Hong Sang-soo’s rapid workflow requires him to plow ahead with whatever he has in each moment. Churning out an average of two films each year for the past five years, he’s well past the point of writing scripts ahead of time, but not yet at the point of pure improvisation. He films in sequence, writing new pages each day and giving them to his actors as the production proceeds. Most of his films are “about” this process in some abstract way, introducing certain turns in the story that wouldn’t occur to more carefully-designed films, and they often focus on filmmakers or actors stuck in similar life circumstances as his own. But very few of his films are about writers. It’s notable, then, that Grass focuses on a young woman at a coffee shop who writes down observations and accounts about the conversations people around her are having.
Areum (Kim Min-hee) at first seems quite reserved, saying little outside of the voiceover, which both recounts the conversation we’ve just heard – first a young man and woman having a fight about a friend of theirs who has just died, and to whose death the young man might have contributed; then about an aging actor desperate for a place to stay; then a middle-aged actor tries to convince a young writer to join him on a 10-day writing sabbatical – and adds her own observations to it about intonation, expression, and even her own assumptions or inventions as to what they might be inferring. When approached by the middle-age actor, who quickly tries to rope her into the writing vacation as well, she asserts that she’s not a writer, and is just keeping a sort of diary (only not a diary), and that she and her boyfriend are too shy to allow her to take a trip with another man.
We don’t see her boyfriend, if he even exists; we do see her brother, whom she berates (in front of his girlfriend) for considering marriage in a manner uncharacteristic of the shy girl she’s heretofore set herself out to be. Hong’s characters often have these sort of transformations, putting on one face to strangers and a very different attitude towards anyone they’re even on even slightly intimate terms with. Areum never has to see hers come into conflict the way many of his other characters have, but perhaps it’s still to happen somewhere beyond the coffee shop borders.
Classical music, another Hong staple, is heard throughout the film, only revealed about a quarter of the way through to be the actual music playing within the coffee shop; what once had seemed to be an uncommonly romantic touch now feels distancing, almost confrontational to the audience, but there’s something interesting about Hong placing his own musical taste on the unseen presence of the coffee shop owner, who’s said to be a fan of the genre. The owner also lets people sit around and talk all day, which speaks a bit to Hong’s own working method.
Like most of Hong’s work, there isn’t much of a lesson or conclusion to anything, and we’re left to make our own assumptions the way Areum does. She seems quite lonely, the writing she does a way of reaching out within herself and clarifying a world that’s less easy to control – she can’t tell her brother what to do, but she can invent lives and dynamics for these strangers. Areum is also the name of Kim’s character in last year’s The Day After; both it and Grass are filmed in black-and-white, and the former takes place amidst a small publishing house. One could almost imagine each film’s Areum to be the same person, Grass exploring the sort of prose with which The Day After’s might engage before, during, or after the events of that film. I’ve suggested before that Hong’s filmography has become something like an irregular TV show for the devoted cinephile, and while I hate to go all “fan theory” on a director who often repeats names, incidents, and conflict, it is intriguing nonetheless.
Hong’s turn toward black-and-white of late has been very fruitful. His other film this year, Hotel by the River, is one of his most beautiful. Grass has a different, much harder feel to it, but there’s more texture to it, a sort of density that makes each person and object feel carved out of cement. This creates an interesting contrast with the contemporary technology – MacBooks, smart phones, and cars – so that even one of Hong’s more densely-populated films still has an air of purgatory. Like Hotel by the River, his characters seem drawn to and stuck in the film’s main setting, and as in that slightly-earlier film, we never see the proprietor of their establishment. We only know what they can loosely recall. Is He God, or merely the director, and is there much of a difference in work of art anyway? This is all loosely-connected philosophizing, the sort of thing Hong’s loose cinema encourages. Have a seat, take in the air.
