We chat about why this unexceptional throwback rom-com was so perfectly enjoyable for us, including what we think about its views on happiness and how it feels to relate to a genre in a different way than you once did before.
* Note – full spoilers in effect for entire episode *
We talk about what is hopefully just the first of many great musicals to release in 2021, sharing our thoughts on the cultural importance of this story as well as just reveling in its joyous production. We also, of course, discuss the musical numbers and tell you what we’d do with 96 G’s.
We resume discussing dogs in film with the adaptation of Garth Stein’s outstanding novel about the dog of a race car driver. It’s full of inspirational life lessons and touching relatable family drama that gets at the heart of the special bond between humans and their canine companions.
The Art of Racing in the Rain Spoiler Review – 0:07:14
We discuss arguably the greatest Batman animated film of all-time, and one where the duality of Bruce Wayne/Batman is fully explored in addition to a uniquely sweet, impactful, and tragic romance for the character.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Spoiler Review – 07:48
This week we’re shipping up to Boston for a conversation about a film that launched the careers of two eventual superstars. Not a lot of plot happens here, but the authenticity on display plus the relationships and feelings explored offer us plenty of material for rich thematic discussion.
This week’s early episode drop features discussion on the newest comedy from “The Big Sick” director Michael Showalter and star Kumail Nanjiani, a film in which the latter is half of a couple on the outs who stumble into a crime caper and hilariously try and salvage their relationship over the course of one crazy night. We chat about what makes a movie funny, the importance of cast chemistry, and whether or not trauma is actually good for mending relationship troubles in our conversation.
We are joined by two very special guests to discuss a film they consider to be one of the best of its decade. This Barry Jenkins masterful imagining of James Baldwin’s novel is a gorgeous depiction of love in early 1970s Harlem, and the painful racial and economic struggles that love must endure through. Barry Jenkins makes movies you feel, and our discussion is an emotional and powerful one in response.
Romance films are at their best when they come across as a believable depiction of two people sharing a strong connection. The two lead characters need to have a level of chemistry and intimacy that is hot to the touch but also deep in tenderness, striking at the core of a viewer’s soft spot. It is very easy for an experience in this genre to recycle the same “love at first sight” or “happily ever after” tropes that can be found center stage in a Fabio paperback novel; not that there is anything problematic with that intended message, but it doesn’t carry any of the intoxicating and soulful energy that love can strike in one’s physical and mental makeup. “The Photograph” combines all of the ingredients that make for an enchanting and earnest portrayal of African American romance, harkening back to well-known past features such as “Love Jones” and “Brown Sugar”. Director Stella Meghie carries the genre forward from surface level trappings and produces a flavor-filled tale of affection that is enchanting to the heart.
Micheal (Lakeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae) operate as two vibrant professionals who are enjoying success in their respective careers while living in the concrete jungle known as New York City. Michael is working on a story profiling a female photographer that has left behind a bunch of questions and mystery which leads to a chance acquaintance with her daughter (Mae). That quickly turns into a hot and steamy courtship. Over time, the link between the past and the present becomes clearer as Mae starts to uncover secrets about the mother she thought she knew while coming to grips with the vulnerability and affection she feels with Michael. Stanfield displays new sensibilities as a romantic lead, building on his quirkiness and the “it factor” that has turned a lot of eyes his way as an entertainer. The very talented Issa Rae exudes radiant beauty and the right level of comedic timing that keeps your attention on her at all times. What helps generate a fascination with this couple and their journey is the feeling that both of the characters feel like natural beings living a young and ambitious lifestyle. It is always a breath of fresh air for black characters to be depicted in a style that scoffs away harmful and simple-minded depictions. Lil Rey Howery is such a hoot as the brother of Michael filled with an unstoppable arsenal of one-liners that will make your side hurt, and Lee Morgan, always a consummate professional, continues to make his case as one of the more underappreciated actors currently working.
