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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: Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité on the Criterion Collection

Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy receives a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

4

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L’Humanité

If Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus is something of a horror film about the failure of empathy, L’Humanité is its comedic B-side, taking an equally horrific scenario and examining it through the perspective of a bumbling police force. Yet as is typically the case with Dumont, his sense of comedy isn’t straightforward. When police inspector Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) rejoices after receiving a hug from his friend and secret crush, Domino (Séverine Caneele), the man sits in a chair rattling his fists up and down after she leaves the room—a spectacle that doesn’t suggest a moment of triumph so much as a fit. That this scene occurs not long after an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in a nearby field demonstrates part of Dumont’s dissonant sensibilities. The oddity of Pharaon’s behavior coexists in a world with unfathomable brutality, something the film views less as a contradiction than a defining feature of human nature.

Dumont’s filmography is practically a study of faces, and that fixation is especially prominent here. The characters in L’Humanité wear blank or neutral expressions, and Dumont’s camera lingers on these visages as if waiting for people to remove their skins and reveal their true selves. It’s a visual choice that can be understood as a commentary on the characters’ alienation. Since Dumont works with non-professional actors with highly distinctive facial features, close-ups complement the viewer’s contemplation of these lonely souls rather than gauging a character’s reaction to someone or something in their immediate surroundings.

L’Humanité opens with a wide shot of Pharaon running across the Bailleul countryside, and as in La Vie de Jésus, the rural setting projects an image of innocence about to be upended by violence. Sex also factors into this film’s equation. Shortly after greeting Domino and her lover (Philippe Tullier), Pharaon walks in on the couple having intercourse on the floor, staring at them in expressionless silence. When Domino later reprimands him for “getting an eyeful,” it’s less out of anger than conviviality. While Dumont consistently awakens a Hitchcockian dimension within his work as it pertains to the pleasure of looking, ready-made psychological explanations for such behavior remain out of reach to both characters and viewers.

Like Pharaon, Domino also likes to watch. Indeed, one of L’Humanité’s indelible images is a recurring close-up of Domino casting her eyes onto something or someone within eyeshot. While at a beach, she’s introduced to a handsome male friend of Pharaon’s wearing Speedo trunks. As Domino’s eyes move toward the man’s groin, the camera catches him noticing her stare. Once Domino realizes he’s aware of her gaze, she averts her eyes. To what extent Domino is either aroused or absent-mindedly looking at the man remains ambiguous, but it’s nevertheless clear that L’Humanité makes a thematic drumbeat out of its characters’ preoccupation with staring. While this at times comes to feel redundant, Dumont’s refusal to give his characters reducible motivations is as mysterious as it is refreshing.

In one of the film’s most obtuse depictions of people staring, Pharaon becomes entranced by the large, reddened neck of his police commissioner (Chislain Ghesquère) while the pair drive across the countryside. Whatever Pharaon’s interest in the man’s body, the close-up reveals his skin as an abstract, nearly indiscernible image. In this instance, all we see, in effect, is blood covered by a thin layer of flesh. These grotesque implications reducing human beings to meat might recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly 1936’s Abstraction from the Human Form. That Pharaon is a descendent of the 19th-century painter Pharaon De Winter—and even lends some of De Winter’s paintings for an exhibition to a nearby gallery halfway through the film—makes explicit the linkage between L’Humanité and artifice. Because Pharaon stares at these paintings with the same expression he offers to the world, we’re further made aware that we’re not merely, as viewers, gazing upon the lives of real people. Dumont reconciles each character’s personal desire through his own cultural and artistic means, something the natural world, in all its incomprehensible vastness, cannot afford them.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of L’Humanité boasts a clean image abundant in striking details. Outdoor shots evince vibrant colors, with the smallest of nuances, such as the individual bricks of buildings, appearing well-detailed way back into the farthest reaches of the frame. While the DTS-HD surround track is a tad muted overall, the classical music at the start and close of the film is forcefully mixed, and dialogue is clear throughout.

Extras

As on Criterion’s La Vie de Jésus release, the extras here largely consist of interviews with Bruno Dumont from across the past 20 years. In the newest one, conducted this year by Criterion, Dumont discusses how the conclusion of his prior film inspired him to write L’Humanité. In fact, he had intended to have the same actor, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who played a police inspector in La Vie de Jésus, reprise his role here, and when he declined, Dumont revised Pharaon De Winter around Emmanuel Schotté, who would go on to win best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival. The second interview, conducted by film critic Philippe Rouyer in 2014, is a deeper dive into the film’s production history. Here, Dumont explains how he collaborates with his actors to significantly shape his characters’ behaviors, all the way down to the use of groans and sighs. The pair also discuss how Dumont approaches character psychology from a visual perspective. And the final interview is a segment from a 1999 French television news program, with Dumont walking the streets of Bailleul and explaining how he shoots. Rounding things out is a segment from a 2000 episode of Tendances featuring actress Séverine Caneele, a trailer, and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott that, among other things, traces some of the film’s art-historical references.

Overall

This Blu-ray of Bruno Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy boasts a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

Cast: Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquère, Ginette Allègre Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation on Arbelos Films Blu-ray

This package is the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

4

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Mutual Appreciation

Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker isn’t his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authentic—but, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalski’s breakthrough 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one evening’s dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a woman’s short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).

Though often compared to Cassavetes—an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation’s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography—Bujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friends—all defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, it’s dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.

Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is stated—as in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or Ellie confessing that “the problem with Lawrence is that he’s not the master of his own destiny”—the respite from the characters’ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular “long, awkward pause” to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciation’s peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rock’s “weird beats and time signatures.” Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.

Image/Sound

The new 2K restoration, from which this transfer is sourced, offers an image quality with far more depth and sharpness than what’s typically afforded to home-video releases of the low-budget, mumblecore films of the aughts. A good deal of grain remains from the 16mm negative, preserving the film’s raw integrity. There’s also a nice balance in the contrast between blacks and whites, with exterior scenes looking neither too bright nor blown out and interiors never overly dark. The sound is clean and evenly mixed and the dialogue is easy to understand even when characters trip over their words or talk over one another.

