2/26/2019

Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)


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With the 1971 release of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's career-changing satirical Sirkian soap, The Merchant of Four Seasons, he achieved his cinematic goal "to make Hollywood films in Germany."

Yet whereas Douglas Sirk's most famous '50s tear-jerkers shone exceptionally bright thanks to Jack Cardiff's romantically lush color cinematography, in Fassbinder's tragic Merchant, lensed by Dietrich Lohmann, even traditionally vibrant, primarily colors like red and yellow look as muted as the overwhelmingly gray palette of a gritty black-and-white work of Depression era realism.

An aesthetic choice he would return to again and again in his enviably prolific career, while it could be considered pretentious in lesser hands, in The Merchant of Four Seasons, it's perfectly suited to the tone of the film, which zeroes in on the pervasive struggles of everyday life.

While simple and straightforward on the surface, once we begin peeling back the layers of Fassbinder's crossover hit, we're bound to appreciate the filmmaker’s rich attention to detail on display.

Grounded by classical framing and bursting with Hollywood homage, the watershed work plays like a filmic mixtape of the Fassbender's favorites.


Relishing the opportunity to champion his exceptional taste as well as the humanistic parallels he's drawing between the titles — regardless of medium and methodology — in addition to honoring Freud and Ozu, in Merchant of Four Seasons, the filmmaker pays special attention to the Bard.

Beyond the overt titular allusion to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Fassbinder reminds us that, much like those tragicomic heroes and villains who can live for love or die of a broken heart, his characters too carry the weight of the world on their backs.

Less romantic than it is angry, Fassbinder's 1950s set Four Seasons centers on a restless veteran who's chronically dissatisfied by society and his surroundings.

Fired from his job as a police officer for succumbing to the temptations of a prostitute under his arrest, although Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) used to make a living putting lawbreakers behind bars, the tables have since been turned as it's now Hans who feels imprisoned by his lot in life selling fruit in the streets on a pushcart.

Just one of a handful of women whom we as viewers realize that the misogynistic Hans feels are responsible for his downfall, starting first and (most appropriately Freudian) foremost with his headstrong mother, the frustrated fruit merchant finds himself unable to let go of past hopes, loves, tragedies, and regrets.


A master of self-sabotage, rather than accept any responsibility for the role he's played in his own misery, Hans takes his anger out on his wife instead, thus setting in motion his own downfall.

Though undeniably fascinated by the emotional lives of his own characters, throughout the film Rainer Werner Fassbinder keeps the viewer at an arm's length, never digging deeply enough into the storyline for us to truly empathize with the people populating Merchant's muted yet intriguing world.

And nowhere is this disconnect better epitomized than in a completely illogical sequence when we watch our "heroine" go from witnessing a heart attack to having an impulsive sexual fling.

Immediately questioning both Hans as well as the filmmaker's own misogyny, which intellectually pulls us out of the movie, not only is this scene completely incongruous to everything we'd seen earlier, it also makes us wonder if vital plot points had been left on the cutting room floor when Merchant was edited together nearly fifty years ago.


An erratic yet vital early effort from Fassbinder, aside from the hiccups in plot, Merchant nonetheless remains a topical and timeless early '70s import that, despite being set roughly twenty years earlier, taps right into the same antihero heavy American fare of the era.

Offering a new angle on the Vietnam era alienation of the 1970s as well as the existential yearning of its original post-WWII setting, the way that Fassbinder's Shakespearean tinged tragedy works well for numerous ages and time periods is one of the most beguiling things about Four Seasons.

Flawed yet fearless filmmaking which has been given a dynamic restoration by the Criterion Collection, the deceptively simple eighty-eight minute movie marked a pivotal change for the typically fast Fassbinder to slow things down and make a more methodical picture this time around.

Seemingly at war with himself to keep the work short while simultaneously squeezing in as much information as possible (perhaps subconsciously), Fassbinder seasons the script with observations by passersby and relatives who hint at plot points that might've enriched the film even further before vanishing from sight. Ultimately this keeps us from getting as emotionally invested in in The Merchant's plight as we could've been.

