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Review: Zoolander 2

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

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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retirement and discover that the fashion world has left them behind, and they’re roundly mocked for their age and outdated style.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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Review: In Angels Are Made of Light, a Nation Rebuilds in the Ruins of War

The film is an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

2.5

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Angels Are Made of Light
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Early in Angels Are Made of Light, a voice breaks through a sea of chatter in a classroom teeming with young boys: “I only know about the time since I was born. What’s history?” The child goes on to explain that history isn’t taught at the Daqiqi Balkhi high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The question’s poignance is self-evident, particularly because the building itself appears to have been disturbed by the city’s recent trauma. The opening shot of James Longley’s first film since Iraq in Fragments captures splotches of sunlight entering through holes in the school’s exterior. Later, one of the building’s walls collapses, and the children relocate to a location supported by American funding.

Though it inevitably gestures toward American occupation, Angels Are Made of Light is rare in its nearly undivided attention to civilian life in a region fundamentally altered by the U.S.’s so-called war on terror. Much of the film is composed of footage Longley shot at Daqiqi Balkhi from 2011 to 2014, with a particular focus on three brothers: Rostam, Sohrab, and Yaldash. The trio speak in voiceover throughout, and seem to define themselves by their relative interest in work and studying. Sohrab excels in school and doesn’t see himself as fit for manual labor, while the older Rostam works closely with their father. Yaldash, the youngest, works at a tin shop and is anguished when his job interferes with his educational aspirations.

The documentary’s classroom scenes exude a tone of controlled chaos, shot mostly at eye level with the students as they struggle to hear and be heard over the din of their classmates. (This is particularly true at their school’s first location, where numerous classes are taught outside right next to one another.) The passage of time is marked by changes in seasons and the repetition of certain ceremonies, like a teacher appreciation day featuring musical performances by students. Concurrently, there’s a Malickian quality to the near-constant voiceover of the brothers, whose concerns veer from the quotidian (earning money for the family, achieving in school) to the philosophical. Though their voices are profound, their limited perspective yields lengthy stretches of repetitive, meandering sentiments that are inflated by John Erik Kaada’s sometimes intrusive score.

If the children aren’t taught about their country’s history as a site of hostile takeover by other countries, the Taliban, and groups of mujahideen, they have clearly internalized the trauma their homeland has endured. “Death is coming. Doomsday is coming. Everything is coming,” one says. All seem to agree that learning about computers (none of which are seen in the documentary) is the only sure ticket to an escape or a successful career.

As Angels Are Made of Light proceeds, its chorus of narrative voices expands, adding a number of teachers (including the boys’ mother) and another schoolboy who sells hot food at an open market. The teachers add flashes of historical context, which Longley plays over archival footage of Kabul and its ruling governments over the previous decades. Cuts between the city’s past and its present are stark: The contemporary skyline is pockmarked with absent buildings that have been replaced by makeshift structures, and the city’s center is now cluttered with billboards advertising mobile phones and alcohol produced in NATO countries. Eventually, Longley shows current political action in the streets, as mujahideen gather to flog themselves in public, other groups march for democracy, and all focus their attention on 2014 presidential election where Hamid Karzai democratically transfers power to his successor, Ashraf Ghani, as rumors swirl about the Americans’ sway over the vote.

Longley’s decision to avoid addressing Afghani politics until the latter half of his film is sound, perhaps a signal that his young characters are becoming more attuned to the corruption that pervades daily operations in their city, but Angels Are Made of Light lacks the sort of structural framework that can properly sustain its lack of plot and rather confusing array of editorialists speaking in voiceover. The closest the film comes to a guiding focus is the recurring image of a large, ghostly white blimp that looms over Kabul, a blot of menace as children and other citizens look to the sky in hope or prayer. Presumably an observational surveillance craft, the blimp is an ironic mirror of the documentarian’s predicament—a totem that reminds everyone who sees it of the West’s influence on their lives. Longley is aware that his camera serves a similar function, and it’s admirable that he’s able to achieve an intimate portrait of a nation terminally anxious about who will see fit to rule it next.

Director: James Longley Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Mike Wallace Is Here Honors a Legend by Arguing with Him

Much like its subject, Avi Belkin’s documentary knows how to start an argument.

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Mike Wallace Is Here
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Much like its subject, Mike Wallace Is Here knows how to start an argument. Avi Belkin’s archival documentary begins with the legendary broadcaster (who died in 2012) interviewing Bill O’Reilly at the peak of the latter’s influence as a Fox News blowhard. “That is not an interview, that’s a lecture,” Wallace moans before O’Reilly calls him a “dinosaur” and then really twists the knife: “You’re the driving force behind my career,” he tells Wallace. The exchange is riveting and, in some ways, inscrutable, as both of these TV personalities are so skilled at performance it can seem impossible to know if their dialogue is in earnest or some knowing fight among titans happy to march into battle.

Though it’s almost certainly fair to say that Wallace set the stage for an era of ostentatious and increasingly dangerous “personality journalism,” the breadth and quality of Wallace’s work is rich enough to lend some tension to Belkin’s exploration of the reporter as celebrity. Assembled with a propulsive momentum from dozens of televised interviews of and by Wallace, Mike Wallace Is Here portrays its subject as a self-made man, or, as his colleague Morley Safer calls him, “an invention.” Born Myron Wallace, he adopted his broadcast name while working as a performer on radio and then television, a decision made with no shortage of anxiety due to Wallace’s self-consciousness about his acne scars from childhood.

Ironically, Wallace’s breakthrough as a broadcaster (after a series of acting and promotional gigs) came with a show that revolutionized the television interview through its intense lighting and use of invasive closeups. Clips from his show Night-Beat—the first of two Wallace-led interview programs sponsored by cigarette companies and cloaked in smoke—reveal that the media personality was already aware of the showmanship innate in his brand of journalism. He introduces the show by saying “My role is that of a reporter,” and hones his skill for unsettling his guests with obnoxious editorial comments before asking questions. (“Many people hated your husband, and you,” he once said to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Belkin weaves Wallace’s personal story into the documentary’s parade of interviews in a manner that’s unsurprisingly superficial, glossing over his many marriages, the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece in 1962 (Wallace cites the tragedy as a pivotal moment in the creation of 60 Minutes and the revival of his career), and a suicide attempt circa 1986. In interviews where Wallace is the subject—with the likes of Barbara Walters and other 60 Minutes colleagues—he’s alternately open and evasive about these flashpoints in his life, often demonstrating the very behavior he has no patience for as an interviewer. Belkin shrewdly reveals Wallace’s hypocrisy through editing, cutting to, for instance, a clip of Wallace grilling Larry King about his string of failed marriages.

Mike Wallace Is Here only suffers in its treatment of the broadcaster’s time at 60 Minutes, dispensing with cleverly edited commentary in favor of a swift survey of the major news of the second half of the 20th century. These include necessary digressions, such as General William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against a CBS Reports special that Wallace anchored accusing the Army general of falsifying the American military’s analysis of the strength of the Vietnamese army in order to keep the war in Vietnam going, and the tumultuous process of televising Wallace’s interview with the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (the subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider). But this extensive highlight reel seems to forget that the documentary is scrutinizing Wallace as it’s celebrating him.

At its nerviest, Mike Wallace Is Here uses the words of other celebrities to psychoanalyze Wallace. The film argues (and at times Wallace acknowledges) that his success is a product of his sense of shame, first about the way that he looked and then about the way that he behaved, loved, and parented. When Wallace is coy, Belkin effectively imagines a more honest response by cutting to someone else saying what he believes is true. After showing Wallace dancing around his lack of pride for a while, he cuts to Barbara Streisand talking about how “fear is the energy toward doing your best work.” In the very same interview, she calls Wallace “a son of a bitch,” and Mike Wallace Is Here is at its best when it seems to be in direct debate with this journalistic legend. The film honors Wallace best when it seems to be arguing with him.

Director: Avi Belkin Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 94 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Review: David Crosby: Remember My Name Sees a Legend Carrying On

The film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

2.5

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David Crosby: Remember My Name
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One gets the sense when hearing David Cosby perform that, like many naturally gifted vocalists, he was born to express himself through song, and given his tumultuous personal and professional life, the act of singing may be the only means through which Crosby can briefly maintain an equilibrium amid so much chaos. Womanizing, drug abuse, and band breakups are certainly par for the course for countless musicians, especially those who came up in the late 1960s, but Crosby is an extreme case even by those standards. It’s difficult to think of another living musician more strongly and uniformly despised by his former bandmates and collaborators and, aside from Keith Richards, another whose continued survival is more shocking in light of what he’s put his body through.

