When does a “new wave” just become the “new normal?”  It’s a concept that’s pretty hard to define given that cinematic “new waves” are a pretty nebulous concept to begin with.  Most people agree that the movies made by people like Truffaut and Godard in the late 50s through much of the 60s were part of the “French New Wave” but almost all those directors continued to make movies for decades to come after that, when did those cease to be “new wave” films and just become films by directors formerly associated with the “new wave.”  That question is of course on my mind given the clearest example of a “new wave” that seemed to happen during my own lifetime, the “Romanian New Wave” which started somewhere in the mid-2000s and may or may not still be going on today depending on how you want to define it.  Then again maybe suggesting that this was ever some sort of fleeting trend might have been needlessly limiting as the style seems to have some real staying power.  Every time I think we can move on another wave of really solid Romanian films comes along that still feel well in tune with what came before and the New Wave seemingly lives on, though there have been some twists of late.  Most notably the Romanian filmmaker who has had the most import abroad, Cristian Mungiu, has been sort of out of commission since the release of his 2016 film Graduation, which itself was kind of considered a minor work.  He’s finally back now though with a new film called R.M.N., which feels like as much of a statement as anything he made back in the 2000s.

The film is set in an unnamed town in the Transylvania region of Romania near the Hungarian border and the town seems to be evenly divided between Romanian and Hungarian residents (IFC’s presentation of the film subtitles Romanian in white, Hungarian in yellow and other languages in pink).  At the film’s center though is a guy named Matthias (Marin Grigore) who is part of a smaller German ethnic cohort.  As the film starts Matthias had been working abroad at a German slaughterhouse when he learns that his son has been traumatized by something he saw in the woods near his home, leading Matthias to return home, possibly to the annoyance of his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu).  He also seems to have coincidentally arrived at a rather tense time for this hometown as the local industrial bakery has recently brought in a trio of Sri Lankan guest workers to keep up production, which has lit a fire of xenophobia amongst the locals who are starting up a petition to eject these foreign workers.  Matthias’ mistress Csilla (Judith State) is a manager at that bakery and is one of the leading voices championing for these men, but seems to be going up against a real tidal wave of hate that this situation has stirred up.

Cristian Mungiu’s films have had something of a temporal through line: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was set during the Ceaușescu regime, Beyond the Hills is set in modern day but was about the legacy of the orphanages that opened as a consequence of that period’s policies, Graduation is set in the modern day but is about people who returned to Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu and their feelings about rebuilding the new country, but R.M.N. feels a lot more distinctly like a movie about modern hot button issues rather than the legacy of Ceaușescu.  This isn’t to say that the movie ignores the history that led to this moment, but it’s very much a movie taking on a very specific kind of xenophobia and white nationalism that’s occurring in modern Europe and around the world.  The central conflict is around the heated racist reaction to the legal employment of three immigrant workers of color, which certainly seems like some really over the top racism and it’s made all the more disturbing by the general shamelessness of what the know-nothing mob is putting forward.  I feel like in the United States even the most racist of mobs would at least try to employ some dog whistles when objecting to these people’s presence but the villagers here seem to make few excuses for their attitudes, which are made all the more ironic since many of them are themselves ethnic minorities within Romania and many of them have their own experiences acting as guest workers in other richer countries.  However, I feel like the dynamics of all this feel more familiar than they do foreign.  It has the same kind of lower class populists versus educated professional conflict that so often fuels these arguments around the world and the film does provide some nuances around why said educated professionals are not always in the best position to fight back in these situations.

This take on racial hatred in this town is plainly the main draw of the film and it hits a crescendo in this bravura static long take during a town hall meeting on the topic, but I think the movie is maybe a bit less successful at mixing the political with the personal via the Matthias point of view character.  He seems to have been added to act as a character who is sort of a neutral center in the debate around the guest workers: not dead set on kicking them out like some of the angry villagers but also not interested in defending them much to the annoyance of his mistress.  The toxic masculinity he brings to his relationship with his child and baby mama also emphasize that there are intersections at play here beyond the town’s racism.  However I’m not quite sure what metaphor it’s going for with its sub-plot about his kid seeing things in the woods and I don’t only the haziest of guesses as to what the film’s rather cryptic and abrupt ending is supposed to mean.  In a lot of ways I wish the movie had focused in more on that central debate than doing everything through this kind of bland character’s eyes, but all that said I think this whole movie is still another win for Mungiu.  It taps into the very real zeitgeist of contemporary debates in the same way his Romanian New Wave compatriot Radu Jude does but in a more serious and straightforward way and I was definitely interested while watching it.
**** out of Five


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3(5/5/2023)

In the May of 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened up to predictable acclaim and profits.  It was early in “phase three,” which in retrospect was probably a high point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it was perhaps easy to take their victories for granted at the time.  I thought that sequel was fine but felt like it was kind of just more of the same from what James Gunn gave us in the first Guardians movie, but that movie was also solid so that was fine.  I fully expected a third volume to show up on schedule in the next three years and would close out the trilogy with even more of the same but that didn’t exactly happen.  Instead thanks to some behind the scenes drama I don’t have time to get into it took six years for this final sequel to show up, which doesn’t sound like that much more but a whole lot has happened since then in the real world and even more has happened with the MCU.  Consider for example that the first of the rebooted MCU Spider-Man movies came out two months after that second Guardians film and yet we’ve already finished out that trilogy well before the climactic Guardians film finally came out.  Additionally the characters of Guardians of the Galaxy were major parts of two Avengers movies which led to major changes for the entire team that James Gunn would need to address.  Beyond that though the whole momentum of the MCU has changed a lot, as have the careers of the entire cast and crew, including Gunn who I have to suspect is a little bitter about the aforementioned behind the scenes drama.  So with this new installment we’re given a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel that may in many ways feel like more of the same on the surface but has a noticeably different tone and feel at its core.

