Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

THE CELLIST: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky
2017 / BBP Films / 103m / $24/.95 / NR
Lovers of classical music will have a feast with this biography of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. I confess I’d never heard of him before but he was quite renowned and even dubbed by many as the greatest string player of all time – it bears noting that a plethora of string performers lived before recordings could be made so “of all time” can scarcely be considered a definitive conclusion. He was certainly an exceptional musician even at an early age. Born 1903 into an impoverished Ukrainian family he was encouraged to take up music by his father and settled on the cello because he liked the look of it. He was playing with a group called the Beethoven Quartet when the revolution occurred (he was 13 at the time) and the group was forced to rename itself the Lenin Quartet (supposedly Lenin himself told Piatigorsky that Beethoven was more appropriate but the new designation stuck). Two years later he auditioned for and was chosen as the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Ballet. He wanted to study in Berlin but was forbidden to leave Russia so he smuggled himself out. Playing in a café to earn money he was heard by Wilhelm Furtwängler who hired him to be the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic (he was still a teenager!).Image result for the cellist the legacy of gregor piatigorsky
With the Nazis taking over Europe he and his second wife took off from France for the USA where his career continued to be exceptional. He performed with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and formed a group with Arthur Rubinstein (piano) and Jasha Heifitz (violin) that was referred to as “the millon dollar trio” and toured extensively. Composers, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, William Walton, Vernon Duke, and Igor Stravinsky created cello works for him. (How is it I’d never heard of the man? Maybe because died in 1976 – the same year he gave his last performance – which is about the same time I was becoming immersed in classical music?) He lived an amazing life which is lovingly documented here. His musicianship is attested to by the likes of cellist Yo Yo Ma and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. There are abundant clips of Piatigorsky performing (and teaching) and my only complaint is that they are all too brief. Fortunately there’s a wealth of his performances on YouTube. Luscious stuff. I suggest you check them out after watching this film.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS
1932 / Alpha Video / 88m / $6.98 / NR
Frank Borzage is one of the great Hollywood Golden Age directors of whom you’ve likely never heard. But I’m guessing if you checked out his IMDb page you’d spot a number of titles that prompt an “Oh, I love that film!” amongst his 107 credits from 1913 to 1961 (when he was replaced by Edgar G. Ulmer on “Journey Beneath the Desert”). He may be Hollywood’s only true romantic and his lush, eclectic style resulted in films you don’t so much watch as sink into. There’s “7th Heaven” from the silent years and “Little Man What Now”, “History is Made at Night”, “Strange Cargo” and “The Mortal Storm” and so much more from the 1930s and 40s. He was the first director to win the Oscar. Reportedly his heavy drinking resulted in his bouncing from studio to studio in the sound era and his career was in tatters by the 1950s (following a stay at Republic Pictures – quite a fall from Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel was made for Paramount at a time when Gary Cooper was not yet craggy and was often found in a tuxedo (hence the line in Cole Porter’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz”). Here he’s in uniform as Frederic, a World War I ambulance driver who meets and promptly falls in love with English nurse Catherine (Helen Hayes). Frederic’s superior, Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou, slimy as always), who also has the hots for Catherine, has him reassigned but he’s injured and ends up in her care. She becomes pregnant and goes off to Switzerland to have the baby; Frederic goes AWOL to find her and, well, love doesn’t exactly conquer all.Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Borzage was an odd choice to direct Hemingway’s cynical work and he transformed the story into one about the imperishability of love. Hemingway reportedly disliked the results (purists may want to steer clear). Visually the film is lush – as much a compliment to the production design (by Roland Anderson and Hans Drier) and camerawork (Charles Lang) as it is to Borzage whose innovative approach to camerawork and lighting make this film look unlike any other Paramount production of the period (except maybe those of Josef von Sternberg) . You can tell the director learned his craft in the silent era; the compositions are arresting, often Expressionist, and advance the story as well as being striking – there’s almost no need for spoken dialogue. Borzage was one of the great visual stylists of Hollywood and his films were often spiritual as well as romantic – see especially “Strange Cargo”. (Thank goodness Alpha has a gorgeous print so the visuals can be fully appreciated.) But Borzage isn’t loathe to get gritty as in the montage depicting Frederic’s harrowing journey through war-torn Europe. If there is a weak spot it is the vapid performance of Hayes who’s simply vapid (it’s clear why her early attempt mat a Hollywood career went nowhere). Cooper may have had a limited range but he could do sincere like nobody’s business and that’s essentially what’s required of him here, And Menjou is… well… Menjou. If you need an introduction to the director this is a fine, economical place to start.

ROJO
2018 / Icarus Films / 109m / $26.98 /NR
Prepare for a verrrry sloooow burn – not to mention an initially puzzling one – if you decide to tackle this Argentine thriller. The opening long shot is of a house from which people emerge carrying household goods; this continues for awhile and a man enters the place. The next scene takes place in a restaurant where lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) waits for his wife. A rude younger man (Diego Cremonesi) insists he should get the table because he is ready to order, not waiting. Claudio finally gives up the table but lectures the man on his bad manners until the man responds violently and is escorted from the place. When Claudio and his wife leave the establishment they again encounter the man who shoots at them but then puts a bullet through his head. Claudio tells his wife he’s going to take the man to a specialist but instead dumps him (dead? dying?) in the desert. Some months later Claudio is approached by a friend to act as a straw man in a slightly shady real estate deal involving the house from the prologue. Said friend also reveals he has hired a detective to try locating his wife’s brother who went missing a little while ago. Guess who?Darío Grandinetti and Diego Cremonesi in Rojo (2018)
The tension only begins at about the halfway point with the detectives’ (Alfredo Castro) visits to Claudio. They seem low key but his questions clearly infer he strongly suspects the lawyer’s culpability. But even in this portion of the film writer / director Benjamín Naishtat retains a dispassionate approach, saving all for the final confrontation between the two men. It’s a helluva scene though I’m not certain it quite compensates for a film whose sense of menace is ever present but well below the surface – just as the lawyer and his friend (and others) keep their corruption hidden under the veneer of respectability. That’s hardly a new message either but it is one that bears repeating. And here it’s set in the last days of the Peron regime when people simply disappeared frequently (the owners of that empty house were simply gone one day) – and would continue to do so under the equally corrupt regime that followed the coup. Disappearing is a leitmotif here, from a cheesy magician’s act to a sequence involving a solar eclipse. The political climate of the time is only mentioned in passing throughout but the information in the final scene – that the coup is rumored to happen that night – sets up a highly ambiguous ending. There is much to admire here but the pacing might make it a rough slog for some.

TIM HEIDECKER: MISTER AMERICA
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 88m / $26.98 / R
Not all political campaigns are successful and you can be 95% certain from the very first few minutes of this film that Tim Heidecker’s is going to bomb spectacularly. The candidate is also his own staff as he goes door to door collecting signatures to get on the ballot running for district attorney of San Bernardino county. He’s never studied law but he did represent himself in a trial for the murder of several people from tainted marijuana vape (a hung jury set him free) and his sole reason for running is revenge against the D.A. who prosecuted him. The judge who presided is interviewed and declares that Heidecker turned the courtroom into a circus with his bizarre behavior and video footage of the trial bears this out. His behavior as a candidate is no less outre and on occasion even illegal (a camera put down but not turned off reveals he and his campaign manager forging signatures to the petition). He’s too stupid to grasp how stupid he is (when the election supervisors spot the chicanery and refuse to put him on the ballot he asks if the election can be delayed until he corrects things). Image result for TIM HEIDECKER: MISTER AMERICA
You might feel sorry for this schlub until more and more xenophobic garbage comes out of his mouth (his attempts to connect with voters of color are hilarious and cringe inducing) and his displays of anger non-management display his lack of fitness for being a public servant. He comes completely unglued when his co-host of On Cinema at the Cinema shows up at his sparsely attended town hall and peppers him with questions about the vapes. (Said co-host insists Heidecker’s campaign is a virtual remake of “The Shaggy D.A.”) By the time he gets to his congratulations phone call to his opponent, which transforms into a vicious, profanity-laden rant against the man, I was glad we had one less moron in office. Which thankfully could never have been the case because this is a goof – a satirical mockumetary played so straight – and so realistically close to its obvious character inspiration – you’ll be suckered in if you don’t know that in advance because it’s more WTF? than LOL.

WRINKLES THE CLOWN
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 70m / $26.98 / NR
I don’t know quite what to make of this documentary – or is it a mockumentary? – and the only way to explain why necessitates SPOILERS, so you might not wish to proceed with this review. Some few years before this two year old documentary was made a video went viral depicting a ghastly looking clown emerging from the drawer under the bed of a sleeping little girl. Now I’m not one who suffers from Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns (yes I Googled it; I didn’t know that word off the top of my head) – but it’s a pretty creepy bit of footage supposedly captured by a security camera. This was followed in time by more videos of Wrinkles stalking through back yards, peering in windows and so forth, freaking out the occupants. This much at least is fact as is the appearance in Florida and some other southern states of stickers with a photo of Wrinkles and a phone number. Word spread that this hideous clown – purportedly a retired gent bored by having too much time on his hands – was for hire to scare naughty children into good behavior. And Wrinkles apparently doesn’t even have to make a personal appearance; we are treated to voicemails of parents calling the clown’s cell with the sound of their tots wailing in protest. (A psychologist shows up briefly to assert that, yes, this is child abuse.)Image result for wrinkles the clown movie
Wrinkles was tracked down and agreed to be interviewed so long as his face was blurred out. He lives out of his RV – the better I assume to travel throughout the south fulfilling his mission. Except it isn’t Wrinkles at all but an actor impersonating Wrinkles. (I had my suspicions while watching “Wrinkles” smearing some sort of red substance on a wall and on his mask that some persiflage was afoot.) Something like 10 minutes before the end the real Wrinkles (supposedly) shows up, backlit in silhouette to explain all the videos were just that and, no, he doesn’t get hired out by parents. So is the reason for this documentary to school us not to trust everything on the world wide web? (We do after all know about the activities of those Russian troll farms.) It could explain the footage of young people doing the Bloody Mary thing with Wrinkles’ name and the extensive footage of overweight children and their fascination with Wrinkles. There’s more of this than seems necessary, especially since neither child is very interesting (and how much of this was staged for the cameras?). It feels like padding to take about 30 minutes of subject to over an hour. And if the point is not to take everything on the internet at face value – and possibly not even what’s presented in this documentary – what we may have is a filmmaker with a subject and no idea what to do with it. I confess I don’t know which conclusion to make.

KING KONG (1933)
Early warning: The original 1933 “King Kong” is roaring and rampaging its way back to movie screens across the country this March. Fathom Events and the TCM Big Screen Classics series are giving the legendary adventure its first nationwide theatrical release since the early 1970s when it was presented for the first time since its original run with its censored scenes restored. More than 600 movie theaters across the country will play King Kong for one day only: Sunday, March 15.
“Kong” is perhaps not a great movie but its technical achievements were groundbreaking and still look mighty impressive. It’s still the greatest stop-motion movie ever made. For those of you who don’t understand the term it refers to taking jointed, scale model models (the Kong puppet was about 18 inches in height), placing them in scale model sets (and/or melding them with live action footage) and animating them by moving the models slightly and shooting a single frame of film – and then moving them a bit again and exposing another frame. Lather, rinse, repeat. Tedious, time consuming work that can give the illusion of life. Just how successful an illusion depends on the skill of the animator and few can rival the great Willis O’Brien. Admittedly he did not personally do all the animating but even his assistants, when working for others or on their own, didn’t accomplish the sense of life achieved here. You believe Kong and the various dinosaurs are living creatures.Fay Wray and King Kong in King Kong (1933)
And supporting the astonishing technical work is Max Steiner’s magnificent score – rivaled only by his “She” and one of the earliest full scores for a talkie (producers initially scorned them because they fear audiences would wonder where the music was coming from). Thundering and Stravinskiesque it caused Oscar Levant to claim the film was a Steiner concert… with pictures.
The cast is B-list – though Fay Wray was having a good run at the time; “Kong” was one of 11 films she made in 1933. Robert Armstrong was more often a supporting player and often a villainous one (his Carl Denham is no choirboy) and Bruce Cabot – whose heavy drinking would scuttle his career – was making his film debut. The script by Ruth Rose is admirable for its economy in setting things up without lengthy exposition. The first line has a character inquire “Is this the moving picture ship?” and within a few more lines we find out that it contains the filmmaker known for walking up to a lion and telling it to smile pretty for the camera. Denham’s occupation and character are fully sketched out in a brief exchange. The writing may seem bare bones but achieving such simplicity is no easy task.
You’ve probably seen “King Kong”, possibly multiple times. But you haven’t really seen it until you’ve seen it on the big screen where its spectacle can be properly appreciated. Don’t pass up the opportunity.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

OLIVIA
1951 / Icarus Films / 96m / $29.98 / NR
Back in the day films were very, very subtle in any depiction of LGBTQ subjects. Even pre-Code Hollywood would only infer (as in Joyzelle’s notorious dance in “Sign of the Cross”) or smirk (as when Al Jolson quipped “Boys will be boys” as two men swept past his dance stand). Examples of minor characters having gay subtext or hints are rife throughout cinema (see the book and documentary “Celluloid Closet”) but for a U.S. film to tackle such a thing as its main topic just wasn’t done. Even “The Children’s Hour” (which author Lillian Hellman always insisted was about a lie not lesbianism even though the lie was about just that and turned out to be partially true) was altered to have the lie about a threesome and even had its title changed to “These Three” when it came to the screen in 1936. Europe was a bit bolder. In 1919, just before he ascended to stardom playing the contents of “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari / The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Conrad Veidt tackled the subject head on in “Anders als die Andern / Different than the Others”. With changing political winds in Germany 1931’s “Mädchen in Uniform”, about a schoolgirl falling in love with her teacher, is somewhat more circumspect as is this French film, tackling the same subject – to the extent it’s nearly a remake – from two decades later. Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) arrives at an exclusive and very well-respected girl’s boarding school run by Mlle. Julie (the sublime Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon) who is nigh perpetually suffering some illness or other and only rarely leaves her fainting couch.
The latter is annoyed that all the students favor the former – and given she’s a whiny, ill-tempered sort who almost never seems to teach a class it’s little wonder. Olivia also is soon enamored – and maybe somewhat more – of Mlle. Julie and in constant confusion as to whether being the teacher’s new favorite means her feeling are being reciprocated. There’s little more to the plot than that; Mlle. Julie sometimes seems more than a doting teacher to a promising student and other times cold and stern. Until a final revelatory speech from Julie the film is ambiguous as to whether the teacher is equally smitten and pulling back from a forbidden alliance not to mention just what her sexual preference might be. This is a quiet film with little in the way of overt drama save Cara’s outbutrsts and while its basic story may be about the relationship between Julie and Olivia it doesn’t neglect the supporting characters. There’s a wonderful running subplot involving the school’s cook and a math teacher who can never seem to get enough food, for instance. The supporting and minor characters are beautifully drawn and wonderfully acted, though the chief honors go to the exquisite Fuilliere in a graceful and nuanced performance. Exquisitely photographed (this restoration really deserves a BluRay release) and delicately directed by Jacqueline Audry and adapted by Colette Audry from Dorothy Bussy’s novel, this is a rich and vibrant film.

SAFETY LAST
1923 / Alpha Video / 72m / $5.98
Harold Lloyd has been termed one of the big three of silent film comedy, grouped with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. (There really should be a big four that includes Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy if you ask me.) Of the trio I’d put Keaton at the top with Lloyd right behind – I realize I’m in a minority ranking Chaplin last (even behind Laurel and Hardy for that matter) but that’s my ranking and I’m sticking to it. Both Keaton and Lloyd specialized in building comedy from dangerous stunts; Keaton’s were sometimes the more intricate while Lloyd’s were more overtly daredevil. This may be Lloyd’s most famous film courtesy of the iconic image of him hanging from a clockface seemingly many stories above the ground. Reasearch a while back revealed that the Hal Roach studio, where Lloyd worked at the time, was on a hill overlooking the city and so the building edifice constructed there created a trick perspective of being very high up. Lloyd was still in some danger should he fall but it wouldn’t have been from the dizzying height that it seemed. (There is some footage of Lloyd’s character – billed simple as “The Boy” and called Harold throughout – climbing a real, very tall building but that’s most likely a stunt double.) More impressive to me is a sequence of Lloyd, attempting to get to work on time, leaping onto and off a variety of moving conveyances, much of it probably not choreographed in advance but created in real traffic. Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)
The plot is the basic one of The Boy doing what he must to win The Girl (Mildred Davis). He hies off to the big city to become a success but doesn’t progress much further than clerking in a store for $15.00 a week. His letters back home make him out to be a much bigger deal than he is however so when The Girl decides to make a surprise visit he has to go through an elaborate charade to make her think he’s the general manager of the store rather than a lowly employee (and one whose continued employment is in some danger). This is the least successful portion if the film because Harold just comes off as a jerk. When he overhears the manager offer $1000 for any scheme that will bring publicity to the store he offers to climb the building to its roof. His actual plan is to climb a single story and then be substituted by his roommate (Bill Strother), whose climbing abilities were revealed early on, but things of course go awry and he keeps having to climb “just one more story” before the transfer can be accomplished. The clock is the most famous of Harold’s challenges but he’s also beset by a flock of pigeons (something that again can’t have been rehearsed in advance) and a mouse traveling up his pant leg. Because the opening titles were so clean and sharp I was expecting a far better print than the grainy but acceptable presentation that followed. There are better ones out there but you’re going to pay more, especially if your pocketbook can handle Criterion price tags.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, Season Two
2019 / CBS Home Entertainment, Paramount / 710m (4 discs) / $49.99 / NR
In the interest of full disclosure I’ve been a fan of “Star Trek” since its initial airing on NBC beginning in 1966 (even if I professed to having been a mere baby at the time I would still be that old). Got jazzed and then somewhat disappointed when it hit the big screen (the expanded version created for later TV showing is a major improvement) and didn’t really lose interest until partway through “Voyager” (too many series in too short a time led to a degree of overload). But aside from the recent film reboots (which I’ve enjoyed for the casts while having some issues with placing it in some alternate universe for no particularly good reason) there’s been no “Star Trek” for a long, long time so naturally I was interested in this new series. I requested the first season but I suppose interest was high and I was low on the totem pole because I didn’t receive a review copy so I had some major catching up to do – and I’m still uncertain I got fully up to speed with some of the characters (what’s up with the redheaded helmswoman who looks like early stage Borg?). The show is set ten years before the “classic” series so in this season it’s Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount), still alive and not disfigured, in charge for most of the season. But the show really revolves around Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Saru (Doug Jones) who have continued from the first year. Jones is apparently a fan of being in prosthetics, particularly in the films of Guillermo delToro for whom he portrayed the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the gill man in “The Shape of Water”. Here, as an alien species, he’s one again buried under makeup.Doug Jones, Anson Mount, David Benjamin Tomlinson, Rachael Ancheril, Sonequa Martin-Green, and Sean Connolly Affleck in Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
The conceit of the series is to do year-long story arca and this one involves the sighting of emergency beacons that cause Discovery to investigate and prevent various calamities. At most of them a winged humanoid is sighted (Mothman on “Star Trek”? Well, no; it’s not a spoiler to reveal that such is not the case.) In one episode a gigantic entity of some sort is encountered and it downloads all the knowledge from its millennias of travels through the universe (no it isn’t V’ger). An artificial intelligence known as Control wants that information so it can rule the universe – though as it apparently plans to eliminate all sentient life I’m not sure what’s left to rule. Naturally the beacons, the winged being and Control have intersecting plot lines and there are various character driven stories interwoven. My main concerns are the quick cutting and shaky camerawork sometimes employed for action scenes – it doesn’t make things more exciting, it makes them more confusing (in fact I barely followed the first episode at all) – and the design and technology of the Discovery and other Starfleet vessels. I know going back to the look of the original series would have been quaint if not downright corny but this ship makes the first Enterprise look like a Model T… or maybe a horse and buggy (and what’s with this spore drive that allows the ship to jump across the galaxy?). I do like the cast, which includes Michelle Yeoh as a character, working for some sort of Starfleet dark ops unit, whose loyalties are ambiguous. And let’s have a shout-out for the series finally having out gay and lesbian characters.

TO BE OF SERVICE
2019 / First Run Features / 88m / $24.95 /NR
When we think of service animals the first thing that probably comes to mind are seeing eye dogs. But dogs – amazing creatures that they are – are capable of much more in the way of assistance. I once met a fellow whose canine was capable of detecting when his blood sugar would spike or plummet. And over the past several years we’ve all been hearing more and more about dogs (and other critters) as emotional support animals. Anyone who has pets knows just how much they give us emotionally. This documentary focuses on emotional service dogs for service men and women. A half million American veterans suffer from PTSD. The affliction is not a new one though the designation is; in WWI it was called shell shock and following WWII it was called battle fatigue. The Lakota term for it was “the spirits left” and during the Civil War it was termed the Soldier’s Heart; many vets are fond of that sobriquet because it signifies that the heart has been broken. After years of disappointing outcomes from VA treatments, usually involving a raft of drugs (some of the vets here are shown to be taking dozens of medications a day) service dogs are having positive results. One reason is obvious: If you have a pet you’ve got something to concern you other than yourself. And service dogs need not only the usual stuff – feeding, grooming, walkies – they need constant reinforcement of their training as well. The bond is – and has to be – even stronger than the usual human/canine one. In fact the first step of the process has the dog essentially choose its human.Image result for to be of service movie
Some VA doctors recommend service dogs but the VA will not cover the cost, which can be several thousand dollars. The dogs have to get extensive training (and not just in “Heel” and “Sit”) and a determination of whether they inherently posses such special skills as detecting such things as changes in blood sugar levels. Vets must either raise the funds themselves or go on a long waiting list for dogs funded by private donors. While all the vets interviewed for this documentary attest to how much better they’re coping with their PTSD since acquiring their service dogs the film is at its best with the few it follows from before they are matched with their canine and we can see the improvement. (It’s possible the same could occur if just any pooch was picked up from the ASPCA but there would be limitations on where an uncertified four-legged companion could be taken.) One touching scene has a vet unpacking the half dozen or so Amazon boxes of things he’s ordered for his new furry friend – food and water bowls, toys and grooming items. We have had 220 years of armed conflict since our nation was founded 244 years ago. Here’s a few statistics about where we are today:
15 – 20% returning vets have PTSD… even more have psychological problems (and while it’s not dwelt on here, some have addiction issues both from self-medicating and as a result of the various drugs they are prescribed).
82% have fewer PTSD symptoms after getting service dog. 40% reduce their meds. A multi-year study by the VA has not yet determined benefits of service dogs and it continues to reject the cost even while vets are given an astonishing amount of pharmaceuticals that have to cost a pretty penny.
And one final sobering fact:
22 veterans kill themselves every day. Every. Day.

TRICK
2019 / RLJE Film / 101m / $28.9 BR / NR
I will make no claims as to this film being great – except to fans of slasher films (and I confess I am mostly not) – but it brings enough new twists to that subgenre to make it worthwhile for all horror and thriller aficionados. The Trick of the title is the nickname for Patrick (Thom Niemann) a previously affable enough fellow who abruptly and inexplicably goes on a killing rampage at a Halloween party, taking out an astonishing number of his fellow students before meeting up with the business end of a fireplace poker. (The final revelation of the film gives a secondary meaning to the title.) He escapes from the hospital, diving from a high window and apparently plunges into an icy river after being riddled with bullets by Thom Niemann (Omar Epps) and Sheriff Lisa Jayne (Ellen Adair). He must be most sincerely dead… but is he? The following year, in a town directly downriver another massacre occurs and a year later, further down, there’s another. Neimann and Jayne are posed with the puzzle of whether Trick has somehow survived or if a copycat is in play; in either case the killer is playing a cat and mouse game with them, deliberately challenging them to stop the serial mass murders before Cheryl (Kristina Reyes), the young woman who gored him becomes a victim.
Okay, the logic here may be a tad lacking and the ultimate twist a bit of a stretch but there’s a lot of good here, particularly for a film with a tight budget. Whatever the financial limitations were, they are only obvious from the cast of mostly unknowns. Epps, Kennedy and Tom Atkins (who’s always a pleasure to watch) are the only names here – and they possibly only for genre fans. The performances, however, are pluperfect down to the smallest roles. Technically the film is flawless; photography and editing are excellent as is the direction by Patrick Lussier (who has a history of B level horror on his resume, with “Scream 2” and “Scream 3” being the best known to the general public); the tension never lags. The gore is explicit and abundant but not dwelt on to gross-out extremes. He and Todd Farmer (“Drive Angry” and the remake of “My Bloody Valentine”) have crafted a screenplay with smart, naturalistic dialogue. This is also the rare slasher that works even better on a second viewing, after you know the surprise (which is frightening in its implications). As with any good genre outing the goods are delivered while new ideas are presented. Horror fans should have a blast with this one.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ADOPT A HIGHWAY
2019 / RLJE Films / 81m / $29.97 BR / NR
If your taste runs to quiet, character driven films you will be hard pressed to find them at your local cinema (Scorcese is right). That’s why this production – starring the criminally underrated Ethan Hawke – bypassed the multiplexes entirely and went straight to home video. There’s really no other explanation for its DTV status because it’s excellent, perceptive and will quite likely break your heart even while it uplifts you. Hawke portrays the adult version of Russell, a teenager sent to jail for “possession with intent to distribute” an ounce of marijuana. Twenty some years later he’s finally paroled back into the world, socially inept and unversed in such things as the internet. He gains a job washing dishes at a diner and one night, when taking out the trash he discovers a baby girl abandoned in the dumpster. Uncertain what to do he takes her back to his motel room but after a day he realizes he is completely clueless what to do with her (he feeds her from condiment packets left over from his fast food take-homes). But then he only just about knows how to care for himself. He turns baby Ella in to Children and Youth but this opens him to police investigation because of his criminal background, which causes him to lose his job. No good deed goes unpunished. Telling you much more would do a disservice to your enjoyment of a beautifully crafted production but I’ll note that Russell’s discovery of the baby is only the first step of his rediscovering social interaction and Hawkes’ interactions with the baby (not CGI or animatronic) are lovely – and given babies are unpredictable I’m betting there was a good deal of improvisation.
Now I do have a few problems with the film. Russell has not been in solitary confinement during his two plus decades behind bars, he has been able to interact with other inmates, so his social clumsiness stretches credulity – and as that is the basis for the story, marking the beginning of the man’s journey, that is no small problem. Beyond that I’m pretty sure there’s internet in the jug (how else did Paul Manafort stay in touch with his lawyers?) and I find it unlikely he would not have been informed of his father’s death or that, before he was locked up in his late teens he never experienced an amusement park. Those caveats aside the film works thanks to an amazing performance from Hawke giving his everything to flesh out a minimalist script That’s not a criticism; it details everything it needs to – and there’s much to be said for writing that allows the actors and the viewer to fill in the blanks – and because Russell’s dialogue is so sparse there’s impact when he starts communicating to Ella and later has halting conversation with a somewhat goofy fellow bus passenger (Elaine Hendrix). Ultimately however the reason you need to see this movie is because of Hawkes. I don’t know why this man isn’t A-list but perhaps we should be glad he’s not because he’d probably be part of the Marvel Universe instead of taking on quiet small scale projects such as this that stick with you and say something about humankind and humanity. You will ache at his awkwardness and his poverty level existence and when he weeps on having to give up the child you may lose it yourself. I did.

ECHOES OF FEAR
2018 / Avenet Images Productions / 89m / available on DirecTV, Teles (Canada), Vudu, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo on Demand and YouTube Movies. / NR
I was once – in another life it sometimes seems – involved in theater and as such a judge in a high school play competition. One of the entries was a ghost story and it occurred to me while watching it (and I made the observation in my comments) that the key to making genre work is not so much providing new twists but in delivering on expectations. Ghost stories are a subset of the horror genre of course and they’re not easy to pull off. The best ones, such as “The Innocents”, “The Univited” or “The Haunting of Hill House” (the original) have spectres that are barely glimpsed or go completely unseen. This is how it is with real life ghosts (if there really are such things); they’re spotted only out of the corner of your eye or their presence is merely felt (yes, I have on occasion shared living quarters with such things, whatever they are). So, is there anything new here? Precious little, in fact the plot owes a great deal to ”Stir of Echoes” – one of the greatest haunting films ever made – even referencing its title. Placing it in a very modern (and georgeous) house rather than a creepy old mansion is different but Edgar G. Ulmer got there first with his 1934 “The Black Cat”. Does it deliver on expectations? I’d say definitely yes and if it’s not a great ghost story it’s a cracking good one that goes in a different direction than you might expect from its premise.Image result for echoes of fear 2019
Following the death of her grandfather Alisa (Trista Robinson) returns to the house in which she grew to prepare for its sale (she wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes on it). Grandpa’s death is chalked up to a heart attack but we see in a prologue that an invisible something wrapped him up in the shower curtain and apparently frightened him to death. That conditions us to suspect that whatever is inhabiting the house might be inimical to good fellowship. Initially alone save for when her significant other Brandon (Paul Chirico) – a guy too controlling not to signal an abusive personality – visits on weekends, she experiences odd things, such as her bath water turning inky black. Things get odder, less easy to explain, and a (too solid for my liking) ghost attacks Alisa, giving her visions that only start to make sense as she discovers oddities amongst her defunct ancestor’s belongings. The film is too brightly lit to be truly creepy and the ghost’s appearances are more jump-scare than chilling – it’s always easier to introduce something abruptly a la William Castle than to create a real feeling of dread. Some unease is created because the house’s eccentric geography is never clear but I suspect that’s accidental. The dialogue by Brian Avenet-Bradley, who co-directed with his spouse Laurence Avenet-Bradley (and whose house provided the location) is naturalistic and the performances follow suit. There’s an ultimate resolution and a final twist you will probably not see coming. This will never make my top ten of ghost stories but it’s a solid effort.

EEGAH!
1962 / The Film Detective / 90m / $24.99 BR / NR
Let’s be clear from the start that this is an awful film. Arch Hall, Sr., fancied himself a screenwriter and in the first half of the 1960s he created a number of films that starred his son, Arch Hall, Jr. Here Hall pere directs (under a pseudonym to hide the nepotism) as well as directs and the results are not salubrious (he also appears in the film using the name William Watters). The hour and a half running time has at least a third devoted to extended footage anytime anyone gets into any kind of vehicle, stock footage from nature films of desert critters, lots of aimless roaming about mountain areas and Hall fils performing mediocre songs in his best imitation Elvis style (one of Arch Jr’s. handful of films was “Wild Guitar,” by the way, where he portrays an aspiring rock singer). What plot there is involves Richard Keil as the titular caveman leaving his cave for the first time ever (no explanation of why provided) and encountering Hall the younger’s girlfriend and Hall the elder’s daughter, Roxy (Marilyn Manning), and developing a jones for her. Eventually he gets both her and pops in his cave and the two enter into a series of strategies to deflect his amorous advances while boyfriend Tom wanders the mountainside yelling “Roxy”. Some footage is devoted to Kiel grunting gibberish to the mummified bodies of his ancestors. I suspect he made it up which gives me more respect for his abilities than I previously had.
The script is aimless and can never quite decide if it’s a thriller or a comedy or a WTF? (It becomes the latter by default as it’s nbever very thrilling and the comedy is cringe inducing.) I’m certain I lost more than 90 minutes I’ll never regain while watching it; it felt endless.The acting seems downright awful but with the lines this script provides I’ll reserve judgement and note that Arch Jr. is downright terrifying as the title character in “The Sadist”, so given the right role he can excel. He’s a tad too peculiar looking for romantic leads however. Amongst the extras on this disc is the “MST3K”… er… salute to the film. While I know this show is wildly popular let me just rant this about that: No film, no matter how bad deserves that treatment. It is one thing to make something (and we can include theater, art and music here) that from lack of talent or finance – and “Eegah” lacks both – just isn’t good. It is quite another to make a living by deriding the efforts of those who had the courage to actually make something and put it out before the public. To paraphrase an old adage: Those who can’t do, ridicule. There is something strangely endearing about “Eegah’s” ineptitude and it does have its fans who are, perhaps charmed by that. It may not entertain me but if you’re one of its devotees you’ll welcome this release which at least does justice to its excellent cinematography by Vilis Lapeneicks. And on a final note I should point out that whoever made the mummies did a fine job.

THE GOLEM, LEGEND OF PRAGUE (Le Golem aka Man of Stone)
1936 /Alpha Video / 95m / $5.98 / NR
I’ve waited a long time to see this film. Some years ago I was collecting Golem films for an article in a magazine I edited. This is one that eluded me. (Heck, I even tracked down “The Golem and the Emperor’s Baker / Císaruv pekar – Pekaruv císar”.) Golems are, according to Jewish tradition creatures sculpted from dust, mud or clay; per the Talmud Adam, formed from dust and imbued with life, is a golem. I suspect most of you are at least familiar with the Paul Wegener film that – in his third portrayal of the character – recounts the legend of how Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague sculpted a figure of clay and brought it to life to act as a protector of his people from the oppression of Rudolph II. (As the legend first emerged a couple centuries after Loew’s death it is unlikely there ever was a Golem, which has not stopped some from trying to locate it; that the attic of the synagogue where Loew allegedly stashed it till needed again is strictly off-limits to the public only bolsters their fervor.) Julien Duvivier’s French production serves as a sequel to Wegener’s film, set some years after Loew’s death but with Rudolph (Harry Bauer) still alive and kicking and still given to mercurial mood swings regarding just about everything because he’s quite crazy. He even keeps caged lions in case he has the urge to toss someone who displeases him to them – and of course he’s back to his old habit of oppressing the Jews.
He’s encouraged in this by a malignant chancellor who wants to destroy the Golem to eliminate its threat and there is much discussion amongst the residents of the Prague ghetto as to whether Rabbi Jacob (Charles Dorat) – the only one who knows just where the clay man is hidden – should reanimate the thing. The Golem is stolen before Rudolph can get his hands on it as a result of his mistress getting miffed over his impending marriage. She convinces a young man enamored of her, and who has ended up in Jacob’s household after an injury and therefore able to suss out the statue’s whereabouts, to perform the robbery (it’s a very complicated plot and, yes, so was that sentenc). Eventually the magic word is inscribed on the Golem’s forehead by Jacob’s wife Rachel (Jany Holt), primarily to free her husband, imprisoned and slated to become big cat chow. The Golem goes on its ususal, expected rampage, causing much destruction to the architecture and freeing the lions which make kitty treats of the courtiers. For most of its running time this film is a court intrigue drama and given the year in which it was made it’s difficult not to see it as a commentary on Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem”. I wish it was more interesting but it’s a bit of a slog to wade through before the exiting climax. Possibly wisely Duvivier accepted an offer from MGM in 1938 and, while he did return to France for a few more films, he spent most of the war years in Hollywood safely away from the Nazi occupation of his birth country. Not so lucky was Bauer, who frequently appeared in Duvivier’s film, who was imprisoned not because he was Jewish but because he so often portrayed sympathetic Jewish characters and appeared in films, such as this one, that were sympathetic to the Jews. His health was broken by his imprisonment and he passed away shortly after release.
I’m going on at somewhat longer than usual with “Le Golem” because it is such a rare film and also because I think Duvivier is a criminally underrated director to whom attention should be directed. Jean Renoir termed him, a “great technician” and “a poet”. He was eclectic in his choice of subject matter and several times turned his attention to fantastic subjects. “La Charrette fantôme”, a horror film adapted from a novel by Selma Lagerlof – and a remake of Victor Seasrom’s silent “The Phantom Cariage” – was made during his brief return to France and “Flesh and Fantasy” during his longer U.S. sojourn. He also directed “Pepe Le Moko,” which was remade in the states as “Algiers”, and a version of “Anna Karenina,: which starred Vivien Leigh in a performance I find superior to Garbo’s (if you seek it out try to find the complete 139m cut – there are many edited versions out there). “Le Golem”, is a lavish production, filmed in Prague, with magnificent looking sets (the synagogue exterior is clearly modeled on the Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague, supposedly where the Golem was stashed) and the camerawork is fluid and marked with more German Expressionistic lighting and compositions than you can shake a stick at. More’s the pity then that Alpha’s print seems derived from a VHS tape – and not a first generation one either. The image is blurry and so light it’s often difficult to read the subtitles. The Kino version of Wegener’s “Golem” has an extra of the Golem’s climactic rampage that is exquisite, so obviously a restored print – or at least a very good one – exists somewhere. This release is the only one available on disc in the US however.Image result for le golem 1936

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

DEADLINE (When Reporters Were Heroes): The Complete Series
1959-61 / Film Chest Media Group / 1006m (3 discs) / $19.98 / NR
To the best of my knowledge this old syndicate series is unique. While shows such as “Law & Order” may take their cues from stories in the news and fictionalize them to some extent this show dramatized the news stories, only altering the names of all save the reporter who broke the story and who becomes the central character in the episodes (the newspaper that published the story is credited onscreen). It was a time when reporters were considered admirable, not unprincipled purveyors of “fake news”; they were even the heroes of such movies as “Deadline U.S.A.” (Humphrey Bogart) and “Foreign Correspondent” (Joel McCrea), to name just two. They did what it took to get expose killers or corruption (one reporter in this anthology has acid thrown in his face and is blinded for digging too deeply into mob control of a labor union). The stories are varied; the crimes investigated, exposed and solved range from major fraud to murder with diligence on the part of reporters being responsible. For variety there’s a Christmas episode where a young woman from the country, struggling to make good in the big city, has her dashed hopes restored when the Scrooges in her life are made to confront their stinginess. It’s the only heartwarming entry unless your cockles are heated by justice served.
The series seems to have been broadcast only once and never gone into reruns; the film cans lay forgotten in a garage until discovered recently. Is the retrieval an important addition to television history? Well, to be honest, no. It’s a good enough series if a low budget one (it’s obvious a few times when actors fumble with props that second takes were eschewed). While some of the guest players include Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, Robert Lansing and Telly Savalas (with hair… though not much) fans of a certain genre will spot Herb Evers and John Karlen. As fascinating to me was seeing the names of directors just starting their careers (Stuart Rosenberg, “Cool Hand Luke”) or ending them (Peter Godfrey, “The Two Mrs. Carrolls”). As host, offscreen narrator, often playing the reporter and sometimes as director, the producers chose Paul Stewart, best known for portraying the butler in “Citizen Kane.” He’s the weak link here – only a so-so actor and lacking the charisma to give a potent intro to the stories. The writing for the episodes is decent but given Stewart’s bland set-ups and filmmaking that’s strictly from Monogram the show doesn’t quite compare with such other half-hour dramas of the time, such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Twilight Zone”. It’s good – and at this price certainly worth a look – but not one of the classics.Robert Morris in Deadline (1959)

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 91m / $26.98 / PG-13
I think it’s fair to call Mike Wallace a journalism legend but, in case you didn‘t know, that’s not where he started. To get into broadcasting – and to figure out just what it was he wanted to be – he hosted a game show and was a commercial pitchman. Resultantly he was not highly regarded by the Edward R. Murrow crowd at CBS when he joined the network even though one of the things he had done was an interview program for one of its affiliate stations. He took no prisoners in these encounters done in a set that screamed “serious” – two chairs in a pitch black void reminiscent of Charlie Rose’s show (who aped who I cannot say). His low standing at the network ended up working in his favor when an experimental show was tried -–a news magazine yclept “60 Minutes”. Such shows are everywhere today but it was a brand new and risky idea at the time and other CBS reporters wanted nothing to do with it so Wallace ended up co-hosting with Harry Reasoner when it premiered. Wallace states here that they were making it up as they went along and one of the things he pioneered was a kind of ambush journalism where subjects would be surreptitiously filmed committing sleazy and even criminal acts. When enough evidence of malfeasance had been collected Wallace would barge in on them – sometimes without warning – and confront them with the evidence of their misdeeds. He also continued his ruthless interviews with celebrity and political figures – so unremitting that Barbra Streisand is seen here calling him a “son of a bitch”. Wallace himself gets interviewed here by colleagues Ed Bradley and Morley Safer and the latter asks him why he’s “such a prick”. These sessions are as probing as his own and he admits he doesn’t like it when he’s on the receiving end of being questioned about his personal life, which can best be described as troubled. The filmmakers have constructed this warts-and-all portrait (which also serves as an analysis of our current news landscape) entirely from archival footage so, alas, we get no interview with son Chris Wallace. Still as a look at one of our most famous newsman and how broadcast news has evolved, Avi Belkin’s film is a superior effort.

RAISE HELL: The Life & Times of Molly Ivens
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 93m / $26.98 / NR
Molly Ivens, who passed away 12 years ago, may be all but forgotten today save by those who remember reading her thrice weekly columns. She exposed corruption in both her home state of Texas and on the national stage, excoriating her targets with a pithy style that combined a firm grasp of the English language combined with what I can only dub Texasisms (terming someone all hat and no cattle might be a good example). Her viewpoint was liberal but she took on both Bill Clinton (who she described as “weaker than bus station chili”) and George W. Bush (the latter – who Ivens is credited with having nicknamed “Dubya” and “Shrub” – held no grudge and on her death he issued the statement, “I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment will be missed.”) Her writing was acutely perceptive, tackling serious matters in a way that was often riotously funny such as when she said of Pat Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech, it “probably sounded better in the original German”. Of a Texas politician she wrote, “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.” Possibly her most prescient observation – she clearly saw our current landscape looming – was, “Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country.” Her approach was so outrageous that her newspaper took out billboards asking, “Molly Ivens can’t say that, can she?” Janice Engel’s documentary traces Iven’s life from her childhood to her various newspaper jobs, eventually hired by the New York Times who wanted her because it was feared their writing was just a tad too staid. Ivens’ style was a bit too lively however and after describing an annual chicken-killing event as a “gang-pluck” she was let go. Shortly after she was hired by the Dallas Herald Times to write a column about anything she wanted and she was on her way to media stardom. The film doesn’t gloss over her alcoholism, which she struggled with to the end but is still a celebration of one of the great social humorists of all time. We could use her now.Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins (2019)

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

900 DAYS (900 Dagen)
2011 / Icarus Films Home Video / 77m / 29.98 / NR
This documentary, which interviews survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, is compelling stuff but might be difficult for some to take. The Third Reich forces surrounded the town – renamed St. Petersburg following the collapse of the Soviet state – for nearly three years, bombarding it but never quite able to take it. The German’s first act was to bomb the warehouses containing food reserves (however did the Germans acquire the intelligence to know which buildings those were?) – and thus, with no one able to enter or leave, the citizenry were deprived of food. The interviewees tell of killing domestic animals, primarily cats and dogs, to survive (one old woman even displays a painting she made memorializing chopping off her pet’s head). Since that particular time was astonishingly cold, corpses could not be buried and also were harvested from the churchyard for the meat (one woman tells, as if she’s relating someone else’s situation, of keeping a sister’s body on the windowsill and slicing off bits now and then). Plump children simply disappeared and it was suspected they became the meat sold in the marketplace. (The extras, by the way, have extended interviews that are somewhat more graphic in detailing the cannibalism and pet consumption than what is in the film itself.) In the end – though not mentioned within the documentary – the city was liberated as much, or likely more, by the fact that the German troops were inadequately clothed for the harsh Russian winter and perished in large numbers from exposure. Hitler was ultimately forced to withdraw rather than being beaten back by Stalin’s generals. While some of the aged Leningrad populace may embrace being hailed as heroes and feted in an annual celebration, perhaps that knowledge is why many others see themselves as victims… or merely those who managed not to die.Image result for 900 days film

MADAM SECRETARY: Season Five
2018-19 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 863m (5 discs) / $49.99 / NR
Because I am reluctant to tackle TV series unless I’ve seen them from the beginning I put aside this set – which I didn’t request for review but arrived with something I did – not certain whether I’d review it or not. I’m glad curiosity finally got the better of me because it’s excellent TV. You can judge just how excellent by the fact that while I generally review TV shows based on sampling my way through (it takes a whole lotta time to wade through an entire season of a show) I was caught up from the very first episode and watched every single one. It was surprisingly easy to get up to speed on the characters and their relationships – and it’s a huge cast what with Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord’s (Tia Leoni) family (chiefly Tim Daly as her husband) and staff (I particularly liked Erich Bergen, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend and Sara Ramirez) and the residents of the Oval Office (Keith Carradine as President Dalton and a wonderfully droll Željko Ivanek as his Chief of Staff). Credit the writers who don’t forget about the supporting cast and see to it that all get a healthy dollop of screen time (and sometimes some very juicy scenes) in nearly every episode. In that it reminded me very much of “The West Wing,” which also served its entire cast well in addition to having a similar D.C. setting (and also the re-use of the expensive Oval Office set built for “The American President”). If you were a fan of “West Wing” – as I was – it’s safe to say you’ll love this show. It addresses current issues and features outstanding writing and acting.Téa Leoni, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Madeleine Albright in Madam Secretary (2014)
The storylines take current events and twist them around. The two-parter on family separation, for instance, has a border state governor initiate the policy, not the White House. This allows for exploration and discussion of topics without turning the show into a cable news offering and muddling things with the baggage of commenting directly on actual national and international figures (McCord interacts with their likes throughout the show as when she is in tricky negotiation with a Chinese ambassador over sweatshops). An exception occurs in the first episode when Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright guest as themselves in a confab with McCord. Aside from single-episode issues the topic of Nationalism resurfaces again and again; the first episode even begins with a missile attack on the White House by an extremist white nationalist group (see how I resisted the urge to say the season started out with a bang?). There are some impressive names behind the camera as well; Morgan Freeman and Eric Stoltz are amongst the producers (the latter also frequently directing and appearing in a recurring role) and creator Barbara Hall was a writer for such series as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Judging Amy” and “Northern Exposure”. The show has one more season to go, a limited one of only 10 episodes presumably dealing with McCord’s run for the presidency. For quality writing that actually deals with issues in our country and a terrific cast, you can’t go wrong with this one.

MARY
2018 /RLJE Films / 85m / $29.9 BR / NR
Given Gary Oldman has the lead role in this ghost story set at sea I was expecting something out of the ordinary. Alas I was mistaken. (And what’s up with his participation in a direct-to-home-video production, anyway? Only a couple years ago he was portraying Winston Churchill in a mainstream theatrical film.) David (Oldman) captains someone else’s boat for fishing trips and has long hankered to own his own craft for charter voyages. His chance, he thinks, comes when a sailing vessel is found adrift and somewhat the worse for wear and he’s able to purchase it at a bargain price (but one that drains his finances and puts him in hock). He considers it a sign that the ship shares his younger daughter’s name. With the aid of his wife Sarah (Emily Mortimer), daughters (Stephanie Scott and Chloe Perrin), the elder daughter’s boyfriend (Owen Teague) and friend Mike (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) – who it seems has had an extramarital fling with Sarah – they get the wreck looking spiffy in remarkably short order and set sail for a shakedown cruise. But David should have checked out the yacht’s history; seems that one who ever owned her – or anyone who accompanied them to sea – was ever seen again. Mary is just found drifting, damaged and empty. Uh oh.
There is really nothing here genre fans haven’t seen before except Oldman in a DTV release. I don’t wish to demean DTVs; I’ve seen some fine productions that for whatever reason didn’t manage a theatrical release, sometimes because they just weren’t stuffed with enough CGI, explosions and superheroes. Quiet, provocative, character-driven stories generally don’t fare well in today’s market. Michael Goi’s film, scripted by Anthony Jaswinski, is neither. It’s an attempt to tell a ghost story in the confines of a modestly sized yacht (something Vernon Sewell once did far better way back when). As the ghost goes mostly unseen – possessing the various characters one at a time – this could have been a shuddery Lewtonesque mood piece in a confined setting. Alas creepiness and claustrophobia – despite tight camera compositions in cramped settings – elude Goi, who has a raft of TV directing and cinematography credits but only one previous feature (20 years ago!). Jaswinski has somewhat more feature credits, notable “The Shallows” and “Satanic” (I’ve seen neither but the former has received some acclaim). Part of the problem is that it’s all too predictable in what order those onboard will succumb to the ghost, go crazy and threaten the other passengers and/or the vessel. Working far better are shots of the ship looking tiny in the vase sea; you can always flee a haunted house but with a boat there’s nowhere to go. There are a few effective moments here but for the most part “Mary” isn’t yar.

OCTAV
2017 / First Run Features / 100m / $24.95 / NR
The titular, and symbolically named, Prince Octav (Marcel Iures) is a Romanian noble whose family’s property was seized by the Communist government after the USSR took over the country. With that political situation no longer in play he has spent years in the courts trying to have it restored. Finally successful in his 80s he is ironically now so broke he must sell it. He travels back to the estate to arrange the sale; although seized the mansion appears never have been used as all the furnishings and possessions are still in place. Even his mother’s painting studio is just as it was left when she died. Memories of his childhood come flooding back along with more substantial interactions. The latter is with caretaker Spiridon (Victor Rebenguic, whose work is just as impressive as Iures’) who was his confidant when both were boys and hiss father filled the same caretaking function. The other may be the ghost of his childhood sweetheart Ana (Alessia Tofan). She seems very substantial but she cannot be real and certainly isn’t a memory as signified by Octav’s interaction with her and that their scenes together are photographed in a different\ style than the flashbacks (and while I’m on that subject I should note that Blasco Giurato’s cinematography is ravishing). She also turns up unexpectedly for the elderly gent as a kind of Greek chorus who prods him to confront elements of his past – and in her dress and being often found on a swing she seems a deliberate nod to Mario Bava’s ghost in “Operazione paura”.
There are also unavoidable comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Smultronstället” (“Wild Strawberries”) but where in Bergman’s film the memories forced the protagonist to own up to the emotional barrenness of his life here they are just memories (but very telling ones) of what once was. The question arises as to why the life of this man is being explored except as a stand-in for what the comfortably well-off lost with the Communist take-over. This lack of any seeming point – after all we know nothing of the years in between 10 and 80, so what is the relevance of these childhood memories? – and a pace that defines leisurely will be an impediment to some. Others (including me) will surrender to the subdued approach, finding it, in the words of one online scribe, “beautiful, emotional and almost painful”, thanks to sublime performances, the lush production design (those are sets, not a real house, for the interiors; the real house on which they are based made too much noise) and the gorgeous photography – even while wishing, perhaps, for a tad more there there. In a cinematic world crammed with superhero flicks (this too shall pass) and noisy action outings (which it seems will not go away) it’s reassuring and refreshing to encounter a quiet, poetic, contemplative work. Of course you won’t find anything like this coming from Hollywood.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

AROUND INDIA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
2017 / Icarus Films Home Video / 72m / $29.98 / NR
This documentary – or more accurately assemblage of bits and pieces – is more fascinating than its unimaginative title suggests. Culled from both professional and amateur efforts from the dawn of cinema to 1947, it presents a portrait of India during the period of British colonial rule. The presentation is chronological but a tad haphazard. I was especially frustrated that lush Technicolor footage of a Shiva dancer was interrupted every so often and never shown in its entirety and I still don’t quite understand what home movies of a Brit official playing in the garden with his daughter had to do with the India, save possibly to illustrate further the privileged life of the occupiers; certainly we can see in various government and social gatherings that well-off indigenous peoples are in short supply. There is no narration beyond what may have originally been part of the films and explanation subtitles are limited to describing who made them. Still the visuals and the condescending tone toward the country’s religious and social traditions is telling. One heartbreaking sequence has a Salvation Army lass convincing a native she must shed her numerous bracelets and necklaces – traditional accessories – to become… oh, I don’t know… civilized or a good Christian or something (the footage is silent so we don’t hear what the SA lady is saying). Newsreels of Mahatma Ghandi – now universally seen as one of history’s greatest men – treat him as a dangerous radical. Well, so was Christ.    Around India with a Movie Camera (2018)
Except for one film all the work here is from Caucasians and by and large the perspective is that their cultural values are superior and must be imposed on the ignorant brown Indians. There are looks at traditional ceremonies – usually with an “Isn’t it quaint” attitude and architecture (forget about the Egyptian and Meso-American pyramids – if there’s evidence of long ago alien builders it’s in these magnificent ancient temples), Also of interest is early documentary color footage lensed by master British cinematographer Jack Cardiff who went on to film “The Red Shoes” amongst other classics. And there’s a short subject (presented in it entirety as one of the exras – pity the Shiva dance wasn’t) of the adorable Sabu taking the viewer on a tour of such landmarks as the Taj Mahal and pointing out in almost a postcript that the British tradition of tea drinking is owed to India (more accurately that part of the world but never mind). If you’re sensitive to the nuances here there’s some pretty uncomfortable, even offensively racist, material. Some might wish for a stronger narrative but director Sandhya Suri chose instead to work with composer Soumik Dutta (whose score is excellent by the way) the create a poetic flow to the disparate elements. This low key approach may not do it hard enough for some but it does assuredly hit the proverbial nail on its head.

GWEN
2019 / RLJE Films / 98m / $28.97 BR / NR
It goes without saying – or at least it should – that the phrase “not for all tastes” should be retired. No film – or art or music for that matter – is for all tastes. This production can best be termed arthouse horror and that designation will alert horror fans as to whether this murky, moody, deliberately paced exercise is their cuppa. The production is not without its shocks – or buses to appropriate a term applied to Val Lewton’s exercises in suggestive horror. And as with Lewton what appears to be supernatural doesn’t necessarily turn out to be. Set on the Welsh moors in consistently brooding weather the film deals with Elen (Maxine Peake) and her two daughters, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) being the eldest, struggling to keep the family farm going while dad is off at war (the time period is never quite defined but it seems to be in the latter half of the 19th century). Things are not going well. The family’s herd of sheep is mysteriously slaughtered overnight (a neighboring family suffered a similar experience before being murdered themselves) and the farm’s horse, crucial for transporting vegetables to market, bolts and breaks its leg (“At least we’ll have meat,” observes Elen before cutting its throat). Mom suffers from epilepsy and there isn’t the money to procure the medicine that eases her suffering. A wealthy man in the village wants to procure the farm to expand his mining interests but Elen stubbornly refuses to sell her home.
Those are the driving elements of a film that is more about menacing mood and character than plot; it is also about Gwen’s coming of age, with life presenting her with situations that force her to cast childhood aside. The film’s arc traverses from an opening where Elen upbraids Gwen for being off frolicking with her young sister, causing all the chores to devolve on mom to a shocking finale that guarantees she will be a little girl no more. I probably should say no more so as not to spoil the revelations except that this is a film of natural horrors – mostly of inhumanity and environment a la the Brontes – so don’t approach it expecting banshees wailing their way out of the forest. Savor the grim mood created and sustained by writer/director William McGregor in his feature debut (but with lots of shorts and TV work behind him), his use of landscape and sound design to create an intangible sense of menace (that ultimately becomes all too horrifyingly tangible) and the sublime, natural performances he has elicited from his cast. You may, as I did, find yourself initially underwhelemed by the film only to be haunted by it in the days to follow.

HOLOCAUST
1978 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 452m (2 discs) / $20.44 BR / NR
Time has not been kind to this groundbreaking mini-series but it still deserves pride of place as the first television docudrama (possibly the first film period) to deal with the plight of the Jews and other “undesirables” during the years of Nazi domination of Germany. By focusing on the Weiss family – Dr. Joseph (Fritz Weaver), his wife Berta (Rosemary Harris), their sons Karl and Rudi (James Woods and Joseph Bottoms) and daughter Anna (Blanche Baker) – who between them manage to intersect with the entire trajectory of the Third Reich’s solution to the “Jewish problem”. The doctor’s practice is limited to Jewish patients early on and then Karl is arrested – for reasons never quite explained but possibly because he has married an Aryan (Meryl Streep as Inga) – and whisked off to a model camp (a place that looks like a quaint European village and serves as a subterfuge for Red Cross inspections). Inga pulls strings with her National Socialist parents’ friends to be allowed to join him. Rudi runs off and joins the resistance holed up in a forest. Joseph, Berta and Anna are deported to Poland where they end up participating in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and eventually wind up in Auschwitz… as do Karl and Inga. A parallel plot has struggling lawyer Erik Dorf (Michael Moriarty) take a job with SS officer Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), initially just to support his family. At his wife’s urging to gain advancement by giving advice to his superior – which eventually leads to his discovery of Zyklon B and the inspiration for the “delousing showers” – he gradually becomes the consummate Nazi.Joseph Bottoms and Tovah Feldshuh in Holocaust
Gerald Green’s script is at pains to include everything, sometimes going to nigh ludicrous lengths to do so. At least four concentration camps are visited and all the others are at least mentioned. At one camp lengths of cloth are being cut into triangles to be sewn onto prisoners’ striped uniforms to designate their “crimes”: the yellow ones are overlapped to create the Jewish star while green are for Gypsies, pink for homosexuals, and so on; thus brief note is made that Jews weren’t the only people who were murdered by the Third Reich. The cast is exceptional with solid and underrated performances from Weaver and Harris and pre-stardom turns from Streep, Woods and Moriarty. Chief honors go to Warner as the amoral Heydrich (one of several nonfictional Nazis woven into the narrative); it’s a compelling portrait and the film loses much when he’s assassinated. For the most part I was underwhelmed by Moriarty but I finally decided that portraying the blandness of evil might have been the point. The major shortcoming is that the miniseries looks like the standard TV offering of its era; it’s overlit and director Marvin J. Chomsky’s camerawork is unadventurous. The dormitories of the death camps look amazingly neat and clean compared to photos we have of the real thing. You might also ponder how Inga has managed to smuggle lipsick into the place or how a group of people taking refuge in the woods just manages to have all the necessary accoutrements for a traditional Hebrew wedding. The show has both its adherents and its detractors – in the latter case most famously Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote in The New York Times that it was: “Untrue, offensive, cheap… the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived.” I won’t go that far. Certainly the production was well-intentioned and is not completely without merit but it has undeniably been surpassed by later efforts.
NB: I would be remiss not to note I had issues with the first disc. Somewhere around chapter 12 of episode one there were freeze-ups that ultimately made it go to black before reverting to the main menu. Episode two refused to play at all. (There were no problems with the second disc.) Whether this situation exists only with my set or a few I cannot say but Caveat emptor.

THE LAST MILE
1932 / Alpha Video / 69m / $6.98 / NR
They’re hardly part of the cinematic landscape any more but the sub-genre of stories set inside the big house were common offerings in the 1930s and continued up to at least the 1950s. In fact this production, adapted from John Wexley’s play, was remade in that decade starring – Cthulhu help us – Mickey Rooney (at least I’ve been spared from reviewing that incarnation – there are few things worse than then Mickster going all dramatic). The tale involves Richard Walters (Howard Phillips), falsely convicted of murder and consigned to death row to await his date with in the electric chair. On the night of his scheduled execution Killer Mears (Preston Foster) manages a jail break, holding a priest and several guards hostage and killing several. As it happens this is also the same night that Walters is cleared of killing his business partner – though he’d have been fried by the time his pardon came through if not for the revolt. The plot is pretty slender; what was likely the first act of the play is mostly taken up with the impending electrocution of a prisoner (George E. Stone) and his Last Mile walk. Stone is primarily known to me for his comedic playing of The Runt in the Boston Blackie films (though of course I’ve seen him in other roles) and he gets a chance to go full-out dramatic here (maybe a tad too full-out). There’s also a flashback to the actual events of Walters’ business partner being murdered by stick-up men. Act II is taken up with conversations between the condemned men while the final act is the riot.
Top-billed Phillips didn’t have much of a career – he debuted a year earlier in William Cameron Menzies’ “The Spider” (where’s the DVD release of that anyway?) and was gone from films by 1938 – so you’ll be forgiven for asking “Who?” He was a handsome man and a decent actor but he’s blown off the screen by Foster (who admittedly has the showier role) whose career would stretch out another three decades – this film was bracketed by appearances in “Doctor X” and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” but he was equally accomplished at comedy and played heroes as well. That he’s not better remembered is baffling. Movie buffs will also get a kick out of bit appearances by the likes of Paul Fix amd Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing as a rabbi!) and the distinctly pre-Code racial mix of the cast. Director Sam (aka Samuel) Bischoff’s only directorial credit is this production; he spent his entire forty year career as a producer (and he seems to have acted as such for all of independent Astor Pictures, which produced this as well as the Bela Lugosi vehicle “The Death Kiss” and the ambitious “Deluge” – whose footage of Manhattan destroyed by a tidal wave would be recycled into several Republic serials – in its short existence). In concert with cinematographer Arthur Edeson he has made a textbook example of how a potentially static set-up – with each prisoner in his individual cell in a long line – and make a visual feast. Fortunately Alpha has gotten hold of an excellent print of this public domain film and their work can be appreciated to the fullest.

THE SILENT REVOLUTION (Das schweigende Klassenzimmer)
2018 / Icarus Films Home Video / 111m / $29.98 / NR
Thanks to a plethora of formulaicTV movies – generally about abusive/homicidal boyfriends/husbands – the state of films “based on actual events” has become seriously degraded to the extent that I groan audibly whenever I see that phrase in a press release or on screen. The dramatic subgenre used to bring forth such ripped-from-the-headlines efforts as “Scarface” (the Howard Hawks original) and “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and biopics such as George Arliss’ and Paul Muni’s vehicles. This riveting effort stands as proof that reality-inspired productions can make for engrossing cinema. The film is set in 1956, before the Berlin Wall was erected, and two students cross into the west ostensibly to visit the grave one one’s father. While there they attend a movie and see a newsreel regarding the Hungarian uprising (information about it was nonexistent in the state controlled media of East Germany). They glean more details from the illegal radio owned by an uncle and talk their fellow senior classmates into observing two minutes of silence at the start of the first class of the day in solidarity. They convince the reluctant pupils by informing them a popular soccer star was among the casualties. Their refusal to break silence to explain what they’re doing sends their infuriated teacher to the principal.
This apparently simple act turns out to have serious repercussions as first the principal and then a school official and then higher-ups in the Soviet controlled government grill the students. Expulsion of the originator (no university for you) and his (or her) parents’ livelihood is threatened. The iron fist of the Soviets under Stalin is portrayed in this microcosm in scenes that are sometimes difficult to watch (as they should be given the subject). Lars Kraume has directed – and adapted the book by Dietrich Garstka) with nary a false step, though a few details that strain credultiy – such as a priest surmonising on Judas at just the time that the student who informs enters the cathedral and the I am Spartacus moment – are likely straight out of the book. The look of the period, the clothes, the cars, is perfection. And the performances from a mostly young cast you’ve likely never heard of (you’ve probably never heard of the adults either for that matter) is excellent. This isn’t exactly a feel-good flick but the students’ ultimate triumph, while bittersweet, is uplifting. There’s a debate raging on social media following comments by Martin Scorcese about the current glut of superheroes movies. I’m in agreement with the director that they’re the cinematic equivalent of junk food (and while I admire the technical accomplishments I think they cost an obscene amount of money). If your taste runs to more substantial fare then this is a meal to savor.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Bronenosets Potemkin)
1925 / Alpha Video / 85m / $6.98 / NR
Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film is rightly considered one of the greatest of all time (“Sight and Sound” places it at eleventh as does the British Film Institute – no collusion of course). Briefly it tells the story of an actual 1906 mutiny by the sailors of the titular vessel over the conditions they are forced to endure – being served rotten meat while the officers dine lavishly for one thing. (Act I of the film – films in Europe and Russia followed a theatrical construction at the time – is entitled “Men and Maggots”.) They are urged into this by the revolutionary fervor sweeping the land (the Russian revolution took place over many years with the royal family given several opportunities to save themselves only to blow it every time). Their uprising is supported by the nearby citizens – per Stalin era propaganda of the time (all films from this era of Soviet cinema were propaganda of some sort) ALL the citizens – of the nearby port city of Odessa. That attracts a reaction from the police and ultimately of the Tsar’s soldiers, leading to the epic sequence, “Act IV: The Odessa Steps.” Even if you’ve never seen the film you’re no doubt familiar with some of its images such as the woman shot in the face, her glasses askew, and the baby carriage bouncing down the city’s endless steps (stolen outright by Brian DePalma for “The Untouchables” and frequently parodied).Bronenosets Potemkin (1925)
Eisenstein was a theorist in (possibly the inventor of) the use of montage as we know it today – and it is fascinating that someone trained in theater so quickly grasped that film was an entirely different medium at a time when cinema was still approached in a theatrical manner by many. “Battleship Potemkin” looks far more modern than almost anything else made the same year in any country. In the mutiny and Odessa Steps sequence, built with rapid cutting of short takes, often in extreme closeup, we can see the birth of the approach of such current day directors as Steven Spielberg when it comes to action set pieces. (The Germans were the first to catch on as can be seen in Fritz Lang’s handling of the flooding of the workers’ city in “Meropolis” and Paul Leni’s climaxes of “The Cat and the Canary” and “The Man Who Laughs”.) Eisenstein also practiced Neo-Realism decades before the Italians; all of the film is shot in actual locations (Odessa portrays itself) with nonprofessional cast members. Eisentein’s nontraditional ways would eventually get him in trouble with Stalin but at this point and for a while after he was Russia’s golden boy of cinema – though just how he got away with the overtly erotic shots of shirtless sailors sleeping in their hammocks is anybody’s guess. Alpha has got hold of a very nice print for their release so you can appreciate this astonishing film at a budget price.

BEFORE STONEWALL
1984 / First Run Features / 87m / $24.96 / NR
Manhattan’s Stonewall Riots of 1969 are generally considered the birth of the modern Gay rights movement. The event was the result of a police raid on the Stonewall Inn bar; such raids on Gay bars were commonplace but that night the patrons rebelled and the cops ended up barricaded inside the establishment, pelted with bricks, beer bottles and whatever else could be got hold of. But the uprising didn’t just come out of nowhere and wasn’t just because of outrage that the authorities would have the temerity to act on the same day that Judy Garland died. Such things as the Hippies with their sexual freedom ideals, the Black civil rights struggle and the Women’s movement fed into it along with the establishment, in the 1950s, of the Mattachine Society (which successfully battled the post office over distribution of its magazine) and the Daughters of Billitis. Both participated in protest marches against the State Department, which was busily firing homosexuals and lesbians in response to the McCarthy hearings (ironically guided by the closeted Roy Cohn). The Kinsey studies played their part, too, as did World War II earlier (all the boys over there and all the girls over here led to predictable experimentation and sometimes discovery of one’s true nature or flexibility at the very least).
The film’s coverage of gay life (mostly in large urban cities such as Manhattan and San Francisco) begins in the 1920s when bars and speakeasies might be discreetly gay with trendy heteros attending for the “decadent” entertainment (innuendo laden songs) or have a section of the bar that was for those in the know – such as the Astor Hotel’s bar. The film spends more coverage on the WWII and post war years (for an exhaustive look at Manhattan from the Victorian period onward I recommend George Chauncey’s “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940”). The 1950s were when vice raid crackdowns began on the bars; patrons would be arrested and their names published in the newspapers leading, more often than not, to their being fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes. This documentary, made for PBS, features interviews with those who lived through the pre-Stonewall times, including poet Alan Ginsberg, Harry Hay (one of the Mattachine founders) and activist/writers Dr. Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings (both of whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the first national march on D.C.). With Gay rights currently subject to attempted erosion (along with other civil rights) this 50th anniversary restoration is an important reminder of the bad old days – which we might be facing again.

ELEMENTARY: The Final Season
2019 / Paramount Home Entertainment, CBS DVD / 549m (3 discs) / $55.98 / NR
Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) return for a last bow thanks to the wishes of CBS after what was supposed to be the sixth and final season. The show has been immensely popular and the network wanted to squeeze some further advertising dollars out of it. Fortunately all four principal actors were available (Aidan Quinn as Captain Thomas Gregson and Jon Michael Hill as Detective Marcus Bell complete the quartet). Even the wonderful Patricia Madsen is on hand for a few appearances. (And in only the first episode, alas, there’s Tamsin Grieg, late of “Episodes” putting a deliciously wry spin on a humorless DCI.) At series start Holmes is back in London, deported following an agreement with HSA when he took the fall for a murder committed by another; Watson has followed. When Gregson is shot and left in critical condition (Quinn getting an easy clutch of episodes lying in bed on a ventilator) the pair return to Manhattan (Holmes surreptitiously of course) to solve the attempted murder.
Naturally the duo gets involved in other cases (Sherlock settles his problem with HSA with the first of a couple of instances where his actions have tragic consequences). In a nigh season long story arc they are approached by billionaire internet magnate Odin Reichenbach (yes there’s an injoke ultimately involved) who uses his Facebook-like empire to spy on the populace and determine who poses a threat based on their posts. If anyone appears to be planning a mass murder with guns or a bomb he has them assassinated and he wants Holmes and Watson to join his crusade. Holmes concludes some innocent people, who were no threat at all, have been killed and vows to bring down the tycoon. While I do like the series quite a lot I’m still of the opinion that using the names of Holmes and Watson is a gimmick because these characters bear no real resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (unlike the BBC’s modernized take with Benedict Cumberbatch). The cases are marvelously intricate, the cast is terrific and these final13 episodes put the series to bed in a marvelous fashion. (Though it wouldn’t surprise me if there are TV movies or some mini-series in the future.)

INTO THE ASHES
2019 / RLJE Films / 97m / $29.96 / NR
Nick Brenner (Luke Grimes) has put his criminal past behind him… he thinks. He has a steady, normal job, a loving wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and a best friend, Sal (James Badge Dale), with whom he is building a cabin in the woods on weekends. His past is a secret from them as is the fact that he kept the proceeds from the gang’s last job. But gangleader Sloan (Frank Grillo) has just got out of the jug for that heist and wants his loot. To that end he kills Tara for no good reason except the movie would have nowhere to go otherwise. Because this is a revenge flick and one so predictable you can probably finish this synopsis without my participation, I won’t bother with further synopsising. Now the key to any genre production – as I’ve frequently noted – is delivering the goods, the familiar tropes the fans expect, but also bringing something extra to the mix. That might simply be the lead player; the “Death Wish” films succeed on the charisma – much underrated – of star Charles Bronson. Grimes may be a perfectly good actor but he doesn’t hold the screen in any scenes where he’s with either Grillo or Dale (I frequently found myself wishing the latter was playing Nick and Grimes the best buddy). "INTO THE ASHES"
That kind of old school approach also requires sharp pacing, which this film lacks – and it’s further diluted by switching to the perspective of Luke’s sheriff father-in-law (Robert Taylor) who comes across the aftermath of Nick’s undepicted mayhem (in a revenge flick we want to see the revenge, for pete’s sake). Another method is to add some additional element of quirkiness; Tarantino and the Coen brothers have built success with that approach. There is one brief moment of oddness here when Sloan, having presented Nick with his wife’s corpse, asks if there’s any butter pecan ice cream to go with the pie the woman baked shortly before her demise. But nothing along those lines emerges afterward. Now I don’t mean to suggest that the film is completely without merit; it’s well-acted (Grillo positively rules every scene he’s in), nicely photographed and the dialogue is sharp and realistic. But nothing quite rises out of the ordinary and some of it doesn’t quite approach it. Fans of this kind of material will find it passable; the rest of you should probably steer clear.

A SCORE TO SETTLE
2019 / RLJE Films / 104m / $29.96 / NR
Oh dear, what has happened to the once nova hot career of Nicholas Cage? For some time now he’s been relegated to lower budgeted, independent efforts – some of which have actually been pretty interesting (I very much liked “Pay the Ghost”) but many of which have not been very remarkable. Almost all of them have allowed him to do his patented rage schtick and let’s be honest here: a) he’s very good at that and b) otherwise he’s a pretty bland actor without a strong director (such as “Moonstruck’s” Norman Jewison). Shawn Ku, despite praise for his work on “A Beautiful Boy,” seems not to be in that league – or maybe the aforementioned film, which he co-scripted, was a more personal production. He doesn’t feel very engaged here; even much of the camerawork feels dispassionate, observing but not involved. Cage plays Frank, a mobster who is released from prison after two decades, taking the fall for a crime others committed. Though he apparently did this quite willingly he now wants revenge for his lost years and the suitcase full of cash he’s buried will allow him to live luxuriously in an expensive hotel while he carries it out. I know what you’re thinking but this isn’t quite that kind of flick. Not entirely.
At film’s start a prison doctor informs Frank that the insomnia from which he suffers will kill him if he doesn’t start getting some sleep; this doesn’t figure into the plot all that much but every now and then Frank has some disorienting dizzy spells. On Frank’s exit he is greeted by his now grown son, Joey (Noah Le Gros, giving the most engaging performance in the film), who’s a recovering addict – the script lays this entirely to Frank’s absence, which seems glib. Joey doesn’t want any part of the dirty money but Frank convinces the young man to join him in the suite; supposedly this leads to some bonding but the script can’t quite deliver the goods on that score. The most interesting twist here is that those on whom Frank wants payback have aged too; one is dead, another on life support and so on. Time has moved on even if Frank hasn’t. There’s a sub-plot involving a high-end call girl (Karolina Wydra), with whom Frank becomes intensely smitten, that I’ve seen way too may times before and that, here, serves no real purpose aside from giving the splendid Wydra some screen time. Benjamin Bratt also scores nicely but if I tell you anything about his character it could spoil some plot turns. What might have been an interesting variation on the revenge genre never catches fire due to a lethargic pace.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

ANIARA
2019 / Magnet / 106m / $29.98 BR / R
For those who can appreciate more subtle and mature science fiction I recommend this Swedish/Danish remake of a 1960 Swedish film and based on a 1956 poem by Swedish writer Harry Martinson. The titular, boxy city-sized spaceship, which somewhat resembles a skyscraper laid on end, is transporting former citizens of earth to their new homes on Mars. It’s implied, though not stated outright, that we’ve so depleted the earth that it’s no longer habitable – or at any rate no longer able to sustain the full population of the planet. So, it’s Marsward Ho until an asteroid collides with the ship, knocking it off course and destroying navigation function – something the captain withholds from the passengers for as long as possible. The vessel had just enough fuel to propel it on its journey so it can only coast through space until it encounters a body large enough to use its gravitational pull to slingshot it back on course to the red planet. The ship’s astronomer, however, gets hugely inebriated in a bar one night and spills the beans that no such planet is known to be anywhere along Aniara’s current course. This news of course spreads throughout the passengers and they face the realization that their trip will last years, not weeks. It may in fact never end.
The film revolves around MR (Emelie Jonsson), the tech who operates the Mima, a computerized program that provides vivid hallucinations of earth. It’s an attraction that is initially little used by the passengers but as the journey wears on becomes so vital to so many it burns out. Stripped of its comfort and facing an unknown future the populace reacts in various ways. There are numerous suicides (the despondent astronomer being one of the first) while others form orgiastic cults (be warned there is relatively brief but graphic nudity here – European filmmakers are less panicked by a glimpse of willie). The years stretch on and on with no alteration to the ship’s destiny – food of a sort is not a problem because of what’s being grown in the greenhouse (a plant that also provides oxygen). But a hopeless ennui rules until it is discovered that a probe (at first thought to be a rescue craft) is on course to the ship. It’s thought that its fuel can be transferred to the Aniara but that becomes a false hope when no one can figure out how to open the mysterious, rocket-shaped object. The film is a pretty grim affair and might be intolerably downbeat save for director/co-scripter Pella Kågerman’s dispassionate approach. Still it’s not a production for everyone, not even for all sci-fi fans; there are no phaser battles and nothing explodes. This is for those who can appreciate a more thoughtful approach – and one that will likely haunt them for some time to come.

BEAU BRUMMEL
1924 / Alpha Video / 80m / $6.98 / NR
John Barrymore is probably most familiar to most people for his films of the sound era when he was increasingly transitioning to quirky character roles. In the silent era – and even in the early 1930s he was what was dubbed a Matinee Idol, meaning he was known for his romantic turns and nicknamed The Great Profile. Here he stars as George “Beau” Brummel in a loose adaptation of Clyde Fitch’s loose theatrical presentation of the life of the Regency dandy who rose from soldier to bosom chum of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV). Per this version of history Brummel’s rise is prompted by revenge. Denied the hand of the woman he loves, Lady Margery Alvanley (Mary Astor) – who is forced into a more socially advantageous union by her parents – he determines to manipulate society. Several fortunate events allow him acquaintance with the Prince and the opportunity to save him from a sticky situation. Soon the upper crust is flocking to his dressing room and parlor to learn the latest fashion or some new tasty scandal and tres intime late night suppers. Alas he is exposed as entering into an affair with the King’s wife (more revenge – the monarch has taken the widowed Lady Margery as his mistress) and he descends into penury. John Barrymore, Alec B. Francis, William Humphrey, Willard Louis, and Carmel Myers in Beau Brummel (1924)
As Carrie Fisher famously (well, in my little film-obsessed world anyway) told Robert Osbhorne, “Just because a film is old doesn’t make it a classic.” And this vehicle for Barrymore is no classic. It is as lacking in visual finesse as most U.S. silents of the time. It took the influx European directors and cinematographers – mostly German – to bring Hollywood films to the level of story telling brilliance they achieved in the latter half of the 1920s, though a few directors, such as Fred Niblo, Raoul Walsh and Roland West were, by the time of this production, becoming more adventurous. This film’s director, Harry Beaumont, was never more than a competent craftsman who was valued by the studios for bringing in films on time and on or under budget. (He did turn in some nifty Bs in the sound era and you are advised, if you’ve never seen it, to catch the outrageous “Murder in the Private Car” the next time TCM shows it.) This effort is however worth watching for its star who is perhaps best known for his more… er… exuberant performances. Don’t get me wrong; I love his turns that some call hammy but that I find meticulously judged and wholly appropriate for the roles in question. (Who, after all would want to see him restrained in “Svengali” or “The Twentieth Century”?) Here, where many of the other actors are giving typical, overdone pantomime silent film performances he holds the screen with masterful understatement. A flick of the eye, a slightly raised eyebrow or simply staring down an adversary and he blows all others off the screen. Only Astor (who would become even better with the coming of sound) and Irene Rich as the Duchess of York approach him with naturalistic emoting.

THE GIRL IN THE FOG (La ragazza nella nebbia)
2017 / Icarus Films Home Video / 127m / $26.98 / NR
You have likely not heard of Donato Carrisi but in Italy he is a very successful novelist specializing in thrillers. Here he has turned his hand to directing his own adaptation of his latest novel, something only a handful of writers have attempted (while other authors have directed films only Clive Barker comes to mind in terms of adapting and directing his own work to the screen). The result signals a talent to watch with a twisty-turny plot handled in an unexpected and visually more impressive manner than you’d expect from a tyro director. The story revolves around the disappearance, in a small mountain village, of a 16 year old girl. In that she had red hair this resembles a series of unsolved disappearances from years ago. The story is told in flashback by Agente Vogel (Toni Servillo) to a psychiatrist (Jean Reno) after he’s been found wandering in the fog. He claims not to know how that came to be and so he begins at the beginning – when he was assigned to investigate – in an attempt to recall how his misty perambulation came about. Not long after arriving – along with a gaggle of reporters covering the sensational story – Vogel sets his sights on schoolteacher Loris Martini (Alessio Boni) based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence but, most tellingly on surveillance camera footage that shows his van frequently in the same vicinity as the missing young woman in the days before her disappearance. Jean Reno and Toni Servillo in La ragazza nella nebbia (2017)
Vogel is a showboater who is obsessed with keeping his name and face in the news and building his case through the media. He is especially interested in cracking this case – and be publicly seen solving it – because he has recently been humiliated when his not entirely scrupulous methods convicted and jailed a man later proven to be innocent (but not before his life was ruined, resulting in a million dollar settlement). There is as much tension created here by the search for the missing teen as there is regarding Martini’s guilt or innocence. Boni gives such an appealing performance that you hope for his innocence but the script gives him a number of questionable actions. Credit writer/director Carrisi for keeping the viewer guessing right up to the end. In many ways the story itself might be termed what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin; the mystery thriller aspects serve to allow for character studies of the two protagonists and the film is as much – or even more – concerned with that. If that’s in the writing or simply because Servillo and Boni offer such rich and nuanced performances I can’t quite say. I do know this is not just another mystery with cardboard characters (and I should note all the acting here is superb). This is an astonishingly good film that has more to offer than the usual thriller.

THE OTHER SIDE OF EVERYTHING (Druga strana svega)
2017 / Icarus Films Home Video / 104m / $26.98 / NR
Those with a better grasp of Yugoslavia’s political history will get more good out of this biographical portrait of Srbijanka Turajlic, written and directed by her daughter Mila (who also prompts her mother’s comments from offscreen). The country had a turbulent history in the 20th Century, partly through reorganizations of Europe following the world wars. Per Wikipedia the country “… came into existence after World War I in 1918 under the name of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes by the merger of the provisional State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (… formed from territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire) with the Kingdom of Serbia, and constituted the first union of the South Slavic people as a sovereign state, following centuries in which the region had been part of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary… The kingdom gained international recognition on 13 July 1922 at the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris. The official name of the state was changed to Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 3 October 1929.” In 1945 it became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia but was renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963. More permutations of territories and politics than need be recounted here followed until a revolt in 1992 installed Slobodan Milosevic who was overthrown in 2006. Druga strana svega (2017)
The film’s title derives from a locked door in Turaljic the elder’s apartment, which was once her parents’. After the Soviets gained control following WWII, ownership of the building was taken from them and the size of their own apartment reduced by closed and locked doors with the building repartitioned. In the course of the documentary the elderly resident on the other side of the door passes away, allowing that room to be restored. Turaljic has been a participant in much of her country’s turbulent post WII history, living in the reduced abode where the neighbors spied on them (and presumably each other) using their doors’ spyholes to see who was visiting; her parents quickly learned to be careful what they were saying in their own home. Turaljic went on to become a peace and democracy advocate, often in and then out of favor with movements in which she was involved. The documentary is augmented with archival footage, including of the woman herself delivering rabble-rousing speeches. It’s a fine film and shot through with enough humor to keep it from getting heavy.

REBORN
2018 /Jinga Films / 80m / NR
streaming on Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon Video, VUDU, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV. Sony Playstation and FandangoNow
Julian Richards, working from a script by Michael Mahin, has created a horror thriller that’s also an homage to horror films, mostly those of the second half of the last century. The body of a stillborn baby is brought to life by a freak lightning strike (a la “The Curse of Frankenstein”) and the creepy morgue attendant – who takes nude photos of the more nubile female corpses – takes the reborn infant home to mom. Flash forward 16 years and mom is now a mummified corpse (paging “Psycho”) and the attendant is having less than paternal feelings toward Tess (Kayleigh Gilbert), The young woman has developed telekinetic powers, however (just like “Carrie”), of an electrical nature and she puts paid to the old pervert before heading out into the world in a search for her mother. Naturally the medical staff she tracks down (from info on her old toe tag) aren’t as cooperative as she deems acceptable and there’s soon a bunch of dead people littering Los Angeles. Said mom, Lena (Barbara Crampton), is a one-time star of low budget horror films who – as is common with middle aged scream queens – is having a rough go getting work and seems to be supporting herself (and her large and lovely house) by giving acting lessons. Tess finds Lena and the latter thinks the former is merely another student – and a very promising one.                                                                                      Kayleigh Gilbert in Reborn (2018)
I’ve already noted some of the references; they’re not just lazy, derivative scripting. They’re quite deliberate and include an outright steal from “Carrie” (which I won’t reveal) that has a deliciously cheeky resolution. Crampton is the star of Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” and “Re-Animator” (a poster of which adorns the wall of Lena’s studio and which features basement morgue reanimations) suggesting the kind of films Lena starred in. The cast also includes Michael Pare as a cop investigating the accumulation of deaths and Rae Dawn Chong as Lena’s agent; both were not unknown presences in genre product back in the day. (While not known for genre work, Monte Markham’s career hasn’t exactly been high profile either. It was a pleasure to see him in a supporting role as Lena’s shrink.) Does all this referencing make it a great movie? Well, no… the separation and reuniting of parent and child isn’t explored as much as it might be; an actor’s process of drawing on life experience for performance gets more attention. It does make what is on the surface just another cheesy B-horror somewhat deeper than most while providing some fun in-jokes for genre fans to savor.

SWINGTOWN: the first season
2008 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 547m (4 discs) / $55.98 / NR
Set in the year of the USA’s 200th birthday and at the height of the sexual revolution that was birthed in the turbulent 1960s this short-lived series has Susan and Bruce Miller (Molly Parker and Jack Davenport) move a few blocks away to a wealthier neighborhood. It also turns out to be a hotbed of hedonism and their new neighbors, Trina and Tom Decker (Lara Parilla and Grant Show), are eyeing them lustfully as they move into their new digs. They will soon introduce them to weed and spouse swapping. The Miller’s neighbors and BFFs from the old neighborhood, Janet and Roger Thompson (Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), especially Janet who’s a control freak from hell, fear the friendship will fade. Despite the spicy pretext, more premise than promise, there’s little – if anything – to frighten the horses here; the show is more about relationships than raunch. Relationships between husband and wife, between friends and between parents and children are the real focus here; this was on broadcast TV of 11 years ago after all. The Deckers may have an orgy room but we only get a brief and timid glimpse of the goings on.                                                                                       Still of Damon Carney in Swingtown
And while the writing is fairly perceptive (save in the unbearably clunky pilot that introduces so many characters so quickly you need a scorecard) what we have here is still essentially soap opera. More interesting than the bed hopping is the transition of Janet from a conservative values type (and a wholly obnoxious character) to someone with less judgmental moral attitudes. But the real standout in the cast is Hopkins as her sweetly goofy and tongue-tied husband. He’s got barely any dialogue in the first several episodes but can do more with a glance than most actors can with a full page monologue. He, too, has an interesting character arc involving growth. The series is spot on regarding the look of the era (check out those kitchens) and in its choices of music. But the anchor couple, the Millers, just aren’t very interesting (and Parker smiling tremulously in close-up grows tired fast). And while nudity really isn’t necessary to tell these stories I wonder if the reason the show only lasted a season is because it wasn’t more daring. Some subjects just belong on cable or they don’t quite ring true.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK
2019 / Magnet / 87m / $26.98 / R
This limp thriller has a young parks employee, Wendy (Karina Fontes), heading out into the wild to post handbills along a hiking trail. At some point she wanders off the trail and gets lost; of course her cell phone charge dies shortly after she realizes this. In trying to find a spot where her walkie talkie will make a connection she discovers a several days old body. Eeuw. (I’m not being snarky; that’s approximately her reaction.) Now she has to stick around near the corpse until help arrives and deal with another hiker (Casey Adams) – maybe a murderer! – who insists on rummaging through the body’s clothes for identification. Oh, yes, and there’s a bear that – despite much being made of it on the case art – only shows up at practically the end of the film and (SPOILER ALERT) is easily sent packing. From the cheesy, computer generated opening titles (over some of the crappiest music I’ve ever heard) to, well, just about everything else, this film misses the mark and – except for really good photography – looks every bit as low budget as it likely is. It’s essentially supposed to be a study of a young woman finding out she’s stronger and more resourceful than she realizes but Wendy is such a whiner who comes off feeling very entitled that it’s nigh impossible to care about her (particularly as she makes bone-headed decision after bone-headed decision – not that the story could proceed without them). There’s a plot twist at the very end (no, I won’t spoil that) that seems pulled in from another movie. If it is really the point here I’ll just note that Rod Serling used to do this kind of thing more successfully and in one third the time.

THE BRINK
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 91m / $26.98 / NR
Some little while back here I reviewed a documentary on Roger Ailes; that work was in the nature of an expose while this look at Steve Bannon is more balanced and without obvious bias. So your reaction is likely to depend on where you fall on the political spectrum. If you’re to the Left you’ll wish he’s been hammered harder; if to the Right you’ll wonder why he isn’t more glorified. For this liberally leaning writer two of the most telling moments come early on. The first is when Bannon talks of visiting Auschwitz and being impressed by the flawless engineering of the place and pondering on how those who designed it must have just focused on the task and put aside the evil it would be put to (he doesn’t seem to consider that the death camp might have been created by true believers in Hitler’s dream). I can’t help but ponder if he is, perhaps unknowingly, drawing a parallel to the racist agenda he promotes – and my use of that word is not an opinion; Bannon’s remarks on the public record over the years are clearly racist. His more recent campaign to coordinate the anti-immigrant campaigns of an assortment of European politicians is the final proof if any is needed but that he acknowledges and embraces the attitude came when he recently exhorted a crowd to wear the term racist as “a badge of honor”. Case closed. 
Somewhat later he espouses his “populist” ideology by railing against the “elites” and then, within a sentence and with no hint of recognizing the irony, references his years at Harvard. I’m sorry but it doesn’t get any more elite than Harvard. And let’s not forget he was once a Goldman Sachs banker (he’s shown a couple times meeting with former execs); that hardy puts him in amongst the common herd. Nor does his formerly being underwritten by the astronomically wealthy Mercer family – a situation that ended when his comments about the Trump White House, related in “Fire and Fury” hit print (and leading the POTUS to dub him Sloppy Steve). But then recognizing irony isn’t his strong suit; he declares that a foundation he’s creating will not accept foreign money but later does just that from Chinese CEO Miles Kwok (aka Gun Wengui, wanted by his country for a variety of illegal doings). Allison Klayman’s documentary follows Bannon from just after his resignation (or ouster) from the Trump administration through his stumping for his endorsed candidates in the 2018 mid-terms to his jet setting about to forge a European alliance of far right candidates. Klayman’s approach is to put all the pieces out there without comment, leaving it up to the viewer to draw conclusions. I’ve always thought him slime so nothing changed here.

DOGMAN
2019 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 101m / $26.98 / NR
Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a timid, affable dog groomer in a poor section of an unnamed Italian town who gains some extra cash by selling cocaine. What money he can set aside is lavished on his shared custody daughter. He is frequently drawn into criminal pursuits by the town bully and ex-boxer Simoncino (Eduardo Pesce), who also hits Marcello up for free coke. Simone insists on having a spare set of keys to Marcello’s shop (yclept Dogman) so he can break into and rob the shop next door, promising the cash-strapped groomer a cut of the loot. As there’s no evidence of the grooming shop first having been broken into Marcello, who doesn’t rat out the thug, becomes the prime suspect and does a year in prison. On his release, unsurprisingly Simone reneges on his promise and so Marcello sets out on revenging himself. That’s really a very spare recounting of an intricate plot but it might be best you don’t know more going in. Director Matteo Garrone is possibly best known for his Italian Mafia film, “Gomorrah.” and here he is once again concerned with criminals but of the petty and independent kind. Despite the complexity of the plot the film is as much – possibly more – a character study. We see Marcello interact lovingly with his daughter and gently with the dogs (the very opening scene shows him calm a very angry pooch who very decidedly does not want to be washed).   
But there’s also focus on Marcello’s fellow shopkeepers who are equally terrorized by Simone, to the extent that at one point they discuss hiring a hit man to off the bully. Later they ostracize Marcello for having abetted, and possibly participated in, the break-in and thus acting against one of their and his own. The transition from being one of the fellowship of small businessmen to outcast may be as much motivation for Marcello to cast off his mild-manneredness after being stiffed on his portion of the take. We know less of Simone who seems more an elemental force of nature but may be just a tad mommy dominated. Garrone’s film is very much in the Italian Neo-Realist tradition, shot entirely in natural locations (Castel Volturno standing in for the unnamed village) with photography that is gritty yet more carefully composed and striking than documentary in its look. But in a production where the technical aspects are not in the forefront and scenes are often mere snippets (and sometimes without dialogue) it is the direction and acting that must carry the show; both are subtle and naturalistic. Fonte, who is in almost every (maybe every) scene, is exceptional as the woebegone groomer and Pesce is one scary presence. Garrone has crafted another outstanding, if not precisely upbeat film with a more than slightly up-in-the-air finale.

THE HEIRESSES (Las herederas)
2018 / Icarus Films Home Video / 98m / $26.98 / NR
Marcello Martinessi has crafted a Neo-Realistic film (from Paraguay, however, not Italy) that is very, very understated; much is inferred but very little is stated outright. Formerly affluent Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) have been living together for 30 years and have recently been forced to start selling their inherited possessions. Chiquita is withdrawn, possibly depressed, not eager to get out of bed to visit friends, spending most of her time working on abstract watercolors. Chela organizes things so that everything is just so for Chiquita, including having the breakfast items placed exactly right on the tray). When Chela must serve a prison term for fraud (unpaid bills) Chiquita must become more self-sufficient; there is a newly hired maid but she’s not terribly efficient at first. Then an elderly neighbor asks Chiquita to give her a lift to her bridge game and all the participants decide to get rides home with her, all of them paying for the taxi service. Chiquita has not driven in years – and this may be the closest thing to a job she’s ever held – but bringing in money and the social interactions involved start to bring the middle aged woman out of her shell.
Built in short scenes that don’t really pay off until they accumulate, this is a film where one must pay attention to the details. The relationship between Chela and Chiquita is never spelled out but the hints are there. We first see Chiquita in a very large bed; the two women are never shown sharing it but Chela is never depicted as having her own bedroom. Chela also seems peeved that Chiquita is becoming more able to look after herself, even dealing forcefully with the rude people who are potential buyers of the household goods. Chela specifically tries to denigrate the gypsy taxi service, painting it with all sorts of dire implications; clearly she prefers Chiquita to be dependent on her (perhaps she even hired a less than capable maid on purpose rather than the only one they could afford?). But whether or not the two women are in a relationship rather than a close friendship gets a question mark attached. Chiquita goes into outright panic when a young woman who uses her chauffeur service makes an overt sexual move on her; her reaction suggests more than an unwillingness to be unfaithful but rather horror of having a same-sex encounter. It’s hardly the only unanswered question here (unless I missed some clues) and there’s an ambiguous ending to ponder as well – the two women’s relationship will have changed but we don’t learn how. It’s a fascinating film.

HOTDOUG’S: THE MOVIE
2018 / Random Media / 57m / $14.95 / NR
This is a thoroughly enjoyable little documentary about a hot dog “stand” that was strictly gourmet. Yes, that’s right: past tense. HotDoug’s closed down a number of years ago despite being so successful people lined up around the block and waited for hours to be served in the postage stamp size restaurant. Why make a film about a place that’s only a memory? Because, amongst other things, this is an object lesson in how to run a business. Treat your employees as if they are family and your clientele as friends. Owner Doug Sohn was hands on, greeting customers, taking their orders and ringing up the (cash only) sales. He also personally created the menu, deciding which exotic meats (armadillo, venison, curry pork, or escargot anyone?) would be ground up and encased and what unusual other ingredients would be included (ever had truffles in your sausage? how about foie gras?). One of the reasons the place was a success (though not immediately of course) was Sohn’s dedication to excellence. I wish the place was still around; I’d like to try some of these exotic (and very reasonably priced!) “encased meat” sandwiches (of course I’d have to get my butt off to Chicago to do so). Filming was obviously underway well before Sohn announced he’d be shutting down – a good bit of the footage is devoted to the tearful last day – so why it’s taken about five years for this film to see the light of day is a puzzlement. But it’s a perfectly made example of a good documentary, hitting all them right notes in its telling of a standard American Dream (in this case owning your own restaurant) and, at just under an hour, it doesn’t overstay its welcome – a lesson quite a few documentarians should learn. The subject isn’t weighty and neither is the handling. Take a bite.

ROMOLA
1924 / Alpha Home Video / 105m / $6.98 / NR
Back in high school English class we tackled George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” an experience that decided me against ever reading anything else by the author. I surmise that finding Eliot a slog to get through might not be uncommon based on how few big screen adaptations there have been of her work – the excitement for it just isn’t there. This silent version of her historical drama is the only feature version ever attempted (a one reeler of 1911 preceded it) and it was made at a time just before it would have been impossible to do without ruinously expensive set building. Director Henry King – whose career stretched from 1915’s “Should a Wife Forgive?” to 1962’s “Tender is the Night” – hied his cast off to Italy and filmed in Florence, Tuscany and Pisa… yes, that really is the actual leaning tower seen in the background at one point! At the time the locales were not much different than they’d been in the time of the Medicis and Savoranola, which is the period in which the story is set (the latter is even a character in the tale). Technology, including the introduction of the automobile, would soon make such location production difficult (only a year earlier Universal gave up on its plan to make “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in Paris because the city was no longer Quasimodo’s home town).
The potboiler story begins just after the Medicis have been driven out at the urging of Savoranola and centers on Romola (Lillian Gish), who is beloved by painter Carlo (Ronald Colman) and the daughter of a blind scholar. A shipwrecked man calling himself Tito (William Powell) and claiming to be a scholar (he is neither a scholar nor named Tito) arrives in town and ends up in Romola’s household. The old man urges his daughter and the bogus scholar into marriage with hopes his great work will be completed by his son-in-law. Tito has meanwhile been pursuing Tessa (Dorothy Gish), who sells milk and garlic (!) in the square and is pregnant with his child after a marriage that is obviously fake to everyone but her. Tito also becomes involved in the city’s new, increasingly non-democratic, government and in that capacity is the one who sentences Savoranola to death (the crowds that once loved the monk turned on him and he was hanged and burnt). With sound some of the psychological insights that are said to be in Eliot’s novel might have been presented but as a silent film this is pure melodrama. It is impressively mounted, however, and a film crying out, nay, screaming for restoration and BluRay on the basis of its cityscapes alone. This print is soft and somewhat murky – to the extent that a few of the intertitles are impossible to read. The film is preserved in the UCLA archives but until they get around to restoring it this may be as good as it gets.

THE TOUGH ONES (Roma a mano armata)
1976 / Grindhouse Releasing / 94m / $39.95 (2 BR + CD) / NR
Inspector Tanzi (Mario Merli) is a handsome, snazzily dressed cop who is of the opinion that “the law protects criminals” so he ignores the law he’s sworn to uphold. “Don’t talk to me about rights!” he shouts as he beats up a hunchbacked suspect (of course because the screenplay has him always right, the perp is a gun-loving psycho killer with sharpshooter-perfect aim). Arthur Kennedy plays his boss, the less nattily accoutered Superintendent Ruini who’s always cautioning Tanzi to hold back with less than salubrious results. Yes, it’s an Italian variation (or should we say copycat?) of the “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” films that celebrate renegade officers who are more vigilante than policemen. (To be fair the genre goes back farther than the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson vehicles; it was already old when Bruce Wayne started prowling the nighttime streets of Gotham City.) And of course, to justify such things as thrashing someone senseless before bringing him in, or planting “evidence” in his glove box, this gang is really vicious. They tie Tanzi’s girlfriend in a car and lower it into a crusher, only pausing at the last minute so she can deliver the message to lay off and collectively they are given to more maniacal laughter than might be heard at a Tod Slaughter retrospective. There are some diversions to a complicated (or possibly merely confusing) plot, such as when Tanzi happens upon a gang of rapists and clobbers the crap out of them before even attempting arrest and a kind of subplot involving Vespa riding purse snatchers who get theirs in a traffic accident after pursuit byTanzi. There’s car chases and car crashes aplenty. It’s the work of Umberto Lenzi, revered by some but basically a hack who turned his hand to giallos, pirate epics and some of the most notorious of the cannibal films. (Here there’s a scene in a slaughterhouse that is grosser than anything in the last as a cow gets disemboweled – you’ve been warned.) Those without a taste for Neopolitan genre films, and their frequently nonsensical plots, should probably steer clear.

Long’s Short Takes

~Harry H Long

BEFORE HOMOSEXUALS
2018 / First Run Features / 87m / $24.95 / NR
This prelude documentary to “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall” (and from one of the same producers, John Scagliotti, who also functions here as on and off-screen narrator and director) looks at the long history of same-sex activities courtesy art dating back to cave paintings. It takes its title from the fact that the word homosexual was coined less than two centuries ago even though men have had sex with men and women with women since before humans were homo sapiens and in all cultures of the world. Related imageWell, yes, we knew that – or at least those of us in the LGBTQ community did. Which begs the question, just who is this film aimed at? The homophobes in various fundamentalist faiths aren’t even going to give the thing a look, so its stated aim that it will “will improve understanding and respect, while decreasing intolerance, discrimination, and violence towards gays and lesbians worldwide through proving the hypothesis that gays and lesbians have always existed in every culture throughout history” seems a tad unlikely. The approach is all over the place, skipping from one period in history or one culture to another and back and forth rather than chronologically or sticking with one part of the world at a time. Additionally too much of the art is flashed on the screen for mere nanoseconds, making it difficult to determine just what its same-sex content is (if any). And Scagliotti inserts himself into the film far too much – we even get video of his wedding for no reason I could discern. I applaud the intent here, even if it is ground that’s been well covered, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

THE CLEANING LADY
2018 / RLJE Films / 90m / $27.97 / NR
Director / co-writer Jon Knaut’s thriller is nicely acted and beautifully photographed. I also admire its slow-burn approach, methodically building the story and making it incrementally more unsettling before unleashing the mayhem. Horror fans however are not going to find anything much new here in a predictable and far too credulity-stretching plot. Things happen because they must to advance the story and always involve the heroine, Alice (Alexis Kendra), making thoroughly baffling decisions. She hires one of her building’s cleaning crew, the badly scarred and barely verbal Shelly (Rachel Alig) to moonlight cleaning her apartment. Shelly is decidedly creepy – no even more than creepy, she practically has signage on her screaming Stay Away – so Alice’s decision to have her stay over for dinner and movie watching and otherwise befriend her is downright head-scratching. Shelley takes upon herself to clean Alice’s life, including murdering the latter’s married lover – a relationship Alice herself has been trying unsuccessfully to terminate. Rachel Alig in The Cleaning Lady (2018)
Shelly also seems to be trying to become Alice. Very early on she steals some jewelry and regards herself in a mirror; later she sedates Alice and makes a mask of her face to further emulate her employer. Just where she acquired that skill – or for that matter acid and the hypos of knock-out stuff she always has at the ready – is anyone’s guess. Even the backstory of how Shelly was pimped out by her mother while still very young and had boiling broth thrown on her face by a trick she treated badly explains only her ruined face and not her actions in the film. And just quite what’s going on (or at any rate why it is) with the ending I honestly can’t say. What good is to be found here lies in the acting. Kendra nails the professional woman whose life is maybe a tad too full for anything other than a half-a-loaf relationship even though she’s aware it can never blossom into anything meaningful. Alig is intense in a performance that’s essentially internal yet radiates from the screen; it’s difficult to describe but she’s incredibly scary. Elizabeth Sandy as Alice’s best friend is quite good also. It was nice to have a horror film where the female characters predominate (and where, refreshingly for an indie horror, there was no gratuitous nudity) but the clunky script is a deficit that can’t be overcome.

GUY
2018 / Icarus Films / 101m / $26.99 / NR
I’m not sure if star/director Alex Lutz’s film should be called a mockumentary. Those efforts are generally satiric (think “All You Need is Cash”) while this, despite some lighter moments, is a drama. Perhaps it’s best to term it a film in the form of a documentary. Its conceit is that filmmaker Gauthier (the mostly offscreen Tom Dingler) discovers amongst his late mother’s effects a letter she wrote to him but never sent identifying his father as pop singer Guy Jamet (Lutz as the older incarnation) with whom she had a groupie type one night stand. Under the pretext of making a documentary (one of several he claims to be working on) Gauthier seeks to know the father he never knew. He films the once very famous singer-songwriter (of very forgettable ditties) at his humble rural abode where he keeps horses and on tour, recording performances and backstage goings-on. Faux inclusions of Jamet’s TV appearances from his past – masterfully goosed to emulate fading film stock or slightly smeary videotape – are also included. There’s little real plot here; as in a documentary there are innumerable bits and pieces that may or may not add up to a portrait of the subject. Jamet interacts with his longtime lover who seems eternally to be cradling a pair of Chihuahuas, his backup band members, his manager, his stage manager and a rare lunch meeting with his son (that unknown son Gauthier’s footage is silent make it all the more poignant).
Jamet can be vibrant onstage before his still adoring and distinctly senior citizen fans but offstage he often displays the fragility of his years – he has a heart attack while horseback riding and his doctor forbids further such activity, a crushing order to a man devoted to his equine friends. Lutz –who also conceived the idea for the film and contributed to the script – is barely ever offscreen and is quite wonderful. If there is a fault here it s that the film goes on long after it’s made its points (but then most documentaries do). It does however lead to a lovely ending that goes where you’ve been expecting it to but not in the way you expect. It’s a minor piece of filmmaking – nothing earth-shattering or life-changing here but smart, even witty, perceptive and engaging. It may not alter your world but you won’t regret the time you spent with it. And you just might find it sticking with you longer than you expect. I did.

RETURN OF THE HERO (Le retour du héros)
2018 / Icarus Films / 90m / $26.98 / NR
Imagine if Jane Austen had a more robust sense of humor. Now I’ll admit Ms. Austen on page and screen is slyly witty in her satires of the social mores of her time (which evidently resonate with ours to judge from the flurry of adaptations – and not all from the BBC, mind you – that have graced screens large and small in recent years) but the lady is not LOL funny. This delicious trifle is set in Austen’s basic time and borrows a tad from the author – as well as Rostand and Shakespeare – to get its plot going. Young Pauline (Noémie Merlant) is being wooed by the older but dashing Capitaine Charles-Grégoire Neuville (Jean Dejardin) who has a snark exchanging Beatrice and Benedict-like relationship with Pauline’s older sister, Elisabeth (Mélanie Laurent). He proposes – to the delight of Pauline and her parents but the disgust of Elisabeth – and heads off to war. And then… silence. Pauline is so distraught she goes walking in the rain and contracts pneumonia. As recovery seems to hinge entirely on her will to live, Elisabeth commences to forge letters from the Capitaine declaring his love and detailing his exploits.
The young woman recovers and Elisabeth writes a final missive in which the missing soldier describes a situation he is unlikely to survive. Pauline finally notices the attention of another suitor; they marry and have a child. And then Neuville reappears, distinctly the worse for wear, having deserted and become a vagrant. Elisabeth pays him to go away but he finds it more amusing to stay and coast on his heroic celebrity (Pauline has apparently shared the faux adventures with the whole town) and use it to advance a Ponzi scheme involving a nonexistent diamond mine. Elisabeth can’t expose him without revealing her on perfidy, much to the delight of the rascal. She can plot against him but he always manages to squeak through, even when challenged to a duel by Pauline’s dead-shot husband. Dejardin – most famous on our shores for starring in the hideously overrated “The Artist” – has the showier role but for my money it is Laurent who is the center of the film. She’s the perfect Austen heroine, attempting to manage the lives of others while paying scant attention to her own but in a droll, sublime, understated way she’s also a satire of that kind of character. Co-writer/director Laurent Tirard’s film is a delicious soufflé.

TO A MORE PERFECT UNION: U. S. v. Windsor
2018 / First Run Features / 63m / $19.95 / NR
When Edie Windsor’s spouse passed away, she was presented by the IRS an enormous estate tax bill. The government did not recognize the marriage because Windsor’s partner for four decades was a woman, Thea Spyer. They’d gotten married in Canada and resided in New York; that state didn’t yet allow same-sex marriages but did recognize those conducted elsewhere. Matters on the federal level were quite different and DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was the law of the land. For those who don’t remember, this ridiculously ill-named law “defended” heterosexual unions against homosexual ones (if any defense was necessary it might have been against the high rate of divorce amongst straight couples). Windsor sought legal advice and, after many rejections, secured it from Roberta Kaplan whose firm decided to take on the case pro bono, appealing the IRS decision, eventually coming before the Supreme Court. Related image
Director Donna Zaccaro sets the stage for the legal battle with mini-histories of DOMA – created in the conservative panic following Hawaii’s legalization of same-sex marriage – and of the gay rights movement of the second half of the last century. The latter is a masterpiece of concision as older members of the LGBTQ community likely need no rehashing of those five decades but others might benefit from what is essentially an introduction. It includes the raid on Manhattan’s Stonewall bar that prompted the riot that marked the official beginning of the gay liberation movement though Zacarro rightly recognizes the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis organizations that were paving the way years earlier. In the way it takes the viewer through this landmark case, whose details and persons may not be well known, and the background, which probably is but is necessary for context and speeds through the latter to give life to the former, this is an admirable documentary. Talking heads include out actress Rosie O’Donnell, political columnist Frank Rich and NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg. The most perceptive comment, however, comes at the top of the film from Windsor herself: “There is no such thing as gay marriage; there is only marriage.”

WOMAN AT WAR (Kona fer í stríð)
2018 / Magnolia Home Entertainment / 100m / $26.98 / NR
It isn’t easy to describe Benedikt Erlingsson’s film. Maybe it would be best to term it what might have resulted if Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel (who Hitch admired, by the way) had collaborated on a project. Things center on Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who is never offscreen and who is exceptional) a community choir director who is secretly an eco-activist – or given the nature of her activism, it might be as accurate to call her a terrorist. The opening has her using her bow and arrow to pull down a power line, shutting down an aluminum plant and presumably disrupting power to homes and other businesses. Her activities have been going on long enough that the Icelandic government is prepared to capture her – it has even reached out to the United States for help – and what follows is Halla’s pursuit by a helicopter that (given there’s no camera trickery such as rear projection or CGI) surpasses Hitchcock’s justifiably famous crop-duster sequence in “North by Northwest”. It’s once the title music starts that things get quirky for Halla passes a trio (sousaphone, accordion and drums) in a field that is playing the music. Anytime there’s any music in the film these musicians – or a three woman Ukrainian a capella group – show up whether the scene is set in a street, another field or Halla’s apartment. Is it mere quirk, surrealism or a Brechtian touch, a la Lindsay Anderson’s “O Lucky Man”? I’ll leave that to you.
Halla’s life is about to get more complicated; a long-ago application for adoption has finally been approved when a young Ukrainian girl, orphaned by the war, is in need of a home and Halla’s name has come to the top if the waiting list. Should Halla be identified and captured by the combined authorities she will be imprisoned and lose her long sought chance to become a mother. And yet she just can’t pass up the urge to pull off one final, big job by blowing up an electrical tower. Her escape from this operation – which includes uses a sheep’s corpse to disguise her scent from tracking dogs (even hiding inside it so a helicopter doesn’t spot her) and bringing down a drone with her trusty bow and arrow – is even more intense than the opening scene. (The photography of these outdoor sequence, it should be mentioned is exquisite.) This is one odd movie – and I definitely do not mean that in a negative way. It’s a thriller dealing with serious political themes that’s also a human drama that’s often quite amusing (there’s a sub-plot of a bicycling Spanish tourist who is always luckless enough to be in the vicinity of Halla’s acts and thus getting arrested). And of course it’s also quite surreal with the musicians that apparently only Halla sees, nowhere more so than in its ending whose meaning the director (who co-scripted) leaves to the viewer.