Tuesday, December 10, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Five

That's right, I'm only halfway through my list so far. It's not easy to come up with twenty good films from just a single decade. I kid, of course. Mostly. You can read the previous installment here.


The end of any decade guarantees the resurgence of one of film criticism's most storied traditions: complaints about best-of lists. Lists, you see, are an abomination in the eyes of the film gods for an unholy host of reasons, ranging from their exclusionary nature to their alleged arbitrariness. I appreciate concerns over how the propagation of canons can promote cultural ossification, but I have never understood how composing a list is any more arbitrary than organizing an argument into sentences and paragraphs. I suspect that some people just hate numbers.

I do, however, hold one strong prejudice about any Best-of-the-Decade list. If it doesn't include anything by Frederick Wiseman, the greatest living American filmmaker, I'm not sure I can take it too seriously. If I want to be generous, I'll admit there's an inherent challenge in selecting a single title from a director who has spent over half a century producing such a rigorously coherent body of work in both style and content. Wiseman documentaries don't blur together by any means, but they do feel like serial installments of a grand, unified masterwork, though one in a constant state of gradual evolution. It can be tough to choose just one chapter for inclusion on a list.

As great as “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014) and “In Jackson Heights” (2015) are, I didn't have too much difficulty in picking “Ex Libris” as my favorite Wiseman of the decade and the reason is simple. I love libraries. Also, it feels like I spend part of every week reading social media posts complaining about public libraries being wastes of taxpayer money now that they've been rendered obsolete by the glories of the internet. I very much want to punch every one of these troglodytes in the face.

Wiseman chose a better option. He made a documentary that highlights how relevant and vital the New York Public Library is to the daily lives of many thousands, if not millions, of citizens. The great chronicler of institutions crafts the expected comprehensive study of the NYPL from Patience and Fortitude to the many branch libraries that host drama classes and job fairs and house massive photo archives in addition to being just “storage spaces for books.” Not that there's anything not entirely magnificent about “just” providing a storage space for books. That's really one of my primary goals in life, to be honest.

From administrators debating budgets to the janitors who maintain these shared grounds, thousands of people work together to provide information to the public. It may not be enough to combat the disinformation even a single person can spread on social media, but it's all part of a noble and essential fight. I doubt anyone who wants to defund libraries would have the sense or patience to actually watch “Ex Libris” but... man, I really punch those meatheads in the face.


Are you living your first life or your tenth? Is heaven overrated? Are you dead or just on TV and how would you tell the difference? Do catfish make the best lovers?

“Uncle Boonmee” raises all of these questions, or maybe I'm just remembering them from previous Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. It doesn't really matter. All timelines converge in the Thai master's Palme d'or winning journey into the remote forests of northern Thailand where relatives travel to visit Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) who is dying of kidney cancer. His life may be ending soon and his world may be severely restricted by his illness, but he's still got plenty of things left to do and people still to see.

Boonmee's dead wife shows up early on, possibly to help to guide him to the underworld, but it's best not to get hung up on literal interpretations. A monkey-ghost with glowing red eyes appears to be Boonmee's son, but he's also a manifestation of the cheapo horror films that thrilled the director in his youth (and maybe still as an adult) and now infuse his animist philosophical ponderings both about letting go of this life and the need to cherish every last experience in it, even if there may be many more lives still to follow. That may not sound like the description of a comedy, but “Uncle Boonmee” is every bit as funny as it is contemplative, a delicate balancing act Apichatpong has perfected on his path to becoming one of the most beloved directors in the world. Please make more movies, Joe!

I was as thrilled as everyone else when I heard about Apichatpong's Palme d'or victory, but when I finally got to see “Uncle Boonmee” my initial impression was that the jury had awarded him for one of his lesser films. I'm still inclined to think that “Mysterious Object At Noon” (2000), “Tropical Malady” (2004), and especially the magisterial “Syndromes and a Century” (2006) are superior films, but I've still got ol' Boonmee up here at #12 for this decade. So what I'm telling you is that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is amazing and you really need to watch those other movies. Either for the first time or the tenth. It doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Four

I know it's been difficult for so very many of you to wait so long for this next installment in my top films of the decade series, but I had to take a brief break out of respect for Bette Davis week. Ms. Davis wouldn't take kindly to anyone stealing the spotlight from her, and I respect that.

In the previous part, I shared my appreciation for a dying French king and for an Iranian filmmaker just hanging out with his pet iguana. This time I want to write about:


Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable feature-length debut.

Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. The result is a movie that feels both entirely grounded in quotidian life and transcendent, a philosophical work that I would think any viewer could connect to on a personal and visceral level.

In a stream-lined 78 minutes, “Hale County” expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. I rewatched it recently to see is any of the magic of the first-time viewing had worn off, but the film has only grown in power for me. No single movie can claim to be the definitive American film of its time, but I'm unable to think of a more perceptive and moving portrait of American life in the 21st century than “Hale County.” There's plenty of reason to be skeptical when the word “visionary” is deployed by critics to describe a movie, but believe it this time.

13. THE LIGHTHOUSE (Eggers, 2019)

Screw it. I'm putting it on my list. I wasn't going to. But I am.

I really need to see “The Lighthouse” again. I might be significantly overrating it just because I love its gauzy black-and-white look so much. Or because the movie is so endlessly quotable  - “'Tis begrimed and bedabbled!” Or even just because of that all-time great Willem Dafoe rant (“Hark!”) that I've now watched on YouTube over 100 times. (Ed. Note: 102 times now. I watched it twice more while writing this.)

I'm not certain the movie really goes anywhere in the end either, but it just doesn't matter to me. In Robert Eggers' follow-up to his remarkable debut feature, “The Witch” (2016), the director creates such a tactile hermetic space – a claustrophobic fever-dream reeking of sea-brine and “goddamn fahts” all swirling around in a giant pox-ridden phallus - that there really is no better place to go. Some critics found that unsatisfying and hollow, viewing “The Lighthouse” a curated collection of stylish signifiers that signify nothing in particular.

Maybe they're right. I really do need to watch it again. All I know is that I can only think of a tiny handful of recent movies that generated more pure audiovisual pleasure (oh man, this sound design!) for me in the immediate moment of viewing. I'm in awe of how gracefully the film shifts tone wildly not just from sequence to sequence, but even within scenes. The “Hark!” rant ranges from slapstick comedy to Lovecraftian horror to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” domestic psychological warfare all in the course of a few minutes. And God what a punchline (“All right, have it your way...”)

I love every single choice Willem Dafoe makes in this movie; every time he clenches his pipe upside down in his rotted teeth, every time he delivers his trademark toast (“Should pale death with treble dread...”), and every bilge-stained bristle of his bushy beard. Pattinson is sensational too. In almost any other film, he'd be the only performer anyone would be talking about, but Dafoe is so damned elemental that his sheer force of will cannot be denied. He's still in that lighthouse right now, just fahtin' up a storm. Pair this with his work in “At Eternity's Gate” (2018) and I'm not sure there's an actor working at a higher level and choosing more interesting roles than Dafoe right now.

I already feel bad enough for only briefly mentioning Pattinson's brilliance, so I'm going to finish with a shout-out to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. This black-and-white photography – washed out in patches, grubby but starkly beautiful – looks like nothing else I've seen in a theater in years. I don't care too much about awards, but we can go on ignoring them all if Blaschke gets shut out.

