That Larry the Cable Guy has nearly acquired name-above-the-title privileges for Cars 2, leapfrogging past even the first film’s Owen Wilson in star billing, should tell you all you need to know about Pixar’s crass and uncharacteristically threadbare cash-grab, spun not so much from the thread of 2006’s Cars as from that feature’s spawn of short films, each of which stars Larry the Cable Guy’s stupid, bucktoothed tow truck. No surprise, since we’re dealing with the same breed of moneymen who thought Sing-Along Pocahontas videos were a good idea, and were correct: There’s gold in them thar hills. Rather than aiming for another Best Picture nomination, Cars 2’s pitch is grounded firmly in two safe bets—one, Larry the Cable Guy’s inexplicable but undeniable endurance, and two, that Cars has generated more revenue (with its line of toys rather than its box office) than any other Pixar property.
Cars 2, even more than its predecessor, is the Pixar movie that’s safe to hate. From the get-go, the franchise’s main conceit seems blatantly secondhand: Anthropomorphized toys, anyone? The eye-filling backgrounds (a whirlwind world tour reduced to theme-park caricature, and I mean that in a nice way) and photo-real textures fail to compensate for the lack of variety in individual character animation. After a while, all I could see when I looked at Lightning McQueen, Mater, or anyone else, was a matched pair of craft-store googly eyes, pasted onto whiteboard, its expression as variable as the positioning of a foreskin-like uni-lid would allow, itself a concept lifted from Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed hero of Monsters, Inc.
The discrepancy between the photo-real and the slapdash effectively neutralizes any talk of Cars 2 being a work of great animation. It’s a worse problem than the uncanny valley, the most commonly leveled charge against Robert Zemeckis’s underrated Beowulf and A Christmas Carol; say what you will about dead eyes and a crack squad of Tom Hankses doing backflips, at least there’s a consistency of tone, a unifying creative force. Cars 2 looks like the work of multiple committees completing various objectives, with varying degrees of success.
Which is a shame, because the brilliant unification of über-talented groups of tech and creative whiz kids—groupthink touched by the hand of God—is the alibi that grants Pixar safe haven from even its most vehement critics. Considered as a body of work, the Pixar feature films represent the Platonic ideal of corporate Hollywood: a perfect amalgam of verisimilitude and candy-color expressionism; humor that slaloms from puerile to Oscar Wilde without hitting any bumps; Spielbergian escapism and crisply choreographed action sequences; validation of that amorphous cloud of “humanist values” that no one can really describe in great detail, but which seems to have best been illustrated by the incinerator sequence in Toy Story 3.
Adding insult to injury is an unfocused script that relies heavily on some of the most unfortunate screenwriting clichés of post-1980s Hollywood. One, in particular, stands out: the “friends who have a falling out because one of them is a hopeless imbecile and the other one says so, only to reconcile just in time for the big finish,” which I believe dates back to 1992’s Pauly Shore vehicle Encino Man. This cliché is infuriating because it argues that an already implausible friendship grants absolution to all manner of lunatic, anti-social, and destructive behavior. If this sounds prudish on my part, consider the TV scripts of Joss Whedon, whose own career was jumpstarted by co-writing the Oscar-nominated script for the original Toy Story. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly are rife with characters making bad, selfish, or just plain lunkheaded decisions, but never without consequences. Consider the scene where Mal nearly throws Jayne out of the airlock, and the genuine uncertainty as to whether or not he’ll really do it—that’s the kind of drama Cars 2 could have benefited from, big time.
That said, while the craft is sometimes shoddy, the photorealism is there solely for our kneejerk admiration (my my, how long that metallic sheen must have taken to render!), and the shitty script is altogether unworthy of the legacy of Ratatouille, Up, WALL-E, or even the first Cars, there are isolated moments of pleasure, most of them in a cold open that meticulously recreates an outlandish James Bond espionage and escape sequence. The high point is the cold open to the cold open, a video left by an intrepid undercover agent, a visually incoherent stitch of animation that, in its abstraction, makes for a refreshing change from the exhausting “clarity of line” that governs, and fails to redeem, most of the rest of the film.
Cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Franco Nero, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Bruce Campbell, Vanessa Redgrave, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley, Richard Kind, John Ratzenberger Director: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis Screenwriter: Ben Queen Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures Running Time: 107 min Rating: G Year: 2011 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow
Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.2.5
Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.
In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.
Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.
Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.
Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.
In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.
Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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Though an intrinsic part of NASCAR’s appeal involves witnessing horrific high-speed pile-ups, there’s little enjoyment to be had in watching Pixar—after a decade-long run of producing superlative children’s films—suffer its maiden (albeit minor) wreck with the second-rate Cars. The first feature helmed by Pixar founder John Lasseter since 1999’s classic Toy Story 2, this anthropomorphic automobile adventure turns out to be, strangely enough, a spiritual remake of Michael J. Fox’s Doc Hollywood, charting the maturation of narcissistic stock car rookie Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) after he’s delayed during his trip to a California championship race in the quaint, forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. There, he meets a hodgepodge of vehicles whose exteriors match their interiors—including a hippie VW van (George Carlin) and a militant army jeep (Paul Dooley)—and undergoes an uncomplicated transformation from materialistic, self-involved jerk to noble role model with the help of a crotchety Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman), sexy Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and hillbilly tow truck (an amusing Larry The Cable Guy).
Despite the fact that their expressiveness is constricted by their physical limitations (i.e. no useful appendages, only one bodily position), Lasseter and company’s four-wheeled protagonists resemble reasonably dynamic Matchbox toys sprung to life, their shiny chassis and vigorous velocity helping to partially distract attention away from their insanely creepy tongues (which floppily protrude from their mouths in a manner apt to give small tykes nightmares). But the film’s aesthetic magnificence ultimately comes less from its cute yet unengaging character models than from its panoramic settings and backgrounds, which exhibit a stunning level of near-photorealistic precision. In both its breakneck, speedway-set opening sequence and its sweeping shots of the rocky desert plains and lush wooded countryside, Cars’ visual flair and ingenuity far outpaces its CG movie rivals, providing a wealth of crystal-clear textures, brilliantly reflective lighting effects and naturalistic environmental details (especially with regards to foliage and water) that help establish a new benchmark for seamlessly synthesizing imagery both authentically lifelike and playfully cartoonish.
Nonetheless, whereas the film’s artistry is often awe-inspiring, its dawdling, unfunny 116-minute story stalls at nearly every turn, peddling morals about community, teamwork, and altruism in a ho-hum fashion while also proffering tired, red state-pandering rural-versus-urban hogwash. From Radiator Springs’s neon-lit architecture to Lightning’s eventual retro detailing, Lasseter indulges in gooey nostalgia for a mythic Leave it to Beaver version of the ‘50s when life was simple and people were there for one another (no mention of whether black cars were allowed to make pit-stops in this idyll), the predictable flipside to such hooey being a characterization of the modern world as crass, cutthroat, and corrupting. Cars’ story is a hoary romanticization of all things rustic (and implicit critique of many things contemporary) that, in its schematism, comes off like a thinly veiled Hollywood olive branch extended toward conservative heartland inhabitants. Musty, corny, and largely devoid of any enchanting magic, it’s also the pioneering Pixar’s first effort that, trailblazing technical virtuosity be damned, feels disappointingly regressive.
There’s lots of color pumped into every frame of this film, especially during those racing scenes where the audience in the crowd appears as a vast tapestry of flashing lights not unlike a Jackson Pollock drip. The disc reproduces those colors impeccably but not without the occasional artifacts (note the greenish dots on Lightning McQueen’s hood) and lines across some surfaces. The audio’s bass levels are stunning and the surround is dynamic without ever sounding bombastic.
