Stephanie Smothers, a suburban overachiever played by Anna Kendrick with spunky energy and self-effacing deflection, is the widowed mother of a son in elementary school. Into her life steps Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a sleek urban professional with no maternal instincts––like a high- society shark forcibly moved from her hunting ground to a tranquil aquarium tank. Their odd relationship is the core of A Simple Favor, a neo-noir of suburban pep and middle-class warmth meeting cool sophistication. Playdates, cocktails, and dark secrets are shared.
Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.
A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.
Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.
Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.
Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.
Curse of the Cat People (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.
This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.
More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.
A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.
The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
“For a better tomorrow,” remarks one character in a rare moment of downtime in John Woo’s Manhunt, drawing a direct connection to Woo’s 1986 break-out hit. Not that he needed to drop so blatant a callback. Released in 2017 across Asian cinemas but debuting on Netflix in the U.S., Manhunt is a self-conscious throwback to the Hong Kong films that made Woo’s reputation among action movie fans around the world––a gleefully overstuffed thriller that races through the greatest-hits-of-Woo trademarks, right down to a hardboiled cop who bonds with his nemesis as he pursues him across the city.
Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?
Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray)
Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)
The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.
Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).
Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch; Split) star as Amanda and Lily, estranged childhood friends who reconnect in unusual circumstances.
Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a Cologne cop working with the Berlin vice squad, is a World War I vet who conceals his shellshock tremors with black market morphine. He’s a tarnished hero on a covert mission to track down a pornography ring blackmailing a politician back home, but then pretty much everyone has shadows over them.
Liquid Sky (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
An avant-garde artifact straddling the eighties movie underground and the growing American independent movement, Liquid Sky (1982) broke into the college film circuit thanks to a trippy mix of drug culture, sexual androgyny, and indie sci-fi weirdness playing out in the New York eighties bohemian scene. Director Slava Tsukerman was a Russian émigré who studied at the Moscow Film Institute and worked in the Israeli film industry before moving to New York and immersing himself in youth culture to make his American film debut. He really is a true stranger in a land and he embraces it, observing his New Wave melodrama from the alien perspective of a sensation-seeking UFO in search of the human heroin high and discovering something better: the chemical blast of orgasms.
Anne Carlisle, a model and actress in the New York underground, co-wrote the script with Tsukerman and producer Nina V. Kerova and plays two roles: the jaded Margaret, a bisexual model who lives with performance artist and heroin dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), and her male model nemesis Jimmy, a sneering, preening would-be celebrity and drug addict. While they provide a tour of the underground clubs and rebel fashion culture, freelance German scientist Johann (Otto von Wernherr) tracks the alien invasion to Margaret’s apartment (where a tiny flying saucer feeds off the chemical euphoria unleashed by her lifestyle) and provides the exposition to his new landlady. The fact that he’s right (and still sounds like he’s off his meds) doesn’t give us any more confidence in him, perhaps because he’s kind of alien himself, utterly baffled by American culture and clueless to the flirtations of his landlady, who is as subtle as a stripper at a bachelor party.
Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray)
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray)
Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.