High on my list of “moviemaking don’ts” is the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Nothing against the song, it’s a true anthem by the Nobel laureate with 1963-penned lyrics that remain applicable to any era. But plop it in a movie and heavy-handedness abounds (go directly to the particularly cringe-worthy moment in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July for confirmation). However, I am suspending my decree for the new documentary, The Final Year. By the time this chronicle of 2016 politics reaches its climax, Dylan’s words (not sung by him, in this case) sound more perceptive than ever.
The Final Year follows the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, with a focus on three main players: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
35 years after the original Blade Runner changed the landscape of big screen science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) dared build on the dystopian portrait of the ecologically devastated urban imaged on screen by director Ridley Scott and his team of designers and artists. Just as in the original, this film is as much about the texture of the world on screen as it is the story of the Replicants (artificially manufactured humans created as slave labor) decades after Deckard first strolled the mean streets of L.A.
Ryan Gosling is K, the Blade Runner of this story, a next generation Replicant whose job it is to “retire” the last of the old models, the ones created with a more flexible will that led to rebellion. His new assignment unearths artifacts that leads directly back to the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young) and the legend of a Replicant child, a messiah myth for the Replicant underclass not unlike the Christian virgin birth: the first non-virgin birth of a race genetically designed in a lab. It’s a story that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the techno-industrialist who took over the collapsed Tyrell Corporation, will do anything to bury and he sends his own Replicant enforcer, Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), to eradicate the evidence.
This is science fiction spectacle and futuristic detective story as art movie tone poem, a conspiracy thriller with flying cars, blaster handguns, and big brawling fights that defies the breathless pace of the action genre.
The main character in Phantom Thread is a 1950s fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, a meticulous craftsman and a godlike giant of his industry. Early in the film he prepares for the day’s work, and you know he’s enacting the same rituals he does every morning: the careful brushing of hair, the measured buttering of toast. It’s a terrific introduction to a character, but I suspect writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is also paying tribute to his leading man. The actor we’re watching is Daniel Day-Lewis, the three-time Oscar winner who previously worked with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. Godlike in his own profession, Day-Lewis is famous for his pickiness and obsessive research. Woodcock’s fussiness must be partly a portrayal of this remarkable and very controlled actor.
If Phantom Thread is an excellent portrait of an artist, it is not a predictable or conventional one.
If marmalade sandwiches are back on the menu, it can only mean the Paddington sequel has arrived. The 2014 original, a live-action film with a computer-generated bear, was as warm ‘n fuzzy as its main character. If the sequel has a few odd ideas—Paddington spends almost half the movie in jail?—it still supplies a happy ration of kid-friendly slapstick, grown-up jokes, and a batch of the most recognizable actors in Britain.
Surely Tonya Harding was one of the last great pre-internet tabloid sensations, an unlikely headliner in a tacky saga of criminal intentions and bad taste. Before the internet, a jaw-dropping scandal like Harding’s could linger for a while, instead of being instantly elbowed aside by Twitter outrage or the latest meme. The drama unfolded in 1994, when an assailant hit figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in the leg with an iron bar; rumors flew that Harding, Kerrigan’s rival, had something to do with the attack. At the Olympics a few weeks later, both Kerrigan (bruised but not broken) and Harding competed amid a swirl of bizarre headlines about Harding’s fantastically trashy ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his beefy, sage-like sidekick Shawn Eckhardt. Gillooly and Eckhardt did jail time for planning the attack; Harding has always maintained she wasn’t in on it. The crime was lurid enough, but the story had multiple levels, including economic: Harding was a blue-collar kid who sewed her own costumes out of financial necessity, a contrast to Kerrigan’s movie-star looks and classy commercial endorsements.
The movie version of this tale, I, Tonya, works hard to suggest why we might sympathize with Harding: her poverty, the abuse she suffered from her husband and her mother, the snooty condescension of skating’s top brass.
So you know all the stuff that was going on offscreen during Dunkirk? That’s centerstage in Darkest Hour, a historical drama that observes British higher-ups during a decisive moment in 1940. Most especially, it focuses on Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister less than a month when the evacuation of Dunkirk was executed. But that unlikely event—300,000 trapped British troops ferried across the English Channel from France—is merely one piece of Darkest Hour.
Alexander Payne has become known for directing bittersweet comedies rooted in recognizable—you might say warts and all—humanity. Movies like Nebraska, About Schmidt, and Sideways are not always easy on their characters, but they sometimes crackle with lightning bolts of insight. Payne’s latest, written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, adds a sci-fi framing device to his work. But ultimately Downsizing looks a lot like his previous films—and I think that’s a good thing.
The gimmick here is that Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink people, a breakthrough that will lead to enormous environmental and financial benefits for the planet.
Since it premiered at film festivals earlier this year, Call Me by Your Namehas inspired reviews that sound as though they were written in mid-swoon. Frankly, the movie itself encourages this: It’s a lush wallow at an Italian villa, a coming-of-age story that presents sensual adventure and a warm portrait of a functional family. Everything’s ideal, even the angst. It also features sex with a piece of fruit, although this is rendered cute and endearing; nothing too weird disturbs this movie’s handsome surface.
If I sound a little skeptical, I am—but the film is certainly pleasant to be seduced by.
Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of Metropolis. Fritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.
Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.
No supplements with these films.
The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.
Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!) Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.
One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.
“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.
There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray) – The box set of 15 Alfred Hitchcock pictures made between 1942 and 1976 (featuring films from Paramount, Warner Bros, and MGM as well as Universal Studios) expands on the 2012 Blu-ray box set Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection with two bonus DVDs highlighting Hitchcock’s work on the small screen.
They’re not all masterpieces but they are all from the Master of Suspense so they all have their merits, and the discs are packed with supplements. Each disc includes a gallery of stills, a trailer, and a featurette written, produced and directed by specialist Laurent Bouzereau for the original DVD special edition releases of the films. Each runs between 30 and 45 minutes. Bouzereau constructs detailed stories of the creation and production of the films with the help of surviving artists and actors, and adds just a little interpretive insight. The later films, not surprisingly, feature more first person remembrances and run a little longer. Some discs include more supplements. Note that these are the exact same Blu-ray masters from the 2012 set, which means that the same issues are present in the five problematic discs. More on those later. Here’s the line-up, with notes on some select supplements.
Saboteur (1942) – Robert Cummings is Hitch’s classic wrong man on the run in this rollercoaster romantic thriller, a coast-to-coast chase to find the wartime saboteur who has framed our hero. Climaxes with the memorable scramble over the Statue of Liberty, but the circus wagon scene and the charity ball full of spies are great scenes in their own right. Think of this as one of his “slices of cake.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Steelyard Blues has occasioned the most dramatic instance of critical backlash in recent memory. Reviewers of contrary political persuasions (to the extent that political bent can be determined from film reviews) have proved to be up to here with the agitprop antics of Jane Fonda and, perhaps, her FTA compatriot Donald Sutherland. At any rate, Steelyard Blues has been pelted with the sort of abusive notice all those pointyhead libberulls once visited on TheGreen Berets. To one who took a look at the film anyway, the phenomenon is more than a little appalling. For, if SteelyardBlues is indeed, as Molly Haskell observed, so cinematically inept that one feels compelled to pick it up and take care of it, it’s nevertheless a thoroughly likeable, enjoyable, goodnatured event of a highly positive nature.