Wednesday, January 29, 2020

I Thought 2019 Was A Pretty Good Year For Movies

Joe Pesci in The Irishman

These Best of 2019 lists still count as long as they're posted before the end of January, right?

2019 was the first year in quite some time when I actually watched more new releases than I had in the previous year. Perhaps that explains why I thought this was an unusually strong year, at least for feature film. I think my top four were all sensational movies, each a serious candidate for my Top Films of the 2010s list. I think this Scorsese kid has a future.

I didn't see a 2019 documentary quite on par with either the great “Hale County” or “Shirkers” from 2018, but there were enough exciting and vital non-fiction films to force me to expand my top 10 to a top 16.

The Irishman (Scorsese)
A Hidden Life (Malick)
The Lighthouse (Eggers)
Ash is Purest White (Jia)
63 Up (Apted)
Honeyland (Kotevska and Stefanov)
Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi)
The Souvenir (Hogg)
Image Book (Godard)
For Sama (Al-Kateab and Watts)
Black Mother (K. Allah)
Los Reyes (Osnovikoff and Perut)
The Disappearance Of My Mother (Barrese)
The Mountain (Alverson)
Tell Me Who I Am (Perkins)

I'm feeling generous today, so I'll keep the comments brief.

The Irishman: “It was like... Remember Moses? When he walked into the ocean, the sea, whatever the fuck it was? And it opened up!”

A Hidden Life: Malick has directed not only one of the most grueling and moving films about a martyr since “The Passion of Joan Of Arc” but also the perfect movie to show to your authoritarian friend who insists that no matter what you think of the man, you have to respect the office.

Ash Is Purest White: The amazing Zhao Tao gets stuck with a loser partner on screen; fortunately her partner behind the camera is still one of the best directors in the world.

Honeyland: Everything you ever imagined a documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper could be, and so much more.

Long Day's Journey Into Night: This year's great film with a really long take.

Image Book: Some movies are just meant to be watched at home and stopped every 30 seconds so you can try to Google the references.

For Sama: No glib one-liner for a movie this potent. Waad al-Kateab films herself surviving the ongoing siege of Aleppo, Syria. She somehow finds a way to live and grow under unspeakable conditions, starting as a teenage marketing student, then falling in love, raising a baby, and helping to save the lives of her neighbors. There are still heroes, even in a world that doesn't care much about them.

Black Mother: Photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah delivers a meditation (and accusation) on the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica that also turns out to be a visionary tour-de-force that renders the political as intimately personal.

Los Reyes: A fascinating observational documentary about two stray dogs who live in a Chilean skate park, both of whom would have been more convincing in “Jojo Rabbit” than Scarlett Johansson.

The Disappearance Of My Mother: When mom tells you to leave her the hell alone, you should strongly consider her advice.

The Mountain: No, seriously, just leave mom alone.

The two worst 2019 releases I saw are, of course, two of the leading contenders for Best Picture, so I'm going to say something nice about each of them.

Joker (Phillips): “Joker” is plagued by a few minor flaws, chief among them a hackneyed story and script that makes every obvious decision at every point. But there's one moment that really sings. Arthur (the Joker-to-be played by Joaquin Phoenix) shares an elevator with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz) – to express her exasperation with her day, she mimes putting a gun to her head. In the hallway, the desperately awkward Arthur tries to connect with her by repeating the gesture. He overdoes it so badly, she instantly knows he's a man best avoided, a fact to which he is oblivious. It's a moving, human moment from one of our greatest actors. Everything that follows is bland and forgettable.

1917 (Mendes): Sam Mendes has now directed three films I consider to be the worst movies in their respective years of release. “1917” is almost certainly somewhat better than the other two.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Le Petit Soldat

LE PETIT SOLDAT (Godard, 1963)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 21, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

In retrospect, Jean-Luc Godard's “Le petit soldat” (1961) predicted the singular and stubborn career that would unfold over the next sixty years (and still counting).

The 30-year-old critic turned director had scored a huge commercial hit with “Breathless” (1960), his feature debut drenched in giddy cinephilia and pitched at the hip youth culture from which the Nouvelle Vague originated. Naturally, he decided to follow up his breakthrough with “Le petit soldat” (shot in 1961, but released in 1963), a grim political thriller short on thrills and heavy on torture scenes.

Not content with just alienating returning audiences looking for more doomed romantic fun, Godard also infuriated both wings of the political spectrum. The conservative establishment railed against Godard's frank acknowledgment of French war crimes in Algeria and the lack of justification for the ongoing occupation. Meanwhile, the director's decision to only depict on-screen torture conducted by agents of an Algerian rebel force (the FLN) generated even stronger condemnation from many on the left. The film was banned and not released in France until 1963, not coincidentally after Algeria won its hard-fought independence.

Charges that Godard was equivocating were enhanced by his choice of protagonist. Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) flees to Geneva (circa 1958) to avoid conscription in the French military, but he professes no particular political ideology. He's pressured by a French intelligence group to assassinate an Algerian sympathizer, and resists, mostly because he just wants to be left alon. He also falls for the beautiful Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina, in her first film with Godard) who may or may not be a political agent as well.

Much of the film is filtered through Bruno's perspective with heavy use of narration by Subor which reveals Bruno as sexist, self-absorbed and also undeniably perceptive: “I think actors are stupid. I despise them.” Who can argue with that? He wants to blaze his own path, but winds up caught between both factions of the war he's tried to escape.

In the film's most-discussed sequence, Bruno is kidnapped by FLN agents and subjected to a series of tortures, ranging from burning to near drowning to electrocution. Some viewers were repelled by what they felt were graphic depictions of suffering, but the real horror is that Godard depicts the torturers as a couple of bored guys just clocking another day at work. They display neither reluctance nor joy in their efforts. They've got a script, they've done this all before, and they'll do it again tomorrow with some other victim, whoever that happens to be.

Cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who gets a sly name drop in the film) may be the real star of “Le petit soldat.” The opening shot starts with a slow pan that rockets to whip-speed to settle on Bruno as he drives across the border into Switzerland. Shooting in black-and-white, and balancing long moments of stasis with abrupt kinetic bursts, Coutard creates a stark look that matches both the story and the protagonist's soul.

Subor doesn't offer much beyond dry indifference, tough but not terribly charismatic. Karina is Karina, of course, but has a thankless role as an inscrutable object of desire. And an object of exchange. Money changes hands when a friend introduces Veronica to Bruno. Eventually she will be treated as a disposable pawn, her final fate barely remarked upon by the men busy playing their power games. In a terse, bloodless fashion, the film's final minute is just as brutal as the torture scenes.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This high-definition digital transfer, undertaken by StudioCanal and approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, was created from the 35 mm original camera negative...” The image resolution is sharp and if the black-and-white picture sometimes looks excessively bright at times, that's how it's meant to look (as far as I know). Another solid high-def transfer from Criterion.

The linear PCM Mono audio mix is sharp and somewhat flat, as is the source. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.

Criterion has only included a few brief supplements with this Godard release.

The disc starts with a 6-minute excerpt from a 1965 interview with Godard in which he briefly discusses the film's troubled reception. Half of this already short excerpt consists of a clip from the film.

In a 1963 interview (14 min.) filmed at a boxing gym where he trains, actor Michel Subor discusses why the film was banned, while also making the ludicrous claim that it isn't really a political film at all.

We also get an audio interview (1961, 29 min.) of Godard conducted by critic and filmmaker Gideon Bachmann.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes a sharp and comprehensive essay by critic Nicholas Elliott.

Final Thoughts:
“Le petit soldat” is one of my least favorite Godard films of the early '60s, but it's still of interest both as a bold choice to follow up “Breathless” and for introducing Karina (even though viewers saw her in “A Woman is a Woman” and “Vivre sa Vie” before this film hit theaters). To the best of my knowledge, this Criterion edition is the film's first Blu-ray release in North America, which makes it a must-own for Godard fans even if the supplements are fairly modest.

Friday, January 10, 2020


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. 

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.

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

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.