Scott Nye – CriterionCast https://criterioncast.com Fri, 29 May 2020 19:41:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 https://criterioncast.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/cropped-9329A558-8143-4F71-9E79-E26F8C0F3C59-1-300x300.jpeg Scott Nye – CriterionCast https://criterioncast.com 32 32 Episode 205 – Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City https://criterioncast.com/podcast/criterioncast-episodes/episode-205-roberto-rossellinis-rome-open-city Fri, 08 May 2020 23:44:39 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=63646

This time on the podcast, Jordan Essoe, Scott Nye, David Blakeslee, and Arik Devens discuss Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City.

This was Roberto Rossellini’s revelation, a harrowing drama about the Nazi occupation of Rome and the brave few who struggled against it. Though told with more melodramatic flair than the films that would follow it to form The War Trilogy and starring some well-known actors—Aldo Fabrizi as a priest helping the partisan cause and Anna Magnani in her breakthrough role as the fiancée of a resistance member—Rome Open City is a shockingly authentic experience, conceived and directed amid the ruin of World War II, with immediacy in every frame. Marking a watershed moment in Italian cinema, this galvanic work garnered awards around the globe and left the beginnings of a new film movement in its wake.

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Scott Reviews Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-olivier-assayass-non-fiction-theatrical-review Thu, 02 May 2019 16:51:08 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61167

With each of the six films he’s made over the past eleven years, writer/director Olivier Assayas is almost singularly focused on the effect of change. His characters long to belong to an earlier era, and mourn or are haunted by the march of technological progress. At a time when most filmmakers are still trying to write their way out of even incorporating cell phones, Assayas finds new narrative and emotional possibilities in our interconnected lives. He doesn’t always find satisfaction in concluding that the only way forward is to keep living, to keep changing with the time; some of his characters are left stranded, unable to evolve, while others flourish and celebrate. I’ll never forget sitting with a crowd of retirees bemoaning the lack of respect those damn kids had for partying at the dying estate in Summer Hours; they were actually giving the place a second life.

Non-Fiction situates those concerns largely in the book industry. Alain (Guillaume Canet) is an editor at a prestigious publisher whose reputation was always intact but whose financial success is considerably more recent. Alain has managed that transition by diversifying the company’s offerings – he notes that their year is often made not by their acclaimed novels, but by lifestyle books – and lately is keen on the potential in digital offerings. To that end, he has hired Laure (Christa Théret) to offer the youth perspective, a perspective he’s grown considerably more sympathetic to now that they’re sleeping together. His wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche), suspects an affair and is a bit torn up about it, even though she’s carrying on her own with Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author whom Alain regularly published but whose latest novel, we learn early on, will not be met with the same friendliness.

Leonard is also married, to a political consultant heading for her own disillusionment. As with all the couplings in this film, their emotional life is greatly affected by their cultural stances; or is it the other way around? Assayas commonly makes what might be termed “talky movies,” but even for him this is uncommonly dialogue-driven. Whole scenes are built around discourse about modern culture, in literature most prominently but also in politics and in entertainment, where Selena makes her living as the star of a popular crime show. Those discussions at first feel merely like a way for Assayas to work out his own hang-ups, and certainly there’s an element of that, but what really makes this film exceptional is the way he gradually ties those viewpoints to the characters’ emotional lives, exploring the way our intellect reacts to and evolves based on the way we feel. Are Selena and Leonard sleeping together because they both value the experience of reading physical books, or do they both value traditional culture because they’re sleeping together? Do their relationships form their thoughts, or their thoughts their relationships?

We’ll never know, nor can we. We can’t know that entirely about ourselves, and the film’s characters seem only vaguely aware at this possibility. Alain, almost robotically the film’s most self-aware character, does so at the expense of a real emotional engagement with his wife; Canet strolls through the film blissfully at ease with his life yet finding none of the depth in any conversation that Selena and Leonard do in even their most fleeting moments. In a way he seems better suited to Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), Leonard’s wife, who is hilariously disinterested in her husband’s professional and artistic woes. But he’s also not detached enough to be fully Laure’s equal, if only because she is young and has considerably more time than him to settle the questions the movie prompts; or at least she thinks she does. What Non-Fiction, as with all of Assayas’s work, makes clear is that the things that trouble us in our youth will just keep prodding us the older we get. No wonder Assayas somewhat-regularly revisits his own in his films.

Binoche and Macaigne are two of the finest actors working today out of any country, and while their pairing in their own is overdue, Assayas takes full advantage of it. Both are beautifully spontaneous actors, seemingly discovering the material as they’re speaking it, and have a way of presenting their characters as though at ease when they are anything but. Macaigne in particular details well the attraction Leonard holds. Though not as physically appealing as Alain, his zest for life and passion for art is contagious, and Macaigne grounds that passion in a sort of anxiety about his circumstances. Selena feels much the same, and Binoche plays her frequent corrections regarding her TV character’s profession (not a cop, a “crisis management expert”) as an extension of her own anxiety that her career is passing her by as she seeks the comfort of steady work. Her assertions that the show gives her plenty of acting challenges are about as convincing as Leonard declaring that seeking a new publishing house is a welcome challenge. Assayas and his cast are well aware of how often people position their setbacks as opportunities.

The strain between past and present is further exemplified in its visual palette – shot on 16mm, with a heavy emphasis on the grain, Assayas and his frequent cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (who also shot this year’s High Life) harken back to the resurgent cheaper-than-New-Wave films made in France during the 1970s. That this film will be projected almost exclusively, if not absolutely exclusively, in digital form creates an inherent tension with the image, which leaves it both volatile and predictable. The same might be said of the film’s characters, who follow patterns while their specific actions constantly keep us off guard. Thoughtful, provocative, and very funny, Non-Fiction is one of the best films of the year, a portrait of our contemporary struggles without coming to a conclusion about How We Live Now. Had Assayas not just made one of the best of the decade with Personal Shopper, it could very well hit similar consideration.

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Scott Reviews Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord [Arrow Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-luigi-bazzonis-the-fifth-cord-arrow-blu-ray-review Thu, 02 May 2019 02:00:59 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61163

In his commentary track for this release, film critic Travis Crawford cautions himself against making any sort of superlatives in saying that Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord is one of the best giallo films not made by the genre’s most eminent auteurs – your Mario Bavas and Sergio Martinos and Lucio Fulcis and such. But have the benefit of fewer compunctions and less experience with the genre than Crawford, so I can just flat-out say that this is easily one of the five or so best giallo films I’ve seen – ceaselessly tense, beautifully shot, lurid but not (too) exploitative, and patient enough to make the kills really count, it is that rare kind of film in which the genre elements seem to flow naturally from its creators, rather than feeling beholden to formula or template. It has everything you’d want, and each horrid stroke is earned.

We’re introduced to the major players at a party they all just happen to be attending (how generous of them). Shortly upon leaving it, one of them is brutally attacked, left nearly for dead and with serious injuries. Alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) is assigned to cover the beat, but before long, another victim surfaces, and all signs point to the two being connected. Then a third…then a fourth…and the connections form a tighter and tighter circle around Bild himself!

So sure, when I summarize it like that, it all seems pretty routine Italian mystery stuff. But from its opening moments – a fisheye lens roaming the party as the recorded voice of the murderer lays out his plans to kill and kill again – to the elegant way a more detached camera views the party, the way cinematographer Vittorio Storaro turns every space into something strange and otherworldly places the film into a realm all its own. Storaro was fresh off practically defining the craft the year before with The Conformist, one of the most beautiful films ever made, and shows no signs of feeling he’s “slumming it” here. Rather, the genre trappings seem to free him to craft either an immaculate image or a scummy one. For all the modern giallo “homages” we get these days, that mix is the element they always miss – the film must feel at once elegant and filthy.

And filthy it gets. Besides the usual exploitation of women’s bodies, there is a terrifying chase involving a young boy that is excruciatingly tense, accentuated by the patience Bazzoni displays, letting each scare creep toward the audience until we can’t bear it anymore. It also gives Storaro some different notes to play, as it is anything but graceful, but he still finds beauty in the handheld terror.

All of this looks extremely good on Arrow’s new 2K transfer, which has become characteristic for the distributor. Especially these giallo films have hit a fairly uniform stride – warm, rich skin tones, black levels that don’t swallow detail, robust grain structure that crafts a dense, naturalistic image, and colors that are richly saturated without blowing out. Damage is minimal, if even present at all. The specific quality of the images will vary, but it feels in keeping with the tools used to make it at the time, which necessarily will result in some shots looking softer or possessing less fine detail. The Fifth Cord is more of what I’ve come to expect and love about Arrow, which pours this terrific effort into these films that few have heard of and gives them a wonderful platform.

I’m a little less enthused overall about the supplements. Travis Crawford’s commentary is clearly well-researched, but too often in his track he’ll get distracted by something happening onscreen, have to double back on a point he was making, then only half-make it while also saying he’ll loop back to something else later, and kind of half-make that point too. The result feels pretty disorganized and doesn’t convey nearly the breadth of research he clearly did.

Racael Nisbet’s visual essay is much better, getting into the visual tropes of the film and especially how it functions as an extension of the common 60s-Italian-movie theme of modernity. She explores the way architecture is depicted in the film as sharing a commonality with Antonioni’s work. The interview with critic Michael Mackenzie is also okay; a bit of a fan-appreciation more than a critical assessment. Admittedly I got a little distracted looking at his Blu-ray shelf and finding it either too-perfectly-curated or the result of someone with extremely predictable taste.

The best supplement is definitely the interview with editor Eugenio Alabiso, who hasn’t one collaborator on this film whom he doesn’t completely adore. He spends the bulk of the time simply going on and on about how much he loves the film and everyone who worked on it, but he’s incredibly charming and I never once got sick of it. There’s also an interview with Nero, who remains extremely cool, if a sort of boiler-plate interviewee. plus an assortment of deleted “scenes” that are more like deleted shots, plus two trailers.

The supplements are a little hit-and-miss, but the film is extraordinary. Probably not worth Arrow’s full price, but absolutely worth adding to your list for their next sale.

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Episode 200 – Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence https://criterioncast.com/podcast/criterioncast-episodes/episode-200-ingmar-bergmans-the-silence Sun, 21 Apr 2019 16:36:03 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61110

This time on the podcast, Scott Nye, David Blakeslee, Trevor Berrett, and Arik Devens discuss Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence.

Two sisters—the sickly, intellectual Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the sensual, pragmatic Anna (Gunnel Lindblom)—travel by train with Anna’s young son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), to a foreign country that appears to be on the brink of war. Attempting to cope with their alien surroundings, each sister is left to her own vices while they vie for Johan’s affection, and in so doing sabotage what little remains of their relationship. Regarded as one of the most sexually provocative films of its day, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence offers a disturbing vision of emotional isolation in a suffocating spiritual void.

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Episode 199 – Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light https://criterioncast.com/podcast/criterioncast-episodes/episode-199-ingmar-bergmans-winter-light Sun, 21 Apr 2019 16:35:51 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61107

This time on the podcast, Scott Nye, David Blakeslee, Trevor Berrett, and Arik Devens discuss Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.

“God, why hast thou forsaken me?” With Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman explores the search for redemption in a meaningless existence. Small-town pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) performs his duties mechanically before a dwindling congregation, including his stubbornly devoted lover, Märta (Ingrid Thulin). When he is asked to assuage a troubled parishioner’s (Max von Sydow) debilitating fear of nuclear annihilation, Tomas is terrified to find that he can provide nothing but his own doubt. The beautifully photographed Winter Light is an unsettling look at the human craving for personal validation in a world seemingly abandoned by God.

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TCM Fest 2019: Sign O’ the Times https://criterioncast.com/festivals/tcm-fest-2019-sign-o-the-times Thu, 18 Apr 2019 03:50:01 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61098

“Every film is a documentary of its own making.” Jacques Rivette wrote that, and his films embraced that conviction. And it’s one I’ve largely found to be true, at least in most any film that’s any good. Part of that comes in capturing the time in which it’s made; doesn’t matter if it’s a period piece or a science-fiction epic or shot in someone’s backyard – artists are shaped by their world, and films are shaped by their artists.

So while it would otherwise not be fitting in any way to discuss together Howard Hawks’ war-hero tribute film Sergeant York alongside Stephanie Rothman’s pseudo-exploitation film The Student Nurses, well, this window gives us just such a vantage. One was made for too much money and with too much purpose; the other with almost no money and little overt purpose. There is something persistent about each, though, and quite a lot that’s very telling.

The “documentary” appeal of Student Nurses is more overt – released at the end of 1970, it’s about as “late-60s/early-70s Los Angeles” as a late-60s/early-70s LA-set movie can be. The principal characters are nurses-to-be, and each one encounters some Massive Cultural Issue Facing the Nation Today. If you don’t think a movie, in 89 minutes, can address rape, birth control, abortion, minority rights, guillera revolutionaries, drugs, Vietnam, homosexuality, police brutality, the sexual revolution, and workplace equality, well man, Stephanie Rothman has this movie you should check out.

It isn’t always elegant about jumping from one issue or storyline to the next, but the enthusiasm to dive into these topics is on display at all times. The “New Hollywood” movement had begun, and filmmakers who came up from in the same tradition in which Rothman is practicing had started to change the industry and the kinds of movies that got made, but it was a process. To see a film about a woman who has an abortion was still extremely rare, if not unheard of. Whatever else the new mainstream filmmakers brought to Hollywood, a female perspective wasn’t one of them. It’s not even about having female directors (though that’s certainly part of it); look at this list of notable New Hollywood films and tell me how many of them made by 1970 even had a female protagonist.

So here is a film written and directed by a woman, centering around not one but four women, and yes half of them have the occasional desire to take off their shirts, and the acting could at times be called “stiff,” but the exhilaration at getting to define one’s own space throughout the film is exciting. The women are primarily professionals, well-educated and forging a desire to make a difference in the world through their profession, which is increasingly giving them reason to. They don’t always agree, but the script never resorts to turning them completely against one another. When they stride into graduation at the end – the final lines are as good as they get anywhere – the feeling is triumphant and commanding.

On an aesthetic level, Rothman really cuts loose with a pair of “drug trip” sequences – one by acid, the other by anesthetic – that suggest she could have easily come to the fore of the filmmaking community at the end had she been afforded the same opportunities as her male counterparts. It’s like Zabriskie Point on a budget, a comparison that should tell you whether or not this movie’s for you; but if that evokes associations as positive as they are for me, this is well worth your while. Could drink in those early-70s colors for days, and the gorgeous print they showed at the festival – preserved by Cinema Conservancy & the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, and held by the Academy Film Archive – could not have better shown them off.

So what does a sexy nurse movie have in common with a biopic of one of America’s great war heroes? Well, for one, a desire to make its subject emblematic of our national struggle. World War I pictures to this point tended to be fairly downbeat, reminders of the loss of a generation and the pointlessness of violent conflict. But within a few quick years of Nazi escalation, the national mood had changed, and with a nation on the march towards war, a film about how one man can win it became a rallying cry. Indeed, producer Jesse Lasky had tried for literally decades to convince Alvin York that his story – of a Tennessee farmer and initial pacifist who almost single-handedly captured 130 German soldiers – needed to be made into a film, but it was only the rising threat of fascism that convinced the sharp-shooter to sign it away.

The film is gung-ho about its patriotism almost to a fault, but it takes Alvin’s central conflict seriously – what is one to do when your Bible says not to kill but your country says you must? In a scene that virtually explains the trade the conservative Christian community has made virtually since this country was founded, Hawks uncritically gives it away. Alvin is debating the subject with one of his superiors, clearly possessing greater knowledge of the Bible than that officer, and clearly making a persuasive case for pacifism in so doing. The other officer in the room sees where this is going, and presents another argument – a book of American history filled with men who used violence to settle their land.

Alvin still doesn’t feel good about the violence he must, and eventually does, commit, but he now has a philosophical foundation – he must kill to prevent further killing, and help retain the freedom upon which his country was built. As so many men before him had, and so many men after him will, he chooses his country’s honor and legacy over his religion, without ever acknowledging the priority he set.

The film, mostly, follows suit, never resolving the morality behind that decision, but becoming more than admirable about it. York’s achievements are plainly presented as not just good, but great, and he deserves all the riches he turns away, insisting that he will not take a reward for killing (though he does, without irony, accept a large house that was built for him as a reward, so who knows).

Gary Cooper won the Oscar that year for playing York, and deservedly so. He’d become a more emboldened actor in the years to come, but Cooper to this point was defined by his modesty onscreen. He could play genuine humility so well, he almost seems to lack confidence as a performer, and perhaps he did. It serves him very well here, as one never questions the purity of Alvin’s naivete and values. The film is far more unusual for Hawks, better-known for his work with duos and ensembles. Cooper lobbied for Hawks to get the job, and he serves the material well – the early sections display a real commitment to the strange language of the Tennessee mountain men, which places us so well in Alvin’s shoes without our recognizing it that when we hear a New York accent in the boot camp scenes, it’s nearly as much a shock to us as it is to Alvin.

The film achieved its goal, giving any young man with doubts about the oncoming war’s value a philosophical basis upon which to join, and it spurred on a great deal of recruits, premiering as it did just a few months before Pearl Harbor. It was still in theaters when the attack took place, and became the most commercially-successful film of the year and quite possibly the decade. It told a generation that you, too, could rise from your humble roots, defeat fascism, and come back to marry the girl of your dreams. What more could anyone want to hear?

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TCM Fest 2019: Those Damn Nazis https://criterioncast.com/festivals/tcm-fest-2019-those-damn-nazis Tue, 16 Apr 2019 19:55:26 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61077

“We didn’t know what the National Socialism was, really,” Kevin Brownlow recounted as part of his introduction to his incredible 1965 film It Happened Here. He spoke about how, as young people coming up in the postwar years, Nazism was a forbidden subject. They knew they were the bad guys, and loosely what they had done, but not truly what the party stood for. What adult would want to explain that?

Unfortunately over the past couple years, we’ve all been forced to think a lot more about Nazis than we’d like to, and part of that for me has turned to thinking about their portrayal in mass media. I wonder if the movies, which have gradually turned Nazis into cartoonish villains, the swastika gradually transformed from a symbol of absolute hate into just another villainous logo. Could this softening in part explain the way it has been embraced more and more, the way the media no longer regards those bearing it as automatically beneath contempt?

Take a wide enough survey of classic film and you’ll quickly hit a few dealing with Nazis. Just because they were closer to the time doesn’t automatically make them more complex – films made during the war often portrayed the concentration camps as a mere inconvenience, for it would take years after the war for most of the outside world to understand what was happening within them, and how widespread it was. Films from the 1950s addressing the war tended to approach the subject cautiously, suggesting the gravity that audiences were able to bring to it.

But by the 1960s, Nazis started to be placed in stock villain roles, and the push-pull between history and entertainment is well on display in 1965’s The Sound of Music. In it, Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) resists joining Nazi forces in occupied Austria, though that’s really a background story to that of his children, whom he ignores, finding their capacity for personal expression through their new governess, Maria (Julie Andrews). The first half of the film only hints at the rising Nazi threat; the second begins under occupation.

The von Trapps were a real family, and while the film plays fast-and-loose with their biography, this essential struggle has historical roots. The first act of the film is where it is largely at its best, containing the first portrait of nearly all the musical’s songs (and certainly all of its most famous ones). Within the second act, though, the songs begin to take on another meaning, their implications more national than personal, their tone more somber than celebratory. But when it comes to portraying the Nazis themselves, the film falls a bit short, portraying them more as strict policemen than genocidal murderers, and I’m not sure what the musical reprise of “My Favorite Things” adds to the climactic chase.

Still, this was the first time I’d seen the film all the way through, and seeing it on a truly breathtaking 70mm print was a truly great experience of a film I found otherwise nearly faultless. The songs, with which I was already extremely familiar from just being a living American, feel as fresh as though I’d never heard them thanks to Robert Wise’s extraordinary direction (is the camera ever in a less than ideal place throughout the film?), which is not only sharp and well-observed but slyly undercuts the film’s tremendous potential for schmaltz. Not that it isn’t sappy, and I do not deny being fairly sappy myself, so I was in great agreement with it there.

It Happened Here is really where the Nazis get theirs, in more ways than one. Brownlow’s solution to his persistent question – “who are the Nazis, really?” – developed into a film. He began working on it at age 18, and eight years later emerged an imagined portrait of Nazi-occupied Great Britain set at the end of World War II. Brownlow imagines the British reaction would not be how occupied countries were portrayed at the time – as filled with freedom fighters desperate to overthrow tyranny – but as it actually was in France and Belgium and everywhere else, as a larger populace that just wants to get on with their lives.

That larger populace is represented chiefly by Pauline (Pauline Murray), an out-of-work nurse ready to get back to work, even if the only work being offered is under the Party. She disagrees with them, of course, but she has to earn a living. Even though she doesn’t know any revolutionaries, and isn’t particularly fond of those she encountered, having lost several friends in some crossfire. But she slowly discovers that putting on the uniform of fascism has its own share of consequences even among those less overtly rebellious. And every attempt to distance herself from the ideology with which she is now associated only binds her more tightly to it. Her thin justifications about pulling together and getting the country back on its feet feel like petty excuses when she gives them; by the end, even her supposed professional mission to care and heal is no longer redeeming.

The film itself is quite accomplished, never mind for a film made over eight years using short-end stock that Stanley Kubrick sent from the Dr. Strangelove set and borrowed costumes from, as Brownlow made it sound, something of a German Army enthusiast. It feels handmade, but the result feels more lived-in. The actors have a genuine quality to them, as though they just stepped off the street, which in many respects they probably did; that effect only further reinforces the harsh light in which they are painted. The film was shot by Peter Suschitzky, who would go on to be David Cronenberg’s regular director of photography, among other notable achievements. This was his first film, and though he had the background for it – his father by that time had dozens of credits shooting documentary shorts, and like many British films of the era, It Happened Here has a bit of a docudrama feel to it – the pure talent is already extremely obvious.

I often say that movies have taught me as much, if not more, about history than I ever learned in school, and consistently give me new perspectives on that history. Yet another reason to become a cinephile, I suppose.

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TCM Fest 2019: Pre-Code https://criterioncast.com/festivals/tcm-fest-2019-pre-code Tue, 16 Apr 2019 19:51:24 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61072

This is probably a hugely reductive statement, but most of the “pre-Code” Hollywood films I’ve watched – that is, those made after the advent of synchronized sound and before the moral standards of the Motion Picture Production Code were strictly enforced – fall into two fairly distinct categories. The first tries to pack as much sin into them as possible, typically running under 75 minutes and with just enough character development to take the audience from one debauched act to the next. The second more or less falls in line, structurally and aesthetically, with the types of films Hollywood would make after the Code was more rigidly enforced. The second set is informed by the liberties granted to the cinema at the time, when studios could see standards on the horizon and were trying to outdo each other in a race to the bottom, but is not beholden to them, giving more time over to character and tone than to subversion.

The first set certainly has its pleasures, having produced a number of all-time classics – Gold Diggers of 1933 is quite possibly the best film Hollywood produced in this period – and at times the two are indistinguishable (I think especially of Baby Face and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang). But having waded through my share of sin and vice pictures and found them wanting, I generally prefer the second set. Four films shown this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival illustrate this divide splendidly.

Waterloo Bridge (1931), Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Night World (1932), and Blood Money (1933) each promise some degree of wickedness, though admittedly one does have to be familiar with some English cultural history to make some associations with James Whale’s exquisite adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play produced the year before in 1930. Concerning a prostitute (Mae Clarke) who falls in love with a soldier (Kent Douglass) on leave, but feels unworthy of his affections, it barely trades at all with the compellingly lurid side of her trade. Myra came to London as a chorus girl, fell out of work, and took to walking the streets. After she meets Roy and they spend a perfectly charming evening together (he, having encountered he amidst an air raid, unaware of her profession), Whale lets the scene rest for awhile as Myra reapplies her make-up, puts on her fur, pulls her shirt down, and gloomily exits her apartment once again for another evening of terror and degradation. There’s no thrill to what she has to do, she only has to do it.

Compare that to Blood Money, in which characters seem hardly to feel a thing. In his introduction, Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein said there was some suggestion that writer/director Rowland Brown had ties to the underworld. That certainly bears out in the film, which spends most of its time on the intricacies of bail bonds and how criminals leverage them than it does on any kind of human story. This isn’t too major a complaint, as it is a very entertaining movie, and a late chase to get a taxi to a pool hall before our protagonist (certainly not our Hero) shoots pool with an exploding 8-ball is masterfully done.

It’s a bit more than Night World can manage. The best thing you can say about it is it does have a terrific musical number choreographed by Busby Berkeley the year before his career would really take off, and Mae Clarke is once again terrific here in a role that’s far simpler on the page, but which she does wonders with. And its cast in general – Lew Ayres, Boris Karloff, Heda Hopper(!), and George Raft – make for a fairly compelling set, especially seeing Karloff play host to everyone. But the film doesn’t have much more going for it than its setting, a fairly typical nightclub with a fairly typical floor show and fairly typical customers. That Lew Ayres is continuously drunk because his mother killed his father certainly gives it some edge; that the film treats its black doorman (Clarence Muse) exceptionally poorly (while thinking it’s treating him exceptionally well) is a heavy mark against it though. But the film is mostly a title and a place.

The best of the bunch also holds the most outré title – Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell refers in title to a toast that newspaperman Jerry Corbett (Frederic March) regularly gives, and he gives a lot of toasts. He tries to give up drink to be a proper husband for Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney), whose upper-class upbringing puts her way out of his league as it is. Their marriage only complicates from there, as Jerry’s sacrifice bottles up inside him desires that are destined to bust out. And bust they do. The film feels in many ways like a precursor to William Wyler’s A Star is Born, in which March plays an alcoholic has-been actor who tries to give it up to be a good husband to his rising-star wife. As there, and as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, March plays the repression terribly well, his sober desire to drink standing in sharp contrast to how free and easy he seems to feel while drunk. Arzner’s direction, even within the constraints of a 78-minute film, lets his desire and Joan’s frustrations build with admirable patience at a time when too many mainstream films were unable to find a reasonable pace. Their marriage quickly becomes a race to the bottom, their journey to hell filled with outward laughs and merriment and internal torture. The ending, bound to frustrate many, at once indicts and forgives all, painting an incredible complex moral space in which there are no easy answers and no possible true resolution. Absolutely loved this film.

