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Blu-ray Review: Tampopo

Juzo Itami’s “ramen western” is a zesty concoction that investigates the often surreal intersections of sex, death, and other human appetites.

4.5

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Tampopo

Writer-director Juzo Itami’s “ramen western” Tampopo cannily conflates the unassuming pleasures obtained from consuming comfort foods and genre filmmaking alike. Building on the sturdy narrative framework provided by archetypal American westerns like Shane, Itami frees himself up to spin his story off into odder tangents, much as a ramen chef can spice up a basic broth with any number of exotic ingredients. At bottom, Itami’s film is a zesty, albeit wholesomely satisfying, concoction concerned with the virtues of community and cooperation. Nonetheless, Tampopo also explores some darker regions in a number of vignettes that illuminate the often surreal intersections of sex, death, and other human appetites.

The film announces the nested-Russian-doll complexity of its storyline from its cold open on a yakuza in a white suit (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) enjoying a night out at the movies. The gangster saunters up to the extreme foreground of the shot, insouciantly shattering the fourth wall by asking viewers what they’re snacking on, before settling in for a movie that merges with the one we’re watching. This film starts with two truck drivers, Goro (Tsutomu Yawazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe), barreling through the rain-drenched night while the opening credits roll. Gun reads aloud from a book, which Tampopo brings to life as a hilariously mock-solemn discussion between a ramen master (Ryutaro Otomo) and his acolyte (Watanabe) on the proper way to eat a bowl of ramen: a ridiculously elaborate ritual that includes apologizing to the pork you’re about to consume. Realizing Gun’s story has made them hungry, the truckers decide to stop at a ramshackle ramen shop run by dowdy widow Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Now the story seemingly settles into a groove, following Tampopo on her single-minded quest to concoct the perfect bowl of ramen, craftily acquiring the necessary knowledge and skill sets, assisted by an expanding roster of culinary confederates. These sequences smartly toy with the conventions of the sensei-disciple relationship depicted in countless martial-arts films, foregrounding Tampopo’s burgeoning self-confidence and resilience, and even throwing in an amusing nod to Rocky for good measure. Still, every so often, Itami pulls a page from Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty playbook, panning the camera away from the actors in the main storyline to track background characters into a loosely related series of vignettes. These episodes not only allow Itami to expand the thematic scope of his film, they also reveal an antiauthoritarian streak in the filmmaker’s sensibility that acts as a welcome counterweight to his larger narrative’s bittersweet optimism.

Itami’s anarchic verve is nowhere better illustrated than in the scene set in an elegant restaurant that contrasts a group of young women receiving stern instruction not to make a sound while eating a plate of spaghetti with the rude and lusty noodle-slurping of another patron. Like the best of Buñuel, this sequence ironically inverts the social norm—in Japan, slurping your food is considered an appropriate sign of appreciation—as a means of demolishing notions of propriety and good taste. A darker, more tragicomic mood envelops a later vignette in which a salary man races home to attend to his ailing housewife, who’s just been diagnosed as being overworked to death. Without missing a beat, the husband prescribes his own variety of no-rest cure—“Go make dinner!”—and with foreseeable results.

By far the most outrageous episode finds the gangster in white and his lover embroiled in an act of what Itami calls the “pornography of the edible” in the production diary that’s included as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray. Food-play of the 9 ½ Weeks sort is one thing, but watching this couple orally swap an egg yolk six or seven times definitely borders on the obscene—and yet that image is easily capped when the yolk inevitable bursts, dribbling yellow spurts all down the woman’s chin and chic clothes. This scene is sardonically mirrored in the film’s final shot: a protracted zoom-in on a contentedly breastfeeding baby, a cheeky callback to that primordial era when sex and sustenance seemed like they would never be dissevered.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s new 4K transfer of Tampopo is a marked improvement over the Fox Lorber DVD. The film looks somewhat darker, with more deeply saturated colors, beefed-up contrast levels, and better-rendered flesh tones. Fine details of costume and décor really pop, and the healthy grain levels appear properly cinematic. Masaki Tamura’s savory cinematography verges at times on food porn (in one scene quite literally so), and every tantalizing close-up of those steaming bowls will make you want to plunge a pair of chopsticks into your screen. The PCM mono mix is sturdy. Composer Kunohiko Murai, renowned for his work on the Lone Wolf and Cub films, contributes a bouncy score replete with generic western themes, and even a bit of ragtime piano. The soundtrack also mixes in some evocative classical pieces like the extract from Liszt’s “Les Préludes” that plays over the bittersweet finale.