Monday, November 25, 2019

All About Eve

ALL ABOUT EVE (Mankiewicz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching “All About Eve” (1950) for the first time in fifteen years, I was astonished at how faulty my memory of the film was. I mainly remembered a boozy Bette Davis staring daggers at the conniving Anne Baxter and the many caustic zingers (“Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.”), all of which combine to form a scathing portrait of the cutthroat world of Broadway theater, all narcissism, backstabbing, and gossip.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, loosely adapting Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, encourages such an impression by framing the film's opening scenes through the acerbic narration of Machiavellian theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). DeWitt guides us through what turns out be the end of the story, a ceremony at The Sarah Siddons Society where newcomer Eve Harrington (Baxter) receives her Best Actress Award while her former mentor, Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo's friends seethe with resentment. DeWitt hypes up the juicy rivalries just as he would in his daily column, a throwback to an era when critics actually wielded considerable cultural power (Did such a thing ever really exist?) In short, “All About Eve” is all about cynicism.

That's how I remembered it anyway. Yet once the film flashes back to the beginning of the story, the Margo Channing we're introduced isn't a jaded star or a jealous diva, but rather a sympathetic listener. As young, wide-eyed Eve, the absolute biggest Margo Channing fan in the world, relays her sob story (a husband killed in the war, scraping all her pennies together just to go to the theater and see her favorite actress) Margo does, in fact, sob. Well, not quite, but she's sincerely touched as are a host of her fellow theater veterans, including playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and Margo's crusty and trusty Gal Friday, Birdie (shameless scene-stealer Thelma Ritter).

Margo's so moved she takes Eve under her wing, which turns out to be a critical mistake. The doe-eyed girl allegedly from the boondocks has some secret schemes of her own, most of which involve being a star like Margo. Exactly like Margo, in fact. So much so she even makes a play for Margo's director and fiance, Bill (Gary Merrill, who would marry Davis shortly after filming.)

Davis is such an appropriate choice for the role of aging theater star Margo Channing, it's hard to believe she actually stepped in fairly late in the project after Claudette Colbert was injured shooting another film. If Davis was at her commercial peak in the early '40s in films such as “Now, Voyager”(1942), by the start of the new decade, some felt she needed a comeback to rekindle her career as a hitmaker (her talent, of course, remained at its peak). Davis also happened to be, in Hollywood terms, on the wrong side of forty and perhaps wondered how many leading roles the studios would still have for her.

Mankiewicz has often been described as one of the most literate of Hollywood's writer/directors, often grouped with the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. With “Eve” he showcased his trademark wit in his most beloved setting, the theater. His script takes glee in demeaning cinema as the shameful inferior cousin of the legitimate the-a-ter while also poking fun at the various stage players, from writers to directors to the stars. Playwright Lloyd puts Margo in her place with the admonishment that “It's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!” But the super-savvy writer is putty in the hands of a resourceful ingenue like Eve.

“All About Eve” creates a convincing social circle in which the numerous complex interrelationships are fully fleshed out. Margo can be vain and selfish, but her insecurities, some related to being engaged to a younger man, are entirely relatable. Lloyd wants to be loyal to his star, but he really could use a younger actress for his next play. Karen cares deeply for her friend Margo, but wouldn't mind teaching her a little humility. Bill somehow manages to remain a true-blue faithful lover even while shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. Eve is the intruder that threatens this whole delicate structure, but it may prove to be strong enough to endure even her assault. As for Addison DeWitt, well, he's the heel critic non-pareil, and Sanders was practically born and bred to play him.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The “new digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox” and the 1080p transfer looks sensational with a thick grainy texture and sharp black-and-white contrast.Fox released a much-praised Blu-ray transfer of this film several years ago. I don't own that release and I don't know if this is sourced from a different restoration, nor can I compare the two. But I'm sure you've never seen it look better unless you've seen a 35 mm print.

The LPCM mono audio mix is crisp and distortion-free. Alfred Newman's score sounds great too. I've never quite figured out what to say about the audio on most Blu-rays unless there's a noticeable problem. No problems to talk about here. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has pressure-packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, almost all of which are on Disc Two.

Disc One includes the film (in maxed-out bitrate) and two 2010 commentary tracks that were both included on the older Fox release. The first commentary includes actress Celeste Holm, author Kenneth Geist, and Christopher Mankiewicz, son of director Joseph. The second commentary features Sam Staggs, author of “All About 'All About Eve.'”

Disc Two is so stacked, it's going to take a while to get through it all.

The producers of this disc went out of their way to shine a spotlight on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and have provided three substantial features centered on him.

“All About Mankiewicz” (106 min.) is a 1983 documentary which consists almost entirely of extended conversations between the filmmaker and film critic Michel Ciment. The interviews take place both in Germany and in the director's home in Bedford, NY and cover his early childhood through much of his career. Mankiewicz is a gifted raconteur and entertains while narrating his own life at length. This is a real gem.

The disc also includes two related and sometimes overlapping features, one called “Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz” (26 min.) and the other “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey” (26 min.) Both features consist largely of interviews with the director's sons Thomas and Christopher, the director's wife Rosemary, author Kenneth L. Geist, and others. Both features celebrate the director and provide some interesting insights and information. However, “A Personal Journey” offers one of the more glaring mistakes I can recall in a Criterion extra. One expert (who I won't name here) extols the virtues of Joseph's older brother, Herman, a gifted screenwriter best known for the script for “Citizen Kane.” This expert launches into an attack on critic Pauline Kael for taking credit for the script away from Herman and giving it all to Orson Welles. Considering that Kael's book “Raising Kane” is both famous and infamous for making the exact opposite argument, this attack is a wee bit misplaced.

We also get an episode of “Lux Radio Theatre” (60 min.), an Oct 1, 1951 performance of “All About Eve” with most of the film's cast except with Reginald Gardiner in place of George Sanders.

A few short features: Film costume historian Larry McQueen (18 min.) discusses the film's costumes. “The Secret of the Sarah Siddons Society” (7 min.) shows us the real society formed in response to the film's make-believe Sarah Siddons Society. Siddons was a real 18th/19th century English actress and this society has given out real awards to theater actresses for quite some time now. There's also a very short (1 min.) promotional film featuring Bette Davis on the set of “All About Eve.”

Not enough for you? Fine, let's keep going with two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” - an excerpt of the Dec 31, 1969 episode (20 min.) with Bette Davis in fine form, and then the full Jun 18, 1980 episode (29 min.) with actor Gary Merrill.

The collection wraps up with the gossipy “Hollywood Backstories: All About Eve” (24 min.) that can easily be skipped and then the more interesting “The Real Eve” (18 min.), which relates the story of German actress Elizabeth Bergner and her protege Martina Lawrence, the inspiration for Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” Lawrence was, to say the least, not happy about having her life story adapted by Orr.

The 44-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve.”

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has put together a jam-packed two-disc set showcasing a sleek high-def transfer of one of Bette Davis's most beloved films. What more do you need to know?

Now, Voyager

NOW, VOYAGER (Rapper, 1942)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In “Now, Voyager” (1942), Bette Davis portrays Charlotte Vale, one of THE Vales of Boston. Membership in the moneyed Vale family grants considerable privilege, but doesn't guarantee happiness or a life without obstacles. Charlotte is well aware of this, and summarizes the challenges facing her in six simple words: “My mother! My mother! My mother!”

Oh what a mother! The marvelous British actress Gladys Cooper spits fire and passes judgment on all as the domineering matriarch who reigns supreme at the Vale mansion. In the film's opening, Mrs. Vale has reluctantly called psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) to the secluded family home to discuss her troublesome daughter Charlotte. Who is Charlotte? Well, Mrs. Vale explains in stark terms that Charlotte was the unwanted and unexpected child of her “old age.” Charlotte is “My ugly duckling. Of course it's true that all late children are marked.”

