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That Time of The Week: DVD & Blu-ray Releases To Whet Your Whistle

Things here are slowly getting back on schedule with the rest of the DVD & Blu-ray reviews coming soon.  Then (if all goes to plan) we’ll have everything covered on a weekly basis.

There’s a blizzard coming to the East Coast tomorrow, so bundle up, Fire up that queue and prep that shopping cart, it’s That Time of The Week….

 

 

The Girl on the Train
Universal / Released 1/17/16

The Girl on the Train is based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller that shocked the world.

Rachel (Emily Blunt), devastated by her recent divorce, spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day. Everything changes when she sees something shocking happen there, and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds.

Extras include featurettes, deleted and extended scenes and commentary.

Last Word: There’s something darkly satisfying in imagining the still #1 bestselling The Girl On The Train is bringing heated debate amongst mostly female book clubs across America.

The twisty British suspense-thriller of the moment rides themes of voyeurism, envy, gender, and social status at a steady pace.

For the built-in book audience, I’m happy to say the film’s Americanized track change to New York’s Hudson Valley doesn’t derail the original story’s tone or intent.

In fact, the upper-middle class setting might hit all audiences over the head with its ugly truths.

Whereas Tate Taylor (Get on Up, The Help) does an unremarkable job directing the material (I would have loved to see De Palma play with this train set), Emily Blunt is perfectly cast as Rachel Watson.  Blunt gives an award-worthy performance.  On paper, it’s a strong character.  An alcoholic divorcee at rock-bottom with an unhealthy obsession over the life that keeps, literally, passing her by on her daily train ride. But Blunt takes Rachel to extremes physically and emotionally.  While you may not feel for this lead character as role-model, you’ll sympathize with her heartbreak.

But there are other women on board the thriller, and lead characters at that.  Megan (Haley Bennett) is one half of the “perfect couple” that Rachel admires from her commuter seat.  And Anna is the new wife of Rachel’s ex, who during a poorly-timed drunken blackout, might have something to do with the disappearance of Megan.

These three women on the surface (and there’s lots of surface) couldn’t have more different dilemmas, but all three share one ugly truth.  They don’t like the women they think they’re supposed to be, and a lot of that is driven by men who think they need to be a certain way themselves.

Take away the alcoholism, adultery and abuse, and the characters are still stuck in repeating suburban nightmares, watching their own lives pass by in a blur.  That’s the sick joke of this thriller, and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) knows where to play it for laughs.  Anna needs Megan to nanny so that she has time to properly purée fresh carrots to raise her baby on.  Megan “doesn’t do” cleaning, and can’t wait to get home to wash the scent of baby off.  Additional ancillary women comment on bad food at homeless fundraisers (Lisa Kudrow in a particularly stonefaced role), while Allison Janney’s jaded Detective equally despises every one of these ladies.

The filmmakers were smart to focus on the self-pity and stress of gender expectations.  It’s what keeps the movie interesting.  Honestly I would have loved to see the satire pushed a little more (à la Gone Girl). Take away some of the more expository back-story plotting and it would have tunneled into a more mainstream movie-of-the-week.  Luckily, it earns its R rated, popcorn thriller expectations.

You could do worse in search of a vicarious thrill.  (– Todd Sokolove)

 

The Birth Of A Nation
20th Century Fox / Released 1/20/17

Set against the antebellum South, The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nats preaching to subdue slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities, against himself and his fellow slaves, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom. Extras include documentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, short film, screenplay, gallery, trailers and commentary.

Last Word: Sweeping, epic slavery narratives have become a genre of their own with films such as 12 Years A Slave and Amistad being the gold standards.

Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation seeks to add something fresh and new to the canon with a story from the view of a slave uprising, which has rarely been the central focus of such a widely released movie.

Unfortunately, this film takes a new viewpoint and tells it in a rather formulaic and heavy way. While made with no lack of passion and necessity, the viewer is unlikely to find anything new in this directorial-debut.

Birth Of A Nation is based on the true story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. A literate slave is trained to be a preacher and is rented out by his debt-ridden master to preach at other plantations in order to quiet growing unrest. As Turner becomes familiar with atrocities at less genteel properties than his own, he is moved to organize the masses towards a violent uprising with the aim of restoring freedom and justice to his people.

