Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

shortcutsbr__article-prose-260x“Robert Altman’s sprawling tragicomic testament to fate and infidelity gets an impressive 4K upgrade from the Criterion Collection.”

Read the whole review on Slant Magazine.

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Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)


“Criterion showcases Richard Linklater’s longitudinal masterwork with a gorgeous HD transfer and an entire second Blu-ray’s worth of supplements.”

Read the entire review on Slant Magazine.

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The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Riccardo Freda, 1964)


“An essential title for fans of Italian Gothic cinema, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock gets a reasonably good-looking, if barebones, Blu-ray release from Olive Films.”

Read the entire review on Slant Magazine.

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Daughter of Dracula (Jess Franco, 1972)


“Of interest mostly to the complete Jess Francophile, Daughter of Dracula gets an attractive HD transfer and some essential context from Kino’s Redemption Films line.”

Read the entire review on Slant Magazine.

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Golden Year: TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1966)


Trans-Europ-Express owes its origins to two phenomenon: the recently inaugurated international rail line from which it takes its title—with its modernist design (described by Robbe-Grillet in the supplementary interview as travelling in “glass cages”)—and the sight of prostitutes advertising their wares in the windows of Antwerp’s red light district. Self-reflexive in a playful sort of way, as evidenced in the many word- and picture-games on display throughout, the film primarily concerns itself with the matter of its own construction. It’s the sort of formal preoccupation that will become even more fundamental to Robbe-Grillet’s next film, The Man Who Lies. Trans-Europ-Express further develops the filmmaker’s fetishistic obsession with chains and bondage, where the staging of such fantasies becomes an integral factor in narrative’s unfolding.


The film opens in Paris’s Gare du Nord railroad station with a film director (Robbe-Grillet “playing” himself), his producer (Paul Louyet), and script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) boarding the Trans Europ Express bound for Antwerp. While on board, they brainstorm the director’s latest production, which they promptly decide to set on board a train. What follows is a parodic riff on the conventional detective story, with frequent allusions to the films of Hitchcock and the “trench-coat tales” of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as an amusingly Godardian swipe at From Russia with Love (set, like Robbe-Grilet’s earlier L’Immortelle, in a tourist-friendly Istanbul). Where later Robbe-Grillet films (especially those shot in color) take their visual cues from modernist paintings, Trans-Europ-Express invokes the Pop Art stylization of comic strips.


The story concocted by the trio centers on a low-level drug mule named Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant)—or is that Alias?—en route to Belgium on a trial run for his new employers. While their plotline unspools like the portable reel-to-reel tape it’s being recorded on, we return to the filmmakers’ compartment for a series of narrative tweaks and emendations. And so the film operates on at least two levels: the “reality” of the tellers and the “fiction” of their tale. Lest all this strike viewers as far too straightforward, Trintignant also plays a fictionalized version of himself, even though Robbe-Grillet appears not to recognize him when he attempts to share their compartment.


Deceptions of this sort are endemic to Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling: The hollowed-out book Elias uses to hide a gun serves as the film’s operative metaphor. The book, incidentally, is entitled TRANSES, which, taken alongside the other two magazines Elias brings onboard with him, makes a visual pun on the film’s title. (Another witticism: Elias uses the reputable news magazine to hide a BDSM porno mag.) Further confounding the twin registers of the story and its tellers is Elias’s perverse fantasy life, focused rather obsessively on some light bondage with ropes and chains, and acted out with the cooperation of a gorgeous streetwalker named Eva (Marie-France Pisier). When Elias later comes to believe she’s acting as a double agent for the police, he uses this erotic roleplaying to commit a “real” murder.


Like nearly all of Robbe-Grillet’s works, Trans-Europ-Express advances by way of duplicity: repetition with variation, the inexplicable appearance of uncanny doppelgangers, and variations on the aforementioned wordplay. The film’s climax (pardon the pun) welds together all three characteristics. The gendarmes finally corner Elias by luring him to a nightclub called the Cabaret Eve, where he takes in a provocative striptease advertised as the “Slave Girl,” a routine that spotlights a nude woman being enwrapped in chains.


True to form, the film concludes with a double ending whose ostensible purpose is to reinforce in the minds of viewers the idea that what they’ve just seen was never anything other than a fiction. “Characters” who have been killed off show up again unscathed to greet each other at journey’s end. And Robbe-Grillet gets to deliver the taunting punchline: “The trouble with true stories is that they’re so boring.” Such, however, cannot be said of Trans-Europ-Express; it’s one of Robbe-Grillet’s most enjoyable (not to mention accessible) endeavors.


[This article first appeared in Video Watchdog #180.]


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Greensboro Filmmakers Win Trip to Cannes Film Festival to Make a Film

Greensboro 48Congratulations to local filmmaker Darren Hummel and The Magic Shop! Not only are they going to Cannes this month with their hilarious, Greensboro 48HFP-winning short “Gotta Go,” they’re also competing in the “Wake Up in Cannes” contest sponsored by HP.

Incidentally, I’ll be judging the Greensboro 48HFP again this year!

Here’s the official press release:

“A worldwide competition is creating a whirlwind of excitement for Darren Hummel and The Magic Shop, a team of local filmmakers with a Cannes-do attitude. As first-level winners in a competition sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, the 48 Hour Film Project, and Le Petit Studio, the team is tasked with creating a bicontinental short film. Part of the film is to be made here, with the other part filmed in Cannes, France.

In order to accomplish this feat, the team has been awarded a prize that includes round-trip airline tickets to France, lodging, meal stipends for up to seven team members, and a €1,000 budget for filming expenses.  As participants in the 2015 Greensboro 48 Hour Film Project, Hummel’s team created the city’s winning film which then seized one of the top 13 spots in the international competition. The film will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May.

The team’s talents drew the attention of contest coordinators who invited 25 teams to participate in the HP Masters of the Short Film “Wake Up in Cannes” Film Festival. The first level of the competition instructed teams to provide a work sample, introduce their team members and to create a storyline pitch that begins with the character in the team’s hometown and ends in Cannes. The HP ZBook Studio Mobile Workstation is to be incorporated into the story with the theme “Reinventing New Frontiers.”

Judges reviewed the submitted pitches and chose The Magic Shop as one of four finalists. Each of the teams will begin working on their films in their own areas, and will complete the film in Cannes. HP will provide the editing station in France, and the four films will be screened on May 16 to a jury composed of film industry professionals. Each film will be eligible for prizes in the categories Best Film, (an HP ZBook Studio Mobile Workstation), Best Editing, (an HP Z840 Workstation), Best Actor and Best Actress (each receiving an HP Spectre x360 Notebook), Awards will be announced immediately following the screening.”

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Golden Year: TOKYO DRIFTER (Seijun Suzuki, 5/10/1966)

tokyo drifter

Over the course of his career at the Nikkatsu studio, brazen B-movie maverick Seijun Suzuki perfected the art of subversion from within, eradicating any vestige of predictability from his freewheeling forays into genre experimentalism. With Tokyo Drifter, studio heads handed the director a pedestrian yakuza film, yet another ode to the honor code espousing unthinking loyalty to one’s superiors (and including multiple musical numbers, no less), with the express intention of turning its baby-faced lead actor, Tetsuya Watari, into an overnight sensation. It didn’t hurt the film’s box-office prospects that its faux-forlorn title song, as performed by Watari, was already in the can.

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Given these typically stringent dictates, Suzuki seems to have decided to turn the entire project on its ear: ruthlessly eliminating whatever connective tissue the dandelion-slight narrative might once have possessed, breaking its action sequences down into virtually unrelated one-offs, disorienting and deconstructive studies in acausality. Revealing a flair for homegrown surrealism, Suzuki brings the defamiliarization effects of “dream work,” condensation and displacement, to bear on Tokyo Drifter, yielding the most termite-like among his works (to invoke Manny Farber’s term), a film that leaves “no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Branded to Kill, Suzuki’s final film for Nikkatsu, after which the studio promptly fired him, attempts to escape the prison house of genre entirely, morphing into a fever-dream series of nightmare tableaux, but Tokyo Drifter seems satisfied to beat its head against the walls of its solitary-confinement cell.

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In the washed-out monochrome opening sequence, Tetsu “the Phoenix” (Watari) withstands his first temptation, taking a beat-down in a railroad yard rather than “explode,” as one of the rival gang members believes he will, in order to prove his fealty to former yakuza boss Kurata (Ryuji Kita). When the pummeling’s over, Tetsu picks himself up from the rubble-strewn ground, coming across a shattered plastic toy gun; its shiny red pieces signal Tokyo Drifter’s abrupt shift into neon-bright color photography. Mob boss Kurata has gone legit, deactivated his gang, and sworn its former members against acts of retributive violence. The nonviolence routine doesn’t last very long, though, when rival gang boss Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), whose presence in early scenes is metonymically signified by glimpses of his dark glasses and flashes of his bright crimson suit, tricks Kurata out of his prize piece of real estate. Kidnappings, car chases, and pitfalls occur almost off-handedly, the plot barreling along like a runaway locomotive, its narrative couplings de-articulated and threatening to derail the film entirely.

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The first act ends in a shootout between gang bosses staged like experimental Kabuki theater; Suzuki shifts the background from nominal naturalist to two-color expressionist, swaths of white and red (perhaps an ironic evocation of the Japanese flag?) fill the windows’ negative spaces; as one character falls down dead, the camera ascends to an omniscient God’s-eye view, and the décor completely alters again, this time begging comparison to a Jackson Pollock action painting. Entirely unmotivated by plot exigencies or character psychology, similarly baroque flourishes establish Suzuki’s WTF approach to action scenes throughout Tokyo Drifter.

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In keeping with its vagabond nature, the entirety of Tokyo Drifter amounts to less than the sum of its charmingly discrete parts, whether a supernumerary montage following the progress of a crushed car, or a snowbound gunfight that emulates John Ford’s Stagecoach. (A saloon brawl late in the film emphasizes this indebtedness to the western genre.) Across the board, redolent imagery trumps all except mood; a world-weary disillusionment creeps into the film’s final act when Tetsu learns that his beloved boss Kurata has betrayed him and forged an alliance with rival Otsuka.

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The film ends with yet another climactic gunfight that takes place against a black-and-red-drenched backdrop that easily could have been ripped straight from “Girl Hunt,” Vincente Minnelli’s noir-baiting The Band Wagon number; it’s a scene that wallows in self-parody, as Tetsu guns down everyone in the room, in increasingly improbable and ultimately ridiculous fashion, except Kurata and Tetsu’s chanteuse gal, Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara), who dutifully throws herself upon Tetsu’s embrace. But the bittersweet drifter lifestyle has its hooks in Tetsu, and he defaults to Existential Loner mode, telling Chiharu there’s no room for a woman in his worldview.

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Replacing a studio-nixed final shot that had a lovelorn Tetsu crooning his “Tokyo Drifter” number at a rising green moon (an outsized WTF finale, if ever there was one), Tokyo Drifter now concludes with a white suited Tetsu, posed atop an all-white staircase, belting away at a montage of neon signs drawn from both the red-light district and the go-go Ginza shopping quarter. Commerce reigns over Tokyo. With no less certitude than JLG, who manifested Masculin Féminin the same year, Seijun Suzuki, keyed into the tenor of his times, realized we’re all the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, the bastard offspring of global capitalism.

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[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]

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