Bette Davis an ugly duckling? You can't be serious. But mother has indeed marked her, which sets the stage for one of Davis's most unlikely and memorable screen introductions. Charlotte clomps down the stairs and enters the screen as a unibrowed, bespectacled frump stuffed awkwardly into a lumpy dress. Shy and frightened, she can barely meet Dr. Jaquith's gaze as he quickly diagnoses his new patient (the problem: “Her mother! Her mother! Her mother!”) and prescribes a few weeks of rest and recuperation at his facility.

This might sound like an ominous setup, but the film's presentation of mental health treatment is surprisingly positive if now antiquated. Mother may be ashamed (“No member of the Vale family has ever had a nervous breakdown”) but Dr. Jaquith soundly rejects the notion that any stigma should be attached. The doctor is a genuine do-gooder whose primary goal is to bolster Charlotte's self-confidence and free her from the smothering clutches of the Monstrous Mother.

Soon, a slimmed-down Charlotte (sans glasses) emerges from her stateroom aboard a cruise ship in a more flattering outfit, and swiftly draws the attention of a suave architect with the unlikely name of Jerry, unlikely because he's played by Austrian-born (and accented) Paul Henreid, recently relocated to Hollywood. Jerry is so silky smooth he can identify an old family picture of Charlotte as “that fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair” and not miss a step in his dance of seduction. Unfortunately, Jerry happens to be married and even if it's a miserable marriage that means that, in the Hays Code era, Charlotte and Jerry can never truly be together. Except for that one night in Rio...

This ill fate only makes their romance all the more potent, one that still sizzles more than 75 years later. Director Irving Rapper, a relative newcomer hand-picked by Davis, and screenwriter Casey Robinson (adapting a recent novel by Olive Higgins Prouty) depict sublimated desire through several ingenious gambits, most memorably the repeated lighting of two cigarettes from one flame. Hubba-hubba! Their relationship can ultimately be realized only through an unlikely channel, Jerry's young daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), an “ugly duckling” unloved by her mother who Charlotte unofficially adopts. Yeah, it gets weird.

Some viewers may have a stereotype of Davis as the flinty broad who takes no crap from anyone, but she renders Charlotte as simultaneously vulnerable and strong. The real Charlotte is neither the complacent servant repressed by mother or the glamour-puss aboard the cruise ship, and Davis convincingly navigates a path between both extremes while discovering Charlotte's true character.

This recalibration requires the careful management of mother who is predictably unhappy to find her obedient wallflower has grown into a woman with her own plans. An unwanted child had best do what mother wants! Fortunately, the liberated Charlotte is strong enough to stand her ground and guide mother to a surly resignation to the new status quo.

Bette Davis was at the height of her stardom as one of Warner Brothers top stars (she was sometimes called the fourth Warner Brother) and “Now, Voyager” would become her top box-office draw of the 1940s. Pitched as a women's picture to female viewers, its appeal has proven to be both universal and enduring. It kicked off a pretty good year for both Henreid and Raines as well, as they would leave the set to start shooting on a flick called “Casablanca.” 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Criterion doesn't offer much detail beyond describing this as a “new digital transfer... in 4K” created from the original 35 mm nitrate original camera negative with some scenes scanned from a 35 mm fine-grain master at the Museum of Modern Art. The result looks fabulous with strong black-and-white contrast and sharp image detail throughout. The transfer retains a thick grain structure and surely looks better than any version most viewers have seen.

The LPCM mono track is clear and sharp with no obvious distortions or dropoffs. It does a fine job of showcasing the Oscar-winning score by composer Max Steiner. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English dialogue.

It's Bette Davis week at Criterion, and if they haven't loaded this disc quite as heavily as they stacked their “All About Eve” set, they certainly haven't cheated fans.

The film is accompanied by a selected-scene commentary by scholar Jeff Smith who discusses Max Steiner's score over about 27 minutes worth of scenes.

My favorite feature on the disc is an interview (31 min.) with Farran Smith Nehme, one of the best critics writing today. Nehme discusses the evolution of Davis's career from her early and often unhappy days with Universal to her hard-won commercial success at Warner Brothers. In career terms, Nehme views this film as Bette Davis “on top of Mt. Everest” and it's tough to dispute her claim.

The disc also includes a lengthy episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” (53 min.) which aired in November 1971 and features Davis in a typically lively interview.

We also get a very brief excerpt of a 1980 interview (4 min.) with actor Paul Henreid at his Los Angeles home, and an interview with costume designer Larry McQueen (11 min.) who talks about the close relationship between Davis and costumer designer Orry-Kelly.

Finally, Criterion has also bundled two audio episodes of the “Lux Radio Theatre” program, two different performances of “Now, Voyager.” The May 10, 1943 episode (45 min.) features Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid in the lead roles. The Feb 11, 1946 episodes (49 min.) features Bette Davis and Gregory Peck.

The 32-page insert booklet includes an essay by film professor Patricia White and a reprint of an essay written by Bette Davis which originally appeared in the 1937 book “We Make The Movies.” Davis discusses the craft of the Hollywood actress, assuring readers they're just common working folk like everyone else.

Final Thoughts:
I had a blast watching both of Criterion's Bette Davis releases this week. I'm starting to think I might actually like “Now, Voyager” a little better than “All About Eve.” Of course, there's no need to choose. The transfer looks great and the disc includes plenty of extras. Fans should be delighted.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Three

I have some more thoughts about my favorite films of the decade. You can read the previous installment in this much-loved, widely-discussed series here.

16. THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (Serra, 2016)

I'm not claiming that Jean-Pierre Leaud was the only actor who could have embodied director Albert Serra's vision of Louis XIV, but casting little Antoine Doinel as the setting Sun King was a stroke of inspiration guaranteed to touch the soul of any faithful cinephile. Just compare fresh-faced teenage Leaud in freeze frame circa 1959 (“The 400 Blows”) to this craggy, withered, royal wreck and marvel at the power of cinema (or at least photography) to span a lifetime in just two images.

Great, gangrenous Louis waits (in full regal luxury, of course) for the inevitable end that sure takes its sweet time arriving, while his faithful advisers fuss nervously in hushed, helpless meetings. Neither they nor Louis have any choice in the matter as the French Apollo has spent most of the seven decades of his reign accruing virtually unprecedented power by forcing everyone to relocate to Versailles and attend to the court's every need in elaborately proscribed daily rituals. Behold the era-hopping power of cinema once again by jumping back half a century to Roberto Rossellini's extraordinary “The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV”(1966) for the beginning of the story whose denouement Serra chronicles with panache here.

The array of charlatans who scrutinize Louis' various body parts with magnifying glasses and propose ineffective cures provide some quietly hilarious scenes – bull semen cocktails for all! Serra's gem may vault Louis into the lead as the most cinematic European monarch ahead of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, or maybe it would if anybody still watched arthouse cinema. Leaud is riveting while remaining largely motionless and bedridden throughout, just sinking deeper minute by minute into the grave.

I think the film still works as a study in mortality (everyone finishes the race in a tie) for audiences unfamiliar with either “The 400 Blows” or Rossellini's “Louis XIV” but for viewers with a greater familiarity with film history, it carries a special resonance.

15. THIS IS NOT A FILM (Panahi, 2012)

When I think of the definitive film locations, the screen spaces established and explored most vividly, the first two that spring to mind are The Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” and, of course, Jeanne Dielman's apartment at 23 Quai duCommerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Especially her kitchen.

Jafar Panahi's Tehran apartment from “This Is Not A Film” merits serious consideration as well. After all, at the time of shooting, the apartment is virtually the entire world for the filmmaker who has been placed under house arrest by the Iranian regime for supposedly creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Perhaps ex-filmmaker is the more proper term since, in addition to a potential six-year prison sentence, Panahi also faces a twenty-year ban on directing and screenwriting. So he stays at home all day with his pet iguana Igi and doesn't make films.

