Sunday, May 21, 2017

DHEEPAN - #871

There is no frying pan, only fire.

Three refugees make their way from war-torn Sri Lanka to France, banding together as a family even though they have never met. The father, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), is a soldier from the losing army going into hiding following the slaughter of his men and his family; the mother, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), is hoping to escape to London and join her only remaining relative; and the daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is an orphan in the right place at the right time. Families have a better chance of getting through the immigration red tape, so these strangers will have to pretend they are tied together by marriage and blood. It’s a nightmare for many in Trump’s America, the huddled masses gaming the system, but then again, maybe a story like Dheepan will inspire some empathy. What would you do if your country went to war and you ended up on the wrong side, or worse, had no real stake in the fight and just got caught in the crossfire?

Released in 2015, Dheepan is the latest from French director and Cannes-darling Jacques Audiard, who previously made a splash with A Prophet [review] and Rust and Bone [review]. Dheepan has more in common with the earlier movie--a prison picture about gangsters coping with life inside and outside their cells--in that the filmmaker manages to take very specific group sand relate their individual experience in a way that is true to their story but also relatable. The particular becomes universal.

Once this lost trio lands on French shores, they are put into the system, which eventually sends them to a remote ghetto where Dheepan will work as caretaker, Yalini will care for an infirm old man, and Illayaal will go to school. As they learn to make their way in their new home, they also start to become a real unit, with the lure of traditional roles proving too strong to resist. They also start to learn that the world is terrible everywhere. The complex where they’ve been placed is run by drug dealers, and Yalini is unwittingly caring for the father of the local boss, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), who himself is freshly out of prison, only to be trapped in the tenement by an ankle monitor. It seems for some people, circumstances never change: you’re always imprisoned, you’re always at war.

The movie is called Dheepan, but I feel that’s misleading, it’s not entirely his picture. Sure, he gets an interesting arc, and becomes an active plot agent in the film’s powerful climax, as his past comes back to haunt him and he wrestles with his PTSD, but the true center of Audiard’s film, co-written with the director’s regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, is Yalini. She drives their scheme, searching out Illayaal in the refugee camp, and she has the most connection with the varying lines of action. When Dheepan decides to fight back against the thugs, like some kind of 1980s vigilante, it’s Yalini who must shuttle messages back and forth between her husband and the bad guys. Likewise, as Dheepan loses his way, she is the one who takes responsibility of their adopted daughter, a task she has otherwise tried to avoid. (If anyone gets short shrift, it’s Illayaal, who kind of gets set aside after some initial hiccups at her new school; there’s more to be explored here regarding the young girl’s search for acceptance.) That said, both lead performers have a quiet strength that gives them equal footing. One can sense there is much going on beneath the surface of their words and deeds.

In fact, that’s one of Audiard’s greatest strengths, hinting at and then ultimately revealing what is hidden. There is much going on behind all these stories, a history to each character, a politic to their situation. Audiard plays with light and dark throughout Dheepan, using visual metaphor to suggest truth emerging. In early scenes, it is literally lit objects appearing in blackness, the people carrying them or around them only becoming evident as the light sources--mouse ears, a lamp--gain power. Later in the movie, when too much has been revealed, we see Dheepan sitting in an orange light, fully exposed, but his own darkness still lurking within. For him, it’s secrets that are brought out; for Yalini, a strength and resourcefulness otherwise untapped. And a goodness.

It’s a credit to the script that, despite a very exciting, violent finale, the climactic scenes don’t overtake what comes before. The grit and flow of this action reminds me of Cuarón’s Children of Men [review], for as much as Audiard is a master choreographer as for his assured hand. The confidence we see in these scenes is what keeps them from calling too much attention to themselves, even if they are the biggest and loudest moments in the entire film--at least on the face of things. Audiard’s real skill is that every quiet moment is still big and loud to him, and thus given as much emphasis. The silence speaks volumes, or even the lines he chooses not to translate, as his main characters jump between languages--Tamil, French, and a little English--it’s the tone of the words, the force with which they are said, the expression on the actor’s face, that tells the real story. And their emotional conflagrations are as powerful as any gunshot, their unexpressed rage as hot as any emotion.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


The below reviews were originally written for the Jean Renoir's Collector's Edition released in 2007. Read the full review of that collection here.

Whirlpool of Fate (La Fille de L'Eau) (silent; 72 minutes - 1925):

This overwrought melodrama is Renoir's second film, and his first as a solo director. Working from a script by Pierre Lestringuez, a frequent collaborator in this silent period, Renoir tells the story of Virginia (Catherine Hessling, Renoir's wife from 1920 to 1930), a hard-luck case who can't catch a break. First her father dies and her uncle (Lestringuez) tries to rape her, then she hooks up with poachers and gypsies, only to be persecuted by the local bully and driven mad in the woods. Through it all, the local rich boy (Harold Levingston) keeps his eye on Virginia, and it's quite clear to Renoir's camera that he is developing a thing for the urchin. Naturally, he waits in the wings to pull her out of the whirlpool that threatens to drag her down.

There are far more complex plots than this one. In some ways, The Whirlpool of Fate comes off as if it were written for a cliffhanger serial. Every couple of scenes, Virginia's life takes another turn, and her very existence is put in peril over and over. As a mild diversion, there is a kind of goofy charm to the movie, but it shows the great director only taking tentative steps into the cinematic arena. He doesn't yet know how to draw great performances out of his actors, and pacing is a definite issue for the young filmmaker. There are several scenes that go on too long, which we particularly notice when we see it takes an inordinate amount of time for people just out of frame to react. Even so, early hints of what was to come are here. Renoir's often slapstick sense of humor pops up from time to time, and he's already showing a flair for it. There are also some fairly ambitious dream sequences that prefigure the surrealist movement's experiments in cinema years later (including some sideways imagery that reminded me of Cocteau's Blood of a Poet), as well as an incredibly ambitious use of quick cutting in the scene where Virginia is attacked by her uncle. Jumping swiftly from the brutal fight to a barking dog and then to a ringing alarm clock not only amps up the frenzied feeling, but it even evokes sense memories of sound.

Nana (silent; 130 min. - 1926):

Once again working with Lestringuez, Renoir adapts the Emile Zola novel, casting his Whirlpool starlet, Catherine Hessling, in the title role--and oh, what a difference a year makes! Renoir took to this grand costume epic much easier than he did any of the pre-sound shorts in this collection. Nana is a terrible stage actress whose sexual allure draws in several society men. Wrapping them around her finger, she convinces one to bribe her into a starring role in the theatre and another to ruin his good name betting against his own racehorse in favor of one named after the starlet. Eventually, though, the acting thing is going to meet its inevitable doom, and Nana ends up becoming a courtesan, seeing gentlemen callers in her opulent mansion. With so many men obsessed with her and competing for her affections, it's only going to lead to trouble, and eventually, Nana's wicked ways catch up with her.

Hessling is way over the top in her performance, even by silent-era standards. Yet, there is such a consistency to her demonstrative acting that she actually pulls it off. Nana is a larger-than-life character, and so Hessling's exaggerated gestures and wide-eyed expressions seem like the right notes to hit (even if Hessling is ironically being a bad actress in her portrayal of a bad actress). In comparison to the overly staid performances from the actors filling the roles of the upper classes, these choices make sense. Nana's sexual appeal is her wildness. It's what makes her different than the uptight bourgeoisie.

For Renoir's part, the future director of The Rules of the Game is already interested in the hypocrisy and hidden secrets of the rich. He uses massive set pieces to show the ridiculous opulence enjoyed by the well-to-do in French society. They have more space than they can ever possibly fill, and their tiny lives look even smaller within it. He also takes a certain impish glee in exposing their bedroom activities, paying particular attention to a Count (Werner Kraus) who goes in for a little domination. Decked out in his full military regalia, he gets down on all fours and barks like a dog, all for Nana's pleasure. For all the public shame these characters will experience in the final act, it compares little to their private shame.

The Little Match Girl (La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes) (silent; 33 min. - 1928):

This slight adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story stars Hessling as the titular heroine and is really only interesting for the early special effects efforts. Renoir uses models, rear projection, double-exposure, and fake backdrops to portray the fantasy journey of the Little Match Girl during her night out in the cold. Though some of the effects may look quaint to our modern eye, it's still impressive when you put it in its historical context and has a cool, expressionistic quality. The movie overall is a bit of a snooze, however, with the performances and the editing being a bit too laconic.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Please note: the images here are taken from the 2000 standard definition DVD and not the newly released 2017 Blu-ray under review.

Yasujiro Ozu’s light 1959 comedy GoodMorning was one of my first Criterion blind buys. Spotted in a now-closed used record store in Portland, I snatched it up on sight, knowing if I didn’t, it would be gone before I could ever go back to grab it. Such was the rarity of seeing Criterion discs in second-hand bins back in the day--all too unusual, you had to act.

Luckily I had rolled the dice on a pretty safe bet. Good Morning is brimming with joy, even as it maintains Ozu’s usual unassuming attitude. Set in a Tokyo suburb, this genial film tells the stories of several neighboring families. Linked mostly by their young sons, these individual units are subject to gossip, misunderstanding, and judgment--negative foibles hidden just below a very positive surface. You know, the way clans and communities do. When you boil it down, Good Morning is about family, just like most of Ozu’s oeuvre. In this case, not just family by blood, but the community you build.

Oh, and it has fart jokes. To be more exact, one running fart joke that carries through the whole movie. And I don’t care what you think, I love fart jokes. And poop jokes. Especially when a fart joke becomes a poop joke. Which it does here, to hilarious effect.

Though the four boys connect all the houses--including the misunderstood hipster couple with the television and the single English tutor who provide the kids refuge--the central duo of older brother Minoru (Koji Shidara) and younger brother Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu, Late Autumn [review]) end up driving most of the movie. They get the most screen time with their private protest against their supposedly stingy mother (Kuniko Miyake, star of many Ozu films, including Early Summer and Tokyo Story [review]) and her refusal to buy them a TV of their own. Mother Hiyashi is more frugal than stingy, it’s up to her to keep the house on budget, but this is also not the only time in Good Morning that she is accused of financial malfeasance. Another driving storyline is the issue of the missing dues from the local women’s organization. The ladies have varying theories of who made off with the cash, and even though it gets an amicable resolution, the way the situation is concluded splinters off into its own conspiracy theories and gossipy tributaries. There’s not much to do throughout the day, it seems, but get in each other’s business. It’s all innocent and meaningless until it isn’t. Such little things, they make a big difference.

In addition to these kinds of family dynamics, Ozu regularly explored the differences between generations in his movies, and Good Morning is no exception. Here, the aforementioned television is the most prominent example of how times are changing, and the director is certainly seizing upon the cultural shifts occurring at the end of the decade. The kids learning English, the progressive neighbors with posters for French films on their walls (and not just any French film, but Louis Malle’s The Lovers [review]), the nervous patriarchs set adrift in a changing economic landscape--these are all signs of the time. Prescient ones, too. Dad is worried about maintaining employment long enough to have a solid retirement, kids are worried about watching sumo wrestling in the living room. A more judgmental director (like, say, Douglas Sirk in All That HeavenAllows) would be concerned for how this younger generation was going to rot its brain--indeed, one of the older men in Good Morning expresses such a fear--but Ozu seems to take no stance. He is amused by the rebellious youngsters staging their own revolution, but also empathetic to the parents who need to keep things together. If Ozu is siding with anyone, it’s probably the middle generation, like the tutor or the boys’ aunt, both of whom bridge the divide. Is it any surprise, then, that they end up having a little romance?

What may be more interesting here, though, is how Ozu is adopting modern techniques to tell this modern story, particularly since Good Morning is an update of his 1932 silent film I Was Born, But...--which was previously available in the Eclipse set Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies [review], but is also included in full as an extra on this Good Morning upgrade. Shot in vibrant Technicolor by Yushun Atsuta, Good Morning has a look not dissimilar to television’s nascent genre, the sitcom, a comparison further backed by the episodic nature of Good Morning’s narrative and the jazzy lounge score that keeps the action moving. (Toshiro Mayuzumi was a prolific composer for Japanese movies, working also with Naruse, Imamura, and Kurahara.) Not to mention how all the complicated imbroglios have really simple explanations, the discoveries of which only lead to more complications. It’s almost a shame there wasn’t a spin-off so we could have watched all the kids grow up on a weekly basis.

Fans of Good Morning should be pleased with this new 4K restoration. The colors are gorgeous, and the image quality pristine. Given the gap between this release and the original DVD, Criterion had a lot of new technology to put to use in making Good Morning look good, and the results are stupendous. In addition to  I Was Born, But..., fans of silent film will also appreciate the inclusion of the short A Straightforward Boy, a 1929 effort from Yasujiro Ozu, presented here incomplete, in its only existing form. One of the first efforts of the director to create comedy using children, it’s an amusing trifle about kidnappers being stymied by a child who never quite realizes he’s being kidnapped, and proving too much to handle in the process.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


THE TRIP: Original review 6/10/11

The Trip is a free-wheeling new comedy from director Michael Winterbottom and his regular collaborator, performer Steve Coogan. (The pair previously worked together on 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story [review]). In this, the pair send up travel shows, putting Coogan and his acting buddy Rob Brydon (both playing themselves) on a tour through Northern England, where they spend a week sampling buzzed-about restaurants, seeing the sights, and in Steve's case, bedding random women. Amidst this, Brydon goes through being home sick and Steve wrestles with a flailing film career, a failing relationship, and his distant son partying too hard.

Originally made as a BBC television series, The Trip has been edited down to a sharp feature film, tracking the journey and the ups and downs of the two performers' friendship. Shot in a documentary style, as is often Winterbottom's trademark, the largely improvised comedy is given sense of purpose by the vacation's mission, but the real reason you'll end up watching it is the camaraderie and competition between the two leads. From the get-go, the dichotomy between the family man and the playboy is obvious, but the irony is that for as settled down as he otherwise is, Rob is the more fun and Steve has a bit of a stick up his butt. At their first stop, Rob launches into his impressions of Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and others, setting up an ongoing gag where Coogan feigns irritation but continually jumps in, if only to school his pal on what he thinks is a better imitation. Both are good mimics, and they riff back and forth, trying out 007 lines and in one hysterical scene, the speech of a war captain to his troops the night before the big battle. The pair also occasionally belt out joint renditions of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All."

While this might sound like a rather slender line to hang an entire movie on, it's a surprisingly effective way to replicate what it's like to be on a real road trip with someone you know very well. The shared jokes become an escape when being trapped inside an auto makes the boys go stir crazy, and the manner in which they bandy back and forth ends up revealing their insecurities in unexpected ways. The team doesn't even take the obvious route, either, in having both men envy one another. Nope, it's just Steve that envies Rob. He wants the security that Rob gets from family and the comfort of modest success. Coogan may be more famous, but he's always chasing something. Even in his dreams, he is haunted by conversations with agents and belligerent fans. (The Trip doesn't maintain a strict documentary style; we not only see these dreams but also the opposite ends of phone conversations, including Coogan's real-life agents (or the actors playing them) and his estranged girlfriend (Margo Stilley) in America.)

Some of the stops on the map are interchangeable, but Winterbottom revels in the particular details of each one. He and cinematographer Ben Smithard take the camera back into the kitchen to see the food prepared. Some of the dishes are ludicrous, constructed to look like mini art installations. They also occasionally pan to capture other diners, and by making Coogan go outside to get cell reception--and further and further away from the hotel the deeper they get into the trip--they get a chance to shoot the countryside. Tristram Shandy fans might also appreciate that once again Winterbottom pairs Coogan with a significant literary legacy--a visit to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's home brings up interesting parallels between the dead poet and the living actor.

The Trip is a film that's appeal is so delicate and ephemeral, it's kind of hard to describe without totally deflating the tires. It's not a conventional comedy, by any means, nor is it as unfocused as, say, a home movie. It's carried more by personality than plot, and as a result, it could seem slight if you aren't willing to get into The Trip's particular groove. I found it to be fascinating and fun, thoughtful in spaces, punctuated by big laughs in others. As with any trip, you will eventually experience an eagerness to get home, and that homecoming is also a little bittersweet; what makes it so good is the feeling that you have gone along with something, that you've been a part of the experiment. It reminds me a lot of the fantastic Ewan McGregor/Charlie Boorman TV show from a couple of years ago, Long Way Round, when the old friends traveled across Europe on motorcycles and grew even closer through the shared time together. Except here, Coogan and Brydon dig under the skin a little more, finding comedy in their own foibles. It's really quite moving, and certainly more entertaining than most of the family summer vacations I took as a child, making The Trip an essential cinematic destination of the season.

THE TRIP TO ITALY: Original review 8/15/14 

There's a joke in The Trip to Italy where Steve Coogan teases his friend Rob Brydon about being an acquired taste. Rob has just had an extramarital dalliance on the Italian coast, the sort of thing Steve is usually the one to engage in, and so Steve zings Rob by telling him it was only a matter of time, someone would develop the craving eventually. Though not intended as a meta joke about the Trip series, it could just as easily nestle next to the Godfather [review] comparisons or the thinly veiled jibes about the reality of true-life fiction. If you liked the original The Trip, then you know what the flavor is and you're going to enjoy the follow-up in equal measure, if not more. If you haven't tried either installment yet, it shouldn't take you long to know if they're the kind of thing you'll want to partake of again and again.

As with the 2011 original, Rob and Steve, playing themselves, go on the road in search of good food and the best Michael Caine impression. Behind the camera is Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me [review], Trishna [review]), who is also credited as writer, but one would gather that there is as much improvisation between the two friends as there is scripted dialogue. Over the course of a week, the fellows travel from place to place, bickering and taking potshots at one another, sample some food, and get into trouble. Rob does endless impressions, some of them good and some of them ludicrous. Steve looks fatigued. They are joined by friends and relatives. And then the journey is over.

The transplant to Italy has not made this Trip any less amusing, but Witerbottom takes full advantage of the country's cinematic history. There are references to several famous films set in Italy, with an emphasis on those with bittersweet and unhappy endings, including Roman Holiday [review] and Godard's Contempt [review]. There is also mention of Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy [review], a classic of Italian Neorealism, an aesthetic that Winterbottom has borrowed from heavily in his career and a tradition to which The Trip to Italy owes much of its approach. It seems that it's in ode to this--as well as to the romantic poets whose own travels Rob wants to shadow--that a little melancholy creeps in. Both men spend much of their adventure trying to connect with loved ones back home and pondering just what it's all for.

It's been about three years since I saw The Trip so I don't recall for sure, but I don't believe it ended on as down a note as the sequel. My early impression, though, is that the added sadness allows The Trip to Italy to be a far richer experience. I probably laughed less but I felt more. Steve Coogan takes more of a back seat in the early portion of the movie, it's almost as if we are watching him warm up, but it makes sense for the opposing trajectories he and Rob are taking. Both men are feeling their age, but one seems to be figuring something out while the other is struggling with a newfound confusion.

Which isn't to suggest you're going to leave The Trip to Italy bummed out. Quite the contrary. As Brydon insists during one of his riffs, he is an affable presence, and despite being the grumpy gus, Coogan is pretty enjoyable to be around, too. As with the first film, and with any vacation you might actually take, some places are more fun than others, and sometimes you like your companion more than you do at other times, but that's part of the shared experience. You laugh, you hurt, and you see the sights--sometimes all at the same moment.

Friday, April 28, 2017


Hey, what gives, Paul Bartel? The year 2000 you show in your movie Death Race 2000 is nothing like the turn of the century I lived through.

Or maybe it’s a little like it. Reality television competitions, a worship of celebrity--these things were very much in vogue. And we were just a year away from the tyrannical reign of The Fast and theFurious. So, Bartel’s broad satire about a cross-country race where trumped-up celebs mow down unsuspecting pedestrians maybe wasn’t that far off the mark.

Death Race 2000 stars David Carradine, fresh off of TV’s Kung-Fu, as Frankenstein, the leather-clad, mysterious, dark hero of the government-sanctioned race. Purported to be sporting robotic limbs after losing arms and legs from crashes in years previous--and covering the scars of the same--he is the rebellious antihero inspiring imitators and groupies. His main competition is Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (pronounced like “Turbo”), a throwback East Coast gangster-type, played by a young Sylvester Stallone. They are two of five racers, with the other major players being the lusty cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, also in Bartel’s Eating Raoul [review]) and the Nazi temptress Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins). Each driver has a tricked-out car and a navigator riding alongside them. That the co-pilots are all members of the opposite sex means these companions will do more than navigate.

A B-movie from Roger Corman’s infamous low-budget studio, it was prerequisite that Death Race 2000 would have plenty of sex and violence--though the latter is of the cartoonish, “red paint” variety. Yet, like most enduring exploitation pictures, there is more going on around the race than the simplified premise would suggest. Based on a short story by Ib Melchior (Robinson Crusoe on Mars [review]), the screenplay by Charles Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors) and Robert Thom (Bloody Mama) frames the race as a televised event, complete with colorful commentary from disc jockey Real Don Steele and gossip-mongering reporters. It also cuts away from the action to show a counterrevolutionary movement looking to shut the race down. Their beef is that the government, run by the generic Mr. President (Sandy McCallum), is using the bloody shenanigans to distract from starvation and oppression. Think The Hunger Games [review] on wheels.

Death Race 2000 is entertaining and schlocky in all the right ways, though it’s lost some of its sexiness over time. I am not sure if it’s the fact that critiques of the vapidity and prurience of some pop culture has become so prevalent that Death Race 2000 no longer feels necessary or special, or that Bartel works with such a broad hand that the satire wasn’t that sharp to begin with, but the critical aspects of Death Race 2000 don’t carry much force all these years on. It seems a little too aligned with the thing it means to lampoon. The fun of watching Death Race 2000 is reveling in the comical deaths and dirty play. And it’s hard to pretend to be above celebrity culture while enjoying a hammy Stallone eating clam sauce with his fingers. We only care because he’s Sylvester Stallone, his reputation precedes him. It’s hard to say how famous this movie would still be with any other personality in the part. (Carradine fares better, delivering his usual ice-cold intensity.)

Luckily, the film is mercifully short, and perhaps Bartel’s smartest move is not striving for a greater point that his shoestring budget might not have allowed for. I haven’t seen any of the remakes or sequels, but something tells me they probably get it a lot more wrong than the original; Death Race 2000 is at least a quaint relic with a few visceral pleasures.

Monday, April 24, 2017


I don’t think they would fight if they were in the river. If they had room to live.”

No film more perfectly captures what adolescence looks like than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 “art film for teens” RumbleFish. And when I say that, I don’t mean the fashion or the actors--none of the male leads look all that much like teenagers, honestly, even though some of them technically were--but the surreal photography of Stephen H. Burum and the calculated exaggeration that makes Rumble Fish so distinctive. Shot in black-and-white, and featuring plenty of practical and in-camera tricks, including self-consciously composed shots, time-lapse skies, and lots and lots of smoke, there is something about the off-kilter look of Rumble Fish that echoes the off-kilter point of view of a boy struggling with puberty. Nothing looks right, and no one sees things the way I see them. I don’t understand this world, and it doesn’t understand me.

Matt Dillon (Factotum [review]) heads up the cast here as Rusty James, a restless delinquent in Tulsa. Rusty James is horny and bored, and so he spends most of his time chasing girls (including Diane Lane as his put-upon girlfriend) and causing trouble. He dreams of a recent, idyllic past when gangs ruled the streets, an era that seemingly passed when his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler [review]), took off on his bike and headed to parts unknown.

Except we do know, because The Motorcycle Boy has just returned from California, where he never saw the ocean because, as he says, the rest of  the state got in the way (tell me about it). The Motorcycle Boy is a legend around town. As the graffiti informs us, he “reigns,” and as one character describes him, driving the point home, he is “royalty in exile.” His return will be everyone’s salvation. Or so they think. It’s more going to be the end of the illusion he created. The Motorcycle Boy claims to be insane, and others make the same accusation. At times you may wonder if he is even real, or a mythological creation, the Tyler Durden of Rusty James. Or maybe it’s really his world and everyone else is merely living in it. Because Rumble Fish certainly seems like Motorcycle Boy’s movie a lot of the time. Its aesthetics conform to his senses. He has hearing loss and is color blind, and by his own admission, sees the world “like a black-and-white TV with the sound turned off.” Indeed, there is no color here, except the red and blue of the titular Siamese fighting fish, and though the movie isn’t silent, the audio design is intentionally otherworldly, turned up loud and detached, almost like an intentionally bad overdub. It changes based on The Motorcycle Boy’s ears. The jazzy score by Stewart Copeland (drummer for the Police) and amplified sound effects, like the ticking of the ever-present clocks (there is one in every scene to remind us that time stops for no man, but will also eventually run out) just prove to abstract the audio even further. Coppola is bending reality to suit his purposes.

Rumble Fish is based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola. The director also adapted her novel The Outsiders the same year. As a result, Rumble Fish has always been the cool older brother to The Outsiders. It’s certainly aged better. It has none of the cornball 1950s mawkishness of the other film, even if they share similar plots (teenage boys fighting, gangs replacing a family structure, being misunderstood by authority, being turned on by Diane Lane) and a little bit of the same costume design. In my head, I had always remembered Rumble Fish being set in the 1950s, but really, it’s a movie in no precise time. The only specific pop culture reference is to the Beach Boys, and only the Pac-Man game and the new wave fashion of the rival gang give us any real hint that the movie was made in the 1980s. (Well, ignoring some of Copeland’s incongruous, synthesized orchestration, the worst of the worst signs of a 1980s movie....) Rumble Fish is designed to be like a cinematic Cure record: its adolescent desperation is renewable. All of these details are what I mean when I say Coppola has visually captured the feeling of adolescence: like an all-too-smart teen, he is calling attention to his own awkwardness as if it were a badge of honor. Rusty James is the kind of earnest bad boy many a young man dreams of being--right down to the fights choreographed like outtakes from West Side Story. Our concept of self in our teen years is often authentically inauthentic. Holden Caufield is the only one who isn’t a phony.

Adulthood is the one thing that separates the returning Motorcycle Boy from who he was before he left. Some heavy stuff happened to him in California, and he no longer buys the image everyone has created around him. I like that Coppola portrays The Motorcycle Boy as larger than life, but that Rourke plays him small, buttoned-up, barely articulate. He is elusive, like a cat--and indeed, a cat heralds his return, viewed just before the one big actual rumble in the film, a blown-up shadow, like something out of a Murnau film. Note that The Motorcycle Boy’s nemesis, the mustachioed cop Patterson (William Smith), is at one point similarly preceded by the shadow of a dog, and his brother exists the film not as an animal, but a shadow of the same size. In this flickering opera, the thug and the cop are two great opposing forces, the double-headed Janus flipping on the same coin. Symbolically, The Motorcycle Boy has not been fully reborn--or transformed to the Motorcycle Man--because he never made it to the ocean, he never found his space (water being a renewing element). Thus it is that he has to free the colorful fish and send Rusty James to the sea, it’s the only way either can escape. To stay where they are is to be trapped until you die.

Which, for all we know, is exactly how Rusty James will end up in California will do anyway. If the movie fails in any significant way, it’s that Rusty James has no hidden depth. He’s not Pony Boy, he’s not a sensitive type waiting to tell his story. He doesn’t learn much on screen. Our only hope is that by breaking away from his small town, where everyone has made up their mind about him and who he’ll turn out to be, he’ll make something else out of himself. It’s doubtful, but possible. I mean, what year did Boogie Nights take place again? He’s pretty enough, maybe SoCal can offer Rusty James a new family. He wouldn’t even have to change his name!

The screengrabs here are taken from the standard definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under examination. 

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 23, 2017


What a difference a few years make. Or maybe it was just my mood. Most likely, though, it was expectations. I had heard a lot about Buena Vista Social Club, knew its reputation and its awards pedigree, so I am sure I expected to be wowed. When what I saw turned out to be much more subdued than the musical party I was expecting, I was maybe too quick to shrug it off. Thus, my original review, which was respectful but tepid.

Now seven years on, the Criterion Blu-ray in hand, and Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary about the Cuban music scene is something I found to be absolutely enchanting. I was moved by the music, enthralled by the stories--it’s the same movie, but this time, I get it.

What Wenders had uncovered is not just incredible music, but tje incredible cast of characters that made it. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Pío Leyva, Rubén   Gonz
ia; mso-hansi-font-family: Cambria;">ález, and the rest were of their time, a product of history, creating a beautiful reflection of the social change that swept across their homeland, but also a victim of the same movement. One gets the sense, particularly as you listen to their wistful anecdotes about the time when their club was all the rage, that Castro and his communism left them behind. They could have been something more, perhaps even international stars, but the doors to the outside world closed, and so eventually did the doors of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I particularly felt this when Ferrer would talk. He had the strange duality of an artist who hasn’t gotten his due--humbled by life, and yet confident in his talents. There is a subtle arrogance in knowing he deserved better.

And this is what makes the concert footage such a celebration. Filmed on trips to Germany and New York, the performances by these old timers have the energy of emotions being unleashed. At last, they are on a stage large enough for the songs; at last, they can sing them as intended.

Criterion’s new release does the film justice with a new transfer and a bevy of extras, including a vintage director’s commentary with Wenders. The image quality is not always up to current standards, but one gets the sense that the transfer is making the best of the source material. Some of the interview footage has the soft edge of early digital. It probably never looked that crisp. Which is fine, since the warm 5.1 surround mix is so good. Buena Vista Social Club is more about the sound than it is the image, and you’ll be pleased with this upgrade when you turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and let the Club work their magic.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Of classic Hollywood couples who simulated their real-life relationships on the silver screen, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are the ones who most successfully created films that put them together as the sort of couple most of us imagined them to be. As much as I love Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, even the most fanciful of fans would find it a stretch to believe their steamy personas from crime dramas translated to the everyday. Whereas Tracy’s lovable grumpiness and Hepburn’s intellectual charm was part and parcel to their image, their personalities turned into brands, both separate and as a team, and it’s easy to see the successful formula take shape in their very first pairing, 1942’s Woman of the Year.

George Stevens (Gunga Din, Shane [review]) directs Woman of the Year, working from a script by Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and Michael Kanin (The Outrage [review]). Hepburn stars as Tess Harding, an influential newspaper columnist and radio commentator with her finger on the pulse of international politics. (“Hitler will lose! says Tess Harding” an advertisement declares.) On one radio appearance, she suggests baseball too frivolous a pursuit in times of war, raising the ire of Sam Craig (Tracy), the sports columnist at her very newspaper. He writes a response in the next day’s edition, to which she fires back the following day. When their boss calls them on the carpet for this feud, the duo meets for the first time, and they are immediately struck with one another. Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and their seemingly disparate lives become hopelessly intertwined.

In most of the Tracy and Hepburn movies, including Adam’s Rib (my favorite) and State of theUnion, the actors portray a professional couple who both have jobs. Sometimes they are married, sometimes they are on their way to the altar. So it is in Woman of the Year: Tess and Sam will be wed before the halfway mark. More importantly, though, Tess will keep on working. She is not expected to be a doting housewife--not entirely, at least (but more on that in a second).

This is what I like about the Tracy and Hepburn formula: they are, for all intents and purposes, equals. They compete on a level playing field. He respects her, and she respects him. It’s a dynamic I would borrow for one of my romance comics, Ares & Aphrodite; I wanted a couple that had their jobs and did them well and part of navigating their relationship was balancing the two careers. (You’ll note, should you read the book, the main characters have pets named Kate and Spencer.) Inevitably, conflict would arise out of an imbalance within the relationship, of one spouse stepping over the line. In most of these films, including Woman of the Year, it’s that Katharine Hepburn’s character becomes too focused on her career and forgets she has a partner and responsibilities. In this case, she is so busy and has her eyes on so many stories, she tends to ignore her homelife and fails to follow through on certain promises, including the adoption of a Greek refugee. Tracy’s Sam gets fed up with always being second fiddle, particularly once he realizes Tess deflects from any serious discussion of the matter by pitching woo.

Obviously there is a questionable subtext here. It would not be a stretch to decode Woman of the Year as suggesting that Tess would be better off sticking to being a housewife and not concern herself with things that only distract her from that role. When the movie’s famous climax comes around, Tess’ attempt to do “normal” housework that “any idiot” can do, and failing suggests there is something wrong with her that she doesn’t even know how to make toast. This air of judgment is impossiple to totally deny, as it’s always Hepburn who has to get back in her lane in these movies, never Tracy. At the same time, a more gentle interpretation might be that Tess is losing the forest for the trees, and is only criticized for not being engaged with her family life. In the movie’s final scenes, note that she offers to give up her career, but Sam never asks her to. On the contrary, he doesn’t want her to change who she is, he just wants her to be present and give their relationship the attention it deserves.

This explanation would certainly fit more with Katharine Hepburn’s overall image as a rule breaker and a progressive voice for women in cinema. Her version of Tess is never weak, never dumb, just sometimes blind. We could easily swap the roles and have Tracy play the distracted husband, and the plot would work just as well. It’s as much about blue collar vs. white collar as it is a battle of the sexes. And we can also cut Tess some slack by noting the constant interruptions from outsiders who can’t see her as having an emotional life of her own. Is it possible to suggest that the real message of Woman of the Year is that women should be able to have it all, a career and a relationship are not mutually exclusive?

For what is ostensibly a romantic comedy, Woman of the Year does not exaggerate its love story. Sure, the couple falls for each other super quick, but their proclamations are rather subdued and lacking in flowery poetry. Which is not to say that there are not scenes to melt the heart, just that Stevens plays it much more subtle. The intimate scenes between his leads are almost uncomfortably intimate. Conversations spoken in hushed tones, the camera tight on their faces, a sense of being alone together, eavesdropping on their whispered sweet nothings--these are people connecting on a deep level, and Stevens is content to let the moments play out at their own speed.

The filmmaker takes a similar approach to the comedy. There are a plenty of places he could go broad with the gags, but he instead takes his time with them, lets them work naturally, be it William Bendix’s punchy ex-boxer boring a gaggle of drunks and dignitaries with his stories from the ring or the aforementioned attempt by Tess to prove her domestic skills. Despite being the film’s climax, Stevens doesn’t push the jokes in that scene too far beyond the natural. The most exaggerated he gets is with sound effects (the bubbling waffle batter, most noticeably). Rather than give voice to Tess’ panic, Stevens stages the bulk of the scenario with no dialogue. He trusts in Spencer Tracy’s reactions to properly orient the audience to when they can laugh and how. Tracy is masterful at the slow burn and prefers tiny moves to grandstanding. When he scoots away from the overflowing coffee pot, it’s just a touch to the left, he doesn’t make a show of it, and it’s all the funnier for being so undercooked.

It’s that scene, really, that’s the key to the whole thing. It shows how Tracy and Hepburn fit together as not just a romantic duo, but a comedy team. He is her straight man, and the need to repair their love life adds a relatable urgency to her panic. Haven’t we all felt foolish trying to impress someone we care about?

The new restoration of Woman of the Year is quite wonderful, full of rich detail and effectively capturing the black-and-white camerawork of Joseph Ruttenberg (The PhiladelphiaStory, Mrs. Miniver [review]). The disc is rounded out with interviews both new and old, as well as two excellent documentaries from the 1980s previously available on other releases. The charming The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn was previously released as a standalone disc in a Warner Bros. box with three Hepburn and Tracy features, including Woman of the Year. This personal homage, narrated by Hepburn, is a sweet love letter to a man long gone. I know some biographers quibble over the details, preferring to point out the rockier aspects of their union, but that’ a whole other discussion. This portrait is too heartfelt to dismiss.

The exhaustive career profile George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey was most recently available as a second disc alongside the Blu-ray of Stevens’ James Dean-led epic Giant. It’s nice that Criterion has given us the whole thing rather than just excising the pertinent Woman of the Year segments. The documentary is interesting in and of itself, not just for how it establishes the relationship between the director and Hepburn, but also the detours it takes off the studio back lots, including Stevens’ tenure as a war photographer and his part in Director’s Guild in-fighting during the 1950s.

Please note the screengrabs here are from the 2000 standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

This disc provided by the Criterion collection for purposes of review.