Thursday, August 22, 2019

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN

After many tries and many films, I've come to the conclusion that I just don't connect with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While I respect him as an artist and his technique is often impressive, they are, to borrow a line from Whiplash, not my tempo.

The BRD Trilogy (which stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany after WWII), a series of films that came near the end of Fassbinder's short-lived but prolific career, represented his biggest financial success, with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) becoming his biggest worldwide box office hit, and Veronika Voss (1982) garnering the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This loosely connected triptych tackled Germany's much ballyhooed post-war "economic miracle" of the 1950s through the perspective of three women, with a decidedly critical eye.

Fassbinder makes films that are easy to respect but harder to love, consistently holding the audience at arm's length in favor of immaculately crafted, somewhat arch allegorical exercises that are extremely specific to their time and place. All three films in the BRD Trilogy certainly work as standalone melodramas, but their political underpinnings are somewhat muddled. Take The Marriage of Maria Braun for example - does the film have the same impact if you don't know that the parade of black and white negatives at the end of the film are German politicians whose legacy Fassbinder is actively questioning?

Yes and no. Of the three films in the trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun represents Fassbinder at his most fiery, carefully crafting the story of a woman whose marriage to a German officer only lasts a day before he goes missing in the war. After years of searching for him, she eventually gives him up for dead, and marries an American GI instead (who appears in all three films, really their only non-thematic connection), only for her husband to return and murder the American. Yet the men ultimately matter very little here - the film is about a woman surviving in a man's world, trying to carve out a place for herself in post-war Germany and put the past behind her. But the past has a way of catching up to you, as Maria Braun eventually learns the hard way. She is a woman in a man's world, and the men always seem to spell doom, their machinations and assumed societal positions always derailing Maria's best laid plans. Made in the style of a Hollywood melodrama but with a deeply cynical edge, The Marriage of Maria Braun takes no prisoners, yet it is very specifically of its time and place, a deep dive into West German politics that don't always translate beyond the culture that gave birth to it. It's the film's feminist edge that remains powerful, and it's easy to see why it became Fassbinder's biggest box office success.

VERONIKA VOSS. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Less overtly political is the trilogy's second entry, Veronika Voss. Chronologically the film was released third (in a George Lucas-like move that doesn't really make sense), and was the last film Fassbinder fully completed before his death in 1982 at the age of 37. Inspired by the life of German actress Sybille Schmitz, who starred in such films as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr before going on to act in Nazi films like Titanic during WWII. Schmitz died in 1955 under mysterious circumstances, resulting in a murder trial of her doctor, Ursula Moritz. Renamed Veronika Voss for purposes of fictionalization, Schmitz's story is reimagined as a kind of German Sunset Boulevard, in which an aging film star is held hostage by an unscrupulous psychologist who bleeds her patients dry and keeps them sedated through unnecessary prescriptions.

Voss is shot in dazzling black and white, where the lights sparkle in the frame like the jewels that down Veronika's neck. It has the look and feel of an old Hollywood melodrama, something Fassbinder was clearly trying to emulate with each film of the BRD Trilogy. Here he explores themes of national amnesia, and Germany's eagerness to put its unpleasant past behind it without truly reckoning with it. Voss both represents Germany's glory days of the Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler, and of the darkness of the Third Reich, and how easily one slid into the other. Yet one thing that plagues Veronika Voss, and BRD 3 Lola as well, is in how it recalls previous films in a weaker form. It doesn't have the powerful moral outrage of Maria Braun to help it stick the landing, leaving a pretty but mostly empty aftertaste.

LOLA

That brings us to Lola (1981). Ostensibly an unauthorized (and therefore unofficial) remake of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) shot in the bright candy colors of a Jacques Demy musical, Lola is the story of a cabaret singer/prostitute who is pursued by two men, an unscrupulous businessman and a buttoned up bachelor who moves to town as the new building commissioner. The film comes to a much different, much less overtly tragic conclusion than von Sternberg's original, yet it manages to leave more unsettling question marks about the future, the apparently happy ending nagged by a sense of the continuation of the status quo. It's a deeply cynical film, disillusioned at the direction of Germany. I'll leave the details of the origins and ramifications of the "economic miracle" to historians more well versed in German politics than I, but Fassbinder's films display a profound sense of ennui about the corruption that continued to permeate every aspect of the culture, undercutting any real moral progress in a country still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Third Reich and WWII.

Yet Barbara Sukowaas' Lola is no Marlene Dietrich, nor for that matter is Armin Mueller-Stahl as powerful as Emil Jannings in his performance as the guileless von Bohm. The film is permeated by rapturous pastel colors, Von Bohm shaded in deep blue hues while Lola is coded in vibrant pinks, but despite its emulation of classical Hollywood Technicolor, Lola, much like the other films in the trilogy, is often insular and cold, holding the audience at arms length like some sort of exercise in cinematic academics than the political allegory dressed up as a lush Hollywood melodrama it tries to be. Fassbinder's political allusions are often too opaque for their own good, and Lola especially feels like an exercise more than a film in its own right.

