Capsule Review: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

A soldier returns from WWI and searches for satisfying work, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him in a chain gang, where he suffers through grueling work and miserable treatment day after day before finally making a daring escape. As a wanted man, he runs, narrowly avoiding the law’s clutches at several turns, and slowly finds himself on his way to the life he dreamed of, but a cruel and unjust system turns out to not be done with him yet.

A suspenseful and involving drama that doubles as an indictment of the inhumanity in the penal system it depicts, it boasts efficient storytelling by Mervyn LeRoy, and a solid, sympathetic performance by Paul Muni. More than a few sequences thrill, especially our protagonist’s nerve-wracking escape from the prison camp, and his nearly being caught on multiple occasions as he tries to skip town. Subtle formal touches stand out too, like a sideways tracking shot that passes over the faces of demoralized inmates as they listen to a man being whipped, or the sounds of hammers endlessly smacking rocks or railroad ties. Not to mention a powerful finish, which shows Muni just briefly emerging from darkness to say goodbye to a lover, before retreating back into it.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Trailer

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent and purchase digitally.

Episode 114: Rescreening Cape Fear (1991)

“The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings.”

Martin Scorsese, Director of Cape Fear (1991)

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On Episode 114 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Michael Mann’s Thief.

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Naked Childhood (L’Enfance-nue)

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

A searingly honest chapter in the life of an unruly foster child, Francois, who as the film begins, is handed back to Social Services by a youngish married couple who can’t bear his egregious misbehavior— stealing, fighting, hurting animals (some of which is tough to watch). From there, Pialat follows Francois into the home of the Thierry‘s, a much older husband and wife, who already have one foster child, an older boy, and also live with the wife’s elderly mother.

It bears resemblance to The 400 Blows as a heartbreaking, naturalistic, and semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story from a French auteur. Michel Terrazon, who plays Francois, even looks quite like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Their mischievous smirks are remarkably alike, and God can only imagine what kind of shit they’d pull if Francois and Antoine existed in the same world and met each other. It also brought the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike to mind.

Pialat doesn’t indict anyone for failing Francois or any of the other foster children we see getting shuttled around, some of whom are so devastatingly young and vulnerable (and adorable), nor does he excuse any of Francois’ heinous wrongdoing. He simply observes, giving equal aesthetic treatment to moments of kindness, pain, bonding, and separation. The Thierry’s, though sometimes tough, are patient, loving people who see the good and sweetness beneath by Francois’ volatile temperament; his growing close with Grandma Thierry is enormously touching. The ending hurts, but it’s in keeping with the film’s piercingly truthful beauty.

Naked Childhood Trailer

Naked Childhood is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Crisis (Kris)

Written by Michael Clawson

60/100

“Let the play begin”, says a narrator as the camera pushes toward the window of a house from outside, while inside, a woman opens the window’s curtain. It marks the beginning of the film as well as Bergman’s career, this being his debut, and evident immediately is an idea that would run throughout his filmography: life as theater. 

About that narration: it’s not great. Neither is the movie in general, but it’s fine, and better than its reputation suggests. It’s about 18 year-old Nelly and her foster mother, whose quiet, small-town lives are upended when Nelly’s biological mother arrives suddenly, and lures Nelly away to the city with the promise of a job and urban pleasures. Nelly’s foster mother is ill and devastated to see Nelly go, and things go awry for Nelly when she gets mixed up with her biological mother’s younger lover.

Some characters are much better developed than others, and the tone can be inconsistent. Bergman reveals a natural sense for composition though, and the film’s visual appeal took me far enough. A flawed but still interesting movie about maternal grief and disillusionment in young adulthood.

Crisis Trailer

Crisis is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and a restored version is currently available for free on YouTube from the channel Old Films Revival Project.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

Written by Michael Clawson

75/100

Hadn’t heard of this movie before I saw it on Criterion’s ‘70s Horror program. The well-played ambiguity and eerie atmospherics are just what I was hoping for.

Just after her release from a mental hospital, Jessica moves into an old farmhouse in Connecticut with her husband Duncan and his friend Woody. Upon arriving, they’re startled to discover a vagrant named Emily has been squatting in the house since the previous owners left. After the initial surprise, they find that they all get along, so Emily’s invited to stay. Weird situation if you ask me, but hey, to each his own.

