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.
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.
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.
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
Review: Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino’s release should help bring new eyes to this wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.3.5
In Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner, Elliott Gould plays against type as Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who spends his free time collecting exotic fish and practicing chess moves at home. There’s nary a trace of Gould’s typically acerbic wit or effortless charisma to be found in the listless Miles. In fact, he’s so unthreatening that he’s often tasked with escorting his boss’s (Michael Kirby) mistress, Julie (Susannah York)—a co-worker on whom he has an incurable crush—around town just to cover for him. Like everyone else working at the tiny bank branch housed in a gloriously gaudy, era-specific Toronto mall, Julie also grossly underestimates Miles, refusing his advances and describing him to a new co-worker who shows a fleeting interest in him as “less than the sum of his parts.”
Appearances, though, turn out to be quite deceiving. And as Miles quietly susses out an impending robbery by Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), the shady character who’s been scouting the bank incognito as the mall’s Santa Claus, the threat ignites in him excitement rather than fear or apprehension. Curtis Hanson’s sharply written screenplay initially appears to be priming us for a high-stakes heist, but after Miles concocts an ingenious plan that allows him to keep the bulk of the loot for himself while laying the blame on Reikle, the film transforms into psychologically complex and sexually charged game of cat and mouse.
The Silent Partner playfully toys with the tropes of the thriller genre, counterbalancing its escalating tension and sense of impending violence with a dark humor and offbeat romanticism that accompanies Miles’s growth into a more fearless, and eventually arrogant, man. It’s a tricky tonal balance that, at times, recalls Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, especially in the surprising ways its dopey male protagonist copes with his impending collision with a relentlessly sadistic psychopath. Though Duke’s film lacks the warmth and humanism of Something Wild, it’s possessed of a similarly idiosyncratic edginess.
The Silent Partner’s pageant of perverse sexuality, betrayals, and fluid identities eventually takes Miles into darker, pulpier realms, particularly in the shockingly brutal third act. And the film is particularly fascinating in the ways it connects his subtly shifting persona to that of the terrifying Reikle, who draws the once tightly wound teller out of his dull, conservative shell to realize his full potential as something of a neurotic Übermensch. Both men have a woman in their life, but it’s their intense, increasingly obsessive draw to one another that ultimately stirs up far more trouble than the once tightly wound Miles could ever have imagined.
Kino Lorber’s transfer gets off to a pretty rough start throughout the first reel of the film, which features murky colors, some rather noticeable film damage, and an exceedingly soft image that suggests something off an early-era DVD. Thankfully, after those first 10 minutes, the image quality sharpens significantly and the color balancing evens out, with primary colors, particularly the red of Christopher Plummer’s Santa costume, really popping. The grain, which is distractingly excessive in the early stretches, is also toned down to a healthy amount, giving the image the soft-textured look one expects from a ‘70s film shot on location. The sound is nothing beyond serviceable, but the dialogue is fairly clean and only hampered occasionally by the ambient background noise of chatter throughout the mall.
The commentary track with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson strikes a nice balance between three colleagues casually discussing a film they all love and a more disciplined, academic grappling with the script’s rich, hypersexual subtext. The homoerotic tension between Elliot Gould and Plummer’s characters is exhaustively covered, but there are a number of other keen observations made about the film’s more subtle qualities, such as its commentary on workplace hierarchies and the breakdown of identity in the face of middle-class conformity. The only other extra included is an interview with a somnambulistic Gould, who fondly remembers working with Plummer, Susannah York, and director Daryl Duke, but offers little of substance beyond his random reminiscences.
Kino Lorber’s serviceable release of The Silent Partner should help bring new eyes to Daryl Duke’s wonderfully offbeat Canadian thriller.
Cast: Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, Michael Kirby, Sean Sullivan, Ken Pogue, John Candy, Nuala Fitzgerald Director: Daryl Duke Screenwriter: Curtis Hanson Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1978 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: The Buster Keaton Collection: Volume 1 on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray
This Blu-ray release of two of Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius.3.5
A Buster Keaton creation that combines the classic form of his earlier man-on-a-quest comedies with the visual heft of a Civil War epic, The General isn’t likely to be the favorite opus of the star’s purist fans, but it’s the one with the trappings of ambition and historical poesy. The melancholy behind Keaton’s comedy, visible in his lionized Great Stone Face, is a natural match with his Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer and Southern everyman who becomes a hero of the lost cause after being rejected for military service on the basis of his vital profession. (The film does no propagandizing for the Confederacy; in the interests of making the story—loosely based on an actual 1862 incident—that of an underdog, Keaton felt his hero had to be a Southerner.) Still an iconic clown with an unsmiling sense of purpose, Buster the actor-filmmaker-stuntman makes the context work; in this singular larger canvas, he takes over the War Between the States.
Johnnie not only suffers from feelings of inadequacy as a result of the army rejecting him without an explanation, but also from the sting of being dismissed by his fiancée, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), for being a coward (she’s unaware that he tried to enlist). He then responds to the theft of his titular locomotive by Union raiders with a one-man campaign to recapture it that forms the entire second movement of The General. Running down the track toward the horizon, then by handcar, bicycle, and finally by newly appropriated locomotive, his chase is one of frenzied resourcefulness and experimentation. Keaton measuring gunpowder in his hand as if it were salt for a piecrust is just as indelible as his riding on the front of the steam engine’s cowcatcher, knocking saboteurs’ planks off the railway.
It’s the film’s symmetrical chase framework—engineer Johnnie’s pursuit, then his retaking of the General and flight to warn the South of an imminent Union attack—that makes a lovely visual match with Buster’s paradoxical physicality: the deadpan man in perpetual motion. The early scene of Keaton, after being dumped by the belle, sitting heedlessly desolate on a train axle as it rotates him slowly through space, is a sublime hint of what’s ahead; through mechanically powered heroism, he must recover his two loves, the girl and the locomotive. (Even when he presents his intended with a photo, it’s of himself stolidly posed in front of her wood-burning rival.) Mack’s plucky but bird-brained sweetie—idealized in one “cameo” shot when the engineer, hiding, stares at her through a cigar burn in a tablecloth—takes time during their escape run to sweep out the engineer’s cab and toss out needed firewood whenever she finds a knothole (Keaton lunges to choke her but swiftly improvises a kiss).
In staging a mammothly expensive railroad bridge disaster near the climax, Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman impress not only with the scene’s pyrotechnics and dramatic impact, but the comic reaction shot of a nonplussed Union commander. The General affirms the star’s unflappable heroic persona in more unfamiliar and solemn circumstances than lesser comedians have dared. If it doesn’t possess the same otherworldliness and surrealistic flair of The Navigator, Cops, or Sherlock Jr., its marriage of reliably brilliant clowning with a simulacrum of the Great Conflict (still a living memory for its original audience’s older members) lacks the self-importance and pretension that usually hobbles history represented on film. Keaton was no purist, and he cited the film as his personal favorite.
The capper of Keaton’s final independent production, Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s climactic cyclone sequence provides some of the most iconic images of its visionary creator. Awaking in a hospital to discover that a storm has lifted the walls and roof of the building away, Keaton and his bed are blown through the streets and into a stable. Then, in the street, he struggles headlong against the wind, crouching and leaping into it like a souped-up, literalized version of the familiar pantomime cliché. Finally, taking refuge in a theater, he eerily encounters the gaze of a ventriloquist’s dummy and the trickery of a magician’s “vanishing” platform.