Criterion's Blu-Ray treatment of the BRD Trilogy is nevertheless stunning. The transfers are uniformly glorious, but especially in the Trilogy's two most visually beautiful films, Veronika Voss and Lola. Each comes with extensive special features and a comprehensive booklet detailing the making of each film as well as a consideration of the trilogy as a whole from Kent Jones. The films are undeniably impressive achievements in their own right, but your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for Fassbinder's occasionally arch political experiments.

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN - ★★★½ (out of four)

VERONIKA VOSS -★★★ (out of four)

LOLA - ★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

I first discovered the films of Alice Guy-Blaché a few years ago while randomly searching for early silent short films on YouTube. I was struck not only by the fact that I had never heard of her before (despite having studied this era for years), but that her films displayed a preternatural narrative and formal sophistication that not even Meliés or the Lumières had achieved around the same time. In fact, Guy-Blaché was pushing forward cinema as a narrative medium in the 1800s decades before D.W. Griffith would be credited with pioneering some of the same techniques.

It appears I was not alone in my ignorance of Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of Pamela B. Green's fascinating new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice-Guy Blaché. Not only was Guy-Blaché the first female filmmaker, she was one of cinema's earliest pioneers, starting out as a secretary for Gaumont before taking over production, eventually emigrating to America and founding her very own film studio. She directed her very first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, only a year after the iconic premiere of Louis and Auguste Lumière's Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. It was only through the diligent research of film historians that she recently received credit for that film, as well as hundreds of others in her long and productive filmography. Guy-Blaché's days as a studio mogul were also likewise credited to her husband, Herbert Blaché.

So why was Guy-Blaché seemingly lost to history? And why were so many of her films credited to other filmmakers? Be Natural investigates her incredible life and career, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. That in itself is a remarkable thing - a filmmaker in the early 1900s telling actors to be natural, when the acting styles of the time were so presentational. So what happened? Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books, interviewing popular filmmakers and historians alike to uncover her story. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history.

Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. Her film, The Consequences of Feminism (1906), boldly satirized gender roles at a time when such things were often expected to be accepted without question. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ | Directed by Pamela B. Green | Narrated by Jodie Foster | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

The premise of Good Boys is essentially built around one joke - three 6th grade boys are invited to a "kissing party" and keep finding themselves in raunchy adult situations that they don't understand. It's basically Superbad in middle school, with our young heroes desperately trying to learn how to kiss with the belief that this party will dictate the direction of the rest of their lives. Along the way they encounter drugs, sex toys, and bullies in an ever-increasing series of outlandish situations that will put their friendship to the test.

It's a tricky line to walk, throwing so much decidedly R-rated material into a film starring 12 year olds ("we're not kids, we're tweens!" they often remind us), yet director Gene Stupnitsky handles it with surprising care. Their innocence and obliviousness to what's actually going on around them is the film's key joke, and while it threatens to wear somewhat thin by the end, Stupnitsky has the wherewithal to transform the film into something a little more heartfelt.

That it never overstays its welcome is a testament to the three young leads; Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon. They carry the film with a certain sense of naiveté, as if they're not in on any of the jokes and the film is just happening around them. They cuss with wild abandon, encounter drugs and sex toys, and find themselves in outlandish situations that children should never be in. Yet throughout all Good Boys remains disarmingly sweet, never letting its raunchy humor drown out the sense of coming-of-age nostalgia that permeates its core. Beneath the R-rated humor, it's a film about the ephemeral nature of childhood friendships, how the things that hold us together when we're children aren't necessarily the things that hold us together when we're adults. It may have a juvenile sense of humor, but like Superbad before it, it manages to use that humor in service of a more human element.

While Good Boys doesn't exactly feel like a comedy classic in the making the way Superbad did, it's got a lot of heart and plenty of laughs thanks to the talent of its young cast. It has one central joke, but it executes it well, bringing its grown up audience in on the joke with a wink and a smile. It's the kind of film whose humor is instantly relatable for adults, reminding us all of our childhood desire to grow up too quickly, while mining great humor out of how young and dumb we all really were.

Good Boys puts a new twist on the familiar trappings of the teen sex comedy, and while much of it feels awfully familiar, Tremblay, Williams, and Noon carry the film with great conviction, breathing new life into a venerable genre that hasn't quite run out of gas just yet.

GRADE – ★★★(out of four)


GOOD BOYS | Directed by Gene Stupnitsky | Stars Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Will Forte, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Retta | Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout - all involving tweens | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Kitchen, Andrea Berloff's directorial debut, a comic book adaptation about three women who take over the Irish mob in Hells Kitchen after their husbands are sent to jail, is a bit of a mess. 

Its sense of pacing is all over the place, its script is sometimes painfully on the nose, and its third-act twist is quickly swept under the rug and has little impact on the plot. And yet there's something about this scrappy little film that entertains in spite of its shortcomings. Perhaps its the standout performances of its leads, especially funny-women Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish turning in strong dramatic work. Perhaps its the evocative milieu of 1970s New York. Or perhaps it's the unapologetic sense of "give no fucks" feminism that boldly announces itself and doesn't need to bend over backwards to be liked.