Jessica starts seeing and hearing things, and she’s not sure if something supernatural is afoot or if it’s all in her head. When they go swimming in the nearby lake, she briefly sees a woman’s body floating beneath the surface (a creepy image), and she keeps spotting a young woman watching her from afar outside—perhaps it’s the woman that a townsperson says once lived in their house, up until she drowned in the lake. Local legend says she became a vampire.

Despite some clunky film-craft and less than great performances, Hancock keeps the film pitched in a creepy register. Between the synth music and voices in Jessica’s head, the sound stands out as one of the cooler elements. The role of the townspeople, who aren’t welcoming to the free-spirited newcomers, along with Duncan’s driving a hearse with “Love” and a heart painted on its side, positions the film as a kind of sounding of the death knell for hippie culture.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Trailer

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is currently available to rent and purchase digitally.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Before there was The Irishman, there was Jacques Becker‘s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, an impeccably crafted crime film from 1954, in which French acting legend Jean Gabin plays a worn out gangster in the twilight moments of his career. After his long-time friend and partner is kidnapped by rivals who want his recently acquired loot, Gabin’s cool, collected, and finely dressed Max is forced to put off retirement just a little bit longer, and potentially choose between saving his pal and his nest egg.

Despite their differences in scope, the influence of Becker’s film on Scorcese’s latest crime saga is loud and clear. Though Gabin was twenty years or so younger than De Niro at the time of their respective performances, they share a similar weariness in how they carry and express themselves, and not only that, but their characters also obviously recall one another: Gabin’s Max and De Niro’s Frank are aging gangsters whose loyalty to a friend is tested, and whose looking back on their lives adds a strain of regret to their film’s emotional undercurrents. A sense of late life melancholy is perhaps clearest in the scene where prior to his kidnapping, Max’s friend Riton stays the night at Max’s apartment, and the two are shown in their pajamas getting ready for bed (which immediately recalls the scene in The Irishman where Hoffa and Sheeran spend a night at a hotel together). Riton, whose young lover (Jeanne Moreau in the femme fatale role) has just taken up with another man closer to her own age, examines himself in the bathroom mirror, and gently pushes at the sides of his eyes, as if he’s trying to remember the smoothness of his younger skin.

Connections aside, this film stands firmly on its own two feet. Becker makes the mundane as compelling as the crackling action in which the film crescendos, masterfully wielding silence and musical cues (Max’s song is a wistful harmonica melody) in tandem with the visual grammar of film noir. The climax is an airtight roadside face-off that ends in gunfire, grenades exploding, and a car chase, but nearly everything before it, from scenes of gangsters lounging at their exclusive restaurant hang-out to Max and Riton simply sharing wine and bread, are just as slick and satisfying.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi Trailer

Touchez Pas au Grisbi is currently streaming on Kanopy.

The Lady Eve

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Sturges slows down the dialogue and ups the sensuality for a funny story of romance, revenge, and faked identity. Aboard an ocean liner on his voyage home from the Amazon, wealthy and guileless Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) winds up in the palm of the hand of Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive Jean Harrington, a swindler who unexpectedly falls for her target. But before Jean can confess to Charles the truth about her original intention to play him like a fiddle, he finds out on his own and blows her off, which makes her so mad that she later jumps at a second chance to put on a disguise and cheat him once and for all. 

Listen to The Lady Eve discussed on Episode 93 of Drink in the Movies

Fonda is quite good as the gullible dupe, and Stanwyck plays the femme fatale with abundant magnetism. In the first half, Sturges facilitates chemistry between them via extended closeups, bringing them inches away from each other’s lips when Charles, say, stumbles over a divan in Jean’s cabin, and she then lays beside him and caresses his ruffled hair. The humor only occasionally reaches hilarity, but there are some pretty funny side characters, such as Charles’ no-nonsense minder, who snoops and sees through Jean’s ruses, and some memorably amusing scenes, such as one involving a surprisingly pesky horse. An inspired bit of editing during a climactic train sequence is also a good laugh.

The Lady Eve Trailer

The Lady Eve is currently available to rent and purchase digitally.