One day, perhaps I’ll be so well-rounded a cinephile that I can spend all of TCM Fest hunting down rarities. But, until then, I will continue to occasionally use it as an excuse to cross some major blind spots off my film to-do list. This year, one such outing was made to see Robert Hamer’s 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets, the first DCP screening I attended this time around. As a fan of movies in general and dark comedy in particular, I’d had the film recommended to me so often that I wasn’t particularly surprised when it delivered on every one of my expectations. Hamer’s direction and screenplay (cowritten with John Dighton) work together with the cast like a troupe of elite ballet dancers. There’s no light between them, no place where the outside can get in (speaking of light, the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe, who shot, among other things, the original Indiana Jones trilogy). The story is both straightforward (a low-ranking noble murders his way up the chain of succession to a dukedom) and baroque, as the movie winkingly takes on Louis’ (Dennis Price) pretensions and flowery affectations. The only thing that breaks the spell is a jarring but, I suppose, period-appropriate use of the n-word, which only appears in the UK version that was screened.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? God, no, these stuffy aristocrats may kill but they would never do anything so seedy as attend a nightclub.
As is often the case when a director remakes their own film, Leo McCarey’s second attempt, 1957’s An Affair to Remember, is better known than the original, 1939’s Love Affair. For someone my age, that probably has a lot to do with Sleepless in Seattle, which also played the festival this year. Films at TCM Fest are often introduced by TCM hosts or celebrities and Dana Delaney, who spoke before this one, says she prefers the earlier version. And I’m not one to argue with Dana Delaney. Especially when her argument boils down to chemistry, something stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer have in such abundance, it practically makes the film feel like 3D. Dunne and Boyer play too people who are engaged, but not to one another, who meet on a cross-Atlantic ocean liner, immediately fall for each other and, upon arrival in New York, vow to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months if their feelings haven’t subsided. But Terry (Dunne) gets hit by a car on her way to the rendezvous and refuses to try to connect with Michel (Boyer) until she learns to walk again (the film’s ableist undercurrents are the only major weak point). The screenplay, by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart, is full of witty banter, much of it about the indignities of fame, and yet so much of the movie’s power, including the overwhelmingly beautiful finale, lies in non-verbal strokes. When they disembark, for instance, Michel’s fiancee meets him as he gets off the ship and then Terry must literally come between them to exit the gangplank. Love Affair is a witty and touching romance with a better head on its shoulders than most such movies. What remake?
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? Yes, indeed. When Terry leaves her fiance, she makes ends meet by getting a job singing in a ritzy club.
Look, it’s not like every single pre-Code movie was boiling over with sex, violence and vaporous morality. But sometimes you get one that’s exactly that. Take Rowland Brown’s Blood Money from 1933. Here you have a story of a bail bondsman, serendipitously named Bill Bailey (George Bancroft), who prays on the poor families of criminals and is friendly with the Los Angeles underworld big shots. His best friend and sorta paramour, awesomely named Ruby Darling (Judith Anderson), runs a nightclub. Her brother, Drury (Chick Chandler), is a professional bank robber. Through him, Bill meets Elaine Talbart (Frances Dee), a kleptomaniac heiress who also happens to be a masochist whose dream guy is a violent criminal who will beat her up and treat her like dirt. The whole thing (but especially Dee’s character; holy cow!) is, as the kids on Twitter say way too often, wild. It’s not just a collection of squalid characters and situations, though. There’s a ripping good yarn about the manipulation of the cash bail system and the middle ground between criminals and the law that bail bondsmen occupy. Plus Bill and Ruby’s relationship is more nuanced and layered than it perhaps would have been had some neutered version of this story been made a few years later. You probably also wouldn’t have heard Bill’s bold distinction between liberals and conservatives on the subject of vice. But you might have still heard the line that got the biggest laugh, “He’s not in to you,” which played differently than intended but still worked.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? Yeah. Not from a main character but it takes place largely at a nightclub.
This year marked the tenth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, the annual gathering of classic film enthusiasts in Hollywood for a long weekend of old movies and the love of same. Though I couldn’t fully celebrate alongside the festival’s organizers and true diehards, this only being my fourth time attending, I seem to have subconsciously decided to do the festival the way the biggest fans do. Almost everything I saw was shown on film and almost everything I saw was black and white. I found time for multiple pre-Code movies, one silent film and nothing not in the English language (an unfortunate tendency of the otherwise lovely TCM festival-goers is an apathy toward foreign films). It was a blast, even if my schedule was a little tighter than usual, and I can’t wait for the eleventh (my fifth) one.
