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Nothing Sacred (1937)
"For good clean fun, there's nothing like a wake"
Only David O. Selznick could get away with making a thoroughly mean-spirited raspberry to media manipulation during the Production Code's early vigorous enforcement. This is hopefully the only screwball comedy where our leading man knocks out our leading woman on the jaw in order to silence her for medical professionals. Don't worry too much though, since our leading lady is Carole Lombard, she makes sure that her co-star, Frederic March, gets his jaw socked as well.
For anyone who thinks that Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder were the first ones to tackle acidic comedies, I gleefully point them to this film where there's not one single likable person to be found in the admittedly impressive cast. At some point, you'd wish that all of them would get radium poisoning and die violently for your amusement. Even Carole Lombard has her moments where she's an awful, terrible person. She only goes along with her faux-poisoning in order to see New York, as well as to get out of her spiteful small town.
Its main theme on the timeless tradition of rotten media exploiting tragedies for national relevance is so cynical in execution that it makes Ace in the Hole briefly look like Andy Hardy. Sadly, it's still relevant as our media is so captivated with sensationalism that we have breaking tragedies occur without any real change resulting from them.
Naturally, I'm expected to hate this one instead of sympathizing with it - I'm definitely not a fan of being-cynical-for-the-sake-of-being-cynical. This film is admittedly guilty of not deciding what tone it needs to focus on, which makes it even more malicious in its rebelliousness. It's also guilty of not having hindsight in joke material, as it features a lot of anti-humor in the disguise of punchlines.
However, the frankly smug film is smarter than its purposefully immature characters. Deep down, it knows that everyone is a rotten, terrible monster who really don't deserve their privilege. This is what makes it so uncomfortably fresh - it refuses to gloss over its worldview and instead shows it in all its ugly shades. Unlike most of the glitzy fluff that Hollywood cranked out at the time, this film is still razor sharp all these decades later.
Moreover, Carole Lombard and Frederic March are perfectly cast as the only remotely likable characters; you really do get terrific chemistry between them to the point you sort of forgive them for hitting each other. Plus, it's the rare classic Hollywood film where you get to see someone actually giving the screen an unusual gesture. Again, Selznick was really persuasive with the censors.
Hard To Watch Snapshot Of A Tragedy
Definitely one of the few inherently valuable films that is hard to watch/stomach, since it's admittedly an actual snuff film - thankfully, this wasn't Zapruder or Kennedy's intention. All they and everyone else wanted was completely different from what Lee Harvey Oswald wanted. I mourn for everyone involved in this awful tragedy, and this film is crucial evidence that no one should go through this inhumanity. I'm only giving this a recommendation solely because of its historical importance/international impact, as well as its crucial role as evidence for investigators/historians trying to prevent future tragedies. Other than that, I'm so genuinely horrified/disturbed by this truly sickening crime that I need to marathon lighter fare for the rest of my life.
Something Good - Negro Kiss (1898)
Better Than Edison's Version
I surprisingly liked this better than its more famous Edison counterpart. Yes, it's alarmingly short to the point that it makes the Lumiere films look like mammoth epics. However, this one is much more pleasurable to watch with a modern eye. The performers here are just themselves - thank goodness there's no blackface/ugly stereotypes to be seen/associated here. It's much more self aware, and it's kinda cute. The performers seem to be really having a blast here, as opposed to the Edison one where they politely act out their embrace. I'm really happy that this charming snippet has survived all these years - on nitrate, no less - before being found and taken care of. I also love this rediscovery as it rewrites cinematic history! What other mind-bending treasures still await their chance to shine... check those attics, people!
The Lost World (1925)
A Sumptuous Crowd Pleaser
I'm so glad that this film has been fully reconstructed to its almost original length - we can finally see The Lost World the way its filmmakers meant it to be seen. We can also see the problems and strengths more clearly as well. First, let's get the weaknesses out of the way: it takes its precious time a bit too much, the ape man looks so hilariously awful that it betrays the film's earnestness, a poorly written minor character is regrettably in blackface, and the film has several clumsily edited montages that do nothing but pad the movie's running time. I also didn't believe in the love triangle nor in the romantic leads' attraction for each other, but then that's because I'm almost never impressed by love triangles in general.