Certainly not “This Is Not A Film” which is really shot by his colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and not at all by Jafar Panahi, which is proven when we see Panahi reflexively yell “Cut!” only to be ignored by Mirtahmasb who keeps rolling. Because, of course, Mr. Panahi isn't allowed to direct a film or write a script, and he wouldn't want to flout the law. He can, however, read from the screenplay he wrote before the ban or mark out the spots where his actors might have stood had he ever shot that project. If Mr. Mirtahmasb wants to film Panahi while he's doing such things and not at all making a film, that's entirely Mr. Mirtahmasb's business.

“This Is Not A Film” was allegedly smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden inside a birthday cake after which it wa screened to rave reviews at Cannes and other festivals. This (not a) film is a clever, bracing portrait of a courageous, resourceful, and resolute artist who intends to resist to the best of his abilities, and perhaps to entertain and amuse viewers in the process. Panahi had already established himself as one of the greatest directors of the previous two decades with masterpieces such as “The Mirror” (1997), “Crimson Gold” (2003), and “Offside” (2008). Even a legal ban by a repressive regime couldn't restrain such a talent from continuing to shine through the 2010s. Panahi's “Taxi Tehran” (2015) was damn near every bit as brilliant as “This Is Not A Film.”

Saturday, November 16, 2019

My Top 20 Films Of The Decade - Part Two

I have some thoughts about my favorite films of the 2010s. This is Part Two in that series. You can read Part One here.


In “Introduction to the Documentary,” film theorist Bill Nichols discusses the power of the “indexical whammy” in non-fiction filmmaking. To grossly oversimplify, Nichols argues that when we watch film footage that we recognize to be linked (indexed) to real events we react differently than when we watch footage we recognize to be make-believe. We may feel horror or sympathy while watching news coverage of a real tornado ripping through a real town, but even if the images looked identical, we might have fun watching that tornado shred a make-believe town in a blockbuster film. It's not the footage itself, but the received context that determines our experience. If we recognize it as originating in the real world, the image carries a different and often more potent force.

I believe something roughly analogous to the indexical whammy can be at play when dealing with film adaptations. A character or scene or setting very faithfully adapted from book to screen can produce a potent reaction for a fan of the source material: “That's how it really happened!” Y'know, for real, in that fictional novel. There's a distinct thrill in recognizing that moment in the movie as being linked to that “real” source. Perhaps a more useful way to sum up the power of the indexical whammy in this scenario is with four simple words: “They got it right!”

The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies have been getting it right in this manner from the beginning, relying heavily on the real books and characters as their lodestars. Since, in some cases, these characters have existed for more than half a century and their personalities and mythologies have been fleshed out in thousands of installments by hundreds of writers and artists, there's a substantial body of pre-existing comic-book reality to “index” to. Producer/overseer Kevin Feige has wisely counseled the many MCU filmmakers to “get it right” as often as possible.

For comic-book fans, this can lend the films a special heft (whammy!) one would not expect from tales of spandexed people who call themselves Scarlet Witch or Starlord and fly around and shoot energy bolts at space gods. I fully understand why non-fans would scoff at such a notion or perhaps diminish it as fan service. Quite frankly, I'm surprised so many non-fans of the comic books like these goofy escapist movies so much, though I'm delighted that they do. I'm just telling you that, for a life-long reader, that power's real and the Marvel filmmakers understand that (unlike their not-so-distinguished competition).

I've loved most of the MCU movies (not you, Guardians 2!) and I could have easily chosen “The Avengers” (2012), “Black Panther” (2018), or “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for this list, but I'm going with “Captain America; Civil War” because it produced the most “They got it right!” thrills for me of any of the movies. Also, I think this is the MCU movie that Film Twitterati dumped on the most, persuasive evidence that it gets it right.

When Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) makes his first MCU appearance in costume, the sun glinting off that sleek costume as he prepares to spring into action, wow do they get it right. Then they top that by introducing Spider-Man to the MCU and within five seconds of hearing Tom Holland speak, I'm there screaming (silently – I'm not an “out loud” kinda viewer) “Oh my God, that's Peter Parker, just leaping off the Lee/Ditko pages right onto the screen! That's him! They got it right!” Actually, as it turns out, the MCU Peter Parker is way more chipper than the morose, self-pitying wallflower of the early books, but there's no need to get webbed up on minor details.

And oh, man, there's that beautiful, silly airport battle, a big old messy, hyper-kinetic comic-book fight adapted flawlessly from splash page to cinema. A dozen or so heroes divide into factions and slam-bam-kapow into each other in different combinations with no concern whatsoever for mass property damage, all capped off by my favorite moment in the MCU. Teensy-tiny little Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) presses a button on his glove and explodes into the towering Giant-Man who's so big and strong now that he can just reach out and pluck War Machine (Don Cheadle) out of the air with one hand. The action stops so we can focus on the giddy look in Ant-Man's eyes as he actually giggles loudly because he can't freaking believe what he just did. He's laughing because being a super-hero is so damn cool and so damn much fun, which is the primary source of pleasure in comic books in the first place.

Those sparkling eyes are the pulsing heart of the MCU. Face front, true believers, because they sure got it right!

17. SILENCE (Scorsese, 2016)

Of course, even the finest of the MCU movies can't match up to the best films of a true maestro like Martin Scorsese. For me, “Silence” is by far Scorsese's greatest accomplishment not just of the decade, but of the 21st century.

I had the odd experience of finishing Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel “Silence” a week before I read the first announcement of Scorsese's planned adaptation. I struggled to imagine how even Scorsese could translate this story for the big screen (I was also unaware of Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 film adaptation, which I still haven't seen). A tale of Jesuit priests in Japan persecuted for their religion is one thing, but how do you express on film that ineffable moment when a man makes not a sacrifice FOR his faith, but a sacrifice OF his faith as the most Christian act?

Heavy narration would seem the most obvious choice to provide access to characters' interior life and Scorsese employs a little of that, but he's more interested in situating the viewer in a devotional space, one of both distance and powerful tactile evocations (mud and wind and water). Scorsese's greatest act of faith is believing in an audience that has the patience to go on such a journey, and that may be the most inspiring aspect of this stark, rigorous work. In a film industry increasingly built around tent-pole properties, test screenings and big-data-refined pandering, Scorsese trusts that you'll meet him in his terms and that you might even choose to do so at the multiplex. He's had fifty-plus years to build up the justified confidence to make such a gamble, but at a time when my own commitment to the cinema isn't as unwavering as it once was, I'm moved by his gesture.

I was perhaps slower on the uptake than some other cinephiles, but “Silence” was the movie that solidified my belief that Adam Driver may be the most compelling actor of his generation. I don't intend to slight the film's lead, Andrew Garfield, who is phenomenal in a trying role, but Driver's face is the image that lingers in my memory the most, a face that I think could pull me into any time period or milieu from working-class Paterson, NJ to the 17th century to long, long ago in a galaxy far away. Need a convincing face for your upcoming biopic about a forgotten Italian renaissance painter? Adam Driver's your man for that too.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

My Top 20 Films of the Decade - Part One

Finally, I can announce the launch of my long-unawaited Best Films of the 2010s series. I should begin by noting that I watched far fewer films this decade than in the previous one, and far, far fewer in the second half of this decade than in the first half because I realized I needed to spend much more time reading books and studying for Jeopardy! even though I'll never get on the show. We love you, Alex!

Therefore, I can't claim any authority regarding what's actually best, but then again nobody else can either. So consider this my Top 20 Films of the Decade Out Of the Relatively Limited Selection I Saw And That I Can Remember Right Now.