Meghie not only shares her vision of modern-day relationships as a filmmaker but also through a mostly organic zest in the screenwriting arena. The conversations shared between characters provide an anchor for the audience to connect with the diverse personalities populating the screen. The balancing act of the two narratives that eventually divulge into one handles well in cross-cutting between past and present, but I did want to see more significance in the journey of Mae’s mother. There were some missed opportunities to show why the mother had a hard time with parenthood and her harboring of unresolved issues internally that kept her from being able to open herself to the full power of untamed love. The focus and likeability of the film mostly come from Stanfield and Issa lighting up the screen, and the film bogs down a little when the two of them are not around.
The fabulous soundtrack plays the best of R&B from the past few decades and felt curated specifically to the major vibes the story wanted to emit and Robert Glapser creates a wonderful companion musical composition that recognizes jazz as the singular choice music for depicting blossoming romance. It is full of clean piano notes, trumpets that speak feeling without the use of words, and beautiful saxophone additions. This a must-own soundtrack that carries a lot of memorable moments that will ring heavy on the head for the foreseeable future. The cinematography is filled with the gorgeous use of wide shots that gives characters bigger than life presence and top-notch lighting that renders locations with passion and sleekness,
Take your significant other, a friend, family member, or anyone who is a fan of arresting romance to this realistically portrayed and charming feature. Not only do you see a side of love that pays great attention to the vulnerability of companionship but also the idea of not being afraid to have someone in your life only for fear of losing them. The strength of the film is in its great performances, production design efficiency, excellent curated soundtrack, and attention to the ins and outs of longing attachment. Even for someone who may not be a usual fan of films dealing with love, this breaks the genre’s stale mold and brings something familiar to the table in a new way.
Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and contributor to the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
For film enthusiasts everywhere, especially those, myself included, who live for the underappreciated masters and the nooks and crannies of cinema history, November 29, 2018 was a dark day, the day FilmStruck died. FilmStruck had been the all-too-short-lived streaming home for the revered Criterion Collection and their streaming partners, notably Janus Films. FilmStruck had also recently partnered with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) to provide access to an abundance of classic American cinema. Altogether, in addition to offering a large selection of films released on the Criterion label, the service had also provided its subscriber base with a wealth of ever-shifting selections, both foreign and domestic, from across the many decades of film history.
After having experienced the Criterion Collection in past years as merely happenstance as I explored various acclaimed films that happened to be on their discs, 2018 marked a shift of intentionality as I purposely began seeking out films associated with the label, especially once I finally made the decision to dive into FilmStruck. Fortunately, I’m a huge proponent of physical media, especially Blu-ray, and so that already represented the majority of my watching, but I quickly discovered many titles on the channel didn’t have Blu-ray releases. Nevertheless, come January 1, the start of my 2019 adventure with the label, discs were now pretty much my only source when it came to anything Criterion-related. That’s not to say I didn’t stop making astonishing, thrilling, and awe-inspiring discoveries on disc. In fact, the majority of my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries in 2019 were from discs in the Collection. But there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and depth of streaming.
Fortunately, the darkness and despair was short lived, as soon after FlimStruck closed, it came to light that Criterion itself would be providing a streaming service. Finally, after much anticipation, on April 8, the Criterion Channel launched, and I began to discover just how deep the rabbit hole would go. The channel’s extensive partnerships would enable them to provide an even more diverse array of films than FilmStruck had. Right off the bat, I experienced one of the new channel’s most ingenious means of helping its viewers to discover films we may never have otherwise seen. Curated collections.
Day one, the first major collection was right there on top of the screen, Columbia Noir. If this was the launching point, a whole group of compelling Columbia Studios films, the vast majority of which had no Criterion ownership, along with a whole host of other films, in and out of the Collection, I knew I was in good hands. So now, with a full arsenal of available Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases and Criterion Channel possibilities I was ready to dive into all sorts of new territory. By the end of 2019, I had experienced 134 of them for the very first time with representation from every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s.
Here’s the full list of Criterion-related titles I watched in chronological order by release date.
I wish I could tell you about all the great films I watched throughout 2019, but instead I’ll have to stick to the highlights. Without going into detail, I am particularly happy with 3 box sets I began and will finish in 2020, not a bad film in the bunch and two genuine masterpieces–The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Playtime. Those sets features the talents of filmmakers Jacques Demy, Jacques Tati, and the collaborations of Marlene Dietrich and her frequent director Josef Von Sternberg. Along the same lines, many of my channel experiences came via the aforementioned curated collections, which focus on either a specific filmmaker, actor, creative theme or a combination of those. The one and only collection I completed beginning to end, though not for lack of trying, was Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck, in which she played a wide variety of characters, from a long-suffering mother to promiscuous lover to faith healer to a mail order bride fighting for the love of her husband. That last character is found in The Purchase Price, one of the least appreciated films in the collection that was in fact my favorite of the group.
There was plenty I enjoyed from the other collections I partook from, whether I saw many as in the launch day Columbia Noir collection or merely a couple as in the Fred and Ginger grouping that featured who else but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a pair that can’t help but put a smile on your face with their chemistry, dancing talent, and synchronicity. The noir set gave me the opportunity to finally discover Fritz Lang’s genre masterpiece The Big Heat as well as his also outstanding, though underrated Human Desire. I was additionally grateful for the opportunity to explore the contributions of women in early cinema through a trio of Dorothy Arzner films, one of the pioneering women directors, headlined by Craig’s Wife, as well as a pair of George Cukor films that put a spotlight on his complex, unforgettable heroines. Both The Women, which features the unique casting of 130 female speaking parts and not one male on camera, and A Woman’s Face made for rich and heartfelt viewing.
My other big push came at the very end of the year as I simultaneously gobbled down soon-to-be-expired entries from the Val Lewton and MGM Musicals collections wherein I found some fun, some thrills, and three new favorites, from an ultra dark classic horror mystery featuring Satan worshipers and suicide, to emotional romantic drama in musical form provided by the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, to a film of pure joy, silliness, and dreams of romance with the sunny Debbie Reynolds being pursued by the awkwardly charming Donald O’Connor. Those films are The 7th Victim, For Me and My Gal, and I Love Melvin, in that order.
About mid-year, after having seeing there were a massive number of Yasujirō Ozu films on the channel, a master director I had discovered the previous year and whose work intrigued me, I was inspired to try something truly ambitious, my biggest film-watching project to date. I would begin a chronological deep dive through every Ozu film I could access. By year’s end, I had journeyed through his first 10 films, though a couple only exist in part. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience watching them in order to see the growth of his film-making skills, the types of stories he tells, and to see his style progress over time. In the few short years these first films have covered, I’ve been able to pick up on subtle shifts in direction such as his heavily Hollywood influenced beginnings to him starting to develop his own distinct style. My favorite of these early years, Tokyo Chorus, is a deeply emotional family drama where a man loses his job trying to stand up for a coworker, which throws his family into hardship. Those who look ahead know emotional family drama would become a mainstay in Ozu’s work.
TOP 10 CRITERION DISCOVERIES
Now we come to the main event, the best of the best, where I highlight my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries of 2019, plus an honorable mention. These were the films that grabbed the whole of my heart, mind, and spirit, showcasing complete package film making, from script to cinematography to acting to direction to music.
Note, these titles were extracted from my overall list of my top 20 first-time watches during 2019.
Honorable Mention: La Jetée
Year: 1962 Director: Chris Marker Genre: Short, Drama, Romance Cast: Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, André Heinrich, Jacques Branchu, Pierre Joffroy, Étienne Becker, Philbert von Lifchitz, Ligia Branice
A 28-minute genius work of art. The time travel plot, as mind bending as it is, is simply window dressing to the meditation on love, memory, and the attempt to attain the unattainable or regain what is forever lost that lies beneath. Rarely has so much been accomplished with so little. Through [almost] nothing but a set of still pictures and narration, Marker sets our imaginations alight, and we ourselves become captivated with this entrancing woman once frozen in a snapshot of memory.
Upon the prisoner’s re-entering the past, the juxtaposition of music and image creates a transportive experience that makes you want nothing but to rest in those peacetime moments indefinitely all the while knowing the apocalypse is just around the corner. Likewise when the time-traveling prisoner and the woman he was seeking are together. There is so much life in the still images that you can almost sense them moving but in the way that life moves when you’re sitting quietly with someone you adore simply adoring their presence, and time just fades away. And then comes a look. Just briefly, but one that you will never forget. But these moments are fleeting, and time in fact does go on and that moment is forever gone.
#10 – Arsenic and Old Lace
Year: 1944 Director: Frank Capra Genre: Comedy, Crime, Thriller Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton Peter Lorre, James Gleason, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell
Who knew a movie featuring serial killer sisters that’s directed by the guy who made such moving slices of melodrama like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington could be so freaking funny? Cary Grant kills it as the just-married and utterly flummoxed Mortimer Brewster who is simply trying to get ready for his honeymoon at his family home when he stumbles across a corpse upon which his aunts happily reveal to him that they’ve been killing lonely bachelors as a service to them. As if this wasn’t wild enough, Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and his other brother, Jonathan is himself a murderer on the run with his own dark intentions. But murder turns to farce as the comedy of errors and miscommunication pile up. The plot is beautifully orchestrated, but the sheer incredulity alone that Grant hilariously shows at the ever increasing madness around him is alone worth the price of admission.
#9 – Solaris
Year: 1972 Director: Andrei Tarkovsky Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Georgiy Teykh, Sos Sargsyan, Olga Barnet
Even more than the main character Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and despite her not showing up for some time, Solaris thrives on Natalya Bondarchuk’s magnetic portrayal of Hari, Kelvin’s long-dead wife who has suddenly appeared again… and again… and again. Kelvin himself represents a relatable everyman, and it is through him we are transported from what remained of his life and relationships on Earth into a surreal, contemplative, and ever more disturbing experience on a nearly empty space station in growing disarray. The station is hovering over an alien ocean world full of fog and mystery. Through Kelvin, our attention is ever drawn to Hari, and it is the intimacy her present manifestation shares with him, an intimacy defined by their past relationship, through which Tarkovsky provides the core of his exploration into what it means to be human.
Clearly, human individuals are unique in a way that other creatures are not, a distinct nature that even a carbon copy cannot emulate, try as they might. Another side of our humanity is our attachment to one another, none more so than in that unifying relationship of marriage, where two become one flesh. The longing that comes from the loss of that relationship can be so intense that perhaps one would consider a carbon copy substitute, even knowing it’s not the same person?
#8 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Year: 1943 Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger Genre: Drama, Romance, War Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Adolf Wohlbrück, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Arthur Wontner, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Robert Harris
An epic rivaling the indomitable Lawrence of Arabia that gives flesh and meaning to what had seemed a mere caricature of a man. The viewer is faced with such human complexity in this study of the fictitious General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) that he is himself forced to contemplate the whole of his own past, how it has affected his present, and what the impact will be on his future and the future of those who will come after him.
The depth and weight Powell and Pressburger were able to instill into the film is even more profound when one considers it having been made in wartime, when the fate of the world was yet unknown. They also demonstrate an attempt to understand the nature of that present war and how it came to be that all of Britain (and the world) was fighting for its very existence against the disastrous threat of Nazism. The acting is chock full of so many delightful subtleties and the dialogue is incredibly well written, detailed with emotion and color and memory. I also must give special attention to Deborah Kerr’s extraordinary multi-role performance, no doubt helped by the costuming and makeup talent.
#7 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Year: 1964 Director: Jacques Demy Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Mireille Perrey, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat, Bernard Fradet, Michel Benoist
Jacques Demy is a master manipulator of the heartstrings and intimately familiar with the intense passions and longing that come with young love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg left me with bittersweet tears and a tight ball of conflicted emotions as sadness and joy fought against one another within my soul. But it’s not only emotions Demy demonstrates artistry over. The frame throughout explodes with bright, bold colors and he collaborates with composer Michel Legrand to provide a soul-stirring musical score with powerful songs. Though this is no Hollywood musical as every word of dialogue is sung, often in a subdued, melancholy manner due to the ever-present conflict even amidst joy, which plays in subtle ways against the colorful backdrops.
While Catherine Deneuve’s character Geneviève takes center stage through much of the film, every romantic relationship and desire, whether given short or significant attention, is fueled with earnest intention and truthfulness. There is absolutely nothing casual about any of the romance. But speaking of Deneuve, the pained longing and desperation expressed in her face and eyes broke me. Through her and Guy’s (Nino Castelnuovo) forced separation, we are made to feel the misery of the not knowing and the consequences of the impossible choices that life and our own actions force us to make when we’re desperate not to have to make them.
#6 – Wild Strawberries
Year: 1957 Director: Ingmar Bergman Genre: Drama, Romance Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow, Åke Fridell, Ann-Marie Wiman, Gunnel Broström
A deeply introspective tone makes Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries immensely relatable, despite the often surreal quality of the film and the vast age difference between 78-year old doctor and widower Isak Borg and the average viewer, especially when we discover he and his much younger estranged son Evald suffer from a similar darkness of the soul that has brought each to their own crisis point. Victor Sjöström plays Isak with such sensitivity that he makes us care about his inner turmoil all the while he’s showing himself to have become an insensitive and grumpy old man to those he should be closest to.
The film opens with a surreal nightmare, which sets Isak face to face with the immediacy of his mortality with vivid symbolism. This begins a literal and figurative journey, the former a shared road trip with his pregnant daughter-in-law battling her own demons and with those they pick up along the way, including a girl named Sara, played by Bibi Andersson, who reminds him of the Sara he thought he would marry as a young man (also played by Bibi Andersson). These encounters on his literal journey propel Isak into a deep inner journey of sentiment, regret, and hope that serves to change how he sees himself and the world around him.
#5 – The Big Heat
Year: 1953 Director: Fritz Lang Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Thriller Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Carolyn Jones
Never has so much tension been wrought out of a boiling pot of coffee and rarely does a final line land with such foreboding potency. WIth a screenplay written by actual former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat unleashed upon the world one of the most brutal film noirs of the classic era. With no holds barred, Lang unhesitatingly reveals the world as a place that feels cold, hopeless, vicious, and full of infidelity. It’s a world populated by the mafia, dirty cops, and promiscuous women, and by making it clear that no one is safe, good or bad alike or anywhere in between, Lang establishes an environment loaded with tension, both for physical danger as well as moral compromise.
Glenn Ford is ideally cast as the good guy homicide detective Sergeant Bannion who starts out a positive well-intentioned family man but soon finds himself caught up in mob brutality while trying to solve a case. In his anger and frustration, the cracks in his good-guy persona quickly develop and he starts to look and more like the criminals he’s pursuing. Gloria Grahame is also outstanding as Debby Marsh, girlfriend to Vince Stone, second-in-command to the local mob boss. Despite the company she keeps, she demonstrates an awareness and intelligence and an appreciation of moral uprightness in Bannion when he stands up to a nightclub singer who Vince abuses. It seems to be the spark she needs to seek a way out of the only lifestyle she’s known. So while one character is on the descent, the other is rising up.
#4 – The Elephant Man
Year: 1980 Director: David Lynch Genre: Biography, Drama Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher
Carrying on the torch of early 20th century filmmakers like Tod Browning (Freaks) who want to inspire us to care for those society has rejected and abused, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man eschews the distortion of surrealism for the distortion of humanity and a trumpets a desperate call for empathy and kindness. Lynch’s most important choice is to unmask John Merrick (the eponymous character’s real name) early on. The more he shows us John’s (John Hurt) intelligence, faith, ability to create and appreciate beauty, and his longing for human connection, the more monstrous those who would be cruel and take advantage of him appear. By the point he’s crying out that he’s a human being, not an animal, he’s the only one present who isn’t acting like one.