Aided by Cameron Crowe, who, as a Rolling Stone writer, interviewed Crosby various times and is on hand here to again pick the musician’s brain, A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name opens with a fairly standard music-doc overview that traces Crosby’s productive early years with the Byrds and his ascent to fame with both iterations of Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s no effort made to hide Crosby’s thorny personality or the chaos he brought to each of these early projects, but Eaton and Crowe seem initially content to butter Crosby up, joining him in waxing rhapsodic about his widespread influence and lasting importance as a musician.

The hagiographic tone slowly fades as the film moves past the perfunctory career retrospective and begins delving into the nitty-gritty details of Crosby’s bumpy road to stardom and his rapid descent into disgrace, spurred on by his decades-long battle with drug addiction. While Crosby often proves a tough nut to crack, rarely willing to linger too long on the painful moments of a life eventful enough to fill several documentaries, Crowe and Eaton eventually disarm him enough to tap into the frustrated, damaged, and regretful man hiding all those years beneath his patented walrus mustache and wispy, long hair. As Crosby discusses the petulance and rage he often unfairly directed at fellow bandmates and his mistreatment of many of his girlfriends, several of whom he got hooked on cocaine and heroin, one can sense not only the depth of his remorse and anguish, but also the resigned helplessness that little can be done in his twilight years to repair the many bridges he’s permanently scorched.

Throughout Remember My Name, archival interviews with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young make it abundantly clear that Crosby has alienated each of his former bandmates to such a degree that none of them will talk to him again. Only former Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn appears in a newly recorded interview for the film, and he does so presumably only to describe how “insufferable” Crosby was as a fellow bandmate.

At nearly 80 years old, Crosby is happily married and in the midst of a creative resurgence with a string of acclaimed solo albums, but even these small joys are mitigated by his admission that he’s only touring, and thus often away from his wife, because he needs the money. During a leisurely drive with Crowe, Crosby visits his old stomping grounds in Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip and recounts those halcyon days when he lived with Joni Mitchell and sang his first song with Nash and Stills. But the magic of these locales has long since faded, leaving Crosby in an uncharacteristically introspective state and all too aware of how close he is to the end of his life. As he wistfully tells Crowe that he already has eight stents in his heart and will likely die in the next couple of years, the film captures a man haunted by his past mistakes and nearly certain that he doesn’t have the time left to begin making up for them.

Director: A.J. Eaton Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 95 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy

Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.

2.5

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Cassandro, the Exotico!
Photo: Film Movement

Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.

Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.

Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.

Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.

Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.

Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.

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Streetwise
Photo: Janus Films

Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.

A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.

Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.

If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.

Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.

Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.

As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.

Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.

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Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.

3.5

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I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Photo: Big World Pictures

Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.

For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.

A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.

Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.

Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.

Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre

Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.

2

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Into the Ashes
Photo: RLJE Films

Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.

Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.

Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.

But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.

Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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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: Ealing Studios’s Dead of Night Horror Anthology on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This lasting work of existential horror has been given an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

4

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Dead of Night

Ealing Studios’s 1945 production Dead of Night helped popularize the horror-themed anthology film. Many such films feel like short story collections, with disconnected narratives of varying quality and often negligible framing devices. Meanwhile, Dead of Night feels more like a confident concept album, as it’s all of a disturbing piece, its framing narrative setting the stage for an inquiry into the fragility of reality that’s bolstered in various subtle fashions by the subsequent stories. The film is influential not only to its own genre, but to surrealists and to practitioners of suspense narratives with “twist” endings. The Phantom of the Liberty, Psycho, EC Comics, Twin Peaks and everything all these landmarks touched might’ve been enabled in part by Dead of Night.

The film doesn’t come on strong, as it’s often more interested in plumbing the uncanny—the slight “wrongness” of everyday life that can reveal unmooring fissures into our sense of setting and self—than in springing overt shocks, though there are a few of those too. It opens with a man already disconnected from reality, an architect named William Craig (Mervyn Johns) who’s summoned to a country home for a weekend. The details of this weekend are vague, and we first see William already in motion, approaching the estate in his car. As he’s escorted into the home, William claims that he’s dreamed of this place before, many times, and that he knows this visit with a motley collection of people will become a nightmare. Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Vaalk) is the resident cynic, and his resistance to William’s claim inspires the other guests to tell stories of their brush with the supernatural.

Dead of Night’s framing story, directed by Basil Deardon, has the elegance of a British drawing-room drama, with attractive and well-dressed characters initially discussing spooks as they might the day’s cricket tournament. And this rarefication lowers our guard, though William’s escalating nervousness foreshadows, say, the astonishing intensity of Michael Redgraves’s wiry, sexually neurotic performance in the film’s fifth and most famous story, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” in which Redgraves plays a performer eaten up with jealousy over the professional betrayal of his dummy. Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, the segment abounds in eerie touches that distinguish it from all the stories centered around evil dolls that it would inspire. For instance, we’re allowed to notice that Redgraves’s Maxwell Frere has a framed picture of his possessed ventriloquist dummy—a bizarre, almost obscene detail that Cavalcanti allows us to feel as if we’re discovering for ourselves.

The film abounds in such intimate and insane textures. In “The Haunted Mirror,” directed by Robert Hamer, a man’s gradual possession is represented by an opulent bedroom with an elaborate fireplace and bedframe, which can only be seen through a mirror he received as a gift from his fiancée. We see no ghosts, only this magic bedroom as it contrasts with the plain and sterile room the mirror actually inhabits. As Peter (Ralph Michael) continues to look into the mirror, gazing at this lurid room, he becomes convinced that Joan (Googie Withers), now his wife, is cheating on him, and the story becomes a metaphor for the fears of the concessions required of marriage. Michael expertly dramatizes Peter’s escalating instability, and the room in the mirror remains an unnervingly ambiguous image of discontent and violation, especially given the cockeyed images that emphasize the mirror as an instrument of fracture.

There’s an emphasis in Dead of Night on rooms within rooms and passageways within passageways, suggesting nesting forms of consciousness and existence. In “The Christmas Party,” directed by Cavalcanti, a young girl, Sally (Sally Ann Howes), discovers a hidden chamber she believes to be a nursery housing a small boy, and while the punchline is familiar, its notion of a murder chamber hiding in plain sight remains haunting. In “The Hearse Driver,” directed by Dearden, a man glimpses a death prophecy through the curtains of his hospital room, which are so heavy and velvety they suggest the curtains of a movie theater. Even “The Golfer’s Story,” directed by Charles Crichton as a comic palette cleanser between the intense “The Haunted Mirror” and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” features at least one lasting image that suggests the intertwining of multiple worlds. When a jilted golfer named Larry (Naunton Wayne) commits suicide, he does so by merely walking into the lake on a golf course.

Dead of Night is a snake eating its own tail, a story of the dream of a potential madman that branches off into other dreams, which branch off into yet others. Many of these dreams are presumed to have an exit, until it’s revealed that William’s circular reality is the potential “god” of all these other lives. This idea, endlessly explored by surrealists, scientists, and philosophers alike, is almost too unnerving to contemplate at length, though Dead of Night gives it a febrile sense of possibility. The passageways aren’t the most memorable images of the film; those would be the many close-ups of faces twisting in agony and loneliness.

Image/Sound

This transfer has a luscious sense of darkness, according cinematographers Stanley Pavey and Douglas Slocombe’s shadows a rich and foreboding prominence. Facial close-ups are also vividly detailed, with white light that’s bright and strong without being shrill. In fact, visual textures are vibrant throughout, illuminating striking details of the sets and clothing. The soundtrack can be fuzzy at times, especially the dialogue in Dead of Night’s first 10 minutes, but Georges Auric’s score has been rendered with a strong and menacing body, and small supporting sound effects are also quite vibrant.

Extras

The audio commentary by critic Tim Lucas is a characteristically detailed and erudite examination of how Dead of Night arose out of the British film industry, and its lasting influence. Lucas provides elaborate biographies of all the players, and discusses how the film’s then-unusual structure was a response to productions like Grand Hotel and The Halfway House. Along the way, we hear choice bits about Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and many others, and Lucas is also a shrewd observer of symbolism—he catches the curtains in the hospital, and offers many lovely comments on the framing of the haunted mirror. A feature-length remembrance of Dead of Night complements Lucas’s commentary, rounding out a slim but dense supplements package.