Most indelibly, he stands frozen, pondering his next move, as the full façade of a house topples over him, crashing with unsimulated force and sparing Keaton’s Willie Canfield as its upper window neatly and harmlessly frames him. (A spectacular refinement of an older Keaton gag, it caused his camera operator to look away in fear.) This finale, concluding with the star’s typical redemptive heroics, is among the most happily realized expressions of the central motif found amid his immaculately choreographed slapstick: a lone young man rising to battle human and natural obstacles with balletic, kinetic energy.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. also features Keaton’s strongest treatment of father-son relations, as his freshly graduated twit arrives in a Mississippi River town from Boston with a foppish mustache, beret, and ukulele, appalling his two-fisted father, William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (towering, flinty Ernest Torrence). The grizzled pop is in danger of losing business for his rustbucket paddleboat to the sleek new steamer of his hated rival, whose daughter happens to be Junior’s classmate and potential life-mate (16-year-old Marion Byron, peppy and cute, but sort of an afterthought compared to other love interests in Buster’s oeuvre).
It’s Bill Sr.’s efforts to masculinize his dubious heir that make up a sizable chunk of the plot, from a rapid-fire store scene where Keaton reacts to being lidded with a dozen hats—including a glimpse of his otherwise absent trademark porkpie—to the slovenly Steamboat Bill’s slow burn when the lad boards his boat for work, snappily outfitted like an officer of the Titanic. In the film’s most sustained comic set piece before the windstorm, Willie attempts to smuggle a saw via a loaf of bread to his jailed father, and the series of gags and reversals finds Bill walking back into custody in solidarity with his son. The familial theme has an affecting emotional undertow that’s never heavy-handed.
If Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Class 1A among Keaton’s prime work rather than top-shelf (like his previous seacraft-set The Navigator), its concluding 15-minute showstopper is a high watermark in imaginative, exhilarating entertainment. Audiences or lone viewers are more apt to open their mouths in astonishment than laughter, both at the audacious stuntwork and the odd, forbidding universe created by this placid, soon-to-decline Kansas vaudevillian. Like The General, it was a box-office flop, and Keaton’s move to MGM the following year meant a loss of control over his work, but the first dozen years of his filmmaking career produced uncannily conjured works by an artist with few peers in American cinema.
Both films are presented here in new 4K restorations. The higher level of detail visible across both films is welcome, and allows for a fuller appreciation of Buster Keaton’s precise use of the frame. There’s a small amount of flickering in the images of Steamboat Bill, Jr., but this appears to be an effect of aged filmstock, while The General exhibits sharper contrast throughout. Carl Davies composed the full orchestral scores that accompany both films on this disc. Each of them is a rich and varied score, available as a DTS-HD stereo or 5.1 mix. The latter is particularly engrossing for the way it captures reverb effects on the back channels, conveying an expansive sense of space.
“Reflections on The General” and “Buster Keaton: The Luminary” are five-minute compilations of interviews with an assortment of film heavies (Ben Mankiewicz, Quentin Tarantino, Leonard Malton, and Bill Hader, among others) about Keaton and his influence. Both conclude by imploring viewers to purchase Cohen Media Group’s Blu-ray release of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration in order to see the complete interviews. These barely glorified commercials are accompanied by two more commercials: trailers for the theatrical release of the two films’ respective restorations. The accompanying booklet contains a few stills from the films but no essay—or much text at all, other than a chapter listing for both films and (befuddlingly) an abbreviated cast and crew list for Steamboat Bill, Jr. only.
This Blu-ray release of two of Buster Keaton’s greatest films does justice to the silent comedian’s visual genius, but its nominal extras are little more than advertisements.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom McGuire, Tom Lewis Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Charles Reisner Screenwriter: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1926 - 1928 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: George Stevens’s Swing Time on the Criterion Collection
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films.4.5
The maddening joke of 1936’s Swing Time is the effort it takes for Fred Astaire to dance with Ginger Rogers. Director George Stevens and his various collaborators—including screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields—knew that the audience wanted to experience the bliss of watching one of cinema’s most ideally matched pairs move. But as romantic comedies continue to teach us, part of the pleasure of coitus resides in interruptus. Astaire and Rogers are icons who must be first humbled by the strictures of three-act plotting, which comes to mirror the petty irritations that stymie our own lives. In this context, an Astaire and Rogers duet isn’t only technically audacious, it suggests catharsis—a leap from the banal everyday into transcendence.
Swing Time has some of Astaire and Rogers’s mightiest set pieces, which are intertwined to reflect their characters’ evolving relationship. Early in the film, Lucky (Astaire) tricks Penny (Rogers) into believing that he can’t dance, showing up at the institute that employs her pretending to be a klutz. She tries to teach him a three-step move, inspiring him to tease her with pratfalls. (Astaire falling over is more graceful than most of us dancing.) When he finally decides to turn on the juice, he twirls Penny with peerless precision to the number “Pick Yourself Up,” perfecting the three-step move, their bodies gliding through the dance hall like pendulums as they intuitively bridge swing with tap, polka, and ballroom dancing.
And as Lucky and Penny dance, a farce blossoms into romance, and a recurring pattern is subtly established. The swing gesture of this routine, with Astaire and Rogers alternately twirling one another and performing intricate solos, is laced into the subsequent numbers. Many dances also end with the duo spinning off a given stage, which comes to signal either the salvaging or the dissolution of Lucky and Penny’s romance.
This number is even more exhilarating for the fact that it takes the film nearly 30 minutes to unleash it. In the first act, Stevens and his collaborators build a magnificent tension, teasing the audience. For an Astaire and Rogers film, Swing Time has an unusually involved, almost free-associational plot that suggests what might happen if every 1930s-era screwball comedy and crime caper had been thrown into a mixer. At the film’s opening, Lucky is to be married to Margaret (Betty Furness), which inspires Lucky’s fellow song-and-dance men to stage a remarkably mean-spirited ruse that ruins the ceremony. Trying to patch things up with Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the director’s father), Lucky promises to go to New York City and make a man out of himself, which the judge values at $25,000. The song-and-dance men also screw up this plan, and Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, clad in tux, with his Sancho Panza-like friend, Pop (Victor Moore), in tow.
Scene by scene, the plot makes little sense, and at times this seems to be a deliberate, and effective, means of deriving comedy. The ease with which Lucky changes the judge’s mind over an arbitrary figure is resonantly funny, evoking the patriarchy with which Margaret and especially Penny must contend, and the judge’s hypocrisy is capped off with a sharp sight gag: a portrait of the man, initially frowning, is smiling once father and suitor have brokered a deal. This notion of unfairly wielded male power is revisited soon again when Penny reports a theft to a cop, who sides with the well-dressed male perpetrator, Lucky. And the plot continues to pivot on elaborate, also intertwined deceptions, in which Lucky and Penny must appeal to influential and unappealing men so that they may dance. At times, Swing Time may remind contemporary viewers of a video game, in which prized footage must be “unlocked.”
The elegance of Stevens’s direction is most evident in the attention that’s paid to the characters even in the film’s most ludicrous stretches. Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Penny’s friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), are moving archetypes that embody the fantasy of America as a place where people can pull themselves up by the so-called bootstraps, conning their way into the upper echelons of society—an especially appealing fantasy during the Depression, when the screwball comedy’s conventions were cemented. Stevens spryly stages Lucky and Penny’s courtships and breakups, though he doesn’t give these scenes the subterranean emotional charge that an Ernst Lubitsch might have. Stevens values speed, racing through the script to get to the film’s reasons for existing, and the scruffiness of the romantic comedy contrasts likeably with the mathematical brilliance of the dance sequences.