Extras

The excellent making-of documentary, assembled and narrated by Juzo Itami, is the next best thing to a commentary track. There’s plenty of de rigueur behind-the-scenes footage, but also some illuminating comparisons of the finished film to the shooting script, and an extended demonstration of timing a piece of classical music to match on-screen events. Actress Nobuko Miyamoto discusses playing the title role in the film, and collaborating with Itami, who was also her husband. Seiko Ogawa talks about her experiences preparing most of the food in Tampopo, getting along with the hands-on Itami, and how the film’s depiction of food brings with it an inevitable sense of nostalgia for Japanese viewers of a certain age.

“The Perfect Bowl” is unadulterated foodie bait, with Japanese and American ramen vendors rhapsodizing about their initial exposure to the film and how it influenced their food philosophies. Zhou and Ramos’s video essay cribs its definition of the amateur from author Michael Chabon, applies it to various characters in the film, and outlines some key distinctions between the artist and the craftsperson. Itami’s debut short film, 1962’s Rubber Band Pistol, is a French New Wave-indebted jape that tags along with a band of disaffected twentysomethings over a few misspent days of woolgathering and tinkering with the titular toy. The Blu-ray’s foldout booklet reproduces the movie poster on one side and offers an astute essay from food and culture writer Willy Blackmore on the politics of food in Tampopo on the other.

Overall

Juzo Itami’s “ramen western” Tampopo is a zesty concoction that investigates the often surreal intersections of sex, death, and other human appetites.

Cast: Tsutomo Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, Rikiya Yasuoka, Kinzo Sakura, Yoshi Kato, Hideji Otaki, Fukumi Kuroda, Setsuko Shinoi, Yoriko Doguchi, Masahiko Tsugawa, Mariko Okada, Ryutaro Otomo Director: Juzo Itami Screenwriter: Juzo Itami Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 114 min Rating: NR Year: 1985 Release Date: April 25, 2017 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Arrow Video’s Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance receives a significant packaging upgrade from Arrow Video.

4.5

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Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.

Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.

Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.

So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.

Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.

Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.

Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.

In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.

Image/Sound

This Blu-ray edition’s hardback book indicates that the transfer was “made available by NBC Universal.” Indeed, there are no appreciable differences between this transfer and the one on Universal’s 2016 home-video edition of the film. Only a few instances of noise exist in the darkest shots, but otherwise this remains a crisp transfer. The 7.1 and X lossless audio tracks are likewise pristine, perfectly balancing the film’s exacting sound design—so rich in creaks and ghostly whispers—relative to Fernando Vélasquez’s tense but mournful score.

Extras

Arrow Video has ported over all of the features from Universal’s original release, which contained mostly brief EPK documentaries and one of Guillermo del Toro’s indispensable audio commentaries. Arrow supplements these extras with some new—and meatier—goodies, chief among them “The House Is Alive,” a 50-minute documentary that dives deep into the film’s intricate production design and literary inspirations. Del Toro also contributes a new interview, while two new critical pieces are included. One is an interview with critic Kim Newman, who places the film in the broader context of gothic romance, the other a video essay by Kat Ellinger on del Toro’s entire filmography and Crimson Peak’s place within it. Arrow’s lavish packaging also includes production stills and a booklet with an interview with del Toro and critical essays by David Jenkins, Simon Abrams, and Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Overall

A slew of excellent new features ensures that this is, for now at least, the definitive home-video edition of Guillermo del Toro’s elegant haunted-house film.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Release Date: January 15, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Blu-ray Review: Julien Duvivier’s Panique

This dynamic and balanced restoration makes a significant case for the film as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

4.5

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Panique

Julien Duvivier’s Panique informs small-town life with rich menace, suggesting a correlation can exist between vicious gossip and physical violence, as people seek to assert dominion over the reputations of their neighbors out of boredom and resentment. Throughout the film, a doubling motif links classism with atrocity, and rumor-mongering with the tragedy it incites—such as linked images of two funerals, one of the murder victim that drives the film’s plot, the other of a person framed for the murder, essentially for being an eccentric outcast. As in many a film noir, Panique has, at its center, the structural rigidness of a mathematical equation, which it fleshes out with macabre comedy, piercing pathos, and a mad blend of realism and rococo expressionism.

The outcast is Monsieur Hire, played by Michel Simon, in casting that recalls Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. In both films, Simon plays a frumpy, lonely, and artistic man stuck in his own head, who falls for a beautiful woman who exploits his affections with the encouragement of her true lover. Renoir allows us to understand from the outset that Simon’s character is trapped, by his self-loathing as much as by his manipulators, while Duvivier offers a panorama that gradually closes in on Hire. In fact, one of the driving pleasures of Panique’s first act is in attempting to discern where it’s going, as Duvivier studies the respective habits of a baker, a prostitute, a shifty young man, a hypocritical accountant, and so forth. The film’s foreboding emphasis on daily life sometimes suggests The Marseille Trilogy by way of Shirley Jackson.

Hire initially appears confident, accepting his status in this picturesque country as the resident weirdo. After resisting the butcher’s attempts to talk with him, Hire orders a bloody pork loin and proceeds to the cheese shop to search for its “ripest” Camembert. Such details, which are plentiful in Panique, are amusing for their own sake while revealing that Hire fashions himself a ghoulish aesthete who’s somewhat difficult for the sake of being difficult. (The emphases on blood and ripeness also suggest a rechanneling of thwarted sexual hungers.) Unlike the immediately pitiable hero of La Chienne, Hire allows the audience to enjoy his loneliness. Perhaps this is a man who’s figured out how to live apart from society with dignity intact. In other words, Hire, who possesses the gifts of Simon’s own inherently introverted magnetism, flatters similarly-minded people in the audience.

This narrative misdirection mirrors Hire’s fooling of himself, underscoring how he’s attempted to transcend his human need for companionship—a nuance that renders his fall from grace all the more moving. As Hire becomes intoxicated with Alice (Viviane Romance), Simon’s physicality becomes subtly heavier and more awkward, as the actor understands Hire to be reverting to a vulnerable state that’s been long suppressed. Duvivier’s compositions complement this notion, particularly when Hire is framed in his cluttered apartment, regarding Alice’s residence from below as carnival lights luridly illuminate him. The carnival isn’t only a metaphor for the “show business”—the manipulations, the play-acting—that govern everyday life, but for how society always requires freaks for projection and ostracizing.

A beautiful and merciless film, Panique has been read as an allegory for Vichy France’s complicity with Nazis, which is apparent in the way the conspiring villagers are shown to unify against a diseased cause that’s been engineered by a third party. And such an association is complicated further by the controversy of Duvivier leaving his country for Hollywood during WWII, which is helpfully illuminated in the essays in the booklet included with this disc. But humankind has so often betrayed itself—honoring its irrational base instincts above issues of morality or common sense—that Panique now operates as a free-floating nightmare of persecution, one which offers a vividly haunting victim. As Hire ascends a building to his doom, fleeing his vengeful neighbors, one may think of Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, only in this case there’s no mythical creature to offer one the distancing assurance of the fantastic.

Image/Sound

The image has a few minor blemishes but is generally quite sharp and rich in tactile detail. Throughout the film, this superb clarity particularly emphasizes the relationship between the various foregrounds and backgrounds of the frames, underscoring the vitality of tracking shots that elaborate on the various connections between the characters, emphasizing how small this troubled community really is. Blacks are rich, and whites are delicately soft, the latter of which is important in rendering characters’ flesh, particularly in the surprisingly erotic images of a woman teasing her male voyeur with glimpses of her body. The monaural soundtrack expertly preserves the film’s intricate soundstage, which often pivots on a contrast between the sounds of everyday work (carpentry and butchery) and those of the carnival, which physicalize the lurid thoughts driving the narrative’s action.

Extras

“The Art of Subtitling,” a new short documentary by Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures, offers an unusual and fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day challenges of translating foreign dialogue into English text. Like a lot of things many of us take for granted, subtitling requires an exactitude and discipline that’s invisible at first glance. For instance, a subtitle must disappear before one image segues into another, so as to not jar the audience. And, for the sake of flow, subtitles must also summarize dialogue rather than literally transcribe it, so that an audience doesn’t spend a film’s entire running time reading. Goldstein also examines the process of updating and improving subtitle tracks over the years as films are restored, including the production of the new track of Panique that was commissioned for this release, as modern audiences have grown to crave a precise rendering of the slang and humor that give characters and narratives texture.

A new interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of legendary Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, offers an inside look at how Julien Duvivier altered one of his father’s novels to arrive at the screenplay for Panique, while providing a short overview of Georges’s life, particularly during WWI and WWII. (Georges wasn’t especially fond of the many films made from his work, though Pierre has high praise for Panique.) Meanwhile, a conversation from 2015 between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot succinctly covers a variety of topics, especially the rocky reception that Duvivier received when he returned to France after working in the United States so as to dodge the Nazi occupation. French audiences, somewhat understandably, were resistant to a critique of mob justice from someone who managed to avoid the danger and turmoil of the mob altogether. The essays by film scholar James Quandt and Duvivier expert Lenny Borger also discuss the political context of Panique, while reveling in the film’s brilliant melding of realist and expressionist textures. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but informative supplements package.

Overall

With this dynamic and balanced restoration, Criterion makes a significant case for Panique as one of the most moving and beautiful of unjustly neglected noirs.

Cast: Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Louis Florencie, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières Director: Julien Duvivier Screenwriter: Charles Spaak, Julien Duvivier Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 1946 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Brian De Palma’s Obsession

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade from Shout! Factory.

4

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Obsession

Geneviève Bujold was a little bit like the Björk of late-‘60s, early-‘70s cinema. She worked between predominately pop-minded American films and hermetic, aggressively Euro productions, coasted a long way on adorably pliable looks, and kept you perpetually off-balance with her off-kilter line readings and interpretations. She was a sterile cuckoo with a voice whose grit confirmed the darkness in her eyes. Paul Schrader may have ended up having to capitulate Obsession’s original (ridiculous) scripted ending to the will of Brian De Palma, but the casting of Bujold in what is essentially Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo results in a literary emphasis not seen in De Palma’s work again until the strong-arm showboating of Oliver Stone and David Mamet.

Obsession is, as far as De Palma’s tributes to Hitchcock go, half-baked and far-fetched without even the benefit of being audacious-unto-tasteless. It’s the film in which the only dearth of a metaphoric “double” is the comedy mask that ought to complement the dour visage of tragedy. (Is that the reason that it’s Obsession, and not any other De Palma film up until Femme Fatale, that’s included in the top 1,000 film list of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who sneered at the director for delighting in audience reactions to Dressed to Kill?)

While Bernard Herrmann’s rapturously funereal score (with at least four separate dirge leitmotifs swirling around the opulent, central “Valse Lente”) ratchets up Obsession’s metastasized, polluted doom-gloom, Bujold takes her role in the opposite direction, at least initially. (The character is a screenwriter’s “pitch” if there ever was one—e.g., “What if we took the idea that Kim Novak was practically young enough to be James Stewart’s daughter and just ran with that?”) Within minutes of meeting Cliff Robertson’s sad sack Michael, Bujold’s Elizabeth bites heartily into Schrader’s symbolic dialogue about the ethical implications of discovering an original draft of art and restoring the revision.

That’s clearly an expression of self-deprecating guilt from a writer who felt a little dirty turning Vertigo into a teary-eyed sick joke. But Bujold’s enthusiasm as a performer redeems the entire picture, especially when she’s asked to perform flashback scenes that shouldn’t work, but, thanks to her, represent another of De Palma’s fearlessly experimental whims.

Image/Sound

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography has looked too washed-out on previous home-video editions of the film, but it finally looks right on Shout’s Blu-ray. Colors are natural and the exaggerated lighting dazzles when refracted off of mirror surfaces. Even more impressive is the surround-sound remix, which amplifies Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic, swelling score to deafening levels while leaving all dialogue clear in the center channel. The original mono track is also included and sounds every bit as crisp despite the lack of separation.

Extras

On his commentary track, Douglas Keesey offers a drily academic breakdown of the film. The author of Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film sounds too much like he’s reading from a script, but he still provides intriguing observations on the director’s stylistic flourishes. Interviews with producer George Litto and editor Paul Hirsch see both men reminiscing about their careers and work with De Palma, with the former more gregarious about his own life and the latter more specific about the details of his work on Obsession. An archival documentary on the film features interviews with De Palma, Cliff Robertson, and Geneviève Bujold, who all reflect on the film’s production and how well they worked together. The disc also includes a trailer, radio spots, and an image gallery.

Overall

Brian De Palma’s showy Vertigo tribute gets a significant A/V upgrade, highlighting the dreamy haze of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s score better than any home-video release of the film to date.

Cast: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara, Stanley J. Reyes, Nick Kreiger, Stocker Fontelieu Director: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Paul Schrader Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 1976 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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