A Cat in Paris (2010)

*currently streaming on Sundance Now

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Although many of us bemoan the death of the video store, one of the (unintentional) consequences of the rise of streaming services is the broadening market for indies and foreign-language films. Movies that otherwise would have been found buried in the stacks at Blockbuster are widely available. I know for certain my childhood Blockbuster wouldn’t have carried A Cat in Paris, an animated film from Folimage that was nominated for an Academy Award back in 2010.

A Cat in Paris tells of the exciting adventures of Dino, a black cat with red stripes who lives with Zoe and her mother Jeanne by day, and by night accompanies dashing cat burglar Nico on his nefarious rounds. Dino is a source of solace and companionship for Zoe, who has become increasingly distant from her mother since her father’s murder by crime boss Victor Costa. In her grief and anger, Zoe has retreated into herself, refusing to speak and largely relating to her cat. While Jeanne investigates her husband’s murder, she leaves her daughter in the care of Dino and their housekeeper Claudine. Dino’s wanderings soon result in the intersection of Jeanne and Nico’s lives, when he accidentally leads Zoe out of the house and into danger.

A Cat in Paris has both its plot and its animation style going for it, developing the characters as much through their fluid movements and physical types as through their roles in the actual narrative. Nico’s movements are fluid, his arms and legs bending and elongating as he traverses the rooftops of Paris with catlike (!) ease. He’s of a piece with Dino, perhaps the most perfectly inscrutable and adorable representation of a cat in animation. Dino is completely at home sliding across fences, annoying dogs, and following in the footsteps of his criminal friend, then returning home to cuddle Zoe and reassure her that she’s loved, as only a pet can do.

As the film develops from Dino’s nighttime wanderings to a screwball-ish caper somewhere between latter-day Hitchcock and Stanley Donen’s Charade, the animation doesn’t lose its sense of magic. Paris is rendered in all its beauty, the essence of the city captured in  stuttering, elegant lines and popping colors. The film doesn’t shy away from creating a sense of danger, though the effect is more emotional and psychological than representative of real physical violence. One sequence in which the lights go out during rescue attempt is drawn so brilliantly style that one realizes this is a film that must be animated, that cannot exist outside the realm of hand-drawn art.

My sole complaint about A Cat in Paris is that I was unable to watch it in the original French via streaming, and so had to make do with the English language version. However, this also means that I got to hear Anjelica Huston doing voice work as Claudine, so it all came out right in the end.

Coming in at a brisk 65 minutes, A Cat in Paris is a welcome respite from CGI, as well as an adventure worthy of a 1960s caper film. It also reminded me that of all the cities in the world, Paris is still the most magical.

A Cat in Paris is available to stream on Sundance Now.

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The General (1926)

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The General holds the distinction of being one of the two most famous Buster Keaton films ever made, and consequently the one most often seen even by those who might resist silent cinema. And what a film it is. The General spends the vast majority of its hour and fifteen minute runtime in a breathless chase sequence, with stunts that become ever more elaborate as Keaton and his crew risk life and limb for the sake of a good joke. In this new restoration from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films, we can finally watch The General in all its gorgeous glory (and in the original aspect ratio!).

Keaton is Johnnie Grey, an engineer on the Western & Atlantic Railroad who loves two things: his engine The General, and his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War breaks out, Annabelle pressures Johnnie to enlist, but the Confederate Army thinks that he’d be more useful as an engineer than as a soldier. Believing her man is a coward, Annabelle refuses to have anything more to do with Johnnie until he puts on a uniform. Fast forward a year, and Annabelle is traveling on the Western & Atlantic to go see her father, who has been injured further North. Little does she – or Johnnie – know, but The General is the target for Union saboteurs, who steal the train with Annabelle still on board. Johnnie gives chase, vowing to bring back his engine and his girl.

The stunts in The General are some of the most remarkable that Keaton would ever pull off, with the comedian riding on the cow catcher, running over the top of the train cars, firing cannons around bends, and setting a bridge on fire. But the stunts also pay off as shocking feats of athletic – and locomotive – prowess that today would take ten stuntmen and lots of insurance forms. The directing and editing of the film plays a large part in The General’s success, maintaining a breakneck speed and elegance that provides a study in continuity editing.

The odd quirks of The General – such as Keaton insisting that the heroes be the Confederate Army, because no one would have sympathy with the Union – don’t serve to undermine it. While the Civil War acts as a backdrop, and there is an undercurrent of the South’s heroism, it’s a very apolitical film, more about the triumph of the little man than about any big victory for the rebels.

Three Ages (1923)

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Lesser known than The General or even than the other two films in Kino’s other Keaton collection is Three Ages, an underrated little gem from 1923.