For most films, “Pick Yourself Up” might be a show-stopping climax, but for Swing Time it’s the aperitif for set pieces of escalating intensity, in which Astaire and his choreographer, Hermes Pan, stretch the boundaries of their formalist imaginations. “Waltz in Swing Time” suggests a furious riff on “Pick Yourself Up,” with Astaire and Rogers elaborating on the latter’s swing motif with more pointedly syncopated solos that morph into duets. “Bojangles of Harlem” stops the film in its tracks, opening with nasty iconography as a prop modeled after a minstrel version of, presumably, Bill Robinson opens to reveal Astaire in blackface, presiding over a throne with giant legs and feet protruding out from him.
What follows is one of the most astonishing dances in the history of cinema, in which Astaire moves with 24 chorus dancers, who break up into trios before reuniting in a single vast line, allowing Astaire to partner with all of them simultaneously before moving on to a different set piece in which he out-dances a trio of shadows of himself. In these shockingly obsessive and insular sequences, Astaire pushes his co-stars aside to plumb the outer reaches of his own talent, and his angular, demonic racial caricature has undeniable force.
For a while, “Lucky” is forgotten, as Astaire is channeling, probably both intentionally and inadvertently, the perverse America that resides underneath the screwball musical’s Horatio Alger myths. And Astaire’s self-absorption is only partially exorcised by “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Lucky attempts to win Penny back on a deserted stage with a double winding staircase, their movements disconnectedly echoing one another’s in a haunting physicalizing of loneliness and heartbreak. At the end of the song, they reunite for a pained spinning gesture that explodes the emotion of the set piece, visualizing a failed stab at reconciliation.
Astaire and Rogers’s dances are as difficult to evoke in theory as jazz, as both arts can be described in technical terms that fail to honor their profound emotional power. Astaire holding Rogers in his hands and arms suggests a grace for which many of us yearn—an ability to fully express a sense of belonging or of disenchantment with a lover. The plots of Astaire and Rogers’s films, though often amusing, are irrelevant, aside from serving as a contrasting mechanism in relation to the dances. As actors, Astaire and Rogers are tasked with performing formulaic romantic melodramas; as dancers, they embody the deepest and most ineffable, beautiful, and disruptive stirrings of the soul.
The image here is often pristine, particularly in the wide shots of the fabulous sets. In these compositions, the blacks are rich and the whites really pop. Facial textures are occasionally soft and the details of the costumes are sometimes a bit vaguer than one would prefer, though neither of these issues are deal breakers. The monaural soundtrack, however, is positively dynamic, rendering the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs (all now standards of the American songbook) with piercing clarity and nuance. The same can be said of the presentation of the score at large, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the visceral machine-gun tapping of Astaire and Rogers’s shoes.
This Criterion Collection’s release of Swing Time balances archive supplements with new features, providing a rich examination of both the technical marvels and the social implications of Stevens’s film. A 1986 audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, is a stunningly detailed examination of the film’s dance sequences, explaining Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan’s working methods, and how these were folded into the production at large. Complementing this commentary are other older interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan, and George Stevens Jr. Some of these interviews are mere snippets, but they offer a piece of the living history that Mueller discusses.
Produced for Criterion in 2019, “Full Swing” features jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This program isn’t as exhaustively technical as Mueller’s commentary, but it offers a full portrait of the major collaborations that drove Swing Time, Astaire and Rogers’s sixth collaboration, and even some of their other films. The dancing, songwriting, screenwriting, and direction are all discussed, refuting the notion of filmmaking as the act of a single conjurer.
Meanwhile, a new interview with film scholar Mia Mask directly confronts the troubling racial implications of the “Bojangles of Harlem” number—a subject everyone else on this disc more or less skirts. Mask offers a primer on the history of minstrelsy in America, discussing its roots in the ridiculing of slaves and connecting this legacy to Bill Robeson’s transcendent showbiz career and to Astaire’s “erasure” of Robeson in Swing Time. Mask offers an incisive and wide-reaching work of criticism in only a handful of minutes, contextualizing the exploitation that powered even our most beloved entertainments. A booklet featuring a characteristically lovely and erudite essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith rounds out the disc.
Criterion offers a lovely transfer of one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s most enduring films, complete with a well-detailed and occasionally tough supplements package.
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens Director: George Stevens Screenwriter: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1936 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leni’s The Last Warning on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated.3.5
One of the last entirely silent films of its era, Paul Leni’s The Last Warning stars Laura La Plante as Doris Terry, a Broadway actress who finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. An attempt to capitalize on the success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary, Leni and La Plante’s first horror collaboration, The Last Warning plays like Universal’s curtain call to a certain stripe of horror movie that would be supplanted by their iconic monsters of the early talkies.
The Last Warning is an amusing, if clunkily structured, affair revolving around the unsolved murder of a theater company’s leading man that took place during an on-stage theatrical performance. While the bulk of the film’s action takes place years after that fateful performance, with the theater company reconvening to try and finally resolve the actor’s murder, a significant amount of real estate is taken up at the start by a lengthy and mostly unnecessary introduction of the company’s actors and crew, including Doris, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy), and director Richard Quayle (John Boles).
As was typical of how female stars were conceived within genre-oriented studio films of the era, The Last Warning sees La Plante less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an icon of vulnerability and fear. Leni’s close-ups of this leading lady are essentially opportunities for her to make a show of Doris’s various states of fear, confusion, and suspiciousness. And the woman’s suspicion is most evident in scenes where the story deliberately positions her as one of the prime suspects. But it’s clear that this tactic is a red herring. After all, to make the top-billed heroine of a silent-era studio picture a killer would not merely deviate from convention, but dismantle it, and the film is nothing if not married to convention.
Indeed, the film as a whole is too geared to its rather routine whodunit plot, which at various points flirts with the supernatural without every fully committing to it. At the behest of the company’s producer, Mike Brody (Bert Roach), and the theater’s new owner, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love), the company decides to not only reenact the performance from the night of John Woodford’s (D’Arcy Corrigan) murder five years prior, but to put on the show for a paying audience. Alas, these flatly ridiculous story choices don’t lead to any particularly terrifying moments, as they’re mostly a jumping-off point for Leni to have a little bit of fun with shadows in order to suggest that the dead actor’s ghost might be haunting the theater.
The film’s debt to Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera cannot be overstated, though Leni finally plays against the pathos of the 1925 film’s sentimentality with a sequence involving a masked killer that plays more like a prototype for the Italian gialli films of the 1960s and beyond. It’s only at the climax that The Last Warning embraces genuine thrills, as the killer, a member of the production crew, sets out to murder again. If the whole of the plot proves rather thin by the time the perp is unveiled, that impression is leavened at times by Leni’s visual choices. Most notable is the moment—so kinetic in its sense of terror and play—when Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), an elderly actress with the theater company, leaps from atop the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV.
Although the image has been struck from a 4K restoration, the visible deterioration and scratches on display suggest that the film’s negative was beyond economical repair. Still, the damage isn’t so bad that it prevents our enjoyment of The Last Warning, and, to be fair, the less damaged footage does give us a rather sparkling sense of what the film must have looked like during its initial run. Arthur Barrow’s newly recorded score, which vacillates throughout between the lightest and darkest of notes, sounds robust on the DTS-HD audio track.
The only extra of substance is a 10-minute visual essay by film historian John Soister on the film’s significance within Paul Leni’s filmography. The Last Warning was to be Leni’s final work, as he died from blood poisoning less than a year after its release. There’s also an image gallery with some intriguing scans of vintage promotional materials and production stills from the film’s initial run, an essay excerpt titled “Of Gods and Monsters” from Soister’s book of the same name, and a short essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his score for the film.
Less scary and innovative than modestly amusing, Paul Leni’s 1928 whodunit receives a new 4K restoration, utilizing the best available elements, from Flicker Alley.