The film begins shortly after the “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” that released on Disney+ last year and sees our heroes set up on Knowhere.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still in something of a depressed stupor following the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Avengers: Infinity War and the fact that a time displaced version of her came back in Avengers: Endgame only complicates those feelings.  That doppelganger is off doing her own thing but most of the rest of “the gang” is there on knowhere and need to go into action when they are unexpectedly attacked by a gold skinned flying villain named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who is a bit dim but clearly has major combat ability.  He eventually retreats after receiving an injury from Nebula (Karen Gillan), but not before grievously injuring Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and it becomes apparent to the crew that healing him will be impossible until they can deactivate a kill switch that has been implanted on the ring tailed mercenary’s heart.  To save him the aforementioned Guardians along with Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) decide to go on a mission that will eventually pit them against the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a megalomaniacal eugenicist who may have been entwined with Rocket’s past.

When the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 dropped something stood out to me right away: it was accompanied by the song “In the Meantime” by Spacehog, a song that was recorded and released in 1996.  That’s probably still an “oldie” by the standards of a lot of people but it’s still a good twenty years more current than the songs that populated the first two movies in the franchise.  Sure enough that signals that the music in this movie features music from a wider range of time periods than the exclusively 60s and 70s stuff that set the tone for those first two movies.  This shift was of course something that was foreshadowed late in Volume 2 when Peter Quill was gifted a Zoom, but it still feels like a somewhat daring willingness to mess with the formula a bit in this third film and I think that attitude carries over to other aspects of this film.  I would not say that the film is radically different than the first two movies but there is subtle but noticeable change here that may throw some people.  The film kind of lives in the shadow of traumatic events that happened over the course of the Avengers films the characters participated in and between that and Rocket’s dark backstory that makes the film a bit darker and a bit less of a romp than the first two volumes.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t still humor in the movie, there certainly is, but at times it feels like these characters just joke to keep themselves from crying.

At the film’s center are a series of flashbacks to Rocket’s origins that appear to have been pretty well received but which I’m a bit cooler on.  There’s nothing “wrong” with them exactly but it’s pretty clear from the beginning where that story thread is going and I feel like we could have maybe stood to cut to it a little less often and there’s also a walrus creature in it that’s very poorly rendered in CGI.  The storyline also involves animals getting tinkered on by a sort of intergalactic Dr. Moreau, which I’ve heard some people describe as “disturbing,” which I can’t say I can relate to terribly well given how steeped in gory horror movies I am and how little affection I tend to have with animals.  I’d also say that the villain in question, while not bad as a character necessarily, is a bit stock.  His motives related to genetic tinkering are potentially interesting but he mostly just comes off as your standard megalomaniac and his tactics are just kind of flamboyantly eeeeeviiiilll.  But he looks cool, and that’s probably good enough for the purposes of this movie that has a lot of other things to deal with during its running time.  On the plus side, if you’re kind of sick of Marvel films being too devoted to setting up other Marvel films this is mostly a step back from that.  You certainly need to do the prerequisite viewing (including both recent Avengers films and the holiday special) and I do have some suspicions that Adam Warlock is mostly here to be used again at some point in the future but aside from that there isn’t much spinoff baiting here and even the post credit scenes mostly serve to further the story you’ve been watching rather than to tease another one.

If I have a particular complaint about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 it’s just that it’s maybe lacking in any real surprises.  In the lead-up to the film there was a lot of speculation about it doing something really wild and climactic to bring closure to this branch of the MCU but it really doesn’t, there’s not much to spoil even if I wanted to and while the central team is left in a different state than how it started the movie definitely does leave a lot of room for further sequels.  Aside from that I think what feels a bit “off” about it is just timing.  A lot of momentum seems to have been lost in the six years it took to make it both behind the scenes and in terms of what the public is looking for and the sub-franchise that so perfectly hit the zeitgeist in 2014 might be a bit behind the times in 2023.  But I don’t want to come off as too negative hear because I think the sum of this movie’s parts are actually very strong.  It’s probably the MCU’s best movie since Avengers: Endgame give or take a Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.  In fact it’s because so much of it objectively executes so well that I’m left to theorize why the movie didn’t give me that joyful feeling I’m usually left with when the MCU is operating at the top of its game.  Maybe it’s just a “me” problem?
***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Oscar Micheaux – Part 2, The Talkies

[Note: This is part 2 of a two part series on the films of Oscar Micheaux.  Part 1 can be found here]

The Exile (1931)

