Category Archives: Culture Clash

SIFF 2017: God of War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Hong Kong action maestro Gordon Chan’s war epic stars Sammo Hung as a general with an under-trained “people’s army” desperately trying to get the upper hand on a sizable coterie of seasoned Japanese pirates who have been wreaking havoc up and down the coast. Chan has his Japanese cast members speak in-language; it’s unique for a Chinese film, and enhances the verisimilitude. Sections of the story line get murky and confusing, but colorful, rousing (and frequent) battle scenes make up for occasional lulls.

SIFF 2017: Angry Inuk ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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Canadian film maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril hails from an Inuk community near Baffin Island, where locals rely on traditional subsistence seal hunting; not only to literally put food on the table, but to earn a living from commercial sales of sealskin products. In 2009, the European Union banned commercial trade in all seal products except for those from Indigenous hunts. While that seems a reasonable concession, the director and her fellow Inuk activists feel that the legislators and animal rights groups miss the fact that the ban has all but killed the market for the products-thus putting the Inuk people in dire economic straits. Aranquq-Baril’s documentary is wise, witty and thought-provoking, offering up a unique perspective on this controversial issue.

SJFF 2017: Germans and Jews ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Can’t we all just get along? If you’re talking Jews and Germans, even in the context of here and now in a modern, (very) democratic Germany…it’s complicated. This documentary was the brainchild of NYC-based (non-Jewish) director Janina Quint, who grew up in Germany, and her friend, producer Tal Recanati, who was born in the US, but spent some formative years in Israel. The result is a fascinating study about collective guilt, forgiveness, sins of the fathers and sociopolitical backlash. Don’t expect pat answers; on one hand, it’s been over 70 years since WW2 ended…on the other hand, it’s only been 70-some years since WW2 ended (if you know what I’m saying). And yes, there are discomfiting moments, but this film is timely and thought-provoking.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Put some shorts on

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo o February 18, 2017

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of (your deity of choice) and all six of my readers: I have not seen any of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture of 2016. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (the films are held over this week in Seattle and will be on various streaming platforms February 21).

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Blind Vaysha (Canada; 8 mins) – Directed by Theodore Ushev, this piece (based on the eponymous short story by Georgi Gospodinov) is a parable about a girl born with uniquely dichotomous vision: one eye sees the past, the other the future. Is it a metaphor about living in the moment? Oh, maybe. Simple, direct, and affecting, with a woodcut-style “look” that reminded me of Tomm Moore’s animated films (The Secret of Kells).

Rating: ***

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Borrowed Time (USA; 7 mins) – Set in the old west, this portrait of remembrance and regret is visually impressive, and seems well-intentioned…but it’s curiously uninvolving. It’s co-directed by veteran Pixar Studios animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj.

Rating: **

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Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada/UK; 35 mins) – Director Robert Valley’s resume includes a graphic novel series; and his film definitely has that dark vibe. It’s a noir-ish memoir concerning the narrator’s longtime love/hate relationship with his best buddy, “Techno Stypes”, a charismatic but maddeningly self-destructive Neal Cassady-type figure. The story is involving at the outset, but becomes somewhat redundant and ultimately, tiring. Atmospheric, and great to look at-but even at 35 minutes, it’s overlong. Note: Parents should be advised that this one (not exactly “family-friendly”) is being exhibited last, allowing time for attendees to opt out (“hey kids-who wants ice cream?!”).

Rating: **½

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Pearl (USA; 6 mins) – A young girl and her free-spirited musician father have a care-free, nomadic existence living out of their car, but as the years pass, life’s bumpy road creates challenging detours (Jesus, did I just write that? A gig with Hallmark beckons). Quite lovely and very moving; it’s my favorite of the nominees in this category. It’s almost like a 6 minute distillation of Richard Linklater’s interminable Boyhood (wish I’d discovered this first-would have saved me some time). Well-directed by Patrick Osborne.

Rating: ***½

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Piper (USA; 6 mins) – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a Pixar nomination in this category is as unavoidable as Taylor Swift at the Grammys. Actually (long-time readers will back me up on this) I have softened on my curmudgeonly stance on CGI animation, enough to cave on this animal-lover’s delight. Not much of a narrative, but somehow “the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline (the end)” is a perfect salve for what’s, you know…going on the world right now. In fact, I might need to watch this on a loop, just to keep from hurtling myself off the nearest cliff. Beautifully directed by Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer.

Rating: ***

And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

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Ennemis Interieurs (France; 28 mins) – Set in 1990s France, an Algerian-born French citizen is given the third-degree at a police station regarding his association with members of his mosque who are suspected terrorists. The political subtext in Sleim Aszzazi’s film recalls The Battle of Algiers; with a touch of The Confession. While I appreciate what the director is trying to convey in his examination of Islamophobia, the film doesn’t go anywhere; it’s too dramatically flat to stand out in any significant way.

Rating: **½

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La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland; 30 mins) – Inspired by a true story, Timo von Gentun’s film stars 60s icon Jane Birken (mother of Charlotte Gainesbourg) as a lonely widow living a quiet, structured life. “Quiet” with one exception-which is when a daily express train thunders past her cottage. Smiling and waving at the train is the highlight of her day. After she stumbles on a letter that the train’s conductor chucked into her garden, a unique relationship begins (a la 84 Charing Cross Road). OK, it is borderline schmaltzy at times-but also touching and bittersweet, with an endearing performance from Birken.

Rating: ****

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Silent Nights (Denmark; 30 mins) – A young Danish woman who works as a volunteer at a homeless shelter and an illegal immigrant from Ghana cross paths at the facility and develop a mutual attraction. Director Aske Bang uses the ensuing romantic relationship as political allegory; examining difficulties of cultural assimilation and the overall plight of immigrants in Western countries (much as Fassbinder did in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

Rating: ***

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Sing (Hungary; 25 mins) – It’s interesting that two of the five nominated films in this category are set in the 90s, and specifically in allusion to the political turmoil in Europe that was proliferating at the time (it’s either “interesting”, or perhaps I’m merely slow in catching on that “the 90s” was a generation ago, ergo “history”…funny how one loses sense of time as one ages, isn’t it?). At any rate, Kristof Deak’s tale centers on a young girl just starting out at a new school. She joins the choir, a perennially award-winning group with a dictatorial choir director. When she finds out that the “secret” to the choir’s continuing success is not above board, she is faced with a moral conundrum. Although based on a true story, it plays like a modern parable about the courage of whistleblowers.

Rating: ***½

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Timecode (Spain; 15 mins) – As directed by Juanjo Gimenez Pena, this hipster catnip about two mopey millennial security guards (one male, one female) who barely exchange a word during their daily shift change is a glorified YouTube video that uses up its irony quotient quickly. I might have thrown it an extra star if it was but ten minutes shorter.

Rating: *

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Fell to Earth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition                  Studio Canal Region “B” Blu-ray*

 If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blowing 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie. Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” stage persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits to inhabit Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning our planet as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate (kind of makes you wonder where Bill Gates really came from).

A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry. The Studio Canal Edition has a gorgeous new 4K transfer, a second disc packed with extras, and a bonus CD of “Papa” John Phillips’ soundtrack.  Lionsgate will be releasing the domestic version of this set in January 2017.

*Note: Region “B” requires a region-free player (they’re getting cheaper!).

SIFF 2016: Mekko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world.

Wolves, bison & bears…oh my: The Revenant ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)

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“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”

-from Apocalypse Now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.

Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.

The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition. After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).

His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks. The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.

What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout). Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey. In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film evoked that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a state-funded quartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review). Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”

The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries). I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries). What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.

Through a glass, darkly: The Tainted Veil ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2015)

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In my 2013 review of the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, I wrote:

[…] Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to publicly speak his mind on hot-button issues. The Islam quotient is best summarized by an interviewee who says “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […]

What Ali went through back in the 1960s was a romp in the fields compared to what every day law-abiding Americans who happen to be Muslim have to put up with in our current political climate; particularly in the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting incident. Between the vile hate rhetoric spewing from certain presidential hopefuls and wingnut commentators, and the only slightly more subtle notes of hysteria ginned up by mainstream media outlets who should know better, I would imagine many of these folks are involuntarily compelled to look over their shoulder as they go about their daily lives.

Am I being shrill? Alex Wagner interviewed Dr. Suzanne Barakat on MSNBC’s All In this past Thursday. She is the sister of Deah Barakat, one of the 3 Muslim students who were slain by a neighbor this past February in Chapel Hill (authorities have not ruled out  a hate crime). At one point in the interview, Wagner asks Dr. Barakat (who works at San Francisco General) what her personal experience has been, as a professional who happens to wear a head scarf. She recalls fellow hospital workers making comments like “…she mustn’t be a terrorist…because she has a badge.” Apparently, this is not a sporadic occurrence; she adds “I was almost run over the other day in the parking lot by a patient leaving the hospital, who stuck out his middle finger and called me [an] ‘effing B’ [sic].” She’s a doctor. An American citizen. All her attacker saw was a woman wearing a hijab.

All the more reason for me to bring a rather timely new documentary to your attention. While ostensibly a PBS Frontline-styled, multi-viewpoint treatise “about” the venerable Muslim tradition requiring a woman to wear a head scarf in public, The Tainted Veil is also a kind of litmus test that subtly prompts a non-Muslim viewer to step back and take stock of his or her own autonomic response when encountering a person who is so attired.

When a modern-day Muslim woman dons a hijab, what does it telegraph to the world? Does it denote a personal spiritual conviction? Is it a cultural/ideological symbol; a kind of uniform? A fashion statement? A feminist statement? A symbol of male oppression?

With their eclectic array of interviewees, which includes scholars (Islamic, Christian and Jewish), clergy, educators, liberals, conservatives and a cross-section of Muslim women around the world who have worn the hijab, co-directors Ovidio Salazar, Nahla Al Fahad and Mazen al Khayrat demonstrate that the answer to all those questions could be “yes.”

Some viewers may be flummoxed that the film doesn’t adhere to any specific point of view; but that is precisely what I liked about it. It doesn’t take sides, and by not doing so it stimulates the kind of open-minded dialogue that we need to have in a day and age of such acute political and cultural polarization. As one of the interviewees observes (paraphrasing Edward Said), “We are not living in a clash of civilization, but a clash of ignorance…people don’t approach each other, even though we live in a ‘connected’ world.” We’d best find a path to connecting with one another soon, because as one of the religious scholars cautions, “When Earth lives in misery, the heavens bloom.” Er, amen?

SIFF 2015: Beats of the Anatov ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

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In the harrowing opening sequence of Sudanese war journalist Hajooj Kuka’s documentary, members of a refugee camp frenetically scatter for cover as one of them exclaims “The plane is coming! The Antonov! It’s here!” The obviously unnerved cameraman swerves his lens skyward, where a solitary, seemingly benign prop plane lazes overhead. Then suddenly, a massive explosion…followed by shocked silence for a few seconds as the camera surveys the damage; several huts engulfed in flame. Then, as the smoke clears, a most extraordinary sound; the last thing you would expect to hear: the laughter of children. “The laughter is always there,” a resident explains, “People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt…laughter is like a new birth.” This pragmatism has become a crucial coping mechanism for the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba mountain regions of Sudan, an African nation that has been in a perpetual civil war since 1956. Kuka  illustrates how it’s not just laughter, but non-stop communal singing and dancing that keeps spirits (and culture) alive. Most interestingly, there is zero demarcation between the “performer” and the “audience”. Anyone can play along or improvise a verse; it’s Democracy at its purest.

Blu-ray reissue: Ride the Pink Horse ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 28, 2015)

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Ride the Pink Horse – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

If you prefer your dark tales of avarice and deception served up with style and atmosphere, I’m happy to report that Ride the Pink Horse, a nearly forgotten film noir gem, has just been reissued on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.

Previously unavailable for home viewing (save an occasional airing on TCM), the 1947 crime drama was the second directorial effort from actor Robert Montgomery (his debut, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe mystery Lady in the Lake, came out the same year). Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer adapted the screenplay from the 1946 book by Dorothy B. Hughes (Hughes also penned In a Lonely Place, the source novel for Nicholas Ray’s classic 1950 noir).

Montgomery casts himself as a poker-faced, no-nonsense customer named Gagin (no first name is ever mentioned). Gagin rolls into a sleepy New Mexico burg, where the locals are gearing up for an annual fiesta blowout. Gagin, however, has but one thing on his mind: putting the squeeze on the mobster (Fred Clark) who killed his best friend. Gagin’s plan is to hit this professional blackmailer where it’ll hurt him the most…in his wallet. Much to his chagrin, a wily G-man (Art Smith) already has his mark staked out…and has taken a pretty good educated guess as to what Gagin is up to.

The story becomes more psychologically complex once the insular Gagin unexpectedly develops a surrogate family bond with a bighearted carousel owner (Thomas Gomez, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and a taciturn, semi-mystic teenage Indian girl (Wanda Hendrix).

Ride the Pink Horse is unique in that it skirts several genres. In its most obvious guise, it fits right into the “disillusioned vet” subgenre of the classic post-war noir cycle, alongside films like Act of Violence, Thieves’ Highway, The Blue Dahlia and High Wall. It also works as a character study, as well as a “fish out of water” culture-clash drama.

Montgomery skillfully mines the irony from the cultural contrasts in a manner uncannily presaging John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano (which, weirdly enough, was published in 1947, the same year that Ride the Pink Horse was released).

Criterion’s restored print really sparkles, highlighting Russell Metty’s atmospheric, beautifully composed cinematography. Extras include an insightful commentary track by two noir experts. Genre fans will not be disappointed.