Cast: Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, John Boles, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Burr McIntosh, D’Arcy Corrigan Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: Alfred A. Cohn, Tom Reed Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Heiress on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.4
William Wyler’s The Heiress demonstrates the filmmaker’s keen eye for composition as a means of enhancing his actors’ performances. The spectacularly ornate home at the center of the film is befitting of the considerably wealthy Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Yet the ample space left between objects in a room hints at a hollow, impersonal atmosphere that envelops Austin’s unwed daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland). A plain, naïve, and shy young woman, Catherine comes across as a woman so socially awkward and insecure that the coldness of the family home seems comforting compared to the world outside.
Despite Catherine’s shyness, the young woman does want to socialize, and she accompanies her father one night to a party where she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the son of a local family in the Sloper’s aristocratic circle whose profligate spending has already decimated his inheritance. If Catherine’s array of nervous tics—widened eyes, reflexive but forced smiles—alienate her from others, Morris’s magnetism is such that everyone is drawn to him. He takes a keen interest in Catherine and effortlessly carries the conversation when she gets flustered and doesn’t know what to say.
De Havilland, who won an Oscar for her performance here, painstakingly captures Catherine’s manic, disbelieving glee at seeing a man talk to her, and in this moment, the camera moves more than it does for the remainder of The Heiress, not only in sync with the dancing at the party, but with Catherine’s sudden rush of infatuation. Morris thoroughly charms her and even puts on a face of mock dejection when a drunken old man cuts in for a dance, and when he calls on Catherine the next day, their courtship turns into an engagement in short order.
Catherine’s impending nuptials should be wonderful news for Austin, who’s struggled to find a suitor for his child, but he rejects the union on the grounds that he believes that no man as handsome and suave as Morris could possibly be interested in his dull, homely daughter, and as such must simply want her for her inheritance. The disdain that Austin reveals for Catherine shocks her to the core, and to make matters worse, her father may be right about Morris. The dual blow of discovering that the men in her life see her largely as an object is shattering, and if Wyler’s mostly static compositions first communicated her introversion, slowly they come to reflect her abject misery. Some shots endure for so long that you can almost see as Catherine’s sorrow and humiliation harden into bitterness in real time.
Wyler’s willingness to set up a shot with exacting formal precision, then cede prominence to the actors who move within the space of the frame, results in a multivalent study of not only the story’s characters, but of the classic Hollywood era’s markedly different styles of acting. Richardson portrays even Austin’s more subtle gestures of contemptuousness with the most theatrical of cadences. Elsewhere, Clift’s facility with intoxicating yet repellent characters stresses the ambiguity of Morris’s devotion, and the longer any of Morris’s scenes last, the harder it is to tell whether he’s manipulating Catherine or genuinely interested in her. There’s even the character-actress bawdiness that Miriam Hopkins brings to Catherine’s widowed aunt, whose genuine affection for her niece belies her own exploitative tendencies, as she lives vicariously through the younger woman’s romance.
Then, of course, there’s de Havilland. The actress was often typecast as homely characters, and here she upsets common expectations by pushing Catherine’s innocence to parodic levels before shifting into a tragic-heroine mode worthy of the cinema’s greatest depictions of emotional despair. The Heiress is mysterious when it comes to characters’ intentions, but it’s downright confrontational in the brutal impact of its protagonist’s struggle for social acceptance. The finale, in which Catherine finally gains agency in her life only by consciously walling herself up in the very home that previously served as her cage, is an act of cruelty perpetuated as much against herself as those who wronged her.
Criterion’s Blu-ray boasts a sparkling transfer with only a handful of noticeable artifacts. For example, some shimmering is evident in scenes due to the clashing patterns of the characters’ clothing. Otherwise, contrast is stable throughout, and detail is so sharp that the finest details of Edith Head’s costumes are plainly noticeable. The lossless mono track is faultless, with excellent dialogue clarity and no audible hisses or tinniness.
In an extended conversation, critic Farran Smith Nehme and screenwriter Jay Cocks extensively cover the film, from its influence on Cocks and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence to the manner in which Wyler’s mostly static, open compositions communicate the characters’ psychological depths. Also included is an episode of The Merv Griffin Show that pays tribute to Wyler and includes interviews with the director, de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Walter Pidgeon, as are archival interviews with de Havilland and Ralph Richardson. An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen covers Edith Head’s designs for the film, noting how Catherine’s style of dressing slowly changes with her emotional arc. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson that thoroughly breaks down the film, from its faithfulness to and divergences from Henry James’s Washington Square to its rich acting to Wyler’s sophistication as both a stylist and actor’s director.
Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees Director: William Wyler Screenwriter: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 Release Date: May 7, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock on Twilight Time Blu-ray
Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.3.5
Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock, so abundant in richly drawn characters and moral ambiguity, is a meticulous deconstruction of western tropes, beginning with the heroic stranger riding into a troubled town. Indeed, when the stoic and implacable Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) shows up in Warlock, armed with his famous pair of gold-handled Colt pistols and his loyal sidekick, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), at his side, he’s understood to be the town’s last hope of ousting a ruthless gang of criminals led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake). Clay’s arrival lays the groundwork for a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, with the legendary aging gunman set to stand up to Abe and his thugs, who’ve been holding Warlock’s citizens hostage for months, running multiple sheriffs out of town. But the film undercuts expectations at nearly every turn, as characters frequently shift allegiances, effectively blurring the line between good and evil.
Despite Clay’s seemingly honorable intentions, he’s certainly no hero, but rather a mercenary who trades law and order as a commodity, providing it for the hefty price tag of $400 a month, quadruple the salary given to the town’s sheriff. While his ruthless methods make him seem quite cynical, he’s a realist at heart, admitting to the citizens committee that hired him that they’ll inevitably come to resent and fear him for retaining the power they hand over to him in desperation. And, of course, he’s right. But the film’s thorniest dramatic entanglements arise neither from Clay’s uneasy alliance with the people of Warlock nor his ongoing conflicts with the McQuown gang, though the latter makes for a few outstanding action set pieces.
Instead of gun fights, it’s the psychological interplay between Clay and Tom, whose partnership grows increasingly tumultuous, that takes center stage. Tom, the Doc Holliday to Clay’s Wyatt Earp, worships his friend and remains as committed to establishing him as a living legend as he does to moving on to other towns in order to rake in as much money as possible. But even though Tom’s affection is genuine—he almost tearfully admits that Clay was “the only person who looked at [him] and didn’t see a cripple”—he plays dirty behind his partner’s back, setting up murders that might otherwise be unnecessary simply to protect his idol. And when Clay finds himself smitten with Jessie (Dolores Michaels) and talks of hanging up his spurs and settling down in Warlock, Tom’s mix of anger and melancholy is palpable.
The rift between the men is further widened when Clay finds himself in another thorny alliance, this time with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a world-weary thug who finally leaves the McQuown gang after they slaughter 37 cattle herders, and surprises even himself by accepting the open offer to serve as Warlock’s official sheriff. Johnny’s transformation is as close as this otherwise sobering, pessimistic film comes to sketching a redemptive arc, but even he remains conflicted to his core, struggling to balance his burgeoning desire for uncompromised law and order and his emotional attachment to some of McQuown’s men, specifically his little brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). The resulting showdown among Tom, Clay, and Johnny sees the men applying morally dubious methods as they vie to implement their own versions of justice in Warlock. But justice remains an elusive ideal in this rough, little frontier town where the cycle of violence continues unabated no matter who’s in charge.
Near the end of Warlock, it’s Tom, as the audience surrogate, who hammers home the film’s final blow to the mythmaking that drove so many Hollywood westerns of this era. In a last-ditch attempt to secure Clay’s status as a town legend, Tom keeps him alive by holding him at gunpoint and preventing him from fighting McQuown’s men once again. Afterward, Tom gleefully says, “You’ll be a hero again. That’s all I want Clay. I’ve won.” In disgust, Clay replies, “All right, you’ve won. We’ll play this out to the end just as you want it.” But Tom’s optimism is revealed as a delusion and Clay, who resigns himself to the inescapable transience of his way of life, doesn’t deliver the happy ending the viewer has no doubt come to expect. Instead, he leaves behind everything that’s made him a legend and rides into the horizon to yet another town—and without the girl, his partner, or his trusty gold-handled pistols.
Warlock has a color scheme that’s familiar from so many ‘50s westerns, where the earthy tones of dirt and dust are intertwined with the vibrant colors of high-end saloon interiors, expensive fabrics, and big, blue skies. It’s a tricky palette to correctly color balance, but Twilight Time’s transfer is up to the task, retaining the richness of the primary colors without amping up the brightness of the entire image. There are a handful of shots that are less than sharp, especially in some of the wider exterior scenes, though this flaw, but the flaw is infrequent enough to never be distracting. Overall, there’s a solid contrast to the image, and a bit of the grain from the 35mm is held over to provide a bit of depth and prevent the picture from appearing overly digitized. The lossless audio tracks are very clean, and mixed robustly enough to never miss the various aural details during the chaotic shootout sequences.
The disc extras are pretty meager, consisting only of the original theatrical trailer, the brief Fox Movietone Newsreel that shows the stars at the film’s premiere, and an isolated music track. A small booklet is included with an essay by Julie Kirgo, who makes a case for the film’s homoerotic subtext between Clay, Tom, and Johnny, while also covering the film’s subtle tale of morality and themes of redemption and justice.
Twilight Time’s release of Warlock will bring some much-deserved attention to Edward Dmytryk’s morally knotty western.
Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Regis Toomey, Vaughn Taylor, Whit Bissell Director: Edward Dmytryk Screenwriter: Robert Alan Aurthur Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Agnès Varda’s One Sings, The Other Doesn’t on Criterion Blu-ray
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, the film remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.4
Agnés Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is about two friends whose lifelong bond is forged when, in 1962, 17-year-old Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) helps 22-year-old Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard) get an illegal abortion. Separated after the tragedy of Suzanne’s lover’s suicide, the pair encounter each other again in 1972, on the cusp of the legalization of abortion in France. From this point, the film follows their lives as they intersect and diverge, and as these two women are shaped by the politics of the 1970s. Reflecting on 15 years of second-wave feminism, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a poetic homage to the strength of women as they fight a protracted battle for liberation—one that’s made all the more relevant given the new generation of feminist activism that’s confronting a fresh wave of assaults on women’s rights.
Pauline and Suzanne encounter each other for the first time in 10 years at a protest outside the trial of a woman charged with terminating her pregnancy. Suzanne is in the crowd of protestors with her daughter when they see Pauline performing a folk protest song as part of the real-life feminist performance group Orchidée, whose members include Joëlle Papineau, Micou Papineau, and Doudou Greffier. Suzanne, much more the calm bourgeoise than Pauline, runs a women’s health clinic in the South of France. Pauline, who stole the money for the abortion from her parents and soon thereafter moved out to live on her own, is now an outspoken hippie activist who’s changed her name to Pomme (or Apple).
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t takes on the quality of a cinematic epistolary novel. Having reconnected, Pauline and Suzanne begin exchanging letters and postcards, read by the actresses in voiceover. This exchange becomes Varda’s elegant celebration of a multi-vocal feminism. The women are different: one is orange-haired and outspoken, the other brunette and more reserved; one sings, the other doesn’t. And yet, their friendship is close, held together by an almost utopian bond rooted in their shared experiences as women, both positive and negative. Varda is the implicit third member of this trio, also appearing on the soundtrack as narrator, mediating between the two perspectives like an older sister.
Through their letters, the pair recount to one another the course of their lives in a France being changed by women’s liberation. Pomme, living on her own since she was 17, unified her ardent feminism with her passion for singing and Orchidée’s formation. Her story provides the film’s exuberant feminist musical sequences, with music by François Wertheimer and lyrics by Varda herself. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is sometimes described as a feminist musical, even though the songs appear infrequently and irregularly. Less vital to the narrative than the letters, they are asides that show how a joyful form of homespun art—not totally dissimilar to the handcrafted quality of Varda’s film itself—can be an effective political tool.
When Pomme’s letters catch up to the film’s current-day setting, she’s taking a leave from the band to travel to Iran with her boyfriend, Darius (Ali Rafie). She falls in love with the exotic beauty of the country—as does Varda’s camera, lingering on the bright orange and yellow arabesques painted onto a mosque the couple visits. Caught up in romantic notions of the East, Pomme decides to marry Darius, and is soon pregnant.
In contrast to Pomme’s story of communal feminist activism and love, Suzanne was more or less banished to the countryside after the suicide of her married lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), living with the conservative family who disapproved of her and Jérôme’s two “illegitimate” children. “I felt like I was frozen in time,” Suzanne recounts of her first years outside Paris, over Varda’s representation of a desolate and stifling rural life. Varda uses impersonal lateral tracking shots, similar to those she would employ in 1985’s Vagabond, to convey Suzanne’s alienation as she performs chores around her family’s farm. Gradually, Suzanne takes charge of her situation, learning typing skills, cutting her teeth in factory work alongside other women, and building an independent life for herself and her children.
In Suzanne’s words we are reminded of the importance of time to Varda’s films—and to her feminism. Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 is one of the greatest films about time, exploring what it means to live inside a feminized body. One Sing, the Other Doesn’t is a different use of cinema to represent time, capturing the duration of a political movement as it runs through the lives of these two women. When they first meet, Pomme and Suzanne are both dominated by Jérôme, the tortured-artist photographer, who takes black-and-white pictures of women looking weary and dissatisfied. By the end of the film, as each of them is surrounded by their children and friends, they’re able to look forward with optimism—reflected in the vibrant colors of Varda’s mise-en-scène—to the next generation of women, represented by Suzanne’s teenaged daughter, Marie, played by Varda’s own daughter, Rosalie Varda-Demy.
“The personal is political” declared second-wave feminism, and certainly Varda’s depiction of an enduring female friendship is a realization of this slogan. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t reminds us that women’s personal lives—their relationships with men and each other—are a political matter. Merely showing women who support each other across great distances and differences counts as a brash political assertion, both in 1977 and today.
The 1080p transfer, based on a 2K restoration of the film overseen by Agnés Varda and cinematographer Charles Van Damme, exudes a striking filmlike quality, preserving the grain of the 35mm original. The level of detail is impeccable throughout; even in low-light exterior shots of a harvested field late in the film, for example, it seems as if every blade of grass is visible. The PCM mono track, restored from the original 35mm magnetic mix, isn’t terribly dynamic, but the dialogue and songs are nonetheless clear and crisp-sounding throughout.
In addition to “Bodies and Selves,” an essay on the film by Amy Taubin that focuses on the audacity of Agnès Varda’s emphasis on issues of bodily autonomy, the disc’s liner notes reproduce excerpts from the film’s original press kit. Here, Varda and actresses Valérie Mairesse and Thérèse Liotard discuss the origins of the film and their experiences making it; Liotard and Mairesse’s observations about how much safer a woman-directed set feels reverberates in our Me Too moment. And on the actual disc we’re offered several extras that serve as perfect companion pieces to the feature. In Plaisir d’amour en Iran, a 1976 short film by Varda that stands on its own as a poetic exploration of erotic love, Darius and Pomme are seen sharing a blissful first few days in Iran. And in Réponse de femmes, a short essay film from 1975 that exhibits the same embrace of women’s divergent lives and desires as the feature, Varda gathers a group of French women and girls of various ages to answer the question: “What is a woman?” Finally, a making-of documentary by Katja Raganelli titled Women Are Naturally Creative: Agnes Varda takes us into the Varda-Demy household, in which a very businesslike Varda—far removed from the coy old lady we know from her late documentaries—discusses the goals and pressures of being an independent female filmmaker.
An optimistic celebration of women and their ongoing liberation, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t remains moving, inspirational, and perhaps a shade too relevant.
Cast: Valérie Mairesse, Thérèse Liotard, Ali Raffi, Robert Dadiès, Jean-Pierre Pellegrin Director: Agnès Varda Screenwriter: Agnès Varda Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs on Flicker Alley Blu-ray
The magnificent transfer further deepens the emotional resonance of Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.4
Early on in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, the surgically perma-grinning Gwynplaine looks at himself in his dressing-room mirror. A one-time son of English royalty who as a boy was turned into a freak-show attraction by political enemies, Gwynplaine spends his time as a traveling performer whose wide crescent smile sends the great unwashed into tizzies of both horror and, eventually, delight. As he looks at himself in the mirror, he’s struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his perpetual grin. A moment of bravura acting by Conrad Veidt (already famous for his portrayal of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s topped by a wonderful cinematic grace note when Gwynplaine closes the doors of the mirror and finds them ironically painted with the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy.
Whether it was because Lon Chaney had recently signed a contract at MGM and was unavailable for work at Universal, or because one of the studio’s founders, filmmaker Carl Laemmle, had a great eye for German expressionism, The Man Who Laughs took the Universal “super jewel” series of gothic horror to new and unparalleled heights in cinematic intelligence. Like many a German expressionist nightmare, the film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a collision of non-complementary angles and framing that confuses as often as it elucidates. At the same time—and unlike The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Leni’s own 1924 silent Waxworks—it it’s also remarkably clean in its delineation of action.
In the same manner that Veidt is both the film’s central monster as well as its main source of pathos (all but laying out the blueprint for James Whale’s Frankenstein), the film’s fascination with bric-a-brac and its tendency toward spare, minimalist compositions is evidence of a stylistic schism. This obsessive dualism that runs throughout the film also informs the love triangle between Gwynplaine, his blind co-star girlfriend, Dea (Mary Philbin), and the Duchess (Ogla Baclanova). It’s a little off-putting—and probably also a function of Laemmle’s insistence that The Man Who Laughs rival Phantom of the Opera’s phenomenal box-office success—that all superfluous characters basically adhere faithfully to one of two sides of the classic good-evil dichotomy, but even that framework could be taken as a critique on Leni’s part of Hollywood’s psychologically limiting archetypes. Veidt’s terrifying grin masks the horror of having one’s looks be objectified at the expense of their humanity.
Flicker Alley’s transfer of a new 4K restoration by Universal Studios brings a remarkable depth and level of detail to almost every shot. A healthy amount of grain is evident throughout, and the strong image contrast highlights both the film’s impressively detailed set design and the intricacies of the actors’ faces, particularly that of Conrad Veidt, whose tortured, tragicomic expressions present the film’s pathos at its most overwhelming. There’s the slightest bit of flickering in about one-third of the shots, and some far less frequent signs of scratching, but for a 90-year-old film, such minor artifacts of natural decay hardly count as negatives. The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s new score sounds fantastic, boasting a dynamic range that perfectly accompanies the film’s dramatic ebbs and flows.
The lone extra on the disc, aside from a collection of production stills, is the short but informative “Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs.” Despite its title, the featurette’s focus is less on Leni than on studio head Carl Laemmle, whose “fondness for literature’s quirky side” led him to produce The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera before taking on The Man Who Laughs. After quite a bit of historical context surrounding Universal’s release of the film and the reasons behind the studio’s inability to cast Lon Chaney in the lead, Leni is given his proper due, rightfully celebrated for his uncanny ability to mix black humor with an expressionistic eye. The Blu-ray, and accompanying DVD copy, comes with a 20-page booklet with an array of production stills and two essays. The first, by film historian Kevin Brownlow, covers the film’s production history in detail and touches on each of the major performances, while also praising the film for its innovation and influence on later films such as Frankenstein and The Old Dark House. The second essay, by Sonia Coronado, discusses the creation of the new score and, in the process, provides unique insight into the scoring of silent films.
Flicker Alley’s magnificent transfer only further deepens the emotional resonance of Paul Leni’s strange, transfixing, and compassionate film.
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam De Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Károly Huszár Director: Paul Leni Screenwriter: J. Grubb Alexander Distributor: Flicker Alley Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1928 Release Date: June 4, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In on the Criterion Collection
Criterion gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.4
Claire Denis’s 2013 film Bastards is a squalid and serpentine anti-thriller, the most lugubrious, nihilistic work in an already bleak oeuvre. In it, Denis depicts, with her usual salaciousness and elusivity, the vindictive stratagem of a sailor whose brother has committed suicide and whose niece is the victim of a barbaric sexual assault that’s left her broken. He ascertains that the man responsible is a wealthy and sleazy septuagenarian, whose wife becomes a desired effigy, an object for masculine revenge. “Give me a handjob,” the old man demands of her, in his first scene. Shooting digitally for the first time, Denis drags the viewer through an aphotic, disconsolate endeavor, infected with the still-lingering influence of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. A lurid enigma, erotic noir as tragedy, Bastards is a film that burrows into genre like a parasite, while probing the darkest alcoves of the human heart.
Denis’s latest, Let the Sunshine In, is considerably less despondent, concerned as it is with the fragility, and perseverance, of the heart. Its modesty and intimacy runs the risk of being erroneously labelled slight. It’s a 95-minute reconciliation with love, which has always been something of an unmitigable poison for Denis’s characters. The self-destructive nature of searching for meaning, for a partner, has long fascinated the filmmaker, and here she strips bare that hopeless pursuit. In those diurnal moments, the mundane, unexceptional motions that make up a relationship, Denis disinters the pleasures (however brief) and pain of love.
Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is longing for love. Hers is a Sisyphean desperation. In a world of wolves, she finds selfish and acrimonious men with raging libidos and diminished morals. We first see her naked on her back as a man, Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), humps away on top of her—and right away, one may wonder if this is a portrait of a liberated woman or a glimpse from the male gaze. There’s much huffing and moaning and no cumming. Vincent asks if Isabelle came faster with her former lovers, which earns him a slap. Portly and pretentious, a sybarite banker with a posh apartment, royal blue shoes, and an abstract vermilion painting that resembles the blood-streaked wall from Trouble Every Day, Vincent is Isabelle’s first lover in the film. In a bar bedecked with glimmering top-shelf liquors and mood-setting candles, he instructs the bartender to leave him a bottle and two glasses, so he can pour the drinks himself. Denis shoots Isabelle and Vincent’s ensuing conversation with fluid pans instead of traditional reverse shots, evoking love as a continuous stream.
The next time we see the self-pitying Vincent, Isabelle calls him scum and kicks him out. He clings like a stain she can’t scrub out, but she moves on to other lovers, from a beer-swilling actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) to a gaunt, purportedly uneducated man (Paul Blain). She brings them home, begging if they hesitate, but fails to find that one true love, the kind you hear about in fairy tales and old French films. Denis regular Alex Descas portrays a man who could be “the one” for Isabelle, but life (and self-destructive tendencies) have a way of ruining these kinds of things. Denis isn’t known for letting her characters have traditionally happy endings, and the tragedy here is how normal that feels: how futile love can be for the unlovable.
The film is inspired by Roland Barthes’s 1977 exegesis The Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, a clinical examination of love that’s comprised of quotes and musings from a medley of canonical and esoteric writers. Turning an unadaptable work of postmodern literature into an incandescent cinematic reverie on love’s follies as a quick side project could have been a masturbatory exercise in intellectualism, but Denis finds the inexorable beauty (and sadness) in that most corrosive and fugacious of feelings. For Isabelle, love is a toxic need. Barthes, not known for sentimentality, discusses love as an intellectual pursuit, an aching inevitability, one to ponder rather than feel. Denis is also not known for producing art of a cuddly nature—her career is rife with barbarities, with the dissolution of lives and loves—yet Let the Sunshine In is easily the most empathetic, heartfelt film of her illustrious career. Throughout, Isabelle’s romantic plight encapsulates the confusion of being alone. The film is garrulous and often uproarious, especially Gerard Depardieu’s late appearance as a psychic charlatan, but within these laughs is a deep, familiar disappointment, the sensation of irreparable loneliness.
Denis’s films reveal themselves with precision and control, and often with a macabre reverence for genre, probing the inherent rot in the human core. Trouble Every Day shrouds itself in the aesthetic of vampires and zombie lore; the poetry and pain in that film are innate in the seduction of venereal destruction, the entanglement of love and sex, love and hate, sex and death. Bastards wears the stoic face of noir so it can cogitate the roles of sex and betrayal. Beau Travail transliterates Herman Melville’s low-key homoerotic sailor tale Billy Budd, in which Melville wrestles with the magnanimity of God and the mendacity of man, as a vituperative study of imperialism and militarism as wanton outlets for flimsy masculinity.
Let the Sunshine In, the closest thing to a rom-com that Denis has made since Friday Night (a film that’s tender yet tormented, and not particularly comedic), feels, thematically and formally, like an epilogue to her favorite theme. It’s gentle yet devastating, like an insincere “I love you” whispered into one’s ear, the duplicity hidden behind upward-curving lips, the pangs of misplaced vulnerability. Isabelle isn’t emotionally reticent, and she opens up quite easily, but she tries to force love, afraid it will never find her. Denis’s films often end with a reveal, a character learning something previously withheld, or the viewer learning that a character knew more than we expected. Here, nothing is learned; nothing changes. Over Depardieu’s lecherous skullduggery Denis lays the end credits, his affably manipulative performance and Isabelle’s swoony obliviousness suggesting that Isabelle will never find what she’s looking for.
Color balance and contrast is consistent throughout this striking transfer. This is especially impressive considering the varied hues of Agnés Godard’s cinematography, from the dark colors that predominate in the settings and costuming, as in the low-sit clubs and nighttime streets, to the warmest of yellows that illuminate the characters’ faces. The sound is very clear, which is very important for such a dialogue-driven film. The 5.1 mix doesn’t get too much of a workout, but it does show its euphoric might whenever off-screen sounds and the occasional song—mostly notably Etta James’s “At Last”—flit into the mix.
Included on this disc are two separate interviews with director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche, who discuss the origins of the project and hit on some of the same points: Binoche’s real-life love of painting, their momentary disagreement over costuming choices, and what the film has to say about being a single middle-aged woman. Denis gives much credit for the final shape of the film to her co-writer, the novelist Christine Angot, as well as to cinematographer Agnés Godard. Also included is Denis’s 2014 short Voilà l’enchaînment, a heartfelt series of vignettes about a mixed-race couple. The liner notes contain a brief but insightful essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek that places Let the Sunshine In in the context of Denis’s canon, as well as draws out its connections to the work of two of her major influences, critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes and filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
The Criterion Collection gives one of last year’s most deeply felt and beautifully shot films a rich transfer and a respectable set of extras.
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alex Descas, Philippe Katerine, Josiane Balasko, Laurent Grévill, Bruno Podalydès, Paul Blain, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Dumas, Claire Tran Director: Claire Denis Screenwriter: Claire Denis, Christine Angot Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Hal Ashby’s The Landlord on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino offers a sturdy transfer of Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.3.5
Mainstream American films concerning race relations tend to follow one of two patterns: Either they hopefully suggest that reconciliations are possible, or hopelessly dramatize the chasm of privilege existing between white people and everyone else. Hopeful films can win Academy Awards, while hopeless ones more reliably earn a critic’s respect, though both modes often feel pat, suggesting that the filmmakers believe they’re imparting concrete, unambiguous wisdom to audiences. By contrast, the best films about race in America—such as Imitation of Life, Nothing but a Man, Ganja & Hess, Losing Ground, Do the Right Thing, and O.J.: Made in America—tend to suggest the intense unknowability of the power of endemic racism to separate, limit, and destroy people.
The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s relatively and unjustly obscure directorial debut, similarly communicates the bewildering sense of apartness existing between two poles of social opportunity. Based on a novel by Kristin Hunter, which was adapted by screenwriter Bill Gunn (the director of Ganja & Hess), The Landlordhas the same shaggy intensity as Ashby’s subsequent films, as well as the ferocious humor of Gunn’s later work. The narrative concerns a young, rich, white man, Elgar (Beau Bridges), who enters a low-income black world and mucks around in it with no consideration as to the outcomes of his actions. For Elgar, the New York slum building he buys is an upgradable dollhouse, an effort to prove to his family that he can handle a business venture. For his renters, of course, this building is their lifeblood, and they ready themselves against Elgar’s trespass in a variety of often startling fashions.
The scenes establishing Elgar’s motivations are the film’s shakiest, as Ashby indulges in arty, essentially meaningless formal tricks, such as having the protagonist talk to the camera, but The Landlord quickly catches fire when Elgar begins mixing with his new tenants, whom he plans to evict. Marge (Pearl Bailey), the wise old broad of the place, who runs an illegal fortune-telling business out of her apartment, plies Elgar with soul food and attempts to prevent him from making an entire fool out of himself or getting killed. In a majestic performance, Bailey informs Marge’s intelligent, weary eyes with an unexpected texture: pity.
This thoughtlessly powerful white man might be a sign of many of America’s injustices, but Marge understands that he’s essentially a boy, and she talks to him in a fashion that’s familiar of how African-Americans must gently “handle” whites who have an inflated sense of their own humanism. This understanding helps to give The Landlord its core toughness and dimensions of tragedy. Throughout the film, Ashby nurtures a sense of double awareness, imbuing scenes of communion with an undertow of guarded isolation.
Elgar’s intimate moments with Fanny (Diana Sands), a.k.a. “Miss Sepia 1957,” exude a similar aura of tenderness. It’s not difficult to understand what the characters see in one another. Soft, physically unimposing Elgar is a relief from Fanny’s terrifying, tightly wound husband, Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.), who may be insane, and who brings to the fore the bitterness and violence that often churn beneath the film’s surface. And for Elgar, Fanny is a beautiful and experienced older woman who is also, of course, forbidden fruit. This thread resembles the plot driving The Graduate, though The Landlord doesn’t turn the older woman into a caricature to score easy generational points. Ashby and Gunn understand that Elgar and Fanny are mutually exploring one another for reasons that neither of them entirely fathom. There’s an impression here of sex only intensifying the very issues that tend to lead to love affairs.