20. ENTERTAINMENT (Alverson, 2015)

Most films that set out to provoke audiences fail to do so, in large part because they try to shock with content. Just try to forget our graphic gang-rape scene, so lovingly rendered in hand-held close-up for ten minutes! We can go fifteen minutes if that's what you want. Just pretend you don't know it's all pretend and you'll be absolutely appalled!

Rick Alverson's “Entertainment” provokes much more effectively through lack of content. Gregg Turkington portrays a stand-up comic condemned to a no-budget tour through the hollowed-out purgatory of Mojave Desert California, where both prisons and dive bars feature the same apathetic audiences. The film's long silences and unpopulated marginal spaces evoke “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) but now imagined as the comedy set to nowhere.

The Comedian's stage act is a mutated version of Turkington's real-life (if that's the right term) persona Neil Hamburger, the greasy-haired anti-comic whose phlegm-choked “epater la bourgeoisie” act is rendered impotent in this desperate hellscape. How do you puncture the illusions and delusions of consumerist society for audiences who've already abandoned all hope? How do you offend people who don't even care enough to pay attention anymore? Uncertain that his “mission” still has any relevance, The Comedian gradually cracks up which, to be fair, seems like an entirely reasonable reaction to the modern iteration of the American Dream.

I'm sure many viewers will stare blankly at this idiosyncratic film, perhaps the same ones who can't even begin to understand why Neil Hamburger is the funniest comedy act of the century. But “Entertainment” captures a sense of American malaise so vividly and so perceptively that I can't stop thinking about it more than four years later. I also love the fact that perhaps the single scene in American film this decade that so perfectly captures how I feel about the culture right now is currently indexed on YouTube as “Fart Trophy.”

“Entertainment” is the defining film for Fart Trophy America.

19. A QUIET PASSION (Davies, 2017)

I can understand just about any reaction to “Entertainment” from love to hate to boredom to bewilderment, but I'm completely baffled by viewers who found Cynthia Nixon's portrayal of Emily Dickinson to be alienating or unlikeable. I cannot think of a more moving performance this decade.

Director Terence Davies and his crew construct a formally restricted world, not just of tight interior spaces but also of a society of increasingly limited and unappealing choices, and Nixon's Dickinson is a spirit so expansive she can't help but slam into its walls every day, and every bruise she absorbs in the process draws us deeper into her experience. Her righteous anger at a world that can't accommodate her talent is perhaps the most lingering impression, but there's so much more to her performance, such as the simmering joy that struggles to find an appropriate outlet when she interacts with friends and family.

And, man, what a screenplay by Terence Davies. His dialogue is every bit as formally restricted as his sets and it's magnificent from start to finish. And all the more reason to shower praise on Cynthia Nixon because only a handful of actresses could have embraced that clipped diction with such, well, passion. I watched a few clips online to refresh my memory for this capsule write-up and I'm astonished anew at how brilliant Nixon is. I'm trying to think of a better author biopic, and not coming up with any obvious contenders. Though I suppose it's fair to resist applying the term “biopic” to a movie with so much more on its mind. Perhaps it's only appropriate that audiences failed this movie as badly as we all failed Emily Dickinson.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Tell Me Who I Am

TELL ME WHO I AM (Perkins, 2019)
Netflix Streaming, Release Date Oct 18, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

When 18-year-old Alex Lewis woke up in a hospital bed, he immediately recognized the young man standing faithfully by his side as his twin brother Marcus. As for the woman also in the room, Alex didn't have a clue until Marcus informed him that she was their mother.

It was the beginning of a new pattern for Alex, relying on Marcus to fill him on all the details of a life he no longer remembered as the result of the motorcycle accident that sent him to the hospital. In the first act of director Ed Perkins's documentary “Tell Me Who I Am”(2019), Alex recounts the early months of this reconstruction project, a disorienting and arduous process also laden with moments of humor. Marcus reintroduces Alex to his longtime girlfriend, and the now-adult Alex (54 at the time of filming) jokes that this provided him the unique opportunity to lose his virginity to the same girl twice.

With Marcus's help, Alex gradually readjusts to the family household, run by his disciplinarian father and a vivacious mother who's always the life of the party. Young Alex, having no memories of his own life, let alone anyone else's life as a comparison point, remains largely unaware of how unusual their domestic situation really is, but it doesn't take long before viewers realize there's a dark secret lurking beneath the semi-placid surface. Perhaps the secret is hiding in the upstairs of the house from which the twins are forever banned.

Perkins delays the big reveal for an uncomfortably long stretch, a dramatic technique I sometimes find ethically questionable when filmmakers deal with true stories. In this case, however, the elongation of tension replicates Alex's real experience. For years, he unquestioningly believed everything Marcus told him about their shared lives. After all, if you can't count on your twin brother, who can you trust? Only after their parents died, did Alex come to realize that the normal, happy childhood he now knew about was largely a work of fiction written by his twin.

I'm hesitant to reveal much more. Suffice it to say that while “Tell Me Who I Am” begins with a story remarkable enough just based on the barest facts (twin brothers – one with no memories, one with all their memories), it soon delves into more profound and unnerving territory. Marcus has very good reasons for this seeming betrayal of one of the most intimate trusts one can imagine, so much so that many will see him as a noble figure who makes a tremendous sacrifice as an act of compassion for the person he loves the most. On the other hand, it's not difficult to understand Alex's anger at Marcus. When the only memories you have never really happened, how can you possibly know who you are?

Perkins mostly relies on Alex and Marcus to speak their truths to the camera, each of them filmed separately for the bulk of the movie, though he also shoots some limited recreations, explorations of the dark spaces of the mysterious house, for example. He returns to select images over and over, a technique which pays off in the film's most poignant shot, that of just one of the twins, as boys, sleeping in their shared bedroom, the other bed empty. It's one of the most emotionally potent moments I can recall seeing in a documentary in quite some time.

Alex has to recreate his identity because he lost his memories. Marcus has to (and perhaps wants to) recreate his identity because he no longer has another person who shares his memories. In its brief running time, “Tell Me Who I Am” can barely touch on the immense burdens confronting each of these men, but it presents their stories with grace, clarity, and humility. Nobody who watches this film will ever forget about the Lewis twins.

“Tell Me Who I Am” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Monday, October 21, 2019

When We Were Kings

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

You've probably heard some variant of the claim that movies are primarily made in the editing room. Orson Welles, for example, said, “(F)or my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is THE aspect.” You won't find many more illustrative examples of this maxim than the documentary “When We Were Kings” (1996).

Director Leon Gast was hired to shoot a documentary about Zaire 74, the music festival scheduled to accompany the massively hyped Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight fight between champion George Foreman and a scrappy little underdog named Muhammad Ali in Zaire (today The Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert would feature an all-world lineup mostly headlined by African and African-American artists, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and many more.

A lineup like that couldn't possible miss, but when the Rumble was delayed because of a sparring injury suffered by Foreman, the show still had to go on, to a largely empty stadium since it was no longer attached to the biggest fight ever (free admission helped pack the stands on the final day, at least). After this major setback, Gast struggled to find funding to complete his project and hundreds of hours of footage would sit unused for many years.

In the late-1980s, Gast continued to shop his footage around and found a new booster in the form of lawyer and music manager David Sonenberg who became a producer on the new film-to-be. But was there really demand for a movie about the ill-starred Zaire 74, no matter how great the music was? Maybe, but in transferring and revisiting the old footage, Gast and Sonenberg (perhaps others were involved in the decision – I don't know) realized they were sitting on a trove of crackerjack material of Foreman and, especially, the photogenic and always media-available Ali, as they prepared to rumble. There would certainly be demand for a documentary about Muhammad Ali and the fight of the century.

Thus was born “When We Were Kings”, a documentary released twenty years after its main subject, which the filmmaker wasn't even directly pursuing at the time. It turned out to be a commercial hit and even an Oscar winner.

“When We Were Kings” still plays a bit like a concert film, and not because of the snippets of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, and others still in the movie. Ali, today described by some as the original rapper, entrances audiences of all kinds – groups of admiring children in Zaire, gaggles of giddy reporters, the filmmakers themselves – with his perfectly polished rhythms and cleverly scripted rhymes. “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait til I kick Foreman's behind.” And “(I) injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali doesn't just bust rhymes (or skulls), of course. The film poignantly evokes the thrill Ali gets from being in Africa – in one of the most memorable scenes, he can barely contain the pride and joy he feels when flying on a plane staffed entirely by a black crew. Fans from Zaire were every bit as proud of Ali, who arrived as a legend and left as a demi-god (I'm understating the matter here). It's actually tough not to feel bad for the young Foreman whose chief sin was not being Muhammad Ali, and thus being identified by many as the evil American imperialist. “Ali, bomaye!” the crowds chanted. “Ali, kill him!”

The fight itself only takes up a few minutes running time in the documentary, but it remains a mesmerizing spectacle today, even for those who can't stand boxing. Ali's winning rope-a-dope strategy has been much discussed, but watching it in action provides a reminder that the Greatest's plan relied on two keystones. Step One – letting Foreman tire himself out by throwing flurries of punches while Ali leaned against the ropes - makes perfect sense. However, Step Two involves Ali resting up and conserving his energy by letting George Foreman beat the hell out of him for several rounds. I guess it works if you're Muhammad Ali.

The film also incorporates some newly-shot interviews which consist primarily of way too much Norman Mailer, not nearly enough Spike Lee, and just the right amount of George Plimpton. Their retrospective views are useful (just about everyone thought Ali would lose, Plimpton feared he might be killed), but the stars of the documentary are Ali and the people of Zaire. They truly loved Ali and, at least judging from what we see on screen, Ali loved them. The film captures that dynamic quite touchingly, which makes this something more memorable than just another boxing documentary.

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution... from a 35 mm interpositive and restored at Deluxe in Hollywood.” The 16 mm archival footage looks surprisingly sharp in this high-def transfer, at least as sharp as you could expect given the source material.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn't called on to do much with most of the interviews and archival footage, but the film includes some brief snippets of great music from the Zaire 74 concert as well as the title song for the film. The lossless audio treats the music quite well. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

The first extra on this Criterion release is a 1997 interview with director Leon Gast which only runs 4 minutes. The interview doesn't reveal much except the degree to which Ali was quite media savvy and helped set up some of those great “spontaneous” shots.

We also get a new 2019 interview (16 min.) with David Sonenberg, the producer who proved so pivotal in getting “When We Were Kings” made and released nearly two decades after Gast originally shot the footage. He speaks in detail about the unlikely and complicated process of converting an old concert movie into a fight documentary (though, of course, it's much more than that).

The star attraction in the Extras collection is “Soul Power” (2009, 92 min.), the concert movie also made from the footage shot in 1974. This film is directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte (one of the editors on “When We Were Kings”) and showcases numerous great acts from Miriam Makeba to James Brown and so much more. It's a real blast and further proof of the degree to which a film is made in the editing room, though of course it helps to have music superstars to work with in the first place.

The slim, fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by writer Kelefa Sanneh.

Final Thoughts:
There's a whole subindustry of Muhammad Ali documentaries, but none are better than “When We Were Kings.” And if you already own it on DVD, there's still a good reason to upgrade in the form of the extra documentary “Soul Power.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Underworld (1927)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 15, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

The adjective “poetic” was attached to Josef von Sternberg from the very start of his directorial career, a potential death sentence for an aspiring Hollywood filmmaker. But little about von Sternberg's career was typical.

The plucky teen immigrant (born in Vienna in 1894, emigrated with his family to New York in 1901) dropped out of high school and worked a series of odd jobs, eventually finding his way into film in the pre-Hollywood movie mecca of Fort Lee, NJ where he learned how to splice, edit, write, operate a camera, and virtually every phase of filmmaking. After a few returns to Europe and a stint in the U.S. Army, von Sternberg relocated to Hollywood where he continued to hone his craft in various supporting capacities.

He impressed many in the industry with his vast knowledge of the craft of filmmaking, but he wasn't content to methodically climb the ladder of success. He launched a bold attempt to spring directly into the director's chair, shooting a micro-budget independent film called “The Salvation Hunters” (1925). Praised for its “poetic” qualities and evocative imagery it naturally flopped, but generated buzz all around town and drew attention from no less a luminary than Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin was impressed by von Sternberg's ability to communicate both story and character psychology in images, and tapped von Sternberg to direct a project for him, though not one in which The Tramp would act. Chaplin was apparently dissatisfied with the result (though he made no public comment) and chose not to release the picture. This would have proved a debilitating setback for many ambitious up-and-comers but the resourceful von Sternberg (the regal “von” was added by a Hollywood publicist, by the way) bounced back quickly.

Within a year, von Sternberg grabbed hold of an unexpected opportunity to direct another film, a gangster picture from a script by the hard-boiled journalist Ben Hecht. Hecht was by far the biggest name attached to the project, but that didn't stop von Sternberg from doing a major rewrite, enraging Hecht who initially demanded his name be removed from the film. Hecht was presumably more sanguine when he received the first-ever Oscar for Best Writing on an Original Picture.

In “Underworld” (1927), George Bancroft plays Bull Weed (I like to think his little brother's name is Dick), a boorish bank robber and gangster who runs into a drunk (Clive Brook) during one of his heists and arbitrarily takes it upon himself to redeem the man, now dubbed Rolls Royce. Bull sets up Rolls with some cash and his own apartment and darn if he doesn't clean up nice. Maybe too nice, as Rolls begins to draw the attention of Bull's lovely girlfriend, Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

It's a pulpy story with seemingly stock characters, but one of the hallmarks of the three films in this set is the surprising nuance with which even minor characters are imbued. Bull is a brute and a loudmouth – even in a silent film you can hear the beefy Bancroft bellowing – but during a protracted scene where he waits to kill a friend in a jealous fit of rage, he stops to feed a kitten by dipping his finger in a milk bottle and letting the kitten lick the drops. Feathers is named for her fondness for wearing feathered boas, but she turns out to be more than just a kitschy gangster's moll when she torments herself over whether to pursue her own happiness or loyalty to a man who helped rescue her from the streets.

“Underworld” turned into a surprise hit with theaters forced to add midnight showings to accommodate demand. It is frequently given credit for kicking off the craze in gangster films, though it's difficult to pinpoint its influence that directly. It certainly made stars of the three leads as well as of von Sternberg, the former boy genius of “Salvation Hunters” now all grown up into a top-line Hollywood powerhouse.

He followed up his break-out with another hit, “The Last Command” (1928), featuring the Swiss-German star Emil Jannings as an aging, enfeebled Hollywood extra cast to play the part of a Russian general in a picture about the Russian Revolution. Shaking with essential tremor, he tells his fellow extras he really was a Russian general, a claim they greet with open mockery, but an extended flashback reveals that he was telling the truth.

Or at least his truth. “The Last Command” (story by Lajos Biro) nests illusions within illusions like a Matryoshka doll, beginning with the opening title cards proclaiming “Hollywood – 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century!” Jannings' character is cast to play a general in a movie that no doubt relates, a phony, sanitized version of Russian history, but surely his memory of events told in flashback are just as biased and divorced from reality. When he finally gets to the film set and is asked to pretend to be a general, his potentially fatal mistake is to treat the process as far too real.. Jannings (later a Nazi collaborator, but at this point in time just admired as a great actor) is sensational, a portly, blustering special effect in his own right, and he would win the first-ever Best Actor Oscar. Von Sternberg's mark was all over that inaugural Award ceremony.

In “The Docks of New York” (1928), released just at the end of the silent era, von Sternberg reunited with George Bancroft, who plays Bill, a ship's stoker on leave for one night in New York. He falls for dance-hall girl Mae (Betty Compson) and has to decide which siren call plays loudest for him, the open sea on his next job or the love of a good woman. Hyper-macho Bancroft is utterly convincing as the sweaty, coal-stained stoker who spends all his time around other sweaty, coal-stained men and therefore has no idea how to act around women except in the most straightforward, obvious way (I'm talking sex, people!) But maybe he's enough of a man to learn.

Those trademark character touches create more special moments. Witness the scene where a very impressed Mae ogles Bill's bulging, tattoed forearms with undisguised lust. Or how a seemingly minor supporting player, an ill-treated wife (Olga Baclanova), suddenly takes center stage from Bill and Mae, living out the aphorism that everyone sees themselves as the main character of the story.

Von Sternberg's poetic leanings are on full display in all three films. The heavy chiaroscuro design of “The Docks of New York” (cinematography by Harold Rosson) transforms a single night ashore into a moody character in its own right. Harsh beams of solid light knife through inky blackness, sometimes from lampposts above, sometimes from indoor spaces that erupt into the nighttime outside, promising sanctuary or perhaps threatening a different brand of meance. In other shots, a curtain of hazy, smoke-filled light blankets the background, sealing the docks off from the rest of the world.

Many scenes in these films possess that same hermetic quality. Von Sternberg has a knack for creating secret spaces, faerie ring subcultures that exist only for a moment in time. “Underworld” presents the Gangster's Ball where all the criminals set aside their quarrels for a night of hard-drinking camaraderie. In “The Last Command” a doomed train rumbles through the Russian night, its passengers oblivious to their fate. In “The Docks of New York” the denizens of a seedy bar unite to celebrate a wedding in their own unique style: “One of us! One of us!”

Von Sternberg was at his creative peak and made a seamless transition into the talking picture era, most famously in his films with Marlene Dietrich, starting with “The Blue Angel” (1930). His directorial career would begin to decline by the end of the 1930s and curtailed significantly after World War II. The three films in this set alone are enough to explain why Josef von Sternberg is regarded as a great and true one-of-a-kind artist.

The films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I don't own the original 2010 DVD release as a comparison point, but reviews indicate that those were presented in a picture-boxed format which provided a slim black border around the image that was designed so it would look OK on older TV sets. Never mind that. Picture-boxing is dead, and these new high-def transfers are not picture-boxed. The 2K high-def transfers all look fairly strong to me, especially “The Docks of New York” which relies so heavily on chiaroscuro lighting – the black-and-white contrast needs to look sharp and it does.

Each of the three silent films in this Criterion boxed set offers listeners the option of two different scores. Robert Israel provided new scores for each movie that were composed specifically for the original 2010 Criterion DVD release of this set. “Underworld” and “The Last Command” also arrive with scores by the Alloy Orchestra, scores composed for festival screenings in the late 2000s. “The Docks of New York” also has a Donald Sosin score that debuted in 2008.

The LPCM mono mix treats all the scores quite well, providing robust, enjoyable listening experiences for all of them. Audio on the extras is solid as well.

This Criterion boxed set includes three separate keepcases which are stored in an outer cardboard case, with the square-bound insert booklet tucked alongside the discs. Each film is on a separate Blu-ray in each keepcase.

The extras are relatively modest in this set. All extras are copied from the old 2010 DVD set and no extras have been added for this Blu-ray re-release.

On the “Underworld” disc, we get a 2010 video essay (36 min.) by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom. It's jam-packed with information about von Sternberg's early career, and the unusual path he took to directing his break-out gangster hit. Bergstrom finds a way to pack a few hours worth of information into a fairly short running time.

On “The Last Command” we get a 2010 video essay (35 min.) by Tag Gallagher titled “Von Sternberg 'Til 1929” which covers what the title indicates. Gallagher provides more stylistic analysis, tracing out common motifs and themes in all three films included in this set. Because of that, you might not want to watch this until you've seen “The Docks of New York.”

On “The Docks of New York” disc, we get a 40-minute interview with von Sternberg that originally aired on Swedish television in 1968, just a year before the director's death. Von Sternberg wasn't always the most reliable narrator of his own career, but he's always an engaging speaker.

The thick, square-bound insert booklet is attractively designed. It's also loaded, starting with separate essays about each film, by author Geoffrey O'Brien (“Underworld”), film professor Anton Kaes (“The Last Command”) and critic Luc Sante (“The Docks of New York”). The booklet also includes Ben Hecht's original story for “Underworld” as well as a short essay about the film scores included here, and an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography concerning working with Emil Jannings.

Final Thoughts:
Fans spoiled by Criterion's jam-packed “Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood” boxed set from last year might find this Blu-ray upgrade of the old 2010 set somewhat lacking by comparison. Each film is only accompanied by a single extra, but we still get two scores for each movie and the movies themselves are pretty great, which is more than enough to recommend this set.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Souvenir

THE SOUVENIR (J. Hogg, 2019)
Review by Christopher S. Long

(I promised myself I'd write about at least a few new releases this year, so here are some quick thoughts about one title I just caught up with.)

The capsule descriptions of Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir” (2019) seem specifically targeted to driving me away.

“A coming of age story.” Oh Lordy, there must be a good baseball game on somewhere.

“A study of a relationship in crisis.” Maybe this would be a good time to clean the bathroom.

Dialogue heavy, slice of upper-middle-class English life... Hoo boy. I only checked this one out of the library because it happened to sitting right there on the New Release shelf (yes, I still check actual, physical DVDs out of an actual, physical library) staring at me and because I'd read a good deal of persuasive praise about Joanna Hogg's previous films such as “Archipelago” (2010) and “Exhibition” (2013). I'm delighted that I did so.

“The Souvenir” is, at least to some degree, all of the things it was made out to be (though the “graphic nudity” warning tag hardly seems merited), but none of these quick hits touch on the film's idiosyncratic and deceptively complex style. But before delving into that, here's a quick plot summary: The setting is England circa 1983/1984, and Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 20-ish film school student deep in pre-production (the phase when your film has its best chance of being a masterpiece – before you actually start shooting) on her first feature. While polishing (and polishing and polishing) her script, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), an apparently suave and wealthy Foreign Office functionary, and they fall in love.

Writer/director Hogg displays virtually no interest in exposition or set up of any kind. The instant Anthony is introduced, it feels as if he's always been there; perhaps because he so quickly becomes an important presence in Julie's life. Their relationship unfolds across discrete spots of time, the narrative leaping forward from one vignette to the next. Julie and Anthony have just met, and one cut later they're together. In the next scene they've been a couple for months, later they've clearly just had an argument, they've broken up, then reunited, etc. Hogg's confidence in her ability to convey a wealth of information with a few brushstrokes extends to her audience, who she trusts to do the work necessary to catch up and fill in the gaps. A bold bet to make, but also an efficient way of self-selecting the right audience for your work.

Much of the negative feedback stems from viewers who claim they don't understand what Julie finds so appealing about Anthony who, as it turns out, is hiding a secret that has the potential to destroy both of them. This complaint misses what's so powerful about the film's propulsive style. Every moment of the film is so immediate, so constantly now, that you simply accept what is happening as axiomatic. To ask why Julie loves Anthony makes as much sense as asking why it's raining now. It just is.

“The Souvenir” reminds me in a tangential way of Terrence Malick's shamefully underrated “To The Wonder” (2012) which also careened from highlight to lowlight to highlight in a tempestuous relationship. But where Malick was conducting a symphony, Hogg operates in a much less flashy idiom. Not prosaic, that's not right. I'm struggling for the proper description. More rooted? More improvisatory than carefully orchestrated? No, that makes it seem like she's not meticulously planning and in total control, which she certainly is. I dunno, give me more time to think about it. But Hogg speaks with a unique voice, and a style that is distinctive without ostentation.

Honor Swinton Byrne is great, turning in the best performance I've seen so far this year, though I admit I haven't seen many new releases so far. She plays meek and naïve and self-doubting without ever coming off as weak or straining viewer sympathy in the process. She's the daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also plays her mother in the film, so I suppose it shouldn't be a shock that she's so accomplished in her first lead role, also just her second official film credit according to IMDB. But she sure is fantastic.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Circus

THE CIRCUS (Chaplin, 1928/1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Sep 24, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

For years, Charlie Chaplin rarely talked about “The Circus” (1928), not even in his autobiography. This might seem odd considering that the film was a huge commercial hit and gave the greatest star in America a chance to celebrate his beloved circus performers, but the film was a deeply troubled production from the start. During two years of shooting, Chaplin had to cope with a bitter and public divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey, an IRS determined to carve out a huge chunk of his financial empire, and an array of disasters from fires to storms that forced long and costly delays. In addition, though Chaplin began shooting right at the commercial peak of silent cinema in January 1926, the film would be released in January 1928, near the beginning of the inconceivably rapid transition to talking pictures, a tectonic shift Chaplin would resist almost single-handedly for more than another decade.

In 1968, the septuagenarian director, now enjoying a lavish semi-retirement in his giant Swiss mansion with wife Oona and a brood of young children, revisited his labor of love, composing a new score for it and even singing the theme song himself (“Swing Little Girl, Swing High...”) to prepare for a re-release. Fortunately, Chaplin resisted any other extensive changes, still leaving “The Circus” intact as silent pantomime. He must have been reminded rather quickly of just how good his “forgotten” movie really was.

Chaplin unleashes his best gags at the beginning. The Tramp, homeless and starving, is mistaken for a pickpocket and winds up being chased by the police through an amusement park. An extended hall of mirrors bit is dazzling and disorienting enough, but Chaplin ups the ante with one of his finest stunts when he pretends to be an animatronic figure in a Noah's Ark set. As a confused policeman keeps a suspicious eye on him, Chaplin pivots in place like a clockwork cuckoo, bonking a man (the real pickpocket) on the head and rearing back in a mechanized laugh. It's one of the most convincing special effects of any era and it's pure Chaplin.

Forced to make a break for it, The Tramp stumbles into a circus where he unwittingly becomes the star attraction, prompting a previously bored audience to shout “Bring back the funny man!” Chaplin is no doubt patting himself on the back here, but he's also just telling the truth. American audiences really did fall in love at first sight with The Tramp back in 1914 because, gosh darn it, he's just a funny, funny man. The public wanted more back then, and by 1928, their appetite was nowhere close to sated, no matter their fascination with Al Jolsen and the newfangled talking picture.

There aren't many laughs behind the scenes at the circus, which is ruled by a tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who saves his greatest cruelties for his daughter Merna (the ill-fated Merna Kennedy in her starring role), a horseback rider in the show. His abuse is genuinely frightening, and Kennedy endures some harrowing stunts as she is grabbed and hurled about the set with force. The Tramp, of course, falls in love with her and dreams of being the gallant knight who can save her. Unfortunately, he has stiff competition in the form of the brave and manly Rex (Harry Crocker), a genuine stick in the mud but also a daring tightrope walker who makes Merna's heart flutter.

Chaplin's most impressive trick isn't balancing on a tightrope or sharing a cage with a lion (two feature bits later in the film), but rather making The Tramp appear so effortless. In the film, he can only get laughs when he's being himself, not when he's trying to perform a routine. Of course, The Tramp just “being himself” was the result of thousands of hours of stage work in the British Music Hall and then in early Hollywood, an overnight success many years in the making. But the act works better when you don't give audiences time to think about that because they're laughing too hard.

Audiences watching “The Circus” today, just like audiences watching it in 1928 or in 1968, will be laughing mighty hard. 

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “This new 4K restoration was undertaken at the Cineteca di Bologna” from a 35 mm duplicate negative made in 1967. I don't think you can quite call the image quality “razor sharp” throughout. There are several scenes where faces and other details look a bit soft, but we're talking about a film made 90 years ago and now being sourced from a dupe negative made 40 years later. Black-and-white contrast is generally robust. Overall, the 1080p transfer looks quite pleasing, as good as you can reasonably expect for a 1928 film.

The linear PCM mono track only has to present the music which it does just fine. It's a bit flat but it was never meant to be a stereophonic blowout. Intertitle cards are in English, and no subtitles are provided.

Criterion has packed this release right to the tip of the big top.

The film is accompanied by a commentary by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

The disc includes an interview (15 min.) with Eugene Chaplin, son of Charlie and Oona Chaplin. He takes viewers on a brief tour of the Chaplin family mansion in Switzerland and shares some home movies, most shot by Oona.

Film scholar Craig Barron, a familiar face to fans of Criterion's silent comedy releases, talks about the innovative visual effects used on “The Circus.” In this 20-minute piece, Barron goes into quite a bit of detail on the split screen techniques used to combine composite images. You mean Chaplin wasn't really up on that high wire and didn't really face down that roaring lion? This is a great piece.

“Chaplin Today: The Circus” (26 min.) is a 2003 documentary by Francois Ede and featuring some interviews with director Emir Kusturica, a big fan of the movie. There's some useful information here, but I didn't find this feature terribly enlightening or riveting.

In “Stepping Out” we're treated to approximately 40 minutes of outtakes from “The Circus.” Scholars Kevin Brownlow and David Gill screened many hours of outtakes from the Chaplin archives when they released the miniseries “The Unknown Chaplin” in 1983 (I remember I loved it, but it appears my no-doubt comprehensive review of the DVD has tragically been lost to history). One result of that project is the 10-minute scene included here, which they edited from “Circus” outtakes. It's mostly a scene of The Tramp taking Merna out on a date that, of course, goes wrong and, of course, involves twin boxers. This scene comes with a new score by Timothy Brock. We also get 30 more minutes of outtakes which are accompanied with narration by comedy choreographer Dan Kamin.

“A Ring for Merna” (7 min.) includes a few more outtakes from the scene where The Tramp buys a wedding ring that he plans to give to Merna. Though this piece runs 7 minutes, there's only a few minutes of outtakes that are edited into where they would have been in the film.

We also get audio excerpts (10 min.) of an interview conducted by Jeffrey Vance of Eric James, Chaplin's musical collaborator.

“Swing Little Girl” provides five minutes of an audio recording session for the title song Chaplin composed for the re-release of “The Circus.” It was originally meant to be sung by Ken Barrie before Chaplin decided he was the right man for the job.

The attractions continue with silent publicity footage from the movie's Jan 27, 1928 premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It includes circus stars (both humans and other animals) along with many of the film celebrities of the day.

We also get a brief excerpt (5 min.) of a 1969 interview Chaplin conducted for reporters at his Swiss mansion.

Finally, the extras wrap up with two Re-Release Trailers (5 min. total)

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.

Final Thoughts:
“The Circus” might get overlooked today both because Chaplin himself tended not to talk about it and because it arrived in the middle of the all-world sequence of “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), and “Modern Times” (1940). But on a gag per gag basis, it's as funny as any Chaplin comedy, though it might feel a bit slight in terms of narrative heft. Criterion has loaded this fairly short feature (72 min.) with a ton of extras, which should be enough to please any Chaplin aficionado.