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Blu-ray Review: Sinister 2

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

3.5

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Sinister 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image/Sound

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

Extras

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

Overall

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

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

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Blu-ray Review: 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

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Swing Time

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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The Last Warning

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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Blu-ray Review: William Wyler’s The Heiress on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release excellently preserves William Wyler’s psychologically probing masterwork.

4

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The Heiress

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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Warlock

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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One Sings, The Other Doesn’t

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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The Man Who Laughs

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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Let the Sunshine In

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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

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The Landlord

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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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Blu-ray Review: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games on the Criterion Collection

The dearth of substantial extras leaves the film, perhaps appropriately, to mostly speak for itself.

3.5

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Funny Games

In a recent interview recorded for this Blu-ray release of Funny Games, Michael Haneke describes the self-reflexive tactics he deploys throughout his 1997 film as a means of scolding audiences for, among other things, falling prey to the tropes of the thriller genre. With a smirk and twinkle in his eyes, the Austrian auteur proclaims, “I can tear people away from the story, but in five minutes, they’re at my mercy again.” The smug sense of superiority behind this sentiment is ultimately the dominant ethos at work throughout Funny Games, a film that delights in goading us into pre-conditioned responses to disturbing emotional and physical violence, only to slap us on the wrist time and again for getting sucked into the machinations of this twisted drama.

Haneke goes on to say later in the interview, “I rubbed their noses in it again and again: This is a film.” Like a child gleefully using a magnifying glass to burn helpless ants, Haneke plays the part of a vengeful god from behind the camera, torturing a vacationing bourgeois family via two teenage sociopaths, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch). But this isn’t an ordinary thriller, and Peter and Paul are certainly no ordinary villains.

These two assailants—whose purpose as constructs is underlined by their various pop culture-related nicknames, from Tom and Jerry to Beavis and Butthead—are virtual tabula rasa, a comedic odd couple clad in matching white shirts and gloves. Their unsettling air of politesse, however, barely conceals their utter lack of emotions, discernible objectives, or endgame to explain their heinous actions. Their existence is, in essence, purely pedagogical, as, unlike the family they torture, they operate outside the realm of psychological or cinematic realism.

Haneke amplifies our disgust at Peter and Paul’s lack of empathy by pitting them against a fully humanized married couple, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their young son, Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski). But this stark contrast between the extreme artificiality of the attackers and the realism of the family is only used to continually bait viewers—to toy with our innate desire for victims to ultimately get their bloody vengeance while delaying our gratification at every turn. We may spurn Peter and Paul’s ruthless methods, but we’re made aware that they’re giving us the sort of titillation we crave through an array of postmodern techniques that stress our complicity in their continued violence, from Paul winking into the camera as he taunts Anna to him using a remote control to rewind the film itself and undo an event that may have led to his victims’ salvation.

By luring us into an emotional connection with the victimized family only to repeatedly pull us out of the fiction with metatextual hijinks, Haneke deigns to force viewers to confront their motives for craving on-screen violence. But while the filmmaker is undoubtedly skilled in replicating the tense, unsettling experience of a thriller, his film is an unnecessarily dour, grueling experience that’s akin to being taught how to box by someone who only wants to see you punch yourself in the face. As such, Funny Games ends up less like a film than a bullying thesis statement whose sense of suspense is mostly a show of condescendingly relentless sadism, and not least of which because of Haneke’s hypocritical refusal to implicate himself in the perpetuation of the very violence he condemns us for enjoying.

Image/Sound

The clarity and depth of this transfer, sourced from a new 2K restoration, is impressive, taking advantage of the disc’s high bitrate to ensure that none of the inconsistencies apparent in earlier home-video releases of Funny Games, such as pasty skin tones, are reproduced. The earthy tones of the film’s numerous interiors have a certain drabness that plays nicely against the infrequent but crucial intrusions of bright colors, from the yellow of broken eggs and Peter and Paul’s raincoats to the splatter of blood. The nighttime sequences exhibit a strong contrast between the deep blacks and characters as the move in and out of shadows. The 5.1 soundtrack is nicely mixed, with clean dialogue and a subtle layering that’s particularly appreciable during scenes where off-screen sounds play a larger role in the narrative.

Extras

The extras here are surprisingly scant by Criterion’s standards, but what’s worse is that only the interview with film historian Alexander Horwath approaches Funny Games with a critical approach that isn’t already embedded in the film. Horwath establishes Funny Games not only as a response to the violent postmodern films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, in vogue in the early to mid-‘90s, but as a forebearer to popular Hollywood films that tackle the nature of cinematic reality and reality itself. The most intriguing of Horwath’s insights, however, are the parallels he draws between Haneke’s film and today’s video games and gaming culture. In the interview with Haneke, the director comes off as self-satisfied and didactic as his film, while actor Arno Frisch’s interview offers little insight beyond his genuine love of Funny Games. The press conference from Cannes doesn’t disappoint in terms of controversy, but much of Haneke’s defense of the film, such as the inanity of approaching it from a psychological or sociological level, is amply covered in his other interview. Film critic Bilge Ebiri’s essay elaborates on the seeming contradictions underlying the cinematic violence in Funny Games as well as the film’s use of opposing styles of performance.

Overall

Criterion’s release features a strong 2K digital restoration, but the dearth of substantial extras leaves Funny Games, perhaps appropriately, to mostly speak for itself.

Cast: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Christoph Bantzer, Wolfgang Glück, Susanne Meneghel, Monika Zallinger Director: Michael Haneke Screenwriter: Michael Haneke Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth on the Criterion Collection

This is a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jarmusch’s more uneven films, which is still a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.

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Night on Earth

Jim Jarmusch’s films are often celebrations of blue-collar intellectuals who grapple with a classic balance between life and art, and, in his best work, his deadpan humor is revealed to be a pose that shatters, revealing longing and desperation. His best films (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Paterson) are about the limitations of even great art to soothe the tortured tides of the soul, while his worst suggest works of shrewd museum cultivation—that is, the indie director equivalent of brand management. (Ironically, The Limits of Control, whose title essentially sums up Jarmusch’s most astute preoccupations, is one of his most smug and lifeless films.)

Jarmusch’s 1991 anthology film Night on Earth is a sampler of his best and more mediocre instincts, an example of a production being less than the sum of its parts. The film has issues that are common of most anthologies: inconsistency and redundancy. After a couple of these vignettes, one becomes accustomed to Jarmusch’s rhythms and—despite the variety of terrific performances on display, as well as the usually impeccably hip artistic reference points—a certain tedium sets in that’s heightened by the reduction of each city to a series of pillow shots.

Night on Earth is hermetic—like all Jarmusch productions—and rigidly structural even for an anthology film, as every story concerns an odd-couple pairing between a passenger and a taxi driver in an iconic city. Every story begins with the passenger being picked up, and ends with their delivery to their destination, after an oddball pseudo-catharsis has occurred. In his own puckish, glancing way, Jarmusch is rather preachy here, riffing on what the protagonist of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels might have termed the “universality of man.”

The film’s first vignette is its best, dooming Night on Earth to an anticlimax from the outset. Set in Los Angeles, the narrative concerns a Hollywood casting executive, Victoria (Gena Rowlands), who’s picked up from the airport by Corky (Winona Ryder). The contrast between these women is visceral and poignant without succumbing to cartoonish-ness, like the pairings of later episodes. Victoria is stylish and elegant, bringing to the cab all the gravity of, well, a legendary actress, while Corky is a small and spunky eccentric.

Jarmusch’s pared-down dialogue underscores a very truthful element of human communion, which recalls the meaning at the heart of the glorious scene between Jason Robards and Paul LeMat in Melvin and Howard: that people are most revealing when they don’t appear to be talking about much. Rowlands’s deliberate diction and guarded timing mesh evocatively with Ryder’s spitfire spontaneity. And Jarmusch ends this story with a beautiful punchline: Victoria offers to make Corky a star, but the girl declines. Corky wants to drive a taxi and to eventually become a mechanic. She wants to meet a man who will appreciate her soul. Unlike many of us, Corky knows who she is, and Victoria will probably never forget her.

Set in New York City, the second story pivots on a decent joke that quickly grows stale. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays an immigrant cab driver from Eastern Germany who can barely drive his cab, and who picks up a passenger (Giancarlo Esposito) who takes over the vehicle and drives them to Brooklyn. Mueller-Stahl and Esposito have lively timing, but the notion of a slow-on-the-uptake European and a brash New Yorker soon comes to feel as obvious as a sitcom—and, just when one wonders if Esposito has been intentionally instructed to reprise his frenetic performance from Do the Right Thing, along comes Rosie Perez, who repeats the profane shrillness of her own performance from the Spike Lee film.

Due to the charisma of the actors, this vignette nevertheless goes down fairly easily, but it still exudes a reheated quality. Equally glib, and quite a bit less palatable, is the episode set in Rome, featuring Roberto Benigni as a predictably oversexed Italian lothario who drives a predictably outraged priest (Paolo Bonacelli). In these portions of Night on Earth, Jarmusch falls prey to a problem that recurs throughout his filmography, congratulating himself merely on throwing “name” actors together in unexpected fashions.

The stories set in Paris and Helsinki, respectively, have the ambition and some of the gravity of the Los Angeles segment. As a Parisian cab driver who originally hails from the Ivory Coast, and who suffers racist and classist remarks even from African diplomats, Isaach De Bankolé radiates a ferocious sense of anger and emotional repression that shakes Night on Earth to its core, and he’s matched in intensity by Béatrice Dalle, who has the film’s single best absurdist joke. The cab driver asks the young woman, who’s blind, why she doesn’t wear sunglasses like other blind people, and she says she’s never seen other blind people. The remark is inherently funny, and it also encapsulates the obsession with connectivity that runs through the film.

The Helsinki segment concludes Night on Earth on a heavy, melancholic note, tonally counterpointing the deceptive, multifaceted lightness of the Los Angeles narrative. A gaggle of drunk men (Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, and Tomi Salmela) pour into a cab, plying its driver, Mika (Matti Pellonpää), with a sob story of losing a job and finding out that a teenage daughter is pregnant. Mika proceeds to top the story with a remembrance of losing a baby in childbirth, which Pellonpää delivers with a magnificent and heartbreaking stillness that reflects an ongoing struggle to soldier on against hopelessness.

This monologue is one of the most vulnerable and straightforward scenes in Jarmusch’s career, and it reminds one once again of the lovely surprises that can be uncovered via the filmmaker’s penchant of collecting actors he likes and bouncing them off one another. Jarmusch allows Rowland, Ryder, De Bankolé, Dalle, and Pellonpää to bloom, expanding on performances they’ve given in other films. Meanwhile, Jarmusch reduces other actors to stereotypes. The uncertainty of Jarmusch’s vision complements the driving obsession of his narratives, then, evincing a struggle for purity of empathy.

Image/Sound

This high-definition digital restoration, approved by Jim Jarmusch, has a healthy vitality that honors cinematographer Frederick Elmes’s stunning images. The nightscapes have a lush, enveloping sense of darkness that recalls Elmes’s work for David Lynch, and the faces of the various actors sport striking detail. The clarity of this restoration further underscores the subtle visual differences between the film’s various vignettes: New York City, for instance, has hot, bright colors, while Helsinki’s hues are more autumnal and depressive. There’s also a strong element of attractive grit that gives Night on Earth a shaggy lived-in quality. (The film looks so good that one wishes that Jarmusch, an aesthete and traveler, had worked each city more intrinsically into the various narratives.) The 2.0 surround DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is fairly unassuming, given Jarmusch’s wont, though it gives Tom Waits’s playful score a bass-y bounce that complements the gravelly tenor of the singer’s voice. The actors’ voices are clearer than they were in prior editions of the film, rendering it all the more vivid.

Extras

Disappointingly, there are no new supplements for this disc, but the featurettes ported over from the label’s 2007 edition hold up quite well. A selected-scene commentary featuring cinematographer Frederick Elmes and location sound mixer Drew Kunin details the making of an anthology-style production, which Elmes memorably likens to several “first weeks” of shooting. The visual symmetry of each vignette is discussed, and ample technical information is provided, along with poignant personal anecdotes. (Night on Earth was Gena Rowlands’s first film after her husband and collaborator John Cassavetes had died, and we learn here that Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and others called in to check on her.) A Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he reads through questions that fans have sent him, is charmingly conversational, allowing the filmmaker to riff on the making of Night on Earth, including how he dealt with shooting scenes in languages he doesn’t speak, as well as his favorite music and movies. A short Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch, from 1992, also includes some choice encapsulations of his reasons for initiating the project. Rounding out the package is a booklet featuring essays by filmmakers, authors, and critics Thom Andersen, Paul Auster, Bernard Eisenschitz, Goffredo Fofi, and Peter von Bagh, and the lyrics to Tom Waits’s original songs from the film.

Overall

Criterion offers a beautiful refurbishing of one of Jim Jarmusch’s more uneven films, which is nevertheless a must-see for a handful of beautiful performances.

Cast: Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach De Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Kari Väänänen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Tomi Salmela, Emile Abossolo M'Bo, Pascal N'Zonzi, Roberto Benigni, Paolo Bonacelli, Matti Pellonpää Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 1991 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Sinister

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

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Sinister
Photo: Summit Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: 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.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

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

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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.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

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

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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.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

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


Cars 2

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


Cars

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


The good Dinosaur

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


Monsters University

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


Cars 3

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

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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.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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

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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

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Men in Black International
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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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Review: The Weepie American Woman Is Elevated by Strong Performances

The film is more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life.

2.5

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American Woman
Photo: Roadside Attractions

If you go into Jake Scott’s American Woman believing that family is everything, that mothers possess untold strength, and that the human spirit is indestructible, the film will helpfully reaffirm your preconceptions. This is a film about Rust Belt Pennsylvania that isn’t particularly invested in the milieu of the working-class issues except as it forms a backdrop for drama, and one that’s much more interested in how people respond to extreme emotional crises than to everyday life. Its sensibility is undeniably middle of the road, certainly closer to that of a weepie melodrama than that of a social-realist portrait.

Still, American Woman is elevated by its performances, especially Sienna Miller’s as Deb. Miller lends credibility to a character that in other hands might seem like a caricature of the white underclass. The peroxide-blond Deb is brash and loud—an Erin Brokovich without a social mission—but Miller doesn’t let Deb’s theatrics define her, conveying the sense of a person behind the cheap fashion and emotional outbursts. As familiar as the character of the gritty, misunderstood working-class woman is, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miller, who also nails Deb’s Eastern Pennsylvania accent, carrying this film.

A young mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), goes missing one night in the early aughts, Deb is left to care for her infant grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and American Woman follows her as she rebuilds her life—and despite the new, perpetual substratum of grief and the numerous additional obstacles that she faces as a single, undereducated woman in small-town Pennsylvania. These obstacles most often appear in the form of the less-than-upstanding men in her life, but also in Deb’s relations with her sister (Christina Hendricks), who lives across the street, and her mother (Amy Madigan). After a grief-and-alcohol-induced car crash in the wake of Bridget’s disappearance, the story abruptly flashes forward seven years, to a period when Deb has found a kind of uneasy equilibrium.

Beginning the film as an irascible, confrontational woman in her early 30s, Deb mellows out over the years, redirecting her energy into raising Jesse (now played by Aidan Fiske) and finding a stable career. Seven years after Bridget’s disappearance, you can see on Deb’s face that she has made a kind of weary peace with the course of her life, though she still calls on her ornery side in moments where she feels threatened or insecure—like when her live-in boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), turns abusive toward her and Jesse.

There’s a degree of simplistic wish-fulfillment in the conclusion of the Ray storyline, and another sudden fast-forward sees the film skipping over the potential fallout and lasting effects of abuse. There’s also a similar bit of flimsiness to Deb’s later romance with Chris (Aaron Paul), who appears as Ray’s straightforward opposite. But through Ray, Deb’s failed affair with a married man, and a pair of final-act revelations, American Woman speaks powerfully about the varying forms of abuse men inflict upon women. Ray may be a one-dimensional woman-beater stereotype, but the second act proves crucial as background for the film’s emotional conclusion, in which Deb reaches a major decision about her future that doesn’t require any explicit explanations, given what we’ve seen her go through.

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healey, Alex Neustaedter, E. Roger Mitchell, Kentucker Audley, Aiden McGraw, Aiden Fiske, Amy Madigan Director: Jake Scott Screenwriter: Brad Inglesby Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Reports on Sarah and Saleem Sees Sexual Betrayal as Horror

We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

1.5

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
Photo: DADA Films

The very history of film could be recounted through the ways in which patriarchy’s favorite victims have snapped and taken matters into their own hands. From Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce to Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman to Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom, the payback can be quite brutal. But it can also be insidious in its violence, as is the case with what Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), a married woman mired in domestic tedium, does with her boredom in director Muayad Alayan’s The Reports on Sarah and Saleem.

Sarah lives in West Jerusalem with her perennially unavailable husband, David (Ishai Golan), a colonel in the Israeli army, and angelic daughter, Flora (Raya Zoabi). The film is an exposé of how the politics of an occupation are also, if not especially, achieved through the straitjacketing of sexual desire, especially that of women. Alayan crafts a world where physical assault and murder seem to be the only language available for men to resolve their issues, which might explain why Sarah prefers the horror of sexual betrayal as a way out of her despair. To Alayan, this is presented as the ultimate horror—as a woman putting an end to the fantasy of monogamy is here synonymous to national, and ethnic, treason.

Sarah starts having an affair with Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), a married Palestinian man who delivers bread to her café in West Jerusalem. Strapped for cash and finding himself delivering more than mere bread to local merchants, Saleem eventually asks Sarah to join him in one of his nocturnal deliveries of shady goods “behind the wall.” She’s torn between going back to her family and enjoying an evening of sex in his van and drinks on a dance floor in Bethlehem. “Is it safe?” she asks. It clearly isn’t, but she ends up choosing fun over duty at last. The consequences are dire as Saleem ends up getting into a fight with a man trying to pick Sarah up, triggering a chain of vengeful episodes involving intelligence services and the like.

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem stops flirting with the gripping feeling that is so fundamental to its very genre precisely at the moment where the anxiety of a clandestine liaison gives way to an unending barrage of narrative twists and soap-operatic strife. That is, at the moment the threat of danger, wonderfully performed when Sarah is asked to wait for Saleem in his van while he makes a delivery and she manages to lock herself out, is replaced by overtly palpable spectacles of danger. The film’s thriller elements are also marred by the fact that Alayan never allows his characters’ emotions to develop and percolate, resorting to ready-made signifiers of drama instead, from gunshots to pregnant bellies. We never spend enough time with the characters to believe the urgency, and lushness, of their cravings.

Alayan is more interested in portraying Israel as a place of and for institutional corruption than observing the emotional and sexual consequences of such a state of affairs. Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher deals with similar subject matter, namely the lack of satisfaction Jewish women in a land of predictable truculence feel, but in a much more humane fashion. Lapid chases the radical—and whimsical—consequences of the systems put in place to guarantee female despondency instead of focusing on the trite intricacies of the institutional intrigue driving such systems. In Alayan’s film, the consequences of Sarah and Saleem’s affair may prove some kind of urgent political point as we see in very clear terms how little Palestinian bodies matter, if at all, but it makes for an overtly cerebral experience divorced from the very element that has supposedly brought the bodies of its main characters together in the first place: the refreshing recklessness of sexual desire.

Cast: Sivane Kretchner, Adeeb Safadi, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ishai Golan, Mohammad Eid, Raya Zoabi Director: Muayad Alayan Screenwriter: Rami Musa Alayan Distributor: DADA Films Running Time: 127 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Our Time Doggedly, Elliptically Considers the Costs of Partnership

The film elides politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

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Our Time
Photo: Monument Releasing

Filmed in low, awesomely wide angles, the series of vignette-like scenes that make up the lengthy opening sequence of Carlos Reygardas’s Our Time are a sociological survey in miniature, observing the nature of the interactions between people of the opposite sex at various ages. Young girls fuss with a broken beaded necklace as boys, sticks in hand, go marauding through a shallow, muddy lake surrounded by distant mountains. “Let’s attack the girls,” one of them says, as they disrupt a gossip session among pre-teen girls on a large innertube. With a slipstream rhythm, the action pivots to older teens experimenting with alcohol and drugs and maneuvering sexual attraction and frustration. After a while, we arrive at the grown-ups, a set of urbane, cosmopolitan ranchers who haven’t left any of this behind.

The backdrop of this sequence, which lasts from bright daytime to well past dusk, recalls the simultaneously transcendent and frightening opening of Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, depicting a child alone in the wild. In his first collaboration with a new cinematographer (Diego García, who shot Neon Bull and Cemetery of Splendour), Our Time retains some of the director’s penchant for specialized lenses—like fisheye—and prismatic lens flare, but their effect is muted relative to the sometimes outrageous transcendentalism of his previous work. Reygadas’s latest unfolds more in the mold of recent work by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, relentlessly probing the more stubborn and outdated aspects of modern masculinity.

Reygadas himself plays Juan, a renowned poet and the owner of a ranch outside Mexico City, and the filmmaker’s wife, Natalia López, stars as Juan’s spouse, Esther, who manages the ranch. (Their children, Rut and Eleazar Reygadas, play Juan and Esther’s two younger children, with Yago Martínez in the role of their teenage son.) The family is rarely alone, and they retain domestic help and numerous cowboys to manage the bulls and horses on their property. At the party that opens the film, Esther connects with an American horse trainer named Phil (Phil Burgers) and begins an affair that gradually undoes her marriage. Our Time is, by all accounts, a pretty faithful biographical account of Reygadas and López’s recent marital troubles.

The conflict between Juan and Esther, which elevates from a gentle simmer to physical outbursts over the course of the film, isn’t merely about lust; it’s also about semantics and self-presentation. The couple have long had an open marriage—an allusion to Juan’s ex-wife suggests this decision was an effort to avoid past mistakes—so Juan’s feeling of betrayal is less about Esther sleeping with Phil than it is about her concealing the act, along with her continued communication with him. In his roles as writer and director, Reygadas crafts Juan as a self-styled progressive and empath. Unlike the patriarch in Post Tenebras Lux, who ran headlong into class warfare, Juan is exceedingly companionable with his hired help and open-hearted toward his children. Though class markers are everywhere in Our Time, from Juan’s clean chaps to his conversations with relatives of his workers (one requests that Juan “sponsor” him with the purchase of a new race car), the film elides these politics in order to earnestly consider whether love is necessarily an act of possession.

As politics drop out of his purview, Reygadas integrates nature—typically an external force of rapture and terror in his work—into his study of human behavior. Often, he does this in the most prosaic of ways, twice transitioning from arguments to instances of wild bulls picking violent fights. At the same time, the ranch is a haven in Juan’s very image, and he treats moments like these as violations of his peaceful dominion. Reygadas explores Esther’s psychology in more interesting ways, sending her to a timpani performance (by Mexican percussionist Gabriela Jiménez), which is shot with such urgency that it feels like a heavy metal concert, conjuring Esther’s turmoil as she texts with Phil in a symphony hall that would be pitch black if not for the slight glow of her phone.

With limited evidence that their affair is continuing, Juan’s fixation on Esther’s interest in Phil yields a handful of lengthy discourses on Juan’s fears for their future. His words are eminently judicious, but they wear Esther down, until she reacts to him with physical sickness and increasing desperation. Their distance yields Reygadas’s boldest narrative tactic, which is to effectively turn our time into an epistolary three-way romance for an entire act of the film. Juan, Phil, and Esther all dispassionately say their piece in voiceover monologues reciting letters and emails they’ve written to one another (one is recited over a bravura shot captured from the landing gear of a plane). In odd instances, a few of these communiques are read by one of Juan and Esther’s children, a suggestion that they understand what is happening or are perhaps fated to make the same mistakes as their parents.

Our Time’s foundation as a sort of Knaussgardian, auto-fictional overshare may account for both its curiously absent politics and what for Reygadas as unusually vibrant, dimensional characters. (Phil, an inane lunk trying to reconcile conflicting orders about whether or not to have sex with Esther, doesn’t achieve such depth.) Though the film suffers in its later scenes, as Reygadas turns Juan’s anxieties into actions and assures us that this auteurist self-portrait is appropriately self-excoriating, Our Time is remarkably balanced in considering both sides of its central marriage. As Juan’s mixed emotions unfurl in lucid, bountiful words, López reveals in simple gestures and shifts of position how Juan’s behavior has robbed Esther of her independence. Though artistically tame by Reygadas’s standards, Our Time doggedly pursues ugly truths about how partnership necessarily requires the sacrifice of one’s agency.

Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas, Yago Martinez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 177 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Blue Note: Beyond the Notes Trumpets the Freedom of Jazz

The documentary proves that the history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself.

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Blue Note: Beyond the Notes
Photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment

The history and mythology of American jazz is as intoxicating as the music itself. Many of the form’s legends knew one another and worked together, and these relationships yielded revolutionary music and stories of intimate collaboration, damnation, and unlikely transcendence. Jazz is the soul of modern America, telling the country’s story in intricate, beautiful, simultaneously tight and open and planned and improvisational music. And one of the souls of jazz is Blue Note Records, founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Jews who fled Nazi persecution in Germany and arrived in America to pursue their obsession with the music that was banned by their home government. Which is to say that modern jazz is a reaction to, and transcendence of, multiple forms of oppression.

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an agreeably loose and conversational documentary that’s more ambitious than it initially appears to be. Director Sophie Huber interviews the usual suspects of the modern jazz documentary—most notably Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter—and recounts the formation of Blue Note Records. As such, the film’s structure will seem familiar, especially to jazz aficionados, but Huber uncovers strikingly intimate material that elucidates difficult jazz concepts. Footage of Thelonious Monk playing the piano, his fingers hypnotically bending the keys to his will, is utilized by Huber to embody the emergence of “hard bop”—a reaction to cool standards that would define the modern concept of jazz.

Huber’s interviewees boil their experiences down into tactile and visceral descriptions; their inflections and word choices are themselves innately evocative and musical. Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, one of the most commanding presences in Beyond the Notes, memorably says at one point that all the other record companies were “white. Cheap, cheap white, too. I should name them but I won’t.” In 12 syllables, Donaldson poetically outlines an entire history of exploitation, and the refuge that Blues Note offered. Complementing such stories are Wolff’s iconic photographs, which poignantly illustrate the unexpected union forged by two middle-aged white men and undiscovered black musical geniuses.

The film doesn’t over-emphasize this cross-racial bonhomie for the sake of sentimental uplift; instead, Huber explores the exhilaration and arduousness of the work of making these records. In many photos, we see Lion hovering at the shoulders of legends, seemingly serving and commanding them at once, which Huber complements with audio recordings that capture the toil of playing, playing, and playing again, until Lion’s painstaking vision is realized, allowing these performers to reach the apex of their talent. (It says something about Lion and Wolff that they could command the love and respect of even the ferocious Miles Davis.)

Beyond the Notes also features interviews with modern jazz musicians, whom we see playing with Hancock and Shorter, most notably covering the latter’s majestic “Masqualero.” (Huber is the rare modern filmmaker to accord Shorter the respect he deserves, as he’s often recruited by filmmakers to attest to the brilliance of other men.) Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others, talk of the importance of carrying jazz into the present day, a project that’s been taken up by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, with whom Glasper has collaborated, as well as the producer Don Was, the current president of Blue Note. These sentiments lead Huber to a too-brief visual essay on the link between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

If Blue Note: Beyond the Notes lacks the intensity and personality of recent jazz docs such as I Called Him Morgan and It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Story, it’s because Huber hasn’t chosen one story, favoring a “sampler” structure that would’ve been better served by a running time that’s much longer than the film’s 90 minutes. Huber ably accomplishes her stated goal, opening up jazz for new audiences, rendering it palpable without flattening it out with pat explanations. But cinephiles and jazz fans will be left wanting more of everything, especially the jam session between Glasper, Scott, Hancock, Shorter, and others. Such a session inspires Scott to make an unforgettable observation. Playing with some of his heroes, Scott expected Hancock and Shorter to “take the lead.” But these men wanted to see what the young bucks got, giving them the gift that is the ultimate promise of jazz: freedom.

Director: Sophie Huber Screenwriter: Sophie Huber Distributor: Eagle Rock Entertainment Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Being Frank Is Cringe Comedy of the Most Nonsensical Sort

The film sends the curious message that any time spent with an abusive parent is time well spent.

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Being Frank
Photo: The Film Arcade

Miranda Bailey’s Being Frank immediately homes in on the tensions that divide a perversely controlling father, Frank (Jim Gaffigan), and his moody 17-year-old son, Philip (Logan Miller). In this dark comedy’s early stretches, the filmmakers pay reasonably nuanced attention to Philip’s anger and frustration over his father’s domineering ways and constant traveling for work. But when the teen sneaks off to a nearby resort town for spring break and conveniently discovers that his father has an entirely separate family there—thus explaining Frank’s frequent work trips to “Japan”—the film quickly drops all pretenses of authenticity as it starts to seemingly lay the groundwork for a revenge comedy in which Philip wields his newfound knowledge against his hypocritical father.

As Philip works his way into the good graces of Frank’s second family, he delights in his father’s perpetual discomfort, particularly as the teen’s half-sister, Kelly (Isabelle Phillips), unaware of their blood relation, develops a crush on him. For a while, the screenplay by Glen Lakin is content to mine middling yet harmless cringe comedy from the awkward collision of two worlds that Frank had planned on keeping forever apart. Soon, however, Philip decides to not only forgive his father, who’s done nothing short of make his life a living hell, but to conspire with him to continue protecting his secret. It’s at this point that Being Frank takes a bizarre and completely unconvincing turn toward a conciliatory buddy comedy as Philip becomes an inexplicable co-conspirator in his father’s web of lies.

For a while, you may be willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, as Philip would appear to be motivated to protect his mother, Laura (Anna Gunn), and sister, Lib (Emerson Tate Alexander), from the truth, as well as make his father squirm. But after Philip chooses to remain in the resort town and subsequently endures the torture of seeing Frank appear happier and more laidback with his second family, his endgame becomes increasingly muddled. As his initial gratification at finally having the edge on his father morphs into pity and compassion, his actions become more senseless, as if driven solely by narrative demands that require him to stick around simply to set up the requisite show of father-son bonding.

Once Laura also shows up at the resort town and inevitably stirs up more trouble for her husband, Being Frank only leans further into its farcical elements, losing all perspective on the psychological damage Frank’s behavior has caused to those around him, especially to his son. As Frank’s carefully constructed double life begins to unravel, he’s eventually held accountable for his deceitful actions by at least a few people, yet his relationship with Philip somehow remains not only intact but also grows stronger. Although Frank’s frequent manipulation of his son is often couched in humor, the film’s celebration of their bonding through such toxic conditions is, at best, misguided, all but condoning bad parenting by suggesting that any time an abusive parent spends with a child is time well spent.

Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Logan Miller, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, Isabelle Phillips, Alex Karpovsky, Danielle Campbell, Gage Banister, Daniel Rashid, Jessica VanOss, Emerson Tate Alexander Director: Miranda Bailey Screenwriter: Glen Lakin Distributor: The Film Arcade Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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