Overall

This lasting work of existential horror has been given a beautiful transfer, and an audio commentary that serves as a veritable seminar on British cinema.

Cast: Mervyn Johns, Anthony Baird, Roland Culver, Sally Ann Howes, Renée Gadd, Barbara Leake, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk, Googie Withers, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Michael Allan, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Peggy Bryan, Michael Redgrave, Hartley Power, Allan Jeayes Director: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer Screenwriter: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 103 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

3.5

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Europa Europa

Early in Europa Europa, a child pulls back a curtain to observe a bris ceremony taking place in the room beyond. The ritual exudes a distinct air of solemnity—a secrecy that appears to be breached in this moment. It’s a millennia-old rite of passage for Jewish males, and in Agnieszka Holland’s film, Salomon Perel’s circumcision will become the definitive marker of his cultural heritage, and at a time when Jews live in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazi machine.

The notion of identity as essentially fluid—something that can be obscured or transformed as a means of survival—is central to Europa Europa. And when it jumps 13 years into the future to 1930s Germany, Holland’s film picks up with Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) confronting the indignities inflicted upon Jews during this time. Fleeing the Nazis by blending in with Soviet Stalinists, only for an incredible series of circumstances to land him in a Hitler Youth academy in Germany, Salomon is locked in a perpetual state of performance, forced to conform to another identity, another ideology.

From the moment he straps on a Nazi leather jacket to cover his nude body after escaping a mob attacking his home, Salomon conceals the truth about his heritage by spinning an alternative narrative of his life. After a while, though, the very belief system that seeks to destroy him and his family proves so insidious that it nearly deludes him into fully embracing the teachings of the Hitler Youth. But when he goes so far as to tie his foreskin above the tip of his penis to make it appear visibly uncircumcised, his body rejects this attempted transformation, as if to remind him of that which he’ll never be able to hide.

Europa Europa is almost perversely focused on Salomon’s struggle to hide his penis or change its appearance, and Holland indulges in absurdist flourishes in recounting the real-life existential ordeal. Much of the young man’s journey, which sees him move to Poland before being forced to join the Komsomol in Russia, then the German army, and finally the Hitler Youth, is surprisingly filtered through a comedic lens that ruthlessly mocks the blind allegiance, hypocrisies, xenophobia, and outrageous fervor of Nazis and communists alike.

Caustically funny dream sequences involving a parodic representation of Hitler are weaved into Europa Europa, along with incidents of broad yet cutting humor that accentuate the irony of Salomon passing not just as a Nazi, but an exemplary one at that. Many scenes, such as one in which an anti-Semitic scientist goes into disturbingly vivid detail about the physical and biological superiority of Aryans, are appalling. Yet when Salomon is propped up as the ideal Aryan, or later when he loses his virginity to a German officer who believes him to be a war hero, Holland employs a playful, offbeat tone that amplifies the preposterousness of the Nazis’ belief in the inherent superiority of the Aryan people and their ability to sniff out non-Aryans based solely on appearance or behavior, thus exposing the sheer hollowness of their rhetoric.

If the film mostly succeeds in its tragicomic satire of authoritarian regimes, it’s spottier on a micro level. In skirting over the psychological ramifications of the real-life Perel’s experience, Holland leaves Salomon feeling more like a cipher caught up in the cycles of history than a flesh-and-blood person struggling to come to terms with his identity and place in the world. It’s only in Europa Europa’s second half, once Salomon begins a lengthy relationship with a beautiful Nazi temptress (Julie Delpy), that we begin to get a sense of the emotional and physical toll that his state of cognitive dissonance takes on him. And it’s then that the film strikes the right balance between a pointed satire and an emotionally rich portrait of the twisted and terrifying high-wire act its protagonist had to walk in order to survive.

Image/Sound

The film’s new 2K digital restoration is rich in detail, with the image remaining sharp and clean throughout. Colors appear somewhat muted in a number of the darker interior scenes; greens and browns especially look a bit drabber than they do in exterior shots. Otherwise, skin tones are consistent and grain levels are pleasingly film-like. The uncompressed monaural audio is sturdy, boasting clear dialogue throughout and mostly flexing its muscles whenever Zbigniew Preisner’s score hauntingly swells on the soundtrack.

Extras

The main event here is a 2008 commentary track with Agnieszka Holland. Though dry and prone to pregnant pauses, Holland is informative, covering everything from the initially divisive response sparked by Europa Europa to her unusually playful approach to serious subject matter. Also included are three 15-to-20-minute interviews. Holland’s chat hits much of the same beats as her commentary, while lead actor Marco Hofschneider goes into more detail about the filmmaker’s desire to have a non-actor play the lead, so as to bring a sense of naïveté to the role that would mirror that of the young Salomon Perel. In his interview, Perel himself opens up about what led him to first share his story and how he survived not by pretending to be someone else, but by allowing himself to be swept up in insidious ideologies. The package is rounded out with a brief video essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf, who unpacks the film’s visual motifs, and an expectedly perceptive essay by film critic Amy Taubin.

Overall

Criterion’s release of this timely, socially relevant film is outfitted with a richly detailed transfer, but it’s a bit slim on extras.

Cast: Marco Hofschneider, André Wilms, Julie Delpy, Hanns Zischler, Ashley Wanninger, Klaus Abramowsky, Michèle Gleizer, Delphine Forest, René Hofschneider, Halina Labonarska Director: Agnieszka Holland Screenwriter: Agnieszka Holland Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 1990 Release Date: June 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité on the Criterion Collection

Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy receives a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

4

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L’Humanité

If Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus is something of a horror film about the failure of empathy, L’Humanité is its comedic B-side, taking an equally horrific scenario and examining it through the perspective of a bumbling police force. Yet as is typically the case with Dumont, his sense of comedy isn’t straightforward. When police inspector Pharaon De Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) rejoices after receiving a hug from his friend and secret crush, Domino (Séverine Caneele), the man sits in a chair rattling his fists up and down after she leaves the room—a spectacle that doesn’t suggest a moment of triumph so much as a fit. That this scene occurs not long after an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered in a nearby field demonstrates part of Dumont’s dissonant sensibilities. The oddity of Pharaon’s behavior coexists in a world with unfathomable brutality, something the film views less as a contradiction than a defining feature of human nature.

Dumont’s filmography is practically a study of faces, and that fixation is especially prominent here. The characters in L’Humanité wear blank or neutral expressions, and Dumont’s camera lingers on these visages as if waiting for people to remove their skins and reveal their true selves. It’s a visual choice that can be understood as a commentary on the characters’ alienation. Since Dumont works with non-professional actors with highly distinctive facial features, close-ups complement the viewer’s contemplation of these lonely souls rather than gauging a character’s reaction to someone or something in their immediate surroundings.

L’Humanité opens with a wide shot of Pharaon running across the Bailleul countryside, and as in La Vie de Jésus, the rural setting projects an image of innocence about to be upended by violence. Sex also factors into this film’s equation. Shortly after greeting Domino and her lover (Philippe Tullier), Pharaon walks in on the couple having intercourse on the floor, staring at them in expressionless silence. When Domino later reprimands him for “getting an eyeful,” it’s less out of anger than conviviality. While Dumont consistently awakens a Hitchcockian dimension within his work as it pertains to the pleasure of looking, ready-made psychological explanations for such behavior remain out of reach to both characters and viewers.

Like Pharaon, Domino also likes to watch. Indeed, one of L’Humanité’s indelible images is a recurring close-up of Domino casting her eyes onto something or someone within eyeshot. While at a beach, she’s introduced to a handsome male friend of Pharaon’s wearing Speedo trunks. As Domino’s eyes move toward the man’s groin, the camera catches him noticing her stare. Once Domino realizes he’s aware of her gaze, she averts her eyes. To what extent Domino is either aroused or absent-mindedly looking at the man remains ambiguous, but it’s nevertheless clear that L’Humanité makes a thematic drumbeat out of its characters’ preoccupation with staring. While this at times comes to feel redundant, Dumont’s refusal to give his characters reducible motivations is as mysterious as it is refreshing.

In one of the film’s most obtuse depictions of people staring, Pharaon becomes entranced by the large, reddened neck of his police commissioner (Chislain Ghesquère) while the pair drive across the countryside. Whatever Pharaon’s interest in the man’s body, the close-up reveals his skin as an abstract, nearly indiscernible image. In this instance, all we see, in effect, is blood covered by a thin layer of flesh. These grotesque implications reducing human beings to meat might recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, particularly 1936’s Abstraction from the Human Form. That Pharaon is a descendent of the 19th-century painter Pharaon De Winter—and even lends some of De Winter’s paintings for an exhibition to a nearby gallery halfway through the film—makes explicit the linkage between L’Humanité and artifice. Because Pharaon stares at these paintings with the same expression he offers to the world, we’re further made aware that we’re not merely, as viewers, gazing upon the lives of real people. Dumont reconciles each character’s personal desire through his own cultural and artistic means, something the natural world, in all its incomprehensible vastness, cannot afford them.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s Blu-ray release of L’Humanité boasts a clean image abundant in striking details. Outdoor shots evince vibrant colors, with the smallest of nuances, such as the individual bricks of buildings, appearing well-detailed way back into the farthest reaches of the frame. While the DTS-HD surround track is a tad muted overall, the classical music at the start and close of the film is forcefully mixed, and dialogue is clear throughout.

Extras

As on Criterion’s La Vie de Jésus release, the extras here largely consist of interviews with Bruno Dumont from across the past 20 years. In the newest one, conducted this year by Criterion, Dumont discusses how the conclusion of his prior film inspired him to write L’Humanité. In fact, he had intended to have the same actor, Jean-Claude Lefebvre, who played a police inspector in La Vie de Jésus, reprise his role here, and when he declined, Dumont revised Pharaon De Winter around Emmanuel Schotté, who would go on to win best actor for his performance at the Cannes Film Festival. The second interview, conducted by film critic Philippe Rouyer in 2014, is a deeper dive into the film’s production history. Here, Dumont explains how he collaborates with his actors to significantly shape his characters’ behaviors, all the way down to the use of groans and sighs. The pair also discuss how Dumont approaches character psychology from a visual perspective. And the final interview is a segment from a 1999 French television news program, with Dumont walking the streets of Bailleul and explaining how he shoots. Rounding things out is a segment from a 2000 episode of Tendances featuring actress Séverine Caneele, a trailer, and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott that, among other things, traces some of the film’s art-historical references.

Overall

This Blu-ray of Bruno Dumont’s philosophical tragi-comedy boasts a gorgeous 4K digital restoration and insightful range of contextualizing interviews.

Cast: Emmanuel Schotté, Séverine Caneele, Philippe Tullier, Ghislain Ghesquère, Ginette Allègre Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 148 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation on Arbelos Films Blu-ray

This package is the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

4

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Mutual Appreciation

Andrew Bujalski’s best attribute as a filmmaker isn’t his much-heralded ability to reproduce the idiomatic lingo of his stuck-in-neutral twentysomething subjects—who, to these ears, sound a bit too self-consciously aimless and uncomfortable to pass as authentic—but, rather, his knack for unearthing subtle insights about interpersonal relations from meandering, semi-improvisational dialogue. A modest step up from Bujalski’s breakthrough 2002 film Funny Ha Ha, which is acknowledged as the first mumblecore film, Mutual Appreciation reveals discerning truths about post-college anomie through a carefully arranged narrative structured around casual ellipses and sly symmetries, whether it be the juxtaposition of one evening’s dissimilar drunken parties or its pair of gender-role-reversal scenarios (one involving a man reading a woman’s short story, the other marked by some sloshed cross-dressing).

Though often compared to Cassavetes—an association reinforced by Mutual Appreciation’s bargain-basement black-and-white 16mm cinematography—Bujalski makes films that simmer rather than seethe. His sweet, stuttering protagonists are based on, and played by, friends—all defined by their lack of direction, fear of obligation, and refusal to grow up. Reticence is the predominant tone struck by this tale of indie-rocker Alan (Justin Rice, co-founder of the band Bishop Allen), who, having moved from Boston to Brooklyn to jumpstart his career, develops a reciprocated crush on Ellie (Rachel Clift), the journalist girlfriend of his grad school buddy, Lawrence (Bujalski). As for the talkative action, it’s dominated by a sense of people willfully muting emotional expression in order to evade confronting potentially troublesome truths.

Articulations of genuine feelings are coded within rambling discussions about everything and nothing. As such, when something meaningful is stated—as in Alan arguing in favor of creating a community of kindred spirits “willing to do stuff” for each other, or Ellie confessing that “the problem with Lawrence is that he’s not the master of his own destiny”—the respite from the characters’ usual avoidance tactics is bracing. Throughout, Bujalski seems to self-reflexively comment on his own stylistic quirks, from Ellie overtly addressing a particular “long, awkward pause” to Alan saying, in an apparent jab at Mutual Appreciation’s peculiar rhythms, that he hates math rock’s “weird beats and time signatures.” Yet solipsistic as it may occasionally be, Bujalski’s sharp sophomore effort—courtesy of its perceptive, heartfelt humanism—ultimately makes such self-infatuation more infectious than off-putting.

Image/Sound

The new 2K restoration, from which this transfer is sourced, offers an image quality with far more depth and sharpness than what’s typically afforded to home-video releases of the low-budget, mumblecore films of the aughts. A good deal of grain remains from the 16mm negative, preserving the film’s raw integrity. There’s also a nice balance in the contrast between blacks and whites, with exterior scenes looking neither too bright nor blown out and interiors never overly dark. The sound is clean and evenly mixed and the dialogue is easy to understand even when characters trip over their words or talk over one another.

Extras

In an appropriately low-key, clever commentary track, parents of various cast and crew members offer up an array of observations, complaints, and dad jokes. Very much in the spirit of the film, these off-the-cuff comments abound in charmingly awkward attempts at humor and amateurish stabs at interpreting Mutual Appreciation. There are moments of genuine insight, but it’s primarily a light-hearted addendum to the film, with some choice moments of parental disappointment, whether it’s a bit actor’s parents complaining about how the framing leaves their son off screen for most of his 20-second appearance to another parent declaring, “Well, this, we know, is just solipsistic masturbation.” A 30-minute interview with Andrew Bujalski provides insight into his working process and the ways it did and didn’t change as he began to work with bigger budgets and stars in the years since Mutual Appreciation’s release. The disc also includes Bujalski’s 2007 short film People’s House, which serves as a companion piece to this film, essays by Damien Chazelle and singer-songwriter Will Sheff, and, in an unexpected nod to Elvira, a low-def, tongue-in-cheek intro by “Vampira.”

Overall

Arbelos Films’s sturdy 2K transfer and a scrappy assortment of extras present the perfect opportunity to revisit a paragon of mid-aughts mumblecore cinema.

Cast: Justin Rice, Rachel Clift, Andrew Bujalski, Seung-Min Lee, Pamela Corkey, Kevin Micka, Ralph Tyler, Peter Pentz, Bill Morrison, Tamara Luzeckyj, Mary Varn, Kate Dollenmayer Director: Andrew Bujalski Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2005 Release Date: June 11, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray brings the film’s shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

4

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Alphaville

Much has been said of the overwhelming ingenuity of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, but less so about just how well the director knew how to work around budgetary limitations. Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay.

Godard takes private detective Lemmy Caution and illustrates the film’s themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the man’s image. Godard secured Eddie Constantine, who had already played Caution in a number of films as a James Bond-esque rake whose chauvinism was portrayed as roguish and charming. Here, however, Constantine plays Caution as a somber has-been, a caustic loner in his twilight whose pathetic weariness is further emphasized by Godard forbidding the actor to wear makeup, preferring to capture every wrinkle and blemish on his face. When Godard does nominally adhere to the tropes one might expect from a Caution caper, the filmmaker does so in the most parodic of ways, as in an early action scene in which a hitman springs out of nowhere in Caution’s hotel room, leading to a brutal scuffle where all diegetic sound drops out and is replaced by elegant, lilting classical music, until noise comes crashing in as the would-be killer and hero are sent through a series of glass doors. It’s a gag worthy of a Jerry Lewis film.

In mixing elements of noir and science fiction, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Caution, so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

One of the least energetic of Godard’s New Wave films, Alphaville nonetheless evinces his puckish wit and allusive modernism. Caution frequently engages in conversations with Alpha 60, which articulates its thoughts through a growling voice box and decries human illogic while also largely reciting lines that Godard cribbed from the work of Jorge Luis Borges. In one scene, rebels who refuse to live in a world without love are executed by firing squad next to a pool where swimmers calmly perform laps below the machine-gun fire. At its heart, though, the film’s tension between emotion and logic epitomizes the early internal conflict of intellectualism and love that suffuses Godard’s early work. And, in one of the supercomputer’s Borges quotations, the film lays out the thesis that would undergird all phases of Godard’s search for unified truths: “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by the spoken word. Legend remoulds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.”

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s disc, sourced from a 4K transfer, is a revelatory presentation of a film that often seemed one of the least visually dynamic of Godard’s early career. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography, shot under incredibly difficult lighting conditions, has always appeared heavily grained and crushed on home video, but here the full beauty of his images is on fabulous display. Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina’s faces are rich with texture, blacks sink into abyssal levels of darkness without crushing, and outdoor location shot boast a healthy distribution of grain that never compromises detail. The robust-sounding audio is so clear that it’s now easier than ever to understand Alpha 60 supercomputer’s musings.

Extras

An audio commentary track by novelist and film historian Tim Lucas provides ample details about Alphaville and its place among both Godard’s filmography and the series of Lemmy Caution films, but Lucas’s dry, fact-based approach skirts a deeper, more formal analysis of Godard’s methods. A brief interview with Karina finds the actress recounting her memories of working on Alphaville. Most memorable is her amusing recollection that Coutard was so anxious about shooting in such dark lighting conditions that he couldn’t bear to look at the film’s dailies. An introduction by critic Colin McCabe provides a cursory but probing look into some of Godard’s techniques while not giving too much away.

Overall

Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi curio is a fascinating outlier in his New Wave period, and Kino’s Blu-ray brings its shoestring-budget beauty to life with an exceptional new transfer.

Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff Director: Jean-Luc Godard Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 99 min Rating: NR Year: 1965 Release Date: July 9, 2019 Buy: Video

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The Myth of the American Dream: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy

These films are as elegant as they are expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in their high emotions.

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The Godfather: Part II
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In approaching his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola has said that he saw the story as “the tale of a great king,” Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who passed the best and worst of him to his three sons: passionate and aggressive Sonny (James Caan); sweet, childlike Fredo (John Cazale); and intelligent and cunning Michael (Al Pacino). Coppola’s archetypal sensibility is the hook that makes The Godfather trilogy so compelling, an emotional buttress that registers deeply through the thorny convolutions of each film’s narrative. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about The Godfather—commensurate with Brando’s marble-mouthed performance—is how the emotional clarity of this one family’s story so powerfully emanates through the soup of business and politics.

The Godfather sees the Corleone clan struggling to hold ground on a battlefield peppered with memorable antagonists: narcotics entrepreneur Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), corrupt police Captain Mark McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), duplicitous rival mafioso Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), stubborn Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley), ruthless Las Vegas high roller Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), to say nothing of the sundry turncoats within the Corleone family. The film’s canvas is a crowded one, and at its center is a rite of passage: the aging Don Vito handing the reins of the family business over to the reluctant Michael, the black sheep who wants nothing more than to be part of the great American melting pot. During the film’s opening, which depicts the wedding of Vito’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), Michael is introduced to us in military fatigues, with his blond-haired, WASPy girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), on his arm. And by the film’s end, he’s embraced the shadows outside of bourgeois American life. As he says at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, officially sanctioned politics and nefarious organized crime are both part of the same hypocrisy.

Throughout Connie’s wedding, the vividness of Coppola’s characterizations allows us to quickly understand how this particular family learned to thrive in a distinct American subculture. Meanwhile, consigliere (and adopted Corleone son) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) exists to fill us in on the ins and outs of how New York’s crime families negotiate power. The gestures, glances, and tonal registers between siblings position The Godfather as a primal story of love and devotion between a father and his children, and how siblings square off with each other in trying to live up to their father’s regality. And as Caan’s ferocity plays off of Duvall’s lawyerly reason and Pacino’s exacting coolness, we’re effortlessly swept up in the intimate emotional currents that flow beneath the power machinations of a dynastic family.

Partly set in 1958, The Godfather: Part II amplifies this complicated interplay as Michael secures his criminal empire in Nevada’s casinos and works toward setting up operations in Havana. In a memorably winking scene, old-time capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) requests tarantella music to be played at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound during the celebration of Michael’s son’s first communion, but the band instead plays “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) gives a speech thanking Michael for his contributions to the state. Kay is pregnant with their third child, and Michael aims to have a family as propitious as his father’s. But there’s a revolution brewing in Cuba, and political committees are cracking down on the mafia. More intimately, Kay is distressed about bringing more children into an apparatus strewn with corruption. Dancing with Michael, she brings up a conversation they had in a scene from the first film. “You told me in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.”

Michael’s conflicts in The Godfather: Part II are connected to the past as much as to the present. The burden of history is represented by the avuncular though treacherous Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), who did business with Michael’s father, and Frank, who’s uncomfortable with how Michael is straying from the family’s Sicilian roots. Also at the heart of the film is the story of the younger Vito (Robert De Niro), who finds himself embroiled in a war with the governing mafia chieftain Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) after arriving in America. Throughout, Michael’s spiritual entropy is intercut with Vito’s ascendancy 30 years earlier, and while both men act to preserve their families, it’s telling how Coppola contrasts the father’s warmth with the son’s sclerotic obtuseness (ironically akin to the patriarchs with whom Vito does battle). By the end, Vito’s power is secured, his fall into criminality established as the means by which he protects his family. Michael also secures his power, but at the cost of his brother Fredo’s life, as the latter unwittingly betrayed Michael by colluding with Roth.

The Godfather: Part II is as elegant as it is expansive, acutely perceptive and operatic in his high emotions. Its story is more complicated than that of the first film, almost to the precipice of becoming a muddle. For one, it’s never really made clear what exactly is going on between Fredo and Roth’s organization, other than securing some information about Michael’s compound for an assassination attempt, or what’s the backstory of Frank’s relationship to Roth’s malevolent partners, Tony (Danny Aiello) and Carmine Rosato (Carmine Caridi). But such muddiness doesn’t matter in a film so magnificently constructed, where the tenderness of De Niro’s Vito seems to linger through the conspiracies and betrayals woven by Michael, the now-dead father hanging over Michael’s final confrontation with Fredo, a scene where Cazale’s tremulous id almost bursts through the man’s forehead, voicing his demand for respect with an afterglow of understanding his own inadequacies. Michael looms and Fredo struggles to stand up for himself while still inextricably tied to his chair, and Coppola orchestrates one of the most dramatically compelling scenes in American cinema.

Released in 1990, The Godfather: Part III may be considered a tragi-ironic commentary on the cultural clout of the first two films, which influenced how the public thought about the mafia but also how the mafia thought about itself. Set in 1979—or a few years after the first two films were released—Coppola’s trilogy caper emphasizes a performativity in everyday life that was absent from the more authentic dramas of its predecessors. The story begins with a sham Catholic ritual for Michael, now a billionaire businessman, being given a papal pin “for his charitable work,” which in actuality relates to a shady transaction with Vatican bankers, and concludes with a staggering half-hour sequence in an opera house, with Coppola magnificently cutting between action off and on stage to the music of Mascagni.

Reality and performance grandly intersect throughout The Godfather: Part III, with the actors posturing like performers on a stage, as if they were indeed characters in an opera. Take the the grandiose gesturing between Shire’s Connie and volatile Corleone heir Vincent (Andy Garcia) as he takes her hand with gusto and kisses it. Or the “bella figura” Gotti-like Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and how he loves to cavort in front of photographers and reporters, contributing to the spectacle of himself. Eli Wallach’s performance as the duplicitous Don Altobello may initially feel strenuously affected, but his theatrical magniloquence comes to feel more than apt; Coppola shows Altobello in his opera box singing and pantomiming along with the performers on stage, as if to say that there’s no demarcation between life and theater for this two-faced crook. Reconciling with Kay, Michael brings a knife to his throat and says, “Give me the order!” It’s then that Kay, the one figure who sees through Michael’s fronts, grimaces. He drops the knife and chuckles apologetically, “We’re in Sicily. It’s opera.”

The way Coppola and his actors approach performance brings up the controversy of Sofia Coppola’s casting as Michael’s doomed daughter, Mary. Her line readings are sometimes flat, and at other times awkward. But in contrast to the other players, she’s startlingly pure, her unseasoned candor making her tragic function in the story more heart-wrenching. There’s an unexpected feeling of truth as she delivers her last line (“Dad?”) on the steps outside the opera house, breaking up the theatrical masquerade over which Michael has presided. Coppola gives his tragedy a twist that goes beyond King Lear, one of his film’s models. Michael, unlike Lear weeping at the death of his beloved Cordelia, doesn’t die of grief. Rather, it’s implied that he lingers on for years, alone in the company of despair and sorrow.

Michael kneels at his slain daughter’s corpse and finally cracks, raising his head and howling his sorrow before passing out. The unchecked emotional nakedness is out of step with the rest of the trilogy, almost breaking the fourth wall. Keaton, Shire, Garcia, and George Hamilton’s characters suddenly break from their grieving and look at Michael with what feels like baffled surprise. Coppola’s trilogy begins by observing the charade of American ideals and institutions. He ends it outside a theater, the horror in Michael’s scream breaking apart the compound of lies and artifice this arch American criminal has built around his heart. In this one moment, the opera is over and the consequences of reality are made manifest.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy: Corleone Legacy Edition is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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Blu-ray Review: Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus on the Criterion Collection

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and informative extras.

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La Vie de Jésus

Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus provides the occasion to contemplate how approaches to kindness and justice work on a philosophical level. As Paul Bloom explains in his 2016 book Against Empathy, the “morally corrosive” influence of empathy sometimes prompts an immediate action that overlooks the long-term effects of said action. Dumont creates scenarios that are farsighted in their scope; the basic story of Freddy (David Douche), an epileptic teenager harboring racist resentment toward Kader (Kader Chaatouf), his North African peer, prompts us to see how empathy fails at getting to the root cause of what precipitates Freddy’s violent acts. It’s not that Freddy lacks the ability to see Kader as human; it’s that the cultural foundation of Bailleul, a small French town, is shackled by the strictures of racial and sexual repression.

Not that Dumont is shy about depicting sexual contact. In fact, Freddy’s relationship with Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), another local teenager, is steadily reduced to an entirely physical state of being. This culminates in a close-up of Freddy’s erect penis thrusting in and out of Marie’s vagina; in this moment, the hardcore sex act is offered by Dumont not as an empty provocation, but a commentary on bourgeois skittishness over representations of sex. When Kader and Marie start seeing each other, Freddy irrationally targets Kader for violence. Like the murderous brother in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, Freddy only knows physical cruelty as a response to being threatened by his own desire because he cannot articulate his response in any other manner. While Dumont allows Freddy’s precise feelings to remain mostly unspoken, the implication is that Freddy’s been conditioned by his community to be ashamed of his sexual impulses. When shame meets anger, violence ensues.

Dumont’s debut feature draws upon conventions of neorealism and documentary by employing non-professional actors in all of its roles, but its stylistic traits are closer to the formalist cinema of Robert Bresson, also known for working with first-time actors in nearly each of his films. Like Bresson, Dumont stages shots to highlight their flatness and the base elements of any given action. These visual choices create the sensation that we’re encountering more a tableau of reality than anything approaching documentary realism.

This is especially evident in Dumont’s depiction of Freddy’s mother, Yvette (Geneviève Cottreel), who owns a local pub and seems to do little more than watch the news on a small television set. Early in La Vie de Jésus, the woman sees what appears to be a dead body in an unspecified African location. “What a shame,” she mutters, expressing nominal concern when faced with the evidence of global catastrophe that she believes has no immediate impact on her life. Later, she musters a similar response when Freddy goes to see Cloclo, a friend who’s dying of AIDS. Yvette only approaches the point of outrage when reprimanding Freddy for not having a job. Dumont is foremost concerned with depicting how the nagging worries of quotidian life steadily contribute to the absence of culture, the death of art, and abuses of power that, above all, leave the impoverished destitute.

Yet, despite viewing Yvette through a critical lens, Dumont isn’t blaming her for the violence her son will soon commit; rather, he’s juxtaposing the people of Bailleul against a series of problems, whether local or global, that seem to have no immediate solution. This approach has been deemed by some critics as lacking in compassion, but Dumont’s intent is to soberly reflect on the complex ways that hate is fostered by collective forms of ignorance.

Dumont demonstrates, too, how passivity maintains tradition as a form of oppression. Freddy and his friends, who effectively patrol the countryside on their motorbikes, also mock Kader and his family under their breath with religious chants and racial epithets inside a café without reprimand. Later, after Freddy and his friends have committed a heinous act, a police officer (Alain Lenancker) questions the boy, asking if he doesn’t like “Arabs.” Dumont stages the exchange to amplify its procedural nature, with the officer’s back to Freddy throughout the interrogation. Freddy, inarticulate and surrounded by authority figures who are themselves relying on a limited vocabulary to define criminal acts, is the product of a culture that has neglected to discover the essence of its own existence.

Image/Sound

Criterion presents La Vie de Jésus in a pristine 4K digital restoration. The wide outdoor shots boast vibrant colors and detail-rich depth of field; as Freddy rides his motorcycle throughout the countryside, the surrounding trees and grass intensely radiate green. Scenes set in indoor spaces also boast significant clarity and excellent focus. Given how important faces are to Dumont’s style of filmmaking, this transfer is especially notable for how close-ups reveal the pores of actors’ faces. The monaural soundtrack is clean and clearly audible throughout.

Extras

The bulk of the extras consist of interviews with Dumont from different years since the film’s release. In the most recent one, conducted by Criterion in 2019, Dumont explains how his background in industrial films prepared him to make La Vie de Jésus. He also spends ample time considering the philosophical basis for his filmmaking, saying that he views his work as “metaphorical representations of the inner experience of human nature.” The filmmaker also discusses the failure of popular cinema to become anything more than a product for mass consumption. The second interview, a lengthy talk with critic Philippe Rouyer from 2014, sees Dumont digging even deeper into how he tries to reconcile “the coexistence of different sets of values.” And the final one consists of excerpts from two 1997 episodes of the French television program Le cercle de minuit, during which Dumont talks about society being racist and how his job as a filmmaker is to “rattle the cage.” Rounding things out are the film’s trailer and an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott on Dumont’s distinctive visual style.

Overall

Criterion resurrects one of the great debut features of the last 25 years with an impressive 4K transfer and an informative grouping of supplements.

Cast: David Douche, Marjorie Cottreel, Kader Chaatouf, Sébastien Delbaere, Samuel Boidin, Geneviève Cottreel, Alain Lenancker Director: Bruno Dumont Screenwriter: Bruno Dumont Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 1997 Release Date: June 18, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on the Criterion Collection

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

5

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Blue Velvet

The most direct metaphor in David Lynch’s canon arrives early on in his 1986 landmark film Blue Velvet. After an opening credits sequence set against blue velvet curtains and accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning score, Lynch offers up a montage of iconic images of Americana, including gleaming white picket fences, a fire truck with a dog, and roses that gleam with a feverish red hue. Bobby Vinton’s version of the title song serves as the soundtrack to these images, and, with this song, Lynch signals both his yearning for and disbelief in this idyllic world—a conflict in emotions that would drive his subsequent film and television productions. In case this conflict is lost on viewers, Lynch ends his montage with a father collapsing from a malady as he waters his front yard, and the camera homes in on blades of grass, pressing further into the ground until we can see black insects festering underneath the surface.

It’s too simple to say that Lynch yearns for a society that could be likened to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, even though much of his work is a viscerally textural paean to vintage American manners and artifacts. The 1950s-era puritanism that partially drives Blue Velvet and its TV offspring, Twin Peaks, would most likely bore Lynch on its own. Lynch is attracted to duality, to the contrast of the sweet and sour textures of purity and perversity, and Blue Velvet was the filmmaker’s first pure articulation of this desire.

The film is also one of the definitive explorations between the cultural links of the ‘50s and ‘80s. In the ‘80s, American horror cinema was mining the communist paranoia of the ‘50s, indulging in violence that at one point could only be implied. These films now play as a reaction to how President Ronald Reagan exploited America’s yearning for a return to a golden age, a dream version of an earlier time cleansed of various atrocities, such as internment camps and hate crimes. Reagan was selling a fantasy while committing his own atrocities, such as ignoring the ravages of AIDS on the gay community, while Lynch and other directors, such as John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, were telling a kind of truth.

Of course, Lynch voted for Reagan, which perhaps testifies to the intense pull of the sunny-side-up portion of his fantasy world. And, indeed, Lynch has always understood a primordial and insidious human quality: the satisfaction of conformation—of successfully following social rules regardless of their potential implications, and committing to a mythology of country. In Blue Velvet, this idea is most beautifully embodied by the scenes between Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern). Jeffrey is a college student who returns to the small, woodsy town of Lumberton following his father’s hospitalization, and Sandy is a high school senior with a father (George Dickerson) in law enforcement. Investigating the mystery of a severed ear that Jeffrey discovers in a field, the couple regularly meets at a diner, drinking sodas and, in Jeffrey’s case, eating what appears to be a grilled cheese and fries. The pleasure that Lynch takes in the old-fashioned-ness of all this, with Jeffrey and Sandy playing a variation of the Hardy Boys, is palpable. (These scenes are so overwhelmingly earnest that certain critics missed the point, describing them as shrilly satirical.)

With his father, Tom (Jack Harvey), immobilized, Jeffrey confronts his blossoming adulthood, and so Sandy partially represents his yearning to return to the simplicity of high school, which suggests the longing for an idealized dimension that drives, at large, this production that’s so resolutely set in a timeless dimension and abounds in obsessive fairy-tale imagery that suggests an X-rated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger production. Yet Jeffrey’s also a man now, and most men need more than nostalgic puppy love. Drifting away from Sandy, the ear leads Jeffrey into an underworld, to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a tormented lounge singer who’s the plutonic ideal of the male fantasy of the experienced older woman, who’s forced to sing “Blue Velvet” over and over in a club with an ardor that rivals Vinton himself. Where Sandy is gorgeous in a trim, blonde, idyllic “prom queen” way, Dorothy is a bruised brunette with ripe red lipstick (it matches the roses from the film’s first scene), a chipped tooth, and a sensual fleshiness that knocks the film off its naïve axis.

Dorothy’s apartment, which is of course on the wrong side of the tracks, is one of Blue Velvet’s many masterpieces of irrational set design. Primarily represented by the oval shape of a living room that segues into a small kitchen, the apartment abounds in deep reds, blues, and blacks that are morbid as well as titillating, explicitly suggesting a strip club’s back room while subliminally representing a womb. This set somewhat prepares us for the film’s audacious tonal U-turn. When Jeffrey wanders into this apartment, the sense of danger is intense, yet Lynch surpasses all expectations with what is still the wildest set piece of his career.

Peeping on Dorothy from behind the wall of her closet, after she’s already caught him, threatened him with a knife, and explored the possibility of going down on him, Jeffrey watches as this woman is tortured by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who beats her and calls her “mommy” before getting high on gas and stuffing a blue velvet sash in each of their mouths and savagely fucking her. Though the scene is symbolic—as Robin Wood stipulated, the sash suggests an umbilical cord, while also echoing the lost innocence of the Vinton song—it’s also unhinged, exorcising fantasies that Lynch can barely keep a handle on.

Sex in mainstream cinema has rarely felt this intimate and defiant of what we’re supposed to find erotic, which is why Blue Velvet was controversial upon its release, and would probably be even more so were it to first be seen in 2019. To an extent, Dorothy gets off on Frank’s abuse, and she subsequently attempts, in her affair with Jeffrey, to assume a Frank-like role, taking control of their sex and goading Jeffrey to tap his inner reservoir for violence. When Jeffrey eventually beats Dorothy, Lynch films the action in extreme slow motion, with what sounds like animal roars on the soundtrack. Lynch dramatizes a fissure in Jeffrey’s sense of who he is, as he plumbs his propensity for darkness. The film is, at its root, a coming-of-age tale that’s unusually connected to the dirtier and messier implications of self-knowledge.

There’s almost nowhere for Blue Velvet to go after the scene between Dorothy, Jeffrey, and Frank in Dorothy’s apartment, which also suggests a fulfillment of the fantasies implicitly driving, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where an ambiguous male hero also peeped in on imperiled women. This sexual-violent stand-off is what Lynch has been building to throughout Blue Velvet, as he’s bringing to the fore the damage, allure, rot, exploitation, and sick hunger that exist under Lumberton’s tableaux of neat, asexual domesticity and under much of vaguely sexualized pop culture at large.

The film subsequently follows what is a fairly straightforward mystery-thriller template, though ecstatic details and images continue to pop up, and there’s one other extraordinary scene. Frank and his goons kidnap Dorothy and Jeffrey and take them to the inner sanctum of Ben (Dean Stockwell), a terrifyingly fey and polite gangster who dances and lip synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” enjoying the kind of expressive catharsis that appears to be impossible for Frank, a frustration that’s probably at the center of his insanity. Many critics have commented on the inverse relationship between Sandy and Dorothy, the respective women of day and night who would initiate an ongoing Lynch obsession, but Frank also suggests an inverse of Jeffrey: a man-child who never reckoned with his desires, until they erupted out of him in a torrent of cruelty and obscenity. Even one of Ben’s prostitutes enjoys a moment of lonely grace, dancing on top of Frank’s car outside of a factory as “In Dreams” is reprised.

Blue Velvet’s mixture of pop-cultural fetishizing and extreme and occasionally ironic brutality would prove to be monumentally inspirational to cinema, as there’s a weird kick to Lynch’s mixture of banality, kink, and tragedy. Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, would be unimaginable without Blue Velvet, which would also serve as a roadmap for Lynch’s own career. Lynch is still obsessed with sexual perversity, with men’s historic torment of women, with various mystic and generic totems, and with the underbelly that secretly powers pop culture. After Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks, Lynch drifted away from traditional narrative, blurring plot points and character identities. He doubled down on his own brand of American surrealism, emphasizing beauty and decay as two halves of one coin. Blue Velvet’s happy ending—in which Sandy’s dream of robins casting evil away is realized—is deliberately unconvincing. Faced with a truth about himself, Jeffrey retreats to childish illusion, though Lynch continues to wrestle with his and our madness.

Image/Sound

Per the disc’s liner notes, this new transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the 35mm A/B negative and was supervised by David Lynch. The results are spectacular, with radiant colors and a purposefully soft grittiness that intensifies the film’s luridly dreamy feeling. Most important, though, is the profound weight and materiality of surface textures in this image, which is important to Lynch’s fetishistic aesthetic. All of Lynch’s pet obsessions—lamps, drapes, lipstick, food, smokestacks—practically pop off the screen. Two sound mixes are included here, a 5.1 and a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and, though I didn’t discern many major differences between them, they both have extraordinary depth, balance, and dimension, with an operatic level of attention paid to diegetic sounds. (When Jeffrey flushes a toilet, imperiling himself, the thing gurgles so magnificently as to suggest a moaning whale.)

Extras

The most notable supplement here is a 54-minute collection of deleted scenes, which have been assembled by Lynch more or less in chronological order, suggesting an entire omitted opening act of Blue Velvet. The cut footage fleshes out Jeffrey’s reasons for returning to his hometown from college, and offers many more scenes of his aunt and mother (played by Frances Bay and Priscilla Pointer, respectively). These moments are fine on their own, and anticipate the purplish tone of Twin Peaks, but a three-hour cut of Blue Velvet that conventionally explored Jeffrey’s conflict over his sick father might’ve been disastrous, killing the narcotic pull of the film as it presently exists. There’s also an alternate introduction of Sandy that’s so tossed-off that it’s nearly banal, which is a significant contradiction of her iconic entrance in the final cut. One moment—in which Jeffrey and Dorothy ascend the roof of her apartment—is pure Lynchian poetry, though these scenes otherwise offer a primer on how a filmmaker whittled a rough cut down into something stark, mysterious, and essential.

Also essential is “Blue Velvet Revisited,” an 89-minute documentary by director Peter Braatz that uses free-associative editing to offer a one-of-kind portrait of the film’s production. Braatz includes stock footage, intimate still photos, such as of Lynch taping the word “Lumberton” onto an ice truck, and uses interviews as a form of narration. (Isabella Rossellini’s thoughts on making the film should serve as a definitive refutation of Roger Ebert’s absurd and condescending review, in which he essentially implied that Rossellini was Lynch’s victim.) Meanwhile, “Mysteries of Love” is a more conventional archival documentary, with interviews with most of the film’s principal players, and a recording of Lynch reading from Room to Dream, the 2018 book he co-wrote with Kristine McKenna, includes stories that will probably be familiar to Lynch obsessives. An interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti, a look at the sets and props of Blue Velvet, and a booklet with an excerpt from Room to Dream round out one of Criterion’s strongest packages of the year.

Overall

Criterion offers what should prove to be a definitive transfer of a pivotal and still overwhelmingly intimate David Lynch film.

Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, George Dickerson Director: David Lynch Screenwriter: David Lynch Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 120 min Rating: R Year: 1986 Release Date: May 28, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melville’s distinctly rigorous style.

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Bob le Flambeur
Photo: Rialto Pictures

From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two films—Les Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disowned—are quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.

In Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy world—populated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degenerates—is rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.

With Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But it’s Melville’s foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the director’s canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.

From Bob’s (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. He’s an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of “honor amongst thieves” and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bob’s luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which he’s now working.

Before Bob’s last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, “Now Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.” This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bob’s plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before it’s too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesn’t realize the game’s being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melville’s films.

By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962’s Le Doulos, Melville’s aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to “die or lie.” And in this film, people do both quite regularly.

Where the machinations undergirding Bob’s fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the film’s big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyone’s motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The characters’ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.

Le Doulos’s narrative is perhaps Melville’s most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien stands as one of Melville’s most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.

In Melville’s previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leon’s (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isn’t in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melville’s, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the director’s style from Le Doulos through to Le Samouraï. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melville’s other ‘60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tête-à-têtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.

Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melville’s crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposal—his natural charms and sex appeal—to instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That he’s successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melville’s many exercises in noir.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Fambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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Blu-ray Review: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace on the Criterion Collection

Audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended.

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War and Peace
If one were to judge the history of cinema solely on the basis of scale and ambition, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace might well be considered the greatest film of all time. A seven-hour-plus adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic doorstopper, Bondarchuk’s film was by far the costliest production in the history of the Soviet Union, and it certainly looks it. Priceless artifacts, countless military weapons, thousands of lavishly costumed extras, and a menagerie that includes hundreds of horses, rare wolf-hunting borzois, and a beer-drinking bear are swept before our eyes in a constant stream of ecstatic stimulation. Maximalist in every aspect, War and Peace is, like the novel on which it’s based, a work that wants to contain as many thoughts, emotions, and perspectives as possible. And Bondarchuk goes about accomplishing that by utilizing every wild cinematic technique he can think of.

In contrast to Hollywood epics of the era like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, which are marked by long, static processions of extras marching around expensive sets, Bondarchuk never simply shoots for coverage. His camera instead darts and dashes through grandiloquent interiors and hellish battlefields, roving through burning buildings and flying through the air like a cannonball. Where another director might have resorted to a simple wide shot or close-up, Bondarchuk gives us a sweeping helicopter aerial, a complicated superimposition, an expressive split screen, or a camera that seems to float above a ballroom just as Mikhail Kalatozov’s did over the streets of Havana in I Am Cuba.

Bondarchuk often seems here to be attempting to synthesize the entire history of epic historical filmmaking into a single work. He borrows the pioneering split-screen technique of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the legendary crane shot from Gone with the Wind, and the eerily majestic iconography of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, to name just a few, while also anticipating at various points the hallucinatory combat sequences of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the idyllic poeticism of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

All this restless innovation and titanic ambition, however, has a tendency to deaden the senses at times, particularly early on in War and Peace, when Bondarchuk’s experimentation comes off as little more than amateurish noodling. The filmmaker’s woozy sonic effects and blurry camera filters come off as dated and distracting, while the use of an off-screen narrator to translate French dialogue in the very first scene is downright confusing. The film can sometimes seem over-eager to impress: Never content to simply allow us to feel the emotional weight of a relationship, Bondarchuk is constantly intervening as a director—underlining, amplifying, and bludgeoning us with heavy-handed visual metaphors.

Bondarchuk’s restless approach often causes him to obscure Tolstoy’s complicated narrative and its vast, inter-connected familial relationships. The film essentially condenses the novel’s sprawling, digressive narrative into a murky love triangle between the socially awkward misfit Count Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), his friend and philosophical opposite, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the idealized, waif-like woman, Countess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva), with whom they both fall in love. Of the three, only Natasha leaves much of an impression, thanks in large part to Saveleva’s radiant performance. A trained ballerina, Saveleva flits and flutters through War and Peace like a butterfly, imbuing her scenes with a litheness and effulgence that provides stark contrast to the portentous philosophizing that Andrei and Pierre are prone to.

If Bondarchuk struggles to convey the story’s gradual shifts in relationships and psychology, he nevertheless demonstrates the ability to give cinematic life to Tolstoy’s rhapsodic depth of feeling. In one of the film’s more emotionally resonant techniques, Bondarchuk jarringly cuts between two scenes with wildly different emotional tenors—a joyous dance and a man dying, for example—emphasizing one of Tolstoy’s great themes: the simultaneity of human experience. While one person is suffering, another is celebrating; while one man is enjoying a banquet in St. Petersburg, another is engaged in bloody combat against Napoleon’s armies.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is in some ways less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a symphonic representation of its themes—its sense of drama, portent, and grandeur. That’s never truer than in the film’s astonishingly stirring set pieces, which find Bondarchuk variously capturing the buzzy excitement of a ball, the calamitous anxiety of battle, and, in the film’s most haunting passage, the wrenching pain and despair of a city under siege. Bondarchuk’s delirious rendering of the French army’s brutal invasion of Moscow, during which Napoleon’s forces burned the city to the ground, represents the most sustainedly apocalyptic vision of war’s madness and cruelty this side of Elem Klimov’s Come and See. War and Peace couldn’t possibly do justice to every aspect of Tolstoy’s mammoth tome, but at the very least, it captures the essence of the author’s scornful description of war: “an event … opposed to human reason and to human nature.”

Image/Sound

From its initial American release, for which it was dubbed into English and cut down by an hour, to an atrocious DVD release from Kultur that reduced its 2.30:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1, War and Peace has rarely been seen in its intended form in the United States. But thanks to Criterion’s meticulous transfer, which is sourced from a Mosfilm restoration, audiences at home can now experience the visual and audio impact of Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterpiece as it was intended. The film’s moody interiors, sprawling battle vistas, and intricate trick shots all sparkle with a crystalline intensity. Everything looks almost impossibly sharp; there’s no evidence of motion shudder during the film’s whip-fast camera pans, and depth of field is breathtakingly clear throughout. The film’s complex, six-channel soundtrack has been remastered from the original elements in 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio, providing an appropriately titanic aural experience that’s equally adept at handling subtle dialogue scenes as it is with overwhelming combat sequences.

Extras

There’s no commentary track or information about Mosfilm’s grueling and expensive restoration process. The most useful extra here is a program with author Denise J. Youngblood that gives a broad overview of the film’s cultural context and difficult production. Two archival making-of documentaries, one from Germany and another from Russia, provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the film’s making, while a 1967 documentary on Ludmila Savelyeva made for French TV offers a breezy look at the actress and her life in Moscow. New interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (one of several who worked on the film) and Bondarchuk’s son, Fedor, provide some personal reminiscences about the notoriously imperious director. Rounding out the package is an insightful essay by critic Ella Taylor that stresses the importance of War and Peace as a work of Russian nationalism.

Overall

While not exactly skimpy, Criterion’s offering of supplementary materials doesn’t quite match up to the monumental nature of the film itself.

Cast: Sergei Bondarchuk, Lyudmila Saveleva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Boris Zakhava, Anatoli Ktorov, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Antonina Shuranova, Oleg Tabakov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Irina Skobtseva, Boris Smirnov, Vasiliy Lanovoy, Kira Golovko, Irina Gubanova, Aleksandr Borisov, Oleg Efremov, Giuli Chokhonelidze, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Angelina Stepanova, Nikolay Trofimov Director: Sergei Bondarchuk Screenwriter: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 421 min Rating: NR Year: 1966 Release Date: June 25, 2019 Buy: Video

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