracie from Lo Pan’s clutches are never high, as Carpenter is more interested in mounting a free-floating hang-out comedy that casually borrows from many genres, effectively announcing his ability to do whatever he pleases—a cocky sensibility that would influence future genre mix-masters.

Big Trouble in Little China often suggests a feature-length version of those idle moments in Hawks’s adventures, such as when Ricky Nelson’s character sang a song in Rio Bravo, only with the flippancy turned way up. The monsters and special effects are charmingly jokey—far more charming than those of Ivan Reitman’s similarly spirited Ghostbusters—and Carpenter’s beautiful widescreen compositions often liken the creatures to those of a spooky amusement-park ride, banishing them to nooks and crannies that presumably hide their puppeteers. Meanwhile, the martial-arts battles are funny, poignant, and concise, as Carpenter emphasizes singular gestures, such as an air-born swordfight, allowing them to cumulatively suggest stanzas in a poem. In its sense of controlled chaos, Big Trouble in Little China distinguishes itself from the figurative madness of the films of, say, Tsui Hark.

Despite the half-drunk, what-the-hell atmosphere, the humans in Big Trouble in Little China do register, which prevents this film from being as meaningless as genre pastiche-parodies like Stephen Sommers’s Mummy installments. Russell, with his gloriously cuckoo timing and absurd tank top, is the center of the narrative, but Dun, Cattrall, Pai, Li, and Wong have a poignant agency as well as an intergroup chemistry, and Hong wisely plays his role straight as a counterpoint to Russell. Lo Pan is an authentically elegant and frightening villain, whether mocking the heroes as an old man or hovering malevolently through his subterranean lair as an albino phantom warrior. And his exit, cleverly foreshadowed by an early scene between Jack and Wang, is both jolting and amusing, which is essentially this strange lark in a nutshell.

Image/Sound

The image here has a painterly quality that’s in keeping with John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey’s intentions. Colors have a soft, almost watercolor quality and occasionally explode off the screen, such as the reds and greens of the various tiers of Lo Pan’s subterranean lair. Facial textures are quite detailed, such as the make-up for Kim Cattrall’s character when she’s fashioned as a bride for Lo Pan. There are two soundtracks: a 5.1 and 2.0. The mixes are clear but occasionally sound a little flat in terms of diegetic effects, though the score is robust and nuanced, allowing Carpenter’s fans to savor his synth collaboration with Alan Howarth. Overall, this is an appealing transfer, but it doesn’t quite feel definitive.

Extras

The new interviews are the highlight of this loaded supplements package, and they follow two overlapping thematic strands. On one hand, the interviews with virtually every person involved on Big Trouble in Little China offer a relatively full portrait of the film’s making (notably missing are the female actors), detailing how Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein’s original period western script was revised by co-screenwriter W.D. Richter to take place in the present day, and how Carpenter eventually took on directing duties, hiring friends and former collaborators such as Kurt Russell, second-unit director Tommy Lee Wallace, and Nick Castle, who played Michael Meyers in Halloween and helped perform with Carpenter and Wallace the theme song for Big Trouble in Little China.

Throughout these interviews, Carpenter is portrayed as a low-key man of many talents who knows how to command a set, and who feels the film’s comedy was misunderstood by the studio and initially the audience alike. The other strand, more poignantly, details the working experiences of the Asian actors in the cast, including Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, and Peter Kwong, who offer similar stories of combating Hollywood stereotypes and turning to acting as children as a way to fit into a Caucasian society.

There are also three audio commentaries, an archive one with Russell and Carpenter that’s a good informal listen, and two new tracks with producer Larry Franco and special effects artist Steve Johnson, respectively, that offer even more context on the film’s creation. All sorts of other goodies round out a superb set, including photo galleries, stills galleries, and a feature on the film’s various posters and lobby cards. This package is a treasure trove for fans of Big Trouble in Little China, especially for Carpenter acolytes.

Overall

The cast and crew interviews are the star of this Shout! Factory disc, elaborating on the making of a misunderstood cult classic.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, Suzee Pai, Chao Li Chi, James Pax, Jeff Imada, Craig Ng Director: John Carpenter Screenwriter: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1986 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World on Criterion Blu-ray

The film remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

4

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Until the End of the World

Wim Wenders’s 287-minute sci-fi adventure Until the End of the World has the peculiar quality of being simultaneously elliptical and meticulously plotted. Though the 1991 film features no shortage of contemplative shots of futuristic vistas, both real and virtual, and exhibits an aversion to easy action-flick thrills, the narrative has all the intricacy one would expect of a cyberpunkian tale about the chase for stolen, mind-altering technology. Despite the story’s novelistic girth, most scenes wind up being indispensable both to the plot and to the film’s portrait of a specific, detailed milieu. Which is to say that the whole is akin to a good novel—a comparison that Wenders would likely appreciate, given that his prescient allegory of the postmodern condition ends up, somewhat paradoxically, propounding the virtues of words over images.