With The Exile we enter into the sound era with Oscar Micheaux, which is not necessarily a good thing.  As anyone who’s seen Babylon knows, Hollywood’s transition into sound in the earliest days of the format was really rough and they made a lot of mistakes during the transition and it would appear that Micheaux made a lot of the same mistakes and unlike the guys at the major studios he didn’t have a bunch of money to make up for this.  The Exile is an adaptation of Micheaux’s first novel “The Conquest,” which Micheaux previously adapted into his now lost debut film The Homesteader so clearly he was playing things kind of safe as he first ventured into “the talkies.”  I should say first and foremost that the surviving print of this and its soundtrack are both really worn out and there are parts of the movie you can only barely hear.  That is probably less the fault of the film than it is of time and neglect, but this also has most of the usual stiff acting and static camera problems that these early sound films had to deal with and then some.  Sections of the film are set in a nightclub so they can include gratuitous and not terribly well executed musical numbers to “wow” audience with recorded sound and other conversations take place all in one static shot.  Some of this acting is also really not good and in ways that can’t entirely be excused away by the time period.  So what of the film’s substance?  Well the story itself is a touch melodramatic and is built around this dichotomy of city life and country life which I find a bit distasteful.  There are however little moments here and there like a scene where the main character discusses colorism with a kid which do catch your interest as insights into the African-American experience of the film’s time.  And that’s basically what the film is good for, being a artifact and curio, but as a work of filmmaking unto itself it’s pretty hard to defend and is for the film historians (and regular historians) only.
** out of Five

The Girl from Chicago (1932)

While looking at the films of Oscar Micheaux I’ve largely avoided the reductive label that was put on a lot of them at the time: “race films.”  “Race films” like their music industry equivalent “race records” was the industry jargon for movies made in the first half of the 20th century with all black casts that were made outside of Hollywood and were intended to almost exclusively be seen by black audiences.  Micheaux’s surviving silent films tended to be a bit more political than what “race films” are normally associated with and often kind of transcend the label when they’re talked about but his 1932 film The Girl From Chicago was perhaps a bit closer to what people expected from the label: a low budget imitation of Hollywood but with black actors.  The film is a loose remake of his 1926 silent film The Spider’s Web and concerns this rather ramshackle crime narrative about a black Secret Service agent who finds himself on an assignment in Mississippi where he falls for a local girl and also has to foil a rather loopy conspiracy to murder a Cuban racketeer.  In some ways Micheaux’s command of sound filmmaking has improved in the year since The Exile but the material he’s working with feels less interesting so it’s kind of a tradeoff.  The fact that this is working in more of a genre space with minimal direct comment on the racial aspects makes comparisons to Hollywood a bit more inevitable and those comparisons are not that flattering given the shoestring budget Micheaux has to work with.
** out of Five

Ten Minutes to Live (1932)

Ten Minutes to Live is definitely the best of these 1931/1932 early sound efforts by Oscar Micheaux… which might be because large portions of it are a silent film in disguise.  The first half of the film has most of the usual “early talkie” problems including the fact that it was set in yet another damn nightclub so we can have middling musical performances and are also “treated” to a rather strange blackface comedy routine performed by people who are actually black, which I think is meant to be done with a certain degree of irony.  After about a half hour of that the film (which is only 58 minutes long) shifts into more of a thriller mode and characters are finally able to go outside because much of this section was shot using silent film equipment.  The film introduces a deaf character to explain why there isn’t as much talking during this section and there are a lot of handwritten letters on screen to advance the story (cursive writing, one of the great barriers of enjoying old films).  That all maybe makes this sound a touch more interesting than it really is, there’s fun to be found in the way Micheaux found ways to work around his limitations but this short running time really hampers the storytelling especially with those nightclub acts burning up some of the time.
**1/2 out of Five

Veiled Aristocrats (1932)

Doing a review of Veiled Aristocrats is a little complicated because the version of the film I watched, the only one that still exists, is only 42 minutes long and is almost certainly missing reels.  In fact the film historians don’t even know how much was lost or what the film’s true running time is.  This isn’t to say that the movie’s story is quite as choppy as you might think given this and you can at least get a pretty good gist of the story and what the movie is like.  It’s also probably unfortunate because while this is also imperfect in many ways this feels like a step above the Oscar Micheaux movies of this period that exist in more complete forms.  Like most of the Micheaux films of this period, Veiled Aristocrats is a remake of a now lost earlier Micheaux film, the 1927 film The House Behind the Cedars.  Like a lot of Micheaux films, this is in part about light skinned black people who can “pass.”  This is a topic Micheaux kept coming back to despite not really being particularly light skinned himself, which suggests that he was interested in it less out of personal experience than out of a fascination with the absurdities that the “passing” experience revealed.  Specifically this is about a family that gets upended a bit when a son returns after many years having lived away from the family while masquerading as a white man and offers to bring his similarly light skinned sister into that world as well.  As tends to happen with these movies she learns that this isn’t the way.  The film still has some random musical performances to show off sound technology but is a little less primitive than some of the other early Micheaux talkies but that’s kind of relative and it’s a bit hard to judge its full potential in the print’s current state so I’ll give it a bit of a benefit of the doubt.
*** out of Five

Birthright (1938)

The final Micheaux film featured in this boxed set is 1938’s Birthright, which was made a good six years after the handful of 1932 choices we’ve been watching.  It’s from well into the era of the talkie and would be the third from last film he’d make before his death in 1951.  One would think that 1938 would be recent enough that we’d be done with all the restoration issues we ran into before, but unfortunately it isn’t.  Instead the first two reels of this movie are entirely lost and the movie is presented here with title cards explaining the film’s first ten to twenty minutes based on the film’s screenplay before picking up with the story.  That weirdness aside this is the most technically refined of Micheaux’s sound films so if you only watch one of them this is definitely the one to go with.  Beyond that a lot of what’s happening here will be pretty familiar.  This is yet another remake to one of Micheaux’s now lost silent film, 1924’s Birthright, which was itself based on a novel by a white novelist named T. S. Stribling.  It concerns an educated black man returning to his home town intent on building a school for black children, likely inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute (which Micheaux was a public supporter of) and follows him as he gets this dream derailed by underhanded real estate dealings and has to take a job working for a local rich guy and nearly gets that derailed by a relationship with a woman who has an unfair reputation.  The story still has some weird parts here and there and Micheaux’s age is on display to some extent as he would never quite be as innovative as he was during the silent era but… well he certainly fared better in the sound era than D.W. Griffith did so at least there some revenge to be found there.
*** out of Five

In Conclusion
This was… interesting.  My star ratings are probably not going to entirely reflect my interest level in going through these movies.  I think it’s fair to say that Oscar Micheaux was a guy whose talents never really reached their full potential, he as a silent film innovator who never had the technical resources of his peers and during the sound years he still lacked the resources of his peers and never quite got the gist of the new technology he was working with.  On top of that we lost a whole lot of his work during his prime years and we have no real way of knowing just how substantial his body of work may have seemed if we had all of it to judge.  That said we do have to go off of what we have and a lot of what we have are these early sound film which are… flawed.  This is why when I hear people holding Micheaux up as a cinematic master I’m not sure I can entirely agree with that, the depth just isn’t there in the surviving filmography.  Still, Within Our Gates is legitimately a classic, Body and Soul is a bit of a gem, and even the rest of his lesser movies have interesting and revealing moments and even if I can’t say they’re “good” on a technical level when compared to the average Hollywood film of the era those comparisons probably aren’t fair in the first place and their historical value is readily apparent and do make them worth viewing for those who are likely to be interested by them.

Crash Course: Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Oscar Micheaux – Part 1, The Silent Years

I’ve owned a copy of Kino’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” boxed set for a while now but have held off on actually watching it for a while.  I don’t know, if just felt like something that couldn’t be tackled lightly and I still don’t necessarily intend to dive all the way into it, but I did think it was finally time to dig into the most prominent and famous filmmaker with films in the set: Oscar Micheaux.  Micheaux is not a figure I’m totally unfamiliar with, in fact I’ve actually already seen two of the movies I plan to look at (Within Our Gates and Body and Soul), but I haven’t studied him too closely and it’s also been ages since I saw those two movies so this should be eye opening.

Micheaux was born in Illinois in 1884, the son of formerly enslaved parents, and lived what is in many ways a story Horatio Alger would approve of.  He got an education early on before his parents needed to move back onto the farm, but as a young man he moved to Chicago with his older brother and after working some odd jobs decided to go into business himself, first as a shoe shiner at a black barber shop where he learned the basics of business.  He then took a job as a “Pullman Porter” for the railroad, which allowed him to see much of the country and also made some connections with wealthy people.  He then took the advice to “go west young man” and moved to South Dakota where set up as a homesteader and on the side began writing articles for the black press and started writing a largely autobiographical novel called “The Homesteader.”  The farm eventually failed but he saw some success with the novel and began writing full time.  Eventually the possibility of adapting “The Homesteader” to film came up and Micheaux decided to make it himself, setting up a film studio in Sioux City in order to do so.  That film, his debut, has unfortunately been lost.  Instead his most famous work would be his follow-up: Within Our Gates.

Within Our Gates (1920)
Even if Within Our Gates weren’t any good it would probably be extremely famous.  The fact that it’s the oldest surviving film to be directed by an African American alone makes it an incredibly important artifact and its very existence signals that Black creatives have always been a part of film history.  But this isn’t just known on that level; while not a perfect movie, it does more than hold its own with the other films of its era and its content is a strong statement about race relations.  The film is pretty widely viewed as something of a response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, with film studies curriculums often assigning the two films side-by-side in much the way English professors are known to assign Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” alongside Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”  However, I’m not sure that viewing the movie that way is entirely accurate and in some ways it kind of does a disservice to Micheaux’s film to handcuff it to Griffith’s three hour racist diatribe.  The two movies aren’t really that similar.  Micheaux’s film is about half as long as Griffith’s and it has a then contemporary setting rather than being about the Civil War or Reconstruction. What they have in common is that the topic of lynching and vigilante justice features in both with The Birth of a Nation depicting the act as heroic and Within Our Gates (obviously) depicting it as horrific.  But one must consider that Micheaux’s film was made a good five years after Griffiths, which is a long time in the rapidly changing cinematic landscape of the time and one must also consider that lynching was a major issue of the day and one that Micheaux had every reason to tackle beyond trying to respond to Griffith.

So what even is Within Our Gates?  In its simplest terms it’s a story about a woman named Sylvia played by Evelyn Preer, who was an African American pioneer in her own rights.  It’s kind of a hard movie to summarize because, and this is probably the film’s biggest weakness, its story is kind of poorly structured and kind of goes all over the place.  It starts out seeming like a love triangle between Sylvia, a man named Conrad, and Sylvia’s cousin Alma who also wants Conrad.  But Conrad kind of disappears from the film early and Sylvia travels to the South and gets involved with a black school and travels North again to get this school funding (all these changes in locale are a bit hard to keep track of, some color tinting may have helped to differentiate North and South) and then it becomes another love triangle between Sylvia, the man running the school, and another guy she met in Boston.  From there the final third of the film is handed over to an extended flashback to Sylvia’s past in the South where her adopted parents are accused of a crime they didn’t commit and are murdered by a white mob.  We then curiously get a rather abrupt and possibly disingenuous ending in which the man Sylvia ends up with uses recent military victories in the Spanish-American War (a conflict now seen as a craven colonialist land sparked by yellow journalism) as proof that America is actually great and she should be proud of her country.