Three Ages gently mocks D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance by taking a similar structure and subject matter, telling of universal human experience through three stories from three different periods of history. Keaton here takes on “love” through the lenses of the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age, each depicted with tongue firmly in cheek. The structure is really just an excuse for Keaton to do his stunts, and the plot is less integral to the stunts than in The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr. But the stunts are, as always, glorious to behold, particularly in the climactic chase scenes at the end of each historical sequence. There are also wonderful little bouts of silliness, as when Keaton’s Roman counterpart runs a chariot race by dog sled, or the acrobatic football game in which the slight comedian faces off against the massive Wallace Beery.

Three Ages is probably one of the sillier Keaton films, and the episodic structure means that the viewer more or less knows what to expect in each sequence. But without being groundbreaking, it’s also quite entertaining.

As with the Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College set, this set from Kino Lorber and Lobster Films features gorgeous 2K restorations of Keaton’s classics, along with a hefty dose of extras on both discs. For the film buffs among us, the audio commentary from film historians on The General is interesting, especially as this is among the best known of Keaton’s works. Three Ages doesn’t receive quite the same attention, though the inclusion of Man’s Genesis, another Griffith film parodied in the Stone Age sequence in Three Ages, is a welcome historical tidbit.Three Ages is unfortunately a visibly damaged film, with several scenes almost obscured by damaged frames. But this restoration thankfully makes even those scenes watchable, and the film is here presented in its entirety.

What’s really most impressive and important in these new Kino releases is the beauty and the care that has gone into the restorations. Thousands of silent films have been lost, and many more have disintegrated beyond repair, so even the smallest attempts to preserve silent film history is welcome in the digital age. And these are not small films, nor are the preservation attempts – they are seminal comedies from one of the greatest comedic minds of his or any other generation, presented with loving attention to detail in crisp digital prints. Embrace these films, watch them, buy them. Support the preservation of our cinematic history. We won’t see anything like this again.

The General/Three Ages is now available from Kino Lorber.

The Death Kiss (1932)

*available to stream on Shudder

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The horror streaming service Shudder has a few high-quality public domain films available for streaming which, if you’re a stickler for quality like me, is very welcome. The Death Kiss, a pre-Code thriller from 1932 and restored by Kino in this edition, is one of the most surprisingly entertaining little dramas that I’ve seen in a long while.

The Death Kiss opens on the making of the film The Death Kiss, as actor Miles Brent (Edmund Burns) walks onscreen for his cinematic death scene…and winds up actually being shot. Almost everyone on set is pretty sanguine about Brent’s death: his ex-wife and leading lady Marcia (Adrienne Ames) can’t stand him, his director Tom Avery (Edward Sloan) and studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi) are more worried about finishing the film than the loss of their leading man, and the head of studio Leon A. Grossmith (Alexander Carr) is counting the money that he’s going to lose by delaying production for such a small thing as a murder. The police arrive, and so does a young scenario writer and would-be detective Franklyn Drew (David Manners), who also happens to be Marcia’s lover. But while no one really cares who killed Brent, when the police set their sights on Marcia, Drew decides he has to act on his own. What follows is a snappy little whodunnit with some silly set-pieces, crackling dialogue, and lots of Hollywood self-effacement.

The Death Kiss is immediately notable for bringing back together three of the main actors from the 1931 Dracula in the persons of Manners, Sloan, and Lugosi. But each are also playing noticeably against type: Sloan is far from the grandfatherly Van Helsing, and Lugosi actually gets more than a few laughs in as the slightly diabolical studio manager. Most notable, however, is David Manners, who was wooden as Jonathan Harker and here actually proves he carry off comedy and dashing wit without creasing his necktie. Because the film is so short, coming in at just over an hour, the plot moves along at a good clip, getting in little digs at Hollywood and movie-making while managing to conjure up a decent plot that had me guessing right to the end. Director Edwin L. Marin would go on to make a series of whodunnits throughout the 1930s, including several Philo Vance detective films and a version of A Study in Scarlet.

An odd little sidenote to The Death Kiss is the use of tinting in several key scenes, which have been properly restored in this print. The little shocks of color are bizarre but quite effective, and it’s lovely to see them in a film this small and quirky. The film is plagued by some sound troubles, probably owing to a poor source print, but these do not disrupt the production as a whole. It’s actually quite an irreverent and energetic little movie, replete with quirky side characters and distractions enough to keep things moving.

While The Death Kiss wins no awards for innovation, it’s an enjoyable film, quick-witted and fast-paced and just a little racy (pre-Code films need to be appreciated more, my friends). Though I wouldn’t quite call it a horror film (despite Lugosi), it’s streaming on Shudder now, so you have no excuse.