The pronouncement in favor of written language is uttered in Until the End of the World by the narrator character, Eugene (Sam Neill), as a kind of conclusion, after he’s witnessed the abyssal attraction that the digital image holds for his ex-girlfriend, Claire (Solveig Dommartin, who co-authored the film’s story), and the new object of her affection, Sam (William Hurt). Enthralled by a head-mounted camera invented by Sam’s father (Max von Sydow) that can read brainwaves—and, as it turns out, convert dreams into digital imagery—the two become obsessed by the potential of reading their unconscious mind’s nocturnal creations.

The images the device draws, presented in full frame in a few boldly experimental sequences, are multifarious, amorphous, and rapturously beautiful. Digital artifacts and posterizations, as a form of auto-animation, appear to imbue the images themselves with life, even as such imperfections obscure the objects actually depicted. These obscure but teeming visions compel Sam and Claire’s intense engagement, and in what’s perhaps the most clear-sighted prediction of the life in digitized society in a film chock-full of them, Wenders has his two principal characters spend much of the final act staring passively into digital devices, oblivious to the glowing orange-red vistas of the Australian Outback they wander through.

Set in 1999, Until the End of the World predicts with striking accuracy such turn-of-the-millennium devices as digital assistants, search engines, and consumer GPS navigation. The social order in which these objects are embedded also isn’t far off the mark. The film’s first half is a road trip through a globalized world auguring a post-Berlin Wall order that bears more than a passing likeness to our own: East Berlin glows with the neon of renewed capital investment; in the Soviet Union, espionage has been privatized; and San Francisco bears witness to the extreme income disparity wrought by the latter years of the Pax Americana.

The road trip that will end in the dreamland of Australia is kickstarted—though without the urgency the metaphor implies—when Claire turns off a French highway to avoid a traffic jam. This detour eventually brings her into contact with Sam, the trench-coat-clad, fedora-topped fugitive whose air of extralegal mystery and neo-noir cool draws Claire to him well before the film reveals its technological MacGuffin. As Sam, Hurt is a bit stiff, as if, like Claire, he’s unclear exactly who Sam is supposed to be—which works, to a degree, in the film’s first half, as the man has turned himself into a neutral medium, a recording device. It will eventually turn out that Sam has stolen his father’s experimental brain camera to collect images of the world that can now be conveyed directly to the visual cortex of his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau).

Wenders grounds Claire’s sudden and intense attraction to the apparent criminal by having Eugene’s detached voiceover narration describe Claire as flighty and adventurous. Such haphazard characterization is a hallmark of Until the End of the World: Wenders consistently proves less interested in a deep dive into the romantic triangle tying together Claire, Sam, and Eugene than he is in an exploration of the image-saturated milieus of the near future, with their omnipresent screens and glowing neon. He underlines the oneiric artificiality of these millennial environments with an expansive and justly renowned soundtrack—featuring songs by the Talking Heads, R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, and U2—that was more successful than the film itself upon release. That Until the End of the World at times comes off as the world’s longest music video arguably suits its project, as to ‘90s intellectuals there was no aesthetic more symptomatic of the forthcoming descent into visual oblivion as that of MTV.

Like Sam’s project, Until the End of the World is itself a compendium of images, with overt allusions to Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu, and, somewhat randomly, Johannes Vermeer. Not to mention Wenders’s own previous films: The director’s use of the road as means of contemplating the gulf between image and experience recalls Alice in the Cities and his American breakout, Paris, Texas. If the meat of the film—the envelopment of the protagonists’ consciousnesses, as well as our own, in the chameleonic digital image, the tempting escape into virtuality—doesn’t come until rather late into the film’s 287-minute running time, it’s because Wenders first sets himself the gargantuan task of summarizing the state of the cinematic image at the moment of its eclipse. His film, well at home with the science fiction of its era, suggests that a shift in our means of apprehending the real is also an alteration of reality—the end, one could somewhat extravagantly claim, of the world itself.

Image/Sound

The new transfer of the film reveals cinematographer Robby Müller’s strikingly bright but deeply hued color palette in all its glory, from the saturated reds of the futuristic Kiev train station, to the lush greens of the Japanese countryside, to the dusty gray of bougie-bohemian Parisian apartment buildings. Wim Wenders, who oversaw the film’s restoration, makes best use of the remastered 5.1 soundtrack during the music sequences, using the more robust mix to create a greater sense of envelopment. By comparison, the film’s environmental sounds and dialogue are mixed flatly, but given how frequently songs appear under scenes, the disc assures an aural experience that’s overall on par with its visual one.

Extras

With this double-disc Blu-ray, Criterion offers an expansive but well-curated selection of extras organized around a few through lines. First, and lending itself to a certain auteur-worshipping romanticism, is the production history of the full Until the End of the World cut, which came in at the current length of 287 minutes. The film’s producers demanded severe edits, forcing Wim Wenders and editor Peter Przygodda to reduce the running time to 158 minutes. Wenders’s efforts to save his original vision are detailed in Bilge Ebiri’s illuminating booklet essay, a prolix title card that runs before the film, and in the filmmaker’s introduction for this Criterion release, as well as in an interview from German television from around the release of the director’s cut to German DVD in 2001.

Then there’s the film’s experimental use of digital video, so we get 1990 special from Japanese television featuring Wenders working on the pioneering digital footage shot for the film in Sony’s Tokyo-based labs. And finally there’s the hit soundtrack, so we get an additional booklet essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, adapted from a longer (and highly recommended) piece from The A.V. Club, that celebrates the unabashed hipness of Wenders’s musical taste, and a documentary about the recording of Nick Cave’s “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World” that provides fascinating glimpses of Berlin immediately after the fall of the wall. A bit out of place are a series of “deleted scenes” that are really 20 minutes of extended scenes and B roll.

Overall

A film at once hip, quirky, and serious-minded, Until the End of the World remains a hypnotic yet foreboding look at how the proliferation of images and media technology affect the mind.

Cast: William Hurt, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neill, Max von Sydow, Rüdiger Volger, Ernie Dingo, Jeanne Moreau, Chick Ortega, Elena Smirnova, Eddy Mitchell, Chishu Ryu, Allen Garfield, Lois Chiles, Kuniko Miyake Director: Wim Wenders Screenwriter: Peter Carey, Wim Wenders Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 287 min Rating: R Year: 1991 Release Date: December 17, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: George Cukor’s Holiday on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release stands tall as what one, specific genius of the medium was able to do with a fair-to-middling play.

5

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Holiday

George Cukor’s 1938 masterpiece Holiday seems to have emerged from a happy and completely natural accord between talent and circumstances. Peel back a few layers and, like many established classics of Hollywood’s classical period, the truth is strange, and not at all neat.

The basic outline of the story is a wrinkle on the old conflict between restless, proto-hippie, free-spirit types and the maw of American aristocracy that threatens to devour them. Johnny Case (Cary Grant), having emerged from blue-collar stock and engineered an untenable balance between the shrewdly ambitious and the purposefully lackadaisical, has found himself engaged to be married into one of the richest old-money families in the country, the Setons. The family estate gives the film the perfect opportunity to indicate unfathomable American wealth, a yawning fortress tucked into the row of 5th Avenue’s Gilded Age townhouses. Holiday exploits the opportunity for all its tactile pleasures, almost unto itself grounding the fulcrum of its drama: The palace is a mausoleum, sure, but it’s also a very, very nice mausoleum—an architectural and interior design honey trap of the highest order.

These battle lines intersect within Johnny’s very soul, and his outward, competing angels are made manifest in his fiancée, Julia (Doris Nolan), and her sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Julia is a deluxe wife in training, more than prepared for a life of meticulously managed leisure earned by the industry of Johnny’s business acumen. Linda, at the other end of the spectrum, is frequently charged with childishness, but it’s better to say that she dreams of actualizing a child’s pleasure long past the demarcation of adulthood. The prospect of marriage to Julia doesn’t come across as unappealing, but, serendipitously, and with some delayed reaction, Johnny and Linda provoke in each other a latent tendency to peaceful disobedience.

The very nature of the story’s pronounced dichotomy all but expressly circumscribes a path to victory for the free spirits, while the film’s romantic-comedy side implies a dual victory, a rhyming one, wherein the couple the audience was hoping for from the outset unites as the final music rises and Holiday blissfully fades out. A director and cast need not be especially clever or energetic to carry this tidy narrative to term, as Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 film Holiday—the first to bring Philip Barry’s play to the screen—amply demonstrates, but the ways that Cukor distinguishes his adaptation are self-evident.

The simplest way to explain the Cukor effect is by way of infusion, on a single, spectacular, and crucial set: Linda’s playroom. Already a visual and spatial centerpiece of the play, it’s transformed here into a Cukorian dynamo, a zone of thrilling provocation and mystery not to be found anywhere else in pictures. As a concept, it’s merely “important,” a crucial apparatus to put asunder the Setons’ pretty mausoleum and the far more animated life of Linda’s mind.

To be clear, the playroom would be a boon even to the most mediocre talent. In Cukor’s hands, it becomes a living space, a key component to the director’s entire vision. The ostensible “nonconformity versus responsibility” drama, while served dutifully, takes second seat behind a much larger artwork that breathes through its actors, and pushes energy currents through different rooms, and the meaning imbued by the dreams and plans projected therein.