Much of the movie is centered on writer and director Nate Parker’s turn as Nat Turner, which is a thankful occurrence. His earnest though somewhat simplistic performance does a wonderful job of giving the viewer a character that they can endlessly empathize with, even through the violent ending.

The most standout scenes occur as Turner struggles with watching his faith turned into a weapon of oppression as he preaches to slaves who are little more than skin and bones. The emotion that plays across Parker’s face is palpable and heart-wrenching, but rarely provides the reflective nuance a more seasoned actor may have given. The desire for more visible struggle is a constant theme in the movie. A steady march towards the eventual uprising builds in a predictable way as we see the conditions ever worsening, and Turner becoming increasingly disillusioned with no surprises or complications in process.

A one man show, Turner rarely receives or requests guidance and input from other slaves, which could have provided a more well-rounded story.

This is unfortunate, as Parker secured talents such as Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, and Roger Guenveur Smith to work for scale. Though Union’s name is heavily attached to the film, she is featured for a surprisingly short time (though she plays it gracefully, as usual).  Many of the co-stars storylines are seen as simple afterthoughts rather than being woven into the film. They fulfill the standard archetypes in the genre: well-meaning female slave owner versus cruel master, those quick to fight the system versus those resigned to their station, and endlessly patient women juxtaposed with strong and quick-tempered men. Every actor does well enough with what they are given that the viewer wishes Parker had trusted them more to work off each other rather than reciting somewhat straightforward lines at the camera.

One of the more interesting turns is how Parker uses violence judiciously to move the story along.

The movie does not shy away from the brutal realities of slavery, from whippings to inventive punishments to lack of human dignity. The harsh imagery from treatment by masters (and later the slaves’ bloody retribution), serves a purpose in every instance. I sat between what I feel will be a representation of any theater: on my left a viewer sat at the edge of his seat taking in the scenes with concern and empathy, while on the right there was a significant amount of cringing and eye-covering at the visually painful scenes. At no time did it seem misplaced, which shows promising restraint on Parker’s part.

It is curious to note that Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin have neglected to include scenes that directly feature violence against women. Though the uprising is widely known to have included the deaths of women and children alike, they are absent from the film. Additionally, rape of female slaves (a widespread historical epidemic) is eluded to before and after though never seen on camera. Parker is careful to give no opportunity to the audience to view Turner in the role of anything but savior. Indeed, he has done a very masterful job in making sure that the majority of the film is spent generating easily found empathy for the slaves and justifying the brutality of what some have viewed as a controversial uprising.

The film is very watchable and it will undoubtedly be looked to for several Oscar nominations if not awards. Parker has mined the well-worn slave genre and come out with a film that is interesting and enjoyable, but could use more polish to truly shine. (– Kristen Halbert)

 

Author: The JT Leroy Story
Sony /Released 12/6/16

On January 9, 2006 The New York Times sent shockwaves through the literary world when it unmasked “it boy” wunderkind JT LeRoy, whose tough prose about a sordid childhood had captivated icons and luminaries internationally. It turned out LeRoy didn’t actually exist.

He was the creative expression of 40-year-old San Francisco former phone-sex operator turned housewife, Laura Albert.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story takes us down the infinitely fascinating rabbit hole of how Laura Albert—like a Cyrano de Bergerac on steroids—breathed not only words, but life, into her avatar for a decade. Albert’s epic and entertaining account plunges us into a glittery world of rock shows, fashion events, and the Cannes red carpet where LeRoy becomes a mysterious sensation.

As she recounts this astonishing odyssey, Albert also reveals the intricate web spun by irrepressible creative forces within her. Her extended and layered JT LeRoy performance still infuriates many; but according to Albert, channeling her brilliant fiction through another identity was the only possible path to self-expression.

Last Word: One of the most fascinating literary scandals unfolded about 10 years ago when famously reclusive author JT LeRoy — an “it boy” who had been championed by everyone from Lou Reed to Tom Waits — was exposed as an alter ego of JT’s manager, 40-year-old Laura Albert. And the young blond boy claiming to be JT LeRoy, who rubbed elbows with celebrities such as Bono and Winona Ryder, turned out to be Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, who donned wigs and sunglasses to aid her disguise.

For the first time in this riveting documentary, Albert tells her side of the story and it’s a surprisingly sympathetic one. While the scathing 2005 New York magazine article that revealed the deception labeled her whole career a hoax, according to Albert, her initial intention was never that calculated. In her defense, she had no way of knowing how out of control this literary invention would become. On the other hand, she had several opportunities to walk away before being exposed and chose not to, leaving friends and supporters feeling understandably betrayed.

Albert began writing as JT — a young boy who’d been pimped out as both a boy and a girl by his lowlife mother — as part of her therapy. While her own past (as we learn in bits and pieces throughout the film) was not as sordidly dramatic as JT’s, it was still deeply troubled and included stints in a metal institution.

As she explains, she always felt more comfortable writing from a male perspective, which led to her getting guidance over the phone using a male alter ego. When a therapist suggested “he” begin writing, JT, then known simply as “Terminator,” began faxing stories to favorite writers, who all urged him to publish.

Soon JT was a media darling thanks to his 1999 book, Sarah, which was supposedly a lightly fictionalized biography of his mother who turned tricks at truck stops. While the reclusiveness and his refusal to go on camera added to his allure, soon he was just too popular to go on being a faceless entity.

Up until then, Albert was simply adopting a literary persona: Now she took a bold step to make JT real. It’s hard to believe it actually worked, but Savannah, Albert’s square-jawed sister-in-law, agreed to the deception and soon she was partying with celebrities as JT and posing for magazine photo shoots. Along for the ride was Albert’s husband and Savannah’s brother, who eventually grew tired of the charade.

While Albert kept up prolific friendships over the phone with celebrity fans including Courtney Love and Shirley Manson, Savannah played JT in public. Savannah even walked the red carpet at Cannes with Asia Argento, who’d directed a movie based on LeRoy’s second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

The film opens with footage of Winona Ryder at a reading gushing about how much she loves JT and it’s surreal to see how devotedly the alternative arts community embraced the author. Since JT was legendarily too shy do his own readings, celebs including Lou Reed and Matthew Modine read for him. When we learn, late in the film, that Albert herself was at nearly all these readings as an unnoticed audience member, the meta-ness of the situation is nuts.

Albert — who’s now 50 — doesn’t offer many apologies for misleading so many of her friends. Her greatest misstep — besides convincing Savannah to play JT — was her reaction when rumors began circulating that JT was a fabrication: Instead of coming clean, she doubled down, asking her celebrity supporters to go to bat for her and insist that JT was absolutely real. You can chalk that up to panic or perversity, but it makes it a lot harder to argue that she never intended anyone any harm through this whole deception.

What’s astonishing is how much material the film has to work with. Albert seems to have documented every minute of her life from childhood on — not only are there photos of her with every celebrity she met as JT’s manager, she also recorded every phone conversation, so we can hear when her answering machine clogs up with famous friends pledging their support as the article hits and then, later, demanding to know the truth. Unbelievably, she even kept recordings of her phone sex sessions, including one with a Mr. LeRoy, whose name she borrowed for her alter ego.

I came away from the film thinking that if Albert had found a more respectable avenue for her writing, she would likely be celebrated as the gifted writer she clearly is instead of reviled as a con artist. But it’s extremely doubtful her books would have been so passionately embraced by the hipster elite if they were credited to a middle-aged mother instead of an abused and sexually confused waif.

Albert will always have her detractors, but this sympathetic documentary might gain her a few more defenders. (– Sharon Knolle)

 

The Handmaiden
Sony / Released 1/24/17

1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse.

The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.

Last Word: Allow me to quote Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz, the gangster that James Woods portrayed in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America: “You’ll live with the stink of the streets all your life.”

The same can be said of the stink that Hollywood leaves on your talent whenever you are foolish enough to leave your homeland for the chance to work for the film industry housed in that crap factory. Leone found out how true that statement is when the legendary director of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly came to America in the 1980s to make an underworld masterpiece, only to have his brilliant work chopped into a million incomprehensible pieces by oafish, untalented editors. Leone sadly never directed again.

Park Chan-wook left his Korean homeland in 2013 so that he could work in Tinseltown where he made the embarrassingly bad psycho-sexual drama, Stoker, which was created from only the second screenplay written by the hunky star of the overly-sweaty television drama, Prison Break. We were elated to hear that after the failure of Stoker, Park decided to go back to South Korea to make movies again, but sadly, the stink came with him. I won’t to go into the tedious sexual plot of The Handmaiden, but what transpires feels like a laughably clumsy version of an early Park Chan-wook film made by someone who really wants a job in Hollywood.

The Handmaiden fails to capture even the slightest aspects of what made Park one of the most exciting filmmakers of the last twenty years. We so wish that the director of Oldboy had picked up a phone to talk to Wong Kar-wai before buying his plane ticket here, or perhaps Park should’ve at least taken a look at My Blueberry Nights before ever stepping foot anywhere near Sunset Boulevard. (– Generoso Fiero)

 

The Monster
Lionsgate / Released 1/24/17

Acclaimed horror filmmaker Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) directs this suspenseful and scary film, in which a divorced mother (Zoe Kazan) and her headstrong daughter must make an emergency late night road trip to see the girl’s father.

As they drive through deserted country roads on a stormy night, they suddenly have a startling collision that leaves them shaken but not seriously hurt. Their car, however, is dead, and as they try in vain to get help, they come to realize they are not alone on these desolate backroads – a terrifying evil is lurking in the surrounding woods, intent on never letting them leave. Extras include featurette.

Last Word: Writer/director Bryan Bertino made a smash debut – and was an overnight horror fan darling – for the downbeat, and very effective, home invasion flick, 2008’s The Strangers.

Anticipation was high for his follow-up – which finally arrived two years ago with no fanfare whatsoever. (For the record, the film was Mockingbird, an apparently blah found footage thriller that I missed.  Hell, I didn’t know it existed).

His third feature, The Monster, may not be quite the minor classic many consider The Strangers to be, but it’s more than worthwhile for monster movie fans.

Zoe Kazan (excellent) plays a ne’er-do-well single mother; a chain-smoking alcoholic who also has terrible taste in men. Her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, also excellent), and her mom have what might be charitably termed a contentious relationship. Lizzy’s decided she wants to stay with her dad and stepmom for a while.  Her mom knows that Lizzy most likely won’t choose to come back.

On the drive to Lizzy’s dad’s house, they have an accident and their car is unable to drive any further.  They call 911 and are told a tow truck and ambulance will find them on the basically deserted street.

Unfortunately, it seems they’re not alone on this tree-lined stretch of road.

What I liked about The Monster is the way Bertino takes the time to set up the mother/daughter relationship.  In fact, for the first third or so, The Monster feels like a straightforward indie drama.

Even after the titular creature starts making their difficult lives much, much worse, The Monster cuts away from the present-day horror to flashbacks that flesh out their rocky relationship.  This works surprisingly well, and makes the reach for emotion near the end feel earned.

I was surprised that while watching a bloody monster movie I found myself choked up, during one scene in particular.  This scene – you’ll know it when you see it – is also nicely edited, this time with flashbacks AND flashforwards.

As for the monster itself, it’s a really neat old-school, man-in-a-suit creature.  I was pleasantly surprised that Bertino had the courage to show the monster fully; however, since there are a few lingering shots where the phoniness shines through, perhaps Bertino should’ve been a tad LESS courageous.

Still, it’s a minor complaint. The only real complaint I have with the movie is that as smart as it is in displaying the lead characters’ relationship, it really drops the ball with some of the minor characters’ actions.

There are moments during the film I can imagine watching with a typical Saturday night crowd at a theater in Philly in the 80s, wherein the crowd would be screaming at the stupidity of some of the characters.

Too bad, because The Monster could otherwise have been a minor classic, à la The Strangers.  As is, though, it’s a solid little creature feature that may actually bring a tear to your eye. (– Dean Galanis)

 

Queen of Katwe
Walt Disney / Released 1/31/17

Queen of Katwe is based on the vibrant true story of a young girl (Madina Nalwanga) from the streets of Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, as a result of the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence and determination she needs to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.

It is a remarkable story of perseverance against all odds that will leave viewers feeling humbled and inspired.

Extras include featurettes, music videos, deleted scenes, short film and commentary.

Last Word: The inspirational true story of Phiona Mutesi, a girl from the slums of Katwe in Uganda who became a Chess Grand Master makes for a winning, family-friendly Disney film.

Newcomer Madina Nalwanga stars as Phiona and David Oyelowo (Selma) stars as the mentor who teachers her chess and Lupita Nyong’o plays her mother Nakku Harriet, who doesn’t see the value in something so trivial when her daughter could be helping put food on the table.

In this case “food on the table” is a woeful metaphor, because the fatherless family (dad tragically died young) rents a sad hovel that doesn’t even have four full walls and a roof, let alone a table or beds. Their poverty is staggering, especially when you learn the film was shot in the real slums of Katwe (as well as in Johannesburg, South Africa).

Besides the mostly solemn, determined Phiona, the children (all who have never acted before) are a delight, including Ethan Nazario Lubega as pint-sized Benjamin and Nikita Waligwa as pig-tailed Gloria.

Oscar winner Nyong’o’s face is largest on the movie’s poster and she’s both fierce and funny as Phiona’s overprotective mother. But the film really belongs to Oyelowo, whose warmth and dedication to his kids is the heart of the movie, especially when he turns down a better job to stay with his kids.

Two standout scenes: When he sidesteps the organizer of a prestigious chess competition into letting his “slum children” participate and when the children are intimidated by their more privileged competitors and want to go home — he nods and then makes them laugh with a story about a hungry dog he saw chasing a cat. “The dog was running for a meal, but the cat was running for his life,” he tells them and the kids have not only found their motivation, but a new nickname, Katwe Cats. Naturally, they walk away with their first of many trophies and a newfound sense of pride and purpose.

In the film’s inevitable march to a happy ending where Phiona becomes a world-renowned Chess Grand Master, there are several setbacks. A little too much time is spent showing her frustration when she’s forced to return to Katwe after having seen a better life beyond its slums. And a melodramatic subplot with her older sister could easily have been cut.

But that’s a small quibble for an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable film that will send you out with a smile, thanks to the triumphant last chess match and a fantastic end-credit sequence where we meet the real Phiona. (– Sharon Knolle)

 

Goat
Paramount / Released 12/20/16

Reeling from a terrifying assault over the summer, 19-year-old Brad Land (Ben Schnetzer) starts college determined to get his life back to normal.

His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), is already established on campus and with a fraternity that allures Brad with its promise of protection, popularity and life-long friendships. Brad is desperate to belong but as he sets out to join the fraternity his brother exhibits reservations, a sentiment that threatens to divide them.

As the pledging ritual moves into hell week, a rite that promises to usher these unproven boys into manhood, the stakes violently increase with a series of torturous and humiliating events. What occurs in the name of “brotherhood” tests both boys and their relationship in brutal ways.

Last Word: The tagline for Andrew Neel’s newest film Goat reads “cruelty, brutality, fraternity,” and he doesn’t shy away from showing cruelty and brutality in gory detail.

Unfortunately because we know this film is based on actual events, and adapted from the controversial 2004 memoir by Brad Land, we also know what it means by “fraternity.”  The film is clearly set on undoing the typical played-for-laughs approach of Greek life by Hollywood.

As with the book, Goat is an eye-opening, and ultimately depressing first-hand look inside some very ugly truths not only about the very worst of frat hazing, but of the darker origins of shared machismo.

The film’s first half hour is focused on establishing Brad Land’s poor self-esteem, having lived in the shadow of his real-life brother Brett (played by Nick Jonas).  Upon leaving a typical party that’s not his scene, he’s brutally assaulted by two men.  When the police initially reject his story of the crime, Brad decides to get tough, go to his brother’s school and pledge his Phi Sigma Mu (the fictionalized Kappa Sigma) fraternity.

This is more set up than I would have expected from the film for Brad, and I actually think it’s one of the stronger decisions screenwriters David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel, and Mike Roberts come up with.  They know that the next hour of the film will be a series of violent and despicable actions and events, leading up to a climax that, once again, made hazing a topic of news in the US.

Up and coming British actor Ben Schnetzer is fantastic in the lead role of Brad, and he has to be since the camera is often solely fixed on his face from bruised and beaten, to bold and brave.  You might not often feel for Brad’s poor choices, but you’ll have a deeper understanding of where they’re coming from, and that’s all on the subtlety of Schnetzer’s performance.

Unfortunately the film makes a few poor choices of its own, the most egregious being a walk-on cameo from James Franco as Mitch, one of the frat’s living legends.  Franco’s character is played for laughs, and after seeing the trailer to his recent film Why Him?, I’d say he’s on the brink of going becoming this generation’s Christopher Walken.

It’s possible that Mitch is a cautionary character, but the film already has enough displays of racism, sexism, and homophobia for the audience to understand these are not boys with exemplary judgement skills.  Worse yet, most of them are probably CEOs of Fortune 500s right now.  We get who they are and who they’re going to become, thank you very much Mr. Franco you can go home now.

Ultimately at just over 90 minutes, the film’s exhaustingly graphic.  A true horror film for any parents of college Freshman this September.  The camera lingers when you wish it wouldn’t, the puke is just a tad too real, and then of course there’s that goat.  That poor, poor goat.

When the on-screen brotherhood traditions and rite of passage turn into criminal actions, you be on brother Brett’s side asking, “what’s the point?”  Will this film be the turning point that puts an end to college hazing rituals?  Probably not.  Tales of fraternity suspension and investigations continue to hit the headlines each semester.

Fortunately, the film retains the book’s strong narrative of personal redemption.  After we cringe at Brad’s misguided search for masculine affirmation, and witness his darkest nature, getting to his emotional liberation makes it worth the watch. (– Todd Sokolove)

 
The Man Who Fell To Earth: Limited Collector’s Edition
Lionsgate / Released 1/24/17

Featuring a startling and era defining lead performance from David Bowie (The Prestige, Labyrinth) in his debut feature role and based on the cult novel by Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth endures as, not only a bitingly caustic indictment of the modern world but, also, a poignant commentary on the loneliness of the outsider.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) is a humanoid alien who comes to Earth from a distant planet on a mission to take water back to his home planet in the midst of a catastrophic drought. Using the advanced technology of his home planet to patent many inventions on Earth, Newton, aided by leading patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry, The Graduate, Get Smart), acquires incredible wealth as the head of a technology-based conglomerate that he intends to use to finance the construction of a space vehicle to ship water back to his planet. Newton embarks on a relationship with hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, American Graffiti, Zodiac) and makes progress with the construction of his vehicle but soon finds his true identity at risk via his roguish colleague and confidant Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn, Men in Black, Marie Antoinette) who threatens not only his relationship with Mary-Lou, but his freedom and chances of making it home to the family he yearns for. Extras include featurette, interviews, a 72-page bound book, press booklet, four art cards and a mini poster.

Last Word: Bowie’s acting is superb. His “Newton” character is mysterious (you always get the feeling he is hiding something) yet likeable (he seems dreamily secretly erudite). Candy Clark plays Mary-Lou with an unselfconscious charm. Rip Torn plays the chemistry professor with increasing precision: a careless skirt-chaser who later matures into a humble older man. Yet the characters are placed within a meandering and illogical storyline, something that annoys many viewers. Things seem to make sense for about 90 minutes. Then everything takes off inexplicably into new directions. At last the new plotlines seem to converge in the final minutes. It’s hard to tell if we ought to be thinking very hard about this film, analyzing layers of apparent symbolism, or if we should simply enjoy the weird fun, not thinking hard at all. The main point seems to be the style and the mood. Images of all types dance before our eyes; many of them meld light and water. The soundtrack is heartfelt one moment, satirical the next. It seems more about postmodern philosophy than about science fiction.

I couldn’t help but think. Is “Newton” a symbolic name? The dominant motif is that of the eye, and optics. Lines between illusion and reality get blurred, and it seems that once we see something for long enough, it becomes the truth. Note how somebody sees Newton when he first arrives on Earth, and note that his invention (self-developing film) enables us to see things easily and quickly. Many characters wear eyeglasses, sunglasses, or visors of some kind (don’t miss the motorcycle visors). The frequent casual nudity seems to tempt the viewer into a playful voyeurism. The televisions “show,” as Newton says, but don’t always “tell.” The mirrors reflect reality; do they have a hand in creating it? The other easily-spotted motif is that of water and alcohol drinking. Newton grows fond of gin; is this because it appears closest to water?

Bowie does not contribute music to the film, but his album Low (1977) seems obviously connected to it; the album’s cover shows him with his alien red hair and alien hooded robe. I’ve always felt that Low was overrated by the croissant-and-cappuccino crowd, but I do think it melds very nicely with this film. The key track is probably the instrumental “Art Decade.” Roeg had the honor not only of directing Bowie in his first film but Mick Jagger in his: the confusing but unforgettable Performance (1968/1970). (– David E. Goldweber).

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