Commercials on television tell us that Walmart is getting exclusive rights to a two-disc edition of the film. That means those without licenses will have to settle for this single-disc edition, which includes two shorts (Master and the Ghostlight and the Oscar-nominated One Man Band), four incomplete deleted scenes, a bunch of previews, and a sweet featurette (“Inspiration for Cars“) that pays reverence to the real Route 66 towns cut off from the world by the expansion of our nation’s super highways. John Lasseter also explains that the film is a merger of his fondness for his mother’s artistic sensibilities and his father’s love of cars.
A sweet film but those who don’t shop at Walmart will get the short end of the stick in the features department.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry The Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton Director: John Lasseter Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman, Jorgen Klubien, John Lasseter, Phil Lorin, Kiel Murray, Joe Ranft Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: G Year: 2006 Release Date: November 7, 2006 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven on Kino Lorber Blu-ray
Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of Todd Haynes’s ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray.4
In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener. She sacrifices love for a community’s acceptance only to realize, perhaps too late, that she’s made the wrong decision. The film’s title not only refers to her upper-middle-class milieu and its grueling demands, but also to the widow’s own personal allowances. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder reworked All That Heaven Allows but introduced race and the ideology of a working-class Germany into the equation. Now, in Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.
The film opens with a dissolve between a painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At an art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of a mise-en-scène that demand decodification.
Cathy, a mother of two, is married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works for Magnatech, a powerful television sales company. (In All That Heaven Allows, television was used to keep women occupied and, therefore, out of trouble.) Cathy and Frank are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” no doubt because they embody everything that’s seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A Weekly Gazette reporter (Bette Henritze) does a story on Cathy because “behind every great man there’s a great woman,” and after the article causes a stir for claiming that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes,” her best friend, Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), covers for her, saying that she’s been called a “red” ever since “she played summer stock with all those steamy Jewish boys.” Society extols her even as they recognize that she may be a loose cannon. She may not be able to distinguish a fake Rembrandt from the real thing but she can appreciate Picassos.
Cathy’s willingness to understand others isn’t only implied by her support for the NAACP and her kindness to Raymond but in her willingness to forgive Frank after she catches him cheating on her with another man. “I know it’s bad because it makes me feel despicable,” says Frank to his psychologist (James Rebhorn). He looks to cure his “disease” just as Cathy looks to fix her husband before the world outside begins to notice that their lives are far from perfect. Indeed, when Frank accidentally strikes Cathy, it’s only natural that she hides her bruises from everyone around her. Haynes understands how women like Cathy were financially dependent on men, reduced to supporting players in their husbands’ lives. What he understands more, however, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.
Far from Heaven is set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, the social realities and political upheavals of which are buried beneath a rich tapestry of signs. Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation. For Christmas, Cathy gives Frank a box full of vacation brochures, and front and center is a pamphlet extolling Cuba’s beauty. Not only was 1957 the height of Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista, but it was also the year of the Little Rock school desegregation scandal. Haynes repeatedly frames Frank next to elaborate Eames-era light fixtures and, in one scene, implies that he broke a lamp in his office during a fit of rage and hid the broken pieces inside, yes, a closet. Cathy and Frank don’t go to Cuba, instead opting to travel to Miami, this in spite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.
Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complementing the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, Edward Lachman’s camera evokes the character’s fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the film seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there’s no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being, but because he’s willing to listen to her voice. Here is a film of great humanism that applies as much to the ‘50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. Standing before a painting by Jean Miró, Frank and Cathy grow closer together. The name of the painting? The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers. And so the film’s final shot evokes not only changing season, but hopefully also a changing cultural tide.
The almost too-perfect colors of Ed Lachman’s cinematography absolutely pop on this release, rendering all those deep, moody periwinkles and rusty, autumnal oranges with a fidelity and grace that neither mutes the emotional force of the film’s heightened Technicolor-inspired artificiality nor exaggerates its vibrancy into garish excess. The disc’s sound, provided in DTS-HD 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks, is similarly well-balanced, handling both the film’s subdued dialogue and Elmer Bernstein’s emotionally complex score with equal integrity.
There’s nothing new here, but the extras carried over from the film’s initial DVD release are solid. The highlight of these is undoubtedly the audio commentary by Todd Haynes, who provides a steady diet of anecdotes, technical insights, and essay-like analysis, often focusing on the film’s relationship to the work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder. One of the more cerebral directors of his era, Haynes often comes off less like a filmmaker commenting on his own creation than a critic interpreting a text. That same cerebral auto-analysis is on display in a well-produced half-hour documentary, originally made for the Sundance Channel, that dissects the film’s pivotal party scene, offering brief but incisive tidbits about the sequence’s editing, cinematography, production design, and more. The rest of the extras, however, are purely perfunctory: a trailer, a brief clip from a panel discussion with Haynes and Julianne Moore, and a by-the-book making-of featurette.
Kino Lorber’s release marks the long-overdue arrival of this ravishing melodrama on Blu-ray, and thanks to its vibrant audio-visual presentation, the wait was more than worth it.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston, Bette Henritze Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Todd Haynes Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2002 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire on Arrow Video Blu-ray
With this noteworthy release, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.4.5
Dario Argento is consistently deemed the preeminent giallo maestro by critics and fans alike because of how his films blend mystery and obsession into an irresistible concoction. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, the gonzo plunge into the unknown doesn’t forsake the basic mechanics of plot and characterization. Yet the Argento-centric focus in giallo criticism and scholarship has effectively shortchanged the spectrum of diverse approaches to the genre, many of which seem to adopt incoherence as an almost philosophical aim. Whether The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire embraces narrative confusion by daftness or design, Ricardo Freda’s film nevertheless possesses a propulsive energy that gradually makes coherence an insignificant, even undesirable feature.
The film begins on a strange note, with wide shots of a motorcyclist making his way through Dublin. The Irish setting is random and nearly irrelevant to the subsequent story of a Swiss ambassador, Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), and his family being tormented by an unknown killer, but it does pave the way for some stunning footage shot near the Cliffs of Moher, where the ambassador’s daughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander), flirts with John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a detective in pursuit of the assailant. The film finds little meaningful activity for its characters to engage in amid this and other vistas, like the snow-covered ski slopes of Zurich in a later scene, besides moseying about. As sequences essential to developing the film’s themes or ideas, they’re practically useless, but as widescreen landscape footage, they’re magnificent.
The dissonance between story and image defines The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and sometimes in contrasting ways depending on the scene. The core of the film’s criminal investigation involves a plethora of suspects and possible motivations being discussed within the sparse confines of a police station. While Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) is established in early scenes as the lead investigative figure in several interrogations of possible suspects, he’s gradually supplanted by Norton, whose own family becomes one of the killer’s targets. The switch plays less like a calculated shift of the audience’s expectations than an indication of Freda’s investment in the potential jolt of individual set pieces; in short, since Norton’s vulnerable mother and daughter make easy targets, the film uses their assault as the climax, pitting Norton face-to-face with the murderer.
That the killer’s identity is almost impossible to surmise becomes part of the broader absurdist tone that feeds into Freda’s knack for composing striking images amid so much narrative chaos. There’s a sense that Brian De Palma was influenced by The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, as Dressed to Kill similarly blends reality and dreams to memorable visual effect; there’s also the matter of the killer in both films wearing the same clothes and using the same murder weapon. But whereas Freda funneled his story into the cinematic equivalent of a lottery machine, De Palma makes guessing his killer’s identity a cinch, prompting us to truly wrestle with the implications of Dressed to Kill’s psychosexual and oneiric imagery.
The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire demonstrates how the different shades of the giallo genre, made in Italy and beyond, require variable critical orientations for identifying their aims. If one assumes that Argento’s genre model is the supreme and only approach to the giallo, then other, less logically inclined filmmakers like Freda or Massimo Dallamano, risk being marginalized or, worse, lopped from the canon entirely.
Struck from the original 35mm camera negative, this transfer marks the film’s first appearance on North American home video and should be cause for celebration. Particularly striking are the incredible on-location scenes in Ireland: The saturated greens and browns of the Cliffs of Moher are fully discernible, while Zurich’s snow-covered ski slopes shimmer with vitality. There are only minimal signs of image damage, including slight scratches and debris, throughout the film. The monaural soundtrack sounds clean and comes in both Italian and English versions. It’s a release like this, of a film that seemed to have been relegated to eternal damnation on VHS or low-grade streams, that calls for terms like “renaissance” in reference to the spectrum of giallo titles being made available in HD by Arrow Video.
Among the plethora of extras on this disc, most noteworthy is the audio commentary by film critics Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. Simultaneously playful and informative, Smith and Flint oscillate between providing historical information about The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire and their own personal takes on the film. A notable highlight of this commentary includes the revelation that, despite the credits citing a novel as the film’s source material, there was no such book; the claim was made in an effort to lend legitimacy to the production.
An interview with film scholar Richard Dyer provides a remarkably lucid explanation of the film’s themes and shortcomings. Dyer differentiates between the narrative details that provide the viewer with food for thought and those that are so thinly sketched or convoluted that even he can’t follow their logic. Elsewhere, DJ Lovely Jon gives an appreciation of composer Stelvio Cipriani, which is similar to but distinct enough from his words about the music of ‘70s Italian cult cinema on Arrow’s release of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Also included are interviews with actress Dagmar Lassander and assistant editor Bruno Micheli, the film’s original and international theatrical trailers, a virtual copy of the film’s original photo novel published in 1971, an image gallery, and a booklet containing an essay by film historian Andreas Ehrenreich on the film’s creation from pre-production to post.
With this noteworthy release of Riccardo Freda’s 1971 film, Arrow Video’s devotion to vigorously excavating lesser-known gialli continues unabated.
Cast: Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Luigi Pistilli, Arthur O’Sullivan, Werner Pochath, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Valentina Cortese, Ruth Durley Director: Riccardo Freda Screenwriter: Riccardo Freda, Sandro Continenza, Günter Ebert, André Tranché Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: April 9, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Clint Eastwood’s The Mule on Warner Bros. Blu-ray
There are no real supplements on this disc, but Eastwood’s eccentric and moving film speaks quite well for itself.3.5
Clint Eastwood’s The Mule doesn’t move like many contemporary American films, especially those in the crime genre. Crime cinema is often pumped up on machismo, with breakneck action sequences and tough and derivative dialogue. Meanwhile, other genres—superhero films, musicals, horror films, politically motivated biopics, animated fantasies—are often tethered to so rigid a narrative structure that they lack the emotional contemplation and sense of being-ness that drove, say, the best of the westerns that Hollywood produced when Eastwood professionally came of age. In this wearying paint-by-numbers context, The Mule is bracingly warm and eccentric, with a wandering tempo that refutes the overstimulated hyperventilation of pop culture. The very pace of Eastwood’s new film is inherently political.
As actor and director, Eastwood is intensely in sync with the rhythms of Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who winds up smuggling cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel up from El Paso into Chicago, once his flower business falls apart due to competition from online corporations. Quite a bit of the film is devoted to watching Earl as he drives the countryside or bullshits with people, with time passing via intertitles and elegant fades and ellipses that communicate liberation and sadness. Earl is a cheeky old man who feels that he’s earned the right to do whatever he pleases, whether it’s savoring our country’s gorgeous landscapes, slowing down a drug delivery so he can savor the “best pulled pork sandwich in the Midwest,” or soliciting a threesome with prostitutes a fraction of his age. Along the way, Earl speaks to cartel members in fashions that could get him killed, and his shamelessness earns their and our respect.
Your average director might have used Earl’s vigor and personality to spice up a suspense narrative, but the old man’s devotion to screwing around is the very subject of The Mule. Enjoyable details—Earl listening to oldies on the radio, pulling into rest stops for a snack, and even bantering with members of the cartel—allow Eastwood’s complicated political ideology to come into focus with understated ease. Currently Hollywood’s most iconic conservative filmmaker, Eastwood revels in Earl’s sense of self—in his implicit ability to refute modern self-censorship with his racist humor and politically incorrect sexual indulgences, which in this film often suggest a clearing of repressed air. Eastwood celebrates Earl as a refutation of our current culture, in which we police everything we say and do out of perpetual fear of causing offense, and in which art is often celebrated merely for parroting liberal platitudes back to critics who’re understandably enraged by the current government. Earl’s staunch resistance to these trends, embodied by his resentment of cellphones, render him an alternately baffling, pitiful, and exhilarating figure to younger people—white, of color, straight and queer alike—who’re used to playing by the modern rules of the game.
Yet this conservative filmmaker is also deeply attached to community, understanding that our direct and personal connections keep us healthy and human. Eastwood reveres the sorts of institutions that Republicans usually can’t wait to defund, and this conflict between a fetishizing of self and a yearning for community often animates his films, most recently Sully and The 15:17 to Paris. Eastwood, then, is conflicted in similar fashions as America itself. This is a place built on oppression that has fostered the intoxicating, maddeningly elusive possibility of freedom, a possibility that’s somehow both represented and refuted in microcosm by Earl’s hedonism and willingness, in his own antiquated, occasionally embarrassing way, to meet people of all sorts on their terms. One of The Mule’s most moving and telling narrative detours shows Earl using some of his drug money to save the local V.F.W., which is expressed by a joyous dance scene that suggests the ideal of our society.
Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk also understand Earl’s sense of self to be selfishness—a privilege that’s not available to all Americans, some of whom pay a price for Earl’s revelry (such as his family, one of whom is played, in a suggestively autobiographical touch, by Eastwood’s daughter, Alison Eastwood). Not everyone can do whatever they like on the highways of America. In a tense and heartbreaking scene, the D.E.A. agents searching for Earl, led by Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), pull over a Hispanic man. Terrified of being killed by police, this man telegraphs his obedience with haunting and resonant steadfastness, which Eastwood plays for pitch-black comedy that never fails to shortchange the man’s fear. And this sequence has a wicked and subtle punchline: As the man returns to his truck unscathed, a tractor trailer roars by the highway in the background, causing the audience to wonder if it’s carrying drugs right under everyone’s noses, just like Earl does.
Many critics took The Mule for granted as an offhand bauble, the sort of thing Eastwood can knock off whenever he likes. But Eastwood’s casualness here, as both actor and director, represents an aesthetic apotheosis—a realization of a tone that he’s been trying to conjure off and on for decades. The heaviness of Eastwood films that were taken more seriously by audiences, such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, is almost entirely absent from The Mule, as Eastwood sustains here a lightness of being—a sensuality—that contains multitudes of emotional, personal, and political textures. The film is a poem of an America that never quite was, an America that haunts the dreams of people of all political affiliations, especially as we move further into a corporatized, artificially connected and manipulated monoculture that, incidentally, doesn’t favor atmospheric character studies like The Mule. When Colin captures Earl, Eastwood frames himself in shadowy profile as Earl’s placed in a police car. This portrait of a legend’s face against a doorframe, ruing lost time, ruing the promises that he and his country failed to keep, is worthy of the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers.
