The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) (Blu-Ray Review)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

One thing you have to say for director Yorgos Lanthimos: he makes challenging films. The Lobster dared viewers’ comprehension (and patience), and his most recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer extends that, crafting an aesthetically honed narrative that borders on incomprehensible. Is it good? Is it incoherent? Does it even matter?

The plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is made only slightly more coherent when you realize that it’s (very loosely) based on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. Colin Farrell is Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon living an exemplary (and remarkably clean) life with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and two children Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Steven has a curious friendship with troubled teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose influence in Steven’s life increases as he insinuates himself deeper and deeper into the family. Soon Martin’s motivations become (somewhat) clear when Bob comes down with a mysterious illness that Martin claims is a punishment for Steven’s past transgressions. Steven now has a dreadful choice to make or risk the total destruction of his family. What ensues is a battle of emotionless wills between Steven and Martin, leading to a somewhat inevitable conclusion (again, especially if you take Euripides into account).

The mythological basis only just manages to make greater sense of a film that doesn’t quite make sense on its own. But taking The Killing of a Sacred Deer at face value – as I had to while watching the film, initially – there is a complex of tragedy and comedy feeding into a narrative that never completely fulfills its promise. The film slides between apparent, if studied, realism and the supernatural – characters speak with a precision that mimics stagecraft (to a degree), as they move within sparse settings photographed with a mobile but distant camera eye. This is all deliberate, and one has to admire Lanthimos’s dedication to the imagery that he constructs. The Murphys live in a pristine world where everyone has a set responsibility – Steven repeats his injunction that Bob cut his hair and water the plants, as per his familial role – and everything is as ordered as it is soulless. The movement from the Murphy house to the hospital and back again is surprising because there really is no sense that the two places are any different – the sterile world that the Murphys inhabit forms itself around them, and thus the inevitability of their tragedy is laid bare. Enter into this Martin, who stands out in his messiness, his off-ness, as he slurps pasta and explains to Steven that there’s no animosity in what is happening to the family—just justice. It’s a horrifying turn, but it’s hard to be overly sympathetic to Steven, who refuses to acknowledge his transgressions or his role in Martin’s vengeance.

Barry Keoghan is a standout here, playing Martin with a sociopathic tenderness that makes him fascinating and horrifying to watch. He’s a haunting presence, even when he departs the screen for long periods of time to provide space for the horrors of the Murphys. There’s more than a hint of the vampire in the way that he has to be invited in to the Murphys’ household, the way he insinuates himself with Kim, and even the way he attempts first to obtain some reparation in hooking Steven up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone, underused but excellent in her small role).

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not going to please anyone not already convinced by Lanthimos’s style. It’s a deeply aesthetic film, moving slowly from one scene to the next with deliberate camera movements and dolly work, avoiding drawing us too close to the characters (for fear, I think, that we might actually consider them human). It looks unflinchingly at the cruelty of the situation, and there’s really no one – save, perhaps, the children – to sympathize with. In that sense, it’s a perfect Greek tragedy, fatalistic and completely, viciously moral. But it doesn’t make for particularly pleasant viewing, and there were several moments when I simply considered turning the whole thing off.

This Blu-ray release is very pretty to look at, the HD looks great and the sound mixing excellent, but the special features are incredibly thin, comprising only a single featurette. I would have welcomed a more in-depth look at the film’s mythos, the stories that Lanthimos is drawing from, and the way that he constructs this tragedy within a modern setting. While I’m no fan of a director telling his audience how to understand his work, to have some basis for what Lanthimos thought he was doing might have helped to deepen my understanding of the film’s imagery. That the Blu-ray provides no further elucidation of the film’s project is a weakness, because it would have at least been interesting and would certainly justify purchasing it.

I’m almost inclined to write off The Killing of a Sacred Deer as a failed attempt to reconstitute the meaning of tragedy, a very ambitious but ultimately incoherent work of art. The film wants so much to force its viewer to interact with a combination of obscure meanings that it manages to establish no clear moral universe. At the same time, there’s something fascinating at the base of all this, failure or not. While it’s hardly a film I want to see a second time, it did keep me thinking and debating within myself for the better part of a weekend. That, in itself, makes for an intriguing work of art.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now available on Blu-ray.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and College (1927) (Blu-ray Review)

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)


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)


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.

The Light Between Oceans (2016) (Blu-Ray Review)

The Light Between Oceans (2016)


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) (Blu-Ray Review)

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)


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.