|Films I Neglected To Review: Hold Hands
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Lovebirds" and "The Mysteries of Lisbon" and looks at the new blu-rays of "The Deer Hunter" and "Husbands."
Like many other art house theaters throughout the country, Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements that will give them a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. Via the Film Center, you can see "Lucky Grandma," a smart and fun comedy-drama about a cantankerous Chinese grandmother (Tsai Chin) whose decision to gamble her savings at local casino ends up landing her in the middle of a gang way. Bruno Dumont's "Joan of Arc" is a fairly spellbinding work that follows up his earlier "Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc" (in which the story of her early years was conveyed largely as a heavy metal rock opera) with a narrative that focuses on her struggles with the French military and culminates with her infamous trial where she was tried, convicted and executed on charges of heresy. As was the case with the earlier film, this one is anchored by an incredible lead performance from 10-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme that ranks as one of the all-time great takes on the role. "Papicha" is a stirring drama from Mounia Meddour that follows a young woman (Lyna Khoudri) in 90s-era Algeria who tries to combat the increasing restrictions placed on all women at the time by putting on a fashion show. Through the Music Box, you can view Raul Ruiz's six part epic "The Mysteries of Lisbon" (more on that below) as well as the return of "Blackfish," Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary that looks at the subject of putting killer whales into captivity in aquariums and the dangers they pose to humans and orcas alike.
To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa
"The Lovebirds" was just about set for a conventional theatrical release last April when it became an early casualty of the coronavirus panic and Paramount Pictures elected to simply sell the film to Netflix rather than postpone it to an unsure future date. Frankly, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to it because if it had landed in theaters, most viewers would have come away from it complaining that it felt like a movie that belonged exclusively on the small screen and not an especially good one at that. Four years after meeting cute, couple-on-the-rocks Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) are bickering as the drive to a dinner party and come to the conclusion that their relationship is over. Just then, a man claiming to be an undercover cop (Paul Sparks) commandeers their car and uses it to run over and kill a fleeing cyclist before disappearing. Assuming that they will be arrested and charged for the murder, the two decide that their only hope of avoiding jail is to track down the killer while avoiding the cops. Whether this leads to the two encountering a bunch of crazy hijinks and perhaps rediscovering the things that they loved about each other in the first place, I will leave for you to discover.
Considering the combined talents of Rae, Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter (who co-wrote the cult classic "Wet Hot American Summer" and directed such inspired films as "The Baxter" (2005), "Hello, My Name is Doris" (2015) and "The Big Sick" (2017), you might go into "The Lovebirds" with fairly high expectations that the film appears to be in unseemly haste to deflate. The plot is one of those patently absurd contrivances that requires every single character act as if they have banana bread for brains because the whole thing will grind to a halt the moment someone acts sensibly. This is especially frustrating because Showalter's past work has demonstrated a flair for humorously mining the kind of hackneyed cinematic tropes that are embraced wholesale here. More disappointing is that Nanjiani and Rae, both of whom have demonstrated their considerable comedic chops in the past, never really gel together as a comedic duo--their characters have been together for years but you always get the sense that they just met before the first take of every scene--and while they run into a large cast of wacky characters along the way, none of them make much of an impression either. There are a couple of moments here and there that I did find amusing but the fact that I am writing this less than a day after watching it and I cannot recall any of them should indicate just how unmemorable the whole enterprise. Too dull to get too upset over, "The Lovebirds" is a peculiar disappointment that wastes a lot of gifted people on material that is far beneath their talents. I suppose watching it is more fun than a pan of CGI bacon grease to the face but you could just blindly pick something on Netflix and the chances are pretty good that it will turn out to be more memorable than it is.
Having already managed to wrestle a worthwhile cinematic adaptation of of Marcel Proust's seemingly unfilmable "Time Regained" in 1999, celebrated Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz would tackle an even more ambitious project a little more than a decade later with "The Mysteries of Lisbon," a 2010 adaptation of the epic novel by Camilo Castelo Branco that would prove to be one of his last projects before he died a year later. To call the narrative sprawling would be an understatement--it flits around Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, all the major characters seem to have at least two different identities and the story involves numerous romantic triangles, people seeking vengeance for past wrongs, and the Napoleonic Wars and even throws in some pirates for good measure--and even clocking in at 272 minutes, it still felt overstuffed. In fact, Ruiz had originally prepared the project as a six-part miniseries that ran for over six hours and then reworked it into the shorter theatrical version, apparently shooting some footage exclusive to that version to help smooth some transitions. Now the full-length version, which initially concerns the attempts by a teenaged boy known as Joao, the result of a doomed romance between two aristocrats who are forbidden to marry, to uncover the truth about where he came from and then gets very complicated, is being made available in the U.S. for the first time. Since it has been so long since I saw the theatrical cut, I cannot really make any specific comparisons between the two versions but this new version feels more filled out and the extended run time gives the narrative more room to breathe. However, even though the word was not in wide usage when the film was made, "The Mysteries of Lisbon" proves to be an eminently binge-worthy saga filled with excitement, drama, humor, history, beautiful photography and good performances (including an early one from future star Lea Seydoux) all orchestrated by a filmmaker who was clearly working at the peak of his powers. Just make sure you have blocked out plenty of time to watch it because once you start looking at it, you will find it to be nearly impossible to stop.
This week also sees the release of two special edition blu-rays of films that have been greatly admired in many quarters but which I must continue to confess to finding somewhat problematic. The first is "The Deer Hunter," Michael Cimino's award-winning and still-controversial observation of how the lives of a group of friends in a small Pennsylvania steel mill town are irrevocably altered when three of them (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) go off to fight in Vietnam. Watching it again, I was once again struck by Cimino's distinctive cinematic vision and his ability to present scenes with such an astonishing eye and ear for detail (especially in the famous extended wedding sequence early on, one which does not technically advance the plot but which is so rich in nuance that I cannot imagine the film without it) and the extraordinary performances by De Niro, Walken (who won an Oscar for his work), Savage, John Cazale and Meryl Streep. This is sweeping and ambitious filmmaking of a sort that is now a rarity in American film these days and on that basis alone, I suppose it deserves to be seen. The problem is that while Cimino was unquestionably a visual poet, he was not much of a straightforward storyteller and this film is a prime demonstration of that. Although spellbinding in spots, the film is often unwieldy and meandering, some of the characters and situations (especially the stuff involving De Niro returning to Vietnam to rescue Walken from the Russian roulette circuit) are not particularly believable, even on a symbolic level, and the famous ending, in which the surviving characters start singing "God Bless America," tries to close things on a hauntingly ambiguous note but it comes off as muddled instead. For those who do embrace this film--and there are many that still do--they will want to pick up this new edition, which ports over the extras from previous releases, including an informative commentary track featuring cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and journalist Bob Fisher, an interview with critic David Thomson, and a collection of deleted scenes, and adds on an impressive new 4K transfer and new interviews with producer Michael Deeley and John Savage.
I will confess that I am probably in the minority in regards to my feelings towards "The Deer Hunter" but that is not the case with "Husbands," the little-seen 1970 work from John Cassavetes--even fans of the late maverick independent filmmaker have often struggled with it over the years. I confess that his films have never entirely appealed to me and the ones that I do enjoy the most (including "A Woman Under the Influence," "Gloria" and "Love Streams") tend to be the ones where the supreme Gena Rowlands is front and center. Needless to say, she is nowhere to be found in this abrasive comedy-drama in which three old friends (Cassavetes and his longtime colleagues Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk) respond to the passing of a mutual friend by going on a massive bender that takes them from New York to Europe in what is essentially an epic deconstruction of what would one day be referred to as toxic masculinity. The trouble is that the film feels less like a structured narrative, even by Cassavetes's standards, and more like a collected of failed improv exercises that the actors try to perk up by screaming, singing, brawling, barfing and the like. And while a little of this goes a long way, Cassavetes makes it worse by stretching things out to an almost interminable 142 minutes that will leave most viewers as exhausted as the characters. (It could have been worse--another fifteen minutes was cut just before release and Cassavetes's original cut allegedly clocked in at nearly three hours.) Even people who are ardent fans of Cassavetes are divided on the subject of the film--some find it to be a penetrating and powerful analysis of the mythos of American manhood while others dismiss it as 2 1/2 hours of jerking around. Those who fall into the former camp will be delighted with the film’s inclusion into the prestigious Criterion Collection via a special edition that includes a new 4K restoration, new interviews with producer Al Ruban and actress Jenny Runacre, a commentary track recorded in 2009 by critic Marshall Fine, a video essay featuring old footage of Cassavetes talking about his approach to working with actors and a 1970 episode of "The Dick Cavett Show" that saw Cassavetes, Gazzara and Falk promoting the film in a manner ultimately more entertaining than the movie itself.
The Deer Hunter is available from Shout! Factory for $34.99
Husbands is available from The Criterion Collection for $39.95
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originally posted: 05/29/20 08:54:47
last updated: 05/29/20 12:58:34