So, there’s a lot going on there, and the movie likely would have benefited from some streamlining and focus.  It’s not a movie that follows your usual three act structure, but this doesn’t feel like it’s that way because challenging conventions so much as these conventions simply haven’t been invented yet and the storytelling here might have been cleaner if they had.  Still, the story isn’t really where this film gets its power and getting too worried about that probably misses the point of why this film has remained such a major work of the silent era to modern film historians.  Often in modern activism you hear people making statements like “our humanity is not up for debate” and often that seems a touch hyperbolic, but in the context of a film made in 1920 such pleas feel a lot more literal and a lot more vital.  The film is on one level very desperately trying to show potential white audiences that black people deserve to be viewed as humans worthy of respect and the extended flashback is a pretty visceral depiction of the horror of lynch mobs and the extent to which this population was treated as disposable.  It doesn’t come across like a total polemic, there are genre elements that seem to have been thrown in to make it more entertaining (with varying degrees of success) and then of course there’s that weird patriotic coda at the end which I assume was added to appease censors, but maybe Micheaux just does have some corny notions about America despite everything given his own personal success, who knows.  Regardless, it’s a fascinating piece of history any way you cut it, though I will say that artistically there are probably certain moments that matches its stature in the canon better than others.
**** out of Five

The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)

Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates is often held up as the African American director’s response to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  As I discussed when talking about that movie, this is true on some levels and untrue on others, but it’s definitely more true about Micheaux’s other surviving film from 1920: The Symbol of the Unconquered, which is sometimes subtitled “A Story of the Ku Klux Klan.”  Or maybe it isn’t?  The film does involve that titular racist terrorist outlet and is of course harshly critical of it but in many ways the more central theme here is “passing” and the absurdities of racism that are revealed when issues of skin tone and the “one drop” rule come into play.  The film is primarily about a pair of light skinned presumably mixed race characters; one is the film’s protagonist, a woman who is mistaken for white but doesn’t necessarily encourage such misperceptions and the other is a man who desperately tries to pass for white and in doing so has internalized rather virulent racism.  A real Uncle Ruckus if you will.

The film ultimately culminates with an attack by the Ku Klux Klan (who are a relatively small part of the film despite the film’s sometimes subtitle) as they attempt to intimidate a black man from some valuable land and this attack is fended off… apparently.  The film currently exists with a running time of about one hour, but was longer in its original form but some footage from it has been lost over time.  Most notably, the film seems to be missing the scene where the Klan are actually defeated (apparently by a guy with a brick, if contemporary reviews are to be believed).  I must say, it seems like a bit too much of a coincidence that a scene of black people defeating the Klan just happens to be the scene that got lost, seems like some nefarious forces were interfering with this movie and their censorship has lived on past their deaths.  That is unfortunate.  That having been said there are reasons this movie is less famous than Within Our Gates, the characters are a bit more stock and the visual style and format also feel a bit less ambitious.  But as with that film this remains a pretty important artifact of black expression from a time when such expression was frequently held back and the way it bravely challenges white audiences in regards to issues like colorism does stand out pretty starkly.
***1/2 out of Five

Body and Soul (1925)
It is a sad truth that out of the twenty or so silent films that Oscar Micheaux made, only three have really survived and become widely available.  Within Our Gates and The Symbol of the Unconquered were both from the same year and covered similar themes around racial violence and the experience of mixed race people and the two could pretty easily sit side by side.  His other surviving film was made a full five years later, which in the silent era represented a pretty big leap in filmmaking evolution, and covers noticeably different themes.  Body and Soul sets aside the theme of white racism and instead tells a more inward looking African American story about the role of the black church and religiosity in the life of the community.  At the center of it is an escaped convict who poses as a preacher and infiltrates a community and causes mayhem, which is a conceit that resembles later films like The Night of the Hunter but has also been used in all sorts of earlier stories going at least as far back as Molière’s Tartuffe, but it is obviously a touchy and button pressing subject on both sides of the racial divide and the film was by all accounts rather controversial among those who saw it.  In fact the film only exists today in a trimmed form incorporating cuts forced on it by the New York Motion Picture Commission, who viewed the film as “sacrilegious” and on some level I suspect those cuts harmed the flow of the film, which already has some confusing elements like a twin brother and a seemingly tacked on “it was all a dream” ending.

So, as a piece of storytelling this is another Micheaux that feels a bit messy, albeit likely because of edits and aging the filmmaker didn’t have control over.  But one thing it has that his other two films didn’t was a major star: Paul Robeson.  Robeson was one of the preeminent black entertainers of his day and has a fascinating life that I could not possibly summarize here.  Though also a prominent actor who had done major work on the New York stage, he was above all known for his singing voice, so silent film acting maybe wasn’t the ideal showcase for him but his star power still shines here.  Micheaux’s filmmaking has also evolved in the five years since he made his other two surviving silent films and has a strong command of setting and tone despite having what I can only assume was a pretty small budget, though I’m sure he’d never be mistaken for one of the silent era’s greatest stylists.  Instead Micheaux is noteworthy for using the American film to make kind of daring points in the middle of what are otherwise entertaining movies and do it in ways that don’t feel like they’re needlessly provocative.  That’s not to say all of the points he made aged perfectly and some of them are kind of muddled but Body and Soul is probably best looked at as an example of his ability to walk a tightrope like that.
***1/2 out of Five

To be Concluded in Part 2

Beau is Afraid(4/22/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

What does a director do when they’ve been tagged as a “horror filmmaker” but then want to start doing something else?  That’s kind of the predicament that a whole generation of indie auteurs seem to be running into after many of them found themselves making “elevated horror” and then had to decide if they want to keep doing that or move on to something else that maybe isn’t going to be as commercial.  Robert Eggers probably pulled this off the best by focusing in on the historical rather than suspense elements of his debut film The Witch, transitioned into the hothouse suspense effort The Lighthouse, and then into a borderline action film with The Northman.  Then there’s Jennifer Kent, who went from making The Babadook to making The Nightingale, which wasn’t really a horror movie but was a violent revenge movie that would provide some interest to the genre crowd.  On the other end of the spectrum though there’s David Robert Mitchell, who followed up his “elevated horror” film It Follows by taking whatever clout that gave him and using it to make an outlandishly weird go-for-broke follow-up devoid of horror called Under the Silver Lake.  Some people love it, personally I’m not much of a fan but I admire the effort.  It would seem that Ari Aster has gone the same route by, following up his twin A24 horror triumphs, Hereditary and Midsommar, by having that buzzy studio give him $35 million dollars to make a wild three hour surreal tragicomedy called Beau is Afraid which is… quite the gamble.

Beau is Afraid starts off feeling like a movie that takes its title very literally.  The film’s first section we’re introduced to our subject, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a highly neurotic middle aged man who’s on psychiatric medication and lives in an incredibly dumpy bordering on dangerous apartment in New York.  Or does he?  As the movie started we see Beau encounter threatening person after threatening person in New York, learn from a new report about a knife wielding nude man who’s been murdering people, and even hear that there’s a venomous spider loose in Beau’s building.  Is Beau really living in a world that’s this comically dangerous, or is much of this not actually happening and what we’re actually seeing on screen are manifestations of his delusional paranoia about the world and its many dangers.   Anyway, we learn that he soon plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) only to have that trip derailed by a series of misadventures.  He then gets a phone call telling him that Mona may have been killed in a freak accident, leading him to spiral a bit, and much of the rest of the film is his often interrupted journey to reach his hometown to attend her funeral, which leads to a sort of picaresque story along the way that will also dig into his psychology and paranoia.

If the first quarter of the film is about everything that leaves Beau unsettled and frightened in the city, the second quarter is about how the suburban life hardly leaves him any more comfortable.  In this section he’s being nursed to health following an accident by a rather strange couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane despite feeling immense pressure to leave and attend his mother’s funeral as quickly as possible.  The couple are seemingly as polite as they can be at all times, and yet there does seem to be something threatening about them just the same and you empathize with Beau’s paranoia about possible secondary motives they may have to hold him there.  Meanwhile their home also features a traumatized soldier who served with their dead son and appears to be about as dangerous as the nude stabber back in New York, and also a teenage daughter who seems to represent everything that scares people Beau’s age about the next generation (teenage apathy, rebellion, phone addiction, suicidal tendencies, and also the fear that a man his age could be accused of predatory feelings towards them).  So clearly Beau’s paranoia is not contained to New York, it seems all encompassing.

Once that section of the film ends we’ve been pretty well introduced to everything driving Beau mad and we spend the second half of the film trying to get to the bottom of why he’s such a basket case.  Short answer: his mother fucked him up, and continues to fuck him up… or does she?  We get a number of flashbacks to Beau’s teen years which tell a story of a young man whose father allegedly died before he was born from a heart murmur that killed him on his wedding night right as he conceived this son, leaving him to be raised by his high achieving but over-bearing mother who may well have latched onto him a bit too strongly to the point where there may have been some sort of incestuous feelings or abuse going on.  But this is hard to really determine definitively because Beau is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: he’s a guy who seems to view the entire world as a surreal hellscape filled with people who want to kill him for no particular reason and we have no real way of knowing if he’s viewing his own past and his mother any more or less objectively in these various flashbacks.  And of course with one exception nothing scares Beau more than sex, something he thinks will literally kill him like it allegedly killed his father, though it’s hard to know if that story isn’t just another manifestation of his paranoia and flashbacks to his time on a cruise ship where he makes a fleeting connection to a girl his own age seem to mark some sort of turning point where he definitively set himself in his ways.

In the film’s third quarter we get something of a highlight in which Beau stumbles into this elaborate outdoor theater where  a troupe is putting on some sort of makeshift play that Beau seems to connect with and start envision as his own story.  At this point the set decoration of the stage becomes cinematic and combines with animation to become this story within a story that’s meant to really probe into the hopes and dreams of this guy who can only dream of having something resembling a normal life in a sort biblical parable about a man who goes through nearly Job like trials.  That digression is eventually rather violently interrupted and from there things just become increasingly bleak as the film’s final fourth focuses on the real or imagined logical endpoint of all Beau’s worries and tries to find definitive answers to what made him the way he is.  I said before that nothing scares Beau more than sex, but that maybe isn’t quite true, the thing that really scares him above all is the disapproval of his mother and the film’s final episode is meant to represent the logical endpoint of this.  Where there may be some grain of logic in being afraid of urban crime or traumatized soldiers there isn’t really any mortal danger to be found in maternal disapproval is there?  After all, what is Mona Wasserman going to do if she’s angry at him?  Fake her death in order to entrap him failing to appear at her funeral in time as revenge for missing a visit and then publicly reveal him as a bad son in front of a kangaroo court before drowning him under a capsized boat?  Seems like a pretty far-fetched dander to be in fear of but is it any more or less likely to happen than getting bitten by a brown recluse spider in a New York apartment?

Alright, so that covers much of the film’s runtime but maybe it’s time to take a step back and talk about what this movie even is.  The film feels almost entirely different from the pair of horror movies that Ari Aster built his career on.  I guess there are similar “mother issues” at the center of Hereditary and some of Patti LuPone’s line deliveries did remind me a bit of Toni Collette’s performance in that, but otherwise they’re pretty different.  This isn’t a horror movie and it doesn’t have the tone of something like Midsommer at all.  Instead this actually reminded me a lot more of the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly his more “out there” directorial efforts like Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, not just in the film’s batshit audacity but also in that it is very interested in getting in the head of a lonely and kind of schlubby middle aged protagonist who maybe has a bit of a screw loose.  That is perhaps a bit of a surprise coming from the 36 year old Aster, who’s at least a decade younger than his protagonist.  How personal any of this is is going to be a bit of a mystery as Beau doesn’t really seem like that much of a self-insert given what we know about Aster personally.  He’s plainly more successful than Beau, he didn’t have a single mother, and his parents were by all accounts artsy types rather than successful business people… but all of this has to be coming from somewhere right?

One thing that Beau does seem to have in common with Aster is Jewish identity, which is something the film doesn’t make too big of a deal out of but given the name I’m pretty sure that the Wassermanns are supposed to be Jewish and there is a pretty key reference to Jewish burial ritual.  That would by extension make Mona Wassermann a Jewish mother, which is of course something of a loaded stock figure and stereotype, which can make this a bit of a touchy subject for a goyim like me to talk about but it’s definitely something that’s embedded in the film.  The Wikipedia page on “Jewish stenotypes” describes this archetype as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering which she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”  Think of the nagging woman at the center of Woody Allen’s New York Stories short “Oedipus Wrecks” in which the protagonist’s mother is such a nag that she continues to criticize him as a supernatural apparition after she disappears in a magic trick accident.  But where Allen and other Jewish entertainers have harnessed this stereotype as a source of humor over the years Aster seems to be painting this tendency as a more serious bordering on abusive tendencies that have left Beau with genuine scars, especially given his other paranoid tendencies.

On the other hand, given how much of an unreliable narrator Beau is it’s entirely possible that his mother isn’t really anything close to the manipulative and conniving bitch she’s depicted as being in Beau’s head.  In fact I think it’s entirely plausible that nothing we see of this woman beyond the initial phone call to her “actually” happened outside of Beau’s head.  In fact the movie is so aggressively surreal that most of what happens in it can be said to be in Beau’s head and it’s unclear how much if anything on screen is “real,” and that could likely be a source of frustration for many.  Three hours is a very long time to expect people to live in the head of a paranoid weirdo so the movie is kind of asking a lot of its viewers and some of its abstractions are a little hard to swallow.  The animatronic killer cock monster, for example, was probably a bit much.  But the bigger issue is that the movie somehow manages to be both cinematically cryptic while also being kind of blatantly obvious and unsubtle at the same time.  It asks you to dig through this guy’s psyche and what you find at the center are in many ways just Freudian clichés about mommy issues and sexual hang-ups.

So is the movie even any good?  I don’t know, this kind of feels like a ridiculous movie to boil down to a simple “thumbs up or thumbs down” and even as I write the final paragraph of this I don’t really know what star rating I’m going to give the damn thing.  It’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average moviegoer, and even among the more dedicated cinephilles I’m pretty sure this one is going to be divisive, including among fans of Aster’s previous work.  Personally, I don’t know, it’s hard for me not to at least be intrigued by something that’s this ambitious and adventurous being put up on the screen and there were definitely moments of cinematic invention in it like that “play within a film” scene that had me riveted.  On the other hand I do think the running time is legitimately out of control and I’m not sure the psychology underpinning all of this really holds up.  Insomuch as it does hold up I think there’s something interesting being said about what a state of perpetual fear does to people.  As I’m writing this we’re going through a wave of high profile news stories about people getting shot at for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving into the wrong driveway, and the Fox Newses of the world are going out of their way to cause a state of maximum paranoia in this country and in that context something like this could be useful, but in this movie the paranoia is so directly personalized to this one dude’s baggage that I’m not sure it really says much about fear within the wider society like that.  But I’ve been talking about this movie for well over 2000 words at this point so clearly it provoked thoughts and I do think this is a movie that should be seen even if only for everyone to compare notes.
***1/2 out of Five

April Round-Up 2023 – Part 2


Outside of Studio Ghibli there doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of overlap between the world of anime and the world of “normal” cinema.  There are some exceptions here and there however and among the bigger names in cinematic anime these days     Makoto Shinkai, who scored a major international hit with the 2016 film Your Name but who hasn’t quite managed to turn himself into a real brand and his follow-up film Weathering With You never really managed to catch fire in quite the same way despite have plenty of strong qualities in its own right.  His latest film Suzume seems have also had trouble breaking out, possibly because it has kind of a boring title, which is unfortunate because like Weathering With You it’s really not that big of a drop from Shinkai’s hit and probably deserves to have more eyes on it.  I suppose another issue it has is that it’s kind of a hard movie to describe in a logline.  It’s basically about a girl who encounters a mysterious door in an abandoned building that reveals a portal to another world and after seeing it she starts having visions of monsters escaping from similar portals and has to travel around Japan shutting them down, accompanied by this other guy who knows more about all this but has been turned into a chair by a magical cat… yeah, trust me, it makes more sense when you’re actually watching it.  Like Shinkai’s last two films this has some really amazing animation that captures the real world in meticulous detail and also manages to have fantastical elements interact with it in seamless ways.  Also like those last films however the whole thing as a very teenage adolescent attitude and sensibility that some will have more patience for than others.  I guess my one over-riding complaint is that it feels like Shinkai has now made three very similar movies in a row, and while all three are good there is a sense of a magic trick losing some of its luster after a certain number of repetitions.  I hope that in his future work Shinkai expands himself a bit and maybe tries making something that doesn’t have a moody teenager at its center.
***1/2 out of Five


After the “Dark Universe” fell apart Universal decided they were going to take a less… cynical… approach to monetizing their “monsters” asset and would make individual disconnected movies aimed at adults and relevant to the modern world out of these characters.  Sounds like the right approach and their first effort in this venture, the Blumhouse co-produced 2020 version of The Invisible Man, was a pretty good example of how this could work.  That movie was pretty serious minded but for their next attempt they seem to have gone in the other direction and made a rather splattery comedy from the perspective of a deep-cut character from Dracula named Renfield.  Pretty much the second I saw the movie’s trailer I was pretty sure it would divide people: mass audiences would be alienated and stay away but that the movie was also likely to find something of a cult following that would dig it.  On some level that seems to have happened and yet I also suspect that the advertising might have been a little too honest and what would have been an unexpected surprise has turned out to be a rather expected one.  The film follows Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), a familiar for Dracula (Nicholas Cage) who’s been tasked with finding victims for his master in modern day New Orleans and is beginning to have a crisis of conscience about this.  There’s definitely some clever stuff to be found here like a prologue that re-enacts some of the famous sequences from the 1931 Dracula and I quite enjoyed Akwafina as a city police officer trying to take down a brutal gang that eventually becomes involved in Dracula’s plan for world conquest.  However there are other elements of the film that kind of feel like they were a bit out of date.  Some of the film’s gory but comical violence might have come as more of a shock five to then years ago but such imagery is starting to feel commonplace in movies like this.  I also think we’re getting a little done with Nicholas Cage’s shtick at this point, especially in movies like this which seem to be tailored around his over the top wackiness.  Cage is better when it feels like his wilder instincts are kind of invading an otherwise unsuspecting movie, but movies like this where everything else seems to be just as over the top as him kind of just feel desperate.  But I don’t want to be too negative here as I do think this has more going for it than the average Hollywood release and there is fun to be had with it, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential either.

*** out of Five

Evil Dead Rise(4/27/2023)

The Evil Dead franchise is unique in a lot of ways.  For one, it’s very much a cult success that has seemingly risen to mainstream popularity only much later than its original (and best) installments were made independently.  Even more odd is that it’s one of the few horror series that’s more defined by its hero than its villain.  Even beloved “final girl” horror protagonists like Laurie Strode and Ellen Ripley aren’t really as iconic as the image of the murderers they faced in their films but I do think Ash as a character kind of eclipses the “deadites” and that has been a complication as they try to make the series survive even as Bruce Campbell has ceased to really be viable as the star of a major studio motion picture.  Recasting is not really an option but putting a potentially “corny” sixty year old at the center of your movie probably isn’t going to work with “the kids” either.  They tried doing a the “big budget remake” approach with 2013’s Evil Dead and that movie was, okay.  I kind of dug it and its aggressive bloodletting and thought they did a decent job of replicating that first movie with a bigger budget.  The new movie has a title and trailer that suggest that it’s going in a different direction this time but in a lot of ways it’s kind of just doing the same thing that 2013 movie is: making a more serious horror remake of that first movie but with a bigger budget.  This difference of course is that this one is set in a run down apartment rather than a cabin in the woods but that’s not really as substantial a difference as you might think, they’re both still contained locations for a claustrophobic fight with the forces of evil.

The other big difference here is that rather than a group of college students the people at the center of this movie are a family, which is an interesting idea but also kind of a double edged sword.  On one hand the movie does a really good job of establishing this family and getting you invested in them and their various foibles and quirks but on the other hand maybe it does too good of a job at this?  Like, to the point where it becomes kind of a bummer when the bloodletting starts since you don’t particularly want these people to become victims of a zombification curse.  There’s a reason that the teenagers in the Friday the 13th movies are made to be these shallow and vapid creatures played by actors who are obviously pushing thirty, it makes it a lot more fun to root for Jason to murder them.  The teenagers here look like actual children and they seem like good people as well so there isn’t a lot of fun to be had with watching them get possessed, which could be very effective in some other contexts but the Evil Dead movies are not really supposed to disturb you they’re kind of supposed to be the “fun” kind of horror to varying degrees even when they’re not going full horror comedy like they did with some of the later Bruce Campbell ones.  But that concern aside this is a well-made flick with some quality gore and neat little set-pieces and I think most horror fans are going to want to give it a look but it wasn’t really the full revitalization I was hoping for.
*** out of Five