In the tradition of many future Ashby protagonists, Elgar is subsumed into a world he doesn’t understand, a world that’s truly governed by women, who let the men have their saber-rattling theatrics while privately making the real decisions. Women rule the ghetto apartment complex that Elgar buys, and they rule the posh realm that he’s attempting to flee. Elgar’s mother, Mrs. Enders, is played by Lee Grant, who’s so sexy she nearly throws The Landlord off its axis. Elgar and Mrs. Enders have a conspiratorial rapport that’s almost erotic, rooted in each character’s feelings of imprisonment. In fact, Elgar has more chemistry with his mother than he does with Lanie (Marki Bey), his biracial girlfriend, and so one wonders if Elgar is working through more than racial curiosity when he sleeps with Fanny.
You never know where this highly combustible production is going, as the filmmakers fuse a variety of seemingly contradictory tones with daring finesse. Gunn’s astonishing dialogue has a terse, poetic bluntness, with punchlines that wouldn’t be permitted in our woefully cautious and polite contemporary cinema, such as Elgar’s alternate definition of the acronym N.A.A.C.P. And, working with cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby fashions a hallucinatory atmosphere in which sex, danger, and bonhomie casually comingle. The apartment building, particularly at night, comes to suggest an alternate dimension, most notably when the tenants have a rent party and get Elgar drunk and confess some of their true feelings about white society to him as he submits to the spell of the noir lighting and the booze.
Bridges grounds and unifies this film’s wild-and-wooly tangents, giving an extraordinary performance that’s so natural it could easily be taken for granted. He plays Elgar’s poignant cluelessness, his lost-ness, without sentimentalizing the character’s self-absorption, as Dustin Hoffman did in The Graduate. In one of the film’s best and toughest scenes, Elgar discusses the child that Fanny has had—his child—telling her he has no room for a baby in his life. Bridges plays this scene as a perverse awakening, as one can see Elgar hearing his own words and becoming disgusted with the person speaking, a person Elgar might not have known himself to be capable of being. The film, then, is about Elgar, a faux-liberal, realizing that he isn’t quite a hero—that he simply wants to be comfortable. And, though he eventually confronts the ramifications of his meddling in this other world, there’s still a lingering aura of disenchantment in The Landlord. No wonder that the film was relegated to cult status, as it asks Baby boomers to swallow a rather bitter pill.
There’s quite a bit of softness to this image, which is mostly attractive and probably reflective of the film’s source materials, though background detail is occasionally murky. Facial detail and general foreground clarity is impressive though, with painstaking attention paid to textures of characters’ skins. Colors are also robust, especially the reds and the blacks of the shadows. The 2.0 DTS-HD soundtrack lends the songs a sharp bounce, and captures all the subtle cacophony of the city life that has been so vigorously rendered by the filmmakers. This is an appealing restoration, but there’s room for improvement.
Interviews with actors Beau Bridges and Lee Grant and producer Norman Jewison respectively cover the film’s making. Most interesting are Bridges’s recollections of feeling authentically threatened by the ghetto setting, and how co-star Louis Gossett Jr. helped acclimate him to some of the rougher locals. Wanting no police on the set, Hal Ashby also collaborated with the nearby hoods, hiring them as extras and supporting actors. Ashby is celebrated in all three of the interviews, which also include context regarding the social climate of the film’s release, when the country was suffering from riots and upheavals that somewhat resemble the heated chaos of today. These are solid extras, but an audio commentary or wider-ranging documentary would’ve been nice. Several trailers round out the package.
Kino Lober offers a sturdy transfer of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s overlooked and still quite volatile feature film debut.
Cast: Beau Bridges, Lee Grant, Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Walter Brooke, Louis Gossett Jr., Marki Bey, Mel Stewart, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein Director: Hal Ashby Screenwriter: Bill Gunn Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 1970 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video
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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
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
Review: Men in Black International Struggles to Find Intelligent Life
The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.1.5
Marvel has had such success staging comic-action team-ups in a variegated and totally incoherent alien world that now would seem to be an ideal time to resurrect the Men in Black series. F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black International even reunites two of the stars of Taika Waititi’s funny and colorful Thor Ragnarok. In that film, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson trade barbs and butt heads as, respectively, the daftly optimistic Thor and the despondent alcoholic Valkyrie, a combative relationship that seems ideally suited for Men in Black’s brand of buddy-cop action comedy. Trade Thor’s hammer for one of the Men in Black organization’s memory-erasing neuralyzers and the film would almost write itself.
Men in Black International, though, fails to recapture the spark of either Hemsworth and Thompson’s witty dynamic in Thor Ragnarok or of the Men in Black series’s original pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Thompson plays Agent M, a rookie at the MiB who stumbles into an intergalactic political conspiracy when she imposes herself on Agent H’s (Hemsworth) mission to safeguard an extraterrestrial prince named Vungus. Agent H is on a self-destructive hedonistic streak after a traumatic battle in which he and the head of the MiB London branch, High T (Liam Neeson), defeated an extraterrestrial scourge “with nothing but their wits and their Series-7 De-atomizers.” Due to his ostentatiously casual treatment of the mission, Agent H fails to recognize an impending threat, and Vungus ends up dead. In his last moments, the hoodie-clad, lizard-like alien prince hands Agent M a magical whatsit for safekeeping, a mysterious crystalline object that nefarious alien forces are out to procure.
So, as usual for the Men in Black series, the plot hinges on an arcane object of power that motivates the main characters’ journey into hidden pockets of the world where every weirdo is an alien and every bodega or bazaar is a façade for a storehouse of hyper-advanced technology. Behind the wall of a Marrakesh pawnshop, Agents H and M discover a colony of pint-sized alien workers and adopt one of them (Kumail Nanjiani) as their de facto third partner in their attempt to keep the whatsit—which turns out to expand into a gun powered by a miniaturized sun—from falling into the wrong hands. Dubbed “Pawny” by Agent M, the tiny alien travels in the breast pocket of her suit and pops out regularly to make quips that are mostly tepid.
Also after the whatsit-cum-MacGuffin is a pair of malicious alien twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) who occasionally become smoke monsters and melt people as they chase Agents H and M and Pawny across the globe. From London to Marrakesh, from the Sahara to Naples, and from there to Paris, the trio’s quest earns the “international” in the film’s title, but as the film jumps from one CG-infused setting to another, a personal journey for its principal characters never quite emerges. Sure, Agent M is driven and brilliant, and Agent H is indolent and reckless, but these opposing qualities never lead to the conflict that might invest us in the development of the characters’ relationship, romantic or otherwise. From the beginning, the pair are generally fine with one another, the individualist veteran Agent H breaking down and letting the overeager rookie join him after about four seconds of cajoling.
From there, there’s not much for the two to resolve, as the dynamic between the characters is woefully anodyne. Agent M is initially drawn to Agent H in part because he possesses Hemsworth’s good looks, but Men in Black International never commits to a flirtatious tone, and never figures out how to apply a buddy-cop schema designed for a homosocial universe to this cross-gender pairing. The film wastes its charismatic leads in a parade of wacky CG creations whose occasional novelty is drowned out by its incessance.
The film’s pacing also plays a part in diminishing one’s investment in the principal characters. In its first act, the film feels appropriately zippy, but soon thereafter it becomes a rushed mess, hardly stopping to let the viewer or its characters breathe. On the rare occasion when Men in Black International slows down long enough to get some repartee between its characters rolling, the scenes feel oddly truncated. At one point, the film smash-cuts to Agents H and M stranded in the Sahara Desert with a broken hover bike, with the two bickering over…something. It’s just one of several scenes, including and especially the film’s absurdly rushed climax, that are inadequately set up, leaving one with the impression that there are missing pieces. But perhaps that’s fitting, as watching this film is a bit like being neuralyzed.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Kayvan Novak Director: F. Gary Gray Screenwriter: Matt Holloway, Art Marcum Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
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