Setting aside for a moment that Cukor was the one director cherished most by prestige-hungry moguls like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, or that he would sustain what seemed to be an indefatigable commitment to picture-making for five very busy decades, Cukor’s ingenuity had a lot to do with being someone who could apparently do it all. And as he would prove time and again, his polyvalent set of talents were crucial not only during the transition from one project to another (famously, at this point, he was already ramping up pre-production on Gone With the Wind, for Selznick), but in uniting the disparate elements of one project.

This kind of talent wasn’t mislaid when Cukor directed Holiday, as the project wasn’t entirely without potential pitfalls. Barry’s play often goads directors to make sure things resonate all the way to the nosebleed seats, with such bald enticements for audience goodwill as Linda hollering, “Oh, someone please, try and stop me!” A not-insignificant portion of the material depends on champagne-flute-shattering high notes like this, and Cukor is too shrewd a popular entertainer to declare himself an enemy of such gambits.

Other thorny matters include Grant’s performance. Hard as it may be for us to believe, while there could be no doubt that Grant was a lead actor by 1937 and 1938, it remained evident that the studios still weren’t entirely sure who he was or what he could do. That uncertainty somehow both feeds the dilemma that is Johnny and threatens to render it into a flattened absurdity all at the same time. Grant was an icon of impeccable style and poise, as well as the greatest dancer in non-musical cinema after Buster Keaton. His efforts early in Holiday to evince both romantic charm and devil-may-care absent-mindedness, with intimations of some deeper register of antisocial angst, are as strained as that cocktail of character traits sounds. A lock of unruly hair that falls across his forehead is made to work harder than it ought to, in order to sell Johnny as a nincompoop suffering from chronic distraction who nevertheless would bring home a rich fiancée during a casual skiing excursion.

Cukor—and Grant—make it abundantly clear that they don’t see Johnny as a problem that’s meant to be solved. Crucially, these early scenes are funny and evocative and have certain earmarks of Cukorian dexterity—a slight compression of scene choreography so that exposition and stagecraft resemble a strange game of undisclosed rules; a sprinkling of absurd non sequiturs intended only to be half-heard, not unlike the ones in Howard Hawks pictures.

Further, Johnny’s flightiness is sublimated to Linda, and, to a lesser (but still oddly moving) degree, Lew Ayres’s junior Seton man of the house, Ned. Ever after, threats of strained seriousness are either attacked or ignored, not only by Cukor or his highly adept screenwriters, Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but by a robust esprit de corps that’s the result of a cast and crew brought together under the charge that no job is too small or thorny conceptual wrinkle too big. It’s this unity that lends Holiday its glow, its larger-than-life-ness, which is larger even than a star picture led by Hepburn and Grant That it’s also very funny, highly empathetic even to the losing side of its love arithmetic, and, in its way, an unspeakably sad elegy for the kind of privileged rebellion only possible in Hollywood pictures, it’s just the right kind of explosive ordnance you should aim directly at your heart, and fire.

Image/Sound

If the best black-and-white cinema from the 1930s had a reputation for being the silvery shimmer of dreamscapes, part of that was thanks to George Cukor’s impeccable aesthetic sense; you need only flip through a few random shots from Camille, Dinner at Eight, and Romeo and Juliet for evidence. Holiday is a little bit of a different kettle of fish, as oneiric visions of swooning romance just aren’t on the menu here. Rather, the countless images of patrician elegance, needing to suggest the very best that the very fattest stacks of Upper East Side cash could buy, needs to be positioned as the obverse side—but not alien to—the cockeyed snap of Linda’s playroom, a more deeply intimate cut into the flesh of American dreaming.

Under Cukor, Franz Planer’s monochrome cinematography is expertly tuned to every nuance, without undue exuberance, from the Setons’ cavernous antechambers to the cozy bookshelves in the background of the playroom. The new 4K restoration of Holiday honors the sophisticated lighting and compositions of Planer and Cukor’s design, helping to bring under one, smooth draught of Columbia monochrome, one of the deceptively light odes to the bittersweetness of ephemeral love and desire ever to emerge from that studio or any other.

That’s not to say that the soundtrack is relegated to backup. In a scene that’s by all reasonable metrics the heart of Holiday, Johnny and Linda look out over the New Years’ Eve revelers on the Seton lawn, happenstance making the celebration a private one for just these two. The soundtrack keeps the background rumble low, far-off sounding, yet perfectly clear, the better to steal a kiss, even more the better to demur an illicit romantic overture. In a Cukor picture where the quietest asides mean the most, the Blu-ray’s attention to the nuances of each layer of sound are no less significant than the picture, and Criterion’s uncompressed monaural track for the 4K restoration must be acquitted on all charges, by any jury in the world.

Extras

There’s a line from Cukor’s 1952 film Pat and Mike that I’ve been looking for an excuse to use in a review for quite a long time: “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is ‘cherce’.” Such is what Criterion has given us on the Holiday disc for supplements. Not to discount too steeply the value in the videotaped conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger, or the vintage audio clips of Cukor discussing Holiday, but the real prize hog on the disc is Edward H. Griffith’s 1930 adaptation of the Philip Barry play.

The 1930 Holiday, which earned Ann Harding her only Oscar nomination, is perfectly dreadful in ways only prestige adaptations of theatrical properties can be, within that volatile period when talking pictures were the newest wonders offered by technology. Griffith’s direction is honor-bound and correct, if you will only evaluate the film as a means to convey the Barry play to cinema audiences who happen to need some coaxing to believe that actors can enunciate their lines, and be heard, in the same instance—the magic of the movies.

Otherwise, the film is as laborious and punishing as one might expect; in particular, Robert Ames’s Johnny Case is totally unconvincing. Ames, who, sadly, would exit this life in 1931 by way of acute alcoholism, makes a totally neutral Johnny—dutifully amplifying dialogue requiring emphasis but never for an instance suggesting an agent of liberation, for himself or anyone else. Elsewhere, Griffith’s direction is strictly without urgency, pushing the actors (leading the charge, as she often would, was the grand Mary Astor) only to hit their taped marks and speak with correct diction into microphones hidden in ornate vases.

Overall

Never mind the box sets: Here’s a slender, yet unquestionably crucial, presentation of one of the greatest films to emerge from any decade of American cinema, without qualification.

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Jean Dixon, Henry Daniell Director: George Cukor Screenwriter: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1938 Release Date: January 7, 2020 Buy: Video

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Review: Richard Fleischer’s Trapped on Flicker Alley Blu-ray

This transfer of Fleischer’s B-film cheapie boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels.

4

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Trapped

Before going on to direct such disparate genre fare as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Soylent Green, and Tora, Tora, Tora, Richard Fleischer cut his teeth directing B noirs at RKO Pictures, culminating in the 1952 classic The Narrow Margin. With 1949’s Trapped, Fleischer was loaned out as a hired gun for the Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion Films—known primarily for producing the first four collaborations between Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton—where he was left to work his magic on an even more miniscule budget and a shooting schedule so tight, it could turn coal into a diamond.

Lacking any semblance of polished studio sheen, Trapped spins a gritty, no-nonsense yarn about a ruthless counterfeiter, Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges), who’s sprung from jail by the Treasury Department and tasked with hunting down his old counterfeiting plates, which are being used, after a three-year hiatus, to print fresh batches of dough. Despite working within the extreme budgetary limitations of the bargain-basement B film, Fleischer flashes some surprisingly adroit camerawork throughout, as well as an acute sense of composition that’s most prominent in the thrilling climactic sequence set in an empty trolley car station.

The characters also accrue a surprising complexity throughout, as high tensions arise from the conflicts between their aspirations and realities. Not only does Tris play both sides of the law once he’s back on the streets, but his girlfriend, Meg (Barbara Payton), is stuck working as a cigarette girl under the alias of Laurie Fredericks as she hides out from the cops. Even the seedy guy, John Downey (John Hoyt), who’s been keeping Laurie company at the club while Tris is behind bars has been working a long con as one of the numerous T-Men on hand to ensure Tris leads the way to the elusive and invaluable plates. Struggling with the challenges of balancing these dual identities, these characters’ frequently dicey attempts to play both sides of the law effectively blur the thin line between good and evil.

Trapped borrows liberally from earlier Poverty Row successes and relies on an intermittent docudrama aesthetic to lend an immediacy and authenticity to its drama. Despite being obviously indebted to T-Men, Trapped sets itself apart from Anthony Mann’s film with a series of elaborately conceived double-crossings and a brutally violent streak that Bridges, already warming up for his equally maniacal performance in Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury the following year, carries through the film’s first hour until his abrupt and unceremonious exit.

Tris’s quick temper and savage thirst for trouble enlivens nearly every scene he’s in. And each of the fights he’s involved in—three with T-Men and one with a former partner he roughs up just for the hell of it—play out with an exhilarating rawness as men awkwardly flail about, their every punch and kick carrying conveying a manic sense of desperation. Although the narrative’s seams begin to reveal themselves toward the end (with such details as Tris’s absence from the film’s final 15 minutes seeming less intentional than a byproduct of a script rushed into production), Fleischer and Bridges’s work gives Trapped a terse vitality that propels it through its duller, less inspired passages.