Tokyo Sonata

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Rather than filing into the stream of Tokyo office workers headed to their desks like he used to each morning, Ryūhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) suddenly finds himself routinely getting in line at his neighborhood soup kitchen, surrounded by the homeless, debris, and other dejected men in suits. The patriarch of the middle-class Japanese family that Kiyoshi Kurosawa explores in this unique and profoundly moving family drama, Ryūhei is unemployed after his job is outsourced to China, and he’s too bitter and ashamed to tell his wife and two sons the truth about no longer having paycheck. So he goes on pretending all is normal, when really he’s leaving the house everyday for the unemployment office. Unbeknownst to him, his family is hiding woes of their own. His wife Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi) is slipping into a deep malaise, his older son wants to leave Japan and join the US military, and his younger son, knowing his dad would disapprove, is quietly putting his lunch money towards piano lessons behind his parent’s back.

Kurosawa’s rhythm is characteristically idiosyncratic. There’s a gear shift in pace in the middle section when there’s an unexpected moment of terror, which reminds you that while the movie is primarily a melancholy portrait of a family in crisis, it’s from a director who’s more widely known for his ability to unsettle. In common with other Kurosawa films is the theme of alienation: as each of the Sasaki’s grapple with their individual troubles, they do so in isolation from each other, and their lack of togetherness only exacerbates their unhappiness. It’s perfectly, heartbreakingly visualized in one particular scene: Ryūhei comes home late to find his wife half asleep on the couch, but exchanges only a few words with her before going straight upstairs. “Pull me up,” Megumi practically whispers since she’s half asleep, her exhaustion as emotional as it is physical. No one’s in the room, as we can see in the wide shot that shows us her laying on the couch. Cut to a close up of her hands as she raises them up in the air: “Somebody, please pull me up.” Despite their wanting to, Ryūhei and Megumi can’t start their lives over, and they can’t ever entirely rid themselves of the pressures that modern life puts on them, but perhaps in the end they’re inching back towards family cohesion, towards listening to and supporting each other rather than retreating from each other.

Tokyo Sonata Trailer

Tokyo Sonata is currently streaming on Mubi and available to rent and purchase on Amazon.

New York Asian Film Festival Review: New Dragon Gate Inn

Written by Patrick Hao

66/100

One of the most exciting features to be shown at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is the free retrospective screening of New Dragon Gate Inn. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, a fitting location as New York’s hot summer August weather will match the sweeping desert setting of New Dragon Gate Inn.

You can get your FREE Tickets to see New Dragon Gate Inn here

Although directed by Raymond Lee, New Dragon Gate Inn is writer/producer Tsui Hark’s project through and through. His sensibilities radiate off the screen from the frantic swordplay to its bizarre sense of humor and silliness. Hark’s modus operandi at the time was hopping between classic Chinese genres from Peking opera in Peking Opera Blues to fantasy wu xia in Zu Warriors to a straightforward nationalist historical epic in Once Upon a Time in China.

Therefore, it makes sense in Hark’s prodigious oeuvre to have a film like New Dragon Gate Inn, a remake of the influential 1967 King Hu classic wu xia film, Dragon Inn. The set up is essentially the same: During the Ming Dynasty, a tyrannical eunuch (played Donnie Yen whose performance is delightfully swimming in a river of ham) and his group has begun ruling over the desert region of China. In order to quell resistance groups, the eunuch concocts a plan to draw out the resisting faction by taking the children of a rebellious minister to the desert. From there, Hark’s sensibilities begin to deviate from the original film. Like many of Hu’s wu xia classics, the original Dragon Inn is a classical film that is about chivalric heroism and relies on slow build suspense as the warring factions and warriors meet. Hark’s film is more tongue-in-cheek subversive. And to say Hark’s film goes at a breakneck pace would be an understatement.

The rebels are led by Chow Wai-on (played by Tony Leung or “Big” Tony to differentiate from Little Tony Leung who will be in Shang-Chi later this year) who saves the children from the Eunuch’s forces, and he takes them to safe harbor at the Dragon Gate Inn, ran by Jade (Maggie Cheung). In a macabre twist, Jade runs her inn by seducing and then killing her guests and using their meat as bun filling, making her the Sweeney Todd of the East. As the warring factions meet at the inn, Jade’s best interest is to keep the peace, which is made harder as she begins falling for Chow Wai-on. This is made more difficult with the arrival of rebel warrior, Yau Mo-Yun (Bridgitte Lin) who is Chow’s lover.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