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A Look Ahead at the 10th TCM Classic Film Festival https://criterioncast.com/festivals/a-look-ahead-at-the-10th-tcm-classic-film-festival Mon, 08 Apr 2019 22:42:25 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61042

‘Tis a longstanding tradition amongst TCM Fest preview pieces to do so in the form of posting your own schedule, by way of announcing one’s predilections and priorities while nodding to the significant bounty of viewing options. However much the average attendee complains about “stacked” timeslots, where deciding on any one movie seems impossible, in contrast to “wasted” spots, where going to any of them does, from my vantage it’d be fairly easy to fill your schedule morning to night. So, here’s where I’ll be from April 11th-14th:

Were Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showing on 35mm, Thursday evening would be a harder choice, but an hour-long pre-Code gangster film with a Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical number is hard to pass up anyway, so Night World it is. This does have a pre-film discussion with Sara Karloff, Boris Karloff’s daughter, who I’m sure will be available to tell us just how nice and sweet Boris was.

Hopefully she won’t go on too long, as I’ll then be sprinting to catch Sergeant York at the festival’s new venue, The Legion Theater. Despite my love of all things Hawks, I’ve yet to see this film, and I do look forward to filling in that blindspot. Should I be unable to make it in time or get shut out of a sold-out screening, I will contend myself with Mogambo. John Ford on 35mm is rarely a bad decision, despite my significant reservations about seeing a remake of the exquisite Red Dust.

Friday, I will be absent most of the day as I work for a living, and I do not envy anyone the decision to choose amongst The Postman Always Rings Twice, Merrily We Go to Hell, The Clock, Love in the Afternoon, My Favorite Wife, and A Patch of Blue as the day wears on. I will aim to begin my evening and weekend proper with The Sound of Music, which I think I saw as a child but really who’s to say. I certainly didn’t see it theatrically, and certainly not in 70mm, which makes for a major draw now. I suspect this will be a very popular option, and should I have to shuffle down to Vanity Street, I will not be inconsolable.

The evening will absolutely conclude with a nitrate screening of Road House, as one does not do something as silly as pass up a film noir starring Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark when it’s screening on nitrate.

Saturday is when things really get interesting, and there’s a version of my schedule that would have me see seven films, but I think basic sanity and the unpredictability of attendance will limit it to six at most. The day will certainly begin with Double Wedding, because William Powell and Myrna Loy with the TCM Fest audience is always an exceedingly good time, and a nice screwball comedy has a way of waking one up in the morning. Not that Humphrey Bogart fighting Nazis in All Through the Night is any small draw either.

In all honesty, I will probably retreat back to my nearby apartment after that for a very large breakfast, but just know that I am very tempted to wallow in the misery of A Woman Under the Influence, especially as Gena Rowlands will be there in person to discuss the damn thing. And I’m not not curious about Tarzan and His Mate. But I will be very tired and I do very much like breakfast.

I’ll be back onsite for the double feature of silent westerns starring Tom Mix, though I will likely only stick around for The Great K&A Train Robbery, the one of the two showing on film. Not that I’m uninterested in Outlaws of the Red River, and I’m certainly very tempted to ditch both in favor of 1934’s Love Affair, but my big priority of the day is the 1933 pre-Code film Blood Money, because, you see, it’s a 1933 film called Blood Money. Film Forum Directory of Repertory Programming Bruce Goldstein will be on hand for a talk both before and after the film, and based on his past presentations of pre-Code films, this will be an extremely good time.

Hopefully not too good, as I’ll be dashing down the street for Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here immediately after, which sounds completely fascinating. Brownlow will also be received the Robert Osborne Award, which was created to be awarded to “an individual whose work has helped keep the cultural heritage of classic film alive and thriving for future generations.” Brownlow, who besides being a filmmaker in his own right has a significant career in film restoration, is well deserving of this honor.

“Romance” is one of the big themes at this year’s festival, and my schedule is sadly quite low on romantic dramas despite it being among my favorite genres, but I’m glad to be helping rectify this error a bit with John Whale’s Waterloo Bridge. THEN…I’ve never done the midnight shows at TCM, because who the hell has the energy, but you know, you only live once, you only get a chance to see a Roger Corman-produced, possibly-second-wave-feminist-tinged, female-directed sexy nurse movie, with the filmmaker in person? Anyway. The Student Nurses screens at midnight and I’m damn intent on being there and at least partially conscious.

Whether I’ll be fully awake for a 9:15am presentation of the 1935 horror film Mad Love is another matter, but the lure of Peter Lorre will hopefully make up for my lifelong aversion to coffee. I’m terribly tempted to ditch that in favor of the stupendous Holiday, starring my beloved Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, which I haven’t seen since film school. But Holiday is playing in a new digital restoration, hopefully signaling a Blu-ray on the horizon, while Mad Love is good ol’ 35mm.

Depending on the allure of the 11:45 TBA slot, which are always filled in with the most-in-demand films from the days before, I may once again return home for breakfast during the late morning slot. But I’ll be back onsite for Cold Turkey and a Q&A with the great Norman Lear. Lear made this film shortly before he became television royalty with All in the Family, and looks like a hoot. I mean, it has Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart, how bad can it be.

It’ll be back to silent cinema with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Clarence Brown’s A Woman of Affairs, presented with a live orchestral score by Carl Davis. Like I said, love me some romantic drama.

The day, and festival, will end with the 1945 musical The Dolly Sisters in 35mm nitrate. This is probably a good time to mention that the festival includes in large part a tribute to 20th Century Fox’s legacy, though it comes at the odd time when Disney is effectively taking over the company and helping to erase it. It’ll be a nice last hurrah, though.

The festival also comes at an uncertain time when AT&T has assumed control of Warner Brothers, TCM’s parent company, and made clear that they intend to gradually erase the Turner name from all its operation. What that portends for the future of TCM, or the TCM Film Festival, I do not know, but even if it’s under another name, here’s hoping it has a long life ahead.

So with any luck, fourteen films in four days, none of which I’ve really seen before. If I’m still standing when it’s all over, I’ll check back in here to tell you about it.

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Scott Reviews Henri-George Clouzot’s La verite [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-henri-george-clouzots-la-verite-criterion-blu-ray-review Thu, 04 Apr 2019 02:29:17 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=61026

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La vérité is, on its surface, a courtroom drama that puts a young woman on trial murdering her lover. Clouzot had spent his career in the mystery genre, honing it for French audiences so successfully that he was often compared with Alfred Hitchcock. Though far less prolific, such classics as The Murderer Lives at 21, Le Corbeau, and Les diaboliques made clear his mastery of the genre, his ability to weave clues amidst personalities and draw out tension while advancing story.

Thus, it should come as little surprise that Le vérité functions extremely well as a straightforward legal thriller. Clouzot quickly establishes the personalities of the attorneys (Charles Vanel and Paul Meurisse) so that the exposition the actors are loaded with never comes off merely as such, but is somewhat filtered through their own distinct quirks. The French legal system, which I’ve seen depicted in enough films to know I will never precisely understand it, is thankfully quite streamlined (this being one of many French films of the time financed by Columbia Pictures is perhaps the motivation). Clouzot, who cowrote the screenplay alongside a small battalion (mostly women), deploys new clues and objections and twists and just the right moments so that this over-two-hour procedural never drags.

But this isn’t merely a procedural (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This is an investigation into a whole new generation, epitomized by its star and subject, Brigitte Bardot. She emerges from a rowdy crowd of prisoners silently, entering the courtroom with little indication of who she is or where she’s been. The course of the trial is less about whether or not she did it – of course she did – than why she did it, or why she did anything she’s ever done. Why did she abandon her provincial parents to move to Paris? Why did she take advantage of her sister’s generosity? Why did she seduce that same sister’s boyfriend (Sami Frey), and in turn nearly ruin his own promising musical career? Why can’t she make something of herself, instead of laying about and dancing and making love? Just where does she get off, anyway? And just what drives such a woman? Maybe this is more a French trial than I gave it credit for.

Clouzot had his own share of such questions posed to him. Having worked in the film industry during the Nazi occupation of France, he was convicted of collaborating with the enemy and nearly banned from filmmaking for the rest of his life. Bardot, in turn, had taken the country and world by storm, mostly with a series of playfully sexy mainstream French films like La Parisienne, Plucking the Daisy, Naughty Girl, and School for Love, but it was the era-defining, taboo-breaking And God Created Woman that seized the public’s imagination even as it left little to it. With that film, Bardot became the face of the postwar generation. She and her peers were born either into poverty, war, or the road to either, but were coming of age at a time of great prosperity. Some responded by meeting it with great ambition, others stayed lost in thought, and many just wanted to live fast while they still could. And God Created Woman is still an incendiary experience, not tamed one bit by the intervening sixty years, and it’s easy to see why the generation or two before her – which had sacrificed so much for their freedom – looked at the results and were perplexed, if not outright angry.

This energy pulses through La vérité, which never pulls its punches in depicting Dominique’s faults – she is lazy and restless and backstabbing and needlessly, thoughtlessly cruel. But this doesn’t deter Clouzot from sympathizing with the way she is villainized in court far beyond the point of her actual crime. Few in the courtroom seem to even despise her for what she’s done than who she is. Or what they’ve decided her to be. The uneasy parallels between Dominique’s and Bardot’s biographies, especially Dominique’s early suicide attempt, further align the two, as does Dominique’s considerable resemblance to And God Created Woman’s Juliette – the same wild energy, the same sexual appetite, the same desire to throw tradition on its head in favor of a good time.

The film is also at another precipice that I doubt it quite anticipated. It premiered in 1960, the same year that Breathless redefined the modern cinema, and especially redefined the public’s conception of young people, and the way those same young people saw themselves in movies. La vérité too serves as an interrogation of a burgeoning cultural revolution, one that was now of age to define itself rather than have itself defined those twice their age. Clouzot, for all his sympathies and all his skills, was in his fifties when he made the film, and still views Bardot and the younger crowd as a subject, not as his peers. For those who know the period, this tension is as exciting as the dramatics.

Criterion brings the film to Blu-ray with a lovely new 4K restoration carried out by Sony Pictures, and it’s one of their better efforts, I don’t mind saying. The grain is healthy and robust without crowding out the picture, which bears out terrific density and dimension. The low-contrast cinematography, which all hues around a certain dark gray, is terrifically reproduced, no details getting shoved into crushed blacks or blown-out whites. Certain “process” shots are grainier, naturally, but that’s inherent to the source. Largely, this is as good a black-and-white transfer as I’ve seen come from a major studio.

Aside from a very good essay by Ginette Vincendeau, which reads the film as a broader interrogation of women in general – bringing in specific, real-life cases from which Clouzot and his team drew inspiration – Criterion didn’t produce any new supplements for this edition. They’ve included the 2017 French TV documentary “Le scandale Clouzot,” which provides a fine overview of the director’s career. Like most modern documentaries of its type, it’s heavy on talking heads, montage, and narration; I find these sort of things mostly unwatchable purely for aesthetic reasons, but if you prefer it to reading a long article or two on him, it’ll get you there. Elsewhere on the disc, look for an interview excerpt with Clouzot from 1960 that runs only five minutes but is extremely compelling (this is how much times change – the interviewer straight-up asks Clouzot if he wishes he’d cast a better actress), plus twenty minutes from a 1982 documentary on Bardot. It mostly deals with her personal life, and the insanity of the press coverage around the time she had her son. They get into La Vérité for about four minutes, right in the middle.

All in all, a decent edition, somewhat slim in both quantity and quality of supplements. The film is stellar and presented fabulously, but these days, that’s not quite enough to recommend $20 be spent on it.

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Episode 197 – Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly https://criterioncast.com/podcast/criterioncast-episodes/episode-197-ingmar-bergmans-through-a-glass-darkly Thu, 21 Feb 2019 05:59:25 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=60807

This time on the podcast, Scott Nye, David Blakeslee, Trevor Berrett, and Arik Devens discuss Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.

While vacationing on a remote island retreat, a family’s fragile ties are tested when daughter Karin (an astonishing Harriet Andersson) discovers her father (Gunnar Björnstrand) has been using her schizophrenia for his own literary ends. As she drifts in and out of lucidity, Karin’s father, her husband (Max von Sydow), and her younger brother (Lars Passgård) are unable to prevent her descent into the abyss of mental illness. Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, Through a Glass Darkly, the first work in Ingmar Bergman’s trilogy on faith and its loss (to be followed by Winter Light and The Silence), presents an unflinching vision of a family’s near disintegration and a tortured psyche further taunted by the intangibility of God’s presence.

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Scott Reviews Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-cristian-mungius-4-months-3-weeks-and-2-days-criterion-blu-ray-review Wed, 23 Jan 2019 06:37:04 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=60642

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) needs an abortion, but in 1987 Romania, it’s illegal. She’s not terribly resourceful herself; perhaps consequently, she’s not our protagonist. That role falls instead to her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca); the film could just as well been titled “A Simple Favor” if that one wasn’t already taken. Over the course of the day the procedure is to take place, Otilia will go above and beyond for a friend who’s doing very little to help herself. Were their roles reversed, it’s hard to imagine Gabita lifting a finger. But without coming to any conclusions, writer/director Cristian Mungiu questions the audience not only about the morality of the operation, but about basic civic duty, government structures, and loyalty, shooting his film through with the anxiety and fear that haunts most of our lives, even if we’re not doing anything near as illegal.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it became the first (and so far only) Romanian film to win the Palme d’Or. It has become the key film in the Romanian New Wave, and is without a doubt one of the landmark achievements of world cinema in the 21st century. It seemed to have absorbed the faulty state of global politics at the time of its release, trapping its characters in a world they cannot abide, but in which they must exist, where debating or challenging the cultural and bureaucratic forces at play becomes pointless when your immediate objectives are so clear. It’s brilliantly photographed, its long-take aesthetic even now – after a decade of imitations – as vibrant as its first pass through the projector. For such a seemingly straightforward story, nearly every shot accomplishes something only film can do, worming the audience into Otilia’s point of view without betraying the distance between her and the camera. We’re simultaneously left desperate to know what she’s thinking while feeling we have a complete read on her. It’d be easy to say the film judges nobody if we didn’t feel her constant anxiety around everyone, yet we do not feel any more tethered to her than we do ourselves. Living in a society asks us to look outside ourselves, but what of a society where nobody seems to? Otilia seems to stand alone in this regard, making her mission all the more insurmountable.

Overdue for a Criterion release, the edition released this week appears slim on the surface, but packs a wealth of insight.

One of Criterion’s most laudable “mission statement” level goals is to get a director’s approval on their editions whenever possible. This has lead to some frustrations, as films will get delayed for years making their way to home video (Cristian Mungiu’s own Beyond the Hills, which premiered in 2012, only just got a disc release last year) awaiting their director’s involvement and signature. Sometimes, too, the edition will make an opportunity to reconsider film, sometimes in relatively small ways (the color timing being the most common), but not infrequently in a much grander fashion – I think especially of the new cuts of Mr. Arkadin, Ride With the Devil, or The Tree of Life that made their debut in The Criterion Collection.

Somewhere in the middle is the “re-framing,” where a film with subtly, but very demonstrably, change shape. The most overt example is On the Waterfront, which included three different aspect ratios to fit the film in. More broadly, Criterion has made a habit of releasing in widescreen a number of films previously only available in the Academy ratio – Paths of Glory, The Night of the Hunter, and Anatomy of a Murder, for example. Last year, Sofia Coppola refitted The Virgin Suicides to 1.66:1. And this year, Cristin Mungiu has “reformed” his landmark 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1.

In their release notes, Criterion has labeled this the original aspect ratio, and I haven’t the first hand knowledge to support or contradict this claim; IFC released the film on home video in 1.85:1, and that’s how a lot of us saw it. In that context, the change feels like a substantial adjustment – given that the film takes place largely in close quarters and square rooms, the boxier aspect ratio “feels” more suited to the subject, but it didn’t take long for me to catch on to just how ideally the compositions fit into the wider frame, and how few felt “cut off” at the top. As DVD Beaver’s comparisons illustrate, some shots gain the side while others lose on the top. I wonder how the original negative of the film truly looked, and how it was framed in the camera, but perhaps such concerns don’t matter. Rather than feeling packed in from all sides, the new aspect ratio lends a different reading to Otilia and Gabita’s conflict – that their oppression comes from the top (their government) and bottom (their cultural foundation), that the range of acceptable behavior depends on squeezing through the middle.

The quality of the transfer itself is superb. I never thought of the film as one rich with color or texture, but this new 4K restoration boasts both, immediately evincing a robustness and character that greatly benefits the film. Otilia’s near-iconic green sweater stands in stark contrast to all around her – there doesn’t seem to even be much plant life in Romania – and it necessarily pops in each scene she’s in. The depth of field is very well-handled, allowing so much of the background to inform what happens in the fore. Otilia’s final nighttime journey, rightly heralded for taking on increasingly abstract tendencies without at all abandoning the aesthetic Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu established, is kept just as dark as you remember, thankfully. Mungiu supervised the restoration, and he doesn’t seem to have forgotten what precisely made the film so powerful.

As I noted, this only appears to be a slim edition, offering a couple interviews, a short documentary, a press conference, and some deleted scenes. The press conference comes from the Cannes Film Festival, and has a few insights but mostly has the same limitations as any Q&A session – those most eloquent in the audience more interested in themselves, and those who are interested in the filmmakers can’t come up with a decent question. The rest of the supplements pick up the slack, especially the 38-minute interview with Mungiu, who guides the film away from the abortion debate that understandably guided its discourse upon its release, focusing instead on the aesthetic and acting choices made within the film, and explaining in detail just how they went about getting there. He emphasizes the collaboration and hard work of his cast and crew, particularly in establishing rhythms in scenes that involve very little cutting, and the sometimes pure-luck inspiration that lead to some of the film’s most indelible moments.

Film critic Jay Weissberg jumps in for a 25-minute lowdown on the history and development of the Romanian New Wave, admitting as one must that its participants didn’t much like the term, but what else do you call it when a country goes from producing zero films in 2000 to a rush of landmark cinema that culminates in the Palme d’Or seven years later? It’s a great summary on the movement for those unfamiliar, using 4 Months as a template for illustrating the movement’s common characteristics.

The Romanian Tour is a short film accompanying the roadshow exhibition of the film in Romania. As noted, just a few years prior to its release, Romania was not making many films, and had very few places to show them, so the local distributors hired a crew to go from town to town, set up a screen and projector, and show the film in any space that would have them. We also get brief interviews with audience members, most of whom bemoan the state of exhibition in their country, a few of whom noting that they haven’t seen a film theatrically in many years, sometimes decades, until this one came to their town.

Finally, there is one deleted scene and two alternate endings. The deleted scene was smartly removed and the alternate endings aren’t as good as what they went with, as is typically the case with this sort of thing. Finally, there is a fold out leaflet with an essay by scholar Ella Taylor that beautifully draws out the film’s quality and lasting impact.

What else can I say? This is not just one of the great modern films, but one of the great films, period. I’m thrilled it finally made its way to the collection.

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Scott Reviews Luciano Ercoli’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion [Arrow Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-luciano-ercolis-the-forbidden-photos-of-a-lady-above-suspicion-arrow-blu-ray-review Wed, 23 Jan 2019 05:48:06 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=60639

Giallo burned bright and fast, when the Italian film industry churned out all manner of violence quickly, cheaply, and beautifully. But the genre it is sold as today wasn’t established immediately. It took some time to build to the more aggressive sex and violence. Earlier giallos either had too much prestige or too little, building out more dramatic elements and leaving the schlock and awe to only those most heightened moments. Kat Ellinger brilliantly discusses this in her commentary track on Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, arguing that although films such as this might not deliver so fervently on the genre elements we now associate with it, it falls into a fascinating realm of the “F Giallo,” or female-focused giallo film, concerned more with undefinable feelings than with “just how dismembered can this person become?” Not that the latter can’t include a bit of the former, or, for that matter, vice versa.

I found hers to be a compelling defense, especially as I didn’t much feel the film worked as I watched it through the first time. Was it purely my male perspective to blame? Well, that may still be the case, and is not for me to say, but I certainly would find Ellinger’s case – and the film – more convincing if not for Dagmar Lassander’s lead performance. She plays Minou, a bored wealthy housewife who just can’t keep her too-busy husband’s attention. One night, she’s attacked on the street by a creep on a motorcycle, who threatens sexual violence and informs her that her husband has killed a man. He has the proof, and he’ll send to the police if she doesn’t have sex with him!

Screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi would go on to write some of the more notable entries in the genre (including All the Colors of the Dark, Death Walks In High Heels, Death Walks at Midnight, and Torso), and one can see elements of those in this, especially as Minou becomes increasingly paranoid that her perceptions of reality are not what she believed. Director Luciano Ercoli made his debut here, and while he and cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa create some eye-catching compositions with expressive color palettes, his ability to shape the film still feels quite limited. The performances are all in different registers, with Lassander attempting something straightforward and emerging ridiculous, Nieves Navarro (credited as Susan Scott) as her friend Dominique going full into camp, and Pier Paolo Capponi as her husband playing things too close to the vest – is he a murderer??? philanderer??? or just boring??? – to really register. The film provides various excuses to get these people to communicate across purposes in an effort to drag a handful of misunderstandings into feature length, but just comes across as uncommitted.

All of which would hang together much better if not for Lassander. The actress cut her teeth in these sort of exploitative boobs-and-blood affairs, and unfortunately she comes across much like the stereotype – overly made-up, emotionally detached, physically uncomfortable. To a certain extent, the character too much feel out of place, but too often Lassander seems unable to play the line most women in her character’s position have to. Minou must be part of her world while feeling outside of it, and Lassander never feels like she’s attempting to fall in step with everything else.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition makes a very good case for the film, presenting it in a brand-new 2K restoration that they mounted themselves. The colors are beautifully saturated, not too modern at all, and the grain gives it a fabulous texture. Kat Ellinger’s commentary track is the real winner of the supplements, passionately arguing a case for the film with which I don’t entirely agree, but which challenged my initial assumptions and assessments of it.

The new documentary piece Private Pictures assembles interview footage old and new with Gastaldi, Ercoli, and Navarro, providing some biographical info on all involved and some reflections on the film’s production. At around 45 minutes, I can’t say there’s 45 minutes worth of material per se (hey, Navarro thought both of the leading men in the movie were pretty handsome!…okay!), but it helps cement the spirit of the time, built on collaboration and instinct. The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three centers on an interview with Lovely Jon, some British soundtrack enthusiast, who’s obviously focusing on Ennio Morricone’s striking score. Is it Morricone’s fault that it sounds exactly like the Laverne & Shirley theme song? Well, no, but so it goes. Again, at 45 minutes, it does become a bit of a for-enthusiasts-only piece, but more power to ‘em. And finally we get another 45-minute piece, this an interview with Lassander from the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester.

I’ve far from an expert on giallo, and have mostly relied on Arrow to guide my viewing, generally to pretty great success. This was the first of their selections I’ve seen that was a bit of a miss, but they’ve assembled a nice array of supplements – Ellinger’s commentary in particular – that makes a very strong case for the film. So if you have a substantially greater interest in the genre, this would be well worth picking up.

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Scott Reviews Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-pawel-pawlikowskis-cold-war-theatrical-review Thu, 20 Dec 2018 23:25:14 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=60444

Cold War begins in 1949, and though in its brief 85 minutes it will cover nearly twenty years of personal and European history, in some ways it will remain there. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his professional partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) are exploring the Polish countryside, recording the folk music that will inform the conservatory they are soon to launch. In auditions, they meet Zuzanna (Joanna Kulig), a young singer so unprepared she can only join another girl in her audition. Irena sees right through her, but Wiktor thinks she has something, using a lot of the synonyms men use for “this woman is desperately beautiful” when they’re trying to remain professional.

I can empathize. Kulig is extraordinary in the role – Zuzanna is impulsive, spirited, and eager to claim the most from life when she and Wiktor embark on a romantic relationship that is almost immediately devoid of romance. Kulig plays her at a constant remove, occasionally able to break through the stone wall she’s established, but largely relying on the emotional survival tactics one would have to construct when your formative years are wasted by wartime. Kulig is also extraordinarily beautiful, and this being the medium that it is, it’s useless to deny that this factored into her appeal onscreen. I won’t go Wiktor’s route and make a lot excuses for it.

Their relationship is built on anything but convenience. Wiktor soon wants to leave Poland, and its increasingly-authoritarian Soviet rule. He convinces Zuzanna to join him, at least until she doesn’t show up, at which point he goes it alone. But she haunts him, and he her. Over the next decade, they are inexorably drawn back together at various points, unable to live either together or apart. The title, then, is more than a reference to the time period, but to a whole sense of codependent conflict; the notion of being defined by your combatant and unwilling to either peacefully resolve your differences or call it a day and go your separate ways.

The war is almost never spoken about, but is inextricable from their restlessness. While the world around them continues to build systems and industries, they don’t seem to fit. The trouble of communism is immediately apparent, as the government tries to tell Wiktor and Irena’s conservatory what to sing about. The trouble of capitalism in France is tougher to pin down; freedom isn’t translating to higher rent, and even Zuzanna’s brief success as ye-ye singer Zula is proving unsatisfying. Both are products of a culture and time that is now gone, a folk tradition everyone seems intent on moving past, to a future they can’t live in. The closer they are, the more they fight, and the further apart they are, the more they throwing themselves into suffering.

Writer/director Paweł Pawlikowski had a certifiable hit in Ida, which made nearly $4 million at the U.S. box office alone at a time when even star-studded foreign language films languish in the thousands. Cold War reflects this success – it is broader in scope and ambition – retaining the careful control that built Ida yet more willing to take risks. Once again shot in the square-ish Academy ratio (1.37:1) and in black-and-white by Łukasz Żal, and typically leaving more space above the characters’ heads than the average frame, Cold War is less rigorous with this aesthetic than its predecessor. While every frame might start with a sense of “perfection,” they might suddenly break free into handheld work that is pointedly devoid of grace, much as the characters – weighed down by the emptiness above them, a space they cannot define or feel – will suddenly explode at one another.

Its slight 85-minute running time gives the further impression of time slipping away, how moments stretch out, only for you to blink and a year’s gone by. Blink enough times, half your life is gone. And suddenly you’re sitting there, your opportunities having completely dried up, and what else is there to do but return to the countryside where it all began in one final abandon. Maybe it’s a little better there. Maybe not.

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Scott Reviews Wash Westmoreland’s Colette [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-wash-westmorelands-colette-theatrical-review Thu, 20 Sep 2018 16:09:47 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=59910

The costume drama, once an ostentatious bid for import in a cash-ready market, has fallen somewhat on hard times, relegating those still intent on exploring it chasing after what little money and distribution remains, often settling for a much less expansive view of a bygone era that was once lavished with blockbuster budgets. Gone are the extravagant balls, the bustling streets, the scrumptious dinner parties. Instead, drawing rooms, small gatherings, a field, a corner on a street – anything to keep costs low. But the imagination is not gone. Persistent art will always demand its place, and with Colette, writer/director Wash Westmoreland has fiercely claimed his place among the smartest and most thoughtful of commercial filmmakers.

Keira Knightley, rarely better cast, carries the mononymous author across nearly twenty years of of her life. She begins the film as Gabrielle, a French country girl of modest means and modest dress, and ends it an iconic bisexual stage star. The journey between those two points is anything but simple, and Westmoreland doesn’t seek to make it easy or to satisfy our liberal notions of sexuality, gender fluidity, or unhappy marriages. Instead, the film acknowledges that people can change in remarkable ways, and even if a romantic match doesn’t endure, that doesn’t mean vital growth can’t happen within it.

That troubled relationship occurs between Colette and Willy, as he is known to his friends, and portrayed exceedingly well by Dominic West. Often cast for his corrupt appearance, he emerges here the very image of congeniality – warm towards Colette’s family, accommodating to their haystack trysts, and eager to take her on the town the moment they’re married; to not only show her off but to show her how to mingle in society’s upper echelons. He enjoys being the man of the hour. Unfortunately, his publishing business isn’t going so great, and he needs material. Enter, his wife. He needn’t even pay her. But like the others under his employ, she shall write and he shall take credit. This is the turn of the century, and even in Paris, a woman has her defined place and duties. But she’s less annoyed by that arrangement, at least at first, than by his other indiscretions, until she too finds a bit of reign to explore her own romantic desires; ones, perhaps, Willy could not fill.

Westmoreland (who cowrote the film with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and his late partner, Richard Glatzer) and editor Lucia Zucchetti have an extraordinary eye for momentum, keeping each of these developments hurtling towards us with the bare minimum of fuss. Willy and Colette no sooner discuss marriage than they’re off to their first party as man and wife; they’ve barely completed the book than it’s already flying off the shelves. They’re afternoon delights – especially for a brief period where they take the same lover – are deftly interwoven with a touch that can only be compared to Lubitsch himself. I’ve seen dozens of films try to pull off that erotic playfulness, only to emerge either out of touch with their own times in an effort to emulate an earlier one, or overly vulgar in an attempt to modernize it. Westmoreland finds the ideal balance, playful and just explicit enough to tease a contemporary audience.

Knightley’s best performances – in Domino, Anna Karenina, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, A Dangerous Method, or Atonement – have to an unusual degree been accompanied by the right costumes. This is not to say she relies on them as such, but she expresses so much in posture that indifferent costuming leaves the range of her ability untapped. That is, to put it lightly, not a problem for Andrea Flesch’s work in Colette. Virtually every wardrobe Knightley has is instantly iconic, and boy can she work them. The saunter she does when first wearing a tuxedo; the ease in a dress brought from her village; the way she gradually grows into the Belle Époque culture through its clothes until she comes to define them.

Knightley also benefits from an active, engaged camera, and while Westmoreland’s set-ups are not as ornate as a Joe Wright or David Cronenberg, nor as experimental as a Tony Scott, he knows how to accomplish in one continuous shot what too many contemporary filmmakers take a half-dozen shots to not accomplish. This allows the actors to develop the pace of the scene, to build a certain camaraderie between them, to let us get carried away on grace and beauty and a little bit of sex. The camera gives Knightley her audience, and she’s as much posturing for Paris or her lovers as she is for it.

I first saw Colette back in January at its premiere at Sundance, and instantly fell in love with it. That affection hasn’t faded one bit since, and revisiting it, it remains one of my favorites of the year.

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Scott Reviews Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-christopher-mcquarries-mission-impossible-fallout-theatrical-review Thu, 12 Jul 2018 21:00:59 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=59365

There is a moment – near the end, so I will not specify – in Mission: Impossible – Fallout during which I genuinely could not believe my eyes. I took in the information onscreen, registered to some extent the effort it must have took to create this image, and could not believe or fully understand how it came to be in front of me. This sensation did not much let up for the remainder of the film, which, while not the strongest of the series, is so audacious to be almost absurd, so inventive that it elicits laughter purely because some response is required, and so masterfully executed you’d think every action scene was crafted in the safety of a computer or soundstage, which it most certainly was not. For a series its star, Tom Cruise, seemed to increasingly be using as a means of pushing himself physically, this is its ultimate achievement, the best marriage of outrageous stunt work, set piece, and narrative. It’s honestly beautiful to behold.

The title suggests a sort of long denouement, and in every way except its suggestion of calm, that’s fairly accurate – Fallout ties together so many threads that have been left dangling ever since Ethan Hunt (Cruise) wound up back in prison at the start of Ghost Protocol after giving up the rough life for a happy home at the end of Mission: Impossible III. Here, after losing some plutonium (whoops), Ethan is roped into breaking Rogue Nation villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) out of custody as a sort of trade to regain it, lest it fall into the wrong hands and, you know, blow up everything. As always, his bosses at IMF are all over his ass with oversight, and are sending an agent Walker (Henry Cavill) to watch over the operation. Walker is more by-the-books than Ethan, which mostly seems to amount to his preference for a plan versus just making it all up as he goes along. Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) happily go along as they always do, and before long they run back into their Rogue Nation mostly-ally Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who once again is working to similar-but-potentially-destructive ends to the team’s goals.

As one would hope, there’s much ado about who’s working for whom and what they hope to gain from every exchange. This reaches its ecstatic high when, midway through the film, we – and soon Ethan himself – realize that we have no idea who exactly is chasing him, and that it no longer much matters. More than I recall from past films, Fallout forces Ethan and his team to make most of their decisions moment to moment, rarely letting them design the terms on which they embark.

This approach especially seems to suit Cruise, who now in his mid-50s is doing more and more outlandish stunts every time out. The publicity team is really pushing the skydiving sequence – which, don’t get me wrong, is a blast – but that is honestly nothing compared to the truly insane finale that seems designed to kill its star. Yet by keeping the focus throughout the film, right from the very beginning when Ethan has to choose between saving Luther and saving the plutonium, on the immediate obstacles Ethan faces rather than the large goal, these stunts are a reflection of not only Fallout’s themes, but Ethan’s whole ethos. It’s easy to forget now, as the series hits its twenty-second birthday, that the first film began with Ethan’s entire team murdered, him the last man standing. When he repeatedly tells a worried Benji that he’ll keep him safe, this is the word of a man who knows the cost of these missions.

The stunt work underlines this by clarifying the danger they’re all in at every moment. Through what is essentially yet another race-against-the-clock scenario, we feel every hurdle to reach there. There’s no question, six films in, that Ethan will save the day. The question has always been how he’ll do it and what he’ll risk getting there. By placing himself in outrageous danger, Cruise is not only thrilling audiences in ways we really never see anymore, but also committing to the threat of every single moment. It’s not just something like a skydive gone wrong, or an impromptu helicopter flight; it’s seeing him race a motorcycle between two cars moving opposite directions, or bounding a staircase at full running speed. It’s all these little moments that last a fraction of a second but could easily end him. That’s what makes it all seem Impossible, not Ethan’s own determination to survive and save the day, but carry his team through with him.

Christopher McQuarrie returns as writer/director after making an outstanding entry to the series with Rogue Nation. There was some concern among those of us who love this series that it would lose its distinctiveness along the way, as each prior film brought in a new director who found something different in the premise to emphasize and play with. But Fallout is a surprisingly distinctive film from its predecessor. Rob Hardy takes over from cinematographer Robert Elswitt, some of the shadows leaving with the Oscar winner, and more movement brought to bear. This a more brutal film, its action sequences designed around the physical difficulty rather than the beauty that Rogue Nation so loved. That film’s romance is replaced here the male competition between Ethan and Walker, and unlike Ethan’s showdown with Brandt in Ghost Protocol, this one isn’t entirely designed to make Tom Cruise look good. Walker quite often has the more effective approach, and is far more formidable than Ethan in a fight.

Cruise, on the whole, is really starting to show his age. As a longtime fan of Tom Cruise Running, Fallout has far and away the most thrilling Tom Cruise Running shot I’ve ever seen, but Cruise is no longer the flawless physical machine he was even seven years ago. You can see him strain a bit, huffing and puffing and grappling with every inch he crosses. Far from making the effort pathetic, though, this only heightens the danger. Each film out, Cruise has sought the make the mission more and more impossible. He’s holding up his end by raising the stakes of his stunts; age, too, has continued to raise them.

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TCM Fest 2018: Work, Sex, and Everything In Between https://criterioncast.com/festivals/tcm-fest-2018-work-sex-and-everything-in-between Sat, 05 May 2018 00:58:49 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58927

As much as I’m not a “movies were better back when” type of guy, the regularity with which I return to the theme of work in recapping the TCM Classic Film Festival should make clear that movies “back when” understood this issue. It’s not just that characters in modern films (of all scales, the biggest blockbuster to the smallest independent) seem to not work, it’s clear that when they do, the writers and directors behind the films have no idea how any job functions.

Conversely, in the random smattering of fourteen classic films I saw over the four-day festival, four of them clearly, cleanly explored the expectations set by a regular work schedule, and how that work has a genuine effect on our day-to-day lives even outside the office. The best of them, Clarence Brown’s Wife vs. Secretary (1936), stars Clark Gable as a magazine publisher, with Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, respectively, filling the title roles. That title sets up a gendered showdown full of catfights and sexual come-ons, but this is actually a nuanced exploration of how intoxicating work can be when you truly love it, and how easily it can blind you to everything else.

Van (Gable) is closing in on a deal to buy out a rival, but has to be very secret in going about it. He can only tell his secretary Whitey about it; not even his wife Linda can know. Unbeknownst to him, his mother has been filling Linda’s head with the suspicion that Van and Whitey are sleeping together, a theory bolstered by nearly everyone at the office who can’t imagine why a red-blooded man like Van would otherwise work so closely with someone who looks like Jean Harlow. The truth is she’s just extraordinarily good at, and devoted to, her job. She’s fine with breaking a dinner-and-a-show date with her fiancé-to-be Dave (James Stewart, no less) if it means assisting Van. She doesn’t do this out of love for him, exactly; she just genuinely loves her work.

Van and Whitey’s relationship will probably feel very familiar to anyone who has worked with someone they have every reason to be attracted to. It’s not that there isn’t a sexual charge to these partnerships, exactly. When you’re good at what you do, and you find yourself alongside someone who can complement that productivity, it’s as intoxicating as any date where you riff on similar life experiences. If the other people fits your romantic preference, and you theirs, confusion is bound to ensure, and the film dives fully into that. Van and Whitey probably aren’t unaware of what the people around the office say about them, but they have no reason to expect Dave and Linda would think the same; they trust their respective romantic partners and expect the same trust in return. In being so blindly trusting, though, they forget to bolster them when they need it most.

The confusion, too, extends to themselves. There of course comes a moment in which Van and Whitey could very easily consummate whatever it is that exists between them. It becomes very easy when you have something like what Van and Whitey have to confuse compatibility at work with compatibility in bed. Sometimes people do find both in another person, but it’s rarer than we’d probably like.

The film (which is now available on FilmStruck for a limited time) was based on a short story by Faith Baldwin, and women comprise two thirds of its credited screenwriters (Norma Krasna and Alice Duer Miller, with John Lee Mahin filling out the team), so the film takes a refreshingly progressive attitude toward the notion of women at work. The title could almost refer to Whitey’s own dilema. Dave is pressuring her to marry, and she wants to be with him, but he wants her to give up work and tend to the home. She isn’t really interested in that, having found so much fulfillment at work. The pull each way is genuine, and Harlow plays very well the gradual realization that she’s giving up so much of her personal life for work, even if she does love it. The end plays things a bit ambiguously, but her intent seems genuine – to seek a balance that will keep her professionally engaged, but not obligated.

The difficult balance was again explored in William Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937). Remade twice, and on its way towards a third, there remains something elementally appealing in this story about a man’s career on the decline while his wife’s is on the rise. Here, in this original version, that man is movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March), whose appeal in box office dollar is drowning almost as quickly as he is in booze. His wife is Esther Blodgett, quickly studio-christened as Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor). The issue of pride inherent in Wife vs. Secretary is reversed. Here, the wife has no concerns for her future, only his. Unlike Van, though, Vicki isn’t blind to Norman’s desperation, his deep wound that no one can heal. He doesn’t even care enough for her to find happiness there. He can only putter about the house and imagine what might be, dragging her further and further down with him. The scenario does a lot of the talking about the limits of love and commitment, the near-impossibility of finding true balance in a relationship built on work. There’s no talk of children, nothing for him to pour himself into all day but more drink and gambling and ruin. For a man, particularly of this time period, work is everything, and unlike Whitey, nobody wonders why he can’t be content merely as a spouse. Wellman doesn’t explore the depths of their despair with nearly the same investment that George Cukor brought to the 1954 remake, and Gaynor isn’t asked to do half as much as Judy Garland comes to give to the role, but this is an affecting, beautiful film nonetheless.

Somewhat less beautiful is Alexander Hall’s screwball comedy This Thing Called Love (1940). Ann (Rosalind Russell) is a sort of sociologist working for an insurance company who thinks the best way to get the company to avoid paying out on divorce is to encourage couples to refrain from having sex for the first three months of marriage. This will give them time to get to know each other more intimately without getting tied down, if not by kids than simply the constraints of a consummated marriage in 1940. And what better test subject than herself, who is set to marry Tice Collins (Melvyn Douglas), a man she met abroad and barely knows? He’s assured by his lawyer (Allyn Joslyn) that his wife-to-be will forget all about it, and they’ll get right to business, but in the meantime, the film will work overtime to conspire to keep them apart.

First hurdle is a huge loan Tice needs to do something-or-other with a big mine in South America, which he’s hoping to secure from Peruvian businessman Julio Diestro (Lee J. Cobb). Julio’s not too keen on loaning big sums to men who have no family to work for, so Tice’s lawyer suddenly blurts out that Tice is, in fact, expecting kids. But let’s not tell Ann, that will just confuse her. So onward leads a who section of film dedicated to not telling Ann that this foreign investor thinks she’s pregnant, and if you think that’s the climax of the film, well, I’m sure the writers were hoping it would be too, but no, they still have a whole other half-hour to fill out with a bunch of nonsense before these crazy kids hit the sack.

In its own blundering way, This Thing Called Love does get at the tension experienced in a marriage when both people work and care deeply about their work. Push comes to shove and compromises have to be made, and in the early stages of marriage, you’re often at odds over how much of your independence to cede. Both Ann and Tice want to be successful in their careers, and more than the sex itself, the tension of the film resides in how much of that drive they’re willing to give up for mutual happiness. As these things tended to go in 1940, Ann ends up giving more, but not before putting her husband in a straight jacket, which isn’t nothing.

Finally, I revisited an old, dear favorite, Frank Tashlin’s 1957 masterpiece Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. I’d never seen it on the big screen before, where those wide-wide compositions really have the space to stretch out, so that alone – plus the laughter of the audience – was a joy. But I was reminded too, perhaps placing it in the context of all these other films, how very much about the office it is. Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) is an advertising copywriter desperate for a leg up in a very characteristic 50s-era Manhattan ad firm. That leg comes in the form of Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), a big Hollywood star whose famously oh-so-kissable lips would be just perfect for the lipstick account his firm is desperately trying to keep. Never mind about Don Draper’s endorsements-are-for-losers policy, this one’s a winner! Luckily, Rita’s on the outs with her lover, and Rockwell comes along just at the right time to pose as her new lover boy to make him jealous. So long as he keeps posing, Rita will do the same, and everybody wins.

Everybody except Jenny (Betsy Drake), Rockwell’s secretary and fiancée (and Van thought he had it tough having them separated). Jenny knows the score, it’s not like Rockwell is hiding anything from her. But she can’t shake the feeling that a bigger bust and higher-pitched voice might be more appealing to him, and so she goes about remaking herself in the image of Ms. Marlowe. Meanwhile, Rockwell’s niece April (Lili Gentle) is abandoning her schoolwork for her Rita Marlowe fan club, Rockwell’s firm is pulling out all the stops to push him straight to the top over this, and he has teenage girls chasing him in the streets, convinced that whatever Rita is pretending to see in him must be real.

Tashlin has a real ferocity for the media industry that made him so successful, brilliantly toeing the line in films like this, The Girl Can’t Help It, Artists and Models, and Hollywood or Bust between portraying the entertainment industry in all its colorful glory and cutting it off right at the knees. The film begins with a series of fake ads featuring beautiful people hawking terrible products, and virtually every big-wig in Rockwell’s circle is a little bit silly. But the media industry’s effect runs deeper, spoiling Rockwell in his quest for pure success at any price, and his relationship with his wife-to-be along the way. Like Van, he strives so much at work that he casts aside any worries of what that might do at home; unlike Van, he knows exactly the effect it’s having and presses on anyway.

This being a comedy, naturally everybody comes to their senses at just the right time, redefining the notion of success along the way. The film was semi-adapted from a stage play by George Axelrod, who wrote it after 20th Century Fox ravaged his play The Seven-Year Itch in bringing it to the screen. Of course, they arguably did worse to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, discarding almost everything about it, but in the process making a much better film. Success can only spoil so much.

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TCM Fest 2018: The Big Lebowski’s 20th Anniversary https://criterioncast.com/festivals/tcm-fest-2018-the-big-lebowskis-20th-anniversary Wed, 02 May 2018 00:05:12 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58865

I first saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski when I was a sophomore in high school, on the recommendation of some stoner upperclassmen. Now, I’ve never been cool, but for some reason, pot movies generally work for me, and much as the cinephile crowd has tried to emphasize its detective-movie bona-fides over the years, there’s no getting around it – The Big Lebowski is a spectacular stoner movie. Its hero, who demands everybody call him Dude, is an unemployed burn-out who likes to bowl and get high, yet he’s high-functioning enough to navigate and eventually solve what he repeatedly asserts to be a very complicated case. It has jokes that become clearer on repeat viewing, and flat-out dumb humor that only gets funnier the more you watch it. A film’s ability to rewatch it over and over and over again is a key appeal for a stoner film.

It’s not like I’m some smooth cat now, but when I first saw The Big Lebowski, I was very high-strung and stuck-up. The idea of going with any flow or letting the most minor sticking point escape me was impossible. I was impossible.

The film didn’t completely change me, but it did alter my perception. I used to think I was trying to be The Dude, but rewatching it again, it hit me that I must have, on some level, realized that I already was. In some ways. I might not be a stoner and I might have a bit more natural drive (or just be a bit more concerned with making rent), but The Dude is not purely this laid-back carefree fella. Jeff Bridges molds a character who seems to want to present himself at all times as exactly that, but inevitably f(l)ails. Around new people, he’s the embodiment of The Dude. He’ll throw out sarcastic remarks, lean way back in whatever chair he’s given, and just generally make clear he’s above their bullshit. Around friends though, like his bowling mates Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), he’s a nut. He’s aggravated by every little thing, constantly trying to steer them a different way, and really as ornery as the next guy. And the more he gets to know the people he meets throughout the film, the more ornery he gets around them, too.

The Dude was famously inspired by Jeff Dowd, an independent movie producer, but to whatever degree the Coens took details of his life and personality, the character remains their greatest creation. He’s the one guy they can’t editorialize, can’t mash into a clean moral the way they often do, and can’t reduce into just another fool. He seems to at every turn beguile, confound, and fascinate them, and every time they want to nail him down (as when he nails down a plank of wood in an ill-conceived attempt to shutter his door), he upends their plans. Writers often talk about how their characters take on a life of their own, and start to speak and behave for themselves in the writing. The Coens are characteristically very controlled storytellers, each element and line having a distinct place in their larger scheme. The Dude is the one man who can’t be contained in that environ. Can’t be held down by The Man.

I can’t even imagine how many times I must have watched The Big Lebowski throughout high school and college. I was very much that guy, associated with frequently wearing a bathrobe (or, later, the “Dude sweater” my dad got me for Christmas) and sandals, often called “The Dude” by friends, blasting Creedence, the whole nine yards. Great times, don’t regret them for a second. Anyway, while I’d watched the film with friends a lot, I’d never seen it with a real audience, and even if it’s a tad on the recent side for how I like to spend my TCM Fest, I couldn’t pass up my chance here, especially with Bridges himself in attendance for what turned into a 30- or 40-minute conversation with Ben Mankiewicz. They talked about his career (especially in the 80s and 90s), his gradual path to acceptance that he’d be an actor, his seemingly permanent association with The Dude (I’ve never seen someone as accomplished as Bridges who is as thrilled to be associated with such a role), and random ephemera about the production. He even lead the nearly-packed 900-seat theater in a meditative “ommmm” to get everyone in gear.

The film itself played wonderfully, with different sections of crowd (even individuals) latching onto specific lines to send them in fits of laughter, and the big moments playing truly big. I was reminded of all the terrific performance bits (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s frozen-robot stance after he leads The Dude into The Big Lebowski’s chamber), the odd throwaway lines (“Woo! I’m throwing rocks tonight!”), and how strange and human the film is, how out of step it now feels to modern cinema where it once seemed to define it. Its fade from cult classic to genuine classic hasn’t removed a bit of its sheen. It’s one of our great elemental films – like Sunrise or Sansho the Bailiff or L’Atalante – so iconic and embedded into the fabric of the form, so explicitly itself that, love it or hate it, you can’t really argue with it. It’d be like arguing with the sun. It’s just there.

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Scott Reviews Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-sebastian-lelios-disobedience-theatrical-review Thu, 26 Apr 2018 05:26:12 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58839

What is free will, really, and what is freedom? We say we live in a free country, a free society, and every year that society grows more and more accepting of freedoms that would have been heavily, legally punished only a few decades ago. Yet have we granted ourselves the same freedom, not only to express but to pointedly not blindly pursue? How often do we think of ourselves truly apart from our upbringing, our family, our friends, and perhaps more importantly, the self-perception we carry? From its opening scene to its finale, Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience is completely absorbed with these questions, and the uncertainty to which they lead. It wraps them up in a narrative beautifully attuned to the rhythms of melodrama, with performers who gracefully tend to its needs that are often just outside our preconception.

Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit, a New York-based photographer called back home to London following the death of her father (Anton Lesser), an Orthodox Jewish rabbi beloved by his community but so cut off from his daughter that most everyone she encounters is surprised to see her. That includes Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), Ronit’s childhood friend who studied under her father and is generally assumed to be the successor to now-vacant role as the head of their temple. He, too, has a surprise for Ronit in the form of his marriage to Esti (Rachel McAdams), the third in their childhood gang, whom Ronit knew to be a good deal different than she now presents.

If you’ve seen the film’s poster, or the trailer, or really heard anybody talk about it at all, you’ll have a sense of what that difference is, but the film takes so long in explicating it that I’m not about to talk about it here for any stray readers who do not. Adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman by Lelio and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (better known for filmgoers as the cowriter of Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2013 Oscar-winner Ida), the film is cagey in the best way about what information it conveys when. As with all great melodrama, there are secrets, and confessions, and confessions that mask other secrets. We’re sometimes lead down one path of a very basic mystery to obscure the more important question at hand, making its unexpected answer all the more stunning.

The film takes very seriously a choice Esti has to make, and presents her with two compelling perspectives in Ronit and Dovid on how to live. For Ronit, who left the Orthodox world the second she was legally able and never looked back, the religion is stifling and unacceptable. Despite being quite well-aligned with Ronit, though, Esti takes comfort in the faith, genuinely believes its teachings, and is not so ready to let it go. Dovid, meanwhile, could have easily been the villain in this scenario, but at every turn Nivola and Lelio texture him sympathetically. He’s a man who had every reason to believe his life would turn out a certain way and is very suddenly seeing the world shift around him. How he’ll respond to that is a source of genuine tension. We’re not lead to expect him to clamp down on Esti; any outbursts feel out of character. Nivola centers around the compassion and patience a rabbi requires. The nuances can build from there.

Weisz has been on a terrific streak of late, abandoning the maternal dream girl roles that won her fame and acclaim in the late-2000s, turning increasingly to socially-engaged melodramas like The Light Between Oceans and Denial or intellectually-driven auteur projects like Complete Unknown and The Lobster. She’s built a strong-willed screen persona, and Ronit is the ideal fit for her, so sure of how she and everyone else should live their lives that she barely registers how the life she lived might have been unfulfilling, let alone the many other options that exist for everyone else. There are several turns where she’s left off guard by this realization, and Weisz knows how to express the shameful retreat we often do when our pride is confronted with a higher truth. McAdams has the more obvious arc to play, but the way Weisz guides Ronit to a place where she can be genuinely happy for someone else is no small thing either.

I’ve always been terrifically fond of McAdams, and I was reminded by this year’s Game Night just how winning she can be. To say her work in Disobedience may be her best to date is, perhaps, less a reflection of a particularly outstanding career, however, but more a sign of how few films have asked her to do so much. Her role turns around verbalizing questions she’s had building for half her life, questions now brought to bear by Ronit’s return. She and Weisz play very well the sort of uncomfortable ease with which people wade back into friendships they haven’t fully nurtured. Normal small talk is necessary but insufficient, and a stray remark can spark a dozen buried memories and suddenly light up your eyes. Esti seems constantly buried in something – her wig or her clothes or her lame cart she rolls around – but around Ronit, she gains posture and attention.

Lelio made a splash in 2013 with Gloria, and a bigger one last year with the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman. Disobedience is more developed than either film would suggest, more intricately written and designed, but the lessons learned on those earlier films were valuable. Both tried to make their way with little dialogue, drawing out emotional beats with actions and images whenever possible. Here, confronted with so much well-written dialogue and exposition to convey, he knows when to insist on drawing out a moment, letting a gesture or pause really land before moving along, and not hurrying the dialogue to compensate. This sort of patience is uncommon in modern drama, and especially modern melodrama, which forget how much of what goes unsaid is said in a great many other ways.

I was complete bowled over by this passionate film that gets so much urgency into every scene yet emerges completely even-handed. May all our freedoms be so rich.

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Scott Reviews Sally Potter’s The Party [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-sally-potters-the-party-theatrical-review Fri, 16 Feb 2018 05:19:24 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58412

A party has many connotations, at least two of which – a festive gathering and a political organization – are the direct subjects of Sally Potter’s new film. Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is throwing a small soiree to celebrate her new appointment as the opposition party’s minister of health (never stated, but based on her stated views, presumably the left-leaning Labour group). This two-fold approach, of a celebration amongst similarly-minded individuals, suggests a unity that is not there. Indeed, in most common understandings of any type of party, a sense of shared purpose and harmony is almost assumed. Potter doesn’t see much of that going around.

Those gathered are Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), his college roommate Martha (Cherry Jones) and her newly-pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and Janet’s oldest friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her own significant other Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) also wanders in, mostly as a function of his wife Marianne, who spends the whole movie not arriving despite being considerably closer to the hosts.

As these sort of things tend to go, the movie is filled to the wall with witty dialogue and drunken (or, in Tom’s case, cocaine-fueled) speeches as people gradually reveal their secret lives, dreams, and regrets. Clarkson gets the best lines of the film, resorting to ad hoc attacks on Gottfried whenever she has a spare moment, and cutting down Janet’s considerable ambition with her immediately-stated opinion that democracy is, in fact, dead.

The film arriving when it does – even in its festival debut in February 2017 – certainly suggests April to be right, and by the end Potter lends her cynical point-of-view the most credence. But where a lesser filmmaker might skate by with a satisfied critique of liberal hypocrisy, The Party is much more a portrait of a political wing that has lost itself to in-fighting. April’s approach might be the most useful, but it doesn’t make it right, and this somewhat-oddball group is similarly lost in the spaces between self-satisfaction and genuine cause. They paint themselves as righteous moral crusaders for the smallest of hills to climb, all the while dwelling on the slightest dissatisfaction with their supposed friends.

But before I digress into a pure rant about the pursuit of purity politics, I have to say almost none of this crossed my mind while actually watching The Party because it’s a tight 71 minutes of relentless comic drama, the kind of absurdist fare dozens of Funny or Die castaways keep attempting but nobody quite nails. The key is a total lack of contentment, letting the lack of resolve simmer underneath an airtight screenplay. Potter directs her actors to toss off lines that other directors would build a whole sequence around, confident that the players will make it stick enough. The black-and-white widescreen framing, rather than being a pretentious affection, serves mainly to highlight the grotesqueries of her characters and what they do to each other over the course of the evening. Just because it’s ornate doesn’t mean it has to be pretty.

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Scott Reviews Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-desiree-akhavans-the-miseducation-of-cameron-post-sundance-2018 Wed, 24 Jan 2018 06:04:01 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58183

Let’s begin with a basic premise on which we can all, I hope, agree – Christian camps that try to “reprogram” gay kids are flat-out awful, and can be quite reasonably called evil. They are also, unfortunately, a significant cultural force, and films should be made about their methods and impact, the damage they do not only to the kids who go through them but through cultures at large, both religious and secular.

Let’s also admit something else – it’s really, really, really easy to make fun of Christian culture, and the low-hanging jokes weren’t even funny when Saved! came out over ten years ago, and they’re definitely beyond tired now. The too-cheery youth pastor, strumming away on his guitar trying to be hip; the overly-enthusiastic girls; the “blessed” faux-positive condescension of the young men; the attempts to make Christ “edgy” and “rad” for each new generation. Maybe it’s just that I grew up in an evangelical church and found it wanting; maybe these jokes really do land for those outside of it (or, for that matter, inside of it). But having been through it, I don’t find these types funny as much as sad.

So. Desiree Akhavan made her share of cheap jokes in Appropriate Behavior, but through the course of the film saw the sadness not only at the core of the types she mocked, but at the people who spend all their time mocking. The Miseducation of Cameron Post has much of the same spirit, leaving unresolved the loneliness and isolation in which the seemingly-cheery camp counselors at God’s Promise have to live, even as it takes seriously the horrible effects of their form of therapy. But it also doesn’t let them off the hook. There’s no reconciliation between kids and counselors, no hope that the latter will be reformed or even defeated. This is essentially a movie aimed at teenagers, and telling them that either is possible would in most instances be a lie. Its solution is much healthier and reasonable – fuck those guys.

Cameron Post (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is going through the ordinary motions of a Christian-raised high school junior – she has prom with the boys, she has Bible study, she has track and field. She is also in love with her best friend, Coley, and they’ve been secretly carrying on together. The extent to which Cam’s full feelings are reciprocated is a bit vague, and only becomes more so when they’re caught together and she – and, notably, not Coley – is shipped off to God’s Promise to be “rehabilitated.” There she meets the usual oddballs one would expect. There’s the rebel, the few earnestly trying to make a go of it, the self-loathing. Most were sent there because their sexual orientation was an inconvenience for the parents, and you can sense that much the sadness the kids are going through is precisely that they no longer feel loved, if indeed they ever did.

Cam’s parents died some time ago, and she’s under the care of her aunt, so she really doesn’t know what she’s doing there. Akhavan’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Emily M. Danforth, doesn’t make Cam the typical outspoken teenager, and Moretz doesn’t use this cue for withdrawal to make her passive. She plays Cam instead as simply trying to get by, make the best of a bad situation, say the right things, and get back to her real life as soon as possible. You can see the inner negotiations in every response between the honest answer, what she wants to say, what she needs to say, and what she ultimately thinks is the right thing to say. We see also the moments when Cam starts to accidentally have fun, then check herself and put back on her sullen teenager face. All these inner impulses drive so much of teenagers’ interactions with adults, yet we too rarely see it onscreen.

The film is a little less nuanced that Moretz’s performance, but I don’t exactly know that this is its failing. As I stated at the front, we have every reason to make films about how awful these organizations are. They’re out there every day screwing up someone’s life. If anything, the film’s period setting (early 90s) lets them off the hook a little too much, situating their educational videos and cultural references in a bygone era that makes it easier to laugh at them than truly wrestle with their impact. But when you’ve set up a showdown between victims and oppressors, with only slight nods to the genuine inner struggle kids have when growing up queer with nobody to validate those feelings, it’s going to be somewhat flat, dramatically.

However, this is fairly straightforwardly a film for teenagers. Last year’s Novitiate provided the more dynamic adult perspective on a quite similar conflict. As a film for teenagers, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is dynamic enough, relatable, and carries the most important message you can take in at a young age – be willing to cast aside those people that do not love you.

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Scott Reviews Jim Hosking’s An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-jim-hoskings-an-evening-with-beverly-luff-linn-sundance-2018 Wed, 24 Jan 2018 05:47:03 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58180

The anti-comedy movement hasn’t exactly been my cup of tea; too often am I bored by the joke of the non-joke, the deadpan in need of burial, the non-sequitur that ultimately just ends. Jim Hosking’s new film, a follow-up to his controversial 2016 mini-sensation The Greasy Strangler (which this writer has not seen), has another of these traits that perhaps grates the most – characters just yelling their totally banal lines. Luckily, though, this is mostly relegated to the supporting roles. In the lead, Aubrey Plaza and Jemaine Clement provide a certain specificity and magnetism that is too often absent from these sorts of projects.

Plaza does not play the title role. Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson) is instead her former boyfriend, whom she believed dead, and who is coming to her nondescript town for “A Magical Evening” of some sort of performance at a local hotel. Through means too convoluted to get into for a routine plot summary, Lulu (Plaza) runs away from her husband with her brother’s cash box and Colin (Clement), the thief sent to steal it, checking into the very hotel of Mr. Luff Linn’s future performance and intent on finding out just what happened.

Already, perhaps, the film is helped by a certain plot propulsion, though by the time the Magical Evening is postponed twice due to Beverly’s gastrointestinal issues, we’re not exactly in Speed territory here. The film is carried by Plaza’s near-insane commitment, that particular mix of horny and hate-filled she has essentially perfected since Parks & Rec gave her license go crazy for at least a few years. Clement plays the perfect sort of foil to this; Colin is desperately in love with her and subservient at every turn, which Lulu uses to her advantage but which also endlessly aggravates her. Clement has so often played an aggrandized confidence that it’s a thrill to see him wallow in self-pity and hatred, screaming at himself over every stupid thing he says and taking delight in the smallest moment of connection. “I’m having a really great time with you,” he tells Lulu early on. “And that was a great call on these cheesy onion rings,” stuffing a few in his face.

The only thing that really disappoints in the film is that, for all its striving for strangeness, it ultimately comes to a fairly common rom-com conclusion, almost out of nowhere. This is a persistent problem in independent cinema, especially Hollywood-adjacent fare such as this, a symptom of an unsteady industry that feels it has to provide familiar emotional beats and happy endings to get by. I don’t think this is what audiences really want – I know it’s not what I do – but then again I’m not tracking the returns and maybe it’s the only thing keeping the whole thing afloat. But Hosking doesn’t even attempt to build to his, making instead a sudden pivot away from some rather tender reflections on the way people drift apart, only to slam them back together. I enjoyed the film well enough for Plaza and Clement’s work, and the film focused on them enough of the time to make it worthwhile, but to whatever degree a “star” presence measured Hosking’s temper, it may have also compromised it.

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Scott Reviews Panos Costmatos’s Mandy [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-panos-costmatoss-mandy-sundance-2018 Tue, 23 Jan 2018 16:35:45 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58171

Panos Cosmatos made quite a splash back in 2010 with Beyond the Black Rainbow, a ponderous sci-fi horror film that he quite accurately described as a sort of adaptation of the film you’d imagine when looking at VHS covers for inevitably-terrible genre films. It’s a bit amorphous and trippy and doesn’t entirely make sense, but it works as the mind works. I’m a bit surprised in this time in which low-budget, sharply made horror is prevalent that the man who made one of its best entries went so long before directing again, but here we sit with the unholy beast that is Mandy.

It, too, is a bit like the film you might imagine from a VHS case, if that imagination was fueled by a drug trip that gradually dawns back to reality. Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live out in the wilderness in relative peace, only to find their very existence damned when cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) takes an interest in the latter, certain her tossed-off gaze indicated boundless devotion. Cult leaders will do that sort of thing, I suppose. So they summon some sort of hell-demons to kidnap the pair and begin brainwashing Mandy into joining their sedated bunch, a brainwashing that involves the sting of some awful insect and an even-more-awful original song Sand made about himself.

This is the film’s peak, the point at which I thought it capable of almost anything, as Cosmatos employs a crossfade technique to blend Riseborough and Roache’s face so that at some moments, I was genuinely unsure of who I was seeing more of. One doesn’t often get to make a flattering comparison to Bergman’s Persona, but here we are. Riseborough, playing a character under heavy sedation just barely able to make her will shine through, will go largely unheralded against Cage’s more outlandish performance, but her steady, no bullshit energy is captivating, and the first section of the film so depends on her gaze to hold our attention, which it more than does.

Well, Mandy doesn’t really take to the brainwashing the way Sand would like, and punishes her for it, sending Red off on a quest for vengeance, and possibly rescue. The film, from there, once so imaginative and filled with possibility, falls into rather standard video game plotting – escalating from boss to boss, gaining new weapons and skills along the way. Now, don’t get me wrong, this section also has Cage going full Cage and eventually fighting a man who wields a…I’m gonna say six-foot chainsaw…so it is far from devoid of its own sort of pleasures. But it never quite takes the final leap into the insane that it needed to after suggesting such potential at the start. What once was a film only Cosmatos could deliver becomes a film most modern practitioners of this sort of thing could, and that’s too bad.

What does set it apart, to whatever minor degree it is set apart, is Cage. The one-time Oscar winner has gone through so many career permutations that I can only be glad that he is still recognized by so many directors as the talent he is. There’s one scene – one shot, really – in particular, after narrowly escaping the clutches of the cult, that he is given full range to shine, unloading Red’s titanic trauma and turn towards determination. It’s too much and just right, as the best Cage work is.

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Scott Reviews Paul Dano’s Wildlife [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-paul-danos-wildlife-sundance-2018 Mon, 22 Jan 2018 17:10:15 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58156

The prestige debut film is cornerstone of the modern art house market, and thus a persistent presence at Sundance. They are beautifully (almost too-cleanly) photographed, ostentatiously performed, over-explanatory, and narratively tidy. Paul Dano’s Wildlife has some of these pitfalls – in particular, it feels terribly insular to the point that anyone besides the four main performances feels under-directed – but is on the whole a mature, thoughtful film that I found awfully affecting.

Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has been on the move. His parents are habitually restless, rambling generally eastward in search of new jobs, new neighborhoods, new lives. At fourteen, he’s too old to keep going through it and too young to do anything about it. Lately, they’ve settled in Montana. They don’t know anyone. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is making the best of his job at a golf course, which means nothing when he is suddenly fired. His wife, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), seems used to making the best of a bad situation, but is increasingly frustrated with Jerry’s stubbornness. She starts looking for work herself. She encourages their son to do the same when he suggests it. And before long, Jerry’s so fed up with being looked down on that he feels the only way out is to haul out of town and go fight the seasonal forest fire that is consuming the state.

And then things really get bad.

Jeanette’s world suddenly opens up, and she starts to see herself apart from her roles as wife and mother. This would be a fine and healthy realization if not for the fact that she still has Joe, who is now stuck fixing himself dinner and doing household repairs without a word from her as to when or why. Dano’s direction uses Joe’s vantage as its base, situating the viewer in POV shots or over-the-shoulders to emphasize how alien Joe’s life has become to himself, how difficult it is to see what his mother is doing or comprehend where she might go next. She’s regularly switching jobs, and before long starts flirting with another man. Joe, craving stability, has to sometimes beg for time to do his homework or remind her he’s in school at all.

Mulligan has proven a rather unpredictable actress since her breakout role in 2009’s An Education. She’s been a supporting player as often as a star, the latter parts often in British costume dramas that haven’t quite landed. Wildlife gives her more to play than possibly any film role she’s yet had, letting her be flirty, cruel, headstrong, stubborn, charming, and terribly rude. As Joe becomes the only person she can depend on, Jeanette opens up to him in ways most mothers probably shouldn’t, and Joe simply is ready for. Mulligan synthesizes Jeanette’s multiple strands by always keeping an eye on at least one other emotion – she’s rude when she’s flirty, stubborn in her charm, etc. She can seem to be doing the right things for the right reasons, then unveil that she really doesn’t have a clue.

Jeanette is only 34, and like a lot of young mothers, doesn’t seem to have realized until her child starts to break out on his own that her youth has entirely passed her by. This is set in the 1960s, so it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to have a child at twenty, but few women had their worlds fall away from them as Jeanette does. It’s a rough realization, one that gets played in stages. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Richard Ford, wisely doesn’t overplay her motivations at any given moment by lending gravitas to the most meaningless gesture. Unlike a lot of directorial debuts, Wildlife lets its characters do and say stupid things for no reason at all. This is especially important as the film wanders into some potentially ridiculous territory towards the end, ridiculousness that is undercut by Dano’s portrait of these action as futile and almost silly. Better still, Dano and Kazan know when to restrain themselves, when to limit their characters to a single line, or show in a single shot – Jeanette’s clothes tangled up in another man’s in the bedroom they just left – a range of complex emotions that dialogue would smother.

This all makes it awfully easy to overlook the film’s shortcomings, most of them the result of a director in development. The underdeveloped side characters nags as a limitation to its world – it sometimes feels like the whole town is making space for the Brinson family – and Diego Garcia’s cinematography and Akin McKenzie’s production design tend towards the overly-ornate. I’ve been to Montana many times, and it’s a beautiful state, but the places within it are far from the pristine environments the family moves about. Again, these are common mistakes for an eager young director, and I was far more impressed by everything that’s mature and fine in Dano’s debut than I was distracted by his blind spots.

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Scott Reviews Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-gus-van-sants-dont-worry-he-wont-get-far-on-foot-sundance-2018 Mon, 22 Jan 2018 00:25:10 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58138

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is the first film Gus Van Sant has written since 2007’s Paranoid Park capped off an all-time great run of films, leading to decidedly less-successful, though no less-distinguished, mainstream films. It’s is hardly a return to his long-take portraits of loneliness, but Van Sant’s individual identity is more firmly present, pitting him somewhat at war with a screenplay aiming for a more standard arc.

The film is based on the same-titled memoir by the late John Callahan, a cartoonist and somewhat notorious figure in the Portland art scene back before the Portland art scene became so commodified. Joaquin Phoenix plays John as he battles alcoholism alongside adapting to quadriplegic life following a near-deadly drunk driving accident. His plate, you see, is rather full. But rather than dwell on the routines of John’s physical limitations, Van Sant (perhaps taking a cue from the book itself, I couldn’t say) is more interested in the alcohol. And the inner demons that drive him towards it.

John has something of an epiphany that sets him out on the road to sobriety, but Van Sant wisely situates that rather toward the latter-middle of the picture. As he dips through different moments in John’s life, it can all seem a bit haphazard, but feels well in line with the twelve-step program he soon joins. We see the moments not in the order they occur, but in the order John is in conflict with them. The two-tier framing device finds him, in one scene, accepting an award and giving a speech; in the other, he’s crashed his wheelchair trying to jump a curb. John’s success comes to define his stability, his ability to move forward day in and day out; the sidewalk crash, everything else that comes pouring through his memory.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, John is preternaturally given to mantras and catch-phrases to move about socially. It’s part of what makes him such a fine cartoonist. What Van Sant sees in those phrases, and in the larger twelve-step program in general, is that we all tend to have an ability to categorize and rationalize our lives into ready phrases, phrases we may not fully grasp the meaning of until, eventually, we do. That confrontation can be rather alarming, but it points to why such programs – or religion or anything else – aren’t as empty and routine as they appear. The phrases will always be there when we’re ready to meet them.

Van Sant took slowing down to the extreme with Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park, and he never quite left that space. His films since – Milk, Promised Land, The Sea of Trees (I didn’t see Restless) – have incorporated those lessons to varying degrees, pushing the patience of scenes whenever possible and forcing the audience to sit with some measure of discomfort in heightened confrontations. There’s a spiritual energy that moves through them, making palatable some more conventional (or borderline-ridiculous) movements in the screenplay. Here, the story beats are more familiar, and Van Sant is still very pleased simply to sit with his actors (the supporting cast includes Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, and Carrie Brownstein, so who wouldn’t), but it sometimes feels in the edit like he suddenly realized he had far more than two hours of material, and rushes scenes to their conclusion faster than they need reach them. It can be a bit jarring, and in a film that already has two framing devices and doesn’t move in chronological order besides them, leaves it hard to keep track of what’s happening when.

Yet the spiritual energy remains, guiding John and us through the daily struggle to resist temptation and deliver us from evil. Most movies about disability garner in the audience a “well I’m glad that’s not me” suggestion. This is not that. Don’t Worry forcefully breaks down all the excuses John makes for himself that get in the way of peace and happiness, showing that everyone makes those excuses to themselves, even in less dire circumstances. We may not even be addicted to alcohol, or to anything. But these excuses encourage our weakness and impede our contentment. It’s quite a lovely film.

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Scott Reviews Wash Westmoreland’s Colette [Sundance 2018] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-wash-westmorelands-colette-sundance-2018 Sun, 21 Jan 2018 06:46:59 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=58135

About a quarter of the way through the film that shares her name, Colette (played by Keira Knightley) sits down to write what I gather became quite a famous opening line – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.” We hear this line again and again throughout the film, as Claudine à l’école spawns not only a series but an entire culture. But it never has the same power as that first time, when Colette smiles in amazement at having written it. Not because she’s particularly taken with her own cleverness, or foresees the success it may spawn, but for the very act of having written it at all. For the act of creating something new, something personal and true. For realizing one’s thoughts have a shape and some value; for the sudden confrontation with one’s own personhood.

Colette has to this point been in a rocky-but-not-unsatisfying marriage with Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), called Willy by all who know him, himself included. Like most women living at the turn of the century, she was a supporting character in his story, and he needed a lot of support running a literary factory, churning out in his own name what others produced. That he should enlist his wife to the same task only makes sense – she won’t be paid after all. What he wouldn’t expect is that the popularity of her novels would far exceed anything else he’d produce, making him the toast of Paris and leaving her, well, the great man’s wife.

“Do you ever feel you’re just playing a role? As a wife or a mother?” she asks her family’s housekeeper, during one of her and Willy’s many separations. Colette is enamored of the sensation one feels at realizing life’s limitless possibilities; that you can be and feel so many other things than what you’d been told about. Why shouldn’t she be a writer? Or an actor? And why shouldn’t she sleep with women?

Her marriage is certainly no barrier. Willy is a notorious philanderer, so fair’s fair, but he sees no jealousy at all in such affairs. Intellectually, at least, it quite turns him on. And she takes quite some time (and quite a few offenses) before she falls out of love with Willy. Too often, mainstream costume dramas simplify the social conflicts of the time they depict, eager to please their audience with characters who act contrary to the constrictive mores of their time simply so we can tell ourselves that we’d behave the same if given the chance. Colette tells Willy off a number of times during the film, but keeps coming back to him. And the film doesn’t look down on her for it. Willy is a terribly charming man (West’s performance is beyond magnetic; Willy’s life is performance, and West knows how to slide in the inner life) who seems awful open-minded about how she’d rather spend her sex life, after all. Knightley and West’s rapport keeps them forever equals, growing closer with every one of Willy’s offenses, her implicit forgiveness of him not seeming a weakness nor a strength – simply a recognition of how hard it is to live without someone in whom you’ve invested so much.

Which is not to say she’s not terribly passionate about her affairs, increasingly so as time passes and Willy becomes more intolerable. This is no light depiction of lesbianism, nor is it exploitatively erotic. The sex scenes are brief but indelible, the physical connection created within them clearly bringing out something more personal in Colette than the sex she has with Willy. Co-writer/director Wash Westmoreland leaves more time to the seduction, and eventual romantic affection Colette develops with her lovers. At every turn, Colette hungers for more than life, and is drawn to those who can open up those spaces. Early on, Willy is the answer – he takes her out of the country and into Paris, opens up her artistic side, nurtures her sexuality. But he has his limits, and even if he wasn’t such a jackass, he couldn’t be enough for where she ends up.

Knightley’s best performances – in Domino, Anna Karenina, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, A Dangerous Method, or Atonement – have to an unusual degree been accompanied by the right costumes. This is not to say she relies on them as such, but she expresses so much in posture that indifferent costuming leaves the range of her ability untapped. That is, to put it lightly, not a problem for Andrea Flesch’s work in Colette. Virtually every wardrobe Knightley has is instantly iconic, and boy can she work them. The saunter she does when first wearing a tuxedo; the ease in a dress brought from her village; the way she gradually grows into the Belle Époque culture through its clothes until she comes to define them.

It also helps that, as with those previously-mentioned films, she’s working with a director with what I’m going to go ahead and say is a mastery of the camera. Wash Westmoreland’s last film, Still Alice (which he co-directed with his late partner, Richard Glatzer), was smartly made, if not exactly a showcase for aesthetic. Colette is a marvel, incorporating the lessons of Max Ophuls without slavishly recreating them nor belaboring the point. Westmoreland’s setups (I unfortunately forgot to note the cinematographer and IMDb is unhelpful here) allow the actors to create the rhythms of the scene, bobbing and weaving among them. This isn’t the ostentatious approach Joe Wright takes, nor the stately assuredness of David Cronenberg, but as with costuming, Knightley benefits tremendously from an engaged camera that she can react against and provoke.

I’m approaching an abundance of words for a film few have seen, so I will stop, other than to conclude that this is, top to bottom, a beautiful, passionate, engaged film (that score!!!) that I loved, start to finish. I’d eat it all again if I could.

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Scott Reviews Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-paul-thomas-andersons-phantom-thread-theatrical-review Mon, 25 Dec 2017 02:56:50 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=57735

I’ve maintained what I consider to be a healthy distrust of my past self, which is to say, while I maintain many of the same interests throughout my life, I tend to look skeptically on what specifically obsessed me when I was younger. This is a film review, so I’ll keep my examples there – I still quite like Fight Club, but when I was 18, I thought it the greatest film ever made and dared anyone to prove me wrong. These days, I still like David Fincher, but he seems in some ways ossified to that time in my life, no longer a major artist, but an interesting, dependably esoteric and highly-skilled director. I feel that way of many of my obsessions from that era, those still-working filmmakers who haven’t gotten any worse but rarely seem to become appreciably better. Or perhaps it’s my own restlessness, eager for evolution where none is terribly likely or reasonable to expect.

The sole exception to this is Paul Thomas Anderson, who remains as unpredictable, unwieldy, and daring to me at 31 as he did at 16. After The Master, I firmly abandoned any expectations of what he might pursue in a given project, and have been richly rewarded as a result. His latest film, Phantom Thread, shares some commonalities in establishment with The Master and a sense of romance with Punch-Drunk Love, but is in other ways his most radical departure – after all, it’s the first one that has no ties to California.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a dressmaker who lives and works out of plushly-appointed-but-not-overly-ostentatious house in the heart of London. There, along with his sister and partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), he receives the royal, the rich, and the cultured, and there he also keeps a series of young women to serve as his muse and his comfort. As we meet him, he is tiring of one and about to bring in another, a young, somewhat clumsy waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). An immigrant of the continent, she has little experience with Woodcock’s world, and easily falls into the subservient role he has designed for her.

But something stirs within her, some spark of dissatisfaction and self-assurance that annoys Reynolds, until…well, that would be telling, and while I’ve had the pleasure of stirring this film around for nearly a month, it is only just being released today. There will be time, bundles of it, to dwell on the developments later. For now, it’s best to stick on the earlier parts, where the film teases out the hardship of living with someone with whom you simply cannot get along. The gnawing self-hatred, the way the most minor annoyances turn to fights, the depression of seemingly-impossible escape. And, for Reynolds, the way those internal feelings turn to methods of finding superiority, so that the central “fault” cannot be with you, by turning to condescension and cynicism rather than honest confrontation…well, for many men, it’s uncomfortably familiar.

One has to resist the overused “Kubrickian” comparison, but like the similarly-unpredictable filmmaker before him, Anderson possesses both an appreciation for and skepticism of high-class living. The parade of dresses that flow through the film are indeed beautiful, the society in which Reynolds travels is quite enviable, but Anderson approaches it as an almost alien lifestyle. Their parties and customs seem so far removed from the necessities that they take on something akin to pageantry. Anderson worked for the first time without a formal cinematographer, instead relying on his wits alongside a team of four others to craft this environment at once horrifying and engrossing. I’ve never seen a New Year’s Eve party so enviable and grotesque. When someone breaks the decor of the space – Alma noisily preparing breakfast, or Reynolds asking his doctor, “didn’t I tell you to fuck off?” at a party – it’s a reminder that they are but meat, prone to the same impulses and curiosities as anyone else.

It is those urges that have remained a consistent fascination for Anderson. Like his characters, the filmmaker is similarly unmoored from the bounds of politeness and decor, unafraid to make a highly unusual, possibly alienating decision if it expresses something wild stirring within himself. Those impulses drive much of Phantom Thread, from Reynolds instinctively identifying Alma to the hesitation she feels midway through the film when faced with a life-changing proposition. Day-Lewis, not exactly a performer known for indecision, draws out of Reynolds the frustration in his realization that the designs he made for his life may not be as comprehensive as imagined. Reynolds has a particular way of approaching everything, from his posture at breakfast to the way he tilts his head to bring his tall stature more on the level of his clientele. What he doesn’t have are the tools to consider truly incorporating another person, with their whims and desires, into his life; only for them to mold to his. The beauty Phantom Thread ultimately discovers is in finding something unpredictable that complements your life.

Day-Lewis’s stature as an actor makes it difficult for him to find ensemble – even in Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln, one can almost feel the unspoken direction he is giving to his castmates – but this has not proven a hurdle for Anderson. As with There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, he makes sure to belittle Reynolds, mock him in subtle ways, and diminish the importance of his point-of-view. Once Alma comes into the story, her perspective takes control, and Krieps more than measures up to Day-Lewis in command of the scene. A lot of this is in how Anderson introduces her; she’s the first face we see onscreen, as Alma recounts her relationship with Reynolds for an unseen interviewer, lit only by firelight and terribly composed. When she more formally enters the story as a bumbling waitress, the disparity is intriguing; however will we reconcile the two? But Krieps does immediately, affirming Alma’s confidence in little things – the ability to remember an order, declaring “nobody can stand as long as I can” (and standing in such a way that cements this), and twisting Alma’s compassion as a sort of ballast.

Paul Thomas Anderson is possibly the greatest working American filmmaker, right now in the prime of his career. It feels like heaven.

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Episode 188 – Monte Hellman’s The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind https://criterioncast.com/podcast/criterioncast-episodes/151-200/episode-188-monte-hellmans-the-shooting-ride-in-the-whirlwind Mon, 11 Dec 2017 22:05:09 +0000 https://criterioncast.com/?p=57561

This time on the podcast, Scott is joined by David Blakeslee and Trevor Berrett to discuss Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.

In the midsixties, the maverick American director Monte Hellman conceived of two westerns at the same time. Dreamlike and gritty by turns, these films would prove their maker’s adeptness at brilliantly deconstructing genre. Shot back-to-back for famed producer Roger Corman, they feature overlapping casts and crews, including Jack Nicholson in two of his meatiest early roles. The Shooting, about a motley assortment of loners following a mysterious wanted man through a desolate frontier, and Ride in the Whirlwind, about a group of cowhands pursued by vigilantes for crimes they did not commit, are rigorous, artful, and wholly unconventional journeys to the Old West.

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Scott Reviews Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-richard-linklaters-last-flag-flying-theatrical-review Thu, 02 Nov 2017 05:03:00 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56964

Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail is one of the greatest films ever made. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, its quasi-sequel, won’t rank among the best of the year. But don’t let that get in your way. The film picks up some thirty years after two rowdy Marines dropped a young soldier off at a naval prison for some rather minor charges, but these are three completely different characters. Don’t let their weird similarities to Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid fool you. Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell – no matter how often they seem to be imitating their predecessors – are technically their own characters. And this lets the film get away with a lot, even when it’s doing a little.

As before, the three men set out on the road. This time they’re not imprisoning a boy, but burying one. “Doc” (Carell) hasn’t exactly kept in touch with Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne), but through the recent proliferation of the Internet (the film takes place in 2003), he is able to find them. And he wants them there when his son’s body is shipped back from Iraq. The parallels to the two generation’s experiences are there for the taking, and soon snatched up. But the film makes even clearer that every generation is called to battle, made to die, leaving those left forced to feel good about their service. What’d be the point otherwise?

This ambivalence about the armed services connects Detail and Flag thematically. They were the best of times, the worst of times, and everyone spends a good deal of time spitting over what they’ve been made to go through but steadfast in feeling they wouldn’t trade it for the world. It may seem hypocritical, but I suppose just about everyone does it about something or rather. It may be that “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason” or plain old “shit happens.” But what Doc, Sal, and Mueller go through is earnest and honest, an unwillingness to let go of their pride mixed with the bitter knowledge that they don’t have everything in the world to be proud of.

Linklater is one of the modern masters of the relaxed pace, conveying onscreen the stride of life. He’s given more dramatic incident here courtesy of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel (and co-screenwriting credit) than tends to be present in his more personal, autobiographical work, but a touch here or there aside (an intrusion from Homeland Security is especially baffling), he doesn’t really make it feel like the bother it should. Cranston and Carell are two of the most egregiously showy actors working today, but Linklater gets moments from them that feel genuinely spontaneous and internalized. A scene in the middle of the film when Sal convinces them all to buy cellphones is a particularly lovely bit, each man rushing and retreating in honest ways, palpably excited at re-engaging with a world slowly passing them by.

Linklater’s films don’t always find their proper time. Everybody Wants Some!! was perhaps released too early last year to find a crowd; Last Flag Flying comes too late. Thanks to his recent Oscar pedigree with Boyhood, it comes loaded with awards-season expectations and a small campaign to bolster them. It’s not that good – obvious in parts, short-cutty in others, at once unambitious and overdetermined – but it fits snuggly into a now-bygone fall tradition of just plain decent drama and fairly likable people coming to appreciate one another a little bit more. That’s okay with me.

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Scott Reviews Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper [Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-olivier-assayass-personal-shopper-criterion-blu-ray-review Sat, 28 Oct 2017 17:52:27 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56901

Cinema’s disconnect from the mainstream culture isn’t precisely anything against the quality of the movies. Relatively speaking, when I look over the list of 109 films from this year I’ve seen, in many ways, the movies are as good as they’ve ever been. What they rarely are, however, is particularly relevant, able to speak to a contemporary audience on that audience’s terms while still retaining an individual artistic identity. It’s well and good to say audiences miss the boat here and there, but how often, really, is there a movie for them to check out that is speaking the language of our times? One that’s set in the present, addresses their concerns without lecturing about it, and tells a truly involving story in a compelling way?

Which is why Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is a breath of fresh air, and damn near a miracle. Here is a thriller, a ghost story, an exploration of grief, a portrait of consumerism, and a thoughtful consideration of the role of technology in our lives that isn’t explicitly about “how we live now”, but is so embedded in exactly that. Moreover, it is lead by a star and significant modern actress in Kristen Stewart, giving to my mind the best performance of her career to date. She plays Maureen (okay, Assayas might not be precisely attuned to “how we’re named now”), a young woman who makes her way selecting clothes for an undefined celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). She loves the clothes, but hates the work, and insists to her far-flung boyfriend or whoever asks that she’s really just there to commune with the spirit of her recently-deceased brother. Because she’s also a medium, you see.

Assayas and Stewart have both spoken in the press about how little they discussed Maureen as a character before production, both seemingly confident in their ability to find her together through the process of making the film. She is thus full of the sort of tics that have turned some off from Stewart – the lip-biting, the stumbling speech patterns, the awkward gestures – but which have made her a contemporary Brando for the rest of us. She has the rare ability to appear iconic despite never posing for the camera. The simplest images of her walking along a river in sunglasses and a sweater, driving through Paris on her scooter, or stumbling about her employer’s apartment in her employer’s borrowed clothes have a way of latching into one’s memory and imagination. Her behaviors embolden this quality of hers by undercutting it. She’s constantly in motion, and thus can never be seen as indulging the camera, or herself within it. She fills her every interaction with tension, her inner confidence not always emerging through how she presents herself. And it’s carefully modulated – with her boyfriend or boutique employees, she takes charge easily. In Kyra’s world, she flounders.

As Maureen gets closer to making contact with her brother (the film makes no bones about it – there are ghosts about), she starts receiving mysterious text messages inquiring about her activities, feelings, and beliefs. Assayas, recognizing how potentially boring that sounds, establishes the bulk of this section within a trip Maureen takes to London for a special set of clothes. She’s constantly on the move, while receiving a series of messages that seem to be following her the whole time. It’s a thrilling sequence, one that heightens the embedded awkwardness of the form (full disclosure – even as a “millennial”, I much prefer a phone call) and also underlines how odd it is that modern communication revolves around talking to people you can’t see or hear, but who are a constant potential presence. Sort of like a ghost, perhaps? It’s a question Maureen is quick to ask on the audience’s behalf.

The answer proves, to my reading of the film, less definite than it initially appears. Assayas directs the entire supporting cast in a very unusual way, their line readings far from naturalistic, with just a hint of a friendlier version of that “Overlook Hotel feeling.” They all seem a little more confident, a lot calmer, a little more inquisitive than not only Maureen, but than most people you and I meet day to day. Assayas doesn’t push the style, and one hesitates in saying Maureen is living in a world of ghosts (or perhaps dead herself), but the out-of-place feeling works so well with so many emotional and thematic tones within the film that it can’t merely be an accidental side effect of a French filmmaker making a mostly-English-language film.

I have to admit, I’m a little torn about Personal Shopper’s inclusion in The Criterion Collection. On the one hand, the year’s coolest film deserves the coolest label and best presentation, and Criterion does expectedly excellent work with it. On the other, I’m desperate to recommend this film to my non-cinephile friends, but the expectation in 2017 that the average moviegoer is going to blind-buy an at-least-$20 disc is a little absurd. So too is its lack of availability on VOD – you can buy it for $13 on most services, or rent it for $5 on the rarely-used Vudu. As this was a title Criterion is releasing through their deal with IFC Films, one could blame either party, but a glance at other IFC releases from earlier this year finds them available to rent cheaply on a variety of platforms. Criterion’s innocence here seems suspect. Keeping a film so contemporary to our times in the least-contemporary platform is a frustrating irony.

Nevertheless. If you are reading this site, the idea of just going out and buying some random discs for more than the cost a decent restaurant meal is far from absurd, and Criterion is here to please. Their release features beautiful cover art, a very stellar transfer, an insightful 16-minute interview with Assayas, and an interesting if characteristically-meandering press conference from the film’s premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Best, to my mind, is the essay by Glenn Kenny included in the leaflet, which details the film’s qualities in the expert fashion we have come to appreciate from him.

Personal Shopper is one of the year’s very very best films, and almost certainly a modern classic. I wish it was more accessible to a younger audience that could appreciate it (I think back to the baffled, older matinee audience with whom I saw it back in March), but Criterion have done, as always, a fine job in presenting it, and the label should also be filled with masterpieces of all eras.

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Scott Reviews Ruben Östlund’s The Square [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-ruben-ostlunds-the-square-theatrical-review Fri, 27 Oct 2017 05:28:12 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56850

It would perhaps be too far to say all films with a polemic angle deal in loneliness, but neither too does it seem completely off base. I’ve been on a bit of a Godard kick this year, especially the late-60s stuff, and for as interested as he could be in group dynamics in the ongoing revolution, his films also tended to end on the suggestion that revolution only comes because the systems have abandoned us. That’s a terribly lonely place to be. The Square deals not with revolution, but with a man at the head of an institution who sees everything he controls turned against him. Writer/director Ruben Östlund’s critique comes out with a bit of pleasure at watching him squirm.

As the curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm, Christian’s (Claes Bang) responsibilities are both all-encompassing and not exactly specified. He chooses the art and how much of the museum’s resources can be directed towards attaining it, of course, but he’s also, for all intents and purposes, the face of the institution. He gives interviews, solicits donations, gives presentations, and works through marketing ideas. Everything he does has to reflect the museum. So when his wallet and phone is stolen one day, it hasn’t happened only to him. Nor, indeed, is his own pursuit of justice only his. He recognizes that, to a degree, but is too far afield from his home base to see how stranded he is.

The museum puts him amidst society people, and mostly older people at that. Whoever stole his phone and wallet is younger, poor, and perhaps a little desperate. “I might be recognized,” he declares before venturing into an apartment complex to root out his belongings. But whoever might recognize him probably doesn’t live there.

All bubbles are, to a degree, self-created. We see him regularly pass beggars on the street, taking notice only at his convenience. But as his pursuit of justice for his fallen wallet goes on, his social conscience expands, until he, under duress, has assumed more social responsibility than he can reasonably burden. And here’s where the movie gets a little tricky. Because he’s not taking that much on himself. His wokeness, so to speak, is only a smidge more open by the end than it was at the beginning. And yet still the movie asks, truly, what is one man to do.

It’s at its best at its shallowest, watching the more public outlets for Christian’s gradual downfall. Östlund’s last film, the excellent and widely-heralded Force Majeure, dealt more explicitly with the way small impulses can have catastrophic personal consequences, a theme he builds on here. Even with a bigger canvas to play with, he still finds very interesting ways to draw out the tension. The film’s two standout scenes both use the museum background as a way to force confrontation. First, a pile of chairs seeming on the verge of collapse underscore the discomfort between Christian and his one-night stand Anne (Elisabeth Moss); later, a performance artist (Terry Notary) takes his charge to entertain a donor’s dinner far past the extreme. Both bring the film’s disparate concerns – Christian’s difficulty relating to people on a personal level, modern art criticism, and aesthetic imagination – together in really lovely ways.

Whether such standout scenes will carry you through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime is between you and your god. I came away mostly positive on it, a little puzzled, but at least a little glad for a film to leave me so uncertain as to its value. I couldn’t help but feel a bit like I’d encountered one of the pieces the film highlights, like the pile of chairs or the dirt mounds or the projection of the guy just growling, all of which are very much like what one sees in such museums. It’s clever, and it’s imaginative, and its simplicity and straightforwardness of purpose is stark and refreshing in its own way. But if there’s a depth of feeling, I don’t understand it.

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Scott Reviews Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Woman [Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-kelly-reichardts-certain-woman-criterion-blu-ray-review Fri, 22 Sep 2017 00:41:23 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56633

Kelly Reichardt’s triptych film Certain Women is adapted from three short stories by Maile Meloy, and retains the feeling the form is so effective at evoking. Spare on plot, they isolate moments from people’s lives. Some of are overtly dramatic (an early standoff with a rifle perhaps suggests more exterior conflict than the rest of the film will yield), but most of are fairly mundane. But they leave one feeling as though some untapped perspective or desire has been revealed, and we’re not yet fully prepared how to take stock of it.

As there are three stories to account for, I don’t want this review to turn into a complete synopsis; and as the first and third sections have generated the most discussion over the past year and a half, the second story, led by Michelle Williams. When I first saw the film at Sundance 2016, the immediate consensus was that it was the weakest, that it didn’t really dive into interesting drama or reveal all that much by the end. Compared to the struggles of a female attorney (Laura Dern) as she asserts her authority to her male client (Jared Harris), or the unrequited romantic stirrings of a rancher (Lily Gladstone) for a visiting young attorney (Kristen Stewart), one woman’s mission to buy some rocks from an old man certainly seems significantly less compelling.

It’s the one that stayed with me most though, and when I revisited the film upon its general release that October, the one that seemed the most developed and mature. Whereas the first and third stories at some point state a large portion of their goals, this one never does. It takes as read that we’ll never quite say what needs be said or do what we want the way we want to. We can hope to clumsily lurch toward a few modest goals that bring momentary satisfaction. Williams plays Gina, the mother of a teenager (where does the time go, amirite?), whom she’s dragged on a family glamping trip and whose patience will be further tested with a trip to see a lonely old man named Albert (René Auberjonois). He’s sitting on some sandstone without much an eye with what to do with it. She has an eye on it for the house she and her husband Ryan are building from scratch.

All the drama takes place in the corners of lines. It’s the way Gina can only affect friendliness for personal gain, and the lonely position that puts her in; the unease that sets in the moment she leaps in front of Ryan in bringing it up to Albert. Reichardt has a natural way with tension, so that even a stationary shot of Ryan backing out of a driveway turns riveting. Unlike the first and third stories, the stakes never reach life or death, or a question of emotional fulfillment. If they can’t get the sandstone from Albert, they’ll figure something else out. The tension lies in feeling out of touch in one’s own life, the meager acts we take to reclaim it, and the extent to which we toss the needs of others aside in so doing. It’s a masterful piece of short fiction inside a masterful film.

As with all of Criterion’s contemporary IFC releases, not a lot of work was required to bring the film to Blu-ray. I imagine compression could have been a little tricky to negotiate, as it’s clearly shot on film and has more hefty grain to it than most modern works. But given its modest 107-minute running time, I doubt many complications arose. Whatever the case, it looks extremely good, equally as pretty as the projection at Sundance did, and marginally better than I recall it looking at my local art house when I saw it there. Reichardt’s soundtracks are just as important in settling or raising certain tensions, and everything sounds crisp and fresh there as well.

Aside from the consistency of transfers, we can also count on Criterion’s IFC releases to be fairly sparse on supplements, and this release does not disappoint on that front either. We get three fifteen-minute interviews; one with Reichardt, one with Meloy, and one with producer Todd Haynes. Short though they may be, they each have valuable insights into the process of making the film and Reichardt’s general approach to filmmaking. As a big fan of Reichardt going back to Old Joy, I confess I was most taken with Haynes’s interview, as he basically just uses the time to gush about how much he loves her style and films. Film scholar Ella Taylor also provides an insightful essay in the booklet.

I’m quite pleased with the package all around. The film has been on my mind pretty constantly for the past year and a half, and I’m grateful for the excuse to keep it there for a good while to come.

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Scott Reviews Josef von Sternberg’s The Saga of Anatahan [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-josef-von-sternbergs-the-sage-of-anatahan-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Sun, 10 Sep 2017 19:54:07 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56546

Film culture moves awfully fast sometimes. I had never even heard of The Saga of Anatahan when the New Beverly here in Los Angeles showed it (under the title Ana-ta-han) about a year and a half ago on 16mm. It being Josef von Sternberg’s final feature, it was paired with another not-on-DVD title of his, The King Steps Out (1936). Now here we are, Anatahan has toured in a full restoration and is now available on Blu-ray for all to see. The somewhat-superior The King Steps Out has not yet had its day, sadly, but I’m glad for any von Sternberg on Blu in general, and for the chance to revisit and further consider this sincerely odd film.

Von Sternberg was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, emigrated to the United States when he was seven, then back to Vienna three years later, and back to the United States three years after that. Though he made one of his most famous films – The Blue Angel – in Germany, he was otherwise a fully American filmmaker who nonetheless was essentially rootless. It may be unfair of me to read too much into this element of his biography, but one has to search for clues in approaching Anatahan.

The film is based on the oft-repeated account of a group of Japanese soldiers during World War II who, when stranded on an island, live for years unaware that the war has ended. They maintain military order and preparedness, sure the enemy will attack at any time. Even when fliers are dispatched in their region announcing that the war has ended, they think it a ruse to coax surrender. But in the meantime, they’re living out their own private dramas, as order begins to fall in the inevitable face of greed, corruption, and pride.

The film was shot in Japan, with Japanese actors, but not a word of their native dialogue is subtitled. Instead, von Sternberg himself speaks a narration track that serves as a sort of “hive mind” for the men, settling on no single man for its perspective, but clearly a memory of what happened over those many years. It’s the same strategy employed in The Virgin Suicides, and has a similar effect, making itself seem at once objective and personal; intimate yet reasoned.

I mention von Sternberg’s upbringing because it’s extremely unusual to find U.S. filmmakers give such sympathetic portraits of Japanese or German soldiers without the aid of an American or British character to relate them to in the years following World War II. He always had a certain interest in defeated people, going back at least to The Last Command, about a former Russian Grand Duke reduced to working as an extra in Hollywood. Morocco, The Docks of New York, and Shanghai Express are about women on the far edges of society finding redemption. The Blue Angel is about the process of defeat. Extending that empathy across the Atlantic to such a different culture, however, is an unusual step.

It’s also not one I still think entirely successful. The ending of the film, as reality dawns on the remaining soldiers, is extraordinarily effective, and one of the best sequences in von Sternberg’s career. But the whole set-up of the film is inherently…one doesn’t like to overuse the word “problematic” these days, so let’s say at least dubious. Not only do you have von Sternberg’s voice standing in for a mass of Japanese actors more or less divested of their own, but the filmmaker isn’t Japanese – his appreciation for and approach to his characters is that of an outsider. It’s difficult to quantify this in specifics, but his tone in talking about them is closer to that of a documentarian bringing images of the East to the West than it is an acute portrait of the people themselves.

Despite taking place almost entirely in nature, the film was shot – as with most films of its era – in a studio. Its representation of the jungle is extraordinary, blending a designed element with natural beauty. You could easily watch the bulk of the film and never question its authenticity.

Masters of Cinema’s new region-B-locked Blu-ray looks very good, certainly miles cleaner than the 16mm print I saw, perhaps to a fault. The white levels sometimes feel a little strong, but that could just be my personal preference mixed with memories of the print. Grain is perhaps a little thin, but the image generally appears vibrant, rich, and textured.

The disc is quite well-appointed on the supplement front, giving us not only the 1958 uncensored cut as the main feature, but the 1953 censored version as well, also restored and looking very fine. The disc also features an exclusive 45-minute conversation with Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, an interview with von Sternberg’s son Nicolas, and footage of the actual survivors of the Anatahan incident following their surrender. All this helps tremendously in placing the film in its proper context, be it societal, stylistic, or practical. A booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp is also included.

I’m glad Anatahan is no longer a mere curio, but widely available for all to see. I don’t think it as good as von Sternberg’s early masterpieces, but it’s a fascinating end to one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood.

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Scott Reviews Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-steven-soderberghs-logan-lucky-theatrical-review Fri, 18 Aug 2017 00:07:03 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56315

Given that it’s his first feature film in the four years – a comparatively standard break for most other filmmakers – since the prolific Steven Soderbergh announced he would make no more, Logan Lucky has been accorded perhaps more import than it can reasonably shoulder. For the average moviegoer unaware of such trappings, however, the film should emerge fairly quickly for what it is – a bunch of goons having fun, with some cheap sentiment thrown in at the end.

Goon the first is Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), recently fired from a construction site for a bum knee he failed to note on his insurance forms. He’s separated from his wife (now married to a very successful man, as ex-wives in movies must be), trying to maintain a hand in raising his daughter, but keeps falling a leg or two behind. Poverty has a way of making everything else difficult. But his construction job gave him access to a major NASCAR course, a place where a lot of money changes hands, and there just so happens to be a window where the site will offer near-unfettered access to that flow.

Now, it is a heist movie, so that “near-” has its share of footnotes, a list that only grows greater as complications ensue. And they must, or else why would we be watching? But Jimmy has his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) on his side, plus some valuable input from professional criminal Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), even if that goon does insist they recruit his own goon brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) to help. And so what if Joe’s already in jail at present? They have a plan for that, too.

After three Ocean’s films, few will be surprised that Soderbergh executes the pleasures of a heist film with terrific aplomb, but by that same token…after three Ocean’s films, what’s left for Soderbergh to do with a heist? The answer lies in a lot of yokel humor, which verges on mockery. Logan Lucky attempts the sort of love/mock divide that Joel and Ethan Coen often straddle, to varying effect. From my vantage, it gives too much generosity to its protagonist and too little to its more distant supporting players for this formula to quite click. It also has a way of doubling back on itself towards the end that effectively eliminates these concerns, but mainly because it’s so thoroughly confused its plotting and established characterization in the name of a ridiculous high.

Nevertheless, with a cast like this (plus Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, and Seth MacFarlane) thrown into such a machine, it’s hard to come away not infrequently amused. Soderbergh’s handle on staging and rhythms (as always, he serves as his own cinematographer and editor) is as adept as ever, finding compelling rhythms in a single shot where most directors would cut-cut-cut. Combined with his widescreen lens, this approach lends the film a bit of grandeur, which helps mirror Jimmy’s ambitions, and the extent to which he could be a bit out of his element here. Tatum was more than a little lucky that Soderbergh saw so much in him when they started working together, and continues to get the best out of the actor, but by this point, Soderbergh knows he’s lucky to have him, too. Few other actors could keep an audience so genuinely uncertain about their character’s intelligence.

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Scott Reviews Ronald Neame’s Hopscotch [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-ronald-neames-hopscotch-criterion-blu-ray-review Wed, 16 Aug 2017 02:24:13 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56308

Hey, you might not be aware of this – and honestly, no worries if not, we’ve all got a lot going on – but Hopscotch is the greatest movie ever. This is an irrefutable fact, and I’m glad I was able to save you from all kinds of hand-wringing. If your hands are already getting pretty wrung, though, feel free to pop in Hopscotch just to check. I’ll wait.

Okay, so we’re all set then? I can come clean – in the pure, cleansing light of day, Hopscotch may not literally be the greatest movie ever made. But it feels that way every second whenever I watch it. Walter Matthau as a CIA agent outwitting the CIA and every other national intelligence agency? You couldn’t ask for a more pleasurable premise. Anytime you can get a protagonist the audience likes but doesn’t fully understand, you’re on the right track. Matthau made a career out of being eminently likable. He either reminds you of yourself, your pal, or your dad (“That’s always been my problem,” he quips in the film), or maybe just the versions you want those people to be. Add to that his loosely-sketched idea to write his memoirs and incite the CIA to chase him all around the world while he stays one step ahead of him basically by pure wit and instinct…the only possible problem with this movie is that it’s not secretly an ever-complicating 13-hour affair à la Out 1. We have every reason in the world to keep watching.

Oh, and on top of all that, there’s an immensely charming romance with Glenda Jackson, an actress who exudes confidence and whose doubt in Kendig’s ability to pull off this plot adds just a dash of tension. I mean, we ultimately know he’ll pull it off. How could he not? Just look at the guy. And look at his competition – Ned Beatty. Ned Beatty, as Myerson, introduced with a photo of himself and Richard Nixon. This is in 1980. For Myerson to still be displaying a picture of himself with Nixon shows he’s either totally out of touch with the national mood, or has no other photos worthy of boast. You couldn’t dream of a way to more swiftly show a more pathetic public official.

Also aiding the search for Matthau is Joe Cutter, played by Sam Waterston. Now, the makers of Hopscotch, however brilliant they clearly were, could not have known Waterston would become defined by his hugely popular role as dogged attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order. But in going back to see the film now, that association doesn’t hurt. Unlike McCoy, though, Cutter plays strictly by the rules. He likes Kendig (this is how we know he’s smart), and would just as soon let him go, but he has his job to do, and figures the CIA will bring the old dog down sooner or later, so he might as well help make it as easy as possible. Waterston brings some real charm and swagger, never too bent out of shape but always on the go.

It’s a breezy, fun as hell film that Criterion presents in a breezy, fun as hell manner on their new Blu-ray edition. The transfer is solid, crisp and grainy and robust, density to every frame. I wonder if it might be a tad overexposed – the whites beaming in from windows take on that Janusz Kaminski vibe – but hey, I’ve never seen a print, so I can’t say for sure. Some of the older supplements that Criterion carried over from their 2002 DVD edition have clips from that transfer, and the whites look a little less extreme there, but not so much as to suggest a markedly different approach here. The transfer was carried out in 2K resolution.

On the supplemental side, Criterion ports over their short (20-ish minutes) video piece featuring interviews with director Ronald Neame and novelist/co-screenwriter Brian Garfield. Both have some great stories on how this film came together, particularly Neame, who, in the process of rejecting the movie a couple times, learned Matthau also tried to wriggle out of it by saying he wouldn’t do it unless Neame accepted it. Boy are we lucky they both got onboard. Criterion adds an excerpt of Matthau’s 1980 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, which, of course, is a blast. All Dick Cavett shows are a blast. This is one of the universal rules governing life at this point. We also get a new essay by Glenn Kenny that’s as action-packed and witty as the film itself. The cover is a new cartoony collage by Jonas Bergstrand that’s quite fetching, but to be frank I still prefer the old one, which wasn’t as aggressive about the comedic angle while still being plenty playful.

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Scott Reviews Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-luchino-viscontis-conversation-piece-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Sun, 30 Jul 2017 16:49:45 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56248

We all, on some level, regret aging because we fear dying, but there’s something especially poignant about watching artists who celebrated vitality grapple with their mortality. It’s one thing to watch Bergman or Woody Allen settle into their later years, having seen them grapple with those subjects their entire careers. It’s quite another when an artist who once seemed to defy death’s grip can no longer avoid it.

Conversation Piece was Luchino Visconti’s penultimate film, released a little more than a year before his death. He was only 67, and had already suffered a stroke. Remarkable in its formal construction, you can nevertheless feel his regrets, his fears, his very life coming to the fore through his protagonist, a retired professor played by Burt Lancaster. So solitary is his existence that he isn’t even given a name. He’s content in his Italian apartment, taking meetings with old friends to discuss cultural matters of the day, occasionally soliciting art dealers for their new acquisitions.

It is in this flurry of activity that he encounters the Marquise Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano). She has no appointment, no proper method of introduction; she simply hopes he’ll rent the upstairs apartment, which he owns but is not presently using. After a great deal of coercion, and the introduction of her young, attractive “family” – lover Konrad (Helmut Berger), daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani), and daughter’s boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) – the professor relents. They may lease it for a year. After that, he’ll have to start using it for its intended purpose and store his overflowing art and books there.

Almost immediately, they start taking advantage of the situation and their landlord’s patience. Unapproved renovations nearly cause it to cave in. They drop in for a visit or a snack as they please. They run up and down the hallways. Their lifestyle invites parties, gangsters, and hangers-on. Yet the professor’s rebukes are only mild and civilized, agitated but far from contemptuous. In fact, he really grows to kind of like the crazy kids.

On our recent Blow-Up episode, I talked about how a lot of older directors looked at the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s with a sort of cautious envy, at once worried the kids were going too far, yet deeply jealous of the freedoms and advantages they enjoyed. Conversation Piece makes that subtext explicit. Here we have a cultured, sophisticated man, unmarried, and given to indulging in young people who attract him. Visconti himself was born to nobility, never married, and took to relationships with younger men. The professor’s sympathies, in fact, lie strongest with Konrad, played by Visconti’s then-lover Berger. While their relationship remains unconsummated, there’s a strong sexual pull between them almost immediately, Konrad’s vulgarity and anger so surprising the professor that he doesn’t know what to do with the fact that he can’t stop caring for the young man.

All this generational and sexual tension becomes almost too-overt as the film wears on, but if, like me, you’re given to watching films as the reflection of someone’s soul, it’s absolutely mesmerizing. If it’s too urgent, one only senses the urgency of Visconti’s expression, the feeling of needing to get it all out while he still can. Lancaster, who had a unique capacity to open his emotive valve without overplaying the material, proves an ideal conduit through which Visconti can express his own longing. Konrad may take to liking the professor, but he will never take him as seriously as the older man takes him. Youth has a way of making others seem disposable. As one ages, and people fall away, and isolation sets in, relationships become invaluable.

Masters of Cinema brings this odd, enrapturing, personal film to Blu-ray with a transfer from a new 2K restoration that looks very good. Colors are rich and subdued, and there’s no effort to over-sharpen the more distant elements in a given shot. It looks very film-like. The disc comes with the option of the original English audio or an Italian dub track for its release in Italy. Naturally, I recommend going with the English audio.

Eureka’s website mention the only substantial extra being an interview with critic and screenwriter Alessandro Bencivenni, who provides terrific biographical and production context to the film. But the real highlight of the disc is the new hourlong feature “Luchino Visconti: The Quest for the Impossible”, which interviews several of Visconti’s close collaborators about the process of making the film, especially the difficulties he had after the stroke. They even mention that not only did Burt Lancaster commit to the project almost immediately, but that he also signed up as a backup director for insurance purposes. It’s a really worthwhile supplement, the kind you don’t usually get with even so-called “major” home video releases, let alone a mostly-unremarked-upon late Visconti picture.

Remarked upon or no, I watched Conversation Piece several weeks ago, and it’s really stuck with me. It’s a thoughtful, ruminative film that demonstrates the best qualities of a late-in-life filmmaker – certainty, curiosity, urgency, and honesty. Masters of Cinema have done great work bringing it to Blu-ray, with a damned good transfer and illuminative supplements.

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Scott Reviews Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-andrei-tarkovskys-stalker-criterion-blu-ray-review Fri, 28 Jul 2017 15:36:22 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56226

I have seen every Tarkovsky film, and there is little doubt in my mind they gain infinitely in a theater, where the scope and beauty of them can be most fully appreciated. His wide, glacial shots are too enveloping to be shoved into a screen that never ventures into one’s peripheral vision. Questioning the necessity of a home video release is absurd – old films are predominantly viewed at this point in time on televisions. To not send his work there would be to condemn it to near nonexistence. It is unfortunate, but it is. The issue is how to do it responsibly, to present the work with a nod towards the theatrical experience and an understanding between disc and viewer that the transfer may be insufficient, but the film certainly isn’t.

And if this all sounds terribly esoteric, so be it, but given my transformative experience seeing Mirror, Andrei Rublev, and The Sacrifice in the theater and the relative plainness of watching Ivan’s Childhood at home, well, I’ve become terribly esoteric in how I think about Tarkovsky. Light in particular is so central to his work that a different source will necessarily create a different experience. Stalker is not a film with much bright light – much of it takes place under gloomy skies and dim rooms. But there exists in it a core of energy that Tarkovsky continually reaches toward, teasing out the seeds that float through the air or the reflections in the mud puddles. One is struck, too, by the absence of light in many scenes, those which never pitch into pure noir-y blackness but which feel undernourished for lack of sun. As always with Tarkovsky, manmade structures feel either an extension of the natural world or its victim. We are either building out of it or against it, and the Earth will decide how it claims our work.

Stalker is about two men who enlist the skills of a so-called stalker to take them into The Zone and guide them towards The Room. The Zone was created by some vaguely-identified alien contact, and is off limits to civilians. The Room is supposedly a place where one’s greatest desire will be realized. In almost-overbearingly-Russian fashion, the men are identified only by their function – Writer, Professor, Stalker – and never named. After an exciting infiltration sequence, the trio emerges like Dorothy from sepia tone to full color in The Zone, an ideal place for Tarkovsky to unleash his patient sense of decimating time and space. As they travel through it, they lose their bearings. The Zone seems to change around them, a fine utilitarian excuse for an art form that almost by definition, even in the most “realist” works, contorts time and space. What else is a lens, or an edit, than a chance to do both?

Thus Tarkovsky doesn’t need to be overt about his game. His methods can be subtle – the way grass bends at the edges of the camera as it inches forward, the way the men’s positions seem to shift from shot to shot, the changing weather patterns, the sudden presence of an unforeseen object. Not every viewer will register every shift; I certainly didn’t notice the ones I mentioned on first view, and there are doubtlessly more yet to see. Tarkovsky’s methods of unsettling the viewer can sometimes be quite overt – the final shot of this film might take the cake there, but Alexander Kaidanovsky’s performance as the true-believing Stalker proves the film’s most effective hammer. Most often, Tarkovsky prods us toward uncertainty or wonder. We might not be actively thinking about the broken laws of physics, but we leave to a world a little more mysterious than it seemed a few hours ago. His actors convince us of the urgency of this retreat, while the earth glides slowly from our grips.

To present this on home video, start with a world-class transfer. Mosfilm’s new 2K restoration is earthy, textured, crisp when it needs to be and unafraid to let an unclear shot remain an unclear shot. When the three men look down a tunnel known as the Meat Grinder (because what Soviet sci-fi film wouldn’t make three men walk down something called a Meat Grinder?), we’re meant more to guess at its essence than to know precisely what awaits. This is how a good transfer aids the content of a film. The colors are rich and exhibit depth while still allowing The Zone to look absolutely dismal.

Tarkovsky’s soundtracks are absolutely as important as his images, and they work in concert with one another to lull us into uncertainty. Here, too, Mosfilm excels. The sequence in which the men ride the train track into The Zone could be pacifying, if not for the clickity-clack of the tracks gradually giving way to an otherworldly boing-oing sound that tells us, well before the film switches to color, that we are entering another realm. No matter what we see and hear as we move closer to The Room, however certain we may be that the steps we take are landing on solid ground, this world is not as it seems. The rumble of train tracks will return at the end to ensure we don’t forget the power they hold. I only wish the disc came with a Malick-esque request to turn your sound up.

I must mention something that’s become a bit of a pet cause for me – the menu. Criterion once produced exquisite Blu-ray menus that clued the viewer into the experience they were in for. This gave way to a few years of stills, maybe some music. Now we’re back, baby, to disassociated images and sounds that tell you nothing of the plot but everything of the emotional experience. It’s small, but it goes a long way.

The two key supplements here are a half-hour-ish interview with scholar Geoff Dyer, who wrote a whole book about Stalker and whose enthusiasm and insights go a long way towards cementing the rapture in which the film leaves you (or, you know, me anyway). Mark Le Fanu’s essay provides succinct biographical information on where Tarkovsky was at while he was making this, his last Russian film. Archival interviews with set designer Rashit Safiullin, composer Eduard Artemyev, and cinematographer Alexander Knyazhinsky give us further insights into the technical prowess that it takes to bring about such an experience as this, along with some fun anecdotes about how distant Tarkovsky could be as a collaborator.

What else do you need? This is spectacular.

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Scott Reviews Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Daughter of the Nile [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-hou-hsiao-hsiens-daughter-of-the-nile-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Wed, 19 Jul 2017 02:35:08 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56157

Hou Hsiao-hsien is best known and most acclaimed for historical dramas like A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, and The Assassin, but a much more persistent subject for him has been contemporary films about young women. From his first two films through the early 2000s (after which he took a break from his native Taiwan, and, soon, directing in general), urban-set and neon-lit portraits of restless youth have proven a renewable source of interest. For those who casually dismiss Cute Girl and Cheerful Wind as pop entertainments he made for hire – they were, but they’re quite good – this trend can more definitively traced back to 1987’s Daughter of the Nile.

Lin (played by pop star Lin Yang) is in her late teens, working at KFC and attending night school (where, typically, underperforming or troubled students are shuffled). Her mother has passed away, her eldest brother killed in gang activity. Her father is largely absent, and her sole remaining brother is entrenched in gang life. She and their grandpa try to care for the house and especially her younger sister as best they can while she tries to maintain something of a social life. But even when she’s out having fun – at her birthday, riding on motorcycles, lounging at the beach – she’s stuck on memories of her family, and how distant she is from what she expected. Right from the start, in which Lin – appearing older than she will through the rest of the film – recalls her father bringing her home a Walkman after a night of burglary, we’re set up for a film of memories, fleeting moments that tell around a story more than they directly tell a story about her life.

Which I guess is sort an apologetic way for saying I hope you’re as seduced as I by people gazing longingly in neon lighting, listening to old American pop songs, and occasionally bursting into pathetic bouts of violence. Plus there’s some fart humor. The poignancy comes from seeing these moments through Lin’s recollections, her intermittent voiceover addressing some opaque plot considerations that she’s helpless to prevent or forget. She can only look back and wonder at her distractions and shortsightedness and occasional ability to recognize a purely good moment. This was a popular narrative tactic for Hou at the time, one he employed in A Time to Live, a Time to Die, A City of Sadness, and – more directly – The Puppetmaster, but only this and 2001’s Millennium Mambo posit the narrator as living in the future from when the film was made. This gives the films an incidental optimistic quality, certain that whatever our present struggles, a better tomorrow waits. Hopefully then, we’ll be free of present strife and left to reflect on all that’s passed us by.

If I had to guess which would be the first Hou films to make it to western home video, Daughter of the Nile would have been pretty far down on my list, but I’m very grateful it’s the one that broke through. When the Hou retrospective was touring two years ago, it was the second film I saw in the series and the one that most compelled me to stick with it. While I could rattle off at least a half-dozen Hou films I now prefer, this is an ideal entry point, infused with just enough genre to make its teen melodrama more appealing, and Hou’s typical lyrical reflection to not let us take much pleasure in those gangster scenes.

Masters of Cinema presents the film in a beautiful new Blu-ray edition, which gives us a consistent, film-like image with robust colors and skin tones, convincing depth and detail, and very little visible damage. The presentation does differ from how I recall the 35mm print, but it being probably the only print in existence with English subtitles, it’s hard to imagine it could continue to be called an accurate reflection of how Hou and cinematographer Chen Huai-en wanted to film to look. The differences – a slight coolness so popular in transfers these days – is not so drastic as to call into question its integrity.

I don’t normally comment on the sound for discs, unless there’s something unusual about it, and I am faced with precisely that issue today. The soundtrack is unfortunately a little tinny, distorting anytime it rises above normal conversation (let alone a gunshot), and can be a little distracting. It’s far from ruinous, it just doesn’t work ideally in partnership with such a fine visual presentation.

Supplementally, we get a nice short booklet with a “Director’s Note” and a “Director’s Statement”, both of which lean towards the apologetic. Hou admits that the film didn’t totally come together the way he was expecting, concluding, “The film is, of course, unsatisfactory. But to me, the process of making it was really fruitful.” If the film is unsatisfying, so be it; restless art has its own considerable merits. On the disc, we get a lengthy interview with scholar Tony Rayns, who walks us through Hou’s career and places this film within it.

If you’re among the many outside of urban areas who have little exposure to Hou’s films, this should prove a fine starting place – a moving little film with a terrific presentation.


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Scott Reviews Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-kenji-mizoguchis-ugetsu-criterion-blu-ray-review Thu, 29 Jun 2017 05:47:00 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=56002

Anytime I watch Mizoguchi’s work…really any of it, but especially from this later period of his career – which includes The Crucified Lovers, Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu, and The Woman in the Rumor – I really am put face to face with how relatively little we gladly settle for in much of the rest of cinema. It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with all those other movies. Many of them I value a good deal more than I do Mizoguchi. But in Mizoguchi, as one often does in Bergman, you’re granted a rare combination of imagination, audacity, and mastery that few films even attempt and very, very, very few manage to pull off. You can too often pick apart some tonal shift, some acting choice, some extraneous scene or shot or just something that doesn’t fit. In Mizoguchi’s best work, everything fits. It is a confrontation with the very best cinema can be.

So it is with Ugetsu, a 94-minute film that’s part family drama, part workplace drama, part war film, part ghost story, part samurai film, and part fallen-woman drama, yet never feels apart from its central purpose, if one could even say it fully has one. Greed, ambition, and ego are central to its thematic and moral concerns, its much older source (a collection of short stories published in 1776) used – as with most lasting films of its period – to explore the lasting wounds of World War II, when men abandoned their families for the glory of battle. This left homes in ruins, families estranged, and women – as Mizoguchi more directly depicts in Women of the Night – to fend for themselves however possible.

This same fate befalls Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) in Ugetsu, set in the late 16th century. Soldiers roam through the land, as Japan comes further and further into singular rule, in the process ravaging or uprooting villages in an effort to build a bigger and bigger army. Ohama’s husband, Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), is spoiling for a fight, but would rather land in the samurai class. He assists his neighbor, Miyagi’s husband Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), with his pottery business, hoping the profits will buy him the proper armor. Genjuro, for his part, is seeking a sort of purity in his craft, and for his success there to give his life purpose.

I don’t think I need to state that both their pursuits lead them astray. The most famous thing about Ugetsu is that it is in part a ghost story, and ghost stories are rarely happy stories. The dead rarely hang around just to get drunk and play cards. But none of this is what makes Ugetsu so great, or so perfect. It is the way Mizoguchi unfurls these elements in the film, gradually building them calmly, but purposefully. Known for his rather slow films, I would hardly say Ugetsu moves with any great urgency, but no scene overstays its welcome and Mizoguchi doesn’t dwell as much in a space as he did with Oharu the previous year or would with Sansho the following year. Whereas now we are inundated with “slow cinema” that might give us nothing to look at for minutes on end, Mizoguchi always keeps something in motion. It might be his actors, or the camera, or the wind across the water, but he never forgets he’s making a motion picture.

It’s a motion picture that looks quite extraordinary in Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition, which gives us an HD transfer of the 4K restoration produced by The Film Foundation and Kadokawa Corporation. I had no real complaints with Masters of Cinema’s now-out-of-print Blu-ray edition from a few years back, which exhibited considerably more damage. This strips all that from the image without losing the filmic quality, and is also a bit less contrast-y to my eyes. It’s a definite step up, lending the film more depth, dimension, and especially texture. That said, for those hesitant about double dipping, I would only say that’s between you and your God. If the damage on the MoC edition is especially annoying, then sure, go for it, but the MoC is really quite good in every other respect.

Where one might be more tempted to upgrade would be in the special features. MoC’s edition was no slouch, including as it did Mizoguchi’s quite fine Miss Oyu in HD and an interview with Tony Rayns (plus, if you bought their box set, a rather impressive 344-page book). But Criterion has a full commentary track by Rayns, a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on Mizoguchi by Kaneto Shindo (whose own filmmaking career began around the time Mizoguchi’s was ending, though he is best-remembered now for his work in the 1960s), interviews with first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, plus an appreciative interview with director Masahiro Shinoda. All this, plus an honest-to-goodness book with an essay by Phillip Lopate and three short stories that inspired the film. I’ve only been able to sample all these, but suffice to say there’s more than enough here to make up for all the complaints lodged against Criterion’s for the paucity of supplements on The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum last year. Buy both, and use what you have here to apply across the board. Add in Jeffrey Angles’ commentary on Sansho if you still think you’re missing out.

At any rate, Criterion is at once overdue in bringing Ugetsu to Blu-ray and right on time to utilize this wonderful new 4K restoration. This makes a handsome companion to their other Mizoguchi Blu-ray releases, which look quite wonderful all together on the shelf there, utilizing similar font and everything (only Sansho stands out a bit with its color, but then Sansho stands out in a lot of ways). It’s a really beautiful edition for as perfect a film as I’ve ever seen.

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Scott Reviews Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-chantal-akermans-jeanne-dielman-23-quai-du-commerce-1080-bruxelles-criterion-blu-ray-review Sat, 27 May 2017 06:32:31 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55842

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a thriller. It’s as claustrophobic, psychologically penetrating, and exactingly-directed an apartment film as anything Roman Polanski has made. That it takes 200 minutes to watch is almost besides the point. The more you give yourself over to it – shutting out distractions, not breaking it into sections – the tighter its hold. I’ve seen the film three times now, twice at home with all the intrusions that comes with that, and once in a theater with all the peace it suggests. Except, peace for this film means an acute focus on its inner torment.

Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is a widow raising her teenage son in a single-bedroom apartment (he sleeps in the pull-out couch in the living room). Over the course of three non-consecutive days, we see Jeanne cook, clean, run errands, knit, read letters, and cook some more (there’s a lot of cooking). Every moment has its duty. Most of them are self-assigned. The one time she absolutely has to be somewhere is in the late afternoon, when men come to the apartment to pay her for sex. The money goes in the pot, and comes right back out for upkeep. 

Most of the film is spent watching her tend to her chores. The prostitution angle gives it a bit of pulp and sleaze that adds to the genre appeal of the film, but the thrills don’t come from a john who won’t pay or kinky sex or anything of the sort. The thrill is in watching Jeanne’s carefully-ordered life unravel in tiny, untenable ways. The film is a summation of every minor inconvenience you’ve encountered. If you’ve ever become disproportionately angry in a long line, with a chatty acquaintance, at the falling of a needed utensil, or at a ruined meal, this film will set – and keep – you on edge for every second of its running time.

Writer/director Chantal Akerman wasn’t even twenty-five when this film was released (meaning she beat Orson Welles to the punch in making a masterpiece – he was already that age when he made Kane). By her own admission, the insights into middle age the film exhibits were generated by watching her mother perform these same tasks with the same exacting approach. Though Akerman uses these routines to drill into Jeanne’s psyche, suggesting their repetition fills an absence of an inner life, I’ve always found Akerman and Seyrig’s expression of them to be quite loving. I find so much pleasure in watching her cook or carefully make her bed. There’s a suggestion in Seyrig’s near-smile that they are her few happy moments; certainly a notable lift over her mood when engaging in any kind of social activity, including that with her own son. That smile is one small example of how Seyrig coaxes us along, suggesting any number of possible thoughts that fill Jeanne’s time, giving us enough to keep our interest but not nearly enough to satisfy our curiosity. 

Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte take a fascinating approach to the storytelling, returning to similar set-ups that differ in small ways, much how Jeanne’s days are familiar but growing slightly dissimilar. Few shots of her preparing dinner are exactly the same, some lens length or focal point or precise camera position differing from the rest. These are also the only shots to obviously use a wide-angle lens, causing her to appear quite different when she’s preparing a meal. We learn in the behind-the-scenes documentary included on this disc that this was a practical solution, born of cramped quarters and a need to show as much space as possible, yet it creates a fascinating diversion in a theoretically-pre-programmed film. 

One of the things that surprised me most when seeing it on film recently is how rigidly Akerman and Mangolte kept their focus. One might wonder if the projector had fallen out of focus when we view characters at a distance, only for the eye to drift to one side of the frame and see a nearer cabinet sharp and well-defined. That choice was not as evident on the somewhat-soft DVD Criterion put out in 2009, but is abundantly clear on their new Blu-ray release, which utilizes a 2K restoration supervised by Akerman and Mangolte. The transfer is really a wonder, not only (mostly) free of blemishes, but appropriately soft and faded for a mid-70s European production, without losing the depth and clarity one desires from high-definition. I know I tend to be a bit easier on Criterion for the cries of “compression!!!” that have tagged them in fan circles (especially surrounding lengthy movies) since they began their Blu-ray endeavor almost ten years ago, but I noticed no such issues here. Just a rich, vibrant image, slightly-less-colorful than the print I saw (where the red in Jeanne’s hair and lips really popped), but with little lost integrity and quite a bit more consistency.  

This is a straight upgrade from Criterion’s DVD edition, so supplements are exactly the same, just whittled down to one disc instead of two. In either form, it’s an exceptional release. Criterion put together their own characteristically-excellent retrospective interviews with Akerman and Mangolte, as well as clips from Akerman’s TV appearances in 1976 and 1997, and a 2007 interview between Akerman and her mother. Their relationship is more elaborately-explored in Akerman’s final film, the masterful No Home Movie, but this suggests much of the pleasure in their relationship.

The real standouts supplements, however, are two bonus films. Saute ma ville was Akerman’s first film, and even at 13 minutes shows a lot of the impatience and bluntness one might expect from such a thing (she was only 18 years old when she made it, after all), but it’s a very valuable inclusion, especially as it has also been restored and looks quite nice. Best of all is Autour de “Jeanne Dielman”, an hourlong documentary shot by Sami Frey (who’s better remembered as an actor, and starred in Godard’s Band of Outsiders) and edited by Akerman and Agnès Ravez. Filmed during the production of Jeanne Dielman, the documentary provides an uncomfortably-candid look at the process of creating a fairly low-budget film with a fairly massive star, and all the clashes between the still-fresh filmmaker and the polite-to-a-passive-aggressive-fault lead actress. In some ways, Seyrig is teaching Akerman how to direct, asking question that clearly annoy the younger woman but which are vital when you realize how much Seyrig is giving to each little, endless moment.

The release also includes a booklet, slightly redesigned from the DVD edition, with an essay by film scholar Ivone Margulies.

If you’re as fond of Akerman as I, this release is a must-have, a very worthwhile upgrade of the landmark DVD edition. If you’re new to Akerman, this is the most obvious and daunting place to start, but be prepared to give your all to it.

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Scott Reviews Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-charles-vidors-cover-girl-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Sun, 30 Apr 2017 07:53:12 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55693

How did a film like Cover Girl slip away? When it was shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, it was considered something of a discovery, with Robert Osborne frequently singling it out in pre-festival interviews and publicity as a must-see, which makes me feel a little better about having not heard of it at all before seeing it a few months prior at the New Beverly. But the film was immensely popular in its day. Its success instantly pulled Gene Kelly out of limbo at MGM, where he’d been assigned to a series of B-movies and rarely allowed to dance his own choreography, when he was even allowed to dance at all.

Columbia Pictures was not interested in placing such limitations on him. The film’s producer, composer Arthur Schwartz, must have known how lucky they were, because they gave Kelly immense control over its production, especially his dance numbers. The result is that, when he and costars Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers dance out of a cafe onto the street, those familiar with Kelly’s more famous work in On the Town or Singin’ in the Rain will instantly recognize the birth of a now-familiar style, more vibrant here for the fact of his seizing his moment. There’s a notion in art appreciation that something truly radical and original never loses its bite, and that is quite true of what Kelly accomplishes here. It’s joyous and bounding and a little bit bawdy. It is the very essence of the Technicolor musical dance.

And yet the film is not all joy. It has everything. It’s got singing, it’s got romance, it’s got humor – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll scream in joy, the whole nine yards. It could feel disjointed, but life is disjointed like that. One minute you’re in high comedy, the next you’re completely depressed. Rita Hayworth plays Rusty, a chorus girl at a cheap nightclub who finds the chance for fame and fortune in an audition to be the new cover girl for a major fashion magazine. It just so happens she’s the spitting image of the elderly editor’s boyhood crush, Maribelle, played in flashbacks, of course, by Rita Hayworth. Rusty’s boss and boyfriend, Danny Mcguire (Kelly) is none too happy about her ambitions, and his stage partner, known only as Genius (Silvers), is just trying to keep everyone happy.

I’ve written a lot about how World War II brought melancholy to the American cinema. Whereas melodrama in the silent and early sound era dealt in major upheavals, death, and violence, from the onset of the war forward, the genre was more concerned with quiet disappointment and the inevitability of impermanence. Cover Girl may be a musical in billing, but it’s a melodrama in tone. It deals head on with the frustration and sadness that comes when close friends realize they want different things from life. Danny and Genius enjoy their modest club. They like the work and the people. They like their small traditions. They like longing and hustling. But Rusty didn’t move to New York to long, and certainly not to hustle. She came to succeed. And now that she’s found success, where does that leave everything else?

America in 1944 was at war, but it was going quite well, and victory was felt to be at hand. The past fifteen years had seen the country plunge into the Great Depression, work itself out of it, and climb to the world stage as it secured victory for democracy. Not everyone would be coming home, but essentially, the incredible national effort had paid off. America was a success. But that’s not always an easy thing to live with.

I’m not trying to read Cover Girl as a straight allegory for the national spirit, but films tend to succeed when they reflect the way a lot of people feel at the time they come out. And Cover Girl clearly struck a chord. The only musical more successful at the box office that year was also the only one sadder than it – Meet Me in St. Louis, another joyous Technicolor extravaganza about impermanence, disappointment, and melancholy. Meet Me in St. Louis is the better musical, its songs catchier and more bound up in its story than Cover Girl’s. But Cover Girl is a wilier, more inventive and daring film, a true original.

Its most-talked-about moment, with good reason, comes when Danny, despondent that Rusty has abandoned him one evening, sees himself in the reflection of a shop window and allows the mirror image to personify all his doubts and frustrations. The reflection then leaps from the window and the two dance in a battle for his soul. It’s not only an astounding technical achievement, with both Gene Kellys completely in time with one another, but a beautifully performed one. Kelly plays both sides distinctly, his reflection constantly keeping an eye on the “real” one. This acting choice would never work without the movie magic at work. We know Kelly isn’t literally in the room with himself, or the glances would come off as cheats, as one partner watching the other to ensure he stays on time. But because we know they’re filmed independently, we recognize that Kelly is conveying the reflection’s uncertainty and obsession with his owner.

Kelly the great dancer is not always acknowledged to be Kelly the great actor, but not everyone’s seen Cover Girl. If they had, they might recall the way he clenches himself against pillars and walls. They might know how his voice sounds when he’s hurt but trying not to show it. Or when he can’t quite figure out why he hurts so much. “Melodrama” is musical drama, and beyond his calls to sing or dance, Kelly’s voice is an ideal instrument for the hope of resilience. It conveys both pain and strength; it’s somehow both earnest and cynical.

Hayworth is not especially known for her musicals now, but they were quite important to her in the 1940s. She broke through with The Strawberry Blonde in 1941, starred on two more with Fred Astaire, then made Cover Girl. Her most famous scene in Gilda, arguably her most iconic role, is a musical number. Astaire liked her best as a dance partner; as a Ginger Rogers fanatic, I’m furious, but as a straight man, I understand his impulse. Hayworth has a way of bounding across the screen and complimenting her male costar. Despite her intimidating good looks, it took her awhile to seem natural in wielding them. That she’s absolutely gorgeous only deepens Rusty, who looks like Rita Hayworth yet is incredibly shy in auditioning or even meeting new people. There’s something sort of touching about that.

Cover Girl had previously been released in a sort of unstable edition from Twilight Time, with a grand total of zero supplements and a slightly blown-out, faded transfer. Aren’t you mad it’s gone out of print. Masters of Cinema’s new edition, utilizing a new 4K restoration, doesn’t totally solve these issues, but looks a hell of a lot better than that ever did. Skin tones are warmer and truer to that sort of glow Technicolor could really give, Hayworth’s iconic red hair really shines, and depth and detail are far better resolved. In terms of supplements, Baz Luhrmann provides a short, fine interview commending the film, and Farran Smith Nehme provides an essay for the booklet, which unfortunately I do not have access to. But she’s terribly smart, and the film’s well worth picking up even if it were another bare bones release. I had let myself doubt my initial reaction, certain over the years that I’d overvalued it five years ago, but revisiting it now, with so different and more fulfilling a life than I had then, I was still bowled over by the depth of its wit, curiosity, and feeling. It’s a magnificent film.

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Scott Reviews Juzo Itami’s Tampopo [Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-juzo-itamis-tampopo-criterion-collection-blu-ray-review Wed, 26 Apr 2017 20:40:03 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55677

Wikipedia suggests the term “food porn” was coined by feminist critic Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire, one year before the film to which it is still best applicable was released. Juzo Itami’s Tampopo is not solely made up of the sort of Instagram-ready, ornate cuisines with which we are inundated with today. Food is often mishandled, tossed off, or even not shown at all, even when it is the subject of the scene (which it often is). But the film expresses best – to borrow the title of another famous book – the joy of cooking, of eating, of considering one’s appetite and all that might fill it. And yes, one of its vignettes deals with a couple who has sex with food, so there’s that, too.

Centrally, the film is about a woman named Tampopo who owns and runs a ramen restaurant that isn’t very good. Inspired by a rough-and-tumble trucker to be better, she insists he mentor her until she has perfected her craft. And so, with an ever-growing crew of ramen-lovers, they go to work making her shop a destination. Along the way, Itami includes short vignettes exploring other avenues of food appreciation. While the main story is concerned with the labor involved in crafting good food, these short stories explore the erotic, financial, professional, familial, tactile, commercial, and cultural effects food has on people of various walks of life. One is about a young salary worker who knows way more about French cuisine than his superiors; another shows a woman work herself to death making dinner for her family. One is simply about an grocer chasing down an elderly woman who squeezes everything in the store. Did Mr. Whipple play in Japan?

While trying not to come off as too dense here, I sort of take food for granted. Not just in the privileged-American, constant-access-to-a-grocery-store-and-fast-food kind of way, but I don’t really get bent out of shape over a bad meal. Some are better than others, and the stuff’s mostly there to keep me alive. I eat for sustenance first, pleasure second (at best). Tampopo really brings into sharp focus how odd our relationship with food naturally is, how divorced we are from its source (the film, notably, deals not at all with farmers or butchers), and how sort of gross it is to shovel matter into our bodies, let alone as a means of pleasure. We constantly see food mashed, slurped, suckled, labored over. The film is at times unappetizing, even as it simultaneously rouses our awareness of how great food can be. Sort of like a lot of porn.

The notion of a “Criterion release” and what that entails has transformed a great deal over the years, to the endless fascination of us Criterion nerds along the way. Tampopo very much embodies the contemporary Criterion release – low on scholarly insight, heavy on production and cultural perspective, all presented in a brightly-colored, pop-y, appealing manner and package. To make the inevitable comparison, it’s an enjoyable meal, if slightly unfilling. The film itself is presented in a gorgeous 4K restoration that really has all the hallmarks you would expect from the company at this juncture. It’s sharp and clean and colorful and dense with texture and detail. Traces of damage are minimal, and I didn’t notice any of the dread compression artifacts we keep fussing over.

The supplements really express the flavor of the release. The best, to my mind, is a 90-minute documentary narrated by Itami about the making of the film. Here he can explore his regrets, his joys, and his memories of the experience, set to direct set footage of the scenes being prepared and shot. Which, sure, in a sense the film itself is as well, and the documentary makes for a perfect companion piece. He’s fairly open about how they achieved some shots, many of which don’t automatically suggest there’d be a trick involved, but which turn out to be quite complex. Whether incidental or not, he’s open to how demanding he can be on set, even towards his wife Nobuko Miyamoto, the film’s star. She’ll get the final word in a solo interview later on in the disc anyway.

Speaking of interviews, the other big highlight is a discussion with the film’s food stylist, Seiko Ogawa, who was in charge of not just making the endless bowls of ramen that parade through the film, but making sure each bowl did what it needed to do, narratively. As they try to craft a better bowl, Tampopo and Goro travel from restaurant to restaurant, each bowl having its own strengths – in some the broth is too thick or too thin, the noodles underwhelming, the pork insufficient. Each bowl Ogawa crafted helped tell the story.

Leading into that, we get a short featurette on ramen culture, how it went from a common pleasure to fine casual dining, with some vendors changing their menu daily to reflect fresh ingredients. Criterion being an American outfit, they focus on how Americans have interpreted the dish, but Japanese ramen scholar Hiroshi Oosaki guides the narrative, so it has its roots in the right place.

Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos also contribute a short video essay on the notion of mastering one’s craft, and the importance of the amateur perspective on professional endeavors (something to which the CriterionCast family can relate); anyone who’s seen any of Zhou’s work will not be surprised that this is a very worthwhile ten minutes.

Last but not least, Criterion includes Itami’s 1962 short film, Rubber Band Pistol, which sets the stage for some of the Western-inspired aesthetics of Tampopo. It’s in very good shape as well.

As I noted, this is the very model of a modern Criterion release, but the form is also well-suited to this zippy, fun exploration of pleasure. In a way, that makes it sort of a perfect package. Criterion, too, is always mastering their craft.

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Scott’s TCM Fest Dispatch, Part Three: Psychology https://criterioncast.com/festivals/scotts-tcm-fest-dispatch-part-three-psychology Thu, 13 Apr 2017 23:03:41 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55620

It’s not exactly remarkable that cinema has been around long enough to chart the rise of modern psychology. The first century of film covers society’s entire 20th, a hundred-year span rife with innovation in a great many fields. But as art is keen on investigating the psyche, it’s little surprise that cinema would try to keep pace in some way with the study and expression of it. From the psychological thriller to the psychodrama to most horror films, the study of the mind onscreen sometimes unfolds perfectly naturally, and other times feels like a stiff lecture from somebody who read a really fascinating article in TIME the month before. Look no further than Psycho for an example of both, but look to three films that played at the TCM Classic Film Festival for some pretty wild takes.

Based on a novel by a prominent psychologist (once president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis), Frank Perry’s David and Lisa has a touch of the physicians manual to it. Set in a residential psychiatric treatment center for teenagers, Keir Dullea stars as David, whose undiagnosed illness causes him to fear being touched and leaves him resistant to most ordinary social niceties. He is able to befriend Lisa (Janet Margolin), largely because he sees in her a challenge. She suffers from a disorder that saddles her with two personalities – Lisa can only speak in rhyme, while Muriel cannot speak at all, only write (and poorly, at that). David notices how much trouble the doctors have getting through to her, and seeks to succeed where they have not; not in any effort to help Lisa, just to maintain his certainty that he’s smarter than everyone else.

Somewhat inevitably, he comes to truly care for Lisa, and through her, open up to his doctors. I’m not entirely sure Perry (and screenwriter Eleanor Perry, his wife) fully earn the transformation. It comes about as the result of some family trauma, which David has experienced plenty of in the past, and while it makes sense that he should warm to the school, it starts to heal him at such an accelerated rate that we lose touch with the rude, prideful, caustic David we’d come to know. Especially considering how successfully the Perrys would come to mine drama in unusual ways in films like The Swimmer, Last Summer, and Diary of a Mad Housewife, David and Lisa seems considerably tamer, but their evocation of the discomfort of living in such an environment is potent enough, and Dullea and Margolin (along with Howard da Silva as David’s doctor) give pretty magnificent performances.

Black Narcissus doesn’t directly concern psychology the way David and Lisa and the next film we’ll talk about do, but it does deal with sexual repression among a group of women living in isolation; it’d be equally a stretch to say it doesn’t deal with psychology at all. Based on a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, and adapted for the screen by its producers and directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – at the peak of their creative and commercial powers, it’s a stone cold cinematic classic, as great as just about anything made in the 1940s.

Deborah Kerr stars as a young nun in way over her head trying to establish a school and hospital in the remote Himalayas. They are well funded and accommodated for, but there’s a lack of enthusiasm amongst the locals and the nuns have intense difficulty adjusting to life so far removed from what they knew. Even if an English convent is quite isolated, there they have a common culture and familiar climate. In India, everything seems out to get them, including, before long, one another. While Sister Clodagh (Kerr) may admire Mr. Dean (David Farrar), their local contact and guide, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) flat out lusts after him, and the dramatic arc hinges on just how far she’ll take her obsession.

What stood out to me in watching it this time was just how long it takes to build to that, and how much tension Powell and Pressburger build into ordinary nun activities. The whole beginning of the film, as Sister Clodagh is receiving her mission from her Mother Superior, has a hint of the energy that Kubrick would crank up in The Shining – everything reasonably pleasant, but as though the air has been sucked out of the room.

The film was one of four shown at TCM Fest from a nitrate print, a type of film stock that is highly flammable but also extraordinarily gorgeous, discontinued in the early 1950s due to safety concerns, but increasingly sought after among repertory enthusiasts. I’d only seen Black Narcissus on Blu-ray before, and while the digital copy certain offers a cleaner experience, it’s immediately clear once Deborah Kerr appears onscreen that the nitrate print contains a certain feeling that one simply cannot get any other way. Notably, later on in the film, when Kerr rushes into the darkness, one really senses an inky fog is enveloping her, and not simply the absence of light.

Another film in the nitrate series, the final film of the festival, was completely unknown to me before the schedule was posted, yet emerged as one of the very best I saw all weekend. Mitchell Leisen’s Lady in the Dark was adapted from a Broadway musical that boasted the unusual collaboration of Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera) on music, Ira Gershwin (“I Got Rhythm”) on lyrics, and Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You) writing the book, inspired by his own experiences in psychoanalysis. The film jettisons most of the songs, but there’s a strong musical undercurrent to this extremely odd tale of ambition, anxiety, gender roles, and fashion. And oh, what fashion.

Ginger Rogers stars as Liza Elliott, editor-in-chief of a successful fashion magazine. She admits that she got the job because the publisher has a crush on her, a crush she’s heretofore successfully avoided fully consummating as he is also a married man. She dresses in business suits and wears an unflattering hairdo, but if she’s doing it to keep men away, it isn’t working. Even Randy Curtis (Jon Hall), the current heartthrob movie star, can’t resist her. Only Charley Johnson (Ray Milland), her publicity and advertising manager, seems to openly loathe her, but only in such a way that suggests he might carry a torch for her, too. But Liza isn’t happy with any of it. She’s plagued by nightmares and is paralyzed by what seem like panic attacks. Finally she sees a psychiatrist, who suggests she may be working to avoid her feminine side, which deeply needs indulging.

Now then. I’m not going to sit her and tell you the film could not be more “woke”. I’m not going to say there are secret feminist machinations at work. I will say that, as someone with almost no career ambition, the idea that somebody – man or woman – could chase a career, be left completely unsatisfied by it, and long for romantic intimacy does not inherently seem misogynist or anything of the sort to me. I will also say that the film is sometimes more than a little clunky in deciphering Liza’s dreams, which don’t exactly have the one-to-one correlation of Hitchcock’s thoroughly dull Spellbound (which came out the following year), but which sort of gradually and persistently come back to the notion that Liza wishes she could be more glamorous but withholds that side of herself. It’s a simple psychological read, and a little hokey, but where would Hollywood be without the hokey? There’s something so achingly human in the way Liza resists the simplest interpretation, echoing our desire for the answer to be anything else. And yet, by the end, the solution to her problems is far from simple, far from a purely patriarchal brow-beating, and more in the spirit of the true partnership of marriage.

Those dreams, by the way, are completely insane and stunning. As Rose McGowan said in her introduction, they must have used all the dry ice in town blanketing the sets in fog, but it was worth it. They’re surreal and uncomfortable and sometimes quite unnerving. Even more remarkable, they seem like natural extensions of everything else in the film, which is drowned in turquoise and blue-ish tones, a sea of dissatisfaction and queasiness in a glamorous industry. The mix of dream and reality further bleeds into the way scenes transition from one to the next, sometimes skipping past major decisions in order to better the flow. I’ve been fond of Leisen for several years, but I really wouldn’t have expected something this formally ornate and unusual from him. It’s extremely rare that I’m left as baffled by a film that I am absolutely certain is great.


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Scott Reviews James Gray’s The Lost City of Z [Theatrical Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/theatrical/scott-reviews-james-grays-the-lost-city-of-z-theatrical-review Thu, 13 Apr 2017 22:24:37 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55617

James Gray has a habit of digging up the past. Usually he does it by way of resuscitating unfashionable directorial techniques, genres, and aesthetics, but in The Lost City of Z, he’s found a subject that’s a natural fit for such treatment. Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who in the early 20th century made several expeditions to the Amazon in search of an ancient city he was certain was buried there. His archeological colleagues, steeped as they were in the idea of Western (and especially British) exceptionalism, are largely unsupportive both financially and emotionally of his endeavors, and these trips leave him estranged from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and son Jack (Tom Holland, for most of the film) back home. His sole sliver of support comes from the eternally indulgent Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), a fellow adventurer who seems to have few dreams of glory, only of experience.

I knew nothing of Fawcett before seeing the film, and can claim no knowledge of Gray’s adherence to the facts of the case, but Gray gives the impression that he is as much imagining a life for Percy as he is relaying it. Percy maintains a rich inner life, his desires and anxieties as much the film’s subject as his considerable achievements. The few instances in which we can be sure Gray imagines Percy’s possible discoveries are beautifully conceived and executed, the transcendent experience of the jungle as clear to us as it must have been to him.

This taking place when it does, these trips are not quick affairs. Gray and editor John Axelrad craft a rhythm similar to that of Synecdoche, New York, where a cut can cover an instant or years. Nana Fischer’s make-up work with Hunnam, Pattinson, and Miller allows us to chart the relative time that passes, but even then I was shocked to learn how many years can pass on a single expedition. This method underscores how lost Percy has become in his quest, how little time he has to accomplish what he wishes to, and how much he’s missing back home in the endeavor. His family is happy to see him when he’s there, but they can’t fully understand what drives him. Nina even yearns to accompany him, but Percy can’t see a way for a woman to survive the jungle. When he lays out his case against it, the hardship and disease and violence inherent in the area, it seems as though he resents the hold it has over even him.

Hunnam, an actor often derided in cinephile circles but whose work I just don’t know well enough, is quite good here, tapping into Percy’s boastfulness and pride by way of the unusual nature of early-20th-century speech and posture. Not since Spielberg’s Lincoln has an American filmmaker so successfully tapped into the strangeness of the time period. It’s a very presentational performance, but one that doesn’t try to pummel subtlety. Percy never says the opposite of what he means, but often chases the side of himself with which he is most comfortable. As with We Own the Night, Gray is interested in watching this exterior pride erode into vulnerability; as the film comes to focus around Percy’s relationship with his son, so too does Hunnam age Percy into a man comfortable opening up to others by way of maintaining his authority over them. It’s a delicate dance. We’ve seen a thousand movies about men coming to terms with their feelings that seem to betray the person they are in the first half of the film for the cheap sentimentality of a pleasing conclusion. Here, Percy’s ability to connect with his son is still very much on his own terms, and all the more cathartic for it.

Reuniting with the great cinematographer Darius Khondji after their collaboration on The Immigrant, Gray is once again interested in a sort of imperfect perfection. Their ornately-crafted images avoid the polish of modern 4K-ready photography, slipping further and further into the sort of unreality with which the editing toys. Gray has become sort of famous for his final shots, and The Lost City of Z may contain the best of them yet.


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Scott’s TCM Fest Dispatch, Part Two: Economics https://criterioncast.com/festivals/scotts-tcm-fest-dispatch-part-two-economics Wed, 12 Apr 2017 16:22:05 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55601

The 1930s – more films about women, more films about working life. And often the two overlapped. You watch a film made today, it’s brutally clear that the people who made it rarely have to be anywhere In the ‘30s, at the height of the studio system, the entire creative force behind a picture worked 9-5 on the studio lot, just like anyone else. They had a workplace. And while many made a great deal more money than the characters they were depicting, they knew what it was to hold a job. That mindset, that constant awareness of money and office work and routine, bleeds into the pictures of the period.

Take a film like Rafter Romance, which played at TCM Classic Film Festival Friday morning. Ginger Rogers and Norman Foster star as two broke strangers living in the same apartment building (and they say people knew their neighbors back then). Mary works by day cold-calling from a list to sell refrigerators; Jack works as a night watchman. Neither brings in enough to make ends meet, so their landlord decides to room them together. She’s out all day, and gets the apartment from 8pm to 8am, when he comes in. And you’ll surely guess where it goes from there.

Getting to the romance by way of a reversal of the famous Shop Around the Corner formula – here they meet and get along in real life, but detest one another through notes around the apartment – the film deals very pleasantly with the struggles of budding romance when there isn’t a lot of money to go around. They’re stuck mostly meeting in parks and cheap restaurants, taking in massive construction as a source of entertainment. Their only true day of leisure comes at a company picnic, where even then they have to avoid the main crowd because Mary’s boss has taken an elevated liking to her. She has her tricks for dodging his advances, but they’ll only hold out so long.

More than any sly commentary on capitalism, Rafter Romance is an example of a very common sort of film of the day. It’s 72 minutes, thoroughly predictable, but consistently funny and winning. It’s content with having its characters be petty or selfish or proud without making their flaws the center of the film. They’re just ordinary people, getting along in life. The film boasts a small but rich supporting cast – including George Sidney as the landlord, Robert Benchley as Mary’s boss, and Laura Hope Crews as Jack’s would-be patron – but it’s Foster and especially Rogers who capture our attention. Foster had a strange sort of career, acting steadily through the 1930s before turning to a steady career in directing (where his credits included the excellent film noir Woman on the Run). Rogers would of course become one of the biggest stars in the country – the same year Rafter Romance was released, she also stole the show in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and made her first appearance with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio. The rest, as they say, is history, but Rafter Romance gives her one of her first real starring roles, immediately proving she can more than ably carry a picture. She’d been looking to get into more dramatic work at this time, but this film only cements what a skilled comedian she was.

Before the film, Leonard Maltin interviewed a couple members of the TCM staff about the unusual reason Rafter Romance went largely unseen for so long. Apparently Merian C. Cooper, the head of RKO in its time, received as part of his severance package the rights to four films of his choosing, this among them. He mostly wanted the picture for remake rights, and ended up selling off the elements in a shady tax deal that brought him little relief. So with the elements being held by one party, and the rights to show the film by another, neither particularly willing to get along and both eventually dead, it became a more tangled mess than it was worth until TCM came along in 2006 to try to sort it all out. They debuted it on the network the following year, and released a DVD shortly thereafter, only to let that fall out of print. Now the film is sadly returned to the rarified status it “enjoyed” for so long.

Far more available, though not much more famous, King Vidor’s 1931 film Street Scene was the best film I saw for the first time this past weekend. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get me on a more committed effort to see more of Vidor’s work from this period, considering he tends to steal the festival (past programming has included The Big Parade and The Stranger’s Return), but this only confirmed that I’m spending my non-TCM-Fest time all wrong. Written by Elmer Rice and based on his own play, the film takes place entirely on the front stoop of a large New York apartment building on a very hot summer day. Tensions are running high and the residents are wandering the streets, looking for a bit of breeze to relieve them. They pass the time by talking about the weather or gossipping about whoever isn’t there or yelling about the injustice of capitalism.

The film has one of the biggest cast cards I’ve seen in this era, but it principally concerns the Maurant family. Frank (David Landau) treats his wife Anna (Estelle Taylor) horribly, and consequently she’s started taking up with an office man for the milk company (Russell Hopton), who keeps finding occasion to pass by their building. Frank and Anna’s daughter Rose (Sylvia Sidney) is out of school and working for a real estate office, where her married boss (Walter Miller) won’t leave her alone, though then again neither will many other men in town. She’s sweeter on her neighbor, Sam (William Collier, Jr.), but her father isn’t keen on her seeing a Jewish boy, and for that matter his family isn’t wild about the idea either, especially since his sister (Ann Kostant) has been working hard to put him through college and he still has law school ahead of him.

And that’s what the film’s really about – these circumstances, these unfortunate coincidences of time and place and societal attitude that conspire to keep people apart, divorced from true engagement in a community, even when, yeah, everybody does know everybody else. But what good is familiarity without intimacy? Characters like Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi) seem to use small talk as a shield against having to actually care about anyone. So long as she can talk with people about the heat or what the neighbors are up to, she can seem just invested enough, but if anyone starts to let their guard down around anyone else, she’s quick to stamp out their affection with a well-timed snide remark.

Sure enough, tensions explode, and when they do, I think I literally gasped, so shocking was the type of violence even at a time when Hollywood was assailed for just that. As Vidor starts to widen his gaze, he uses crowds to magnify tragedy, the effect of a single act reverberating throughout the neighborhood. What once seemed to be so contained – just this stoop, just this building – is revealed in a much larger context, and the world seems far bigger than its characters imagined. Perhaps, through this, the opportunity of escape is also possible; but you can never truly run away, you can only leave.

Economic strife wasn’t exactly solved by 1962, when Ralph Nelson’s Requiem for a Heavyweight was released, but the difference in how the two films explore it demonstrates how much had changed in the thirty years between. Rafter Romance and Street Scene came out at the height of the Depression. Everybody was poor. It was a tragedy, but it also allowed modest advancement (a steady job selling refrigerators or real estate or driving a cab) to be hugely important. Whatever troubles they faced could hardly be blamed on them (even if Jack might be a bit of a dunce for turning down $300 for a painting). Poverty in the midst of an economic boom is a different matter altogether.

The film, a feature adaptation of a Peabody-winning teleplay that aired on Playhouse 90 in 1956, follows “Mountain” Rivera (Anthony Quinn) as he is forced out of his 16-year boxing career after one injury too many, and has to contend with finding work for the first time in his adult life. Through Grace, a woman at an employment agency (Julie Harris), he lines up a few opportunities that his manager Maish (Jackie Gleason) seeks to squander, hoping instead that the former contender will take up a career in showboat wrestling and continue to pass him his percentage, which he badly needs after betting Mountain wouldn’t last four rounds in a fight that went seven. Here, jobs are everywhere, but the will or confidence is not. Mountain has trouble seeing himself as anyone more than a bag of meat, and he has more than a few people willing to attest to it.

Aside from Quinn and Gleason doing exemplary work, Mickey Rooney also features in an unusual role as Mountain’s cut man. He stands by Mountain and genuinely wants the best for him, but he also has considerably less influence over him than Maish, and Rooney plays the sadness and desperation beautifully. Here is a guy even more dependent on Mountain than Maish is, but who also never tried to stretch out to be more than he was. There are allusions made that he was once a boxer himself, but we get the impression he didn’t get very far in that either.

The film has a touch of that classical American dramatic scolding, letting the arc of the drama fold back in on itself and form a somewhat pat circle, where we can shake our heads and think “oh what a shame”, but it never really reaches beyond itself or its world to something spiritual or cathartic. Still, the performances alone are so striking that I heartily recommend it.

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Scott’s TCM Fest Dispatch, Part One: Silliness https://criterioncast.com/festivals/scotts-tcm-fest-dispatch-part-one-silliness Tue, 11 Apr 2017 05:16:48 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55590

This is my seventh TCM Classic Film Festival. At a certain point, some things become routine – one learns to expect the exhaustion at the dawn of day three (of four), the constant negotiation between personal viewing whims and rare presentations, the way plots and aesthetic choices start to run together, and the suspicion that explaining the draw of such an event to those not immediately inclined to attend it may come across a touch insane. Film festivals are innately demanding experiences, but between the pleasure of its programming, the consolidation of the venues, and the brevity of most of its films’ running times, few make it so easy to watch four, five, six movies in a day. You tell your coworkers on Monday what you did all weekend, and it starts to not make a lot of sense. But somehow, in the midst of it all, the point of it couldn’t be clearer.

The notion of pleasure was doubly heightened this year with the focus on comedy. “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies” was the loose theme this year. And while I’m temperamentally more drawn to dramatic films (which TCM certainly provided), there was a lot to laugh about this year.

After being a bit underwhelmed with the original film adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I wasn’t particularly eager to haul up Highland Ave. at 8:30 in the morning for star Danny Kaye’s most famous film, The Court Jester. With my wise fiancée leading the charge, however, in we piled for the world premiere of its new restoration at the TCL Chinese Theatre, and glad I am that we did. It’s worth echoing what Fred Willard noted in his introduction to the film, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else would quite have the chops to pull off not only the comedic timing, but also the sweetness and sincerity in this story about a freedom fighter in medieval England who disguises himself as the King’s new jester in an effort to overthrow the crown. There are songs and comedy routines galore, but it is surprisingly heavy on plot (far from the breezy experience one might want at 9am), and looks absolutely gorgeous in the new restoration.

I have sort of limited patience for stories like Game of Thrones that take the culture of kings and queens utterly seriously, but bereft of much poetry in their telling. Grim and gritty will only get you so far in life, kids. The absurd gravity of the times is best left to Walerian Borowczyk (Blanche), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, The Canterbury Tales), or Eric Rohmer (Perceval le Gallois), but between the extremes grim and silly, I’ll take silly every time, and silly The Court Jester is. By the time an already-funny scene is compounded by the random magnetization of a suit of armor, the possibilities seem almost limitless, and the climax proves them indeed to be. A hypnotism subplot allows Kaye to play quite a few different angles on a familiar sort of cowardly character, but his earnest desire to be brave separates him from the accidentally-heroic characters thrown haphazardly into greatness we see so often in films starring Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, or Woody Allen. And the songs are aces, too. The restoration doesn’t currently appear to be scheduled to hit Blu-ray, but I doubt that’s far off.

Silliness is almost reflexive in Ernst Lubitsch, even as his characters attempt to retain composure, which we see in full display in his great 1926 silent film So This is Paris. I saw this film (still sadly unavailable on DVD or Blu) about a year ago at Cinefamily through their great Silent Treatment series, and was extremely eager to see it again. The two distinct venues proved edifying. The former is a self-selecting crowd – they tend to turn out to most of the Silent Treatment shows, and for some, it’s the only trips to Cinefamily they’ll make. They’re extremely attuned to the nuances of silent screen storytelling, necessary to pick up on the boundless humor of gesture and glance a director as sophisticated as Lubitsch imbued in his films. Very little of the story is told in intertitles, but one can pick up on the dialogue nevertheless. That said, TCM as a channel and certainly as a festival, while spotlighting silent films regularly, does not necessarily engender the same crowd (and this is totally fine; the Fairfax set isn’t nearly as sensitive to melodrama as the TCM audience, for example).

The laughter was less explosive and less frequent this time around, but the musical accompaniment was more robust. Donald Sosin’s largely improvised – but precisely-timed – piano accompaniment perfectly complemented the film’s bawdiness. Especially by the time the film – about a pair of husbands and wives who might want to see the loving arrangements revisited – gets to the outstanding ballroom sequence, when Lubitsch piles his dissolves and pans and kaleidoscopic effects into an orgy of limbs, champagne, and streamers, it can be a lot to keep up with, and Sosin’s score made it as beautiful as I could imagine. And even silently, Monte Blue’s performance as the nervously duplicitous Doctor Paul Giraud seemed an important forerunner to Maurice Chevalier’s work under Lubitsch, particularly in One Hour With You (also screened at the festival).

One can arguably take silliness too far, and the decidedly mixed crowd reaction to Those Redheads From Seattle suggests at least one film this week did just that. Now, I’ll admit, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a film about Agnes Moorehead and her similarly-folicled daughters (plus their cat, President McKinley) traveling to the Yukon at the height of the Gold Rush, only to discover her husband has been murdered in a newspaper war, to also be a 3D musical, let alone for this all to cohere in a sensible way. That said, by the time the film cuts from Moorehead screaming in despair upon learning of her husband’s fate to its most joyous musical number, one suspects that director Lewis R. Foster, his screenwriters, and producers might have made a few more sensible choices along the way.

But I found it hard to really feel too sour towards the film. This is, admittedly, in part because the musical is my favorite film genre and I quite enjoy 3D, but the songs are really quite a lot of fun and the added dimension is actually used pretty smartly. You still get a few things thrown at the camera (including a leaky beer barrel), thankfully, but an early dogsledding sequence shows they have a bit more up their sleeve. It’s not merely a matter of that “depth” and “space” you heard so much about from 3D enthusiasts circa 2007-2012. It’s just flat-out more thrilling to watch the sleds move across the screen and down a mountain and past the camera, and seemingly zooming right towards you the whole time. One gets the sense of the wind in one’s hair and the ardour of the journey and the rush of excitement towards a new place. It doesn’t mean the plot’s less messy, but I’m glad TCM and the 3-D Film Archive dug this one up and restored it so well. It will be released on Blu-ray in a month.

As for taking silliness too far, however, or perhaps not far enough, I will say briefly here that due to being Pre-Code airplane comedy Cock of the Air reaching capacity before my arrival, I ended up catching the first hour of Frank Capra’s widely-loved black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which I found as uninteresting now as I did when I last saw it seven or eight years ago. Cary Grant (the greatest screen actor there ever was) hated his work in the film, feeling indeed that he went overboard in his performance. It is just about the wackiest I’ve seen him outside of a Hawks picture, but at least he and costar Priscilla Lane have some chemistry and are able to invent bits of business that aren’t directly the point of their being there. Just about everybody else in the film seems to be under overly-strict direction, never a good feeling to evoke in a comedy as odd as this. As a result, I can scarcely think of another film that works as hard as this does to be merely mildly amusing. Outside of maybe Preston Sturges, but that’s a subject for another time. I’ll be back soon to talk noir, psychiatry, and economics. Hey, that can’t all be laughers.


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Scott Reviews Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-robert-aldrichs-twilights-last-gleaming-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Thu, 16 Mar 2017 22:32:24 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55444

There’s a sense I get from a lot of late-1970s American films that following the hope of the early 1960s, the anger of the late 1960s, and the despondency of the early 1970s, a lot of people felt that they had one last chance to truly reclaim the spirit of America, which was arguably on the precipice of being lost forever. With the bicentennial came a renewed focus on the foundations of freedom, democracy, and optimism on which the United States was founded, a realization of how far it had fallen from that promise, and how fast that fall seemed to have happened. We can look back now and see that in many ways they were right. A globalized economy pushed the working class to the margins. Government became limited in its capacity to help and unimaginably powerful in its capacity to destroy. Improved legislation for civil rights failed to fully heal racism and sexism, only make it more nimble. And a certain set of films – I think of Network, Black Sunday, All the President’s Men, and Nashville – urgently tried to warn us of what was taking place. Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be the most outlandish of them (well…that or Black Sunday), but it is also the most passionate. It is a proudly patriotic film cut through with deep, deep cynicism about how far from patriotic the country had become.

Burt Lancaster stars as Lawrence Dell, a disgraced Air Force General who recently escaped from a military prison with the aim to gain control of a nuclear launch site and threaten to launch unless the U.S. government reveals the true reasons we went to war in Vietnam. This is peak 1977, baby. He has a couple fellow escapees (Burt Young and Paul Winfield) along to help, and a formidable foe in form of his old friend General Martin MacKenzie (Richard Widmark) working to stop him. Joseph Cotten plays the Secretary of State, Melvyn Douglas the Secretary of Defense, and Charles Durning’s the President. All-star, all the way.

Director Robert Aldrich methodically lays out how one might go about taking over a heavily-guarded government facility, with all the assault, kidnapping, and espionage work that comes with it. In truly old-fashioned way, Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch’s screenplay (adapted from Walter Wager’s novel) withholds even Dell’s basic motivation, and certainly the mystery he seeks to uncover, until well into the film, trusting that they can hold out interest just in watching this tense scenario play out. They are far from wrong. Lancaster’s pure conviction at all times is thrilling enough in its own right – add to that the suspense of checkpoints to be cleared, guys with guns to be detained, vaults to be opened, and lines of communication to be cut, all to Jerry Goldsmith’s thundering score…you’ve got yourself quite a picture.

As the showdown between Dell, MacKenzie, and President Stevens escalates, so too do Aldrich’s filmmaking techniques. By this point, split-screen effects were unusual, but not entirely unheard of. De Palma’s Sisters made expert use of it to heighten tension, while Norman Jewison kind of went crazy with it in a visual symphony for The Thomas Crown Affair. Aldrich uses it here in a way that sort of merges the two. He’s far less elegant with it than De Palma, but certainly more purposeful than Jewison – we’re often meant to take in what’s happening in each frame, and try to hold them together as competing ideas. But they were either a little under-planned or deliberately overstuffed, as the dialogue often competes for space and the actions in one don’t always have direct relation to what happens in another. By the time he starts stacking four or five frames in at once, it can be a lot to handle, but I allow for the possibility of deliberate choice because all this confusion and uncertainty goes a long way to heighten tension. It emphasizes how unwieldy such a situation would be, how many moving pieces are at play, and how easy it can be to lose track of the one that will come back to bite you.

It would be a shame to spoil the revelation about Vietnam, and everything it comes to unveil about the secrecy and true priorities of the government, but suffice to say that its conclusions are not flattering. Whatever their bearing in reality, Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes them seriously as a means of underlining how disinterested the government can feel in the lives of everyday people. The plot, silly as it may be, is merely a vessel for that central feeling, which it explores deftly. The conviction I mentioned earlier with Lancaster has a twofold effect, because Dell’s plan is ultimately undone by his idealism. He trusts too much in certain processes and values he holds dear, never able to quite imagine just how corrupt the government he already believes to be so in theory can be in fact. He can’t see past the individual transgression for the larger moral vacancy. When he’s faced with it, Lancaster – a committed liberal his entire life, who stood 6’2” and carried a powerful speaking voice – seems to shrivel internally. It’s the smallest moment he’ll have in a confrontational film, and he carries it beautifully.

Masters of Cinema carries Twilight’s Last Gleaming onto Blu-ray via what seems to me a studio-crafted high-definition transfer, which characteristically means it’s sharp and crisp and has decent grain, texture, and color, but isn’t overtly remarkable in any other way. Skin tones are maybe a bit on the pale side, but it’s hard to say for sure without having seen the film in theaters. It gets the job done and never distracts from the main show.

The only on-disc supplement is a very good 70-minute documentary Aldrich Over Munich: The Making of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, which does just that. The film was shot in Munich, hence the title, but the sociopolitical tenor of the story is never far from its sights.


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Scott Reviews Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park [Masters of Cinema Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-robert-altmans-that-cold-day-in-the-park-masters-of-cinema-blu-ray-review Tue, 28 Feb 2017 02:10:50 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55336

Robert Altman builds his films like dystopian prisons, convincing his residents they have the run of the place while working to ensure they can’t escape. When he actually buckles down for a psychological thriller (3 Women) or locked-room drama (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Secret Honor), any departure from the comedic tone we usually expect from him is balanced by a psychological continuity. His films consistently show that you can never really run away from your problems, and you’re inevitably due to return to them.

That Cold Day in the Park opens in a city so generic, I took the English-accented cast at face value and assumed we were somewhere in the U.K. Here, in a well-appointed apartment, lives Frances (Sandy Dennis), so entombed in the memory of her deceased parents that all her friends (and would-be suitors) are twice her age. She entertains them and busies herself with their activities – lawn bowling, bridge games, conversations about ailments, and so on. She is perhaps no longer young, but she is far from old, and this living among the elderly is taking a toll on her psyche. When she spots a young man (Michael Burns) sitting alone in the park in the midst of a downpour, her charitable spirit and increasing loneliness inspires her to let him in to dry off and have a good meal. If his clothes should no dry and he need to spend the night, well, so be it. If he should keep coming back, all the better. If his life is not so downtrodden as Frances imagines, but more complex than she could guess, well…that’s not precisely her business. She just wants to keep him there.

We never find out his name, because for most of the picture, he refuses to speak. She never learns of his larged, troubled family, nor of the near-incestuous relationship he has with his boorish sister. He wanders out in the middle of the night to the shabby apartment he shares with her, only to return to the plushly-appointed private room with which Frances has furnished him. Through his escapades, we learn we are not in a stuffy British society – Frances and her friends exist apart from the frontier around them, cut off from engaging in it. When, late in the film, she visits a doctor to discuss birth control, the other women in the waiting room freely discuss what to her is extremely nerve-wrecking. Frances has no way of being entirely at ease. Amidst her friends, she is with people who have lived; in the doctor’s office, she is with the living. She herself has not, and does not, live. She exists. She marks time and behaves respectably. No wonder the easygoing conversations of others feel so threatening. This is how Altman twists the improvisation he encourages into something entirely his own.

Her unending prattle – about her life and her minor frustrations and clothes and cooking – means to fill the air between her and The Boy, but is unable to establish a relationship. He is her prisoner by virtue of class. She can offer him room, food, and clothing, in exchange merely for his sitting there and pretending to listen. This alone lights up her life. Dennis carries the role with a sort of learned understanding of people, gained less from actually interacting with them than from notions of how one is to behave. She delivers her lines to The Boy as though knowing it isn’t quite the right thing to say, but lacking any other words with which to express herself. She knows how to hold up her end of a conversation, but not how to truly bond with someone, and by the time she starts to figure out, it’s too late. One especially mistimed attempt at intimacy ends in the film’s most overt scene of horror, as Frances is forced to confront how terribly alone she is. From there the film has given itself license to descend into just about any degree of the genre, and descend it does, all the way to an outstanding conclusion.

Altman’s camera techniques, in collaboration with soon-to-be-famed cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo), will be familiar to those who have seen his psychodramas. Heavy on the zoom-in-and-blur technique, they also find just the right angles to keep the audience engaged in the simmering drama without overtly tipping their hand as to the genre in which the film will eventually require. By the time this genre does emerge, then, their more relaxed rhythms turn grotesque action into everyday behavior, heightening the danger and the discomfort. It’s a lovely piece of work, represented well on Masters of Cinema’s recently-released Blu-ray. Grain structure is managed quite well, as is the color balance, not too saturated given the late-sixties stock Kovács worked with, but plenty vibrant and warm. I didn’t notice any excessive damage or compression artifacts.

Supplements are limited to a worthwhile half-hour interview with critic David Thompson, and a booklet that didn’t arrive with the check disc we received.


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Scott Reviews Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs [Criterion Blu-ray Review] https://criterioncast.com/reviews/blu-ray-reviews/scott-reviews-ermanno-olmis-the-tree-of-wooden-clogs-criterion-blu-ray-review Tue, 14 Feb 2017 22:34:34 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55219

As the art film revolution of the late 1950s and 1960s gave way to more populist manifestations of its stylistic inventions, so too did the “foreign language drama” become a codified form. As Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Fellini, and other renowned directors of that earlier time aged out of their peak years of financial viability, a new class found a framework in which to ground their career. They didn’t always have the training in commercial art that their forerunners had worked in and helped develop before eventually resisting, subverting, or overthrowing, but they had the stamina and the work ethic to invest in the trappings that made earlier more revolutionary works so galvanizing.

Ermanno Olmi made his start in documentary shorts, making more than two dozen from 1953-1959, before making his feature narrative debut with Time Stood Still (1959), an avalanche drama about a generational divide. He gained considerably more acclaim for 1961’s Il Posto, and continued working steadily, if to little international acclaim, through the 1960s and 70s. Among his many TV projects was a rather ambitious three-part miniseries about tenant farmers in late 19th century Bergamo, Italy, a period of brewing volatility that, for now, would scarcely affect these peasants. Olmi’s aim was to shoot the film with a small crew (he would be his own cinematographer) and a big cast (four peasant families’ worth), with all the dialogue in the local Bergamasque dialect. He prevailed over financier doubts, and premiered the three parts as one three-hour film at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. When it won the Palme d’Or, any notion of a television premiere was scuttled and The Tree of Wooden Clogs became a success as far as these sorts of things go.

While such rigor and dedication to the natural world are often associated with great films (from the era, one thinks of Herzog, Malick, Tarkovsky, etc.), this alone does not great cinema makes. Olmi has a documentarian’s eye for behavior, character, and process, but lacks a dramatist’s feel for narrative momentum or an artist’s eye towards perspective. His chief interest is in recreating this lost world, to observe the meagerness of their lives, and the small joys that can carry them through such immense suffering. The closest he comes to an overarching view of things is the initial plot thread of one farmer sending his young son off to school – unheard of in their community – and a tiny pitfall that becomes their undoing. But this is too diminished in the three-hour runtime, and catches up with them too late in the proceedings. Too much else is just bits of business that make for interesting history but thin cinema.

From the supplements, we learn that Olmi based much of his screenplay on stories his grandmother told him about living in such an environment. This would explain the somewhat nostalgic bend toward the stories. It’s not that Olmi romanticizes poverty, as such (not that there’d be anything particularly wrong with this; Olmi is Catholic, and blessed are the poor), but his direction, particularly of the actors, has a flavor of remembrance I more associate with Fellini’s Amarcord than, say, De Sica’s Umberto D. We learn via clunky expository text that such peasants work the land of their landlords, but keep only a third of the profit to split between them. This is about as much a view as we get into the specific economic hurdles the families face. Loosely, we understand that a deceased cow would be a problem and an endowment would be a benefit, but the day-to-day compromises and sacrifices poverty necessitates are largely ignored. The major exception to this is in the storyline of a widow who has to provide for six children and one grandparent, wherein she agonizes over the offer to send her two youngest children away. Hers is the best, most resonant section of the film, as she is accorded the most mundane and the most miraculous ends of Olmi’s often-spiritual film.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs comes to Criterion Blu-ray via a new 4K restoration created in collaboration with The Film Foundation at Li’Immagine Ritrovata, supervised by Ermanno Olmi. There’s been a bit of chatter about the color palette here, which definitely runs cooler than past iterations of the film, with more emphasis on blues and greens than any warm tones. This fits in with a pattern familiar to contemporary collectors of post-’60s color cinema, with many a Blu-ray transfer taking a considerably cooler tone. Based on screencaps, I don’t think the changes here look as good, but text at the beginning of the film reiterates Olmi’s involvement in the restoration and specifically says he wanted the new color timing. Beyond that concern, the transfer looks very good, with healthy grain, decent depth, and a great deal of detail. I didn’t notice any compression artifacts – always a concern with three-hour films that have to share a disc with supplements.

And Criterion does thankfully offer a very good stack of supplements. As mentioned above, the dialogue was all in Bergamasque, but its alternate Italian-language track is available as well. After that, Mike Leigh provides a welcome seven-minute introduction with a great deal of enthusiasm. The best supplement is an hourlong 1981 episode of London’s The South Bank Show, which extensively interviews Olmi and pays a visit to the farm where the film was shot. The program provides a great deal of context on Olmi’s career, and a ton of insight into his aims with the film. Building off of that is a half-hour Q&A session with the cast and crew, discussing the film at the 2016 Cinema Ritrovato film festival. This provides a ton of great production anecdotes, but can be a bit trying to sit through as it’s just a series of cameras swerving to keep up with who’s talking, and audio only captured via the speakers in the theater (rather than patching the microphones to the recorder directly). Criterion also dug up two interviews with Olmi, one from the 1978 Cannes Film Festival (7 minutes, including a long intro) and another from 2008 (32 minutes). Finally, there’s a foldout pamphlet with an excellent essay by film critic Deborah Young.


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Scott Reviews Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name [Sundance 2017] https://criterioncast.com/festivals/sundance/scott-reviews-luca-guadagninos-call-me-by-your-name-sundance-2017 Thu, 09 Feb 2017 23:05:17 +0000 http://criterioncast.com/?p=55178

In a time when I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed by the unending, muscular tracking shot, along comes a wholly elegant use of the long take in Luca Guadagnino’s sensational Call Me By Your Name. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) have taken a trip into town from Elio’s parent’s villa, where Oliver is working for a few weeks alongside Elio’s academic father. In town, they circle a statue sort of situated in a town square. Oliver confidently orbits the end furthest from us, while Elio meanders around nearer. They’re discussing history and art, of course, two of the many subjects in which Elio is versed. Oliver wonders if there’s anything Elio doesn’t know. Elio rightly admits that there’s quite a lot. Not the sort of things one learns in books.

The camera tracks from left to right and pans as need be as Oliver and Elio gradually test each other’s boundaries, each movement seeming to wind the tension in the moment tighter. Oliver has already made a casual pass at Elio. Elio has observed Oliver admiringly. Guadagnino has directed his whole cast, but particularly these two, to a degree of physical comfort familiar in his films (most recently, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) but largely uncommon to contemporary cinema. In most films, actors look like they’ve repeated a gesture twenty times already, and only exist in the space between “action” and “cut.” Not so in Guadagnino. His actors bob about and lounge around as though they genuinely have been doing nothing for hours. Their elegance comes from their total relaxation and certainty of their bodies.

It is fitting that Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) crafted this shot all the more. Elio, only 17, has a teenager’s awkwardness, but this is the first real time we sense him completely out of his depth and unable to even affect the confidence most 17-year-olds (him especially) tend to. As Oliver glides in the distance, certain of where this conversation can lead, Elio stumbles and swings his arm and avoids eye contact. They circle the entirety of the statue, on opposite sides, with a camera openly uncertain of where they might wander next. It seems capable of chasing them if one should suddenly run away, and so seems on edge for one to do just that. It stalks them, waiting for one to make their move. And when even the camera doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but doesn’t resort to the cheap theatrics of handheld wobbling, all in the midst of a very loaded discussion about sex…that’s tension. “We shouldn’t talk about these things,” Oliver quickly asserts, but Elio is not so quickly dissuaded. And Oliver is not so quickly disinterested.

And then, freedom – the camera rapidly pans up to the sky as Oliver and Elio meet on the other side of the square, and falls back down, as though a great weight has been lifted from it. Oliver jogs into a nearby shop that was copying his work, jogs out to discover he’s lost a day’s work in the process, and the pair decide to go swimming.

It is not the first time Guadagnino’s magnificent, masterful film left me breathless, and far from the last. But it does summarize so much of what makes it outstanding – the way people carve away at others to gain intimacy, the freedom of the performances, the beauty of the camerawork, the interaction between location and emotion (and between intellect and heart), the interplay of different modes of physical expression, the way they reflect different degrees of openness with sexuality, the way we conceal meaning in everyday conversation (subtext this rich is rarer everyday), the professional drive, and the desire to let that profession provide its own escapes. It’s also incredibly sexy, and that’s not for nothing.

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