The Kitchen is about three women, all essentially victims of the same patriarchal system, reclaiming their agency and taking over the family business to make it run better than ever, naysayers be damned. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) believes that her husband is a good family man and will support her once he gets out of jail. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is sick of taking orders from her husband (James Badge Dale) and is ready to escape from under the oppressive thumb of family matriarch, Helen (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is a battered housewife looking to put victimhood behind her with hitman, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). Their ascendence rubs some in the mob the wrong way, however, who become determined to put a stop to their rise at all costs.

While the screenplay has a tendency to underline its "you go girl" sentiments a little too obviously, its hard not to enjoy watching these three women knock a bunch of hard-bitten New York mobsters down a peg or two. It's not as elegantly crafted as the similarly themed Widows, but it's got spirit and guts, and that takes it a long way, even when its plotting becomes sloppy. One can't help but hope that the film's failure at the box office and its overall lack of critical favor doesn't spell doom for Berloff's fledgling career, which is unfortunately too often the case even for women who are successful at the box office. There's just an agreeable verve to her direction, even if she has a tendency to paint with much too broad a brush, overstating her themes even when the action often speaks for itself.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE KITCHEN | Directed by Andrea Berloff | Stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domnhall Gleason, James Badge Dale, Margo Martindale | Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

In the late 1920s, Universal was known more as a scrappy B-movie studio rather than a major Hollywood player. 

In order to bolster its reputation, studio head Carl Laemmle ordered the production of what became known as "jewels," prestige productions designed to compete with major players like MGM and Paramount who had their own theater chains. Laemmle pulled out all the stops for the jewels, providing massive budgets that would prove to the world that Universal wasn't just a producer of cheap westerns aimed at small town audiences. Two such jewels were The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and "super-jewel" The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), were monster successes, buoyed by the star power of Lon Chaney and Laemmle's determination to spare no expense.

Laemmle was not only a shrewd producer, he also had a sharp eye for talent, and imported many great filmmakers from Europe to come from America and work for Universal. One of the greatest (and most unheralded) was Paul Leni, whose biggest success in Germany, Waxworks (1923), had displayed a keen eye for horror. When Laemmle wanted to make another film that could compete with the success of Phantom of the Opera he turned to Leni, and returned once more to a story of disfigurement with an adaptation of Victory Hugo's The Man Who Laughs (1928).

With Chaney now under contract at MGM, Leni turned to Conrad Veidt, who had also starred in Waxworks but was perhaps best known as the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Veidt was no stranger to playing grotesque characters, and The Man Who Laughs is a tale of ghastly disfigurement that features a dark and tragic heart. Veidt stars. as Gwynplaine, a circus performer whose face was cut into a ghoulish grin by transient bandits when he was only a child. Now relegated to a side-show carnival act, Gwynplaine falls in love with Dea (Mary Philbin), a blind girl who is also a member of the circus and does not know he is disfigured. But when one stop in a particular small town runs them afoul of the mad doctor who carved the grin into his face, the circus runs afoul of a vengeful vizier to Queen Anne, and the truth about Gwynplaine's past is revealed - he is the heir to the titles and fortune of his wealthy father who was executed for treason by King James, and in order to retain them he must join the House of Lords and marry Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) or face the wrath of the queen.

Leni brought a German Expressionist sensibility to the production, with its elongated shadows and off-kilter sets, quite remarkable for a Hollywood production. Veidt's eerily grinning visage would go on to provide inspiration for the character of the Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker, yet the character of Gwynplaine, like Quasimodo before him, is not a villainous one. Veidt is the beating heart of The Man Who Laughs, anchoring its grotesqueries in a sense of tragedy and pathos. The film has been given a stunning 4K restoration as part of Universal's ongoing effort to preserve its extensive back catalogue, and as a result the Blu-Ray transfer by Flicker Alley is nearly pristine, featuring an image free from the dirt and damage that often marks films from this era.


Less well preserved is Leni's final film, The Last Warning (1929). It's clear from the more damaged negative that Universal considers The Man Who Laughs the more important film, or perhaps it was just in better shape to begin with. But while The Man Who Laughs is clearly an influential work, I'll go to bat for The Last Warning as the better film.

A prototypical haunted house mystery, The Last Warning centers around a murder in a Broadway theater in front of a packed house. Years later, a producer gathers the cast and crew together to recreate the circumstances of the murder for a live audience, but the dead man's ghost seems determined that the show must not go on.

Leni once again makes great use of light and shadow, but it's the way he moves his camera that reveals his unheralded mastery of the medium. In one especially stunning shot, a man walks all the way across the room right up to the camera, which then focuses in on the flower he’s carrying in his hand. In another just after the murder, the director orders the curtain to come down, and the camera ducks under the falling curtain to follow him out into the audience. Leni is clearly having fun here, and it's a tragic loss to cinema that his talent was cut short at the age of 44 the same year that The Last Warning was released.

There's just something about its unpretentious spookiness and its self-aware sense of humor that is tremendously satisfying, showcasing Leni as a master showman. He even manages to outdo fellow German F.W. Murnau, whose similarly themed The Haunted Castle (1921) was nearly done-in by its dreary self-seriousness. While much of the attention would be placed on The Man Who Laughs, this is the true jewel in Leni's crown, a deliriously entertaining mystery filled with eerie shadows, kooky characters, and outlandish twists that always land through Leni's sharp balance between humor and horror. The Last Warning is one of the last great Hollywood films of the silent era and stands ripe for rediscovery.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS - ★★★½ (out of four)
THE LAST WARNING - ★★★★ (out of four)


The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Austin Zajur in SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, courtesy of CBS Films and Lionsgate.

For those of us who grew up with Alvin Schwartz's series of books, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," the eerily simple campfire stories and Stephen Gammell's haunting, spidery illustrations were the stuff of nightmares. They were scarier than "Goosebumps" and featured a collection of urban legends and folk tales that, no matter how silly at their core, seemed frighteningly plausible. 

The prospect of translating those stories to film seemed like a dubious venture - after all it was the ethereal scrawl of Gammell's illustrations that made the stories so singularly terrifying. Yet director André Øvredal, working from an original story by producer Guillermo Del Toro, achieves something quite remarkable - a film that not only pays chilling homage to the indelible imagery of its source material, while charting a new course uniquely its own.

Rather than directly adapt the stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes a page from the Goosebumps films and folds them into a separate narrative altogether, sprinkling some of its most famous tales into a story designed to bring them all together. Set in the late 1960s, the film centers around a group of teenagers who accidentally summon a vengeful spirit from a local haunted house around which ghost stories have swirled for decades. The legend says that the ghost of a young woman named Sarah Bellows would whisper scary stories to children through the walls of the house, but anyone who heard them would soon disappear. When the teens discover Sarah's book of scary stories in the house's gloomy basement, they soon discover that the legend is true, and the stories in the book are coming to life, leaving them on a race against time to find a way to stop the horrifying monsters that spring from its pages and put Sarah Bellows to rest once and for all.

The creatures are memorably rendered, often through practical effects, retaining their grotesque visages and never overplayed to the point that their lose their effectiveness. But what makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark so fascinating is that it parallels its tales of terror with an actual American horror story - the Vietnam war and the election of Richard Nixon. Nixon's election casts a dark shadow over the film like a real-life boogeyman, and the film boldly shifts the thematic focus of the film away from the fictional monsters that go bump in the night and toward to real villain - capitalism. Sarah Bellows, it turns out, was a victim of her wealthy family's plot to cover up the fact that their paper mill was poisoning the town's water supply with mercury, killing countless children and giving birth to the dark rumors that surrounded their family for generations. In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark these stories have real power, to hurt or to heal, and the only way to heal the trauma of the past as a nation is to confront it head-on and tell the truth about the sins of our ancestors. In order to save ourselves and write a new story, we have to acknowledge the darkness in our history, whether it be the destructive greed of capitalism or the evil specter of racism.

It's a deeply powerful theme for a film about walking scarecrows and corpses searching for their missing toes, but not only does Øvredal capture the primal spookiness of the books, with their campfire-ready things that go bump in the night, he also taps into the raw nerve of our own national conversation, and its insistence on venerating the past while ignoring its darker, more inconvenient elements. It knows that history is the scariest story of all, and it boldly places the ball in the audience's court to go out and write a new one. Øvredal turns the film's creepy funhouse aesthetic into a surprisingly adept commentary on our national obsession with clinging to false narratives about our past, choosing not to comfort us with nostalgic memories of days gone by, but to throw back the curtain on their most terrifying monsters.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK | Directed by André Øvredal | Stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur | Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references | Opens today, Aug. 9, in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

In 1989, 24-year-old Tracy Edwards set out on a boat called the Maiden to become the first all-woman crew to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World Race. While she was met with much resistance and skepticism, the Maiden not only went on to finish the race against seemingly all odds, but to out-perform the expectations of everyone, including its crew.

On the surface, Alex Holmes' Maiden may seem like your prototypical "overcoming adversity" sports documentary, but in Holmes' capable hands it manages to probe more deeply beneath the surface and achieve something more emotionally satisfying. It is a film as much about the triumph of the human spirit as it is about political awakening. Edwards starts out the journey refusing to call herself a feminist, but by journey's end she has come to realize the very intentional roadblocks that have been put in her place simply because she and her crew are women. Sponsors refuse to be associated with them, male racers don't respect them, and reporters are more interested in asking them about who's fighting with who and how they put on makeup on the boat than about their strategies and techniques, questions that are usually reserved for the men.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Maiden is a white-knuckle ride, keeping its audience on the edge of their seats right up through the finish line. Those who already know the outcome may have a different experience with it, but ultimately Holmes seems less concerned with whether or not they won than he is with what they ultimately achieved. The crew of the Maiden not only proved that women were just as capable as men in the sport of sailing, their story captured the imaginations of the entire world, inspiring millions with their remarkable perseverance. Not even expected to finish the first leg of the race, the crew of the Maiden defied expectations and became one of the great underdog stories in sports history.

It's an inspiring tale, to be sure. But without its strong emotional core it would likely be just another sports documentary. The recollections of these women lend it a deeply personal feel, opening up about the hardships and the vindication that their achievement represented. This is not just another “talking head” retrospective, it puts us right on the boat with the crew, allowing us to share in their triumphs and their pain, creating a warts-and-all look at the race from their unique point of view.

In the end, however, victory is beside the point. Like Rocky, sometimes just finishing the race is an achievement unto itself. Yet what the crew of the Maiden did was prove to themselves and to the world that women would not and could not be ignored, and Holmes gives their story a lovely tribute in this rousing and heartwarming documentary.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


MAIDEN | Directed by Alex Holmes | Rated PG for language, thematic elements, some suggestive content and brief smoking images | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, August 05, 2019

A scene from Robert Greene's "Bisbee '17."
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

On July 12, 1917, a group of over 1,200 copper miners comprised mainly of Mexican migrants were forcibly deported on trains and left to die in the middle of the desert outside of Bisbee, Arizona. The event, which became known as the Bisbee Deportation, has largely been forgotten by history, a fragment of the region's fraught past many would rather leave forgotten.

The deportation was the result of a general strike imposed by the miners' union and encouraged by the Industrial Workers of the World, a "radical" group of labor organizers with known Communist sympathies. They saw the labor dispute in the Copper Queen Mines in Bisbee as a way to disrupt the American war efforts during World War I, and stepped in on the workers' behalf. Rather than negotiate with the workers, the town, essentially under the control of corporate interests, rounded up the miners, tried them in kangaroo courts, and illegally deported them, an act of attempted genocide that went unanswered and un-prosecuted.

It's a tragedy that still hangs over the town of Bisbee like a dark cloud, and every year the town gathers together to commemorate the event, many locals claiming ancestry on both sides of the conflict. Robert Greene's haunting documentary, Bisbee '17, chronicles the town's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the deportation. As the town gathers to recreate the event, Greene also stages his own recreation of the event, allowing members of the town to reckon with the demons of their past and comes to terms with the crimes committed by their ancestors in their name.

Bisbee '17 is a fierce and timely work, haunted by the sins of America's past that echo the atrocities of its present. Greene interviews many town residents who continue to stand by the actions taken by their ancestors, offering up half-baked excuses about "fighting Communism" and "standing up for America," when the mine that gave their town life now sets abandoned, all but destroying Bisbee and leaving its citizens mostly destitute. One has to wonder what capitalism has brought them but pain, even as they hope for the mining company to return and save them while they rail against the evils of communism from the dusty streets of a ghost town ravaged by corporate greed. And yet, much like Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, the townspeople soon find themselves in an unexpected position as they recreate the infamous deportation and watch it unfold with their own eyes. Seeing the events through new eyes may not change how they feel, but one can feel a subtle shift in the town of Bisbee, a growing unease with their past that reflects the growing unrest of America at large, a country wrestling with its sins yet seemingly unable to acknowledge its faults, content in its own unearned sense of exceptionalism.

Yet the film's emotional core is Fernando Serrano, a young gay hispanic man whose embodiment of the plight of his ancestors may just be his political awakening, reframing his perspective of his own place in the world. As the white people around him continue to make excuses for the actions of their ancestors ("it was a different time," "they did what they had to do") Serrano begins to realize that his friends and neighbors may not really be on his side. It's a stunning and heartbreaking blend of performance and reality that blurs the line not only between actor and role but between the past and the present, creating a unshakable link from our present climate to the atrocities of our past that we have yet to atone for. One can't help but wonder as Bisbee '17 reflects on the actions of the citizens of Bisbee in 1917 how history will one day judge the America of 2019.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BISBEE '17 | Directed by Robert Greene | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Grasshopper Film.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
Photo Credit: Andrew Cooper - © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, one usually has a certain set of expectations: there will be copious amounts of violence, creative (and constant) use of curse words, extensive references to older films, and lately, a new spin on familiar history.

His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, checks all those boxes, but for the first time since perhaps 1997's Jackie Brown, there's something much deeper and more melancholy at work here. Tracing the story of a former TV western star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood transports us back to the summer of 1969 in the city of dreams, where anything was a possible but change was inevitable.

Dalton's hit show, Bounty Law, has been cancelled, and he's kept his career spluttering along by taking on one-episode roles as the villain of the week in other TV shows. His agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), wants him to start taking roles in spaghetti westerns, but Dalton isn't ready to give up on Hollywood yet, even if Hollywood seems ready to give up on him. But as his star is descending, the star of young Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here depicted as an unknowable young ingenue full of untapped promise, is rising. Her story parallels Dalton's - she's got some major supporting roles in some new films, she's married to Roman Polanski, one of the hottest up-and-coming filmmakers in Hollywood, and she seems poised on the brink of stardom. It is against this milieu that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood paints an indelible portrait of a very specific time and place, putting us on an inevitable crash-course with the subsequent rise of Charles Manson and his cult, whose murderous rampage in 1969 marked the end of an era and the bright promise of the counterculture, putting a dark period at the end of a turbulent decade.

This being a Tarantino film, the fateful encounter between members of the Manson family and Sharon Tate doesn't materialize in the way we expect, allowing the filmmaker to create an alternate, more hopeful version of history. In this alternate timeline, it is old Hollywood that steps in to save the new, offering a fictional second chance to a promise cut short in its prime. Tarantino's films have always been vibrant pastiches of genres of a bygone era, but here his genre fetishism comes in service of a deeper purpose. This is nostalgia done right; “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a film filled with longing and regret, sadness and hope. It’s a requiem for a past that never was and a dream for a future that will never be. Here, Tarantino evokes the languid pacing of the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, using their tragic anti-hero archetypes in a way that's disarmingly heartwarming.

Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Photo Credit Andrew Cooper.  © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It's almost as if Tarantino is grappling with his own anxiety about pending irrelevance and ennui while honoring the great filmmakers of the past whose work has been so important to forming his own career. Tarantino famously proclaimed that he would retire after making 10 films, and for those keeping score at home, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his ninth (if you count the two volumes of Kill Bill as one film). The result is perhaps the most beautiful, wistful, and touching thing he has ever directed. The unexpected gravitas and lugubrious self-reflection is something quite new for the filmmaker, displaying a sense of mournful contemplation in a sanguine tribute to the heroes of his childhood.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily Tarantino's most deeply felt film to date. Beneath his instantly recognizable sense of dark humor, it's a pensive and haunted reverie of the fading shadows of old Hollywood, where dreams unfolded in larger than life images on a flickering screen, created by much smaller men and women who were more fragile and flawed than they ever let on.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD | Directed by Quentin Tarantino | Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning | Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

At the end of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) managed to send out a mysterious distress signal just before disappearing when Thanos wiped out half the life in the universe. The signal was to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who now has the distinction of becoming the first woman to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's an important milestone for sure, and Larson more than rises to the occasion. The film around her, on the other hand, is more or less standard Marvel fare - not bad by any means, but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table either. Unlike the other solo hero films in Marvel's "Phase 3," Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and especially Black PantherCaptain Marvel mostly sticks to the established Marvel formula, resulting a middle-of-the-pack film that never really asserts a personality of its own.

That's not to say that Captain Marvel isn't a lot of fun - because it certainly is. Set in the 1990s, the film introduces Danvers as a Kree warrior who discovers that her roots actually lie on Earth, where she travels to help prevent an evil race of shapeshifters known as Skrulls from tracking down a light speed engine developed by her former mentor, Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Upon arrival, she meets Shield Agent Nick Fury, some 25 years younger than when we last saw him in Infinity War, young, fresh-faced, and totally oblivious to the extraterrestrial threats that will soon face the planet on a regular basis.

Captain Marvel is essentially a buddy cop film, with Larson and Jackson playing off each other to great effect. The de-aging special effects on Jackson are truly incredible, allowing Jackson to believably play a much younger version of his character, even younger than when we first met him more than a decade ago at the end of 2008's Iron Man. But the heart of the film are the more intimate character moments shared by the film's women. Larson's rapport with Lashana Lynch as her best friend, Maria, and with Bening's benevolent scientist, make for some moments of disarming beauty. It's rare to see a superhero film take the time to allow the characters (and the plot) to breathe, but it between its exposition-heavy dialogue scenes about intergalactic wars, Captain Marvel manages to take a moment to examine not just who its protagonist is, but who she is as a woman, and how she relates to the woman around her.

That's what makes Captain Marvel strong. Here is a character that has spent her entire life being trained to control her emotions, only to discover who true power when she unlearns society's mandates. It's inspiring to see a woman take center stage, giving young girls everywhere a chance to see themselves represented as a powerful heroine on screen. While the film itself may not be the best or most original film in the Marvel oeuvre, it will certainly be something quite special for many. Yet one can't quite help but feel that something this groundbreaking should have felt a bit more fresh and adventurous than it ultimately does, as it spends more time setting the stage for the next Avengers film and establishing its place in the MCU than it does asserting its own personality.

Special Features:


The extras on the Blu-Ray release tend to be the usual fawning featurettes with cast and crew offering generic platitudes about the experience - but a few unique shorts really set this disc apart. An amusing gag reel and a 90's flavored short centering around Captain Marvel's cat (or Flerken), Goose, is a must for fans of the film (and cats). Nothing really new here, but the extras on Captain Marvel add a bit more pizazz than the usual Blu-Ray bonus features.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


CAPTAIN MARVEL | Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck | Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution in ALPHAVILLE.

Jean-Luc Godard once said "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." While Godard went through many phases of his career, few films represent the range of styles and ideas that the filmmaker could conjure form that idea than Alphaville (1965) and Détective (1985). Made two decades apart, the films showcase Godard at two very different points in his life - Alphaville arriving at the height of his New Wave popularity and Détective in his post-Dziga Vertov group return to narrative filmmaking.

Alphaville marks Godard's sole foray into the genre of science fiction, but in true Godard form, no real attempt is made to set the film anywhere other than in 1965 France. Set on a faraway planet that is controlled by a fascist computer called Alpha 60 who has banned all traces of human emotion, Alphaville was filmed in and around the most futuristic parts of Paris, giving its political allegories a frightening sense of immediacy.

Our hero is Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a hard boiled private eye played by an actor less known for his acting chops than for his grizzled countenance. The Virgil to his Dante is Natacha Van Braun (Anna Karina), a citizen of Alphaville who has never known love. Godard imagines Alpha 60 as a croaking, inquisitive, unfeeling machine that is equal parts Big Brother and Hal 9000 - all-seeing but not quite all-knowing.

Yet what makes Alphaville so special, and so thoroughly Godardian, is the unique way in which it blends the classical Hollywood genres that had so fascinated Godard as a young critic at Cahiers du Cinema. While it's billed as science fiction, it bears little visual resemblance to any sci-fi film ever made, more closely recalling film noir and detective films, with stone faced Lemmy Caution an unlikely observer of a world without love. The film's beating heart is Karina, a woman whose emotionless existence begins to open up to a world of unknown possibility. Karina would only make two more films with Godard (Pierrot le Fou and Made in U.S.A.) before her relationship with the filmmaker ended, and he began to descend into radical Maoist politics, but here the two seem in perfect sync, working on perhaps the final film not overshadowed by Godard's quickly radicalized worldview, taking elements of classic Hollywood and twisting them into a haunting foreshadowing of the Godard to come, one consumed with dismantling fascism through his art.


Détective is a different animal entirely, one often described as a detective film but one that bears no recognizable resemblance to the genre whose name it bears. Coming two decades after AlphavilleDétective is perhaps one Godard's most inscrutable films of the period. Set in a luxury hotel in France, the film centers around two house detectives (Laurent Terzieff and Jean-Pierre Léaud) who are investigating the mysterious death of a prince. A cast of disparate characters - a boxer, a mob boss, a husband and wife on the rocks, populate the hotel and exist on the periphery of the story, if you can call it that. Godard's films of the 80s and 90s mostly eschewed narrative in favor of a kind of puzzle aesthetic, existing squarely in world all their own.

It's somewhat ironic, then, that Détective was partly made as a way to raise money to make Hail Mary (1985), but producers who were looking for another genre deconstruction by Godard in the vein of his classics Breathless and Band of Outsiders would have been gravely disappointed by what the filmmaker delivered here. It presages Godard's fascination with video with its liberal use of closed-circuit TVs and videocassettes, an aesthetic that has informed the collage nature of his more recent work in his films such as Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2019).

It's a technique that allows the audience to step into the role of detective through the constant surveillance under which the characters find themselves. But it lacks the sly elegance of his contemporary films from the period like First Name: Carmen (1983) or even the mysterious beauty of Helas por moi (1993). And yet Godard films are never anything less than fascinating, and the singular vision of societal rot in a building meant to represent the ultimate in glamour is not lost in the film's shifting perspectives. He may keep a dispassionate distance from the world he creates, but Godard is always probing, exploring, and interrogating the cinematic medium. Nowhere is the dichotomy between his approaches to similar ideas over the course of his career more sharp than in Alphaville and Détective. Both may have a girl and a gun, but the way they are deployed could not be more different - and yet one can't help but feel that this is the same Godard exploring and deconstruction genres, only refusing to repeat himself in his pursuit of pure cinema.

ALPHAVILLE - ★★★½ (out of four)
DÉTECTIVE - ★★½ (out of four)


Alphaville and Détective are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The trend of Disney remaking its animated classics shows no signs of slowing down as The Lion King stands poised to become one of 2019's biggest box office hits. While it would be a misnomer to refer to the new Lion King as a "live action" remake, the photo-realistic special effects create the illusion that we're watching real animals coming to life on screen to tell the familiar story.

The Lion King is a better film than Aladdin, this year's other live action remake, in that it is competently directed and reasonably well-designed, but it's plagued by such a mind-numbing sense of redundancy that one can't help but wonder - "what's the point?"

The original animated film holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who grew up in the 1990s, and it remains one of Disney's finest achievements of the era. The remake brings very little new to the table - adding a few lines of dialogue here, a reworked song there, but for the most part this new Lion King is content to be a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, hitting all the familiar notes fans of the original have come to expect but offering nothing new of any real note. The more realistic animation is certainly eye-popping, but the characters lose something in their transition to more life-like incarnations. They're less expressive and engaging as "real" animals; as such, the film lacks the emotional core that made the original so endearing.