The tangled intrigue of the plot allows for a lot of fun screwball silliness. Maggie Cheung is radiant, proving that she is one of the greatest movie stars to ever grace the screen. A more western audience knows her from Wong Kar-Wai movies (In fact the trio of Leung, Cheung and Lin stars in Wong’s esoteric wu xia epic Ashes of Time just a few years later) or her work with Olivier Assayas. But she had her start working in comedies like Police Story and she gets to exercise her full magnetic star power. She had the comedic sexiness of classic old Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck or Ginger Rogers, which made me wish that Preston Sturges could have utilized her gifts. The seduction scene between Cheung and Leung is a great example of Hark’s mix of legitimate sexiness and slapstick comedy – qualities that are not often associated together. This is not to take away from Bridgitte Lin and Tony Leung, who are both stars in their own right, but Cheung is given the room to flex all the things that made her great as a movie star.

But this is a wu xia film; how is the action? New Dragon Inn is a Tsui Hark production which means the action comes often and comes fast. The action choreography is staged by frequent Hark collaborator Ching Siu-tung who has a controlled chaos to his action. Most of the action is set in the small space of the Dragon Inn which increases how visceral the chaos is. This all leads up to the climatic four-way fight between the three rebel sympathizers and the Donnie Yen, which might be up there in the great scenes in Chinese cinema.

The New Dragon Inn may not have the heft or substance of the original, but it is a hell of a good time. What better way to watch it than with a rowdy hot crowd as part of NYAFF? 

New Dragon Gate Inn Trailer

New Dragon Gate Inn is screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival for free. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center.

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The Ballad of Narayama

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama, a ravishing, kabuki-styled period drama from 1958, considers such themes as mortality, aging, and tradition through a lens of radiant artifice and theatricality. At the story’s center is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a stooped, compulsively selfless woman just shy of seventy, the age at which the elderly in her secluded mountain community are to be taken by a family member to the local Mount Narayama and left to die. Because of the perennial scarcity of food in her village, where Orin lives with her widowed, middle-aged son Tasuhei (Teiji Takahashi) and greedy, uncaring grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), the custom of parricide is upheld as a difficult but necessary means of ensuring there’s enough to go around for the younger generations. Not everyone in the community is like Orin though. She has things to accomplish before making her climb – namely, she wants to find a new wife for her son – but she otherwise is calm, even cheery, having made peace with her nearing fate.

The first person we see in the film is not Orin or one of her fellow villagers, however, but rather a black masked, centrally framed narrator, who faces the camera and introduces the movie and the legend on which it’s based. Save for the film’s bracing final shots, The Ballad of Narayama is set entirely on luminous, intricately crafted studio soundstages, its narrative told in the elaborately stylized tradition of kabuki theater. After his introduction, the narrator remains off-screen, and in a wobbly, mournfully singsong voice, describes and comments on the tragic narrative as it unfolds. As seasons pass and the day of Orin’s hike to Narayama approaches, curtains and sets are maneuvered to reflect both changes in setting and shifts in mood. Stage lighting is similarly manipulated in a conspicuous fashion, creating images of dramatic, expressive beauty. In one especially striking sequence, set around dusk, a villager is caught stealing food and violently punished by a mob of his neighbors. The sky takes on a scorching hot pink hue as anger erupts, contrasting with a haunting shade of green that dimly lights the homes and faces of villagers as they gather around the hungry culprit.

More than just a style employed for the sake of visual extravagance, Kinoshita’s patently artificial mise-en-scène is essential to The Ballad of Narayama’s great emotional power. From the gorgeously colorful painted backgrounds of mountainous landscapes, to the staginess of the village’s log structures, the theatricality puts us at a slight remove from the somber, sometimes harrowing events as we follow Orin in her final days. Rather than forcefully envelop us in the hardship and social frictions that define Orin’s world, Kinoshita’s approach creates a space for contemplation about time’s inevitable passage and the value of sacrifice. It’s no spoiler to say that Orin does, in fact, eventually make her journey to Narayama. Fog hugs the ground as her son brings her up on his back, and just as Orin hoped it would, snow begins to fall shortly after she reaches the top. Rendered in beautiful shades of gray and white, the scene is resonant not in spite of, but because of its stylish artifice.

The Ballad of Narayama Trailer

The Ballad of Narayama is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel.