I had been keenly anticipating seeing “The Lobster” (2015 / Lionsgate / 118m / $24.99 BR / R) for some time and now that I have, I’m not at all certain what to make of it. That it has been termed everything from a comedy to a horror film suggests just how unclassifiable it is. But then in its persistent refusal to provide easy answers (or any at all for that matter) Yorgos Lanthimos is probably quite content for his film to be so. Set in, I suppose, some dystopian future it presents a society where it is illegal not to be part of a couple – either hetero or homosexual. Should one become uncoupled – as our protagonist David (Colin Farrell) is when his wife announces she’s leaving him – one is sent off to The Hotel where one either finds a mate within 45 days or is turned into an animal. That the animal is one of the person’s choice is as close as this scenario gets to a bright spot (David’s choice is the title critter because “lobsters live for more than 100 years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.”).
Now David is the only character in the film with a name besides his dog, Bob (who is also his brother); everyone else is designated by some characteristic – limping, short sightedness, a tendency toward nosebleeds – and it is on these characteristics that perfect matches are made (really not much more absurd than most people having preferences for, say, blonde hair or extraordinary physical endowments). All we know of David’s world is The Hotel, The City, a road that leads there and a forest. In this last locale dwell, the Loners who are hiding out and as opposed to being coupled as the rest of society (or what we are shown of it) is determinedly for it. Ironically, it is here that David meets his true love, a woman (Rachel Weisz) who is also near-sighted. I’ll leave it for you to find out the rest should you decide to seek out the film. If “The Lobster” has humor, it is Gobi dry and stygian black, but I’m not convinced that its satire has much depth, particularly for a film running just shy of two hours. Its understatement combines with a pace that might be lugubrious for some, and I opined to my sometime viewing companion somewhere around the three-quarter mark, “I wish this movie was as interesting as it is strange.” It is definitely one of a kind and those curious about more unusual productions will certainly want to seek it out. A warning, though: There is animal cruelty in the film that, while faked is still graphic and disturbing.
Less titles this week than the past few because I’ve been catching up on the backlog and also because “The Golden Age of Musicals” (1937 – 1957 / Film Chest Media / 1,538m (5 discs) / $19.98 / NR) is a box set containing 17 titles. I confess I didn’t watch every film contained herein. For one thing, you couldn’t pay me enough to sit through a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis feature, and in other cases, I have seen the films before, sometimes several times. Plus there are only so many hours in a week. All the titles in this box set are public domain titles, meaning that for some reason their copyrights haven’t been renewed whether they hail from the poshest of studios (MGM) or the most threadbare (PRC). Many of the films have shown up solo or in collections from other labels that deal in such things. In common with those other companies Film Chest’s transfers are a variable lot; little if any restoration work has been done though some of the titles look pretty good. On the plus side, you’ll only be shelling out a tad over a buck for each movie.
Among the titles familiar to anyone who’s shopped the dollar store for DVDs are “Royal Wedding” (worth catching to see Fred Astaire literally dance around the room) and the Jerome Kern biopic “Till the Clouds Roll By,” both hailing from MGM (someone in legal must have let something slip); “Something to Sing About” a musical James Cagney made during a dispute with Warner Bros. and which bankrupted Grand National, the Poverty Row studio that produced it. “Pot O’Gold” offers the unlikely musical comedy duo of James Stewart and Paulette Goddard (though she also paired with Astaire for “Second Chorus,” also included here, and proved herself at least as good a dancer as Ginger Rogers) while “Road to Bali” offers up Bing and Bob in one of their Road trips. Other well-known titles include “Stage Door Canteen’ (one of those barely plotted all star revues popular during WWII), “The Inspector General” with the insufferable Danny Kaye, the TV production of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” with Van Johnson” and “Private Buckaroo” with Harry James and the Andrews Sisters. Disappointingly the last does not include “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” despite an obvious opening.