Now that we've gotten all the negative aspects out of the way, let's talk about the film's overwhelmingly positive assets. The stop-motion dinosaurs are rightfully the film's highlight; Willis O'Brien poured his heart and soul into animating these creatures. Even better, he gives each one of the animals their own unique personality: viciousness, tenderness, even grumpiness. I secretly wish that the dinosaurs took up more screen time - maybe bring all of them to London so they can wreak havoc on Professor Challenger's naysayers; but that's the little monstrous child in me desiring that.
Another delightful positive belongs to the energetic cast - most of them were up to the challenge and deserve to be mentioned right alongside their claymation attractions. Bessie Love gives a heartbreaking performance in an admittedly stock character as all she wants is her dear father to be alive and well. Meanwhile, Wallace Beery makes for an entertaining Professor Challenge that one can see why his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was more proud of him than with his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes.
A major revelation for those watching Flicker Alley's new Blu-Ray is that the film is visually sumptuous. After decades of existing in inferior black-and-white prints, The Lost World finally can be seen in its original tints that add a true artistry to it. It makes the film have the timeless feel of a Romantic etching or painting. This further proves how sophisticated silent movies were as an art form back in their heyday, as actual effort was spent to make the filmmaking experience an intensely moving one. No wonder why this film sparked the dinosaur craze that is still present today; it's really a well-done crowd pleaser!
Les amants criminels (1999)
The Woods Have Their Own Macabre Sense Of Irony
In 1999, two very different horror films were unleashed onto audiences. Both were postmodern takes on contemporary folklore. Both involved young people getting lost in the woods. Both drew heavily from folktales by the Brothers Grimm. Both were products of their time and thus reflect their respective society's anxieties. Both have notoriously bleak endings. Both were far cries from what the multiplexes were offering. Both were influential in spawning two new modes of storytelling. Yet The Blair Witch Project was heavily marketed as a horror film and remains a landmark in the found footage genre while Criminal Lovers stayed mostly in arthouse theaters due to its frank sexuality as well as its refusal to stay within genre conventions. As a result, Criminal Lovers never got proper attention that it deserves in forming French New Extermity's roots.
Honestly, the film feels what would happen if you spliced in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre halfway through Badlands. This isn't the only cinematic influence that Criminal Lovers borrows from to tell its certified messed-up tale of doomed lovers running from the law. Echoes of The Night Of The Hunter and Salo are present in the film as the couple go down a river in a boat before being captured by a sadistic man in the woods. Every torturous taboo imaginable is broken to the point that you realize that Hansel and Gretel got off easy compared to what Alice and Luc suffer through.
That's where the film's strengths lie in its willingness to play with genre conventions and to break the boundaries of good taste. One minute, it's a high school melodrama with murder thrown in for good measure; the next minute, it's a subliminal torture porn that would make Eli Roth run away in complete terror. I won't spoil the horrors but they gave this hardened viewer pause in disbelief.
This gives Criminal Lovers a much more transgressive artistry than Blair Witch Project ever could- it's a fractured fairy tale as envisioned by a hellish-but-dreamlike collaboration between the Marquis De Sade and Jean-Luc Godard. Even better, you get two fantastic performances from both Natacha Regnier and Jeremie Renier that supply the film with a desperate rawness that's only matched by the young people suffering in Larry Clark's films.
"The Rat's Been Giving Us Bad Vibes"
Francois Ozon apparently watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (1968), in which Terrence Stamp mysteriously seduces all the members of a family household. He thought that the idea was great, but it would be improved if the intruder was a pet rat, and that he seduces the entire family into doing perverted/shocking acts. Ozon was right on his assumption when he updated Teorema's plot to shock traditional French values with his feature film debut, Sitcom.
The film follows an typical bourgeoisie French family whose lives dramatically change when they adopt a pet rat. The son transforms from a reserved bookworm into an outspoken/sexually-liberated homosexual whilst the seemingly-normal daughter becomes obsessed with death and sadomasochism. Soon, the rat's influence extends to the other family members, including to the bewildered parents. I dare not say how the matriarch changes as I want that to be a surprise. This surrealistically leads up to a climax that would make Franz Kafka giggle with delight.
If you can stomach the outrageous satire, you too will giggle with delight at the film's absurdities. That's due to how well-crafted the film is, especially in the exceptional acting. Evelyne Dandry is simply wonderful as the matriarch who initially despairs at her family falling into "moral decline" before accepting it and embracing the radical acts herself. Another plus is the witty script- I laughed continually as the film mocks social norms to the point I don't want to reveal any more jokes as I fear the comedy will be ruined if I spoil it for the unsuspecting viewers.
Sitcom sadly isn't perfect despite its brave transgressions. It doesn't break any new ground - I can think of more shocking films than this one, and Ozon doesn't take full advantage of lighting/staging nor does he exploit the material for all its worth. Characters come and go when being in service to the plot, and key changes occur offscreen to the audience's annoyance. However, it succeeds in what it set out to do: improve upon Teorema's surreal concept and make it insanely funny for all the weirdos out there in the audience.
Another note to consider comes with the phrase "Sitcom" itself. The title naturally refers to those patriarchal-upholding tools of conformity, but Francois Ozon subverts those expectations by making his slice-of-life dramas into an Aristocrats joke a la John Waters. Further more, he advocates tearing down the patriarchy in order for society to progress. In an age where people yearn to be free from being strangled by traditions, Sitcom is certainly admirable for questioning the status quo by making fun of it.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
A Disaster In Filmmaking
When I heard that Ava Duvernay was making an adaptation of one of my favorite books, I was excited; finally, a great filmmaker can do justice to the story after the TV-movie fiasco. Unfortunately, the studios must have tampered with the adaptation as it isn't a movie directed by a talented director; instead, it is more of a nauseous CGI-induced trainwreck being conducted by unusually drunk circus animals.
Before I get my numerous gripes with movie out of my system, I'll at least commend it for casting a black girl as Meg Murry. It was a very brave decision, especially considering that it was a major blockbuster coming from the image-obsessed corporate known as Disney.
I also want to state upfront that race has nothing to do with me not liking the film. I'm whiter than snow and thus don't get racist crap thrown at me with the same intensity/frequency that some of my fellow citizens sadly do. I accept that everyone is different, but I judge people based on their character, not their physical differences. This comes from my unique upbringing - I'm autistic and suffer from OCD. I'm extremely sympathetic towards people. I grew up in a multicultural diverse church - Bridgeway Community Church, if you're curious; my father has traveled all over the world and taught me to love all kinds of people for their differences. I'm a social advocate who believes in the Black Lives Matters movement as a stepping stone for much-needed racial conciliation. There's not a racist fragment in my being. I also don't have a vendetta against the director. On the contrary, Ava DuVernay is a great person who has made great contributions to the art of cinema, especially with her wonderful documentary 13th. Rather, I'm just stunned that her latest movie was poorly made studio-processed garbage.
The movie's basic composition/mise-en-scene was shockingly most unprofessional; its ugly color schemes made the Transformers movies, aka decomposing roadkill, look attractive by comparison. All the acting performances were horrific, especially with the child actors being the most guilty of making wood look more human. The music comprised of soullessly generic pop hits that it arrived deader than a doornail.
Worse of all, the script reeked of corporate pandering. First of all, it censored the book's inherent liberal Christian ideology to the point that it became a name-in-only adaptation. Second, it became a boringly bad-at-motivational cliche fest that not even an innocent child would willingly accept. Third, it got rid of what made the book special, which was making kids think for themselves. Gone with the cool scientific concepts, in with cringeworthy CGI and overblown nonsense that insults basic intelligence.
The more I write about this disaster, the more I feel sorry for Ms. DuVernay. She clearly has talent, yet her vision conflicted with the studio's financial priorities; hence, we end up with this cinematic travesty. Worse of all, this movie doesn't work with its prime audience as we don't find the characters relatable like how we do with Madeline L'Engle's timeless book.
I watched the movie with my older sister and her two kids- both of whom are in preschool. When the movie ended, my sister was gobsmacked at how awful it was. Her children played with their toys once the movie lost their attention yet they stayed within distance of the dreadful thing. Wanting to know what her children thought of the film, she asked her youngest child if the movie was any good. Barely looking up from his toys, he shook his head and replied with one new vocabulary word: "No".
The Bigamist (1953)
Truly A Disappointment
Edmond O'Brien is horrifically miscast as the titled role- he's always being upstaged by his clearly much more effective two female costars all the darn time-to be fair, they're played by extremely charismatic and extraordinarily gifted actresses. He also does a terrible job acting wise, as he has no idea what to do with his character at all, so he unwisely decides to play him as a confused dope with no characteristics at all- thus, the audience doesn't genuinely care about him in the slightest. It also doesn't help that he is supposed to portray an unlikable character sympathetically but due to his monotone vocal range and his lack of passion in the role, he causes the main subject to become less interesting than the horrendous bus tour that sets the premise up in the first place.
The moralizing tone overwhelmed the film's script to the point one would swear they were accidentally watching a Hays Code approved "melodrama" which it totally is. This is the only time Ida Lupino ever completely directed herself and it clearly shows why- she doesn't seem to firmly know which job to pursue first, and without any clear decision making on how to reunite those two prospects together, she exerts an unintentional and overwhelming sense of sloppiness upon the whole film itself. The visuals suffer to the point that it looks more like a juvenile televised soap opera than an independent film made by capable adults. The actors don't know what to do with themselves- sometimes such lack of direction helps spur creativity (Joan Fontaine does a wonderful job at expressing her character's inner thoughts- even more astonishing is Ida's self-determination whilst acting as you can feel that she's doing her best under the rather unfortunate circumstances) but most of the time, it really diminishes the actors' and crew's self-confidence to the point of not being able to do their best within their role. This is downright depressing as Ida Lupino showed her true talents within both departments- just not when they're together on the same project.
The script, already hampered and trampled upon by a really unpleasant waging censoring finger, is already hard to swallow within its logic department- why did Edmond O'Brien ever think he could get away with bigamy and why did he go along with his first wife's adoption plans as it was made apparently clear that any place in charge of taking care of minors need to search very deeply within its applicants in order for the child to be placed in safe, and reliable hands; why was Edmund Gwenn even allowed to go back to the orphanage after his monumental and unmentionable failure if said mistake was that severe; if the first wife really was a major operative within the company, shouldn't she have been already to Los Angeles to the point that she's well acquainted with the place? Most importantly, why did he never let his second wife know the truth from the moment that he found out that she was pregnant- heck why didn't he tell anyone about the information as he could explain his mistake and accept full responsibility of the situation much to his newfound moral approval and sensitivity to his spouse's sanity as well as fostering respect for his mistress' dilemmas?
Aside from many more logical problems, the script should have been really interesting as it made a social problem much more palatable to moral tastes- it sadly fails because the script's so focused on making the controversial issue palatable to contemporary audience reception that it ultimately makes it blandly heavy-handed to the point that the film quickly wears its welcome out before it can hit any dramatically interesting scenes. It's a true shame, as this was one of the few mature films to openly deal with taboo subjects in a time of insanely restrictive censorship and it's clear that everyone tries their absolute hardest in trying to make a badly written tearjerker seem believable. It's just that no one actually bothered to mend that script up so to make it less puritanical and more openly frank or to rid that same production of any massive tonal failures so as to achieve a sense of control in spreading its ideas.
If you're still curious about Ida Lupino's directing career, please check out her other films, especially Outrage- an amazing film both of its time and also ahead of its time in its depiction of rape. Please avoid The Bigamist as one would avoid bigamy in real life.
Cat's Eye (1985)
A Capsulation Of Stephen King's Work
The movie somehow manages to convey all of Stephen King's success rate: the first segment is nonsensically disappointing and strangely more unintentionally as well as irritatingly humorous than scary, the second segment is much more interesting due to its more realistically imagined stakes but really needed some crucial ironing out in order to reach its full potential, and the last segment actually stands up and delivers on its fantastical promises whilst respecting the audience's intelligence for both thrills and intellect.
All anthology films tend to follow the half-baked rule, in which the input turn out to be entirely uneven concerning its output. The first half of The Twilight Zone: The Movie is schmaltzily boring while its second half is fantastically ingenious, and like its more big-budgeted predecessor, Cat's Eye is all too accustomed with following that rule. (Yes, I do know that the filmmakers never intended to make such lumps within their batter as production problems and unwholesome studio interference hampered upon the film's qualities themselves, though Cat's Eye was luckier in the fate department as it wasn't plagued by traumatic on-set tragedy/violation of human & civil & artistic rights but by the complete deletion of a supposedly depressing segment that explained why the cat was by its lonely feral self in the first place. Also, unlike the 5th dimension, King is strangely all-knowing precise and more fun to be with as he knows his own admittedly far-out formula to drop some references to much more thought out scenarios- say hello, Cujo and Christine!)
I have no idea why the cat had to be a framing device: the first two stories basically had him as an irrelevant cameo, and worse, the first two stories' tones heavily clash with the last one as those two felt more realistically plausible whilst the grand finale was definitely situated in family-friendly horror fantasy a la Grimm. Despite these weird tonal shifts and the lack of complete correlation between these episodes, the best of the three segments actually involves the cat itself! (Total shocker, really.) I could totally see it being its own feature as it was the only story that I felt deserved the honor of being called well made and also the only segment that was worth existing. (Sorry The Ledge but you really need to be seriously remade as you turned out to be so goofy that this humble critic was already thinking of a better version in his head whilst watching it.)
Jezebel depicts how the South's idea of conservatism was going to crash and burn on its head even before the Civil War was to be waged due to the immature/petty environment not considering what the consequences were coming as a result of their stubborn lack of actions- indeed the South's tragedy is that it relied too much upon outdated conventions whilst ignoring the human/environmental costs being allowed to happen all around their lack of moral judgment. New Orleans is punished for its willing failure to uphold their spiritual obedience to God's benevolent commands, such as lovingly respecting their fellow human being's sense of personal liberties, preserving the natural landscape, investing in creatively advanced techniques in a sufficient manner to further help their city out of harm's way and protecting the community's legal/moral civil rights, with a fatal plague, almost as if the plague was an allegory for all of the death and destruction that all of humanity will endure if they continue to permit selfishness to rule their lives.
Both Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) and her lover, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) make costly mistakes when they act out of pure jealous pettiness when they don't get their ways as per se demanded- hers is to rebel not out of earnest pleas for social justice but out of an inhuman spite; his is to conform with disciplinarian social dictations instead with his own compassionate conscience. These mistakes ruin their lives as neither one wants to apologize for their soul-deadening decisions- however only Julie spiritually redeems herself when she realizes that life-altering consequences do happen as a result of her carelessly thought out decisions and metaphorically baptizes herself as she saves her former finance's new wife from innocently suffering under a swift punishment. Thus, she regains her dignity as she and Preston join countless other souls upon the danse macabre.
The slaves' depiction is what keeps Jezebel from reaching a true masterpiece status as they're unwisely portrayed as "a happy-go-lucky, singing lot" (again). However, to be fair to the movie, they're at least given an attempted aurora of genuine personality and their singing scene marks Julie's genuine rebirth as she subconsciously realizes her mistakes and gains a desire to become a better human being, signaled by her joining into their custom dance. Yet, this scene of spiritual resurrection is reserved only for Bette Davis' character, not for her fellow black dancers- even then, these gospel-filled instruments aren't allowed to blossom as fellow characters due to both their race (black) and their inhumane/unwanted captivity (their illegal enslavement and treatment in an already hypocritical society).
The Most Powerful Documentary Ever Made
To the Bagby family, I'm truly sorry for your devastating loss. What happened to you should never happen to any other family. Please keep up the good work advocating for change in the system. To Kurt, thank you for making this truly heartfelt tribute to one of your best friends; the documentary was one of the most emotionally driven experiences that I ever witnessed. I feel like I know Andrew and Zachary even though I sadly have never met them; that's how powerful your movie is. It's a prayer for the human spirit and a memorial for the dead. Remembering our loved ones, and then sharing those memories keeps them alive even after the body has wasted into ashes. I'll never ever forget that lesson that your movie has taught me. Thank you for pressing onward and finishing your cinematic letter.