Image/Sound

Soon after its release, Trapped was, like most Poverty Row films, thoughtlessly condemned to the murky waters of the public domain, where it could only be seen in extremely poor quality. Following the recent discovery of a 35mm acetate print of Richard Fleischer’s film, the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive went to work on producing the beautiful restoration available here. Flicker Alley’s transfer boasts a crisp image and strong contrast levels, effectively restoring the rich details of the film’s location shooting. Slight signs of dirt and debris still remain, but these minor imperfections do little to hamper just how good the image looks here. The audio is quite impressive as well, with a nicely balanced mix, clean dialogue, and a complete absence of hisses and pops.

Extras

Per usual with their Blu-ray releases of new restorations, Flicker Alley has included an informative and engaging commentary track, this time with author Alan K. Rode and film historian Julie Kirgo. The two have a charming repartee, and their affection for Trapped and many of the oft-forgotten noir cheapies churned out on Poverty Row comes through loud and clear. Along with providing ample historical background about Eagle-Lion Films, particularly head producer Bryan Foy’s legendary cutthroat cheapness and efficiency, Rode and Kirgo ably traverse Bridges and Fleischer’s careers, as well as the tragic life of actress Barbara Payton. The package also includes two featurettes—one which touches upon the film’s Los Angeles location shooting and Fleischer’s lean, economical style, and another that explores Fleischer’s rise from B-film obscurity to a dependable major studio director—as well as a 24-page booklet with storyboards and artwork from the film and brief bios of its major cast and crew.

Overall

Flicker Alley’s fantastic Blu-ray release gives Richard Fleischer’s B-film cheapie the tender, loving care typically afforded only to major studio fare or canonical classics.

Cast: Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd, Russ Conway, Robert Karnes, Robert Carson Director: Richard Fleischer Screenwriter: Earl Felton, George Zuckerman Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: December 31, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Schrader’s lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant.

4

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Blue Collar

Audiences familiar with Paul Schrader’s customarily austere aesthetic may be surprised by the jocularity of his 1978 directorial debut, Blue Collar. Following three broke auto workers living in Detroit, the film has long passages of wittily profane, seemingly improvisatory dialogue that reveals the day-to-day tempo of the men’s lives, suggesting the scenes between the various cab drivers in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote. One particularly audacious comic sequence sees Schrader expressing his characters’ desperation and poverty in a series of comic twists so evocatively absurd, sad, and politically enraged that they suggest a Buñuel set piece. Zeke (Richard Pryor), the angriest of the men, has been caught lying about the amount of children he has to the I.R.S., and so his wife, Caroline (Chip Fields) runs over to a neighbor’s house to grab more kids while he stalls an agent (Leonard Gaines). Riffing wildly, Zeke tries to tell the agent that his extra children have names such as Jim Brown and Sugar Ray. This sort of scene can scarcely be found in many of Schrader’s most famous films as director, and such playfulness was leeched entirely of his next directorial effort, the solemn, deadening Hardcore.

This liveliness, this tonal variety, is shrewdly utilized by Schrader as a form of misdirection. Blue Collar is driven by a tragic thesis, and it’s as bleak and furious as any film Schrader has made since, but it takes its time and allows you to get your guard down. There’s even a genre hook, which Schrader casually subverts. Zeke and his co-workers and drinking buddies, Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), fed up with being exploited by the auto plant and their union, decide to rob the latter’s office. In a conventional film, even one with political ambitions, such a heist would generate thrills. For Schrader, the robbery is a banal, dryly funny spectacle—a humdrum extension of the trio’s frustrating lives. They come away with nearly nothing and inadvertently benefit the union, which lies about its losses for insurance money. This failure splinters the men, and this dissolution is what truly interests Schrader.

In most heist movies, criminals fall out over the ill-gotten booty. In Blue Collar, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are driven apart because they are expertly manipulated by larger social forces. The union turns the men against one another in order to nullify the threat of their potential unrest—a theme that couldn’t be more timely in an age in which we’re conditioned to despise one another for our political affiliations while monopolies are forged and vast quantities of money are controlled by fewer and fewer essential oligarchs. Yet Schrader, with his sense of comedy, with his innate grasp of the working-class textures of his characters’ lives, never renders this theme into a dull sermon. Blue Collar is a surprising and emotionally robust experience.

Pryor, Kotto, and Keitel have a profoundly convincing chemistry, and Schrader modulates their performances with a confidence that would be impressive for anyone, let alone a first-time director. We’re always keyed into each man’s specific energy, and to how those energies coalesce when they’re together. Zeke is a livewire hothead, which allows Pryor to tap the same performative demons he channeled for stand-up, but Pryor’s performance doesn’t represent a mere change of setting, as his acting is a true, volatile expression of Zeke’s bitterness, which is channeled, via the character and the actor’s intelligence, into conversational riffs that suggest the “stand-up” of everyone’s regular lives. Kotto invests Smokey with a simmering, subtler intensity, while Keitel embodies the anxiety of the comparatively straight rational man—the odd man out among eccentrics in an extraordinary series of situations. (Schrader and the cast also understand these various dynamics to be informed by racial tension: Zeke and Smokey are African-American and Jerry is Caucasian, a difference in perspective and station that isn’t outwardly acknowledged until a devastating late scene between Zeke and Jerry.)

Blue Collar also features one of Schrader’s finest and most disturbing set pieces, in which his themes are expressed through a series of piercing physical gestures. Smokey is murdered by the union for his involvement in the theft, and he’s locked into a chamber where cars are spray-painted, with the fumes of the paint gradually suffocating and poisoning him. This is a wrenchingly protracted scene, showing Smokey as the life is gradually snuffed out of him, his struggles coming to nothing and drowned out by the chilling drone of the spray-paint apparatus. Schrader’s awareness of the finest details, especially the sound of the spraying of the paint, give this scene an uncanny, almost supernatural sense of cruelty, as Smokey comes to embody every person that every company has matter-of-factly annihilated.

Image/Sound

This transfer offers a clean, detailed, appropriately gritty image. Skin textures are vivid, as one can see the men sweating as they labor in the auto plant, and colors are lively, especially the silver of the chrome in the plant, which gleams with a white heat, testifying to the extremity of the working conditions. The sound mix is well balanced with a few show-pony qualities, such as the exhilaratingly rendered strings of Jack Nitzsche’s Bo Diddley-inspired score.

Extras

The archive audio commentary by writer-director Paul Schrader and journalist Maitland McDonagh is a detailed and fascinating listen, especially for Schrader’s descriptions of working with his famously contentious leading men. Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel all worked differently and all resented one another, and Schrader felt that he had no control and was merely trying to “survive” the production. (Given this context, the amount of control that’s evident in the film is all the more remarkable.) Pryor would come into a scene hot from the first take and would soon flame out, while Keitel needed to warm up, so Schrader was often shooting Pryor’s first take and Keitel’s, say, 10th, which was achieved by having Keitel rehearse separately. Pryor had racial resentments, and would provoke his co-stars, possibly to stimulate himself artistically, while every actor suspected the other to be the true star of the production. These conditions informed the formal qualities of Blue Collar as well, as the camera rarely moves, mostly because Schrader had trouble getting coverage. (Austere camera movements would soon become a signature of his aesthetic.) Interestingly enough, Pryor eventually said that he wanted Schrader to make a movie about his life, claiming he was the only director who understood him. This commentary is the only supplement on this disc, but it offers a rich glimpse into a film that deserves more attention.

Overall

Paul Schrader’s lively and despairing first film as director has never been more relevant, and this disc should hopefully lift it from undeserved semi-obscurity.

Cast: Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, Ed Begley Jr., Harry Bellaver, George Memmoli, Lucy Saroyan, Lane Smith, Cliff DeYoung, Borah Silver, Chip Fields, Leonard Gaines Director: Paul Schrader Screenwriter: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: December 10, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Sinister

Taking a cue from the Wally Pfister Academy of Gloomy Cinematography, Sinister is a film about shadows.

2.0

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Sinister
Photo: Summit Entertainment

Desperate for another New York Times bestseller after his mega-successful, police-incriminating Kentucky Blood, and in search of morbid inspiration, true-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke, his trademark highfalutin’, neurotic superego on full display) moves his wife and two children into a ranch house where a gruesome family hanging recently took place. Suitably clothed in a Bennington College T-shirt and elbow-patched sweater, with glasses dangling around his neck, Ellison, the royalties from his one bit hit waning along with his family’s patience, finds it apt to keep the truth of their new, bargain-priced home a secret—only alluding to the fact that the murders occurred in the same town. A barrage of past and present exposition floods the film’s first act, and amid a conversation regarding the very recent murders that Ellison is researching, Ellison’s wife, Tracy (stage actress Juliet Rylance), shouts, “I don’t want to hear why we’re here again from anybody,” and it’s hard to disagree.

After the unpacking of boxes, as well as blatant familial and professional baggage, Ellison wanders up to the attic and discovers a single metal crate containing Super 8 reels and a projector. Locked in his office, Ellison fires up the machine and allows the fascinatingly gruesome films to wash over him, both excited by the secret evidence for his nascent novel and disturbed by the imagery (in the process, downing tumblers of whiskey). These films are worthy of obsession as director Scott Derrickson employs within them the now-typical language of jump cuts and static soundscapes to genuinely chilling effect.

But Sinister, which often feeds off clever ways to trail the viewers’ eye to a startling moment of sudden dread, is unable to take advantage of its adept use of found footage in relation to the anemic moral dilemma Derrickson tries to derive depth from—or from the haunted house-style booby traps Ellison occasionally experiences. Even the family dynamic is boilerplate horror: The wife is capital-L loyal, the son is prone to somnambulistic night terrors, and the daughter is a precocious Picasso. With Ellison’s decision to keep the videos from the authorities, despite multiple bumps in the night as a consequence of his film-viewing, Derrickson attempts to capture a flimsy Capote-esque quandary of a writer putting himself and others in danger in order to claim fame (at one point, Ellison even exclaims that the story he’s following could be his In Cold Blood).

Taking a cue from the Wally Pfister Academy of Gloomy Cinematography, Sinister is a film about shadows: the resonance of past tragedies, the reflection on a may-be-bygone career, even the way Ellison never flips on a light switch when anxiously following the strange noises in his house at night. Ellison’s fascination with—and thorough usage and manipulation of—celluloid to solve a crime recalls Antonioni’s Blowup and De Palma’s Blow Out, but Derrickson is unable to conjure an aura that isn’t as transparent and weightless as a ghost. The film apprehends the significance of indelible imagery, and yet leads to a conclusion of uninspired images that undermine the suggestive, sublime visuals seen in the found footage. Due to the powerful light of acutely gruesome and evocative images from the flickering Super 8 projector, the tension-flattening house screeches, and even creakier themes, remain overshadowed.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D'Addario, Clare Foley Director: Scott Derrickson Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2012 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Not only has the new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, never once has a Star Wars film won an award for its sound effects, not even the first one (that year, a special award was given to Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

Tags: Academy Awards, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker, Thomas Newman, 1917, Alexandre Desplat, Little Women, Randy Newman, Marriage Story, John Williams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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Review: Dolittle, Like Its Animals, Is Flashy but Dead Behind the Eyes

Dolittle’s inability to completely develop any of its characters reduces the film to all pomp and no circumstance.

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Dolittle
Photo: Universal Pictures

Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle begins with a just-shy-of-saccharine animated sequence that spins the tale of the eponymous character’s (Robert Downey Jr.) adventures with his wife, who one day dies at sea during a solo voyage. It’s something of a more condensed, less moving version of the prologue to Pixar’s Up, underscoring our protagonist’s upcoming fantastical journey on behalf of Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) with a tinge of melancholy.

As soon as the film shifts to live action, we immediately sense the loss felt by Dolittle in the overgrown vines and shrubbery that surround the famed doctor and veterinarian’s estate, as well as in his unkempt appearance. But any hopes that the film might follow through on its promise to explore Dolittle’s emotional turmoil are quickly dashed once he begins interacting with the animal friends who keep him company. Their banter is ceaseless and mostly ranges from corny and tiresome to downright baffling, as evidenced by a pun referencing Chris Tucker in Rush Hour that may leave you wondering who the target is for half of the film’s jokes.

The tenderness of Dolittle’s prologue does resurface sporadically across the film, most memorably in a late scene where the good doctor shares the pain of losing a spouse with a fierce dragon that’s also enduring a similar grief. But just as the film seems primed to say something profound about the nature of loss, Dolittle shoves his hand into the dragon’s backside—with her permission of course—in order to extract a bagpipe and an array of armor, leading the fiery beast to unleash a long, loud fart right into the doctor’s face.

That moment is crass, juvenile, and, above all, cheap in its cynical undercutting of one of Dolittle’s rare moments of vulnerability. But it serves as a ripe metaphor for the filmmakers’ incessant need to respond to a show of earnestness with a dollop of inanity, as if believing that their young audience can’t handle anything remotely sincere without a chaser of flatulence.

But worse than the film’s failure to truly probe Dolittle’s emotional landscape is how it surrounds him with a series of uncompelling character types. While the film seems to mostly unfold through the eyes of young Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett), who becomes Dolittle’s apprentice after witnessing the doctor communicate with animals, he serves little purpose aside from drawing the man out of his shell. And Dolittle’s arch-enemy, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen, chomping on every bit of scenery within reach), has little motivation to justify his ceaseless quest to stop his rival from attaining an elixir that will save Queen Victoria’s life.

Despite repeatedly paying lip service to notions of grief and opening oneself up to the world, Dolittle ultimately plays like little more than an extended showpiece for its special effects. But even the CGI on display here is patchy at best, with the countless animals that parade through the film’s frames taking on a creepy quality as their photorealistic appearance often awkwardly clashes with their cartoonish behavior. The film’s notoriously troubled production, which went so off the rails that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Jonathan Liebesman was brought on board for reshoots, is evident in its clumsy staging and lifeless interplay between humans and animals, but it’s the film’s inability to completely develop any of its characters that reduces it to all pomp and no circumstance. Like the CGI animals that inhabit much of the film, Dolittle is flashy and colorful on the outside but dead behind the eyes.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland Director: Stephen Gaghan Screenwriter: Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, Doug Mand Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack

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