In fact, the entire film lacks a certain elegance in its translation to photo-real animation. For all the epic vistas the film shows us, it's impossible not to recall its animated counterpart, and the way in which the colorful drawings of the original Lion King expressed the emotions and feelings of the narrative with such grace. This new Lion King is often thuddingly literal - simply tracking characters trotting through musical numbers rather than bursting into swirls of color and song. For a film full of such breathtakingly real images, the musical numbers are often flatly staged, the realism constantly undercutting the story's vibrant emotions and narrative drive.

Director Jon Favreau (who also directed Disney's excellent remake of The Jungle Book) wants to make sure we remember the original film, constantly tapping into fond memories and nostalgia for his audience's childhoods. But rather than recalling the things we love and pushing it into new, uncharted territory, he simply carbon copies what we've already seen. It reminded me of Gus Van Sant's ill-fated 1999 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - all the familiar ingredients are there, but the spirit and the heart that made the original great are completely missing. Taken on its own merits, it's completely fine - a mildly engaging adventure about a young lion discovering his destiny as the leader of his people with some amusing comic relief. But audiences would be better off watching the original animated film instead, a classic that will continue to endure long after this "live action" trend has faded from our collective memories.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


THE LION KING | Directed by Jon Favreau | Stars Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, John Kani, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner | Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The best of Disney's recent glut of live-action remakes of their animated classics have been the ones that haven't hewed so closely to the original films as to become almost shot-for-shot remakes. I'm thinking, of course, of Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and David Lowery's Pete's Dragon, both fantastic films in their own right that captured the spirit of the original while charting their own course.

Tim Burton may be responsible for one of the absolute worst Disney remakes, 2010's garish Alice in Wonderland, but he has more than redeemed himself with his new remake of Dumbo (1941), a delightful flight of fantasy that expands beyond the original film and becomes something wholly its own.

The film is squarely in Burton's comfort zone, there's a circus, unusual characters, and a protagonist who doesn't fit in with the world around him. Burton has always had an affinity for society's outcasts, from Vincent to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Frankenweenie, the loners and the unloved have always been the center of Burton's universe. So the story of a big-eared elephant who overcomes his differences by learning to fly seems a perfect vehicle for Burton, bringing in a certain sense of emotional grounding that has been missing from his more recent filmography.

The story is, by now, familiar. But Burton doesn't simply retell Dumbo with real actors. This time, Dumbo's circle is bought out by a sinister corporation who wants to exploit Dumbo for cash while laying off the rest of the circus performers. There's something deeply ironic about Disney releasing this film the very week that they laid off the entire staff of Fox 2000 after buying out 20th Century Fox, but Burton almost seems to be mischievously tweaking the very company he's working for. That's not to say that Disney released a film whose content they were unaware of, because naturally they're in full control of their own intellectual properties, but there's something almost subversive about the anti-corporate message at the heart of Dumbo. Call it hypocrisy on Disney's part, call it tone-deafness, call it what you will, but I applaud what Burton is doing here, tweaking the machine and thumbing his nose at the capitalist system from the inside.

Dumbo is Burton's best film in recent memory, at least since Sweeney Todd (2007), finding a sense of wonder and beauty in the trappings of a turn-of-the-century circus. It's all thoroughly modern, with an anti-captivity message and a noticeable lack of the racist crows from the original (the Jim Crow character was cringe-y even by the standards of 1941), but Burton finds an old-fashioned spirit of kindness and generosity in a film that could have easily been another product in Disney's live action assembly line. Come for the timeless story, stay for Danny DeVito as a two-bit huckster with a heart of gold and Michael Keaton's wonderfully bizarre performance as the villainous CEO. There's a glimmer of some old-school Burton lunacy here, and in Dumbo it actually feels like something akin to an emotional return to form. When Dumbo takes off on the wings of Danny Elfman's soaring score, you'll believe an elephant can fly.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Dumbo is one of those films that actually looks better in hindsight when seen through the lens of Disney's creatively bankrupt Aladdin remake. Tim Burton's whimsical re-imagining of Walt Disney's original film is just idiosyncratic enough to stand out against the bland retread that was Aladdin, offering gorgeous production design and a charmingly expanded story to distinguish itself from the pack. It's hard to get excited about Disney's returning to the well of millennial nostalgia as it remakes its back catalogue of animated features, but the remakes of its older films, like Cinderella, Pete's Dragon, and The Jungle Book have far and away been their strongest, and Dumbo takes its place in their company. The special features range from perfunctory making-of featurettes, a fun Disney Channel-esque look at the film's easter eggs, a blooper reel, and an illuminating look at the film's use of practical and stand-in effects as well as real circus performers to give credence to the world it creates.

The film may have ultimately made much less than Aladdin, and was met with critical indifference upon release, but Dumbo is absolutely worth a second look, with its old fashioned evocation of classic Hollywood, sumptuous Depression-era production design, and Burton's love of displaced and isolated heroes, it stands out amidst remakes that are content to coast on the laurels of their beloved inspirations.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


DUMBO | Directed by Tim Burton | Stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Alan Arkin | Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide