Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
Georg Wilhelm Pabst was not only one of the great German directors of the silent film era, he (along with Fritz Lang) explored the expressive possibilities of sound in the early days of sound cinema. Criterion presents two of his earliest sound features, a pair that make perfect companion pieces: Westfront 1918 (Germany, 1930) and Kameradschaft (Germany, 1931).
He tackled World War I for his debut sound feature Westfront 1918, an anti-war drama about four soldiers in the trenches of the western front in the final months of fighting. In the tradition of the platoon drama, they represent different types—the young Student, the hearty Bavarian, the protective Lieutenant, and the married man Karl (the only one to be called by name)—and have bonded as friends under fire, but the film chronicles the way the war grinds them up and leaves them dead or broken. It’s adapted from the novel “Four Infantryman on the Western Front” by Ernst Johannsen and looks as if it could be Germany’s answer to the much more expensive and expansive Hollywood production All Quiet on the Western Front from Lewis Milestone, based on another novel by a German author. In fact they were in production at the same time and released just a month apart.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) is not your usual comic superhero origin story. It turns out that the majestic Amazon princess from a mythic island of female warriors was born of a Harvard psychologist and outspoken feminist who had a polyamorous relationship with two women who inspired the character and a passion for sexual bondage play.
The strange, fascinating story of Dr. William Moulton Marston, who created of the first female comic book superhero, was told by Jill Lepore in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” Angela Robinson’s film isn’t adapted from Lepore’s book but the basic story is the same. Some of the less appealing aspects of his life smoothed over and much of the personal drama fictionalized, and as comic book buffs will point out, some of the history of the four color character is simply wrong. But the film isn’t about the creation of a feminist icon as much as it is about the lives that inspired it and the culture it challenged.
Directed by the insanely prolific Hong Kong action veteran Wong Jing, Chasing the Dragon (China, 2017) is the filmmaker’s crime epic, a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of two notorious gangsters who thrived in the rampant corruption enabled by Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in the 1960s. The title is slang for heroin addiction and looking for the next high but for the two men at the center of the film, it’s about power and money and carving out the island nation’s answer to the American Dream through an insidious partnership between the police department and the underworld gangs.
Inspired by a true story, Chasing the Dragon stars Donnie Yen, the zen master of martial arts action, playing against type as Crippled Ho, the Chinese immigrant who became a drug kingpin, and Andy Lau as top cop Lui Lok / Lee Rock (a role he played in two previous films), who centralized the system of graft as he rose through the ranks. Lau provides the smooth charm as the ambitious cop who bristles under the arrogance and abuse of power by the British officials but knows better than to challenge their rule as he consolidates his control. Yen brings his usual understated warmth as Ho, underplaying the ruthlessness as he builds his power base, and he trades in the grace and majesty of his martial arts style for a scrappy, street-fighting approach.
Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)
Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.
A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).
Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.
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.
Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.
The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)
Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.
James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.
Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is the second reboot of the first superstar of the 21st century superhero boom since Sam Raimi’s hit trilogy and this time Sony (who still owns the movie rights) has handed the creative reins over to Marvel Studios and allowed them to integrate the webslinger into the Marvel Comics Movie Universe.
Tom Holland actually made his big screen debut as Spider-Man, once again a hapless high school kid just like in the original comics, in Captain American: Civil War, recruited by Tony Stark to be his secret weapon against Captain America’s rebel heroes. After holding his own in his big league try-out, Holland carries Spider-Man: Homecoming with the youthful spirit of a high school brainiac nerd with the fresh charge of superpowers he’s still mastering, the unseasoned hero eager to impress reluctant mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and make the leap from the streets of Queens to the big leagues of The Avengers.
This film wisely dispenses with the whole origin story and reintroduces us to the rookie wall crawler by revisiting his Civil War coming out party from the excited kid’s point-of-view via Parker’s camera-phone. It’s a perfect entry into this variation on the Marvel house style, capturing not just the charge but the culture of social engagement of a high school kid, a YouTube take on superhero spectacle in the first person.
An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.
Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.
Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.
Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.