I started off with one of those pre-Code entries, 1932’s Night World, directed by Hobart Henley. This is one of those ensemble films that take place over the course of one night that they’re still making today. In this case, Boris Karloff plays Happy, a nightclub owner with mob connections, Mae Clarke plays one of the club’s showgirls and Lew Ayres plays a sad, wealthy drunk who’s hanging around. There’s also Happy’s very unhappy wife (Dorothy Revier), the choreographer (Russell Hopton) she’s having an affair with, Tim the doorman (Clarence Muse) and the wealthy drunk’s wealthy mother (Hedda Hopper). Ayres is as close to a lead the film has but, as often happens in such scenarios, he’s the least interesting thing in it, the still center of the whirling chaos. Night World announces its pre-Code sense of fun and danger right from the beginning, with a montage of neon signs at canted angles giving way to close-ups of garter belts, some random gunfire and then, hilariously, a child praying. The night doesn’t end well for everyone but it does for the audience.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? Yes, Clarke and the rest of Happy’s showgirls perform a delightful song called “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?”, choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
Made well into the Hays Code era but, in its own way, at least as scandalous as Night World is John Reinhardt’s Open Secret from 1948. Despite its obvious shoestring budget, there’s a seedy, enveloping allure to George Robinson’s dark and shadowy noir cinematography. Seriously, it’s really dark; one hand-to-hand fight scene takes place in a photographer’s dark room. John Ireland and Jane Randolph play newlyweds Paul and Nancy Lester who decide to make a stop on their honeymoon to visit Paul’s old Army buddy. Only, when they arrive in town, he’s disappeared. Following the clues leads Paul to uncover a group of, essentially, neo-Nazis (before that term existed) who are using increasingly unscrupulous methods to drive out immigrants and Jews from the neighborhood. It’s a surprisingly frank depiction and unambiguous denunciation of hate. And it’s all wrapped up in a very cool film noir milieu. It also contains one of my favorite stylistic flourishes, the diegetic title card; the two Nazis who are dispatched to kill Paul’s friend at the beginning walk past a fence with “Marathon Pictures Presents” and “Open Secret” painted on it on their way to do the deed.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? No. Song licensing probably wasn’t in the budget.
Decidely more of an A-picture noir from the same year is Jean Negulesco’s Road House. Every year, TCM Fest screens a handful of films on nitrate prints. This was the only one I made it to this time around but it was worth the dash down the street to the Egyptian Theatre and the long wait to get in. Ida Lupino stars as Lily, a lounge singer hired for a six week engagement at a road house by Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark), a small town rich kid and the establishment’s owner. Jefty’s only hired Lily in order to woo her but she finds him, well, resistible and quickly falls instead for Pete (Cornel Wilde), Jefty’s regular-Joe pal and the road house’s manager. Where Open Secret made do with a handful of cheap, reusable sets, Road House drips in production design and the occasional, distinct location, like the bowling alley where Lily and Pete first start to spark. The music–both the score by Cyril Mockridge and the many songs performed by Lupino herself–tells as much of a story as the script does. With gin-soaked details like the cigarette burns on Lily’s piano, Road House is a clear precursor to Steve Kloves’ The Fabulous Baker Boys and Ida Lupino blazes onscreen just as much as Michelle Pfeiffer would 40 years later. Lupino’s legacy as the only female director working in Hollywood in the 1950s is assured and well-earned. But her screen presence here–whether singing or bowling, sexy or cute, always in charge–is worth remembering her for too.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? Yeah, Lupino performs a bunch of songs, though she more purrs than sings (not that that’s a complaint) her way through numbers like “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”
If Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night (1942) isn’t as well remembered as some of the other films featuring its heavy hitter cast, it might be because of similarities that some could see as redundant. That cast includes Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, who would all reteam later that year for Casablanca. Hell, Bogart even plays an antihero who faces off against Nazis led by Conrad Veidt; it’s like it was a practice run. Plus, the part of the story where rival gangs team up to take on a common enemy the police are too incompetent to handle themselves is reminiscent of M, the movie that made Lorre an international star. The difference is that, as serious a subject as Nazi fifth columnists in America was, All Through the Night has an almost anarchic sense of fun to it. I mean, Veidt’s Nazi leader has a pet dachsund (of course) that follows him wherever he goes. And the whole plot only kicks off because the Nazis kill the baker who happens to make the cheesecake that Bogart’s gang boss, “Gloves” Donahue, eats every day. Though Gloves’ initial goals in tracking down the traitors are more gastronomic than patriotic, All Through the Night is an unabashed work of propaganda meant, like Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and many other films of the era, to stir up American support for entering the ongoing war. The movie does take the Nazis (who speak often in unsubtitled German) seriously, even though casual, almost humorous references to Dachau come off as insultingly clueless today. But this is still the kind of movie where guys disappear around a corner only for us to see their tall, lingering shadows get conked on the head.