Hurt’s performance is one for the ages, both in physically presenting himself as this horribly disfigured man as well as from the soul that pours out of his eyes. Anthony Hopkins is likewise terrific as Dr. Treves. We sense his deep compassion for John and yet he’s hardly perfect as he comes to realize about himself. Despite his good intentions, he realizes he and his hospital staff are treating John with the same lack of humanity as John had endured in the circus. I loved seeing the pure care and affection that Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) had for John. She is wholly unaffected by his outward appearance, seeing straight into the soulful kindness and goodness of the man’s heart. And she’s proud to show him honor in public as well. What an inspiration!
#3 – Autumn Sonata
Year: 1978 Director: Ingmar Bergman Genre: Drama, Music Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Linn Ullmann
After several previous attempts to fully appreciate the morally, philosophically, and artistically dense films of Ingmar Bergman, this one was the key to finally unlocking my ability to love one of them. I adore movies that make me feel, and let’s just say that if you ever wanted to know what the emotional equivalent of going 12 rounds with a prize fighter would be, my suggestion would be to watch the pulse-pounding bout herein between Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann and the incomparable Ingrid Bergman, who play a daughter and her estranged mother respectively. That daughter, named Eva, is the troubled wife of the village pastor, and her mother Charlotte is a highly accomplished and well-traveled pianist. Both have to face the disappointment and frustration that has come with choices that were long ago made, especially those due to Charlotte’s career pursuits.
If we’re honest, emotional baggage is always going to be a factor between mothers and their daughters. Ingmar takes advantage of this reality by heaping insult onto injury and creating deeply complex individuals whose fully fleshed out characters and rich histories bear scars that run incredibly deep. Reconciliation is the unstated desire, but as long-held secrets, selfish desires, and bottled up trauma are dredged up even the possibility of achieving that reconciliation is going to unleash all kinds of misery, frustration, rage, and despair. For 90 minutes, Ingrid and Liv are this mother daughter pair. With exacting performances that never once cross the line into overacting, they are taken to the limit as emotion pours out of each of them in a mesmerizing, soul-crushing plea for understanding and appreciation. By the end, the viewer feels as exhausted as the couple on the screen.
#2 – Barry Lyndon
Year: 1975 Director: Stanley Kubrick Genre: Adventure, Drama, History Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Körner, Gay Hamilton, Frank Middlemass, Arthur O’Sullivan, Godfrey Quigley, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone
It amazes me how Kubrick could seemingly take any genre and make a masterpiece out of it. This is his take on a 1700s period film. The sumptuous beauty of the cinematography presents an experience akin to a relaxing stroll through a gallery of richly detailed paintings, complete with narration and a gorgeous classical music compositions, except in the rare moment when the calm is unceremoniously broken and even the camera is set loose in the ensuing chaos. In contrast to the beauty of the camerawork is the only sometimes sympathetic man at its center, Redmond Barry, played to subtle perfection by Ryan O’Neal.
Barry is repeatedly given opportunities to put his past bad choices behind him and start anew, often in even better shape than he was before, but he keeps failing to overcome the lusts that drive him leading him to spurn those opportunities. He finds pleasures for a time, but those pleasures, those choices to act evilly towards not only strangers but eventually even his own wife and stepchild come at a severe cost. The defining duel of the film is masterfully filmed with immaculate detail and taking what had been a mostly relaxing viewing up to that point and ever so slowly infusing ounce upon ounce of suspense, creating intense discomfort for the characters on screen and the viewer alike.
And my #1 favorite Criterion discovery of 2019 is…
Year: 1948 Director: Vittorio De Sica Genre: Drama Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Fausto Guerzoni
Such a simple premise–a man’s search for his stolen bicycle through the streets of post World War II Rome, an ancient, endlessly fascinating city of contrasts. Shot on location (no sets) with only untrained actors (though you’d never know it), this prime example of Italian neorealist cinema blurs the line between fly-on-the-wall documentary and fictional narrative. Director Vittorio De Sica demonstrates how such an event that would seem a mere inconvenience to many feels like a life and death predicament to the impoverished Antonio Ricci and his family. Through Antonio’s desperate urgency, he being played by the remarkable Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker by trade, we understand that failure is not an option. He must recover his bike, or he won’t be able to work, and his family will starve. Along for the search comes his son Bruno played by Enzo Staiola, equally photogenic and adept at showing a range of emotion as he watches his father’s growing desperation.
De Sica expertly fuels our empathy for the Riccis right away as the film opens with a bit of tragic irony. Antonio, desperate for work is informed there’s a job available for him. The catch, he must have a bicycle. The irony is he had one and had to pawn it to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and decides they can live without their bedsheets and pawns them–because there’s nothing else of significance left to pawn–to get Antonio his bicycle back. With such a precious possession back in hand, we are in suspense every moment the bicycle is not under Antonio’s watchful eye. Later, at times as the needle-in-a-haystack search continues, we are further enlightened to Antonio’s miserable condition as he is surrounded by hordes of bicycles, the very thing he needs, but not one is his. We also see how Antonio’s desperate condition and the decisions it leads him to make affect young Bruno.
Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.
Japanese director Takashi Miike is nothing if not prolific. “First Love” marks his sixtieth film in the past twenty-four years and tells the story of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a terminally ill young boxer, who by accident or fate bumps into Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young drug-addicted prostitute, and is unwittingly caught up in a crazy night of chaos on the streets of Tokyo between warring Japanese and Chinese gangs. All of this is brought on by a young Japanese gangster named Kase (Shōta Sometani) scheming with Otomo (Nao Ōmori), a corrupt cop, to steal and sell yakuza-owned drugs in order to ignite a mafia war between the Japanese and Chinese factions. Stories like this, of course, would be quite boring if everything went according to plan, and so as you’d expect the night goes to hell quickly, and in true Miike form – violently.
American viewers coming to Miike’s films for the first time may see a resemblance to Quentin Tarantino in the way that the director uses violence. For large parts of the film’s running time, it maintains a dramatic noir-like tone, with small doses of comedy, but in a few specific scenes, he unleashes an explosion of bloody violence. The yakuza are known for wielding swords as well as machine guns and heads quite literally roll at one point. The action includes gunfights, sword fights, martial arts, and body parts flying, and though prevalent, is not non-stop, but scattered throughout in a way that makes the film’s pacing work well. Miike is always building to something, and the climax is full of the stylistic action choreography fans of series like “John Wick” will enjoy. The film’s score and sound design are also noteworthy. Both are exceptional at mood-setting and suspense-building, and contribute much to the film’s action pieces in terms of amping up the excitement, as well.
Emotionally speaking, “First Love” does have at its core a romance brewing, but it’s subtle and not in your face or overly unrealistic in the way that many love stories are. The relationship is one of two people finding redemption, overcoming despair and addiction, and finding something worth fighting and living for together. When the sun rises after this deadly night, lives will have been changed forever, and the ways in which Miike connects us to his characters throughout the film leaves viewers very invested in both their individual and collective future.
“First Love” is a thoroughly engaging modern-day Asian gangster film. Its blend of action, drama, comedy, style, and violence make it an entertaining watch and a fantastic introduction to Miike’s filmography.
Blu-Ray Bonus Features:
The only two bonus features on the Blu-Ray disc are three film trailers (“Ip Man 4: The Finale”, “The Divine Fury”, “Freaks”) and an English language audio track. English dubs of foreign language films are notoriously terrible, but while I wouldn’t recommend watching the film with this track on, I can also say that it is one of the better ones I’ve ever heard. Again, I say “better” only relative to the fact that most are completely unbearable to listen to. It is, however, solid enough that I was able to get through the entire film and not lose enjoyment because of the voices. You definitely will lose a lot of context and expression, but the track is there for those who prefer it.
“First Love” was provided by Well Go USA Entertainment for this review. You can buy the film on VOD, Blu-Ray, and DVD on February 11, 2020.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.