Yet unlike Hans, with the release of his masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul just three years later, Fassbinder proved he was able to learn from the past and make a vital change, crafting something beyond a "Hollywood film in Germany" and establishing instead the type of filmmaking that would become synonymous with his name.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Film Movement Movie Review: Styx (2018)


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When asked by Don Cheadle's Hotel Rwanda protagonist Paul Rusesabagina how people can "not intervene when they witness such atrocities," Joaquin Phoenix's cynical realist Jack gives it to him straight, telling him, "I think if people see this footage they'll say, 'oh my God that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners."

Exploring the phenomenon "of western indifference in the face of marginalized suffering," in what the press notes accurately describe as "a modern-day parable," Austrian born director Wolfgang Fischer fell back on the two subjects he'd studied before film school of psychology and painting for the urgent, topical, nerve jangling humanitarian thriller Styx.


Named after the river that separates the living from the dead in mythology and oozing with Darwinist references and symbolism, Fischer's feature about a German emergency room doctor who comes across a sinking fishing trawler overflowing with refugees on her voyage to Ascension Island is a damning indictment of moral apathy and hypocrisy.

Having taken a Hippocratic Oath to save lives, which she does on land back in Germany — running towards a car crash near the beginning of the movie — it's in Rieke's (a fierce Susanne Wolff) nature to do the same once again as she watches people abandon the slowly sinking vessel in shock.

Told by the coast guard to keep her distance in order to avoid putting herself at risk, Rieke fights the urge to disobey, which becomes that much stronger when a teenage boy makes his way across the Atlantic Ocean onto her small boat, the Asa Gray. Saving his life while waiting for someone — anyone — to intervene, the situation grows more dire with time.


Taking what in the hands of most filmmakers would've been a story about survival against the sharks, elements, and odds a la JawsOpen Water, or even — its closest thematic relative — All is Lost, in Styx, Fischer dares to play against expectations. Embracing the internal existential horror that the villain and hero of the film is mankind itself, Rieke's call to action is a call to all of us to act as well.

Having developed what cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels describes as, "special equipment to maneuver and stabilize the camera," over years of preparation to make what is largely a silent film, the technically stunning work — shot near Malta with an eight person crew — is anchored by a decisive yet vulnerable turn by certified blue water sailor and actress Susanne Wolff.


A thinking person's survival drama, Styx plunges you right into the heart of a desperate situation alongside our lead. Yet while Fischer clearly loves symbolism both in terms of Reike's Darwinist journey and the film's use of subtle contrasts, there are times when alternating points-of-view or giving us a longer, earlier look at the trawler in distress might've strengthened the emotional core of the otherwise gripping narrative.

Clearly the type of film you'll want to discuss afterward, fresh off the festival circuit, this tense, terse award winner sails into theaters this week from Film Movement.


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

2/01/2019

Netflix Movie Review: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)


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A satirical horror movie set in the modern art world, whether you're looking for a late night thrill or don't mind working a little harder to engage with a film on a deeper level, Velvet Buzzsaw will surely do.

Filled with witty wordplay and morbid metaphors brought vividly to life, in the weird and wonderful multi-layered third work from writer-director Dan Gilroy, even the character names are entertaining.


From Jake Gyllenhaal's taste-making art critic Morf Vandewalt, whose body language, voice, and taste morphs from one scene to the next to Rene Russo's gallery owner Rhodora Haze, whose Lolita-esque last name alludes as much to her younger days as a sexy, hard-living punk rocker (in the titular band) as it does her hazy business ethics, there's a lot here to savor.

Rather than opt for a traditional first person narrative, Gilroy's film takes a cue from Altman's oeuvre with its approach to storytelling. Set at the intersection of art and commerce where creativity is overshadowed by talk of demand, money, and the market, Buzzsaw revolves around a handful of characters who play very different roles in the industry from assistants and installers to artists and museum curators.