Does it include a nightclub/lounge singer? Yep, it finds time for that too, as the damsel in distress is a German gal named Leda (Kaaren Verne) forced by Veidt’s crew to work in nightclubs while her father is held hostage back home.
Given the excessive level of nostalgia in our contemporary media, is it fussy or selective to make the distinction between whether or not it’s historical, cultural or personal? Perhaps that’s why Brighton Beach Memoirs feels so refreshing. With so many shows and movies relying on timely humor and pop culture references, the reappraisal of something like Brighton Beach Memoirs stands out thanks to the strong sense of contextual juxtaposition subtly powered by Neil Simon’s script and a cast of low-key power players.
It’s a simple film in the best possible sense of the word. Gene Saks’ direction is smart, economical and clean but the film’s frequency is at its strongest because seasoned film scribe Simon knows how to strike an unemphatic fluency with a blend of comical romanticism that’s both personal and nostalgic. Brighton Beach Memoirs looks to the past but isn’t regressive, nor does it pander to a generational demographic. The tightest element is the setting. This is, without a doubt, New York in the 1930s. The family is working poor and very Jewish. Carrying us through the varied narratives turns of the Morris Jerome family is Eugene. He’s the youngest of the two brothers. The house is crowded with his brother, parents and aunt, recently widowed with two daughters. As if that weren’t enough, Eugene is navigating the perils of puberty to boot and the kid is an oozing mess of adolescent curiosity. Eugene is a sounding board, a surrogate Neil Simon, and his frank portrayal of certain “growing pains” is shrewdly brilliant. The film travails the inherent awkwardness of puberty at its apex and all the baggage that comes with it. The material is a revealing turn and the delivery is wry and slides into the manifold quirks that steadily populate the film. Simon’s script is clever but never descends into self-satisfied territory. Eugene is our guide, our protagonist, and his wall-breaking quips maintain the pace and the rhythm. It’s a breezy experience because we like Eugene and the Morris Jerome family. Jonathan Silverman’s performance makes Jerome a squeaky-voiced cipher who somehow channels the cultural, political and societal tenor through the experiences of a Jewish family and their relatable family traditions and rituals. Whether it’s getting advice from your wise older brother, lamenting the chores and errands appointed by your mother, pushing around the food on your dinner plate because it seems gross (and you’re too young to appreciate a hot meal), finding your father unapproachable while glued to the news or realizing that you’re not a freak because everyone masturbates, Brighton Beach Memoirs knows how to ride a wave of unique familiarity.
The term “slice of life” is a bit of a cliche but Saks and Simon work in harmonious tandem, making Brighton Beach Memoirs a smart and fun viewing experience that retains a timeless quality in its suave construction. Simon’s comedic chops were solidified with The Odd Couple and were finely tuned in his collaboration with Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid) but Brighton Beach Memoirs is closest to Biloxi Blues as they both play on a relaxed formula of idiosyncratic relatability.
Shout! Factory Select has been distributing a thread of movies that veer from the more cult/schlock territory of their proper line but they still have an eye for superlative fare that might be overlooked or underseen (Kalifornia, Suburbia, The Boxer, etc.) and Brighton Beach Memoirs fits into their unpredictably fun rubric. The transfer looks and sounds excellent. Though short on bonus features this Blu-ray is a delectable treat for anyone in need of a revisit or newcomers alike.
Is there anything worse than a stupid film that thinks it’s smart or, even worse, insightful? It can be a lethal combination for any work of art, but there’s something specific about film, which combines so many different stylistic elements, that throws this horrific contradiction into sharp relief. A delusional script can be bad enough, but its flaws can be compounded by self conscious camera work and seemingly-edgy editing, each utilized for maximum impact. The end result of such unearned-confidence is often a film that has all the outward appearances of having a point of view, but has literally nothing to say that the viewer hasn’t already heard in a spirited high school debate.
Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia – recently released on Blu-Ray by Shout Factory – has all the narrative and stylistic trappings of a standard 90s thriller, from the aggressive dutch angles to the smash cuts to the nihilistic protagonists. It features elements that we’ve seen before – and more memorably – in films like True Romance and Natural Born Killers. And yet, like a sheltered midwestern kid who takes his first philosophy class, the film seems to think that it has stumbled onto some deep moral truths that it is deigning to let the audience in on.
The story involves sophisticated yuppies Brian and Carrie (David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes) attempting to write a book about serial killers. They decide to take a cross country road trip, visiting notorious crime scenes on their way to California. Realizing that they can’t afford to take such a trip by themselves, they hook up with mysterious redneck Early (Brad Pitt) and his naive girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis). This mismatched foursome soon begin to enjoy each other’s company, with Brian particularly taken with Early’s devil-may-care approach to life. Soon, though, darker truths are revealed as Early begins to wreak havoc on his new friends, and Brian learns more about the darker side of humanity than he ever thought possible.
The elitist underestimating of the lower class is always a good hook to hang a story on, and has worked in films as varied as Barton Fink and Cape Fear, with David Mamet’s State and Main being a personal favorite of mine. And yet while the film seems to take joy in disabusing Brian and Carrie of their superior attitudes, it also can’t help but operate on the same preconceptions. Early and Adele’s thick southern accents and unsophisticated comments are only ever meant to be scoffed at. And Early’s lower class mannerisms – from his spitting to his stupid cackle to his exaggerated mosey – are only ever meant to be disgusting, even before he is revealed to be a psychotic monster.
So we are left with a film that condemns its higher class characters for their pretentious views of others, but is more than content to adopt those views itself, looking down on those that might not have the same level of education as the writers. The end product is undeniably misanthropic, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the film’s ideas weren’t so utterly basic. Duchovny’s bored voiceover is meant to give the audience deeper insights into these events, but is so broad and generic that one wonders if Brian has actually learned anything from this horrifying affair.
The ineffectiveness of the voiceover is not the fault of Duchovny. He does what he can to show us a man whose realizations about the nature of evil are rocking his world, and he plays these moments with the appropriate mixture of panic and sadness. Michelle Forbes is equally effective as a woman whose natural suspicion leads her to realize something is wrong long before anybody else. And Juliette Lewis’ Adele is equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking, as her inability to grapple with her boyfriend’s brutality rings true in a way that belongs in a much better movie.
The weak spot here is Pitt, who was unfortunately still in the trying-too-hard phase of his career. As he has gotten older, Pitt has become increasingly comfortable on camera, eventually realizing that to simply exist as the character will do more to connect with the viewer than all the physical affections and verbal tics in the world. His Early is more a collection of mannerisms than a true character, played by an attractive young actor seemingly out to prove that he is more than just a pretty face. When we compare his psychopath to Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which would be released two years later, the flaws in Pitt’s performance become all the more apparent. I may be a fan of Pitt’s effortless work in films like Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and the Ocean’s Eleven films, but here he is just painful to watch.
The camerawork by Bojan Bazelli is certainly striking, and at times borders on expressionistic, but it only serves to dress up a mediocre film in more respectable clothes. And Carter Burwell’s score is mostly unmemorable, which is a crime considering his amazing work in similar films like Blood Simple and The Spanish Prisoner.
Overall, Kalifornia is a film with big ideas, but never quite finds a way to bring them down to earth. We’ve seen movie psychopaths before, and have explored the nature of good and evil. Without anything new to bring to the conversation, Dominic Sena is reliant on his stylistic flourishes and performances, some of which are effective, but only underline the film’s empty-headedness. It is pulpy trash masquerading as an art film, ultimately failing to be either.
El Desencanto is something of a cult favorite in Spain but has not seen a release in the United States until this year. Its reputation is not unlike that of Grey Gardens, which came out the year before El Desencanto, treading similar ground in its portrait of an eccentric family of considerable but diminishing wealth. Viewed in that mindset, it certainly won’t disappoint; it’s early in the movie when two of the drunken brothers (they’re all drunk) get into a shouting match about, among other things, the film itself. Later, the eldest brother gives the viewer an inventory of the things he carries always with him: A pen, a book of poems by Borges, a switchblade (he claims it’s saved his life twice) and a collection of photos of famous people, like F. Scott Fitzgerald (“alcoholic, like myself, with a horrible wife, like myself”). It’s all very entertaining but the comparison to Grey Gardens is a facile one. Another thing that happened the year before the film’s release was the death of Francisco Franco. El Desencanto is as much a profile of one idiosyncratic family as it is of a class of people who went from entrenched to unmoored in Spain’s transition to democracy.
Leopoldo Panero was a poet from the city of Astorga. Well-connected, he was able (despite his youthful leftist activism) to work his way into the good graces of Franco’s government and eventually enjoyed great acclaim and appointments as a cultural ambassador. He was no lickspittle, though. He frustrated his government by continuing to associate with people such as exiled gay poet Luis Cernuda. When he died in 1962, he left behind a wife, Felicidad, who wrote short stories; two sons, Juan Luis and Leopoldo, celebrated poets in their own right; and another son, Michi, who would go on to be a newspaper and magazine columnist. Director Jaime Chávarri conducted a series of group and solo interviews with the family on the occasion of their patriarch’s statue being unveiled in Astorga. These raw and immediate conversations make up nearly the entirety of El Desencanto.
Made for an audience that would have been familiar with the elder Leopoldo, the movie does little to illuminate him. What impression we do get of him as a father and husband is not especially flattering. He seems to have controlled every aspect of Felicidad’s life. She reveals that her friendships with other women came to an end after her marriage and that she feels she regained her youth after her husband’s death. None of this, it should be noted, is said with any acrimony. She loved and loves him dearly. The viewer may not feel the same way, though, especially when his attitude toward puppies is explored.
In fact, be warned. That puppy story is truly upsetting. But it’s also a testament to the candor of the Panero family and of the magnetism and alchemy that seems to exist between them and Chávarri. On paper, El Desencanto sounds dry. It consists of little more than constant talking by four family members (who appear in different arrangements but, oddly, never all together) and practically no music save a bit of Schubert at the very end. Yet their stories, their forthrightness and their many grudges make them captivating to behold. Chávarri subtly provokes the drama with the occasional push-in on Felicidad or, stunningly, one exquisite pull out from Michi. His editing style adds layers, as well. He will, for example, cut from a heated confrontation between Felicidad and young Leopoldo to a one on one interview with the latter, conducted at an unspecified time, which makes it seems as if the man is drunkenly commenting on himself in the moment.
Not that Chávarri had to trick these folks into self-commentary. They possess the witty frankness that can only come with the unquestioned delusions of grandeur enjoyed by wealthy people. When Felicidad reminds young Leopoldo of a costume party which he attended “dressed as a harlequin,” he replies, “Yes, I was dressed as myself.” You could write that, of course, but who would buy it? Two of the sons may have made careers of poetry but they are all poets. Without their father or Franco, though, they are more like bards without patrons, ronin of the written word. As one son sees it, language is a religion and intellectuals the “priestly class.” He’s hammered when he says this, of course, but it’s a hell of thought either way.
It all culminates in an extended showdown between Felicidad and two of her sons that’s shocking in its honesty and in how no one ever raises their voices; the Paneros are too sophisticated to yell. It’s late in this section of the movie in which Michi invokes the word desencanto, which means disenchantment. He’s referring to his and his family’s lives in the wake of his father’s death but he’s also, perhaps, talking about the slow, sad end of the aristocratic way of life they’ve held for so long. El Desencanto opens and closes with shots of the yet to be unveiled statue. With a tarp wrapped and taped around it, it resembles a corpse prepped for disposal. We know the figure under there is a likeness of Leopoldo Panero but it could just as well be Franco himself.
When writing about a Christian film, it’s tempting to simply look at the film’s many faults and dismiss it out of hand. And while this may be a perfectly legitimate approach, it fails to acknowledge faith-based film not only as its own genre, but as one that’s still evolving. When reviewing any genre film – be it a western, noir, or sci fi – one can’t go in with traditional expectations. After all, it would be unfair to hold the latest zombie film to the same narrative standard as, say, Manchester by the Sea. So, when discussing Roxann Dawson’s Breakthrough, I’m less inclined to emphasize the various ways that it falls short of traditional dramatic expectations and more apt to point out the general improvements that the film represents in the Christian film genre.
Based on the true story of a family in crisis, Breakthrough is all about the power of prayer and miracles. A teenage boy named John (Marcel Ruiz) falls into a frozen lake and goes without any oxygen for almost twenty minutes before being rescued. As he lay unconscious at the hospital, clinging to his last shred of life, his mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), and father, Brian (Josh Lucas), pray and ponder how God could allow such a thing to happen. They are joined by their local pastor, Jason (Topher Grace), and a number of well-wishers in the community.
This being a Christian film, it goes without saying that the boy will wake up, with no long-lasting damage. The faith-based film industry is not in the habit of telling stories that end in tragedy. In fact, at this point, the “miraculous recovery of an injured child” storyline is practically a subgenre in itself, with films like Heaven is for Real and Miracles from Heaven being notable examples. And, like those films, Breakthrough operates at a slightly higher level than the usual faith-based fare.
Though the film is certainly a step in the right direction, it is still not particularly dynamic. Many filmmaking elements – so crucial in elevating a story – are merely functional here. The music is unmemorable, meant only to affirm the emotions the audience is already feeling. The cinematography is flat and uninspired, as though the camera were merely a way to capture the story and not enhance it. And while there are definite improvements to be found in this script, it still falls into many of the same narrative traps that past films like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead did before, attempting to broaden the story to incorporate several peripheral characters, but then never really knowing what to do with them.
While it retains the frustratingly-broad story beats and character types, where Breakthrough really distinguishes itself is in the acting. As Joyce, Chrissy Metz creates a character that feels lived-in. Having been raised in the church myself, I feel like I’ve met people like Joyce, who genuinely attempts to encourage and embolden others while never quite hiding her judgment and mistrust. Metz’s Joyce is an imperfect person whose pride often gets in the way of emotional connection with other people, even her own husband. This is a huge step forward in Christian film, which too often treats its protagonists as infallible.
The rest of the cast is solid, as well. Josh Lucas brings a fragile authenticity to his role as a man whose faith is solid as long as things are going well, but begins to falter when the chips are down. And few people can balance smarm and sincerity quite as well as Topher Grace. Rounding out the cast are Mike Colter as John’s rescuer and Dennis Haysbert as a cautious medical expert, both of whom lend solid support to the leads. And young Marcel Ruiz wisely plays John as confused and conflicted, even at a time when everybody else thinks that the only thing he should be feeling is gratitude.
And it is in John’s wary attitude about his own miraculous healing that I am most encouraged. Christian films, historically, aren’t known for their nuance. These are movies made by Christians for Christians. As such, thematic corners are cut and the proceedings take on a decidedly complacent air, with the directors – possibly unconsciously – relying both on their audience’s understanding and forgiveness. With a target demo so indulgent, the temptation to pander has proven itself to be more than many directors can resist. Soon enough, stories about miraculous happenings are fully embraced, without ever really questioning the larger implications. And while Breakthrough isn’t necessarily about the more complicated elements of faith – such as wondering why God saves one person and not another – the film’s acknowledgement that they exist is something that I’m unaccustomed to seeing in Christian film. Here’s hoping that future faith-based films show a willingness to take up Breakthrough’s baton and run a little further with it.
In the end, Breakthrough will likely only appeal to Christian audiences. This isn’t automatically a bad thing. Every audience deserves to be served, especially if that service involves thematic elements that can alternately inspire and challenge it. As much as we critics might condemn films like this for “preaching to the choir”, we seem to ignore the fact that even the most entrenched choir can use a good sermon now and again. And while that sermon may be eye-rollingly obvious more often than it should, Breakthrough gives me a glimmer of hope that, slowly but surely, it’s getting better.
Horror is the best genre of cinema. Not all my favorite movies are horror movies but it’s the category of film in which I have the highest success rate of enjoyment. I’m convinced that there are more people than you’d think who feel the same way but are hesitant to admit it because of the genre’s “low” status. That’s why it’s so often that, when a horror movie is undeniably good, you see words like “elevated” get thrown around. I don’t know what the nature of snobbery was like in 1945 but, if The Body Snatcher (out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory) were released today, this Val Lewton-produced, Robert Wise-directed movie might have earned that kind of condescending praise from the false sophisticates of the film world.
Set in 1831 Edinburgh, The Body Snatcher takes place in the shadow of the infamous Burke and Hare killings, in which two young men murdered sixteen people over the course of ten months and sold the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for anatomical dissection and lessons. In what’s essentially a fictional sequel to real world events, Henry Daniell plays Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane, Knox’s successor, and Boris Karloff plays a coachman named Gray who soon takes up where the executed Burke and the exiled Hare left off. Russell Wade (ostensibly the film’s lead but by far the least interesting thing in it) plays MacFarlane’s new student who uncovers Gray’s actions. And Bela Lugosi plays a dimwitted man in MacFarlane’s employ in his final pairing with Karloff.
Some twenty years before making the movies for which he is best known, Wise may have still been fairly green as a director but his command of filmmaking is already on display in touches like the masterful blocking that gives depths to the small, gothic sets. The quiet and the patience of The Body Snatcher only intensifies the elements of the story that, while not exactly scary, are undeniably horrific. Gray’s first murder is no less shocking for the fact that it takes place unseen by the camera in the arches of shadow just outside the town square at midnight.
As much as it’s a movie about grisly killings, The Body Snatcher is also a movie about class. Gray is every bit as intelligent and cunning, if not more so, than the learned Dr. MacFarlane but his lower standing means he has less to lose even though he is the one directly responsible for the murders. The fact that he knows that makes him even more terrifyingly dangerous.
Scream Factory’s remastering, from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, is sharp in contrast and rich in texture. The only picture issues are some occasional out of focus shots, which are inherent and can’t be helped. The audio is in stereo.
Special features include a featurette on the restoration; a commentary with historian Steve Haberman and Wise; and a documentary on Lewton.
Isolation and claustrophobia are about the hardest hitting one-two combination the horror genre can deliver. If not baked right into the premise (The Descent, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead), they’re often deployed to heighten a scene’s tension (the final act in Jaws or the hitchhiker scene in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). There’s nothing scarier than inserting a character in a tight space removed from humanity. Warning Sign, Scream Factory’s latest release, is a film with a horror-lite premise that capitalizes on the scares by playing to audiences’ fear of isolation and claustrophobia.
Sam Waterston is Cal Morse, the Sheriff of a small town in Utah and home to BioTek, a secretive agricultural research facility. Following a bio-chemical accident, a virus is unleashed that causes those infected to become murderous, id-driven versions of themselves. With connective tissue to The Thing and Day of the Dead (though not as deliciously disgusting as either of those films), Warning Sign is a lean horror-thriller that uses a single location to great effect, transforming the sterile walls of a research facility into a labyrinth of violence, unease, and paranoia. Sheriff Morse—stuck on the outside, trying to save his wife inside—must evade the bureaucratic insidiousness of Yaphet Kotto’s Major Connolly (a precursor to Kotto’s Agent Alonzo Mosely in the formative 80s action film Midnight Run), who’s tasked with containing the infection and covering up the incident.
The horrors in Warning Sign are less immediate and more existential than the films that inspired it. Whereas The Thing gets its scares from the fear of being trapped in isolation with danger, Warning Sign plays on the fears of those dangers leaking into the outside world. Director Hal Barwood has a distinct command of tone that make the scenes inside the lab—with shots that linger ominously on austere hallways cast in shadows and long shots of infected individuals as they creep closer to potential victims—feel vital and tense. However, the movie struggles to maintain the claustrophobic tension it achieves when the action moves outside the research facility. Sheriff Morse enlists the help of Dr. Dan Fairchild (the always welcomed Jeffrey DeMunn), a former doctor at the facility who knows all of its secrets, to assist in containing the virus. And if the goal of a horror film is to increase the tension until the surmounting pressure makes the viewer want to pop, these scenes outside the research facility are unnecessary pressure release valves. It would be as if Ridley Scott took regular breaks amid the action in Alien to give the audience a peak at Weyland-Yutani Board meetings.
In the war against the capitalist curation of streaming services, Scream Factory continues to be a noble soldier, offering horror fans the opportunity to see forgotten oddities and small pictures that would otherwise go unnoticed. Warning Sign is one of those movies, an exciting horror entry that under-performed at the box office over 30 years ago and whose death was ordered by the endless content assault from Netflix, Hulu, and their ilk.