Friday, January 10, 2020

Holiday


HOLIDAY (Cukor, 1938)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 7, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

Recently engaged after a whirlwind romance while on vacation, Johnny Case (Cary Grant) takes the bold step of actually visiting his fiancee at her New York home, just to get to know her a bit. Johnny accidentally shows up at the servants' entrance around back in the kitchen, a particularly disorienting faux pas since he had no idea his fiancee lived in the sort of home that had a servants' entrance. Not to mention majestic spiral staircases and even an elevator that travels at least four floors.

It seems Johnny didn't ask many questions about his betrothed Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) who turns out to be a member of THE Setons of New York, an upper crust family with a fortune built on Wall Street success. Soon, he will be rigorously vetted by the family patriarch (Henry Kolker) and you can guess from his early identification with the maids and butlers that Johnny will have some trouble passing muster. After all, he is from Baltimore.

“Holiday” (1938), adapted from the blockbuster 1928 Philip Barry play, declares its concerns with class from the outset. However, birth is not destiny here, and Johnny finds some allies within the family, chiefly in the form of Julia's free-spirited older sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Unlike her sister, Linda is keenly aware of her privilege and quite embarrassed by it, not to mention bored by a rudderless life in which she wants for nothing and is therefore expected to do nothing. Johnny, for his part, has no particular hankering for the job in finance that both Julia and his prospective father-in-law envision for him. He'd prefer to enjoy his leisure time now, rather than at the end of a lucrative but unfulfilling career.

Linda takes an immediate shine to the plucky, easy-going Johnny, and the feeling is reciprocated. In their first substantial encounter, Linda hands Johnny her partially eaten apple. He gamely chomps into it then holds onto it for the rest of the scene. If you haven't figured already out that Linda is the Seton sister Johnny will wind up with, congratulations on watching your first movie.

Director George Cukor was one of Hepburn's earliest champions, and his confidence in his atypical leading lady remained unshaken even after she endured a string of box office disappointments in the mid-1930s (“Holiday” would be another). And having already directed them together in “Sylvia Scarlett” (1935), Cukor knew how well Hepburn and Cary Grant, still perfecting his bumbling but somehow still suave heartthrob persona, worked together on screen.

“Holiday” is a romantic comedy that opts more for congenial playfulness than over-the-top screwball hijinks or rapid-fire repartee. Grant, an accomplished acrobat, turns the occasional somersault or rides a tricycle to demonstrate that he's still a kid at heart. Linda helps to stage an impromptu Punch and Judy show in a quiet upstairs room which serves as a sanctuary for her and her friends while the social climbers hobnob down below at the snooty engagement party her father has planned for proper society.

Cukor realized the Hepburn-Grant pairing was the film's central draw, so the film places them together as much as possible, just quietly enjoying each other's company and letting affinity blossom naturally into love. Perhaps this makes “Holiday” more of a hang-out movie than a typical romantic comedy, and that works just fine. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K digital restoration from Sony Pictures Entertainment was created “from a 35 mm nitrate duplicate negative and a 35 mm nitrate print, both preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.” The high-def transfer has a very thick grainy look, a delightful reminder of a thing that was once called “film.” Black-and-white contrast is strong and there's no damage evident.

Audio:
The linear PCM mono track provides a crisp, flat sound with no noticeable distortions or dropoffs. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:
Cukor's version was not the first film adaptation of “Holiday”. Criterion has included the 1930 film (91 min.), directed by Edward H. Griffith. It stars Ann Harding as Linda, Mary Astor as Julia, and Robert Ames as Johnny. I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, except to sample the video quality which looks fairly clean but also rather washed-out.

The disc includes a new interview (34 min.) with film critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Michael Schlesinger in which they offer some background about “Holiday” as a play and in its film forms.

We also get audio excerpts (21 min.) of George Cukor speaking for an oral history recorded for AfI in 1971 and 1972 and conducted by author Gavin Lambert.

The final extra on the disc is a Costume Gallery, which consists of sketches by costume designer Kalloch, paired with stills from the film.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Dana Stevens.

Final Thoughts:
“Holiday” wasn't a commercial hit and has often been overshadowed by the more celebrated Cukor-Hepburn-Grant vehicle, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). It's rather low-key by romantic comedy standards, less concerned with plot and more with simply letting audiences enjoy Hepburn and Grant's easy chemistry.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s - Part Eleven - The End, Finally

And the winner is...


1. TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (Lynch/Frost, 2017)

At this point, enshrining “Twin Peaks: The Return” on a film list no longer really counts as much of a provocation. “Cahiers du Cinema” tabbed it as the best film of the 2010s. Jim Jarmusch called it the best American film of the past ten years. It's practically the conformist position now.

Some television critics remain understandably territorial about the matter, viewing it as a slam against the small screen, hearing the implication from film snobs that the series is so artistically accomplished it can't be “mere” television. They have a point, but I also doubt that many critics would be claiming “Twin Peaks” for the film team if it was created or directed by David Simon or Vince Gilligan. Since “Twin Peaks” is co-created by the venerated filmmaker David Lynch (along with Mark Frost, who I think we're all guilty of overlooking – look at me, I just consigned him to a parenthetical aside) many want to incorporate it into his film work. It's the same reason that Rainer Werner Fassbinder's television mini-series “Berlin Alexanderplatz”(1980) received 11 votes in the 2012 “Sight & Sound” poll as one of the ten best films ever made.

I have no horse in this race. I'm including “Twin Peaks: The Return” on my list for a simple, non-ideological reason. I don't write about television, and I want the opportunity to write about the most remarkable thing I've seen on a screen over the past ten years (aside from the Eagles finally winning a Superbowl, of course).

The second season (1991) of “Twin Peaks” suffered from its share of rough patches, many of which can be summed up with the words “Windom Earle.” At least we still had Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to hang out with every week. But when David Lynch, largely uninvolved with much of the second season, returned to direct the series finale, he crafted perhaps the most chilling hour of television ever produced, capped off by the devastating spectacle of our beloved true-blue hero Cooper sneering, “How's Annie? How's Annie?”

In that episode, Laura Palmer (or a spirit resembling Laura Palmer) also promised/threatened Agent Cooper, “I'll see you again in 25 years.” That promise/threat was kept more or less on schedule, and the wait was more than worth it as the new series felt like that jaw-dropping finale had been unpacked and expanded into 18 episodes of brilliance, alternating humor and horror, and slapstick with the sublime, all with a formal elegance of pure Lynchian vintage (and Frostian too!)

“The Return” occasionally indulged in fan service. We all got to see if Big Ed and Norma would finally get together, and whether Albert would ever learn how to play nice. We finally met Diane, the Log Lady was back, and Windom Earle wasn't. Hooray! But the series thwarted audience desires too, mostly by denying us the return of the actual, vintage, all-American Dale Cooper until the final few episodes, giving us good ol' Dougie instead just to taunt and divide viewers, some of whom felt there were just too many Coops. I'm on Team Dougie 1
00%, for the record. How did MacLachlan not win every award in the world for his versatile work in this series? Hello-o-o-o!

And, of course, there's Episode 8. If we're going to indulge in calling “Twin Peaks” cinema, Episode 8 is nothing short of the greatest horror film ever made, a plunge into the darkest recess of the American nightmare and featuring the most primally terrifying villain of all time in the Woodsman. Don't over-interpret, just drink full and descend.

And in the end... yes, in the end. I would never have imagined it possible to finish a series (film or television, who cares?) on a more fundamentally disturbing note than “How's Annie?” but damn if I can't still hear the scream that wraps up “The Return.” Lights out for everyone, and what year is this anyway?

Do I want more “Twin Peaks”? I can't think of any way it would be possible to exceed “The Return” so of course I want more. Because I can't wait to see how Lynch and Frost can achieve the impossible yet again.

My Top Films Of The 2010s- Part Ten


Only one pick this time. Have to maintain a little suspense. Plus I run a bit longer than usual here because I have a lot to say about this particular movie. 

Here's a link to the previous installment

2. THE TREE OF LIFE (Malick, 2011)
When Terrence Malick's “The Tree Of Life” was released, it met with general critical acclaim as well as a small but vocal skeptical contingent that presaged the withering criticism Malick would draw through much of the rest of the 2010s. He would find himself increasingly charged with pretentious navel-gazing and an exasperating lack of interest in coherent narrative (this is a bad thing?). He became the butt of endless jokes about all the twirling and the fields of wheat and perfume ads, and other snide shots from viewers not capable of doing much more than binge-watching cooking shows on Netflix.

Malick is easily my favorite American filmmaker of the 2010s. I would also have included his critically lambasted “To The Wonder” (2012) on my Top 20 list had I not arbitrarily decided to limit myself to only one film per director. I still think about “Knight Of Cups” (2015) all the time. OK, fine, “Song To Song” (2017) wasn't quite as good – it was still great. And, oh yeah, “A Hidden Life” is one of the best films of 2019, one hell of a year for cinema.

Anyway, the end of the 2010s finds “The Tree Of Life” near the top of many best-of lists, perhaps the consensus pick for best film of the past ten years, if a consensus pick is actually possible. Far be it from me to argue.

Following is an edited version of my original review, written at a time when I was really excited about the movie. Come to think it, I'm still just as excited.

Review:

The newest chapter in the book of Malick-eye leaves viewers unable to agree on precisely what they have seen. I don’t mean that the film is divisive, but rather that it can be difficult to process its richly textured imagery after a single viewing, or even after several. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gliding hand-held camera and the kinetic editing construct a landscape out of impressionistic sense memories, flurries of shapes, movements, faces, bodies moving towards or away from the camera. Traditional perspective is skewed, context isn’t always clear, and the sheer volume of images can overwhelm the senses. Add in the film’s tendency to traverse multiple time frames ranging from the beginning of the universe to 1950s Texas to the final days of our solar system and even the most attentive viewer will ask, “What did I just see?” Is that mom greeting her son as he rises from his grave at the end of the world? Did I really see Sean Penn smile at the end?

And what about God? Does this film which depicts the creation of the universe also show us its creator? “The Tree Of Life” begins and ends with a flickering ring of light, perhaps a flame or a cloud of interstellar gas that could, like many circular or oval shapes, be taken for an eye. Is this the eye of our creator looking at us? The film offers one hint. The third (I think) cut to this image is synched to the word “Lord” whispered (lots of whispering voiceover here) by the grieving mother in the film. But this is hardly definitive. She could simply be projecting. Maybe this ring of light is just… a ring of light. And if it is a creator eye, does it see like we do? Or is it so alien we can’t even conceptualize its perspective?

God or not, “The Tree Of Life” is suffused with a sense of wonder, the wonder of How. How did we get here? In his book “Wonderful Life,” Stephen Jay Gould marvels over the diversity of life during the Cambrian explosion and notes (somewhat controversially) that the extant fossil record shows us a myriad of possible ways evolution could have occurred. The route that led to the emergence of homo sapiens and of consciousness was so staggeringly unlikely it seems difficult to attribute it to chance, and yet, if it had happened any other way, we wouldn’t be here to ask, “How did it happen this way?” But we are here, and so we ask the question and we keep asking it, whether we expect to get an answer while communing with the beyond or by studying the contents of a Petri dish.

“The Tree Of Life” deals with these heady matters in the grandest fashion, but it is primarily motivated by a more specific kind of “How.” The film opens with a mother (Jessica Chastain) receiving a telegram, the kind of telegram no mother wanted to receive in the 1960s. Her 19-year-old son is dead (most likely in the war, but we aren’t told) and her grief is so vast she must reach back to the dawn of time to ask “How could you let this happen?” and “Where were you?” Similarly deep is the grief of eldest son Jack O’Brien, depicted as an adult (sometime around our present day) by Sean Penn who looks as morose as Sean Penn usually does. At least on this (present) day, Jack is consumed by thoughts of his long-lost brother, and much of the film is loosely structured around his childhood reminiscences. Flash back to 1950s Waco, TX where young Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his little brother (Laramie Eppler) are both still alive and playing, and vile telegrams are a decade away. Then wait a few minutes and flash back to the Big Bang. It’s not as long a trip as you think.

As dense and convoluted as the film’s visuals can be, the epoch-leaping narrative of “The Tree Of Life” is fairly straightforward. Writer-director Malick, making his usual liberal use of voice-over, lays out his thesis as bluntly as possible. Mom states that you have to choose either the way of nature or the way of grace. Grace equals mom, and nature equals Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) who subscribes to a dog-eat-dog view of humanity tinged by disappointment at his failure to become a “big man.” Father says,“Your mother’s naive. It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world, son.” Jack has a tough choice to make.

“The Tree of Life” is not particularly subtle in this fashion, but subtlety is not inherently a virtue. After establishing the high stakes (a family grieving over the loss of a son), Malick ups the ante even more by cutting from rural Texas to the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang. In an elaborate special effects sequence that draws obvious and valid comparisons to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Douglas Trumbull provided visual effects for both films, working here along with Dan Glass of “Matrix Reloaded”), nebulae expand, galaxies race away from each other, the Earth forms, volcanoes erupt, the planet cools to a point where multi-cellular life emerges, thrives, and then is almost wiped out by a meteor strike. And yes, as you may have heard, there are dinosaurs.

This section of the film is spell-binding (and also the make or break point for potential walk-outs) but what follows is even more extraordinary, one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in on a screen. After showing us the origin of life, Malick shows the origin of a life, that of Jack who is depicted living in an underwater house (the womb) before swimming to the surface to be born (Is that mom swimming alongside him? It’s hard to see…) Here “The Tree Of Life” fully reveals its epistemological concerns. Baby Jack is trained to see (he is gobstruck by the sight of mom’s distorted hand in a water-filled fishbowl) and to hear, how to speak and read, learning the “proper” way to make meaning of a chaotic pre-linguistic sensory field. He learns the concepts of “No!” and “Mine!” which can be traumatic enough, but under his mother’s care (the way of grace) the lessons are gentle. He is soon, however, handed off to father (“Don’t call me dad.”) who immediately begins to teach him about borders (“Do not cross this line!”), etiquette, and, most importantly, exactly who’s in charge. A life from the womb to the brink of adolescence condensed into a series of primal scenes, and rhymed directly with creation itself, each equally important, each flowing in the same river. Call it bold or call it pretentious, but there’s no denying Malick’s chutzpah or his virtuousity. I am left gaping.

The film mourns the loss of innocence, not just the loss of childhood and family, but also the loss of an innocence of perception. The defining tension of the childhood scenes (most of the film’s lengthy middle section) is Jack’s resistance to his father’s lessons. He doesn’t blindly accept all the “Shit My Dad Says” and turns initially to God for wisdom: “I want to know what you are… I want to see what you see.” Not the way father (with a little f, although he acts like he’s a big F) sees. If adult Jack is still disillusioned, perhaps it’s because these requests were never fulfilled, at least not to his satisfaction. How? Why? The very need to ask is the inevitable burden of acquired language. As Kaspar Hauser said, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a terrible fall” or, perhaps more relevant here, “Mother, I am so far away from everything.”

Though cosmic in scope, Jack’s reminiscence in “The Tree Of Life” is narrowly focused. To the best of my recollection, there are no traditional pop culture markers, no signs of film, television, or radio, as we would expect in a more nostalgic reverie. Everything is centered around the family and particularly the home, a theme most vividly manifested in a shot of the house high on a hill (a hill we have not, I believe, seen before), an ocean of clouds wafting above, as if it was the only house in the universe. As well it might be.

Jack’s lonelyache, whether embodied by Sean Penn’s trademarked grief-face or Hunter McCracken’s stolid rebel, is fueled by desire: for God, for meaning, for his lost brother, for rapprochement with his father and, above all, for his mother. Chastain, so often limned in the light of a sunset, is the archetypal figure of a pure, perfect mother, young and beautiful and all-forgiving. She is a precious memory, no doubt inaccurate, jealously guarded by Jack (at all ages) against any erasure or deformation. Yet she is still elusive, always there but just out of reach, often receding from the camera with a laugh and a billowing dress. I have seen these same images in my dreams many times, and it is startling to see them created by someone else. “Tree of Life” evokes the defining presence and absence of mother more vividly than any other film I know.

Noël Carroll once described the sights and events in Malick’s films as “too much there,” a reference to a sense of immediacy and force that goes beyond language, narrative and psychology, the unmediated and inherently alien experience they provide. I would describe the pictures and moments in “The Tree Of Life” as being “too much now.” The elemental raw-scrape of the photography and the film’s unique editing style present each image as fresh and as monumentally important as any other: the Horsehead nebula, a lace curtain, an eclipse, a nightlight, the cosmic and the domestic woven together. We are always at the center of our universe and even though each cut in the film can span millions of years or a fraction of a second, everything we see and hear is always now, always everything.

Monday, December 30, 2019

My Top Films Of The 2010s- Part Nine

There are only four picks left in my award-winning “Best Of The 2010s” series and I have to be honest with you now. Three of them have appeared on quite a few other lists. I never claimed to be a contrarian, not in the last few hours anyway. My selection for the fourth spot, however, was somewhat less than universally praised.

4. mother! (Aronofsky, 2017)

“mother!” captures the gut-wrenching terror of sharing your art with the public, that horrible moment of letting your personal creation go. Even the people who love it (or claim they love it) won't understand it quite the way you do. And as your precious creation gets passed around, cherished or ignored or just briefly sampled as a mid-day distraction, there's a good chance it will get torn to bits, and perhaps you along with it. Yet you continue to create because you don't have any other choice. And it's still better than having nobody else ever see your work at all. Maybe.

“mother!” is a strident environmental allegory. If Jennifer Lawrence is mother! Earth (which she is, among so many other things) we first meet her in her Edenic home with only one other person in sight, her husband/partner Him (Javier Bardem). One stranger intrudes and then another and soon the world population explodes. And damn near every one of these bastards likes to party too, exploiting Mother Earth and her beautiful house, all without considering her opinion on the matter or worrying about wrecking the place, right up until the inevitable Malthusian crash, and the grueling cleanup of the filth they leave behind.

“mother!” vividly depict systemic misogyny stemming from multiple sources, from Christian patriarchal ideology to the pernicious myth of the lone genius male artist and his disposable muse. Maybe she'll be venerated as a saint later, but that's cold comfort to an abandoned Jennifer Lawrence as mother! Mary, valued primarily for her ability to produce one very special baby, or perhaps to help Him publish his latest work and soak up all the glory.

Like Hans Moleman's celebrated “Man Getting Hit By Football” Darren Aronofsky's gonzo screed works on so many levels, and I love, love, love this movie from its lower-case “m” to its ostentatious ! As manic as the film gets at its overcrowded crescendo, Aronofsky and crew frame most of the action with a handful of simple, repeated camera setups, making it a more controlled and rigorous formal exercise than the legions of skeptical critics have given it credit for.

Because this movie really works on so many levels, at least for me. One of the defining elements of my dreams is that I'm rarely able to make a difference – scrub that stain but it never goes away, shovel that coal but the pile never gets any smaller. Maybe that's just me, but “mother!” captures the feel of my dreams in a way I've never seen in a movie before, and I'm especially thinking of the sequence where Lawrence implores raucous party-goers to stop bouncing on her sink, only to find them back at it just seconds later. And I haven't even talked about how this movie so clearly sees the world through the eyes of an introvert for whom true hell is other people.

Lawrence is great. Michelle Pfeiffer is great. I think everything about “mother!” is great. I gave serious thought to making it my top pick of the 2010s. Maybe I chickened out because of the negative reviews, some of which I respect but simply disagree with. I'm grateful that Aronofsky didn't chicken out, and went for broke in every frame of this deranged tour-de-force. 


3. THE TURIN HORSE (Tarr and Hranitzky, 2011)

“The Turin Horse” was billed at the time as Hungarian master Bela Tarr's last film, and so far that's proven to be true as far as feature films go, except for the fact that most critics (myself included) omitted the fact that the film was co-directed (and edited) by Agnes Hranitzky, also the co-director w/Tarr of “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) and “The Man From London” (2006). If it really is the last feature film for either director, they sure proved they can throw one hell of a farewell party.

An elderly peasant and his daughter live it up on the old farm where they get to stare at dust clouds through the living room window and eat all the boiled potatoes they could ever want, provided they only want one each. Feel the excitement! The film, photographed in a stark black-and-white that wallows in the tedium, unfolds at the pace of a day per act, though these might well be Biblical days that stretch out for eons. Or perhaps longer for the poor viewer who doesn't dig the glacial rhythm or the nihilistic vibe.

Soon enough it becomes apparent that the world is ending, though it's hard to tell for certain over the constant howl of the scouring wind. Fortunately the starch-fed protagonists have low expectations for life. When the light, possibly all the light in the world, goes out, the daughter responds with a resigned, “What's all this?” Few films grind more mileage out of a black screen. Each day of Tarr's slow-motion apocalypse yields to a slightly degraded copy of the day prior, bits and shreds of existence flaking off until finally there's just not enough energy left to sustain life, or even a film.

I also think “The Turin Horse” is damn funny at times, but I've been told by reliable sources that means I'm crazy. Tarr has described the film as an expression of “the heaviness of human existence” and, really, what could be funnier than that?