Kino Lorber has a wonderful habit of releasing silent public domain films in proper and worthy restorations, often rivaling the art-house productions of the equally wonderful Criterion Collection. The latest to be restored to 2K glory, in a combined effort from Kino and Lobster Films, are classics from Buster Keaton’s oeuvre, packaged two to a case, and replete with extras that remind us just what a brilliant comedian old Stoneface truly was.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

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Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. dates from 1928, and is Keaton’s last independent silent film before he made the move to MGM. In it, he’s Willie Canfield, Jr., the dandy-ish son of a gruff old steamboat captain (Ernest Torrance) who returns home from college to visit his dear old father. Willie also happens upon his sweetheart Kitty King (Marion Bryan), the daughter of a rival steamboat magnate John King (Tom McGuire). Comedy ensues as Willie Sr. tries to turn his effete son into a hardened old salt, while Willie Jr. must win the girl and rescue his father from being run out of business.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. brings together many of Keaton’s favored and most recognizable tropes: the young dandy trying to win the girl, the son attempting to impress the father, and the little guy facing off against encroaching obsolescence and in danger of being crushed by bigger, wealthier men. The sight gags come thick and fast, building up to the glorious (and famous) hurricane scene in which Keaton destroys most of the set and very nearly gets crushed by a falling building. But while Keaton is known for his acrobatic comedy (seriously – I’ve never seen a man fall on his head quite so much), there’s much to be said for the smaller visual gags that he carries off with such aplomb. In one scene, he attempts to signal to his imprisoned father that the loaf of bread he’s carrying has a file in it, all without tipping off the jailer. Keaton actually uses a song – in a silent film, no less – which he uses to make gestures to indicate the presence of the file. In another scene, he tries on a series of ridiculous hats – quickly discarding each, even his famous pork pie hat that had become his symbol.

The restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a lovely one, smoothing out the film and avoiding unnecessary crackles and pops so common in silent film restorations. New scores provide punctuation to the silent antics, and the Blu-ray also includes an informative audio commentary from two film historians.

College (1927)

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The second disc in this collection is College, another Keaton classic from later in his silent career. As with Steamboat Bill, Jr., College features Keaton as Ronald, a bit of a dandy whose lack of athleticism keeps him from the girl of his dreams, Mary (Anne Cornwall). As he sacrifices his collegiate studies for sports, he finds that he’s completely incapable of playing baseball, going out for track, or rowing…until the Dean forces the rowing coach to take him on as coxswain.

The joke, of course, is that Keaton’s “failed” athletics are spectacularly athletic. As he cycles through every track event, he succeeds in not completing the high jump, knocking over every hurdle (without actually tripping), and endangering the whole track team with his attempts at throwing the javelin. As with many of Keaton’s films, the sight gags and acrobatics become more and more elaborate until the film’s climax, encompassing a boat race followed by a breathless dash from the docks to save Mary.

There are a few minor stumbles in College, however, that slightly cut through its otherwise stellar antics. Ronald’s attempts to find a job to pay for his tuition backfire, leading  to a sequence with Keaton in blackface as a waiter. If you can look past the cringe-worthiness of the sequence, there are some good sight gags, but it’s still a fairly uncomfortable scene.

College is also an excellent restoration, and has an even more elaborate series of extras. In fact, there are two extras film on here: a twenty minute collegiate comedy with Carol Lombard entitled Run, Girl, Run, and The Scribe, which was Keaton’s final onscreen performance. Neither are much to write home about, but they provide diverting entertainment. Film scholars will be further edified by historical commentary, and a tour of College’s filming locations.

There are few comedians like Buster Keaton – even among his fellow silent clowns, he’s uniquely daring in his acrobatics and in his love of cinema. While neither of these films quite hits the calibre of Sherlock Jr. or The General, they are hardly lesser films – they’re just as eye-popping as they were in 1928.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College are available in new stellar restorations from Kino beginning February 21.

Queen of Katwe (2016)

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Quietly joining the ranks of films that branch out from Hollywood’s usual “white people do things” plot, Queen of Katwe is a refreshing and unpredictable entry from Disney about a young girl in Uganda who discovers a spectacular talent for chess.

The true story follows the life of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a teenage girl living in the Katwe slum of Uganda’s capital Kampala with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her siblings. She discovers a talent for chess at a missionary program run by sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and soon begins to compete against children from other, richer schools. She finds friendship and a sense of belonging among the other chess players, but gradually begins to chafe under her lack of education and the extreme poverty in which her mother and family are forced to live.

Queen of Katwe relies on some of the usual clichés about exceptional people in terrible circumstances, painting a picture of Phiona’s rise from poverty in very recognizable and clean-cut terms. But, more so than most Disney films, it also closely depicts the depths of poverty in which Phiona and her family live without either romanticizing them or making them appear exceptional. This is simply their lives, and chess – of all things – might very well be their ticket out of poverty. Phiona’s mother just wants a home with a roof over it, a request seemingly impossible to satisfy. Her daughter wants a way out of the slums. As Phiona becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her family life after every chess tournament, the conflict with her mother and her younger brother increases – she no longer feels at home anywhere, unable to match her growing thirst for education with her impoverished circumstances.

Robert and Harriet both approach Phiona’s talent with love and understanding – Robert sees her as a brilliant child who needs an opportunity, while Harriet recognizes both her daughter’s talent and the undeniable struggles of her daily life. The conflict between the two develops as what they think is best for Phiona, and whether the girl can ever achieve more than just notoriety in chess competition.

Queen of Katwe is a Disney film, and so even the extreme poverty of Phiona and her family is treated with a soft-focus edge. The film avoids going into the seamier side of poverty – Phiona’s elder sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) draws her mother’s condemnation by running off with a boy on a motorbike, but this is treated as mostly ancillary to Phiona’s life. Yet the fact that this is a Disney film works to Queen of Katwe’s benefit. The film presents the day-to-day life of impoverished people rather than dwelling on suffering or violence, avoiding the usual problems of more “adult” films that tend to focus on the dreadful nature of poverty rather than the humanity of the people.

Director Mira Nair gets excellent performances out of her cast – Oyelowo and Nyong’o are predictably good in their respective roles, but the children really steal the film. Newcomer Madina Malwanga turns in a riveting lead performance, fully embodying Phiona and lending her the depth necessary to carry the film. She avoids being overshadowed by the older and more experienced actors – no mean feat, given the calibre of acting on display here.

Queen of Katwe‘s sole weakness lies in the somewhat meandering nature of its story. Nair chooses to bookend the film with an important chess match, but the efficacy of those bookends make the rest of the narrative feel arcless. Phiona’s development from gifted amateur to a potential Grand Master forms the main focus of the story, but secondary plot threads threaten to imbalance the narrative. The film occasionally loses focus, eliding over important events and puncturing the development of suspense. While this doesn’t condemn the film, it does lessen the dramatic impact.

This Blu-ray release is as lovely and rich as one would expect from a Disney Blu-ray. Nair makes use of her usual vibrant color palette, here presented in sharp HD. The extra features include deleted scenes and an audio commentary with Nair that serve to flesh out the story. Two featurettes, including a short film about Robert Katende, explain the background of the real people on which Queen of Katwe is based, while Disney gets in its musical product placement with an Alicia Keys music video. As usual, the film is the major attraction on this disc, but the behind-the-scenes featurettes are especially informative and showcase the reality behind the gloss.

A smart and interesting story that seeks neither to romanticize nor pity its protagonists, Queen of Katwe is a strong entry into Disney’s live action world.

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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The romantic melodrama The Light Between Oceans comes to Blu-ray today, so get out your Kleenex and prepare yourself to be moved (and just a little bored) by the trials of a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and the choice that changes numerous lives in a small town in Australia.

Michael Fassbender is Tom Sherbourne, a traumatized World War I vet who becomes a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, off the coast of Western Australia. He falls in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) and together they build an idyllic but isolated existence at Janus. After suffering two miscarriages, Isabel despairs of ever having a child. Then a boat is washed up on shore, containing the body of a man and a very much alive baby girl. Isabel convinces Tom not to report the boat so that they can keep the child as their own. But that’s not the end of the story, of course, when Tom thinks that he’s come across the girl’s real mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz).

The Light Between Oceans is in the best traditions of romantic melodrama – it wouldn’t be out of place in 1930s cinema, probably starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (actually, they did make a similar film called Penny Serenade). The film allows the complexities around the trauma of loss and the sacrifices people make for those they love to come to the fore without laying too much blame on anyone. The drama feels unforced, once you’re willing to accept the somewhat unbelievable and romantic notion of a baby literally being washed up on the shore and taken in by a childless couple. There are no real villains, but people living at odds with each other, manipulated by circumstance and coincidence and affected by the choices of others. It would have been easy to vilify Hannah, or to force Isabel into the wrong, but both women are wrenched apart by their mutual love for a child and their personal tragedies.

There are elements that strain credulity, however, with at least one questionable plot complication that is both necessary to what follows and is unreasonably forced. Once that is gotten over, the film moves along cohesively enough, but I confess that I continued to come back to that point, wondering whether the novel on which the film is based succeeded in eliding over this issue with greater success. The moral complications of Tom and Isabel’s decision are dealt with carefully, although there are moments when the film threatens to tip over into soap opera territory. A secondary theme that could have been handled with greater complexity are Tom’s issues with faith – as the final act of the film proceeds, this becomes an important point, yet was never really elucidated or developed earlier in the film.

The Light Between Oceans boasts beautiful cinematography and this Blu-ray release showcases that, lovingly painting the gorgeous landscapes and the close, intimate images of the actors. The extras on the disc are mostly what one would expect: an audio commentary with director Derek Cianfrance, a few featurettes detailing the film as an adaptation and the use of location and cinematography. These are interesting enough insights into the production circumstances, though they naturally don’t touch on the greater thematic complexities of the narrative. The strength of the Blu-ray is in the presentation of the film itself.

Moving and complex and a touch melodramatic, The Light Between Oceans never quite rises to the heights of greatness, but neither should it be ignored. It’s an excellent piece of entertainment, beautifully presented on the new Blu-ray, with strong performances and some gorgeous locations. An enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

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Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, out on Blu-ray January 24, is a strange, sometimes successful cross between a straight sci-fi and an art installation. The film attempts to incorporate pretty much everything you might expect from both forms of art, mixing perception, dreams, reality, and drug-induced hysteria into a plot that doesn’t so much arc as hover slowly to different ethereal planes.

What little plot there is concerns Thomas Newton (David Bowie), an alien from a drought-stricken planet who arrives on Earth to bring water home. He immediately acquires great wealth using the technology from his home planet, bringing him power and increased scrutiny. He falls in love (sort of) with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid and bellhop in a rundown hotel, who introduces him to booze, sex, and religion (and cookies). With the help of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing scientist who guesses at Newton’s alienness, Newton hopes to construct a spaceship to return him home to his wife and family.

Of course, The Man Who Fell To Earth can’t do something as easy as tell a coherent story about a stranger in a strange land. Newton’s rise and fall is interspersed with a complexity of images, sounds, and scenes as he flashes back to (or dreams about or has foreshadowings of) his home planet and the family he left behind. His experience of Earth is likewise informed by media, as he absorbs everything from TV to music in a smorgasbord of sensory experience. Never having had alcohol before, he becomes an alcoholic; never having experienced human sex, he becomes a nymphomaniac. Yet he’s also curiously distant, unable to make real connections with those people around him.

The problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely certain what it’s trying to do, or why it’s trying to do it. Whole swathes of time are covered in single scene changes, while other scenes drag on and on, for no clear reason. While I never argue about a naked David Bowie, I could have done without seeing Rip Torn bed an ever-increasing number of ingenues. Nor is it clear what, if anything, these scenes are supposed to accomplish. The Man Who Fell To Earth is too linear to be surreal, but too scattered to tell a coherent story. It seems to be desperate to say something without having much of a clue about what it wants to say.

Bowie is the weirdly comforting center of all this, his beauty as ethereal and mesmerizing as ever. While he gave better performances in his acting career, he would never step into a role that suited him as closely as playing a gentle alien who just wants to go home. His moving performance attempts to articulate his experiences to human beings ill-equipped to understand them, and keeps the film from vanishing into its own personal black hole. Newton stretches out for contact that he’s not capable of, trying to express love or connection in a way that he can’t accomplish. There’s a sadness to Bowie’s performance that makes the viewer feel that we’re truly watching someone desperate to connect who doesn’t have the means or the language to do so.

This Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Man Who Fell To Earth is a gorgeous one, and offers the film in a beautiful 4K restoration, so that one may experience the Thin White Duke in all his multi-hued glory. The extras on the disc itself consist of new interviews with the costume designer May Routh and producer Michael Deeley, a multitude of archival interviews with Bowie, Candy Clark, Roeg, and writer Paul Mayersberg, and a “Lost Soundtracks” featurette, detailing the sound design of the film and what might have been. Although the interviews are interesting, they don’t entirely clarify the meaning behind the film and fail to reinforce it for anyone who might be unconvinced as a fan. The inserts in the pack are great, however, including a 72-page booklet, art cards, and a mini-poster with Bowie front and center (and which now adorns my wall).

The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that’s interesting as a curiosity and provocative for what it doesn’t quite succeed at doing. It’s an incoherent film, but it’s an interesting incoherent film, one that doesn’t entirely fail despite it’s incoherency. It aspires to the photographic beauty and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the emotional resonance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, and seems to forget, at times, to just be a film.