Extras

In an appropriately low-key, clever commentary track, parents of various cast and crew members offer up an array of observations, complaints, and dad jokes. Very much in the spirit of the film, these off-the-cuff comments abound in charmingly awkward attempts at humor and amateurish stabs at interpreting Mutual Appreciation. There are moments of genuine insight, but it’s primarily a light-hearted addendum to the film, with some choice moments of parental disappointment, whether it’s a bit actor’s parents complaining about how the framing leaves their son off screen for most of his 20-second appearance to another parent declaring, “Well, this, we know, is just solipsistic masturbation.” A 30-minute interview with Andrew Bujalski provides insight into his working process and the ways it did and didn’t change as he began to work with bigger budgets and stars in the years since Mutual Appreciation’s release. The disc also includes Bujalski’s 2007 short film People’s House, which serves as a companion piece to this film, essays by Damien Chazelle and singer-songwriter Will Sheff, and, in an unexpected nod to Elvira, a low-def, tongue-in-cheek intro by “Vampira.”

Overall

Arbelos Films’s sturdy 2K transfer and a scrappy assortment of extras present the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, Pamela Corkey, Kevin Micka, Ralph Tyler, Peter Pentz, Bill Morrison, Tamara Luzeckyj, Mary Varn, Kate Dollenmayer Director: Andrew Bujalski Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray brings the film’s shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

4

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Alphaville

Much has been said of the overwhelming ingenuity of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, but less so about just how well the director knew how to work around budgetary limitations. Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay.

Godard takes private detective Lemmy Caution and illustrates the film’s themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the man’s image. Godard secured Eddie Constantine, who had already played Caution in a number of films as a James Bond-esque rake whose chauvinism was portrayed as roguish and charming. Here, however, Constantine plays Caution as a somber has-been, a caustic loner in his twilight whose pathetic weariness is further emphasized by Godard forbidding the actor to wear makeup, preferring to capture every wrinkle and blemish on his face. When Godard does nominally adhere to the tropes one might expect from a Caution caper, the filmmaker does so in the most parodic of ways, as in an early action scene in which a hitman springs out of nowhere in Caution’s hotel room, leading to a brutal scuffle where all diegetic sound drops out and is replaced by elegant, lilting classical music, until noise comes crashing in as the would-be killer and hero are sent through a series of glass doors. It’s a gag worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.

In mixing elements of noir and science fiction, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Caution, so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

One of the least energetic of Godard’s New Wave films, Alphaville nonetheless evinces his puckish wit and allusive modernism. Caution frequently engages in conversations with Alpha 60, which articulates its thoughts through a growling voice box and decries human illogic while also largely reciting lines that Godard cribbed from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one scene, rebels who refuse to live in a world without love are executed by firing squad next to a pool where swimmers calmly perform laps below the machine-gun fire. At its heart, though, the film’s tension between emotion and logic epitomizes the early internal conflict of intellectualism and love that suffuses Godard’s early work. And, in one of the supercomputer’s Borges quotations, the film lays out the thesis that would undergird all phases of Godard’s search for unified truths: “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remoulds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s disc, sourced from a 4K transfer, is a revelatory presentation of a film that often seemed one of the least visually dynamic of Godard’s early career. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography, shot under incredibly difficult lighting conditions, has always appeared heavily grained and crushed on home video, but here the full beauty of his images is on fabulous display. Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina’s faces are rich with texture, blacks sink into abyssal levels of darkness without crushing, and outdoor location shot boast a healthy distribution of grain that never compromises detail. The robust-sounding audio is so clear that it’s now easier than ever to understand Alpha 60 supercomputer’s musings.

Extras

An audio commentary track by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas provides ample details about Alphaville and its place among both Godard’s filmography and the series of Lemmy Caution films, but Lucas’s dry, fact-based approach skirts a deeper, more formal analysis of Godard’s methods. A brief interview with Karina finds the actress recounting her memories of working on Alphaville. Most memorable is her amusing recollection that Coutard was so anxious about shooting in such dark lighting conditions that he couldn’t bear to look at the film’s dailies. An introduction by critic Colin McCabe provides a cursory but probing look into some of Godard’s techniques while not giving too much away.

Overall

Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi curio is a fascinating outlier in his New Wave period, and Kino’s Blu-ray brings its shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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The Myth of the American Dream: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy

These films are as elegant as they are expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in their high emotions.

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The Godfather: Part II
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In approaching his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola has said that he saw the story as “the tale of a great king,” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passed the best and worst of him to his three sons: passionate and aggressive Sonny (James Caan); sweet, childlike Fredo (John Cazale); and intelligent and cunning Michael (Al Pacino). Coppola’s archetypal sensibility is the hook that makes The Godfather trilogy so compelling, an emotional buttress that registers deeply through the thorny convolutions of each film’s narrative. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about The Godfather—commensurate with Brando’s marble-mouthed performance—is how the emotional clarity of this one family’s story so powerfully emanates through the soup of business and politics.

The Godfather sees the Corleone clan struggling to hold ground on a battlefield peppered with memorable antagonists: narcotics entrepreneur Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), corrupt police Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), duplicitous rival mafioso Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), stubborn Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), ruthless Las Vegas high roller Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), to say nothing of the sundry turncoats within the Corleone family. The film’s canvas is a crowded one, and at its center is a rite of passage: the aging Don Vito handing the reins of the family business over to the reluctant Michael, the black sheep who wants nothing more than to be part of the great American melting pot. During the film’s opening, which depicts the wedding of Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael is introduced to us in military fatigues, with his blond-haired, WASPy girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), on his arm. And by the film’s end, he’s embraced the shadows outside of bourgeois American life. As he says at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, officially sanctioned politics and nefarious organized crime are both part of the same hypocrisy.

Throughout Connie’s wedding, the vividness of Coppola’s characterizations allows us to quickly understand how this particular family learned to thrive in a distinct American subculture. Meanwhile, consigliere (and adopted Corleone son) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) exists to fill us in on the ins and outs of how New York’s crime families negotiate power. The gestures, glances, and tonal registers between siblings position The Godfather as a primal story of love and devotion between a father and his children, and how siblings square off with each other in trying to live up to their father’s regality. And as Caan’s ferocity plays off of Duvall’s lawyerly reason and Pacino’s exacting coolness, we’re effortlessly swept up in the intimate emotional currents that flow beneath the power machinations of a dynastic family.

Partly set in 1958, The Godfather: Part II amplifies this complicated interplay as Michael secures his criminal empire in Nevada’s casinos and works toward setting up operations in Havana. In a memorably winking scene, old-time capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) requests tarantella music to be played at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound during the celebration of Michael’s son’s first communion, but the band instead plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) gives a speech thanking Michael for his contributions to the state. Kay is pregnant with their third child, and Michael aims to have a family as propitious as his father’s. But there’s a revolution brewing in Cuba, and political committees are cracking down on the mafia. More intimately, Kay is distressed about bringing more children into an apparatus strewn with corruption. Dancing with Michael, she brings up a conversation they had in a scene from the first film. “You told me in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.”

Michael’s conflicts in The Godfather: Part II are connected to the past as much as to the present. The burden of history is represented by the avuncular though treacherous Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who did business with Michael’s father, and Frank, who’s uncomfortable with how Michael is straying from the family’s Sicilian roots. Also at the heart of the film is the story of the younger Vito (Robert De Niro), who finds himself embroiled in a war with the governing mafia chieftain Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) after arriving in America. Throughout, Michael’s spiritual entropy is intercut with Vito’s ascendancy 30 years earlier, and while both men act to preserve their families, it’s telling how Coppola contrasts the father’s warmth with the son’s sclerotic obtuseness (ironically akin to the patriarchs with whom Vito does battle). By the end, Vito’s power is secured, his fall into criminality established as the means by which he protects his family. Michael also secures his power, but at the cost of his brother Fredo’s life, as the latter unwittingly betrayed Michael by colluding with Roth.

The Godfather: Part II is as elegant as it is expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in his high emotions. Its story is more complicated than that of the first film, almost to the precipice of becoming a muddle. For one, it’s never really made clear what exactly is going on between Fredo and Roth’s organization, other than securing some information about Michael’s compound for an assassination attempt, or what’s the backstory of Frank’s relationship to Roth’s malevolent partners, Tony (Danny Aiello) and Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi). But such muddiness doesn’t matter in a film so magnificently constructed, where the tenderness of De Niro’s Vito seems to linger through the conspiracies and betrayals woven by Michael, the now-dead father hanging over Michael’s final confrontation with Fredo, a scene where Cazale’s tremulous id almost bursts through the man’s forehead, voicing his demand for respect with an afterglow of understanding his own inadequacies. Michael looms and Fredo struggles to stand up for himself while still inextricably tied to his chair, and Coppola orchestrates one of the most dramatically compelling scenes in American cinema.

Released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III may be considered a tragi-ironic commentary on the cultural clout of the first two films, which influenced how the public thought about the mafia but also how the mafia thought about itself. Set in 1979—or a few years after the first two films were released—Coppola’s trilogy caper emphasizes a performativity in everyday life that was absent from the more authentic dramas of its predecessors. The story begins with a sham Catholic ritual for Michael, now a billionaire businessman, being given a papal pin “for his charitable work,” which in actuality relates to a shady transaction with Vatican bankers, and concludes with a staggering half-hour sequence in an opera house, with Coppola magnificently cutting between action off and on stage to the music of Mascagni.

Reality and performance grandly intersect throughout The Godfather: Part III, with the actors posturing like performers on a stage, as if they were indeed characters in an opera. Take the the grandiose gesturing between Shire’s Connie and volatile Corleone heir Vincent (Andy Garcia) as he takes her hand with gusto and kisses it. Or the “bella figura” Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and how he loves to cavort in front of photographers and reporters, contributing to the spectacle of himself. Eli Wallach’s performance as the duplicitous Don Altobello may initially feel strenuously affected, but his theatrical magniloquence comes to feel more than apt; Coppola shows Altobello in his opera box singing and pantomiming along with the performers on stage, as if to say that there’s no demarcation between life and theater for this two-faced crook. Reconciling with Kay, Michael brings a knife to his throat and says, “Give me the order!” It’s then that Kay, the one figure who sees through Michael’s fronts, grimaces. He drops the knife and chuckles apologetically, “We’re in Sicily. It’s opera.”

The way Coppola and his actors approach performance brings up the controversy of Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael’s doomed daughter, Mary. Her line readings are sometimes flat, and at other times awkward. But in contrast to the other players, she’s startlingly pure, her unseasoned candor making her tragic function in the story more heart-wrenching. There’s an unexpected feeling of truth as she delivers her last line (“Dad?”) on the steps outside the opera house, breaking up the theatrical masquerade over which Michael has presided. Coppola gives his tragedy a twist that goes beyond King Lear, one of his film’s models. Michael, unlike Lear weeping at the death of his beloved Cordelia, doesn’t die of grief. Rather, it’s implied that he lingers on for years, alone in the company of despair and sorrow.

Michael kneels at his slain daughter’s corpse and finally cracks, raising his head and howling his sorrow before passing out. The unchecked emotional nakedness is out of step with the rest of the trilogy, almost breaking the fourth wall. Keaton, Shire, Garcia, and George Hamilton’s characters suddenly break from their grieving and look at Michael with what feels like baffled surprise. Coppola’s trilogy begins by observing the charade of American ideals and institutions. He ends it outside a theater, the horror in Michael’s scream breaking apart the compound of lies and artifice this arch American criminal has built around his heart. In this one moment, the opera is over and the consequences of reality are made manifest.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy Edition is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus on the Criterion Collection

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and informative extras.

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La Vie de Jésus

Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus provides the occasion to contemplate how approaches to kindness and justice work on a philosophical level. As Paul Bloom explains in his 2016 book Against Empathy, the “morally corrosive” influence of empathy sometimes prompts an immediate action that overlooks the long-term effects of said action. Dumont creates scenarios that are farsighted in their scope; the basic story of Freddy (David Douche), an epileptic teenager harboring racist resentment toward Kader (Kader Chaatouf), his North African peer, prompts us to see how empathy fails at getting to the root cause of what precipitates Freddy’s violent acts. It’s not that Freddy lacks the ability to see Kader as human; it’s that the cultural foundation of Bailleul, a small French town, is shackled by the strictures of racial and sexual repression.

Not that Dumont is shy about depicting sexual contact. In fact, Freddy’s relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), another local teenager, is steadily reduced to an entirely physical state of being. This culminates in a close-up of Freddy’s erect penis thrusting in and out of Marie’s vagina; in this moment, the hardcore sex act is offered by Dumont not as an empty provocation, but a commentary on bourgeois skittishness over representations of sex. When Kader and Marie start seeing each other, Freddy irrationally targets Kader for violence. Like the murderous brother in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Freddy only knows physical cruelty as a response to being threatened by his own desire because he cannot articulate his response in any other manner. While Dumont allows Freddy’s precise feelings to remain mostly unspoken, the implication is that Freddy’s been conditioned by his community to be ashamed of his sexual impulses. When shame meets anger, violence ensues.

Dumont’s debut feature draws upon conventions of neorealism and documentary by employing non-professional actors in all of its roles, but its stylistic traits are closer to the formalist cinema of Robert Bresson, also known for working with first-time actors in nearly each of his films. Like Bresson, Dumont stages shots to highlight their flatness and the base elements of any given action. These visual choices create the sensation that we’re encountering more a tableau of reality than anything approaching documentary realism.

This is especially evident in Dumont’s depiction of Freddy’s mother, Yvette (Geneviève Cottreel), who owns a local pub and seems to do little more than watch the news on a small television set. Early in La Vie de Jésus, the woman sees what appears to be a dead body in an unspecified African location. “What a shame,” she mutters, expressing nominal concern when faced with the evidence of global catastrophe that she believes has no immediate impact on her life. Later, she musters a similar response when Freddy goes to see Cloclo, a friend who’s dying of AIDS. Yvette only approaches the point of outrage when reprimanding Freddy for not having a job. Dumont is foremost concerned with depicting how the nagging worries of quotidian life steadily contribute to the absence of culture, the death of art, and abuses of power that, above all, leave the impoverished destitute.

Yet, despite viewing Yvette through a critical lens, Dumont isn’t blaming her for the violence her son will soon commit; rather, he’s juxtaposing the people of Bailleul against a series of problems, whether local or global, that seem to have no immediate solution. This approach has been deemed by some critics as lacking in compassion, but Dumont’s intent is to soberly reflect on the complex ways that hate is fostered by collective forms of ignorance.

Dumont demonstrates, too, how passivity maintains tradition as a form of oppression. Freddy and his friends, who effectively patrol the countryside on their motorbikes, also mock Kader and his family under their breath with religious chants and racial epithets inside a café without reprimand. Later, after Freddy and his friends have committed a heinous act, a police officer (Alain Lenancker) questions the boy, asking if he doesn’t like “Arabs.” Dumont stages the exchange to amplify its procedural nature, with the officer’s back to Freddy throughout the interrogation. Freddy, inarticulate and surrounded by authority figures who are themselves relying on a limited vocabulary to define criminal acts, is the product of a culture that has neglected to discover the essence of its own existence.

Image/Sound

Criterion presents La Vie de Jésus in a pristine 4K digital restoration. The wide outdoor shots boast vibrant colors and detail-rich depth of field; as Freddy rides his motorcycle throughout the countryside, the surrounding trees and grass intensely radiate green. Scenes set in indoor spaces also boast significant clarity and excellent focus. Given how important faces are to Dumont’s style of filmmaking, this transfer is especially notable for how close-ups reveal the pores of actors’ faces. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clearly audible throughout.

Extras

The bulk of the extras consist of interviews with Dumont from different years since the film’s release. In the most recent one, conducted by Criterion in 2019, Dumont explains how his background in industrial films prepared him to make La Vie de Jésus. He also spends ample time considering the philosophical basis for his filmmaking, saying that he views his work as “metaphorical representations of the inner experience of human nature.” The filmmaker also discusses the failure of popular cinema to become anything more than a product for mass consumption. The second interview, a lengthy talk with critic Philippe Rouyer from 2014, sees Dumont digging even deeper into how he tries to reconcile “the coexistence of different sets of values.” And the final one consists of excerpts from two 1997 episodes of the French television program Le cercle de minuit, during which Dumont talks about society being racist and how his job as a filmmaker is to “rattle the cage.” Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott on Dumont’s distinctive visual style.

Overall

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and an informative grouping of supplements.

Cast: David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, Sébastien Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, Geneviève Cottreel, Alain Lenancker Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

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Blue Velvet

The most direct metaphor in David Lynch’s canon arrives early on in his 1986 landmark film Blue Velvet. After an opening credits sequence set against blue velvet curtains and accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning score, Lynch offers up a montage of iconic images of Americana, including gleaming white picket fences, a fire truck with a dog, and roses that gleam with a feverish red hue. Bobby Vinton’s version of the title song serves as the soundtrack to these images, and, with this song, Lynch signals both his yearning for and disbelief in this idyllic world—a conflict in emotions that would drive his subsequent film and television productions. In case this conflict is lost on viewers, Lynch ends his montage with a father collapsing from a malady as he waters his front yard, and the camera homes in on blades of grass, pressing further into the ground until we can see black insects festering underneath the surface.

It’s too simple to say that Lynch yearns for a society that could be likened to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, even though much of his work is a viscerally textural paean to vintage American manners and artifacts. The 1950s-era puritanism that partially drives Blue Velvet and its TV offspring, Twin Peaks, would most likely bore Lynch on its own. Lynch is attracted to duality, to the contrast of the sweet and sour textures of purity and perversity, and Blue Velvet was the filmmaker’s first pure articulation of this desire.

The film is also one of the definitive explorations between the cultural links of the ‘50s and ‘80s. In the ‘80s, American horror cinema was mining the communist paranoia of the ‘50s, indulging in violence that at one point could only be implied. These films now play as a reaction to how President Ronald Reagan exploited America’s yearning for a return to a golden age, a dream version of an earlier time cleansed of various atrocities, such as internment camps and hate crimes. Reagan was selling a fantasy while committing his own atrocities, such as ignoring the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, while Lynch and other directors, such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, were telling a kind of truth.

Of course, Lynch voted for Reagan, which perhaps testifies to the intense pull of the sunny-side-up portion of his fantasy world. And, indeed, Lynch has always understood a primordial and insidious human quality: the satisfaction of conformation—of successfully following social rules regardless of their potential implications, and committing to a mythology of country. In Blue Velvet, this idea is most beautifully embodied by the scenes between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is a college student who returns to the small, woodsy town of Lumberton following his father’s hospitalization, and Sandy is a high school senior with a father (George Dickerson) in law enforcement. Investigating the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey discovers in a field, the couple regularly meets at a diner, drinking sodas and, in Jeffrey’s case, eating what appears to be a grilled cheese and fries. The pleasure that Lynch takes in the old-fashioned-ness of all this, with Jeffrey and Sandy playing a variation of the Hardy Boys, is palpable. (These scenes are so overwhelmingly earnest that certain critics missed the point, describing them as shrilly satirical.)

With his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), immobilized, Jeffrey confronts his blossoming adulthood, and so Sandy partially represents his yearning to return to the simplicity of high school, which suggests the longing for an idealized dimension that drives, at large, this production that’s so resolutely set in a timeless dimension and abounds in obsessive fairy-tale imagery that suggests an X-rated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production. Yet Jeffrey’s also a man now, and most men need more than nostalgic puppy love. Drifting away from Sandy, the ear leads Jeffrey into an underworld, to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a tormented lounge singer who’s the plutonic ideal of the male fantasy of the experienced older woman, who’s forced to sing “Blue Velvet” over and over in a club with an ardor that rivals Vinton himself. Where Sandy is gorgeous in a trim, blonde, idyllic “prom queen” way, Dorothy is a bruised brunette with ripe red lipstick (it matches the roses from the film’s first scene), a chipped tooth, and a sensual fleshiness that knocks the film off its naïve axis.

Dorothy’s apartment, which is of course on the wrong side of the tracks, is one of Blue Velvet’s many masterpieces of irrational set design. Primarily represented by the oval shape of a living room that segues into a small kitchen, the apartment abounds in deep reds, blues, and blacks that are morbid as well as titillating, explicitly suggesting a strip club’s back room while subliminally representing a womb. This set somewhat prepares us for the film’s audacious tonal U-turn. When Jeffrey wanders into this apartment, the sense of danger is intense, yet Lynch surpasses all expectations with what is still the wildest set piece of his career.

Peeping on Dorothy from behind the wall of her closet, after she’s already caught him, threatened him with a knife, and explored the possibility of going down on him, Jeffrey watches as this woman is tortured by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who beats her and calls her “mommy” before getting high on gas and stuffing a blue velvet sash in each of their mouths and savagely fucking her. Though the scene is symbolic—as Robin Wood stipulated, the sash suggests an umbilical cord, while also echoing the lost innocence of the Vinton song—it’s also unhinged, exorcising fantasies that Lynch can barely keep a handle on.

Sex in mainstream cinema has rarely felt this intimate and defiant of what we’re supposed to find erotic, which is why Blue Velvet was controversial upon its release, and would probably be even more so were it to first be seen in 2019. To an extent, Dorothy gets off on Frank’s abuse, and she subsequently attempts, in her affair with Jeffrey, to assume a Frank-like role, taking control of their sex and goading Jeffrey to tap his inner reservoir for violence. When Jeffrey eventually beats Dorothy, Lynch films the action in extreme slow motion, with what sounds like animal roars on the soundtrack. Lynch dramatizes a fissure in Jeffrey’s sense of who he is, as he plumbs his propensity for darkness. The film is, at its root, a coming-of-age tale that’s unusually connected to the dirtier and messier implications of self-knowledge.

There’s almost nowhere for Blue Velvet to go after the scene between Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Frank in Dorothy’s apartment, which also suggests a fulfillment of the fantasies implicitly driving, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where an ambiguous male hero also peeped in on imperiled women. This sexual-violent stand-off is what Lynch has been building to throughout Blue Velvet, as he’s bringing to the fore the damage, allure, rot, exploitation, and sick hunger that exist under Lumberton’s tableaux of neat, asexual domesticity and under much of vaguely sexualized pop culture at large.

The film subsequently follows what is a fairly straightforward mystery-thriller template, though ecstatic details and images continue to pop up, and there’s one other extraordinary scene. Frank and his goons kidnap Dorothy and Jeffrey and take them to the inner sanctum of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a terrifyingly fey and polite gangster who dances and lip synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” enjoying the kind of expressive catharsis that appears to be impossible for Frank, a frustration that’s probably at the center of his insanity. Many critics have commented on the inverse relationship between Sandy and Dorothy, the respective women of day and night who would initiate an ongoing Lynch obsession, but Frank also suggests an inverse of Jeffrey: a man-child who never reckoned with his desires, until they erupted out of him in a torrent of cruelty and obscenity. Even one of Ben’s prostitutes enjoys a moment of lonely grace, dancing on top of Frank’s car outside of a factory as “In Dreams” is reprised.

Blue Velvet’s mixture of pop-cultural fetishizing and extreme and occasionally ironic brutality would prove to be monumentally inspirational to cinema, as there’s a weird kick to Lynch’s mixture of banality, kink, and tragedy. Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would be unimaginable without Blue Velvet, which would also serve as a roadmap for Lynch’s own career. Lynch is still obsessed with sexual perversity, with men’s historic torment of women, with various mystic and generic totems, and with the underbelly that secretly powers pop culture. After Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks, Lynch drifted away from traditional narrative, blurring plot points and character identities. He doubled down on his own brand of American surrealism, emphasizing beauty and decay as two halves of one coin. Blue Velvet’s happy ending—in which Sandy’s dream of robins casting evil away is realized—is deliberately unconvincing. Faced with a truth about himself, Jeffrey retreats to childish illusion, though Lynch continues to wrestle with his and our madness.

Image/Sound

Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. Two sound mixes are included here, a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and, though I didn’t discern many major differences between them, they both have extraordinary depth, balance, and dimension, with an operatic level of attention paid to diegetic sounds. (When Jeffrey flushes a toilet, imperiling himself, the thing gurgles so magnificently as to suggest a moaning whale.)

Extras

The most notable supplement here is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). These moments are fine on their own, and anticipate the purplish tone of Twin Peaks, but a three-hour cut of Blue Velvet that conventionally explored Jeffrey’s conflict over his sick father might’ve been disastrous, killing the narcotic pull of the film as it presently exists. There’s also an alternate introduction of Sandy that’s so tossed-off that it’s nearly banal, which is a significant contradiction of her iconic entrance in the final cut. One moment—in which Jeffrey and Dorothy ascend the roof of her apartment—is pure Lynchian poetry, though these scenes otherwise offer a primer on how a filmmaker whittled a rough cut down into something stark, mysterious, and essential.

Also essential is “Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. (Isabella Rossellini’s thoughts on making the film should serve as a definitive refutation of Roger Ebert’s absurd and condescending review, in which he essentially implied that Rossellini was Lynch’s victim.) Meanwhile, “Mysteries of Love” is a more conventional archival documentary, with interviews with most of the film’s principal players, and a recording of Lynch reading from Room to Dream, the 2018 book he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna, includes stories that will probably be familiar to Lynch obsessives. An interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, a look at the sets and props of Blue Velvet, and a booklet with an excerpt from Room to Dream round out one of Criterion’s strongest packages of the year.

Overall

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, George Dickerson Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1986 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melville’s distinctly rigorous style.

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Bob le Flambeur
Photo: Rialto Pictures

From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two films—Les Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disowned—are quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.

In Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy world—populated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degenerates—is rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.

With Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But it’s Melville’s foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the director’s canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.

From Bob’s (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. He’s an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of “honor amongst thieves” and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bob’s luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which he’s now working.

Before Bob’s last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, “Now Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.” This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bob’s plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before it’s too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesn’t realize the game’s being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melville’s films.

By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962’s Le Doulos, Melville’s aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to “die or lie.” And in this film, people do both quite regularly.

Where the machinations undergirding Bob’s fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the film’s big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyone’s motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The characters’ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.

Le Doulos’s narrative is perhaps Melville’s most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien stands as one of Melville’s most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.

In Melville’s previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leon’s (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isn’t in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melville’s, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the director’s style from Le Doulos through to Le Samouraï. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melville’s other ‘60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tête-à-têtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.

Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melville’s crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposal—his natural charms and sex appeal—to instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That he’s successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melville’s many exercises in noir.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Fambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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Blu-ray Review: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace on the Criterion Collection

Audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended.

4

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War and Peace
If one were to judge the history of cinema solely on the basis of scale and ambition, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace might well be considered the greatest film of all time. A seven-hour-plus adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic doorstopper, Bondarchuk’s film was by far the costliest production in the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly looks it. Priceless artifacts, countless military weapons, thousands of lavishly costumed extras, and a menagerie that includes hundreds of horses, rare wolf-hunting borzois, and a beer-drinking bear are swept before our eyes in a constant stream of ecstatic stimulation. Maximalist in every aspect, War and Peace is, like the novel on which it’s based, a work that wants to contain as many thoughts, emotions, and perspectives as possible. And Bondarchuk goes about accomplishing that by utilizing every wild cinematic technique he can think of.

In contrast to Hollywood epics of the era like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which are marked by long, static processions of extras marching around expensive sets, Bondarchuk never simply shoots for coverage. His camera instead darts and dashes through grandiloquent interiors and hellish battlefields, roving through burning buildings and flying through the air like a cannonball. Where another director might have resorted to a simple wide shot or close-up, Bondarchuk gives us a sweeping helicopter aerial, a complicated superimposition, an expressive split screen, or a camera that seems to float above a ballroom just as Mikhail Kalatozov’s did over the streets of Havana in I Am Cuba.

Bondarchuk often seems here to be attempting to synthesize the entire history of epic historical filmmaking into a single work. He borrows the pioneering split-screen technique of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the legendary crane shot from Gone with the Wind, and the eerily majestic iconography of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, to name just a few, while also anticipating at various points the hallucinatory combat sequences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the idyllic poeticism of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

All this restless innovation and titanic ambition, however, has a tendency to deaden the senses at times, particularly early on in War and Peace, when Bondarchuk’s experimentation comes off as little more than amateurish noodling. The filmmaker’s woozy sonic effects and blurry camera filters come off as dated and distracting, while the use of an off-screen narrator to translate French dialogue in the very first scene is downright confusing. The film can sometimes seem over-eager to impress: Never content to simply allow us to feel the emotional weight of a relationship, Bondarchuk is constantly intervening as a director—underlining, amplifying, and bludgeoning us with heavy-handed visual metaphors.

Bondarchuk’s restless approach often causes him to obscure Tolstoy’s complicated narrative and its vast, inter-connected familial relationships. The film essentially condenses the novel’s sprawling, digressive narrative into a murky love triangle between the socially awkward misfit Count Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), his friend and philosophical opposite, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the idealized, waif-like woman, Countess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva), with whom they both fall in love. Of the three, only Natasha leaves much of an impression, thanks in large part to Saveleva’s radiant performance. A trained ballerina, Saveleva flits and flutters through War and Peace like a butterfly, imbuing her scenes with a litheness and effulgence that provides stark contrast to the portentous philosophizing that Andrei and Pierre are prone to.

If Bondarchuk struggles to convey the story’s gradual shifts in relationships and psychology, he nevertheless demonstrates the ability to give cinematic life to Tolstoy’s rhapsodic depth of feeling. In one of the film’s more emotionally resonant techniques, Bondarchuk jarringly cuts between two scenes with wildly different emotional tenors—a joyous dance and a man dying, for example—emphasizing one of Tolstoy’s great themes: the simultaneity of human experience. While one person is suffering, another is celebrating; while one man is enjoying a banquet in St. Petersburg, another is engaged in bloody combat against Napoleon’s armies.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is in some ways less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a symphonic representation of its themes—its sense of drama, portent, and grandeur. That’s never truer than in the film’s astonishingly stirring set pieces, which find Bondarchuk variously capturing the buzzy excitement of a ball, the calamitous anxiety of battle, and, in the film’s most haunting passage, the wrenching pain and despair of a city under siege. Bondarchuk’s delirious rendering of the French army’s brutal invasion of Moscow, during which Napoleon’s forces burned the city to the ground, represents the most sustainedly apocalyptic vision of war’s madness and cruelty this side of Elem Klimov’s Come and See. War and Peace couldn’t possibly do justice to every aspect of Tolstoy’s mammoth tome, but at the very least, it captures the essence of the author’s scornful description of war: “an event … opposed to human reason and to human nature.”

Image/Sound

From its initial American release, for which it was dubbed into English and cut down by an hour, to an atrocious DVD release from Kultur that reduced its 2.30:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1, War and Peace has rarely been seen in its intended form in the United States. But thanks to Criterion’s meticulous transfer, which is sourced from a Mosfilm restoration, audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended. The film’s moody interiors, sprawling battle vistas, and intricate trick shots all sparkle with a crystalline intensity. Everything looks almost impossibly sharp; there’s no evidence of motion shudder during the film’s whip-fast camera pans, and depth of field is breathtakingly clear throughout. The film’s complex, six-channel soundtrack has been remastered from the original elements in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, providing an appropriately titanic aural experience that’s equally adept at handling subtle dialogue scenes as it is with overwhelming combat sequences.

Extras

There’s no commentary track or information about Mosfilm’s grueling and expensive restoration process. The most useful extra here is a program with author Denise J. Youngblood that gives a broad overview of the film’s cultural context and difficult production. Two archival making-of documentaries, one from Germany and another from Russia, provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the film’s making, while a 1967 documentary on Ludmila Savelyeva made for French TV offers a breezy look at the actress and her life in Moscow. New interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (one of several who worked on the film) and Bondarchuk’s son, Fedor, provide some personal reminiscences about the notoriously imperious director. Rounding out the package is an insightful essay by critic Ella Taylor that stresses the importance of War and Peace as a work of Russian nationalism.

Overall

While not exactly skimpy, Criterion’s offering of supplementary materials doesn’t quite match up to the monumental nature of the film itself.

Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Boris Zakhava, Anatoli Ktorov, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Antonina Shuranova, Oleg Tabakov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Irina Skobtseva, Boris Smirnov, Vasiliy Lanovoy, Kira Golovko, Irina Gubanova, Aleksandr Borisov, Oleg Efremov, Giuli Chokhonelidze, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Angelina Stepanova, Nikolay Trofimov Director: Sergei Bondarchuk Screenwriter: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 421 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 25, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: David Mamet’s House of Games on the Criterion Collection

Mamet’s first, best, and most influential film receives a sturdy transfer that could nevertheless use a bit more refurbishing.

3.5

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House of Games

In his 2000 book Theatre, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet vaingloriously celebrates the writer as the god of drama, and sees directors, set designers, and method actors as often detracting from the purity of the text. After the psychological thrashing of, say, method exploration, Mamet says that one still must eventually get down to the task of blocking a play and saying the lines. This is a deliberately gross simplification of how plays and films are staged, but such sentiments reveal something about the appeal and the limitations of a Mamet production.

Mamet has a fetishistic attachment to neatness: to structural symmetry, to dialogue that pulsates with succinct clarity, to characters who’re understood to be constructs. When a Mamet production catches fire, one revels in the profound sense of authorial control, but when whey stall, there are no spontaneous textures to offer refuge from the author’s hermetic self-consciousness, because spontaneity is precisely among the sources of his contempt. A poker player and admirer of jiu-jitsu, Mamet has turned drama into a similarly high-stakes game, in which there are concrete rights and wrongs of aesthetic.

The 1987 film House of Games, Mamet’s debut as a filmmaker, is the best justification of Theatre’s dubious propositions. The actors here speak with such pointed stiltedness that one recognizes the device to be an increasingly resonant joke—an acknowledgement that we are all playing various roles in our lives, “saying our lines.” The House of Games that psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) discovers is a nest of con men, but it’s also essentially a theater troupe of middle-aged men who invite an audience—i.e., the marks—into a lair to ensnare them in a fiction. That’s the inner House of Games, which is rhymed with the performative dramas of Margaret’s therapy sessions, while the outer House of Games is the film itself, with actors who seduce us with the con of storytelling, for which we pay with the price of an admission ticket or of this new Blu-ray. Nesting transactions are the film’s very soul, as Mamet leeches the plot of the flowery emotions that drive most melodrama.

As in many other films and plays, Mamet wants us to feel the distance between the actors’ lines in House of Games, and the pauses become an exhilarating negative aural space. Occasionally, it’s freeing to revel in the fakeness of Mametese, as it offers a music that’s not usually available in “realistic” writing and acting. Mamet refines his trademark, in which characters say straightforward words with a hard, repetitive rhythm that poetically lifts the lines above their literal meanings. One responds less to the words than to the force with which the actors utter them, especially Joe Mantegna as Mike, the crook who fools Margaret with the oldest trick in the book, openly owning up to his deceptions as a way of proffering a deeper lie.

There is, though, an irony to the film, as its absence of traditionally involving emotions is itself moving. The allegiance these characters feel to the rules of conning and implicitly to the rules of theatrical plotting suggests entrapment—a willful suppression or denial of their interiority, which would interfere with the perfection of the con and of the filmmaker’s art object. The web of constrictions governing the film is most explicitly acknowledged in two startling moments: Margaret opening her notebook to reveal descriptions of Mike and the House of Games that are formatted like a screenplay, and Mike later saying, “The things we think, the things we want, we can do them or not do them but we can’t hide them.” Rather than hide their desires, the characters seek to obliterate them, though Freudian slips—such as saying “pressure” in place of “pleasure”—allude to reservoirs of uncertainty and pain.

House of Games is mostly mired in the cons that Mike and his men perpetrate, with Margaret evolving from mark to witness to participant to master of her domain. The film’s twists will not be surprising to fans of crime cinema, especially now, given the influence House of Games has accrued over the years. And this lack of surprise fosters a sense of inevitability that is, of course, the point. In the first con, involving a poker game, Margaret is the mark, and though the inner workings of this trick are revealed to her, she falls for a grander version of the same trick later on. Mike has Margaret figured: A doctor specializing in obsessive compulsives, she herself is drawn to danger and is willing to pay for a tour of the underworld. By the film’s end, Margaret has grown not only into a master actor, but a kind of playwright who originates her own cons, who requires neither figurative director nor co-stars, who possesses her own weight. Which is to say that House of Games, by its own logic, has a happy ending.

Image/Sound

The image has plenty of grit and softness, which gives the film a vintage look that’s appropriate to the classic crime-film subject matter. Colors receive a notable uptick, though, as they’re quite bright and intense, and the shadows really pop off the screen, especially in the House of Games setting. The soundtrack is crisp, rich, and healthy, with exacting attention paid to the minute sound effects that play an important role in the narrative.

Extras

The supplements here have all been ported over from the 2007 Criterion edition of House of Games. The highlight is the audio commentary by filmmaker David Mamet and actor, magician, and flim-flam master Ricky Jay, which offers a remarkable amount of insight and detail about the construction of narratives, cons, and how the two often intersect. Another highlight is the essay included with the booklet, by Mamet, in which he discusses his initiation into filmmaking and how Sergei Eisenstein’s writing helped him to refine a lucid, direct, and uninflected visual style. Interviews with Lindsay Crouse and Joe Mantegna discuss the actors’ respective backgrounds with Mamet, while another featurette offers a breakdown of a con that was discussed but not used in House of Games, so that Jay could protect friends in the trade. Rounding out the package are an archive documentary about the making of House of Games, an essay by critic Kent Jones, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Overall

David Mamet’s first, best, and most influential film receives a sturdy transfer that could nevertheless use a bit more refurbishing, with perhaps a new supplement or two to boot.

Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Mike Nussbaum, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy, Jack Wallace, Steven Goldstein Director: David Mamet Screenwriter: David Mamet Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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First Name: Carmen, Détective, and Hélas Pour Moi on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

These excellent releases attest to the sumptuous beauty of Jean-Luc Godard’s cerebral middle-period work.

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First Name: Carmen
Photo: JLG Films

Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen, Détective, and Hélas Pour Moi are all linked in style, if not theme. Throughout these films, which consist of mostly static takes that evince a meditative sense of composition, the jagged momentum of Godard’s New Wave work is sublimated into a more complex and thematically pointed use of contrast between sound and image. The effect of this refined experimentation is stately in comparison to the films that made Godard an internationally renowned name, yet, if anything, even the breeziest of these works feels more formally and kinetically overwhelming than his first features, including his 1960 feature-length debut as a director, Breathless.

In the spirit of 1982’s Passion, which mingled Godard’s fragmented analysis of cinema with painting, 1983’s First Name: Carmen subjects music to constant breakdown and rearrangement. A loose adaptation of the opera First Name: Carmen, the film amusingly jettisons Georges Bizet’s score in favor of Beethoven’s late quartets, which are practiced by a group of musicians in rehearsals that are regularly injected among the more story-oriented scenes featuring an incompetent robber, Carmen (Maruschka Detmers), falling for a hapless prison guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffé). The quartets are weaved into a larger experimental soundscape of dialogue and sound effects chopped and arranged in semi-musical counterpoints that are themselves employed in larger dialectical fashion with the images.

With First Name: Carmen, Godard links countless works featuring femme fatales, parodically boiling down the misogyny of such films across scenes that see Carmen walking around her apartment nude as Joseph both fawns over and comes to resent her. First Name: Carmen is one of Godard’s most formally assured features, making gorgeous use of both natural lighting and stylized chiaroscuro, yet that precision belies a film that metatextually foregrounds its lack of narrative cohesion. Godard even appears on screen as a parody of himself: a washed-up filmmaker struggling to upend the film industry from within and casually admitting that even he doesn’t know what some of the film’s more baffling aspects mean.

Godard’s fixation with deconstructed noir is made far more explicit in 1985’s Détective, the closest that any of his post-1967 work ever came to replicating the style and methods of his early films. Confined to a hotel and populated with noir archetypes of gumshoes, mafia enforcers with cigarettes perpetually dangling from their mouths, and molls hanging on the arms of bosses, the film reflects Godard’s ability to expand on the thematic and formal aims of his early films with far fewer financial resources. The filmmaker uses the cramped spaces of the hotel to emphasize mood, from the whimsical affection that blooms between Nathalie Baye and Johnny Hallyday’s characters whenever they occupy the same area, to the claustrophobic intensity of other characters coming to spy on the detectives who spy on them.

And just as the pointedly pointless nudity in First Name: Carmen poked at misogynistic tropes in cinema, so, too, does Godard use Détective to subtly call out the inherent sexism of crime movies that he once perpetuated through his own work. Compare the sullen, cramped atmosphere of scenes where older mobsters take their young paramours to their rooms to the far more energetic scenes of those women alone in the same areas and you’ll sense the director devoting more care and interest to the lives of women he used to treat as objects.

The puckishness of First Name: Carmen and Détective is also present in Hélas Pour Moi, but the intervening decade between features can be felt in the more sober, ruminative quality of this 1993 film. Godard’s cleverness is evident right away in the title, which translates to “Woe Is Me” but also plays on the similarities of “Hélas” and “Hellas,” the ancient word for Greece. It’s a fitting connection for a film that loosely recapitulates the myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon. Hélas Pour Moi is a puzzling film, and not only because star Gérard Depardieu dropped out before the production wrapped, forcing Godard to restructure the film without its star. The film’s obtuse nature stems mostly from the ambition of Godard’s attempt to reckon with seismic questions of faith and belief, be it religious or secular, and Hélas Pour Moi marks the possible start of the director’s twilight phase, in which he has concerned himself with zealous obsession to determine if cinema can be trusted to reveal higher truths.

Whether updating his youthful cinephilic deconstructions or pursuing deeper moral and epistemological questions, Godard has devoted the second half of his career to rigorously analyzing, revising, and occasionally countering his prior opinions and aesthetic approaches, producing ever more convoluted work even as his restless desire to push cinema forward reveals more of the earnestness beneath his polemics. Hélas Pour Moi in particular points the way to the director’s current era, in which the man who once said that “cinema is truth 24 times a second” has openly despaired over just how much the camera lies.

All three films have been previously released on home video, but Kino’s Blu-rays represent a significant upgrade across the board. There are no discernible scratches or other blemishes on display, and all three discs are enriched by warm cinematography, most striking in the rich use of blues. The deliberate compression and wild fluctuations in audio fidelity in the films’ soundtracks aside, the lossless audio track on each disc lacks any discernible flaws, and even the loudest moments display a clarity that was wholly lacking on previous releases.

All three films come with audio commentaries: full-length tracks from critics Samm Deighan (for Hélas Pour Moi) and Craig Keller (for First Name: Carmen), and select-scene commentary for Détective by film programmer James Quandt. All of the tracks provide copious information on the films and Godard’s knotty thematic and formal ruminations. Similarly, each disc comes with a booklet containing critical overviews from writers Jordan Cronk (on Hélas Pour Moi), Kristen Yoonsoo Kim (on First Name: Carmen), and Nicolas Rapold (on Détective). First Name: Carmen also comes with 1982’s Changer d’Image, one of Godard’s many short films to compress his heady themes into just a few dense minutes. His shorts are every bit as essential as his features, and it’s always a pleasure to see one appear on home video. Keller even contributes a second commentary track for this rare short.

Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen, Détective, and Hélas Pour Moi are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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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: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert

The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.

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At War
Photo: Cinema Libre Studio

Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.

The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.

At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.

This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.

As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident

Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.

1.5

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Bottom of the 9th
Photo: Saban Films

Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.

Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.

Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.

Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.

De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.

Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness

The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.

2.5

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Crawl
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.

Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.

If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.

Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.

Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd

The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

3.5

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The Farewell
Photo: A24

In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.

The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.

As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.

To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.

Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.

Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption

This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

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The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.

The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.

The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.

The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.

There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.

Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes

It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

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Rojo
Photo: Distrib Films

With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.

The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.

Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.

Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.

Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.

Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Film

Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy

The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

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The Art of Self-Defense
Photo: Bleecker Street

Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.

The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.

Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.

Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.

The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.

Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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