Led by Gyllenhaal and Russo (who co-starred in Gilroy's feature filmmaking debut Nightcrawler), Buzzsaw co-stars Toni Colette, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton, Daveed Diggs, Natalia Dyer, Tom Sturridge, and Billy Magnussen who all seem to delight in Gilroy's mischievous script, which satirizes the commoditization of art in a way that could just as easily apply to film, publishing, or music.

Though undoubtedly anchored by Gyllenhaal's Vanderwalt, who looks like he had the time of his life on this film, Buzzsaw's real breakout turn is Zawe Ashton as Russo's ambitious assistant Josephina, who stumbles onto an apartment filled with art after her elderly neighbor dies with no heirs.


Initially entering the apartment to find and feed his cat, even though the man had left explicit instructions to destroy his art upon his death, Josephina can't resist bringing some to Morf to evaluate.

Fascinated by her discovery, with Morf's ecstatic approval, she teams up with the scheming Rhodora Haze to curate a show, destined to make her a superstar.

Soon after, the deceased Vitril Dease becomes the hottest name in art but as Morf digs into his past for a book and uncovers one disturbing story after another, he realizes a bit too late that the darkness pouring off the canvas and into the lives of those around him, which has resulted in multiple deaths, might be connected to Dease.


Lensed by Robert Elswit, the There Will Be Blood cinematographer makes the most of Gilroy's inventive frames right from the start as we explore a bizarre modern art convention in Miami where certain phrases (either in lights or spoken by an art installation robot) add another layer of foreshadowing and character revelation to the film. Needless to say (and fortunately for Netflix), Velvet Buzzsaw is designed to play even better on repeat viewings when we can take in every element.

Sure to be Netflix's next big post-Bird Box hit, with darkly comedic witticisms, up-to-the-minute satire, and shocking comeuppances performed by its stellar cast, Gilroy replaces the pre-credit shock sequence and familiar jump scares of retro horror fare with something irresistibly, thrillingly new.

Dare I say, I think Morf Vanderwalt would approve.



Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Movie Review: A Breath Away (2018)


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AKA: Just a Breath Away; Toxic; Dans la brume

With so much of the film's budget and overall success dependent upon its special effects, it's become standard operating procedure for disaster movies to move as quickly as possible to get right to the catastrophic event.


Sketching the main characters with the broadest of strokes before placing them in peril, with only the briefest of introductions to guide us, all too often in this genre it's up to the actors and audience to fill in the rest.

And that's precisely what happens in director Daniel Roby's A Breath Away, which flies the viewer and our lead Mathieu (Romain Duris) to Paris and hits the ground running, before that is, the ground strikes back by knocking out the power after an earthquake and filling the city with toxic gas.


Discovering the deadly effect of the mist as bodies drop before his eyes, Mathieu races across the street from his apartment to the one that Olga Kurylenko’s scientist and teacher Anna shares with their beloved daughter Sarah (Fantine Harduin), who suffers from an immunodeficiency disorder and lives in a glass bubble.

While thanks to battery power, she's safe for the time being in her filtered air enclosure, Mathieu and Anna have no choice but to climb as high as they can past the line where the fog stops.

Taking refuge in the top-floor apartment alongside their elderly neighbors (Michel Robin and Anne Gaylor), after discovering that the substance is not only rising but also doesn't affect their skin, Mathieu suddenly turns into Indiana Jones while going on the hunt for supplies and oxygen masks so he and Anna can continue to change Sarah's bubble battery.


Realizing that help is not coming, they risk everything to track down the medical equipment their daughter would need for them all to leave the building together.

Never clarifying just what Mathieu's current relationship is with Anna and most pressingly, how he acquired his particular set of Liam Neeson worthy skills, while the logic challenged film asks you to overlook a lot (including how he suddenly seems to know the rules of surviving in the mist), the actors are game and Breath's cinematography and visual effects are first rate.


Shot by Pierre-Yves Bastard and boasting effects by Bruno Mallard and a gifted team, visually of course, A Breath Away pays tribute to thematically similar works such as The Fog and The Mist.

However, in pulse quick quickening action sequences which find Mathieu and Anna wandering the foggy streets of Paris with only a flashlight to guide them before Mathieu must race back to the apartment through a rooftop obstacle course, Roby's film is also reminiscent of apocalyptic disaster movies like I Am Legend and World War Z.

A far cry from his more contemplative roles in highbrow fare, it's here where we realize just how much A Breath Away is augmented by character actor Romain Duris' commitment — even to the ridiculous — in an impressive turn as our surprisingly action oriented lead.


Desperately in need of a stronger script, although Breath generates its fair share of excitement, it's a shame that, despite the talented cast and what should have been a naturally touching storyline, we just don't feel that connected to characters we know so extraordinarily little about.

Couple that with the film's inconsistency, including introducing Mathieu as a motorcycle rider and then forgetting he has a motorcycle until the end of the movie which — awesome action scenes aside — sure would have made more sense than wasting time and oxygen running around Paris by foot and we're left with a film that changes from scene to scene, kind of like the mist.


Infused with a pro-environmental message, while about halfway through the movie we start to get an inkling as to where this will all be heading, it still makes for an intriguingly Shyamalanesque turn of events, even if we wish that the work overall would've been worthier of the plot twist.

Striving to give its viewers a little of everything from action to horror to family drama, Roby's film loses its footing thanks to a weak foundation. And although it has its moments, like most disaster movies, A Breath Away will most likely be remembered for its big catastrophic event, a running Romain Duris, and foggy special effects.

Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.

Netflix Movie Review: High Flying Bird (2019)


Arriving on Netflix: 
Feb. 8

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The way Bill Duke's community basketball coach sees it, "you either care all the way or you don't care at all, man," and it only takes a few minutes of screen time for us to realize that, when it comes to looking out for his clients during an NBA lockout, André Holland's basketball agent Ray is a man who cares all the way.


Trying to save his lottery pick player Erick (Melvin Gregg) from bankruptcy and himself from unemployment, Ray spends a majority of Steven Soderbergh's ninety minute movie in motion. Talking at the speed of a playoffs game, over the course of a few fateful days, Ray maneuvers between the labor dispute's offense and defense.

A subversive look at "the game on top of the game" of basketball but without any court action in sight, the film, written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) and modeled on Sweet Smell of Success, raises valid, urgent questions about the commoditization of predominantly black athletes by white owners.


Making moves to redistribute the balance of power, money, and control back into the hands of the players alongside his brainy, ambitious assistant Sam (a terrific Zazie Beetz), in High Flying Bird, we get the chance to go behind the curtain of what Ray dubs "the sexiest sport."

Using an outsider's perspective to explore new terrain in an unexpected way, Soderbergh's bold decision to take basketball itself out of the equation gives us a closer look at what we're really seeing when we watch a game on TV.


One of our most curious filmmakers, especially given the scope and objectivity of his character driven films, it's safe to say that had he not entered the film industry, Steven Soderbergh would have made one hell of an investigative reporter.

A unique mix of vintage and modern Soderbergh filmmaking techniques, although Bird was shot on an iPhone (like his recent underrated thriller Unsane), Bird's frames are sharper and more polished, perhaps owing as much to advances in technology as the film's smoother, less frantic tone and approach.


Comprised of the same set-up of two people in a room talking that he says made his name thirty years ago in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the end result is a fascinating blend of theater, journalism, and cinéma vérité brought to life with verve and skill by its top-notch cast in just three weeks.

Best appreciated the second time around when we're better able to digest McCraney's gorgeously penned, theatrical monologues which are so full of meaning that they occasionally feel too big for the screen, Bird also makes for an ideal double feature with the 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success.


Used by Soderbergh as a template for the film when he was first developing it on the set of The Knick alongside Holland, even without Success, Bird is sure to inspire its fair share of think pieces and make for engaging post-film discussion regardless.

Although those looking for a traditional sports movie will be disappointed by its lack of well, sports, those willing to keep an open mind might be surprised to discover that, whether it’s about sports or film, much like Ray (or McCraney or Soderbergh for that matter), they too "care all the way."


Text ©2019, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information in order to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.