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Review: Zoolander 2

The film is frequently guilty of the same obsolescence it accuses the characters of embodying.

1.0

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Zoolander 2
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ben Stiller’s Zoolander 2 is less a waste of time than it is an annihilation of it. The film fades from memory almost immediately after you walk out of the theater, leaving a hazy, two-hour gap in one’s mind that can only be explained by the ticket stub in your hand. At times, it suggests a deliberate experiment by a studio to test the limits of the general public’s nostalgia.

In the film, models Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) come out of self-imposed retirement and discover that the fashion world has left them behind, and they’re roundly mocked for their age and outdated style. Yet as much as it knocks its protagonists’ age, Zoolander 2 is frequently guilty of the same obsolescence it accuses the characters of embodying. Dialogue, as in the first film, primarily consists of Derek and Hansel locked in Sisyphean struggles to comprehend even the most basic concepts, speaking the same sentence back and forth in mutual bewilderment, suggesting a “Who’s on first?” routine that never moved past the initial question.

Shortly after the events of the first film, Derek lost his wife (Christine Taylor) in a construction accident and his son (Cyrus Arnold) to child services, and when he decides to get Derek Jr. back, he also stumbles onnto an elaborate revenge scheme that, among other things, puts the boy in danger of ritual sacrifice. Throughout, the darkness of this already convoluted narrative clashes dissonantly with the fundamentally light tone of the character humor. In the film’s cold open, for example, Justin Bieber is depicted being brutally machine-gunned and drawing air through his perforated lungs just long enough to take one last selfie. Insipid and tonally incongruous, the scene is emblematic of a film that condescends to the very demographic it seeks to attract with a barrage of celebrity cameos.

The desperation with which the script clings to a particular line because of its potential to amuse audiences has the unintended effect of blunting the effect of the few punchlines that stick. The actors, too, seem aggrieved under the pressure of this dull show of repetition. Kyle Mooney stands out as Don Atari, an aggressively ironic millennial designer, but he’s never allowed to establish a significant rapport with the film’s leads; the script, in the end, merely uses him to shuttle Derek and Hansel to a terrible fashion show that represents the epitome of Zoolander 2’s unique mix of glib pandering (Skrillex DJs the event) and insult (the casual transphobia that underscores Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of a nonbinary model as invasive and alien).

Only Will Ferrell, who returns as villainous designer Jacobim Mugatu, emerges unscathed. Where Stiller uses distanced smarm to communicate his superiority over his character, Ferrell picks at one note and plays it so relentlessly that the part, which feels as if it’s been constructed from outtakes from the first film, becomes vibrant and multivalent. His sheer force of will might have elevated Penélope Cruz’s role as a member of the Interpol global fashion police above a glib talking point. Her Valentina exists only to lament that she could never be a runway model because her breasts are too large. That such a beautiful woman doesn’t fit the industry’s narrow guidelines of body type nearly opens the door to some kind of satire, but this insight’s payoff is simply the throbbing erections of the two leads, which in and of itself feels like a metaphor for the impetus of this project.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penélope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Sting, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Kyle Mooney, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Beck Bennett, Nathan Lee Graham, Milla Jovovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lewis Hamilton Director: Ben Stiller Screenwriter: John Hamburg, Ben Stiller, Nick Stoller, Justin Theroux Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Cannes Review: In Pain and Glory, Life and Art Are Wistful Bedfellows

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned intensity of his finest work.

2.5

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Pain and Glory
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined, say, Law of Desire, Matador, and Bad Education.

Pain and Glory is most surprising at the outset, as the stern narration that we’ve come to expect from an Almodóvar film is audaciously paired with CG graphics and abstract animations that illustrate Salvador’s anatomical and psychosomatic conditions. The man suffers from tinnitus, chronic back pain, severe headaches, anxiety, depression, and various other ailments. It’s a literally visceral way to begin a film that soon settles into the more familiar pattern of a two-track narrative: There’s Salvador in the present, who works toward repairing a friendship with the heroin-addicted star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), of his recently restored and most celebrated film, Subor, and there’s Salvador as a young boy (Asier Flores), preternaturally intelligent and perpetually optimistic, living in poverty with his ever-harried mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), until he’s finally sent off to a seminary.

Perhaps all of this might have landed with a little more impact if Almodóvar hadn’t already covered so much of the same territory in Bad Education, which also centers itself around a film director’s relationship with an actor and tells the story of a young altar boy’s life, much of it spent at a seminary, through a series of flashbacks. Another rehash of a nearly identical plot point from that 2004 film is Pain and Glory’s intriguing meta conceit: Alberto convinces Salvador to let him perform a one-man stage adaptation of a monologue the former wrote long ago, an obvious nod to Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator, Banderas, playing a version of the filmmaker here. Pain and Glory is, in fact, defined by its abundance of conspicuously placed Easter eggs. Even in the scenes between the present-day Salvador and his dying mother (Julietta Serrano), namely the moment she tells him not to make films about her, Almodóvar points to the personal turmoil that led to the making of All About My Mother.

Putting aside the boldness of the sequences that kick Pain and Glory into motion, Almodóvar’s formal approach is generally subdued and disciplined throughout. His screenplay is also quite neat in its structure, relating its two plotlines in almost stubbornly linear fashion, reliably hitting standard narrative beats of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation. Almodóvar wouldn’t be the first filmmaker in the history of cinema to mellow with age, and there’s a sense that Pain and Glory’s artistry is a reflection of that trajectory, but that only makes the too-fleeting snapshots of Salvador’s hard-scrabble early years—which includes living inside a white cave with Jacinta and other migrants—feel as if they never transcend easy nostalgia.

Still, Almodóvar’s singular use of color as a barometer of characters’ interiorities and the emotional temperature of a scene remains on vibrant display throughout Pain and Glory. There’s also some wonderful comic repartee between the disheveled Banderas, so exquisitely committed to imparting a sense of his character’s almost ghostly status, and the perpetually bug-eyed Etxeandia. Alberto, upon reuniting with Salvador, almost immediately introduces him to heroin, and, improbably, the way in which they bond through their horrible addiction results in some of the funniest scenes in an Almodóvar film in some time.

It’s another reunion, though, between Salvador and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an ex-lover he hasn’t seen since the ‘80s, that finds Almodóvar delivering on the heightened promise of the film’s title. The men are brought back together through an absurd coincidence, after Federico wanders into the performance of Salvador’s play and recognizes that his life has been incorporated into the monologue, but the scene thrums with that distinctly magnetic force of love that’s fundamental to Almodóvar’s best work. Also, the actual moment of Salvador and Federico’s reunion is a gracefully staged dance of advance and retreat, beginning with a late-night conversation at Salvador’s apartment that never leaves the common area. Finally, after an intense kiss, Federico departs, and though he invites Salvador to come visit him and his family, both men seem to implicitly realize that they’ll never see each other again.

Salvador and Federico’s meeting unfolds almost in real time, and touches on their shared past, the lives they lived in the interim, and how much they’ve always meant to each other. The scene recalls other intense emotional meetings in prior Almodóvar films, but more than that, in its duration and focus, it seems drawn from more contemporary inspirations: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, the final stretch of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, even “Looking for the Future,” the finest episode of Andrew Haigh’s Looking. It also arguably packs even more of an expressive force than any of those works, and serves as a reminder that, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever.

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano Director: Pedro Almodóvar Screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Joan of Arc Never Coalesces into a Fully Rounded Character Study

Bruno Dumont seems perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking.

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Joan of Arc
Photo: 3P Productions

Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc may not have earned the French filmmaker many new fans, but it did serve to further his apparent embrace of a more mirthful directorial approach. As radical as any film that the New French Extremity-adjacent auteur has made, Jeanette is also unexpectedly accessible: a full-blown pop-rock musical in which a preteen Joan of Arc frets over her God-given mission to save France during the Hundred Years’ War, all the while head-banging to heavy metal music.

Dumont’s follow-up, Joan of Arc, now takes on the task of covering the “adult” years of the martyred saint, from her waning days as a warlord to her trial and inevitable execution for heresy. And while it’s almost as surprising as its predecessor, it’s considerably less exhilarating. Whereas the latter half of Jeanette, following a time jump, replaced child actor Lise Leplat Prudhomme with the teenaged Jeanne Voisin, the now 10-year-old Prudhomme has been reinstated in the title role here as the 19-year-old Joan. Right away, this recalibration is extremely dissonant, and it’s one that Dumont exploits particularly well in the lengthy scenes depicting Joan’s trial, during which she’s lectured and berated—like the child that she physically is—by misogynistic, condescending “graduates of theology.”

Much less easy to parse, in terms of intentionality and of classification, is the film’s proximity to the musical genre. An early scene features a suite of songs—sung theatrically by French indie-pop group Kid Wise’s Augustin Charnet—that play over a series of stoical tableaux shots of Prudhumme’s armor-clad Joan, looking pensively into the camera. Dumont briefly seems to be up to something rather brilliant here, reconfiguring the musical tropes of his Joan of Arc saga as a means to manifest the “voices” that the Joan of historical record claimed she heard in her head. But that interpretation gets ever more foggy as the filmmaker goes on to present various musical-esque scenes, but in fractured and recontexualized forms. The most jarring example of this is a lengthy, wordless interlude that features a battalion of soldiers on horseback moving in elaborate patterns, dance-like, a sequence which Dumont shoots in a way that recalls Busby Berkley musicals, with shots from above of the choreographed horses.

At least one aesthetic decision carries over from Jeanette: Only a handful of sets are used in Joan of Arc, and each change usually heralds a major shift in Joan’s lived experience, from battle to trial to imprisonment. (The film’s first third is largely adapted from French Catholic poet Charles Péguy’s play Les Batailles, while the remainder, almost entirely concerned with Joan’s trial and punishment, is based on another Péguy work, Rouen.) However, whereas Jeanette mostly limited itself to exterior shots of the idyllic French countryside, the contrasts in Joan of Arc are striking: The film moves from its opening passage, set amid cascading dunes, to the clean, vertiginous, and imposing interior space of the Royal Chapel, a place that serves to decisively dwarf an already diminutive Joan.

It’s in the pristine halls of the Royal Chapel that ornately dressed men of aristocratic pedigree and high authority—each drolly introduced in a kind of roll call—gather and almost instantly turn into savages, indiscriminately lobbing insults and explicating their own intolerance with unfeeling displays of intellectualized theological reasoning. Naturally, Joan retaliates, steadfastly refusing to disavow her devotion to her own spiritual dogma.

The best part of these trial scenes, and of Joan of Arc in general, is Prudhomme, who, despite her age, gives an extraordinarily committed, and convincing, performance as the teenaged Joan. The cinema is filled with iconic portrayals of the Maid of Orléans, but Prudhomme fully deserves a place among those. It’s a pity, then, that Dumont’s film doesn’t really manage to find many new dimensions to the Joan of Arc mythos—apart from its one inspired casting choice. The filmmaker’s effort to tap into the currents of modernity that run through this centuries-old story can be traced back through film history, at least as far as Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, if not to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—which is, of course, predicated on the particular presentation of the cinematic image.

Dumont does, at least, seem perpetually aware of the trap of familiarity, which may be why he indulges in some of his most inscrutable filmmaking—the aforementioned horse dance, and a musical cameo from the film’s composer, French popstar Christophe—and attempts subtle gestures of subversion. Take the final shot of Joan of Arc, which is not unlike the last act of grace and salvation (and blatant homage to Robert Bresson’s Mouchette) that concludes 2010’s Hadewijch. Here, the instantly recognizable composition from the Dreyer film—for which Bresson infamously voiced his distaste—is rejected twofold, as Dumont shoots Joan’s fatal immolation in profile, and from a considerable distance.

Joan of Arc, though, has bigger problems than an over familiarity with its source, as its themes and dynamics also recall other, stronger Dumont films. The articulation of interiority through stylized visualizations of the adolescent Joan is audacious and intriguing, but its philosophical meaning isn’t nearly as fleshed out, nor as emotionally accessible, as the transformation undergone by a devout young woman into a radicalized religious extremist in Hadewijch. And the psychological understanding of Joan—the process of her victimization—isn’t as acute, nor as visceral, as Dumont’s similar biopic on institutionalized sculptor Camille Claudel. Joan of Arc can’t even claim to have the same conceptual rigor that ignited Jeanette—all of which amounts to a film that feels like a nexus point for Dumont’s influences and his preoccupations, but one that never coalesces its potential into the major work it clearly strives to be.

Cast: Lise Leplat Prudhomme, Jean-François Causeret, Daniel Dienne, Fabien Fenet, Robert Hanicotte, Yves Habert, Fabrice Luchini, Christophe Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Running Time: 138 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: Zombi Child Radically Grapples with Colonialism’s Legacy

Bertrand Bonello’s quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract.

3.5

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Zombi Child
Photo: Arte France Cinéma

Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper then race relations. Indeed, the decision to switch back and forth between Mélissa and Fanny’s perspectives in the film’s present-day scenes opens the story up to a more complex examination of how the girls view and relate to their own heritage and culture.

Not unlike Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which in its final moments made a jarring jump from a brothel in the early 20th century to modern-day Paris and prostitutes working a city street, Zombi Child explores the factors that have allowed a social practice, voodoo, to become a constant of history. Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), is a “mambo,” or voodoo priestess, and she’s the only surviving member of Mélissa’s family in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Mélissa is drawn to Fanny because the two share an affinity for Stephen King and horror fiction, and as they get closer, Fanny facilitates Mélissa’s initiation into her tight-knit “literary sorority.” But after this act of bonding, the young women begin to move in opposite directions: Mélissa makes an effort to fit into the sorority, singing along to angry French rap when she’d rather be listening to music sung in her native Créole language, while Fanny, reeling from her sudden breakup with her long distance lover, Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), discreetly digs into Mélissa’s past and decides to use voodoo as a remedy for her heartbreak.

The other half of the film’s time-jumping narrative concerns Fanny’s grandfather, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), who, in 1962, becomes the victim of a voodoo curse that puts him in an early grave and results in the reanimation of his corpse and him having to perform manual plantation labor in a perpetually “zombified” state. Throughout this section of Zombi Child, Bonello fractures the spatial and temporal coherence of scenes, stringing together elemental, horror movie-adjacent visuals, like the recurring image of an iridescent moon shrouded in clouds and first-person perspective shots that careen through dense sugarcane fields. A clear contrast is established early on between the perpetually dark Haitian landscape and the antiseptic, white-walled interiors of the classrooms in which Fanny and Mélissa are lectured by professors spouting one-sided lessons on world history. But just as its racial politics start to seem too explicit, Zombi Child suddenly and radically reframes itself.

Clairvius’s death turns out to have been the consequence of familial jealousy, and his exploitation as a slave comes at the hands of black plantation farmers, not white men—at least not that we’re made aware of. And if the film is rendered with a veracity that a documentarian would envy, that’s a result of Bonello drawing inspiration from accounts of Haitian slaves being put in medically induced states of “zombification” during the early 20th century. This has the effect of recasting a supernatural fiction narrative as reconstructed history.

Bonello also never gives us the racially charged confrontation that Mélissa and Fanny’s relationship seems to be building toward, as he’s interested in their racial backgrounds only insofar as it shapes their modes of self-identification. Fanny’s refusal to accept her life in the present sets her on a collision course with the forces of Mélissa’s ancestry, and leads to a cataclysm of psychological horror that sees one of these forces to take possession over the other—an undead history rising up to claim a living one. Mélissa, though, draws her identity from her past and her present, and in the same moment that Fanny has her communion with the spiritual forces of voodoo, Mélissa delivers an aural history on the subject—a kind of counter-lecture to those of the white, blowhard professors in Zombi Child.

The film’s off-kilter mix of horror, historiography, and youth movie affords Bonello plenty of opportunity to indulge his pet themes and motifs. He spends much time lingering throughout scenes set at the academy on the sociality of the young women and their engagement with pop culture (notably, Mélissa gives a presentation to her class on Rihanna). In fact, Bonello’s fascination with the dynamics of these relationships seems to drive his interest in the horror genre more so even than the film’s most obvious antecedent, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie—as is indicated by a pretty explicit homage to Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

The film’s most intriguing facet, though, is the way Bonello plays with temporality. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. And the anxiety this creates—through discursive editing and match cuts—leads to a feverish payoff, one that uses genre and supernatural elements to further Bonello’s idea of there being one historical continuity.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort Director: Bertrand Bonello Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: In Diamantino, Strident Political Satire and Whimsy Go Toe to Toe

The film is at its strongest when depicting how Diamantino becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU.

2.5

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Diamantino
Photo: Kino Lorber

Part absurdist character study, part satire of various European political crises, Diamantino envisions a Candide-like soccer megastar, Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta), possessed of naïve but intense imaginations. He lives in a colossal chateau and sleeps on pillows and sheets with his face printed on them, and spends much of his waking life riding the seas on a yacht that’s big enough to ferry a small army. Despite being arguably the most famous person in Portugal, and among the most famous in the world, he’s oblivious to his star power and the weighty expectations placed on him by soccer fans.

Throughout the film, writer-directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt delight in playing up the precarious balance between Diamantino’s self-absorption and his sweet absent-mindedness. Unencumbered by an entourage, Diamantino rarely interacts with anyone besides his loving, supportive father, Chico (Chico Chapas), whose humble kindness is rather jarring when set against the palatial trappings of the family’s digs. Even on the soccer pitch, Diamantino doesn’t exude the focus one associates with an elite athlete, as he spends matches fantasizing about running with colossal, fluffy puppies—playful daydreams that somehow guide his movements as he slips past other players and scores goals.

Diamantino’s carefree, seemingly unflappable temperament, however, is disrupted when he spots a raft of refugees while boating, and his glimpse at real human misery shakes him to the core—so much so that during a make-or-break penalty kick that will decide the World Cup final, he’s too distracted to make the shot, costing Portugal the match. The film’s manic tone swings into overdrive at this point, as Diamantino’s daydreams of haunted refugees are contrasted with his tear-streaked face when it’s blown up on jumbotrons, effectively positioning him as a symbol of his country’s spectacular defeat. And all the while his evil twin sisters (Anabela Moreira and Margarida Moreira) scream at the television set playing the game inside the family’s living room, causing Chico to have a fatal stroke.

This delirious sequence, touching on a celebrity’s political preoccupation and viral media culture, exhibits an audaciousness that’s disappeared from much contemporary comedy, and it sets the tone for the film’s freewheeling style. Humiliated into early retirement, Diamantino announces his embrace of the sort of celebrity activism that regularly comes in for ridicule, declaring that he will adopt a refugee child to honor both the humanitarian crisis and his late father. The Portuguese secret service, already investigating him for suspected money laundering, uses Diamantino’s proclamation to set up an undercover agent, Aisha (Cleo Tavares), to pose as a Cape Verdean refugee child, Rahim, in order to get into his house to gather clues for their case. And while Aisha only finds hilarious evidence of the player’s innocence (his computer files consist of nothing but pet photos), she continues her ruse, if only for the filmmakers to add yet another wrinkle—a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Lucia (Maria Leite)—to the film’s already dense array of plots and themes.

Aisha and Lucia’s presence in Diamantino may turn the dial up on the film’s hijinks, but in the process stalls its satirical thrust. To be sure, the film wrings much humor from Aisha’s infiltration of Diamantino’s home, mostly from how quickly she discovers that his innocence is beyond a doubt and that his cruel sisters are comically guilty, as they keep their offshore accounts on a desktop shortcut. Diamantino’s interactions with Aisha are amusing insofar as Cotta commits fully to his character’s over-eager treatment of “Rahim,” serving his adopted child breakfast in bed and getting into tickle fights that underscore the man’s emotional stuntedness. Yet these moments soon come to feel redundant, leaning too much on Lucia’s petulant anger for comic effect as Aisha grows increasingly close to Diamantino.

That Diamantino and Aisha’s relationship comes to define the last act of the film ultimately detracts from the riotous vision that Abrantes and Schmidt sketch of roiling EU tensions and the way celebrity culture can be just another element in the viral branding of extreme politics. Diamantino is on its strongest footing when depicting how its main character becomes a tool of politicians hoping to oust Portugal from the EU. One scene sees him starring in “Pexit” commercial as a folk hero from the Reconquista, during which Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. The right-wing politicians who fund the ad clearly pledge allegiance to the historical figure’s Islamophobia, though it’s also obvious that they hope that the pleasure Diamantino takes in dancing around in his costume will undercut that impression.

Elsewhere, Diamantino is used as a lab rat for a company that attempts to clone him in order to produce the world’s best soccer team. This stretch finds the film at its most profound, in part because it’s impossible to believe that scientists and supercomputers fail to fathom how a man who lives on an all-sugar diet and daydreams about puppies on the pitch could be the world’s best athlete. The filmmakers draw a line between the absurdity of these experiments and the insidious quest for racial purity behind most eugenics movements, suggesting that neo-fascists are so prone to celebrity worship that they might mistake their favorite star for the master race. It’s rich, relevant material for satire, so it’s a shame that the film pivots away from it to resolve around Diamantino’s relatively straightforward pursuit of happiness.

Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarida Moreira, Carla Maciel, Chico Chapas, Maria Leite, Filipe Vargas, Joana Barrios Director: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Screenwriter: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Tomorrow Man Gets Too Caught Up in Its Pursuit of Preciousness

The film is content to peddle the naïve notion that love is the panacea for all that ails you.

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The Tomorrow Man
Photo: Bleecker Street

The retired recluse at the center of writer-director Noble Jones’s The Tomorrow Man spends his days intensely preparing for the apocalypse. When Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) isn’t meticulously organizing his home and secret fallout shelter, he’s posting conspiracy theories on an internet forum or glued to the local news. At least, that is, until a female news anchor (Wendy Makkena) starts to directly address him, at which point he turns off his television and tries to get his head straight. But Ed can’t really seem to find a way of easing his troubled mind. Indeed, even after engaging in extended human contact via phone conversations with his son, Brian (Derek Cecil), the old man inevitably launches into diatribes packed with half-baked ideas and comprehensive survival advice.

You’d be correct in thinking that Ed sounds a lot like Michael Shannon’s Curtis from Take Shelter, and for a short time, he follows a similar trajectory. But where Jeff Nichols’s film thrives in the ambiguous space between objective reality and the mind of its strange yet plausibly prescient protagonist, The Tomorrow Man never gives credence to any of Ed’s protestations of doom and gloom, seeing them as symptoms of his loneliness and isolation. And while his extreme paranoia is unmistakably a form of mental illness, Jones increasingly treats it with less and less concern as the film moves forward, instead using it as fodder for both quirky comedy and the catalyst for a light-hearted septuagenarian romance.

Enter Ronnie (Blythe Danner), the beautiful but equally socially awkward woman whom Ed meets while stocking up on supplies at the local grocery store. Her subtly twitchy awkwardness serves as the perfect balance to Ed’s boisterous neuroticism; her steadfast use of cash and strategic purchasing leads Ed to believe that he’s found a kindred spirit, one who’s equally prepped for the end of the world. Naturally, there’s a catch, and the ever-fastidious Ed eventually discovers Ronnie’s deep, dark secret: that she’s a hoarder.

It’s a fairly ridiculous odd-couple scenario, but when Jones keeps things small and focuses on Ed and Ronnie’s burgeoning love affair and Ronnie’s clumsy efforts at tempering Ed’s cantankerousness, Lithgow and Danner imbue the film with a warmth and generosity that lends their characters a bit of humanity. The two actors’ effortlessly charming rapport enlivens, at least in brief spurts, a film that otherwise reduces its characters to their eccentricities, from her love of war documentaries to his appreciation of ball bearings.

But The Tomorrow Man displays an utter lack of interest in exploring how Ed and Ronnie came to be so reclusive. Following their initial meet cute, the film gets caught up in its pursuit of preciousness. And Jones’s indifference to the more disturbing elements of his characters’ interior worlds effectively reduces serious mental health issues to harmless neuroses. Late into The Tomorrow Man, Ed takes to the message boards to post that “sometimes people need to be who they are even if they don’t want to be who they are.” It’s a sentiment of acceptance that’s hard to argue against, but one that ignores the fact that Ed and Ronnie are in dire need of psychiatric help. And that’s because Jones is content to peddle the naïve notion that, regardless of your situation, love is the panacea for all that ails you.

Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena Director: Noble Jones Screenwriter: Noble Jones Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Review: The Dead Don’t Die Is Undone by its Meta-Film Aspirations

In Jim Jarmusch’s film, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality.

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Dead Don't Die
Photo: Focus Features

Jim Jarmusch’s strength has always been his ability to craft films that seem lackadaisical and navel-gazing on the surface, but which are actually very methodical, revealing essential truths about the socioeconomic conditions of modern American life. The filmmaker’s latest, The Dead Don’t Die, zips through vignettes set in the small town of Centerville in the days leading up to the zombie apocalypse, and for an hour-plus, the film is sharp, acerbic, and surprisingly melancholic, probing at the generational divides between its characters, who behave in vastly different ways throughout the end of days.

Eventually, however, and perhaps because Jarmusch senses that his trademark deadpan doesn’t have the same novel appeal that it once did, what starts as a subtle undercurrent of knowing humor curdles into overt self-referentiality. It’s not so much a snapping-into-focus as a whiplash-inducing lurch into meta-film territory that Jarmusch doesn’t seem to realize is already a very stale play for this genre of film.

Or maybe he just doesn’t care. There’s much evidence here to suggest that Jarmusch’s prime interest in making a zombie movie is to emphasize the soul-deadening state of America, maybe even the world. So when the film’s zombies roam around murmuring the names of the products they consumed when they were alive (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, coffee, and so on), writing this all off as a lame literalization of the most prevalent theme from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead isn’t so much a scathing critique of his approach as a confirmation of the message he’s imparting: that our culture is nothing but a zombified version of itself.

The Dead Don’t Die is at its best when mulling the contours of the relationships between the cross-generational cast of characters. Neither Cliff (Bill Murray), the resigned, veteran cop, nor Ronnie (Adam Driver), his self-aware but generally unfeeling rookie partner, are particularly well drawn in and of themselves, but their repartee makes them interesting, as Cliff’s air of wisdom and experience dissipates when he finally realizes that Ronnie understands the rules of their genre-inflected universe better than he ever will, and Ronnie, all stoical resolve, is unable to process Cliff’s sobering, earnest emotional outbursts.

The Venn diagram of all things Jarmuschian and all things Lynchian has always shown a significant bit of overlap, but in working with an ensemble cast that throws together longtime collaborators with a gallery of fresh faces—all populating a mosaic of small-town life that’s pervaded by ethereal dread—Jarmusch mounts something akin to his own Twin Peaks: The Return. The greatest affinity between The Dead Don’t Die and David Lynch’s series, though, is the shared interest in investigating how a younger generation can assimilate into the filmmakers’ highly idiosyncratic styles and affect the tenor of their worldviews.

To that end, The Dead Don’t Die feels most poignant when it threads the experience of its various characters and exerts a kind of equalizing force over them. The best example of this, and also something like the film’s philosophical lodestone, is the eponymous country theme song, recorded by Sturgill Simpson and played in various contexts throughout. The song’s ingratiating, hummable melody eventually illuminates how art can have disparate effects on audiences. For the carefree hipster played by Selena Gomez, the tune is an outlet for escape as she drives through the countryside. But it becomes downright oppressive when Cliff gets sick of Ronnie playing it in their police car and chucks the CD out the window.

That range of response is also reflected in the overall trajectory of the film, which begins in a register of playful irreverence—even as characters spout pronouncements of environmental disaster wrought by fracking, or ponder what kind of creature may have mauled two women found dead at a diner—before gradually succumbing to its anger. That isn’t inherently bad, of course, but the film’s dreary, didactic denouement proves that Jarmusch is unable to translate his righteous fury at the state of the world into a cinematic statement as compelling, creative, or weird as The Dead Don’t Die manages to be when it’s simply content to be a hangout movie that just so happens to be set during the zombie apocalypse.

Cast: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, Luka Sabbat, Rosie Perez, Eszter Balint, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, RZA, Carol Kane, Larry Fessenden, Tom Waits Director: Jim Jarmusch Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 103 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Sees a Series Resting on Its Laurels

The choreography is as brutal as you expect, but the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising.

2.5

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Photo: Lionsgate

At the end of another knock-down, drag-out pummeling in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 3: Parabellum, the man with the samurai sword sticking out of his chest says to Keanu Reeves’s John Wick, “That was a pretty good fight, huh?” It’s a throwaway gag, the kind that action directors like to use for a breather after a particularly bruising melee. But it also comes off as something of a gloat—one of a few signs in the film that stuntman turned director Stahelski, for better and worse, is content to coast on a winning formula.

The third installment in this series about a hitman who would really like to stay retired and mourn his dead wife and dog picks up about five seconds after John Wick: Chapter 2 ended. Winston (Ian McShane) gives Wick a one-hour grace period before he’s “excommunicado” from the Continental, neutral ground for members of the criminal underworld, after killing a crime lord. A $14 million bounty has been put on his head, and as roughly one in seven people in the world of the film appears to be an assassin, that means that at least two or three killers with dollar signs in their eyes chase after Wick down every Manhattan city block.

The immediate result of this in the film’s pell-mell opening stretch is that the ever-resourceful Wick kills many, many, many people. He kills them with knives, hatchets, and in a particularly imaginative sequence set in a stable, by getting a horse to kick an assailant in the face. Much of this stretch is mindful of what made the prior films in the John Wick series tick. In other words, Stahelski puts Wick through an increasingly absurd and bloody series of confrontations whose intensity plays off Reeves’s hangdog demeanor with deadpan comic timing.

That fidelity to what’s expected of a John Wick film is initially a relief, at least before the filmmakers start looking for new dramatic terrain to explore. Normally this would be a positive development. After all, just how far can you stretch a concept that’s essentially Run John Run? But all the little story beats that break up the central chase narrative, mostly in the form of hints about Wick’s origin story, ultimately do little to develop the story or character and just serve to pad out the running time with more human obstacles for Wick to stoically annihilate.

Having more or less set the entire criminal universe against him, Wick has to call in just about every favor he has. Given his long and only hinted-at backstory, that leaves the film’s writers a lot of room to play with. Jumping from one roost to the next, Wick asks for help from the Director (Angelica Huston), a member of the high-level crime lords known as the High Table, and Sofia (Halle Berry), an ex-assassin who owes Wick a debt and who’s just as good as he is with a blade and a gun, only she has a pair of kill-on-command canines at her side.

It’s satisfying to watch as John Wick 3 expands the glimmers of fantastical world-building that had previously gilded the series’s retired-killer-on-the-run narrative. The outré garnishes like the gold-coin currency, the killer spies disguised as homeless people, and the Continental—lavish, crooks-only hotels that suggest what might happen if Ian Schrager got the chance to whip up something for the mob—work as a baroque counterpoint to the stripped-down economy of Wick’s dialogue. His response to what he needs for help as the High Table’s stormtroopers close in for the kill? “Guns. Lots of guns.”

The returning cast continues to provide greater and more nuanced depth of character than is called on from Reeves, especially Lance Reddick as a serenely authoritative Continental concierge, a scrappy Laurence Fishburne as the lord of the homeless, and the ever-lugubrious McShane as the New York Continental’s sherry-sipping manager. Asia Kate Dillon also makes a fierce new entry to the series as the Adjudicator, a steely emissary from the High Table.

The production design doesn’t disappoint, either, with its chiaroscuro portrait of an always rainy and crowded New York. Splashes of neon and lens flare play off the antiquated production design. Anachronisms like old-fashioned yellow cabs and 1970s-era computers are paired with a cutting-edge armory of high-tech weapons and oddball details like the criminal underworld secretaries costumed like Suicide Girls who decided to enter the work force.

As for the action choreography, it’s as brutal as you expect, though the repetition in style from the first two films makes the effect less surprising. Wick piles up bodies by the dozen and never puts one bullet in a goon’s head when three or four will more effectively splatter his brains over the wall. Besides the previously mentioned throwdown in a stable, though, the only other fight scene in the film that stands out is the one set inside an antique store: The unarmed Wick and his blade-preferring attackers have murderous fun smashing open and utilizing the contents of one display case, throwing knife after knife at each other.

But the further the film illuminates the spiderweb of criminal enterprise undergirding its world, the more burdensome the overlong story becomes. The somewhat blasé tone that played as just slightly tongue-in-cheek in the first John Wick is starting by this point to feel like complacency. But given the repetitive nature of much of this entry’s narrative, the eventually numbing action choreography—punch, flip, stab, shoot, punch, flip, stab, shoot—and the setup for more of the same in a now seemingly inevitable John Wick 4, it’s possible that even fans could wind up as exhausted as Wick himself.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Tobias Segal, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn Director: Chad Stahelski Screenwriter: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 130 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Perfect Is a Series of Lurid Pillow Shots in Search of a Soul

Eddie Alcazar’s film is a purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath.

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Perfect
Photo: Brainfeeder Films

Eddie Alcazar’s Perfect is the sort of purposefully inscrutable, wandering, disconnected, symbolic, and highly precious mood bath that you’ll either adore or loathe. There are stilted allusions to everyone from Nicolas Winding Refn to Panos Cosmatos to Mel Gibson to the granddaddies of modern cinematic surrealism, Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. But these references add up to nothing more than a catalogue of fetishes.

There’s a narrative in Perfect—sort of. A beautiful young man billed in the credits as Vessel 13 (Garrett Wareing) calls his equally beautiful mother (Abbie Cornish), who appears to be roughly the same age. Sonny boy has done something bad, having either beaten his girlfriend to death or nurtured an elaborate fantasy over the act, which, in this world, is more or less the same thing. The mother, all icy, well-tailored matter-of-factness, sends Vessel 13 to a remote spa somewhere in a mountainous jungle where she once spent time herself. There, he’s advised to choose his path, which entails cutting chunks of flesh out of his face that resemble cubed tuna tartar, and inserting crystal silicon into the exposed wounds.

Vessel 13’s acts of self-surgery are the film’s most original flourishes, involving some fun horror-movie gimmickry. The instruments for cutting the flesh come in a see-through plastic container, with cardboard backing, recalling an action figure’s packaging, complete with a mascot that suggests an anime Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Vessel 13’s scalpel is basically a drafting knife—a nice touch, given that this man is tasked with making himself over.

But much of Alcazar’s film is fatal hokum passed off as a mystical quest for transcendence. In place of most of the dialogue is an ongoing voiceover, which is composed of non-profundities such as “The way out is really the way in,” “In this great illusion of love, an object cannot exist without something else to reflect itself back onto itself,” and, most hilarious of all, “The problem with the truth is that once you know the truth, you can’t un-know it.” Few films could recover from such an unceasing tide of nonsense.

Meanwhile, Vessel 13 wanders the spa’s grounds while gorgeous young women hang about an atmospheric pool seemingly posing for a special collaboration between Rue Morgue and GQ, which Alcazar complements with a neon-bathed lightshow designed to flout his bona fides as a serious arthouse figure. The self-surgeries gradually turn Vessel 13 pale and bald, fostering a weird likeness to Jason Voorhees from 1980’s Friday the 13th. Why would the spa’s treatment, which turned Mom into, well, Abbie Cornish, transform this young man into a ghoul? It has something to do with facing your inner ugliness and expunging it so that you may become a carefree hottie again, and frolic on the beach with a new, even hotter woman without fear of bashing in her brains. Erasing said ugliness also involves elaborate black-and-white visions of a quasi-Aztec society, where Vessel 13 sees himself as a barbarian eating a live human baby. By this point in the film, one might as well shrug and ask, “Why not?”

Perfect is desperately evasive about what it’s actually eaten up with: sex. The film feels like an excuse to corral a bunch of good-looking people together at a hip location and fashion a variety of lurid pillow shots. That’s not an inherently unpromising desire, though Alcazar can’t lay off the self-aggrandizing mumbo jumbo, and a sense of humor would’ve helped. The filmmaker honestly appears to believe that Perfect is an examination of privilege, particularly our ruthless standards of beauty, when it’s really just an embodiment of the same. This interchangeable collection of sequences has no soul.

Cast: Garrett Wareing, Abbie Cornish, Courtney Eaton, Tao Okamoto, Leonardo Nam, Maurice Compte, Alicia Sanz, Sarah McDaniel, Rainey Qualley Director: Eddie Alcazar Screenwriter: Ted Kupper Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ritesh Batra’s Photograph Lives and Dies by Its Frustrating Excisions

In pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, the film transforms its main characters into blank slates.

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Photograph
Photo: Amazon Studios

Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set Photograph is a film as reserved as its protagonists. Full of quiet, contemplative shots of would-be lovebirds Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Miloni (Sanya Malhotra), the film strikes a muted tone that serves as a conscious contrast to the high-blown romances of mainstream Indian cinema. Even as it takes a subtler, more realistic approach to romance across class and religious divisions in India, it almost self-reflexively resembles a Bollywood love story, but only in outline form, as if its stillness were an effect of its having lost the musical numbers that typically define such films.

In the tradition of so many works about star-crossed lovers, Rafi and Miloni come from different worlds. Rafi is a Muslim from a rural village who works as a street photographer, attempting to force his services on tourists visiting the Gateway of India. Miloni is a young, bourgeois Hindu excelling in, but not particularly excited by, her courses on chartered accountancy. They meet one day when Rafi convinces Miloni to pose for a photograph, using his usual pitch that a photo is a material memory—the preservation of a moment that would otherwise fade away. Miloni poses for the photograph, but lost in her thoughts, she leaves with one of the two copies before Rafi can hand her the other.

Separately, the twentysomething Miloni and fortysomething Rafi are each coping with pressure from their elders: Miloni’s parents want her to move to America to study, while Rafi still deals with admonitions from his grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar) that he hasn’t yet married. To mollify her, Rafi includes the photo of Miloni in a letter, claiming she’s his fiancée, and soon the grandmother announces that she’s on her way to Mumbai to meet the prospective bride. It’s at this point that anyone who’s ever seen a romantic comedy can guess where this masquerade is headed, and that the film isn’t going to be interested in a rewriting any rules. If anything, the places where the story does diverge from the expected path, as in a conversation between Rafi and a ghost, are more mystifying than meaningful.

Rafi’s plan to hoodwink his grandmother is contingent on Miloni’s participation. Luckily, he runs into Miloni on the bus, but Batra leaves their conversation out of the film, cutting to Miloni agreeing to the scheme. Her motivation, beyond the general impression Photograph gives us of her kind-heartedness, is that she’s lost the original photograph Rafi gave her. The photo was confiscated in class by her creepy accountancy teacher (Jim Sarbh), whose attraction to Miloni becomes a minor subplot. It appears Miloni liked her own image so much that she’s willing to play the part of Rafi’s fiancée in exchange for a new picture.

Batra excises other pivotal plot points from the film, giving scenes an elliptical, allusive tone. The point, underlined by Rafi and Miloni’s visits to a movie theater playing Bollywood musicals, appears to be the filmmaker’s belief that he’s telling a familiar story whose more rote moments don’t need reiteration. Photograph tries instead to focus on interstitial, lived-in scenarios, like Rafi lying awake in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with four other street photographers, or he and Miloni enjoying shaved ice and kulfi, an ice cream-like desert.

But in pushing so many seemingly crucial moments off screen, Photograph transforms its main characters into blank slates. For one, the absence of the scene in which Miloni agrees to lie to Rafi’s grandmother makes Malhotra’s character seem inscrutable, a meekly smiling void. In a society chock-full of imaging technologies, the prospect of a new photograph doesn’t seem a particularly strong motivation to entangle herself in Rafi’s lies—particularly considering that he involved her by using her image without her knowledge. Photograph’s admittedly clever conclusion suggests that Batra wants to make his audience swoon, but the film’s contrivances and conspicuous excisions undercut our connection to the characters.

Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Farrukh Jaffar, Vijay Raaz Director: Ritesh Batra Screenwriter: Ritesh Batra, Emeara Kamble Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: The Wandering Soap Opera Is a Riddle Stubbornly Wrapped in an Enigma

After a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor the film.

2

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The Wandering Soap Opera
Photo: Cinema Guild

The most remarkable aspect of The Wandering Soap Opera isn’t in the film itself but in its trajectory to the screen. The late master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz shot a collection of sequences in his native Chile way back in 1990 before abandoning the project. Then, several years after his death in 2011, Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s widow and frequent collaborator, decided to complete it. It’s a path that echoes that of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Manoel de Oliveira’s The Visit or Memories and Confessions, and one that brings a ghostly tinge to the satiric vignettes that comprise the film.

The Wandering Soap Opera is divided into a series of chapters that initially abide by the campy conventions of Latin American soap operas: melodramatic dialogue, a gloomy sound score, stiff acting, implausible scenarios, and ridiculously unconvincing special effects. This is a world where every man seems to have salt-and-pepper hair, don a suit and tie, and hold a stake in some financial company. They’re also constantly in the process of either seducing a woman or conducting some shady business practice with another man over rounds of scotch. The sequences, however, eventually turn these conventions into what seems to be some kind of national critique or allegory, and through the surreal exaggeration of the genre’s tropes.

In the film, one character says that soaps are “the fourth power,” another does mean things to a pig, and another caresses a bunny rabbit. An actress says she has multiple names: Alma Rios, Alma Comunista, and Scheherazade. A ghostly character is juxtaposed to a soap scene, like a double exposure, in order to deride it, remarking on its artifices. We’re told that nothing is real or happens in a soap opera. It’s all just fake characters commenting on other fake characters, someone says, conflating the film itself with how audiences consume soaps.

In one sequence, a woman responds to the incessant flirting of a man by asking if he’s a leftist and establishing his politics as prerequisite for him to touch her. In the same vignette, the woman keeps reminding the man that “people are watching” them. She eventually tells him she loves men with big muscles, which prompts the man to hand the woman a chunk of raw meat. This and other scenes unfold in very cryptic fashion, suggesting some kind of master plan toward a biting political critique that at times feels like we’re too illiterate to enjoy.

There’s a strong presence of a political code in this darkly humorous film, but it never seems as if we can quite crack it or what it’s in service of. And this opaqueness makes many of the sequences seem either too cerebral or just downright dull. The exception is when the over-the-top approach is such that the film veers toward complete absurdity, allowing us to completely revel in the nonsense on screen instead of wanting for meaning. As when a bearded man sucking on a popsicle asks a stranger where La Concepción Street is located, only for another man to join them and let them know that his wife’s name is, yes, Concepción.

That particular sequence becomes an unbridled play of associations that recalls the best segments of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales. In the Ruiz film, all characters end up revealing some intimate knowledge of or silly relationship with the word “Concepción.” Suddenly the characters decide to push somebody’s broken-down vehicle while chatting about how awful it would be for a father to name his daughter Concepción, knowing that sooner or later she would get the nickname of Concha. Someone then wonders if “Hermes” is spelled with or without an “H,” before then heading off to a bar called “H” with a man named Homer.

It would seem that we’re in the middle of someone’s dream, and after a while it seems like one needs to be in some kind of dream state in order to properly savor The Wandering Soap Opera. Or to regress to a child-like state, where the pleasures of language aren’t in sense-making, but in the sheer joy of uttering or hearing gibberish for gibberish’s sake.

Cast: Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete, Liliana García Director: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento Screenwriter: Pía Rey, Raúl Ruiz Distributor: Cinema Guild Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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DVD Review: Zoolander

At the very least, Zoolander is the most superficially good looking DVD of the year.

3.5

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Zoolander

This season’s “Saturday Night Live” may be sans late-night goddesses Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri but Zoolander is proof positive that Will Ferrell is still the show’s greatest asset. Although Ben Stiller’s newest isn’t as gut-busting as a “Mad TV” sketch, it’s a wickedly absurd jab at the male modeling profession: it’s VH1 meets Austin Powers meets SNL (never offensive, instantly forgettable but deliriously fun). Fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu (Ferrell) spearheads an attack against the Malaysian prime minister by brainwashing supermodel Derek Zoolander (Stiller), famous for his “Blue Steel” look (uncannily similar to Sarah Jessica Parker’s “Sex and the City” mug shots). Male models are at the center of the world’s most famous assassinations; from Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance to Kennedy’s Cuban embargo, every political action seems to place a direct burden on fashion’s trendy strongholds. Indeed, Zoolander paints a pointed picture of the modeling industry as a ludicrously self-contained unit. Inter-personal strife is taken to the underground, where strutting competitions are not unlike Mexican cockfights. With the aide of Time reporter Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor, Stiller’s wife) and an ex-hand model (played by a scruffy David Duchovny), Zoolander and fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson) bring down Mugatu and his evil bitch-mate Katinka (a devilishly delectable Milla Jovovich—yes, we want to eat her). Mugatu’s brainwashing video is so preposterously wacky that it sticks out like a sore thumb (much like Reese Witherspoon’s application video from Legally Blonde) in an otherwise hit-or-miss comic landscape. Yes, male models are idiots (three of them accidentally kill themselves in one of the film’s finer moments). It’s a one-joke movie but a funny one nonetheless.

Image/Sound

Paramount presents Zoolander in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. From deep blacks to hyper-saturated blues and pinks (and everything in between), every facet of Barry Peterson’s eye-popping camera work is wonderfully preserved here. The disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also full of punch, most notably during sequences that implement cornball ’80s anthems.

Extras

Zoolander‘s “really, really good looking” interactive menus speak for themselves. Menus have never been this fun to look at thanks to Warholesque transitional elements and Will Farrell’s gyrating Mugatu. One of five extended scenes offers at least one killer line (“Come join our sex party”) though these sequences, along with an additional five deleted scenes, are most notable for Ben Stiller’s commentary. The outtakes are unbelievably funny and go heavy on the Farrell. For die-hard Zoolander fans, the disc celebrates his not-so-humble beginnings with original skits from the 1996 and 1997 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. Also included on this hearty DVD edition are promotional spots, photo galleries, The Wiseguys music video “Star The Commotion” and an alternate end title sequence. A commentary track by Stiller and writers Drake Sather and John Hamburg more than addresses the challenge of having a not-so-smart protagonist moving a plot along. Still, this track is more valuable for the ready-made trivia (Andy Dick was to originally play the part of Mugatu).

Overall

At the very least, Zoolander is the most superficially good looking DVD of the year.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, David Duchovny, Jerry Stiller, Christine Taylor Director: Ben Stiller Screenwriter: Ben Stiller Distributor: Paramount Home Video Running Time: 95 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2001 Release Date: March 12, 2002 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, the film much more than the scandal that made it famous in France.

4

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La Religieuse

Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse is based on an epistolary novel by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot that decried the injustices of the Catholic church under the ancien régime by adopting the voice of a young woman forced into a convent. In this adaptation by Rivette and Jules and Jim screenwriter Jean Gruault, Diderot’s protest against the violation of an individual’s free will becomes not only a reflection of the individualist ethos of the French New Wave, but also an augury of uprisings of the late 1960s.

Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) is a young bourgeoise whose parents compel her to take vows as a nun after her father discovers she’s the child of an affair. Genuinely devout, Simonin nevertheless has no interest in a nun’s vow of “chastity, poverty, and obedience,” and endeavors to leave religious life and rejoin the world. The Nun opens with the ceremony at which she’s meant to pledge herself to her new order, as a desperate Simonin breaks away from the ceremony and begs to be let free, framed from the other side of the iron bars which she grasps to make her plea to the assembled witnesses.

Rivette would become known for his improvisational approach to the fiction film, but La Religieuse has all the marks of a tightly controlled production, from the way the director’s long takes follow the action with subtle but emotive re-framings, to the production design’s coordination between the gray-green of the nun’s habits and their convent’s walls (they seem to dissolve into their setting), to Gruault’s often poetic dialogue (“This robe has attached itself to my skin, to my bones,” Simonin laments at one point).

Even the lack of subtlety in aspects of Rivette’s aesthetic—as in the iron bars in the opening scene that paint the church as a prison—has a purpose, as the film is peppered with Brechtian touches that call attention to themselves as formal techniques. Just as we become engaged with the melodrama of Simonin’s dilemma, we’re jolted out of our credulity with a jump or smash cut, or a snippet of noise from the sparse, modern score. Such moments remind us that, while the story is set in the baroque past, it’s told with an eye toward the modernist present, when the individual is still under siege by the disciplinary control of societal institutions.

Rivette is aided in this oscillation between empathetic drama and distancing formal abstraction by Karina’s performance. It’s a role that could easily turn into hysteric caricature, particularly when Simonin’s convent confines her to her quarters, denies her food, and frames her as possessed by the devil. But Karina deeply communicates the trauma of a person trying to hold themselves together as the mechanics of power devastate her mind and body, and Simonin never seems to be merely a metaphor for the offenses against the individual perpetrated by the system—though, of course, she is that too.

Simonin’s first convent, run by Sister Ste Christine (Francine Bergé), exercises its dogmatic piety through cruel punishment and masochistic penance. It prohibits communion with even the natural world outside the gates, and relationships between the women are strictly regulated. After her ordeal, Simonin manages to have herself transferred to another convent, this one overseen by Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver). Here, the nuns behave almost as school girls, frolicking in the yards and attending informal gatherings in the mother superior’s quarters. The convent’s seeming openness, though, masks the cult of personality de Chelles fosters around her, which she exploits to seduce the young nuns.

Sexual control, like institutional violence, is exposed here as another form of oppression women face, but the film’s condemnation of this oppression doesn’t moralize either about homosexuality or religion per se. The problem is the institutionality of the church rather than its professed system of belief, and La Religieuse is rather remarkable for the way in which it codes de Chelles’s unwanted advances as the continued violation of Simonin’s right to self-determination rather than a trespass against a moral order.

An emotionally searing conclusion drives this point home, but as memorable as this finale is, the romantic individualism typical of the New Wave belies the spirit of collective rebellion implicit in Rivette’s Brechtian touches. The film presents us with groups of women who, through violence or sex, relay the patriarchal power of the church, but it’s unable to imagine an alternative sphere where bonds between women might foster a more positive society. Though it critiques and defies the pretenses of hierarchical religious community, neither La Religieuse nor its main character is ultimately able to see a way out of alienated individualism.

Image/Sound

The transfer on this Blu-ray is from the gorgeous 4K restoration released in theaters last year, and it brings a renewed vitality to both the subtle color gradations of cinematographer Alain Levent’s muted gray-green palette throughout the scenes that depict Suzanne’s ascetic life, as well as the momentary flourishes of color—like the striking blue of her scarf early in La Religieuse—that point to the young woman’s desire for life outside the convent. The film, though, is at its most radical in its soundtrack, and the precise, often jarring use of off-screen sound and nondiegetic music is mixed evenly throughout the two channels.

Extras

Much of the extras here focus on the controversy surrounding La Religieuse. Indeed, while the featurette “Susanne Simonin, La Scandaleuse” is described as a “making-of documentary,” it’s much more a discussion about the film’s troubled release. Dennis Lim’s booklet essay, though short, provides a more wide-ranging account of the film’s making. A commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton covers much of the same ground as the featurette but includes a more thorough history of the story’s origins in the French Enlightenment.

Overall

Featuring a searing performance from Anna Karina, La Religieuse is much more than the scandal that made it famous in France. Kino Lorber’s release of the film’s recent 4K restoration is a service to a landmark film of the French New Wave.

Cast: Adilé David, Ginite Popote, Louise Labeque, Mackenson Bijou, Mathilde Riu, Ninon François, Patrick Boucheron, Saadia Bentaïeb, Sayyid El Alami, Wislanda Louimat Director: Jacque Rivette Screenwriter: Jean Gruault, Jacque Rivette Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

There’s no doubt that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of the film.

5

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Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest films, from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to Porco Rosso, abound in characters driven by an insatiable desire for adventure, and to take to the skies—a pursuit that offers a temporary transcendence of everyday reality. With a broom and an airplane, respectively, the main characters from Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso cast off from a world that refuses to accept them for who they are, while the young siblings at the center of My Neighbor Totoro use the eponymous creature to ascend into the clouds and forget the problems that afflict their ailing mother, if only for a while.

It’s a stark contrast from that recurring motif in Miyazaki’s animated worlds that the characters from his 1997 film Princess Mononoke never take flight. It’s as if Miyazaki, by keeping them earthbound, is trying to remind them of the greed, vengeance, and lust for power that’s led to the destruction of their world. Indeed, there’s no escaping the increasingly dire consequences that arise from the environmental annihilation that occurs in the film.

A parable of man versus nature, Princess Mononoke is a damning, pessimistic, and downright angry environmentalist screed. But in refusing to draw a line in the sand between good and evil, Miyazaki presents a thoughtful, intelligent mosaic of visual and thematic ideas that ignores neither the brutal elements inherent in nature nor the potential for courage and compassion that lies within mankind. In the film, humans and animals alike are full of contradictions, which serves to consistently complicate Miyazaki’s initially straightforward message of humanity’s thoughtless destruction of the natural world.

Set during Japan’s medieval Muromachi period, during “a time of gods and demons,” Princess Mononoke follows the exploits of an idealistic young man, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), who sets out on a journey from his small, rural village to the enchanted forests out west after being poisoned by a demonic boar. In typical Miyazaki fashion, the beast is a feat of unbridled imagination, yet that blood-filled mouth and those dozens of red tentacles protruding from its body are far from fanciful, planting the creature firmly in the realm of body horror. Once the beast is slayed, the cause of its terrifying transformation is revealed to be an iron bullet lodged in its chest, which is taken by the villagers as a sign of an imbalance in the lands out west.

On the flipside of the ghastly boar is the legendary Deer God, a strange yet elegant creature who protects the vast forestlands and is rumored to have the powers to heal both man and nature. As Ashitaka tracks down this mystical animal, hoping it will cure his poisoned arm, he finds himself playing the part of mediator between two warring factions. On one side is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the rapacious ruler of a remote settlement named Irontown and owner of its iron factory, whose expansion necessitates the destruction of the nearby forest lands. And fighting to stop her are the wolves led by the wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson), and the human she raised as her daughter, San (Claire Danes), also known as Princess Mononoke.

At first, there seems to be an ethical clarity to this conflict that makes it easy for the audience’s allegiances to turn in one direction and never waver, but moral certitude becomes increasingly muddied as Princess Mononoke progresses. While Lady Eboshi essentially functions as the film’s central villain, pumping her surroundings with weapons and pollution, she also shows a remarkable capacity for compassion, hiring and caring for a slew of lepers and prostitutes who shunned by society at large. Her workers are happy and faithful to her, and even the munitions she creates serve the greater good, as they’re used at one point to fend off a band of samurai robbers. And despite Ashitaka’s general desire to prevent warfare and save the wilderness, he’s driven by his own selfish goals of attaining the help of the Deer God. Even the natural world bares its teeth, as wolves, boars, and apes fight among themselves to establish dominance even as the world around them literally falls apart.

The film relishes in the beauties of the natural world, but Miyazaki doesn’t see nature as infallible or humans as irredeemable. The Deer God itself embodies the capacity for both creation and destruction, as grass and flowers grow beneath its feet wherever it steps, yet it can also kill living creatures with as little as a glance. Where Miyazaki lends the humans and animals in Princess Mononoke a sense of ambiguity, he’s unflinching in his belief that it’s our moral duty to seek a balance in the natural world that supports the whole in order to benefit all life cycles. For all of the film’s bloodshed, which by Miyazaki’s standards is quite shocking given the plethora of severed limbs and decapitations caused during battle, it’s the majestic and magical qualities of the untouched portions of the forest that linger strongest in one’s memory. From the kodama, the adorable and ghostly forest spirits who make strange clicking sounds as they shake their heads, to the Deer God, who at night transforms into The Night Walker, a translucent, shimmering giant who safeguards the forest from above, Miyazaki’s flair for embellishment makes clear his affection for the natural world.

After one too many human transgressions, The Night Walker turns into a black ooze that quickly spreads over the lands, destroying plants, wildlife, and humans in its wake. In an act of heroism, Ashitaka returns to the gargantuan creature its severed deer head, and in a particularly stunning sequence, Miyazaki shows the barren landscape slowly coming back to life. The innate power of nature is presented as a kind of magic trick, suggesting that even if humans drive through the Earth’s resources to the degree that the planet becomes uninhabitable, it will ultimately find a way to regenerate itself. Of course, Princess Mononoke also appears to believe that if humanity itself wants to stick around, it must seek a sustainable balance that doesn’t let things get too close to that point of no return.

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s transfer of Princess Mononoke might just be the most stunning home-video presentation that any Hayao Miyazaki film has received to date. There’s an impressive clarity to the images that makes it impossible to not fixate on every textural dimension of the animation, from the film’s most elaborately conceived creatures such as the Deer God and possessed boar, to simpler elements like grass, flowers, trees, and animal fur. The colors are truly eye-popping, particularly the greens of the natural world and the bright, rich reds of blood and the fabrics of characters’ clothing. On the sound front, Joe Hisaishi’s dynamic, emotional score is beautifully layered throughout the dense, enveloping soundscape.

Extras

In place of a commentary track, Shout! has included the option to view Princess Mononoke with storyboard stills of every shot in place of the final animated frames. These sketches are often crude, but the presentation is fascinating for allowing us such a detailed glimpse of Miyazaki’s vision in its nascent stage. The very simplicity of the sketches offers a compelling contrast to the rich, fully materialized world of the finished film, highlighting the staggering amount of time, effort, and imagination that goes into constructing a hand-drawn animated film. The featurette “Princess Mononoke in the U.S., which begins with amusing footage of the film’s glowing reception at the Toronto International Film Festival, follows Miyazaki on his journey from Toronto to Los Angeles and, finally, New York. The brief clips of press interviews are a potent reminder of how conditioned American audiences are to pat moral lessons in animated films. The most engaging stretch, though, is Miyazaki’s visit to Disney’s animation department, where he seems at home discussing animation techniques and approaches to story with his American colleagues. This release comes in a sturdy, gorgeous case that also includes a CD of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack and a 40-page booklet full of stills from the film and a three-part essay by film critic Glenn Kenny that’s as insightful as it is personal.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s stunning transfer and superb packaging and extras ensure that this will remain, for many years to come, the definitive home-video release of Hayao Miyazaki’s film.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, John DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, Tara Strong Director: Hayao Miyazaki Screenwriter: Hayao Miyazaki Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 133 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1997 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: John Farrow’s The Big Clock Joins the Arrow Academy

The film receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

4

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The Big Clock

John Farrow’s The Big Clock is a marvel of production design that also features rich, weirdly amusing performances from both Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, but it’s too slight in its contemplation of power dynamics to rank high in the pantheon of film noirs. Though the film opens grimly near the story’s end, with George (Milland) evading capture inside a publishing office where he works for a murder he didn’t commit, the actual series of events that leads up to that point is closer in tenor to Hawksian comedy, with Milland’s working man juggling the demands of family and work in almost screwball fashion.

As editor-in-chief of Crimeways, George answers to Janoth (Laughton), who owns and oversees multiple magazines and their offices inside a New York City skyscraper, which contains the eponymous object that displays time zones from around the world. The clock isn’t only a striking visual touchstone around which much of the film’s action revolves, it also provides a symbolic basis for Janoth’s controlling of his employees’ lives. Due to Janoth’s uncompromising demands, George and his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), didn’t get to have a honeymoon five years ago, and his workaholic tendencies have begun to alienate her since then. Thus, an upcoming vacation to West Virginia is George’s last-ditch effort to prove his commitment to Georgette and their young son (B.G. Norman). But when Janoth insists that George delay the trip again, it sends George into a defiant and drunken tailspin, placing him in a position to be framed for murder.

While this sequence of events has the potential to emphasize how the postwar American workforce is reoriented by inhuman demands for around-the-clock labor, the filmmakers are hesitant to grapple with these ideas to their fullest extent. Instead, George’s workplace predicament is treated as a prelude to an absurdist punchline. When Janoth, who’s trying to cover his murderous tracks, assigns George to hunt down an alleged killer for a story, he’s ironically tasked with pursuing himself, as George is the man with whom Janoth’s victim spent the previous evening. The convoluted nature of how George even becomes a murder suspect indicates how the expansive set design is ultimately used less as a thematic trait of modernist architecture’s intersection with corporate ambition than as a maze for George’s deferral of his positive identification by a host of eyewitnesses roaming in and around the large building.

The plot’s devolution into a basic game of cat and mouse sidesteps any concern for business practices and competition that’s suggested early on as Janoth, speaking to a group of his employees, implores them to “anticipate trends before they are trends.” Early on, one might expect The Big Clock to do the same—namely, to utilize its unique setting and intriguing set of circumstances to arrive at something weightier, more morally indignant. Or, if the film is opposed to Janoth’s promotion of constant innovation, reveal how the cold logic of corporate pursuits jeopardizes the American family’s livelihood. Instead, as Janoth’s comprehensive threat is rather easily dispatched once it’s realized by George, The Big Clock proves content to prevent its bubbling critique of capitalism from ever reaching a boiling point.

Image/Sound

While The Big Clok hasn’t been given the 4K treatment that many films from the 1940s have received from various home-video publishers in recent years, this high-definition presentation is a considerable upgrade over Universal’s 2004 DVD release. Wide shots of the publication offices benefit most from the restoration work, as the finest of details, from elevator buttons to the patterns on walls, are readily visible. The close-ups are also quite impressive in their level of clarity. There are sporadic instances of light scratches or debris visible within the frame, but they’re by no means egregious. The monaural track is consistent, with the dialogue and Victor Young’s score registering quite strongly and clearly up in the front of the mix.

Extras

An audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin is full of insights about the film’s production history and John Farrow’s use of sequence shots. Martin gamely makes a case for Farrow as an unheralded artist of the period with a unique flair for detail, notably singling out an impressive early scene that necessitated set changes prior to the elevator doors of the high-rise office opening on various floors. Martin also points out where the film differs from the novel upon which it’s based, noting that certain tweaks were made to soften the premise of adultery in order to satisfy the production code. A featurette with critic Adrian Wootton fills in more details about the film’s pre-production history, including why Paramount was so keen to adapt the novel in the first place. Actor and writer Simon Callow chimes in with an appreciation of actor Charles Laughton, articulating what makes his performance in The Big Clock stand out. In addition to these excellent supplements, there’s an hour-long radio dramatization of the film performed in 1948 by the Lux Radio Theatre, the original theatrical trailer, and a gallery of original stills and promotional materials.

Overall

A minor film noir featuring top-shelf production design, The Big Clock receives a commendable high-def transfer and a handful of worthwhile extras from the Arrow Academy.

Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester, Harold Vermilyea Director: John Farrow Screenwriter: Jonathan Latimer Distributor: Arrow Academy Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: May 14, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night on the Criterion Collection

Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust.

4

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Diamonds of the Night

Reflecting on his novel Darkness Casts No Shadows in Jan Němec’s short tribute documentary Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig recalls how his harrowing account of life under constant Nazi siege originated from the feeling, as he entered his 60s, of suddenly being on the precipice of death. Diamonds of the Night, Němec’s startling debut feature, translates the author’s sense of imminent mortality into a vivid atmosphere of free-floating menace that whips up the novel’s mix of real-time experience, memories, and dreams into one heterogenous montage, eschewing any aesthetic cues to delineate the separate planes. Running at a concise 66 minutes, the film substitutes plot and character detail with an evocative, interiorized representation of the experience of fleeing fascism, entrusting the viewer to immediately comprehend the gravity of its narrative terms from the staggering opening dolly shot, when a pair of frail boys hurtle desperately for minutes on end up a frozen hill to the sound of shouting and gunfire off screen.

Arguably one of the greatest in medias res openings in film history, and a sequence on which Němec expended approximately a third of his budget, Diamonds of the Night’s nerve-wracking teaser doesn’t resolve on any comforting decrescendo. Rather, the nervous pace and sense of peril linger over through the rest of the film, which follows two unnamed concentration camp fugitives played by newcomers Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera through a series—or is it a loop?—of imposing enemy landscapes, from foggy forests and jagged rock fields to desiccated farmland and cottages. Periodically offsetting the traumatic present-tense turmoil are alternately delirious and peaceful visions of life prior to escape and woozy hallucinations from whose headspace it’s left tantalizingly unclear. If reality is a bleak, horizonless crusade of exertion and starvation, the mind at least offers some kind of refuge, be it a memory of a stroll through a deserted side street in Prague or a traded glance with a girl on a train.

Němec’s ingenious gambit is to unify his multiple strands of narrative information under the same visual and sonic language, alleviating reality with fantasy without modifying the gloomy chiaroscuro patina of the footage or the stream of muffled ambient sound heard by the boys as they drift through their purgatory. In this morass of past, present, and imagination, context-less images, untethered from discernible logic or chronology, stick out like transmissions from the subconscious—their appearances less skeleton keys for meaning than acute flickerings of a mind when pushed to the limits. Emboldened by Jaroslav Kučera and Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography, Němec’s compositional eye shines in such passages, drawing out resonance from domestic still lifes and urban panoramas, eerily plaintive shots that depart from the fluid handheld intimacy with which the boys’ frantic wanderings are captured.

Alongside his colleagues in the Czech New Wave, Němec’s compulsion to work well outside storytelling convention and hybridize different filmmaking styles marked him as something of an enfant terrible in his nation’s film industry, enervating funding partners and ultimately cutting his career short. Diamonds of the Night’s unstable brew of historical realism, poetic reverie, and even surrealism—look out for those Bunuelian ant swarms and lethal loaves of bread—offers something of a comprehensive unleashing of Němec’s artistic vitality before these pressures took hold, and still the film seems to crystallize the director’s antipathy toward authority and suppression even at this early stage.

In the film’s grueling penultimate sequence, a group of loathsome, toothless old hunters round up the heroes in the woods and take them home to humiliate them during a night of carousing—an act of incipient violence that gets dragged on and over-emphasized until it achieves a numbing effect. The scene epitomizes the neglect of human dignity that characterized this awful historical episode, but given the film’s reduction of context and specificity, it also points to a more timeless dynamic between the powerful and the powerless.

Image/Sound

The silvery, high-contrast palette of Diamonds of the Night, which lends the film’s close-ups a shimmering clarity, has never looked richer on home video than it does on the Criterion Collection’s transfer. Shadows are about as black as black gets without becoming muddy, and the highlights, as seen in the glimmers in Ladislav Jánsky’s eyes, are positively ethereal. Most jaw-dropping are the lengthy handheld tracking shots through dimly lit woods, where the layers of skinny pine trees create striking vignette effects around the heroes as they trudge through the half-light. The film’s soundtrack is sparse and quiet, and Criterion has wisely kept the mix low and uncompressed so that the expressive sonic hierarchy—panting, for instance, is often louder than gunshots—is left intact.

Extras

Criterion has thankfully not skimped on the extras, offering three analytical supplements and two short films by Jan Němec. The two newly shot pieces include an interview with Irena Kovarova that takes a deep dive into Czech film history and a rewarding James Quandt video essay that explores the film’s quite pronounced roots in contemporaneous works by Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Němec himself reminisces on the film’s production and its daunting opening tracking shot in an archival interview from 2009, while source novelist Arnošt Lustig digs into his own troubled past in the touching and intimate Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec. Best of all, however, is A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s award-winning college short film that plays, with its commanding use of handheld and ability to invest everyday objects into totems of life-or-death struggle, like a mature trial run for Diamonds of the Night. A Michael Atkinson essay rounds out the collection.

Overall

Czech radical Jan Němec burst out of the gate with this stirring, unorthodox depiction of trauma set during the Holocaust, and Criterion treats it as the watershed film that it is.

Cast: Ladislav Janský, Antonín Kumbera Director: Jan Němec Screenwriter: Jan Němec Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 66 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

3.5

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Melvin and Howard

Perhaps the closest that Jonathan Demme ever got to making a New Hollywood film, Melvin and Howard is set in the impoverished outskirts of the Nevada desert, a place where the ritzy neon and modern decadence of Las Vegas turns into graveyards of rusted, stripped car bodies surrounded by pockets of RV parks. The symbolism of Vegas as a shimmering mirage that offers the false hope of instantaneous wealth and instantaneous success to the struggling masses just outside the city forms the bedrock of the film’s story about a quixotic hustler, and the tone that the setting creates befits Hollywood’s most cynical era of moviemaking.

Even here, however, Demme’s capacity for warmth is unmistakable. The master filmmaker introduces eccentric mogul Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) with magic-hour incandescence and copious lens flares as the man races over the salt flats of the desert on his motorcycle. It’s as if the glowing images exist to suggest that Howard is the owner of this vast dominion. Compare that to the first shots of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), seen driving desert roads at night in a truck so rusty that you may wonder when was the last time he got a tetanus shot. Melvin, cooped up in this vehicle as he drives across pitch-black roads, looks utterly powerless, a peon drifting through a world that barely notices him.

Melvin stumbles across a crash-wounded Howard by chance when he stops to relieve himself, and he agrees to take the man to his hotel after Howard refuses medical treatment. Demme fully illuminates both characters in the uncomfortable ride that follows. Melvin, chipper and extroverted, immediately comes across as a man who’s devoted an immense amount of effort to getting rich without trying. Bragging about inane schemes, such as penning a Christmas novelty song, Melvin suggests a more benign than usual snake-oil salesman, harmless in his understanding of the American dream to mean that you can make enough money to do whatever you want. Of course, he’s sharing a car with the embodiment of that notion of wealth, and Howard scarcely looks like he’s on top of the world when not indulging his thrill-seeking. Gaunt and pale in close-up, Howard almost looks like he’s in Noh theater makeup, his withered, wide-eyed face not unlike Tatsuya Nakadai’s Lear figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.

Apart from a recapitulation of this scene at the film’s conclusion, Howard doesn’t appear again after Melvin takes him back to Vegas, but his presence looms large over the film’s subsequent study of Melvin’s various get-rich schemes and blinkered dreaming. We see how Melvin’s reckless optimism drives his first wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning performance), to leave him, then take him back when he crashes her new gig as a stripper in order to demand her return. Demme’s mastery of neo-screwball mechanics plays out in a brief comedy of remarriage in which Melvin and a pregnant Lynda hastily renew their vows in a Vegas chapel, which leads to a scene in which the pair is forced to fill in as witnesses for other eloping couples. The subsequent montage of newlyweds smooching Melvin and Lynda is riotous in part for the way the grooms are so enthusiastic about kissing Lynda, and much to the chagrin of some of their brides. The scene is quintessential Demme, blatantly absurd on its face as couple after couple comes in for a kiss from Melvin and Lynda, but suffused with a giddy quality that strangely pulls the couple closer to each other in their shared affections.

Throughout the film, Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin, even as the filmmaker abundantly illustrates how divorced from reality the man is. The limitations of Melvin’s worldview is perhaps best exhibited by his love of game shows as a path to quick money and notoriety, and he even manages to book Lynda on a sleazy program in which contestants have to perform for a crowd to get a shot at playing games for cash. Demme could easily have lapsed into the cynicism that this kind of semi-fame embodies, and at first blush he seems to give into it when Lynda goes on stage to perform a tap-dancing number that initially earns catcalls and boos. Gradually, however, her sheer tenacity and charm wins over the audience, and by the end she gets a standing ovation. The good vibes are short-lived, though, as Melvin uses the cash Lynda wins to buy a boat despite living in the middle of the desert, cheerfully calling it an “investment” as Lynda finally snaps and leaves him for good.

Melvin’s refusal to take any of these twists and turns of life as a sign of defeat marks him as a quintessential early Demme protagonist, his sunny disposition and constant self-sabotage existing in strange harmony. Eventually, Melvin comes to appreciate the possibility of a less reckless life, and after a time lapse, we find him settled into honest work and a content marriage to his second wife, Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Of course, just as Melvin appears to have found his position in life, he receives a copy of Howard’s will, which names him a beneficiary and launches him into a media circus that ironically brings him the fame he always desired.

Melvin and Howard ends with Melvin defending himself from charges of forgery by lawyers determined not to let a little thing like Howard’s eccentricity split the spoils of his estate. Melvin’s aspirational hunger certainly gives him motive to lie, but the film takes the man’s claim of honestly receiving a copy of the will at face value, preferring to play up the oddity of this insignificant person going up against mirthless, high-priced lawyers. Demme never stoops to mocking Melvin. If anything, he finds in the man his archetypal protagonist: a weirdo who in truth has more in common with everyone around him than even he realizes.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents a sturdy transfer of the film. The bleak but beautiful panoramas of the natural world exhibit impressive color balance and contrast, showing off Tak Fujimoto’s incredible gift for on-location cinematography. Color tones are stable throughout, with only a few nighttime scenes showing signs of crushing. The lossless mono track is clean as a whistle, nicely separating dialogue and Foley effects throughout.

Extras

An audio commentary with Jonathan Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson is essentially a detailed celebration of the former’s subtle eye for detail. One particularly revealing moment is the acknowledgement that the stylized handwriting of the film’s credits were modeled after the real Hughes’s handwriting. One also gets a sense that, at the time of this track’s recording, Deeme hadn’t seen the film some time, as he frequently expresses appreciation and even surprise at some of the small touches in the actors’ performances. At times, he almost sounds less like the maker of the film than a devoted fan.

Overall

Jonathan Demme’s film is a repository for his comic, aesthetic, and observational gifts, and it receives a solid Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Pamela Reed, Jason Robards, Michael J. Pollard, Jack Kehoe, Dabney Coleman Director: Jonathan Demme Screenwriter: Bo Goldman Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 1980 Buy: Video

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Review: Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit on Twilight Time Blu-ray

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer wonderfully preserves Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

3.5

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The Snake Pit

The release of Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit in 1948, on the heels of Mary Jane Ward’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, ushered in a sea change—namely, the reform of state mental hospitals. And although it stands as Hollywood’s first peek into the horrors of mid-20th-century mental institutions, it’s now more fruitful to view it in tandem with the more psychologically elaborate women’s films of the 1940s, such as Rebecca, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, than with the decidedly more raw and authentic depictions of psychiatric hospitals that came down the pipeline in subsequent decades.

That isn’t to suggest that The Snake Pit doesn’t lack for disturbing sequences, from Virginia’s (Olivia de Havilland) first electroshock treatment to the stretch of time she spends in a squalid, overcrowded ward reserved for the most severely mentally ill patients. There’s even an unsympathetic nurse (Helen Craig) who’s on hand to squelch any sense of agency that Virginia develops throughout her extended stay in the hospital, and whose sadistic authoritarianism foreshadows that of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But perhaps because the public in the late ‘40s was so oblivious to the realities of such institutions and the basic tenets of psychology, Litvak frequently defaults to an educational mode of filmmaking. From sympathetic Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) straining to explicitly lay out the various methodologies of psychoanalysis to de Havilland’s excessive voiceover, which laboriously spells out every aspect of Virginia’s turmoil, the film’s banal narrative strategies lead to purely descriptive passages that hold viewers’ hands every step of the way. Every ounce of nuance and ambiguity is sufficiently squeezed out of the film in such moments, which are geared toward explaining mental illness rather than plumbing its complexities.

Litvak’s sympathetic fixation on Virginia’s suffering does become more compelling when The Snake Pit navigates the myriad ways that the men in her life—from her manipulative, domineering former boyfriend, Gordon (Leif Erickson), to her emotionally absent father (Damian O’Flynn)—have mistreated her. Told in flashbacks, these scenes delve into the root causes of Virginia’s nervous breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, transforming her suppressed memories into living nightmares. And as she’s forced to relive these past tragedies, the film takes on a distinctly feminine, if not feminist, perspective, outlining how Virginia’s ambitions to transcend the prescribed limitations of gender, evidenced by her work as a writer, are placed in the vice grip of seemingly inescapable patriarchal pressures.

It’s all a bit Psych 101 in its approach, further reinforced by the portrait of Sigmund Freud on Dr. Kik’s wall that looms high in the middle of the frame, paternally gazing down upon the doctor and Virginia during each of their sessions. But de Havilland’s emotionally expressive performance is so tightly controlled that she carries the film through many of its weaker stretches. Her uncanny ability to subtly shift moods on a dime, and sometimes several times within the same shot, lends credence to Virginia’s unshakeable sense of paranoia, repressed guilt and creeping self-doubt, making her suffering feel genuine and heart-wrenching. As Virginia grapples with her inner demons, as well as a memory loss that leaves her disoriented and unsure of who she can trust, The Snake Pit periodically transcends its archaic psychological trappings to become an empathic examination of a woman battling both the internal and external forces that seek to fully erase her sense of self.

Image/Sound

Twilight Time’s transfer is uniformly crisp and free of debris, boasting intricate details in both the interiors of the mental institution and in the actors’ faces. The blacks aren’t terribly deep, but the image contrast is still more than serviceable and consistent throughout. While the film consists primarily of interior close-ups and mid-shots, whenever Anatole Litvak opts for wider perspectives, such as in the overhead shot that reveals the meaning of the film’s title or the elaborate long shots during Virginia’s stay in the ward for the severely mentally ill, there’s an impressive clarity to the depth of field. The sound on the disc is also quite robust, enhancing the subtleties of both Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the ambient background noise that fills out the soundtrack during scenes in the more overcrowded portions of the hospital.

Extras

A commentary track with film historian Aubrey Solomon is the lone substantial extra on this disc. Solomon provides the historical context surrounding the original theatrical release of The Snake Pit, describing the film as both of a piece with the sorts of socially relevant dramas producer Daryl Zanuck made throughout the ‘40s and an early example of Hollywood representations of psychoanalysis and mental institutions. Unfortunately, Solomon too often spends long stretches of time either completely silent, painstakingly listing out the credits of various actors and members of the production team, or reading direct quotes from critical reactions to the film around its 1948 release. His unpacking of the unsettling sequence in the ward for the severely mentally disturbed does finally touch upon the film’s intermittently expressive camerawork, but such deep, detailed scene dissections would have been welcomed earlier on. The disc also comes with an isolated music track, two vintage radio shows, and an essay by Julie Kirgo that delves into the backstory of how Mary Jane Ward’s novel was adapted to the screen and sings the praises of Olivia de Havilland’s performance.

Overall

Twilight Time’s sharp transfer of The Snake Pit wonderfully preserves Anatole Litvak’s long-ago groundbreaking melodrama.

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly Director: Anatole Litvak Screenwriter: Frank Partos, Millen Brand Distributor: Twilight Time Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 1948 Release Date: April 16, 2019

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Review: Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Chan’s formal audacity to shine.

5

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Police Story and Police Story 2

For contemporary American audiences, action cinema generally comes in two flavors. There are superhero fantasias with wall-to-wall effects and interchangeably bloodless, consequence-free warfare, and the occasional hard-R slaughter-fest for those viewers who’ve grown nostalgic for the vigilante cop thrillers of the 1970s and ‘80s. In this climate, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 remain distinctive for their balletic grace and aura of easygoing charm. These films are true action comedies, though they also have subtle grit and tension.

As the supplements included with this Criterion set remind us, Police Story stood out in 1985 as well, in Hong Kong, America, and everywhere else. The period Chinese martial arts extravaganzas were becoming passé, and American action cinema was ruled by brutes who killed first and asked questions never. When you see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, even now, you expect him to kill someone—as an evitable release of energy and fulfillment of the functions for which that colossal body appears to be built.

By contrast, Chan’s character in Police Story and Police Story 2, Chan Ka-Kui, doesn’t appear to be looking for trouble. He has an affable, if blinkered, nature, making little money as a sergeant on the Royal Hong Kong Police Force and constantly bickering with his girlfriend, May (Maggie Cheung). As co-writer and director, Chan gives his character plenty of little humanizing anecdotes, and the action scenes, when they arrive, often peerlessly blend awkward portraiture with unrivaled physical precision.

In Police Story, an action sequence is built around Ka-Kui’s efforts to fool an uncooperative witness, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin), by hiring a police officer to pretend to threaten her. When the woman proves quite able to defend herself against the aggressor, Ka-Kui engages in an extraordinary series of flips, kicks, and evasions in order to keep his co-worker’s body animate after the woman has knocked the man out. Ka-Kui dances with the man while pretending to attack him while resisting the woman’s own attacks, which is to say that Chan casually nests three conceits within one stanza of movement.

Chan places Ka-Kui’s moves in a farcical context, which has blossomed out of the hero’s reprehensible ethics. Ka-Kui has, after all, hired someone to stalk someone he’s supposed to be protecting, and this decision makes him into a fool and nearly undoes his operation. Vigilante tactics are often glorified in action movies, but Chan finds complicating wrinkles, giving his set pieces unexpected counterpoints in terms of character and, of course, in physicality. (The knife wielded by Ka-Kui’s friend functions as a kind of baton, which Chan masterfully uses to produce a variety of kinetic through lines.)

Much has been made of Chan’s relatability, and he grew cuddly once he became a superstar in America in the wake of the Rush Hour series. But the actor-filmmaker is surprisingly sassy in Police Story and Police Story 2, offering unexpectedly pointed parodies of police corruption and futility. In Police Story 2, a group of female detectives beat up a captured criminal, threatening to kill him unless he cooperates—a moment that Chan plays for lighthearted comedy. The casualness of this scene is more disturbing than the macho or preachy tonalities that American filmmakers have conditioned us to expect from such a moment.

Later in the same film, Ka-Kui justifies a failed mission to his superiors with empty generalities that they see right through, though they cynically repeat the sentiments up an increasingly gullible chain of command—a punchline that’s worthy of W.C. Fields. In Police Story, Chan stages an acrobatic bit of business in which Ka-Kui juggles several phones at a police station, balancing them on various parts of his body while utilizing other props to answer and cumulatively ignore every call, one of which is a reporting of a rape.

Chan expertly contextualizes his action scenes as releases of energy, which aren’t entirely dissimilar to the catharses of American action films, except that Chan understands his characters to be self-involved, chasing and fighting so as to fulfill an inner drive. Ka-Kui tries to stop bad guys because he’s a daredevil who needs to show his stuff and chase an adrenaline rush, though he often gets himself in predicaments that far outweigh his expectations. This irony is a source of comedy, and it also takes Chan’s melees into a transcendent stratosphere.

Police Story’s climax at a shopping mall, one of the greatest action sequences in cinema, feels inevitable because it finally allows Ka-Kui’s—and Chan’s—imagination and agility to reach the full bloom of their expression. Chan opens the scene with a wide shot of the mall, a labyrinth of glass cases with escalators that reflect the building’s various surfaces, creating a hall-of-mirrors effect. This image is loaded with promise, as Chan is teasing us with the astonishing amount of variables that he’s setting up for his disposal.

And he doesn’t disappoint, fashioning a symphony of tumbling bodies and shattering glass that’s beautiful, exhilarating, and weirdly poignant. Like Bruce Lee, Chan and his other brilliant stunt men move so fast that the eye can barely keep up with them, though Chan has his collaborators vary their speeds, fashioning rhythmic, syncopated escalations, with pauses that suggest the action-movie equivalent of a musical bridge, and props, with ever-shifting functions, that suggest weapons as well as dancer’s instruments. (One bit involving a coat rack is especially ingenious.) Occasional uses of slow-motion suggest orgasmic eruptions of emotion, recalling the films of Sam Peckinpah.

Police Story and Police Story 2 aren’t evenly matched. The first film is scrappy and energetic, with several other hall-of-fame moments in addition to the knife-fight number and the shopping mall climax. Meanwhile, the sequel has an unusual problem: Chan became a better conventional director in between the two productions, filming his non-action scenes with greater polish. Police Story 2 has a more luxurious color palette than Police Story, suggesting a comic book via Andy Warhol, and it has much more plot than its predecessor—far too much, in fact. Chan keeps Police Story 2 afloat on the force of his personality, but across a 122-minute running time, there’s only two standout set pieces.

A brawl that takes place in a playground is vintage Chan, exploring all the ways in which ladders, slides, and other children’s stuff can be weaponized, and the climatic showdown set inside a warehouse, which suggests a game of Donkey Kong, with bad guys throwing barrels at ascending heroes, is also a testament to the filmmaker’s virtuosity. But the film lacks the ecstatic propulsion of Police Story, in which Chan, frustrated with his failed attempts to break into Hollywood, raised a gauntlet and reinvented a genre.

Image/Sound

These transfers are beautiful, yet they also preserve the grungy vitality of Jackie Chan’s spunky low-budget productions. Colors are vibrant—particularly in Police Story 2, in which Chan use bold yellows and reds to accentuate certain punchlines—and image clarity is magnificent, allowing one to savor Chan’s kinetic aesthetics. Plenty of grit and grain in both transfers, which is almost certainly appropriate to the source materials, but these qualities are also attractive. Various mono soundtracks in various languages have been included for both films, with new subtitle translations that emphasize Chan’s satirical sense of humor. The sound effects really pop in all the tracks, particularly the stylized punches and exploding glass, which contribute to all-around dynamic and immersive soundscapes.

Extras

This supplements package, a well-curated mixture of old and new features, offers a full and exciting history of Police Story and Police Story 2. A vintage television program from 1964 discusses Beijing-opera training, which is pivotal to Jackie Chan’s physical discipline and to his style of action cinema. While clearly serving a promotional purpose, Jackie Chan: My Stunts is a feature-length 1999 documentary that’s nearly as exhilarating as the filmmaker’s best productions. Chan takes the audience behind the scenes to his stunt lab, a warehouse in which he devices and works out routines with his team. This is a case in which knowledge of the mechanics of a magic trick only intensifies the spell, as Chan’s action choreography involves rigorous split-second timing and editing that stiches multiple takes together to offer an illusion of effortlessness. Most fascinatingly, we see many blown takes, which show how quickly a scene can go awry. Other vintage supplements include a 1989 episode of Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show, featuring Chan and actress Maggie Cheung, which turned a young Edgar Wright into a Chan fanboy, a 2017 program with Chan and the original members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and interviews with cast members.

The new supplements include an interview with Wright, who offers an appreciation of Chan’s aesthetic, and a piece with author and New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix, who discusses the monumental effect Police Story had on Chan’s career, which was in an uncertain place after his frustrating experience on films such as The Protector. A newly restored alternate version of Police Story 2, running roughly 15 minutes shorter than the original film, has also been included, along with trailers, stunt reels, and a booklet including a rich and tactile essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton.

Overall

Criterion has beautifully restored two glorious action epics, allowing Jackie Chan’s formal audacity to shine.

Cast: Jackie Chan, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Chor Yuen, Charlie Cho, Fung Hak-on, Lam Kwok-Hung, Bill Tung, Kam Hing Yin, Lau Chi-wing, Crystal Kwok, Anglie Leung Wan-Yui, Ann Mui, Candice Tai, John Cheung Director: Jackie Chan Screenwriter: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 222 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 1985 - 1988 Release Date: April 30, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.

3.5

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A Face in the Crowd

The social problem film, as numerous critics and scholars have termed it, conventionally deals with an issue, ranging from alcoholism to racism, that necessitates citizens to arrive at a collaborative solution. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront fits squarely within the subgenre by taking aim at mob-owned union officials who bleed their workers dry. In his initial collaboration with screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan utilized the working-class visage of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy to combat corruption. The arrangement of heroes and villains is essentially straightforward, with the longshoremen triumphing in the end over their crooked bosses.

In 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, Kazan and Schulberg’s follow-up vision of societal disarray, no such easy aligning of culprits exist. Released during the rise of television, the film, not unlike John Ford’s The Searchers from the year before, questions the longevity of previously foundational cultural myths—a tack that would come to define the ethos of New Hollywood with the release of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. However, unlike Ford’s seminal inscription of John Wayne’s character as a racist Confederate whose time has passed, Kazan and Schulberg appear caught between the impulse to dramatize or satirize the rise of demagoguery, creating a sometimes tonally confused, though often lucid, vision of the emergent threats to American democracy.

A Face in the Crowd confronts how TV is used by network execs and politicians to manipulate a working-class electorate into bending to the will of power. These gullible citizens believe they’re supporting one of their own, so to speak, in Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), an Arkansan drifter who transforms himself into something of a demagogic Svengali. Lonesome finds himself in a position of influence thanks to radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who hosts the program of the film’s title. She both finds the man and, seeing his potential to connect with audiences, gives him a platform to express himself.

The film initially considers Jeffries’s intentions with the same devoted interest as it does Rhodes’s meteoric rise up the ranks of political power. An early example is evident during the opening sequence, in which Jeffries enters an Arkansas jail and declares: “People are fascinating wherever you find them.” Such a nakedly ethnographic proclamation demonstrates how a statement of empathy often covers for the baser interests of exploitation. Indeed, Jeffries wants to leverage her relationship to everyone she meets for personal gain. As the film progresses, however, its focus shifts toward a simplistic takedown of Rhodes’s egomaniacal persona and away from the industry that allowed him such distinction in the first place.

A Face in the Crowd uses the ever-evolving relationship between Jeffries and Rhodes, who go from business partners to lovers to foes, as a counterbalance to how it envisions the American political process as being predicated on manipulation and deceit. Yet the film’s ideas about corruption, which raise a number of complicated questions, are often pushed aside in favor of going after an easier target. As Rhodes ascends to the role of image coach to an aspiring senator, Worthington Fuller (Marshall Neilan), instructing the man, in part, to stop pursing his lips because it makes him look like a “sissy,” A Face in the Crowd stokes its indictment of populism while letting certain faults of liberalism off the hook.

The film’s most intriguing perspective on Jeffries and Rhodes is how the former’s infatuation with the latter is a tangle of professional ambition and sexual feeling; Kazan often places Jeffries in close-up, eyes wide, taking in Rhodes’s face with an ambivalent, though palpable, sense of excitement. When Rhodes exclaims, per one of Schulberg’s several crackerjack, double entendres, that “a guitar beats a woman every time,” the moment foreshadows that Jeffries will become the victim of such misogynist logic. In fact, it’s only after Rhodes has taken a teenage wife in Betty Lou (Lee Remick) that Jeffries suffers a mental breakdown and aims to destroy Rhodes’s career by revealing his fraudulent act.

In the end, the filmmakers only conceive of Rhodes’s appeal in mostly rudimentary terms, as in the cutaways to audiences either nodding in approval or exclaiming their support of him. When Jeffries broadcasts Rhodes, who believes he’s off air, calling his supporters a herd of idiotic sheep, the film settles for the most obvious takedown of the man imaginable. The notion that audiences, who see Rhodes as a savior, could so quickly flip from affectionate to contemptuous feels too easy. Given the uncertainty about television as a platform that runs throughout A Face in the Crowd, the finale’s relegation of Rhodes to lunatic status, left to rant and rave alone in his high-rise penthouse, feels more like wishful thinking on behalf of the filmmakers than a consideration of the potential consequences of celebrity worship.

Image/Sound

The image, sourced form a 4K digital transfer, boasts significantly more information than the 2005 DVD release of A Face in the Crowd from Warner Home Video. The climax set in Lonesome’s penthouse makes incredible use of depth of field, and the images are striking for their level of detail. Blacks and whites are well balanced throughout; especially impressive are the outdoor scenes of Lonesome being courted and corrupted by scheming politicians. While grit has been scrubbed from the image, nothing looks overly digitized or compromised by the restoration process. The monaural track is loud and impressive, meaning that each and every one of Lonesome’s guffaws and bellows comes through with necessary force. The dialogue and score are clearly audible throughout, with no signs of pops or hisses on the track.

Extras

In a new interview recorded for this release, film historian Ron Briley describes Elia Kazan’s career during the ‘50s, with particular attention given to the infamous HUAC hearings during which he named several writers and directors who were affiliated with the communist party. In fact, since both Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg had previously been members of the party, it was their being on the same page about the aftermath of the hearings, according to Briley, that led them to work together on On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Another new interview presents Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith discussing how the actor’s early career contains parallels with that of Lonesome Rhodes, absent the eventual turn into demagoguery. The other two extras have been carried over from the 2005 DVD: a 30-minute documentary, “Facing the Past,” which features cast, crew, and film historians variously explaining the film’s legacy in historical and personal terms, and a theatrical trailer. A booklet contains three separate pieces: an essay by critic April Wolfe, who assesses the film’s prescient vision of media-saturated politics, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith.

Overall

Whether you find the execution of A Face in the Crowd brilliant or simplistic, Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray transfer will allow this classic of American political critique to remain a topic of debate for years to come.

Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa, Percy Waram, Marshall Neilan Director: Elia Kazan Screenwriter: Budd Schulberg Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 126 min Rating: NR Year: 1957 Release Date: April 23, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres.

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Shooting Stars

Although British director Anthony Asquith is known primarily for such acclaimed stage-to-film adaptations as Pygmalion, The Browning Version, and The Importance of Being Earnest, the first two of his three silent films, Shooting Stars and Underground, display a fully formed and unique vision of the tragic consequences of love. Released at the tail end of the silent era in 1928, these films tap into the violent impulses often lurking beneath romantic obsession, starting off as lighthearted comedies before sliding into something far more nefarious when their main characters sour on love.

Shooting Stars begins as a meta-satire of the film industry, cleverly and amusingly pulling back the curtain to reveal the often-clunky machinery involved in creating cinematic magic. Asquith opens on a schmaltzy, softly lit close-up of a cowboy kissing a young woman sitting in a tree, but after the cowboy rides off, the woman picks up a nearby dove to snuggle, only for the bird to bite her lip. And in true diva form, she looks directly into the camera, shrieking and angrily cursing up a storm. The romantic illusion is even further shattered when we see the cowboy being wheeled off screen on a makeshift wooden horse and a stunning crane shot tracks the actress as she storms from one set to another on the floor above, capturing all of the ropes, ladders, backdrops, and lighting apparatus that go into making cinema gold.

Few films of the silent era so baldly lay bare the unflattering, factory-like nature of early movie-making. But it’s the film’s collisions between the idealistic romance of so many silent films and the rougher realities outside of the camera’s eye that Shooting Stars is ultimately more interested in. Despite the on-screen chemistry of the aforementioned actors—Mae (Annette Benson) and Julian (Brian Aherne), who also happen to be their studio’s de facto power couple—and the former’s loving praise of her husband during a puff-piece interview, the actress is desperately looking for a way out of her seemingly happy marriage.

In a particularly amusing bit, Mae stands in the high-rise apartment of her lover, the hacky slapstick comedian Andy Wilks (Donald Calthrop), as an advertisement for her and Julian’s new film hangs in the middle of the frame, slyly blinking the title in bright lights: My Man. Asquith doubles down on the irony by cutting to Julian inside a theater, cheering on his on-screen counterpart from one of his earlier films as the hero rushes to rescue his wife from a friend who’s forcing himself upon the helpless woman. Here, cinema has become pure wish-fulfillment, and in the case of Julian, he took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Following Julian’s inevitable rude awakening to Mae’s unfaithfulness, the film further blurs the line between fiction and reality when a blank from a rifle used in the western the actors are shooting is replaced with a real bullet. The material’s wry humor gives way to a suspenseful sequence that lends Shooting Stars a genuine pathos and psychological complexity as the stakes turn deadly and the title of the film takes on a second, and ironic, resonance.

Underground replaces film sets with the more lower-class milieu of the London Underground, but the toxic nature of jealousy is just as pronounced here. As in the earlier film, Asquith begins on a light note, with a kindly ticket taker, Bill (Aherne), falling in love with a classy salesgirl, Nell (Elissa Landi). In a scene that evinces a bit of the elusive Lubitsch touch, shadows on a distant wall act out various forms of kissing and embracing as the two youngsters flirt. But the shadows in this film soon take on more foreboding, harshly angular shapes as the brutish, envious Bert (Cyril McLaglen) schemes to have Nell all to himself.

Like Shooting Stars, Underground cleverly upends audience expectations in its handling of a love triangle, avoiding focusing on which man Nell will choose and instead morphing into a shockingly dark “wrong man” thriller that anticipates noir in both its aesthetics and thematic concerns. In both films, Asquith shows a keen understanding of both the rules and roles of various genres, using that familiarity to his advantage as he injects romantic flights of fancy with a playfulness and hard-edged honesty that gives these otherwise humorous films an underlying psychosexual tension and emotional richness.

Shooting Stars and Underground are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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The Criterion Channel Is Your Antidote to Algorithm-Driven Streaming

Below are some of the films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

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Touki Bouki
Photo: World Cinema Foundation

When the Turner Classic Movies-operated film streaming service FilmStruck, the one-time exclusive online streaming home of the Criterion Collection, announced it was folding last November, an entire section of the internet went prostrate with despair. The bereaved included actor Bill Hader, who pled for FilmStruck’s rescue on stage at the IndieWire Honors in Los Angeles, and was one of several celebrity signatories on a petition to revive the service. Those curious about the contours of Hader’s cinephilia can now watch his multipart interview on the new Criterion Channel, part of a series of conversations with filmmakers about their favorite films the channel calls “Adventures in Moviegoing.”

The series, which features Hader discussing art-house classics like Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and one-time Bruce Lee co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabar holding forth on samurai films, is one major feature that distinguishes the Criterion Channel from other major streaming services: It’s not just the quantity or even the selection of films available, but the sense that the service is curated by more than an algorithm. The automated suggestions of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon confine their users to pathways they’re already on. If you watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on Amazon Prime, the site will probably recommend you try out Jacques Demy’s subsequent The Little Girls of Rochefort—rather than the recently rediscovered and restored John Woo-directed kung-fu film Last Hurrah for Chivalry, as Criterion’s series “Double Features” does.

There’s value in such counterintuitive recommendations: Drawing a line between the rhythms of dance and of the wuxia film’s choreographed conflict invites users to take part in a broader contemplation of the cinema’s capturing of bodies in motion. And if, with such esoteric films and unexpected pairings, the Criterion Channel appears as an “offbeat” film service, this is in large part because we’re now used to receiving viewing suggestions from systems that emulate only in outline the mechanism of recommendation. We’ve grown reliant on the facile generic groupings (“drama,” “adventure,” “comedy”) typical of algorithm-driven services. The service pointedly ignores genre in favor of auteur, country of origin, or historical context: Even its already celebrated “Columbia Noir Collection” focuses us on a particular historical moment in which the small studio produced “some of the finest noirs of the studio era.”

The selection is highly curated, but like any streaming service, the channel is also built around users’ ability to navigate and compile their own experiences. Perhaps recognizing that even people willing to dedicate more than three hours to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman also use streaming services to fill a day’s interstitial moments, the site launched with a number of shorts and video essays—many of them extras on the Criterion Collection’s disc releases, but some unique to the streaming site. Grouped under “10 Minutes or Less” are such shorts as “Stan Lee on Alain Resnais,” a mind-blowing interview with the recently deceased comic giant in which he casually reveals his close friendship with the Last Year at Marienbad director, recounting the abortive film project they collaborated on—as well as Resnais’s longtime desire to direct a Spider-Man film.

With the recent announcement of Disney+, and given the numerous subscription-streaming services that are already threatening to glut the market, the streaming era is probably headed toward some kind of reckoning or realignment. Now that Janus Films has struck out on their own with the Criterion Channel, hopefully the distributor can find a durable niche online. Below are some of the further films, collections, and series that have already made the channel a vital service.

“The Agnés Varda Collection”

The Criterion Channel’s April 8 launch came in the immediate wake of the passing of French filmmaking giant Agnés Varda on March 29, and appropriately, the service’s front page offers “The Agnés Varda Collection,” assembling the fiction features, documentaries, and shorts that the channel’s disc label has been releasing since the middle of the last decade. Vital, canonical masterworks like Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagaband are available on the service, but a discovery for many may be the shorts and docs the director made during her sojourns in California in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. Shades of the playful Varda we know from late-period essay films are apparent in her Uncle Yanco, to which Black Panthers, which evinces the social commitments that would always mingle with Varda’s aesthetic curiosity, makes a compelling companion piece.

“Directed by Vera Chytilova”

For years, the new waves that emerged from many countries reproduced the male-centric discourse of many of the films themselves, relegating the women associated with these movements, such as Varda in France, to secondary roles. Among the directors of the Czech New Wave, Milos Foreman is still undoubtedly the towering figure, but it’s safe to say, in large part because of Criterion’s release of her films in the United States, that the voice of Vera Chytilová has been rediscovered in recent years. The “Directed by Véra Chytilová” collection on the Criterion Channel offers a considerably smaller assemblage of films than the Varda collection, but the director’s Daisies, a color-soaked, surrealist classic about two young women playing (often meta-cinematic) pranks on the patriarchy, is a landmark both of feminist cinema and of the all too brief Czech New Wave.

“The Kids Aren’t All Right”

In an entry of the Criterion Channel’s “Short + Feature” series titled “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” dancer Lily Baldwin’s 2016 short film “Swallowed” is paired with the David Cronenberg body-horror classic The Brood, and each deals in their own unsettling way with the uncanniness of motherhood, when one’s body becomes more than just a shell for the self, but a conduit for other lifeforms. Baldwin stars in her own dialogue-light film as a recent, breastfeeding mother who feels increasingly as if a parasite has invaded her body, expressed through the contortions of modern dance and including a very messy scene that involves dairy products. Baldwin incorporates the contortions of modern dance to represent her character’s gnarly bodily transformation—as well as the dance troupe of parasites residing in the Grand Central Station of her soul. The short isn’t as bracing a depiction of mutated motherhood as Cronenberg’s The Brood, but it’s a suitable warm-up.

Senegalese Cinema: Black Girl and Touki Bouki

Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl is perhaps the only Sengalese film firmly in the canon, and is easy to find on the Criterion Channel within the category “Criterion Editions.” But under its Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sublabel, the service offers at least one other feature from the West African country: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, a film that’s often compared to early Godard films such as Breathless and Pierrot le Fou for the way it combines a romantic story of an outcast couple with a deconstructive take on narrative. Such a comparison risks lapsing into a colonial perspective, as if Senegal cinema is necessarily derived from that of France. But if there’s a correspondence between Godard’s rebellious New Wave films and Touki Bouki’s defiant disregard of narrative space through energetic and confrontational montage, it should be understood as a kind of critique. The archetype of the young, disaffected, postwar man doesn’t have to look like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as he can also resemble Magaye Niang, the Senegalese actor who plays Mory in Touki Bouki.

Cruising around Dakar on his bull-horn-mounted motorcycle, Mory dreams of leaving Senegal for Paris with his girlfriend (Mareme Niang). But Touki Bouki takes its time getting to the meat of its heroes’ quest, seeking out other sights from early-‘70s Dakar—including, in some difficult-to-watch sequences, the actual production of meat. With images that transfix through both beauty and their visceral horror—and not without a healthy share of humor—Touki Bouki contains multitudes; it’s a film that deserves a place among the best of global New Wave cinema.

“Observations on Film Art”

Under the title “Observations on Film Art,” the Criterion Channel assembles video essays on films from the Criterion Collection by major film scholars and critics. One highlight is film historian Kristin Thompson on the use of color in Black Narcissus, the classic Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film photographed by Jack Cardiff. Black Narcissus is a dark, sensual fantasy about a convent of nuns facing temptation in the Himalayas that would be pure camp if its expressionist use of color didn’t still have the power to provoke tension and anxiety. Thompson, an expert on film production in the studio era, meticulously constructs her argument about the film’s use of color both as mood and as symbol, beginning with a summary of the technical possibilities and limitations of the late ‘40s, showing how a stable set of film-production methods were built upon them, and then illustrating how Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger defied these standards with their hypnotic film. Elsewhere in “Observations on Film Art,” Thompson’s husband, the film scholar David Bordwell, can be found analyzing narrative parallels in Chungking Express, Jeff Smith discusses framing in Shoot the Piano Player, and Thompson again elaborates on the use of sound in M.

Silent Cinema

Criterion’s library of silent films is mostly focused on comedy. Over the last few years, they’ve been releasing the films of Harold Lloyd, who today figures as the most minor of the “big three” silent comedians that also includes Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but who in the ‘20s was the most commercially successful. A few years ago, Janus also landed the rights to distribute most of the films that Chaplin made after 1917—the point from which the Chaplin estate owns the films’ copyrights. The channel’s assemblage of restored Chaplin films, from 1918’s A Dog’s Life to 1957’s A King in New York, are up on the streaming service under the “Directed by Charlie Chaplin” collection. The film largely regarded as Chaplin’s first feature-length masterpiece is 1921’s The Kid, which was recently released on the Criterion Collection.

Chaplin’s silent features are basically the foundation of the cinematic canon, but Criterion’s comprehensive rights to the catalogue means the channel features films from the era that are too commonly overlooked. His 1923 melodrama A Woman of Paris starring Edna Purviance is a subtle and sophisticated film, and his 1928 silent film The Circus is a rambunctious masterpiece of pantomimic hijinks, less sentimental than most of his features from the period, but just as smart. (And among his later, Tramp-less sound films, Monsieur Verdoux is a stirring, still-relevant morality play, the darkest of postwar Hollywood comedies.)

In addition to Hollywood comedy, classics of the silent Scandanavian screen also turn out to be a specialty of the Criterion Channel. The Danish Häxan, Benjamin Christensen’s deliciously twisted quasi-documentary about witches, is available on the service in its full, color-tinted glory. Also available for streaming are several early films by Swedish auteur Victor Sjöström. A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, both from 1917, exhibit an advanced grasp of cinema’s expressive powers, as well as the filmmaker’s most well-known Swedish film, the mortality drama The Phantom Carriage, and one of the great horror films of all time.

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