For me, it was more interesting to explore what the lower-budgeted studios were doing to compete for audiences. “Career Girl” has Frances Langford take up residence in a women’s hotel that caters to aspiring thespians. Perhaps PRC’s lowly status – they were considered the cheapest studio in Hollywood, though you wouldn’t know it from the looks of some Monogram productions – allowed this one to fly under George S. Kaufman’s and Edna Ferber’s radar but the similarities to “Stage Door” are too strong to ignore. Of course that film of their play didn’t have a line-up of chorus girls in costumes that, in long shot, make them appear totally nude. That’s a jaw-dropper but hey, it has song lyrics by Morey Amsterdam! For sheer jaw-dropping strangeness, you can’t beat the opening of “All-American Co-Ed,” a Hal Roach streamliner dreamed up (and directed and choreographed) by LeRoy Prinz. Take a closer look at those chorus, er, girls whose shapely gams are featured under the opening credits. The plot has Quinceton student Johnny Downs going into drag to attend Mar Brynn College and falling for Langford. Keep your ear peeled for some outrageous double entendres that somehow escaped the 1941 censors, such as when Downs calls Langford “an orchid covered in dew.” Esther Dale and Harry Langdon are along for a pretty wild ride that predates “Some Like it Hot” and “Victor, Victoria” – and, yes, apparently they really did advertise it as “the season’s gayest musical,” proving that word has meant something other than happy for some time now.
I wasn’t much more taken by “Fidelio” (2015 / First Run Features / 97m / $24.95 / NR) but at least its intentions are less opaque. It tells of Alice (Arianne Labed) who signs on as a mechanic to the titular vessel, a cargo ship that has seen better days. The captain turns out to be a former lover (perhaps the love of her life) and the two enter into what is supposed to be a casual affair. Both are otherwise attached (he’s married; she’s in a serious relationship) but Alice declares at one point that she doesn’t understand how some women make do with only one man. Lucie Borleteau’s film is interesting in presenting a female protagonist doing what is traditionally considered a man’s job – and doing it well – in an all-male environment. Additionally, Alice’s free-spirited sexual attitudes are those more often those ascribed to the male of the species. Beyond that, I didn’t find this nigh plotless film terribly engaging or find any real point to it. (This isn’t just a guy thing; my sometime viewing companion – female – abandoned me well before the film was over and inquired the next day as to whether it ever ended or had a point.) Confusingly for a film apparently aimed for women there’s more – and more explicit – nudity from Labed than any of the men.
Supposedly based on a true story – meaning some fictionalizing has undoubtedly been brought to bear – “Chosen” (2016 / Lionsgate / 105m / $19.98 / R) tells of a Bulgarian Jewish lawyer Sonson (Luke Mably) who has been forced to live in the ghetto and spend his day breaking rocks by the occupying German forces. When his wife dies, he becomes militant and frees some arrested resistance types and then sets off for Poland to find his sister-in-law (Ana Ularu) who, as it happens, scarcely needs rescuing. She has managed to escape the internment camp bound train and hook up with another group of resistance fighters. Sonson joins them and hatches a bold scheme; they impersonate SS officers and kill the village’s occupying Nazis and then defend the town against more invading forces. If even half of what is shown here is true, it’s an amazing tale and one that hasn’t been told before – though the movies have concocted similar fictional tales. The film is structured as a flashback, a story told by an old codger (Harvey Keitel) to a youngster. The film is never explicit as to whether he is Sonson grown old but he must at least been one of the underground crew. Some have kvetched about inaccurate armaments and less than convincing CGI explosions, so this production won’t appeal, to purists. But while it may lack sufficient research this is something different from the usual WWII Allies vs Axis soldiers battle stuff. The cast is good (Keitel may have limited onscreen time but his voice-over narration propels the movie) and the story is engrossing.
Though its heyday is supposed to have been from about 1945-55 film noir, like Kharis the mummy, never truly died. “Manhattan Night” (aka “Manhattan Nocturne” – 2016 / Grindstone, Lionsgate Premiere / 114m / $19.99 BR / R) has Adrian Brody as Porter Wren, a newspaper columnist whose days of brilliant writing may be over. He now settles for churning out three columns a week on heartstring-tugging material (a gymnast father who leaps from a burning building with his toddler in his arms and executes a last-minute torso twist that saves the kid’s life). Devoted to his surgeon wife (Jennifer Beals) and kiddies he is nonetheless – in true noir fashion – irresistibly drawn to Caroline Crowley (Yvonne Strahovsky), a woman who encourages him to probe into the odd and unsolved death of her filmmaker husband. They engage in a torrid affair, and Wren is so blinded by lust he doesn’t tumble to the possibility that she may have some secrets of her own that she’d prefer stay buried and that she may be using him (but when he discovers she has been stalking his wife he doesn’t halt the affair). That is until Wren’s publisher Hobbs (Steven Berkoff) blackmails Wren into looking into Caroline’s past. There are one or two (maybe more) gaping plot holes that I’m guessing resulted from material left on the cutting room floor in adapting Colin Harrison’s novel to the screen. (How is it Hobbs knows Wren is making the beast with two backs with Caroline for starters?) The cast and the stylish photography may carry you past this; they mostly did so for me.