As with many of Clint Eastwood’s recent productions, The Mule favors muted colors, abounding in blacks and blues throughout its interior scenes, which are contrasted here with the bright craggy landscapes of New Mexico. The colors are rich and well-varied in this transfer, and the settings boast a good amount of detail, per the tradition of Warner Bros.’s often superb presentations of Eastwood’s films. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack isn’t a show pony, as this is a film composed often of alternating silence and dialogue. That said, those elements are handled perfectly well here. The score and various sound effects—gun shots, cars screeching—also boast appropriate bass and body, the latter of which effectively startles the film’s often quiet soundscape.
A 10-minute making-of supplement is a traditional promotional puff piece, though one interesting detail emerges: Eastwood’s character in The Mule wears clothing worn by the protagonists he played in True Crime and Gran Torino, among others, giving the film a subliminal autumnal texture. A music video for Toby Keith’s soundtrack song, “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” rounds out a virtually nonexistent supplements package.
Though there are no real supplements on this Warner Bros. disc, Clint Eastwood’s eccentric and moving The Mule speaks quite well for itself.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Manny Montana, Robert LaSordo, Jill Flint Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Nick Schenk Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Running Time: 116 min Rating: R Year: 2018 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice on the Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.4.5
Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice opens with a steamer approaching Venice, the strings of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony gorgeously throbbing on the soundtrack. This opening suggests the Italian city as an entry of romanticized escape for Gustave von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a reserved German composer on sabbatical, but then the sequence’s staid rhythm is abruptly dispelled by a blast from the boat’s steam engine, as if to hint at all the scorching filth that underlies Venice’s hyperbolic beauty. Throughout the film, Aschenbach’s vacation getaway will devolve into a ruinously obsessive journey, as he becomes captivated by the beauty he’s spent a career idealizing, manifested in a 14-year-old Polish boy. And this while Venice, cosmopolitan center for European art and culture, falls prey to a hazardous cholera epidemic.
We intuit that Aschenbach has retreated from his native Germany after a hostile reception to the premiere of a new composition. Doctors recommend a long period of complete rest, and he ventures to the south alone. In Venice, Aschenbach’s noble pretenses are undermined almost right away by grotesque encounters with a made-up dandy and a nefarious gondolier. He isn’t met with the deference he’s used to receiving, but with recalcitrant mockery. In this way, Death in Venice has deep connective tissue to Visconti’s The Leopard, wherein the aristocracy of Old Europe comes to grips with its collapse. Here, Aschenbach feels like a vestige of that class of European: a 19th-century ghost who hasn’t realized his obsolescence.
Through flashbacks, the audience learns that Aschenbach’s music is committed to ideals of beauty. Whereas Alfred (Mark Burns), his friend and colleague, preaches of the triumph of the senses and the significance of ambiguity in art, Aschenbach believes that art should uphold the dignity of humanity. For him, the nobility of beauty and intellect triumphs over our rudderless senses. Yet just as disease grips Venice, Aschenbach’s sensorial enthrallment overtakes his sense of reason. He settles into his hotel, and as Visconti’s camera—doubling for Aschenbach’s gaze—spends several minutes canvassing the dense dining hall, our main character’s languor and detachment is impressed upon us.
It’s then that an aristocratic Polish family passes before Aschenbach and the man is instantly taken with the beautiful Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Even when the boy looks back at Aschenbach with an ambiguous smile, there’s a subtle sense that the boy’s preternatural glance has been constructed in the composer’s head. In one scene, Aschenbach spies Tadzio playing the piano, only for Visconti to then reveal that the boy isn’t there at all. At first, this kindling infatuation within Aschenbach is exciting for him, then frustrating, and eventually infuriating. And Death in Venice aesthetically complements Aschenbach’s unraveling: Visconti’s stylistic approach remains staid and evenly controlled in its presentation, yet the stready progression of flashbacks offers more questions than resolutions, plying the story with the kinds of ambiguities a conservative artist like Aschenbach disdains, suggesting that he’s being destroyed as if by a contagion carving its way through him.
Throughout, Tadzio’s perfection contrasts with Aschenbach’s loss of control. In The Leopard’s famous ball sequence, the noble patrons maintained their grace despite being so sweat-stained. But in Death in Venice, the sphinx of Old Europe has fully eroded. Aschenbach even attempts to remake himself in a barber’s shop as a younger man, blackening his graying hair and reddening his cheeks. “And now the signore may fall in love as he wishes,” the barber says, and yet as the cosmetically redrawn Aschenbach wanders through the stench of an ostensibly desolate wasteland, he embodies a ridiculous (and futile) retort to time.
Death in Venice is based on a 1911 novella by Thomas Mann, who often connected themes of disease and erotic enthrallment. For his adaptation, Visconti reached beyond his source material and incorporates elements from Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, wherein Germany’s abandonment of reason to tribal barbarism becomes analogous to an artist’s pact with the devil for acquiring genius. In that novel, composer Adrian Leverkühn’s means of sealing this deal is by visiting a prostitute who infects him with syphilis, a slow-moving contamination that isolates his body and mind just as it destroys them (the scenario is based on an apocryphal story about the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, whose work influenced so much of the trajectory of thought in the coming century). With haunting precision and muted sexual ferocity, Visconti stages the brothel scene from Doctor Faustus as a flashback, as Aschenbach—in place of Leverkühn—visits the prostitute Esmeralda (Carole André).
This flashback connects to Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio, as both Esmeralda and Tadzio are spotted playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on a piano. It’s not clear if Visconti’s Aschenbach, like Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, acquired syphilis from Esmeralda. But in connecting Tadzio and Esmeralda, Visconti implies Aschenbach’s metamorphosis from a dignified disposition to some irrational urge for destabilization (Esmeralda is also the name of the ship that carries him to Venice). The film is constructed of long camera setups with impeccably calibrated zooms to capture Old Europe’s denizens marching through crowded frames, conveying the hold of a master filmmaker in his twilight years over the action. Yet thrashing beneath that control, the film is submerged in ambiguities and incongruencies.
In his 1943 novel Joseph and His Brothers, Mann—in exile from Nazi Germany—wrote, “Do not assume the human being’s deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin—and thanks nobody who holds him back.” True to Mann, Visconti’s Death in Venice details the self-evisceration of an individual’s—and nation’s—proud ideals. Not reconciling such ideals with the demonic is a grave error. The dying Aschenbach spies Tadzio in the sun kissed Adriatic, unable or unwilling to see the specter of fascism and two World Wars over the horizon.
The only version of Death in Venice available to most viewers since 2004 was the Warner Home Video DVD, which offered a patchy transfer worthy of Aschenbach’s own corporeal entropy. Comparatively, Criterion’s release, which comes from a new 4K digital restoration, is akin to Tadzio himself. Throughout, the colors are newly, vibrantly saturated, allowing the widescreen compositions to shimmer in ways they haven’t since, surely, the film’s original theatrical release. There’s also an exceptional clarity to the spectrum of skin tones, from Aschenbach’s deathly pallor to Tadzio’s youthful, full-blooded beauty. Another drawback of the old DVD was its often unintelligible dialogue, as well as how it made the wall-to-wall Mahler compositions sound like they were pulled from a secondhand recording. Criterion’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack breathes new life into the film’s corpse, as it were, with the sound effects (such as the oars brushing through Venice’s ravines) boasting a profound crispness. The dialogue is perfectly intelligible and the dubbing—however flagrant—never strident. Mahler’s strings don’t blare out so much as sweep in smoothly like a tide.
The most informative extra here features literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, who digs deep into the genesis and themes of the film, in particular its place in Visconti’s “German trilogy” alongside The Damned and Ludwig and the director’s lifelong adoration of Thomas Mann. A 1971 short film by Visconti documents his continent-wide search for a boy to play Tadzio. When we see Björn Andrésen being auditioned in Helsinki, it’s obvious that he’s the stand-out, but even Visconti admits the boy—too tall and too old—isn’t at all perfect (the process will probably touch a disturbing third rail for viewers, given how this search relates to the story of erotic attachment for a child just broaching pubescence).
The grandest extra, though, is an hour-long TV documentary about Visconti’s life and work titled Visconti: Life as in a Novel. It doesn’t offer anything in particular that will be new to the filmmaker’s more ardent fans, but it features engrossing interviews with some of Visconti’s more notable collaborators, such as Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Silvana Mangano. There are also excerpts from a 2006 interview with Piero Tosi, whose journey with Visconti went from working as a lowly design assistant—who could only talk to the filmmaker through intermediaries—to finally graduating to the role of costume designer on several of Visconti’s later films, including Death in Venice.
A brief 1971 film festival interview with Visconti is of interest in how the aging director admits he doesn’t understand the new generation of filmmakers. Ported over from the Warner DVD is Visconti’s Venice, a rather ho-hum behind-the-scenes documentary filmed during Death in Venice’s production. Finally, the disc’s accompanying essay, “Ruinous Infatuation” by Dennis Lim, is a rewarding encapsulation of the film as a work of adaptation and how Visconti tackles the challenge of a turning a novella rife with metaphor and symbols into something tactile.
Criterion’s release breathes new life into a self-appraising late period work that’s a lavish and lugubrious meditation on art and death.
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, Nora Ricci, Marisa Berenson, Carole André, Silvana Mangano. Director: Luchino Visconti Screenwriter: Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 131 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 Release Date: February 19, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Carlos Reygadas’s Japón on the Criterion Collection
Criterion has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.4
It’s unlikely that Susan Sontag ever saw Carlos Reygadas’s debut feature, Japón, which made the festival rounds just a couple of years before the writer’s death in 2004, but if she had, she might well have recognized in the young Mexican auteur a kindred spirit—an artist whose work achieves (or at least attempts to achieve) what Sontag identified in her classic 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” as the mark of all good films: “a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” Because while Japón is rife with religious iconography, socio-political observations, and heady filmic allusions, it never seems to be saying something (a pejorative phrase for Sontag) about Christianity, Mexican society, or cinema itself.
An unnamed traveler (Alejandro Ferretis) journeys to a remote village to commit suicide, only to find himself strangely absorbed in the life of an elderly woman, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with whom he stays. It’s a simple story that Reygadas approaches with a sense of wonder that borders on naïveté. Far less concerned with what his film says than in how it sees, Reygadas attempts nothing less than to recapture for the audience the feeling of perceiving the world for the first time. Shooting in a highly unusual 16-mm Cinemascope format, Reygadas expands our field of vision with the super-widescreen aspect ratio while at the same time reminding us of the limits of our perception by rounding off the corners of the image, which places the entire film in a subtle frame. The breathtaking vistas of the valley where most of Japón takes place takes on an eerie and disorienting aura when viewed through the grainy textures and washed-out color palette of Reygadas’s low-budget film stock.
Japón begins in the city, with a strangely unsettling montage of shots filmed from a vehicle moving through traffic, tunnels, and fog, all set to an ominous orchestral score. This opening exudes a tantalizing sci-fi vibe, a feeling of uncanniness that carries through to the rest of the film as Ferretis’s character treks across the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. His first action out here in the wilderness is simultaneously brutal and magical: He decapitates a bird with his bare hands, after which its head lies on the ground, continuing to caw. It won’t be the last instance of shocking, senseless violence the film will expose us to.
As in his later work, Reygadas isn’t particularly concerned with constructing a narrative or probing his characters’ psychology. Rather, he cycles through various narrative modes; at times we seem to be watching a parable-like tale of suicide in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, at others an absurd, darkly comic journey like that of K. in Kafka’s The Castle, and at others a brutal, Herzogian struggle against the elements. Similarly, the behavior of the characters can often seem as arbitrary as the narrative curlicues, even downright weird. Why does Ferretis’s character want to kill himself? Why does he later propose to Ascen, out of the blue, that they have sex? And why does she accept? Not only are these questions left unanswered, but even to ask them feels somehow beside the point. Reygadas asks us not to analyze particular actions, but to feel them in all their elemental strangeness.
Not that everything in Japón is successful in attaining this feeling, as the ambling narrative pace can at times come off as pointless, and Reygadas’s long takes can sometimes seem like little more than patience-testing provocations. The overall effect of the film, however, is one of metaphysical intoxication, a kind of heady gratification brought on by the beauty of Reygadas’s images and the sheer eccentricity of the world the film conjures. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Reygadas depicts with impenitent matter-of-factness his main characters having sex. The filmmaker isn’t trying to turn us on, nor is he attempting to shock us with the unvarnished sight of two older people’s starkly naked forms. Rather, the scene provides the natural culmination of the main character’s journey. His is a quest for higher meaning that inexorably leads back to the base satisfaction of his animal urges.
The new 2K digital restoration of Japón, supervised by Carlos Reygadas, honors the film’s strange, intoxicating imagery. Despite some small but noticeable image shuddering during a few of the film’s panning shots, it’s safe to say that Reygadas’s film hasn’t looked this good since its initial theatrical rollout. This release preserves the film’s muted yet striking color palette and the gorgeous granularity of its unique 16-mm Cinemascope cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack which highlights the rich sonic environment of the film, from the remarkable subtleties of wind and animal sounds to spectacularly rich music cues from the likes of Bach and Arvo Pärt. This meticulous preservation effort makes a case for Japón as one of the most visually singular debut features of the 21st century.
The disc’s most notable feature is a conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante that goes deep into the former’s creative process, influences, and biography. The interview provides a particularly incisive look at Reygadas’s use of storyboards, some of which are also reproduced in the release’s attractive full-color booklet along with production photos and a high-spirited essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli. Also included is Adulte, a Deren-esque short made by Reygadas as a way of teaching himself filmmaking, as well as a deleted scene, a trailer, and a video diary of the production shot by lead actor Alejandro Ferretis. It’s a rich assortment of supplementary materials that provides useful background on Reygadas’s creative methods without attempting to provide any answers to the film’s mysteries.
In restoring Japón to its original glory, the Criterion Collection has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.
Cast: Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano, Rolando Hernández, Bernabe Pérez, Fernando Benítez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2002 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Kogonada’s Columbus on Oscilloscope Laboratories Blu-ray
Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.4
Early in Kogonada’s Columbus, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and an unnamed co-worker (Rory Culkin) discuss the notion of attention bias. When people prefer video games to reading, the co-worker says, they’re often said to have a short attention span, even if they’re concentrating on video games for hours at a time. However, a reader who’s unable to engage with video games is unlikely to weather the same criticism. Casey and her co-worker are both bookish young people, intellectuals in the making, who clearly favor reading over most anything else. But Culkin’s character raises an evocative and perhaps alarming point, challenging the tendency of readers and other connoisseurs of art to believe that their interests render them better people and are superior to other people’s pursuits. Is art another evasion for the introvert? The co-worker asks Casey, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”
It might not occur to the audience until much later in the film that the co-worker is telling Casey that he’s in love with her, asking this guarded and intelligent young woman to truly see the person facing her every day among the comforting cavernousness of the library. This conflict would be enough for a good film, but Kogonada, who challenges every potential platitude that he uncovers, allows us to see that the co-worker also gently and almost imperceptibly retreats from Casey when she opens up to him.
Columbus is invested with the empathy, curiosity, and attention to detail that drive the video essays that Kogonada has produced for the Criterion Collection and Sight & Sound, among other places. A key to the film resides in a question that Kogonada posed in his extraordinary analysis of the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda: “Does cinema offer escape from this world? Or deeper entrance?” These concerns implicitly fuel the co-worker’s occupation with attention bias, and they elucidate Casey’s obsession with the modernist architecture in their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Art heightens a connection to the world, nurturing a sensitivity and an awareness of one’s surroundings, but it can quickly become an introvert’s crutch, providing an illusion of a life lived in full, rather than as an existence devoted to collecting and analyzing the ghosts of other artists’ dreams.
Kogonada surveys the town’s architecture with the exacting, worshipful eye that he’s brought to analyzing the cinema of his heroes, and it’s impossible not to wonder if Casey’s awakening—her discovery of her right to live her own life and to create her own art—is representative of Kogonada’s own drive to create. Like his video essays, Columbus is intensely occupied with the ways in which the space and symmetry of images reveal character and emotion.
As Culkin’s character discusses attention bias, our gaze is drawn to the square pattern in the library’s ceiling, which suggests a kind of cubist green quilt with lights housed in each geometric structure—the sort of wonderful texture that the co-worker feels they may be missing. A little later, Casey observes that a church has been designed with a deliberate sense of asymmetry, yet its total effect is one of balance. Every image is rich in striking, supple through lines and prisms, which are often made asymmetrical by the placing of human characters in the frame, celebrating the unlikely wealth of art that abounds in this town, capable of being beholden by citizens of all walks of life, as well as the distance from life that art can both obfuscate and crystallize.
Kogonada doesn’t fall for the false dichotomy between intelligence and emotion that frequently mars American culture, understanding that—for people such as Casey, her co-worker, and a visiting Korean book translator, Jin (John Cho)—intelligence is emotion, as well as a code of morality. Casey and Jin meet and engage in an erudite courtship that’s nearly unprecedented in American cinema, which Richardson and Cho perform with a lucid and magnificently poignant sense of control. The seeming miracle of Columbus is its mixture of formal precision with a philosophical grasp of human mystery, which recalls the work of Kogonada heroes such as Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Antonioni. Until the ending, Casey and Jin are often refracted through mirrors and other surfaces when they risk revealing too much of their pain and desire, suggesting their urge to efface themselves with their interests and blend into the nesting designs that comprise the grand patterns of life.
A relationship between symmetry and asymmetry governs the images as well as the narrative structure. Jin’s emotionally trapped by estrangement from his ailing father while Casey is, by contrast, suppressed by her devotion to her recovering meth-addicted mother (Michelle Forbes), which she uses as a front for her intellectual insecurity. A few scenes into Columbus, we see a shot of traffic flowing underneath the triangular Second Street Bridge, which we can assume to represent Jin’s arrival into town. Near the end of the film, Casey leaves under the same bridge to pursue her dream of studying architecture. This entrance and exit represent both a symmetry (one person is traded in Columbus for another) as well as an asymmetry, as Kogonada could’ve easily positioned the entrance and the exit as the exact beginning and ending of the film but doesn’t, though Columbus has a pervading emotional balance—a sense of two lives granting themselves the possibility of transcendence.
Kogonada offers, to use a phrase coined by Casey’s co-worker, a “critique of a critique,” as the rapturous clarity of his own images is the very source of his interrogation. In the context of this film, symmetry can mean a balance of life and art or refer to order that’s imposed on life, draining it of vitality. Meanwhile, asymmetry can evoke the wonderful chaos of life, or connote a lack of balance, as artists and aficionados retreat definitively into their own obsessions. Balance is tricky, in other words, and these anxious riddles inform the surpassingly beautiful Columbus with probing human thorniness, as it’s an art object gripped by the possibility that art, in the right light, can insidiously launder alienation. Though life without art, for people such as Casey and Jin, is akin to life without life.
The image is strikingly attractive, honoring Kogonada’s symmetrical, colorful compositions, the beauty and fastidiousness of which reflect the emotions of characters who qualify their yearnings via discussions of architectural aesthetics. Colors are sharp—perhaps sharper than they were in the theater—and details are plentiful, with particular textural emphasis accorded to the buildings that serve as a kind of visual Greek chorus. The soundtrack is necessarily subtle, as this a film that’s often composed of silence and whispers, which are well-balanced here with a rich score and the minute sounds of the everyday.
The most notable supplement is a select scene audio commentary by actors John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, who’re both intelligent, sensitive, intuitive performers who seem to enjoy a camaraderie similar to that of their on-screen counterparts. They speak of the various physical challenges inherent to their roles, particularly Richardson’s stillness in the film, which is somewhat at odds with her more frenetic way of being in real life. Cho and Richardson also celebrate working with Kogonada, whom they cumulatively describe as having an exact yet flexible vision. The deleted scenes are fine on their own, offering additional texture about the protagonists, though not revelatory. (In other words, they were justifiably cut.) A seven-minute short film by Kogonada, “Columbus Story,” free-associatively mixes footage of making the film with additional narration about the buildings of Columbus, Indiana. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim but charming package.
Kogonada’s elegant and moving narrative debut has been outfitted with a lovely transfer that will hopefully expose the film to new audiences.
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Erin Allegretti Director: Kogonada Screenwriter: Kogonada Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand on the Criterion Collection
The disc’s 4K restoration offers Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.3.5
Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a film with the absurdist bent of a funhouse mirror. Set around the Beatles’s iconic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the film is refreshingly free of baby-boomer nostalgia for a more innocent time. Zemeckis instead fully embraces the “mania” in Beatlemania, setting his focus on both the band’s fans and no less crazed haters and leaving the Fab Four on the fringes of the film (they’re only seen in archival footage and shots where the actors playing them are framed from behind or the waist down).
Zemeckis’s directorial debut unfolds in a series of mini-narratives that follow a group of New Jersey teens who make their way to New York City hoping to score tickets to the Beatles’s first live U.S. television appearance, or at least see them at the exclusive hotel where they’re holed up. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale capture not only the sheer lunacy of a wildly obsessive and fiercely loyal fandom, but also the various shades that exist within and around that distinctive subculture.
The loudest and most boisterous of this bunch is Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber), who doesn’t hesitate to jump out of a moving car or break into a stranger’s hotel room if it means getting to a phone from which she can call the radio station giving away tickets to attend The Ed Sullivan Show. But where Rosie is the prototypical teenage Beatles fan, fainting at even a cardboard cutout of the dreamy Paul McCartney, she’s surrounded by friends and classmates whose motives for making the trip are less than pure.
The street-smart Grace (Theresa Saldana) arrives on the scene with camera in hand, hoping to get a snapshot of the band so as to jump-start her journalism career, and it isn’t long into the film before she finds herself moving on from her relatively innocent scam of selling squares of bed sheets the Beatles supposedly slept on to flirting with prostitution to get enough money to bribe her way into The Ed Sullivan Show. And then there’s the recently engaged Pam (Nancy Allen), who begrudgingly tags along with her friends in spite of knowing that her fiancé will be jealous. Of course, her worries quickly melt away later on when she finds herself alone in the band’s hotel room, where she tucks her engagement ring in her shoe before stroking and kissing the phallic neck of McCartney’s bass guitar as if it were a lover.
Lest it be populated entirely with fangirls, I Wanna Hold Your Hand also offers up an artsy poseur, Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), and post-greaser tough guy, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), as prospective foils to Beatles fans everywhere. Janis and Tony join in on the fun only to protest the band’s sudden domination of the country’s entire cultural landscape. Where Janis sees the Brits overshadowing more socially important music like that of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Tony yearns for a time when the Four Seasons and Elvis were still on top. Such anti-Beatles furor also torments the younger Peter (Christian Juttner), whose conservative father (Read Morgan) employs a one-eyed barber (Newton Arnold) to chop off his son’s mop top, only to be saved by Janis and Tony in an act of generational camaraderie.
Along with the onslaught of intricate and humorous character details that help form its multifaceted portrait of its particular cultural zeitgeist, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is defined by its relentlessly manic energy. Zemeckis’s fondness for Looney Tunes, which would be on more explicit display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, is already in full effect here in the consistently heightened, cartoonish quality of the slapstick. From the often-spastic nature of the actors’ movements (particularly those of Eddie Deezen in his Jerry Lewis-like interpretation of a crazed Beatles trivia nerd) and their comically twisted facial expressions to the sheer speed of the action which is amplified throughout by undercranking the image, everything in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is pushed right up to the breaking point of absurdity. The lunacy of pop-culture infatuation is lent the undying fervor of a fever dream.
The Criterion Collection’s transfer, from a new 4K restoration, is quite remarkable. The image is so crisp and clear that it’s hard to believe that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a relatively low-budget film shot over 40 years ago. The reds and blues especially pop, and there are warm yet naturalistic hues to the actors’ skin tones. The contrast of the image is also perfectly calibrated, allowing for the highest quality and detail in both the brighter outdoor sequences and darker interiors. The 5.1 audio track is also beautifully layered, giving the numerous Beatles tracks a booming intensity, while the rapid dialogue remains clean and easy to decipher throughout. If there’s a minor flaw, it’s the slight disparity between those dialogue and music tracks, which may have you occasionally adjusting your volume level.
The beefiest extra on the disc is the 2004 audio commentary with Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and frequent collaborator Bob Gale. While their focus is more on I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s production than on breaking down the film in any meaningful way, they provide a wonderful variety of amusing on-set stories and insight into their casting process and how they ended up working with their mentor, Steven Spielberg, on the film. The discussion is brisk and light-hearted, which is fitting given how free and loose-limbed I Wanna Hold Your Hand is, but it also details Zemeckis and Gale’s process of working with mostly inexperienced actors and how many of the more challenging shots were accomplished.
The recent interview with Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg covers much of the same ground as the commentary, with some additional campfire stories pertaining to their later collaborations with John Milius thrown in for good measure. In Nancy Allen and Marc McClure’s accompanying interview, the actors talk about their fascinating experiences during the casting process, though they too often default to lavishing praise on Zemeckis and restating how enjoyable it was to work on the film. The release also includes an essay by Scott Tobias and two of Zemeckis’s student films, The Lift and A Field of Honor, the latter of which provides an interesting glimpse at his propensity for manic absurdism in its embryonic form.
The disc’s beautiful 4K restoration offers Robert Zemeckis’s debut, a madcap celebration of the pop-cultural phenomena, a chance at a second life.
Cast: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman, Theresa Saldana, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezan, Christian Juttner, Will Jordan, Read Morgan, Dick Miller Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 1978 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels on Kino Blu-ray
The Blu-ray boasts an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.5
Through the prism of the Technicolor camera, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind elaborate on the perceived comforts of middle-class life. In these cinematic realms, the brightest of colors enliven the finely decorated homes of characters who, on the surface, appear to be living their ideal lives. As Jane Wyman’s Cary Scott from All That Heaven Allows sits in her living room across from a brand new television—a Christmas gift from her grown children—near the end of the film, Sirk offers up a seemingly picturesque snapshot of her class-based satisfaction. Yet the irony is clear: The children, having objected to their mother’s relationship with a man beneath her social class, see her as something to be tended to, not someone to really care for as an emotional being.
If these kinds of slippery distinctions between a character’s contentment and devastation tend to define Sirk’s oeuvre, then the New Orleans-set The Tarnished Angels finds the director slightly modifying his standard themes to examine the thin line between achieving happiness and crashing and burning in pursuit of it. Death literally looms large over Roger Schumann (Robert Stack), a World War I fighter pilot turned daredevil who takes to the sky as part of an airshow around the time of Mardi Gras. Stack plays him as an outright bastard plagued by undiagnosed PTSD; though not physically violent toward his wife, LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), and son, Jack (Christopher Olsen), Roger weaves a web of psychological entrapment that, at one point, involves him suggesting that LaVerne should sleep with local honcho Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) so that Roger might gain access to a particular plane.
The Tarnished Angels, written by George Zuckerman, complicates character motivation and action by using flashbacks and ellipses that sometimes make it difficult to discern when, or even if, certain events are taking place. Sirk uses black-and-white images to stage a contrast between the oneiric promise of the film’s nostalgic feelings for past glories and the stark reality its characters face when death comes knocking at their door.
Sirk frames the Schumann family as a nearly grotesque extreme of the American dream; from afar, they might appear to have obtained an intractable happiness. However, The Tarnished Angels uses journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) as a conduit for the viewer to realize that, in close-up, these are damaged human beings with little grip on their lives. That Devlin, too, is no better equipped to navigate his alcoholism and wayward idealism indicates Sirk’s perception of the fundamentally fractured logic that often founds a sense of duty to a particular cause. In Devlin’s case, his affection for LaVerne, combined with his drinking problem, clouds an ability to act rather than speak in grandiloquent terms.
The film makes the act of looking a significant part of the story, with several scenes featuring shots of audiences gawking and howling in appreciation as Roger flirts with death. When one flying event takes a tragic turn—and a screeching airplane hurls toward the grandstands—Sirk prompts us to ask if the inclination to watch near-death spectacle is an unconscious way of wanting to vicariously experience death. That Roger didn’t perish in WWI but plunges into the sand while displaying his aeronautical prowess for a stateside audience reinforces the theme of self-imprisonment, both personal and cultural, that runs throughout Sirk’s work.
Like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which creates a damning critique of media circuses that would allow a man to die if it means increasing readership, The Tarnished Angels understands the innate human desire to look at beauty or terror as the potentially catastrophic fuel of public interest. Yet, while Wilder never turned that critique on himself or his own film, Sirk, ever the craftsman of multi-vision art, sees that he’s no saint himself.
The depth of field during the film’s airshow sequences is remarkable, while close-ups of faces are nicely textured. The black-and-white cinematography is consistently balanced throughout. While there are occasional small scratches or bits of debris that are visible within the frame, they don’t considerably distract from the viewing experience. The DTS-HD Master Audio track maximizes the potency of Frank Skinner’s memorable score, while the dialogue is clear and crisp. There are no distracting pops, hisses, or screeches.
The sole extra of note is a lovely feature-length commentary track by film historian Imogen Sarah Smith, who contextualizes Sirk’s career while offering an insightful reading of the film itself. Smith has put in the work here, speaking almost nonstop from beginning to end in a style that accomplishes the depth and rigor of a master’s thesis, with dates, names, and tidbits so thoroughly entwined with analysis that it’s an immediately essential listen for anyone who’s serious about their knowledge or study of Sirk. Smith’s tone is also conversational, leaning as she does on personalized takes on the characters; especially amusing, and succinct, is her explanation of Burke Devlin’s faults. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray boasts a smashing feature-length commentary and an exciting transfer of one of Douglas Sirk’s most visually resplendent films.
Cast: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Christopher Olsen, Robert Middleton, Troy Donahue, Alan Reed, William Schallert Director: Douglas Sirk Screenwriter: George Zuckerman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Barbara Loden’s Wanda on the Criterion Collection
Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer.4
In Wanda’s first few minutes, writer-director-actor Barbara Loden renders the heart of America’s coal country with an empathetic scope that’s unrivaled in our country’s narrative cinema. It’s not Loden’s attention to misery—the wasteland of the gravel pits, the dirty dishes and Coke and beer bottles littered about indifferently, the altogether cramped and dingy homes—that distinguishes her vision, but her sense of the beauty that crops up even in lives of hardship. This film has a wonderful, hard-won sense of everyday rapture.
Before Loden cuts to a screaming child—the sort of image that’s common to earnest films geared toward bringing about social reform—the filmmaker lingers on a shot of an elderly woman looking out a window as the sun shines in and casts her in heavenly light. Such a grace note suggests the possibility of refuge in this world, illustrating the thoroughness and breadth of Loden’s curiosity. Quickly afterward, in a heartbreakingly brief and casual interlude, Loden lingers on a woman (Dorothy Shupenes) getting out of bed and sighing before addressing the screaming child, steeling herself for the day.
Those who know nothing about Loden’s film may assume that this woman is Wanda, and as such our protagonist, but she’s really Wanda’s sister. Wanda (Loden) is revealed soon enough, crashed out on her sister’s couch, her presence causing problems between the sister and the latter’s husband (Peter Shupenes), who storms out without taking his coffee. Wanda, a lost soul, doesn’t seem to belong to the world of the Pennsylvania coal mines as intently as her sister does, and her sense of misplacement mirrors our own. This isn’t to say that Loden telegraphs or “indicates” in the manner of an actor who might be touring America’s un-prosperous nooks and crannies for an Oscar. When Loden telegraphs, it’s always in character.
Often, Wanda arises from her sister’s couch, or a motel bed she just shared with a stranger who picked up her tab the night before, and holds her head in a universal sign of a godawful hangover. For Wanda, such a gesture is a cry for help—a break from her pervading insularity and illusiveness, which Loden renders with a committed and poignant airiness. Loden’s performance is a prodigious and ecstatic blend of naturalism and expressionism.
The film’s first act establishes Wanda’s aimless routine with merciless and detailed precision. We learn that she abandoned her family and can’t be bothered to fight for custody of her kids. In a court hearing, Loden allows us to see something that the other characters can’t or won’t recognize: that Wanda is unbearably depressed almost to the point of muteness. Wanda tries to get her job at a dress manufacturer back, but is told she’s too slow right after she’s informed that taxes get roughly 65 percent of what she was already owed. All that seems to remain for her are the bars and the one-night stands, which Loden renders with a sensitivity that’s as keen and insightful as the scenes set in Wanda’s sister’s house. Men call Wanda “tootsie” and “blondie” and treat her with unveiled contempt, regarding her as a nuisance, a drunk, and a whore. Such moments acutely allow one to sense the discomfort of a woman who’s subjected endlessly to unfeeling male scrutiny, recalling the similarly visceral films of Ida Lupino.
Just as the viewer settles in for the ride, perhaps presuming Wanda to be composed entirely of a drunk’s hopeless grasps for communion, Loden springs a conceit that’s daring in this context, threatening the stability of her closely observed character study. Wandering into one of her regular bars to clean up as best she can in the bathroom, she meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), a bartender who’s actually a criminal holding up the joint.
As Norman, Higgins disrupts the film’s tender, depressive rhythms. Wanda is a modern portrait of a woman who’s subjecting herself to primordial sexism, while Norman, whom Wanda always calls “Mr. Dennis,” is a pointedly retro throwback to the male criminals of 1940s-era American cinema. Curt and squarely bespectacled, with a mustache that adds at least 10 years to his appearance, Norman is weirdly commanding in his confidence in his own skin, in the intensity of his conviction in his own old-fogey-ness.
Wanda goes on the road with Norman and the two become lovers on a crime spree in a trope that’s nearly as old as the movies, as if Wanda’s life became so untenable that a divine presence offered her an escape hatch through the rituals of genre cinema. In certain fashions, Norman is no less condescending to Wanda than anyone else, though there’s an unusual respect evident in his refusal to flatter her. He often prefaces his orders with “when you’re with me,” and the implication of this line is obvious: that she can either take it or leave it. Norman isn’t born of any fashionable act of man-hating, as we’re allowed to see his own misery—his inability to receive love. Comically and tragically, he tells Wanda that he doesn’t like “friendly” types as she caresses him after they have sex.
Loden also uncomfortably shows how Norman’s dictatorial ways fulfill Wanda. Norman asks her to dress differently, more like a woman before women’s liberation, and she looks happier and more comfortable in her skin. Loden understands that gender relationships can’t be reduced to think pieces and anal-retentive tabulations of how often women discuss men, as there are yearnings, pounded into us from cultural regiments, that seek expression whether or not they’re reputable. Wanda has wanted a Norman Dennis to come into her life and take control and give her function and meaning. Is this relationship a product of a kind of desperate Stockholm syndrome? Emotionally, this distinction almost seems beside the point.
Opposite Higgins, the carefully sustained flakiness of Loden’s performance becomes funny in a fashion that complicates its pathos. And this ironic flowering softens our guard for the hammer that falls in the third act, when the genre fantasy collapses and Wanda returns to the bars and the motels, alone among a crowd, searching for another qualified Prince Charming, settling for a beer, a smoke, a hot dog, and another night she won’t remember.
There’s a hearty amount of grain in this image, reflecting Wanda’s sparse budget and docudramatic aesthetic. Colors are surprisingly rich and intense, particularly reds and blues. And textural details, which are the manna of this film’s power, are extraordinary. One can see the thin materials of Wanda’s worn-down wardrobe, and the way that beer cans are illuminated by shards of punishing morning sunlight. The soundtrack is a bit variable—it’s not always entirely hear what characters are saying—but this flaw appears to truthfully reflect the source material, deepening the film’s fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude. Secondary sounds—of sewing machines, cars, and beer cans being popped open, for instance—are quite crisp and lifelike.
Katja Raganelli’s 60-minute documentary I Am Wanda features intimate footage of Barbara Loden in 1980 not long before she succumbed to cancer. We see Loden coaching actors and reading passages from books at the dinner table with her children and husband, Elia Kazan, among other things. Loden discusses filmmaking and her artistic process with a sadness and vulnerability that, given the context of her illness, is almost unbearably moving. This sadness is also evident in the talk that Loden had with students at the American Film Institute in 1971, as she outlines the challenges of making a low-budget film.
One of the more fascinating inclusions in this supplements package is “The Frontier Experience,” a short educational film that Loden directed about a pioneer woman’s struggles in the largely uninhabited Kansas plains in the late 1800s. The film has the same emphasis on detail as Wanda, with long pauses and bustling winds that emphasize the grueling loneliness, and danger, of frontier life. Rounding out this package is a clip from Loden’s appearance in 1971 on The Dick Cavett Show, in which she artfully handles sexist condescension, Wanda’s theatrical trailer, and a booklet with an essay by film critic Amy Taubin that emphasizes how viscerally personal Wanda was to Loden.
Criterion has outfitted Barbara Loden’s Wanda with a beautifully rough-and-tumble transfer as well as supplements that movingly elaborate on the filmmaker’s life.
Cast: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins, Dorothy Shupenes, Peter Shupenes, Jerome Thier, Marian Thier, Anthony Rotell Director: Barbara Loden Screenwriter: Barbara Loden Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 1970 Release Date: March 19, 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray
This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.4
Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.
Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.
One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.
A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.
Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.
While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.
Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.
Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video
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