Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A cinematic event 40 years in the making, The Other Side of the Wind is the long-lost final film by legendary filmmaker Orson Welles. Having spent nearly two decades in Europe, Welles returned to the United States in 1970 to begin production on a project that would not be completed in his lifetime. He spent most of the 1970s working on The Other Side of the Wind, completing principal photography in 1976 and editing it into the 1980s. Welles died in 1985, leaving the film unfinished, seemingly destined for the dustbin of history.

That is until the rights were acquired by Netflix, with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (who also starred in the film) finishing what Welles started, making its triumphant screen debut at long last in 2018, premiering at the Venice Film Festival before being released on Netflix's streaming platform.  It may seem something of an inauspicious end for the fabled final film of the man who directed Citizen Kane, yet the very existence of the film is something of a miracle. Here we are in 2018 watching a brand new Orson Welles film, and the results are nothing short of electrifying.

Mirroring Welles' own experiences in faux-documentary style, The Other Side of the Wind is the chronicle of renowned filmmaker Jake Hannaford (played by similarly renowned filmmaker John Huston) who returns to the United States from European exile in order to make what would become his final film. Welles follows Hannaford on the final day of his life, examining the troubled production of his film, The Other Side of the Wind, an experimental piece filled with gratuitous sex and nudity  meant to attract investors to help him complete it. This film-within-a-film becomes the crux of Welles' blistering critique of Hollywood and the industry that had spurned him. Hannaford travels from screening room to screening room, followed by sycophants, journalists, and hangers-on, each time met with screening difficulties that shut the film down. Eventually there is no audience left at all, and Hannaford is left to die alone, his film all but forgotten.

It's an eerie mirroring of Welles' own experience in making the film, although he vehemently denied such parallels, claiming instead that Hannaford was based on novelist Ernest Hemmingway, along with other storied "macho" filmmakers such as John Ford, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman. Regardless of its inspirations, The Other Side of the Wind is a thorny, troubled, angry, work of radical cinema the likes of which are rarely seen. It is at once a work of painful self-reflection and bold defiance, a giant middle finger to an industry that had turned its back on Welles. This is Welles both gazing at himself as at outsider and looking deep within himself as a filmmaker in twilight - a lion in winter and one-time wunderkind who made what many consider the greatest film of all time at the age of 24, and spent the rest of his career refusing to be but into a box.

“Every man contains within himself the whole condition of humanity," whispers one woman about Hannaford at one point, a line that seemingly lays bare Welles' almost limitless ambition in his twilight years. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever. The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND | Directed by Orson Welles | Stars John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, Susan Strasberg, Joseph McBride, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

It can be tough to be a Tyler Perry apologist in the face of films like Nobody's Fool. To be fair, nothing about Nobody's Fool feels like a Perry film - it feels like a substandard director-for-hire project that somehow ended up with Perry behind the camera. That's not the case here, unfortunately, Nobody's Fool is Perry's through and through; but it is completely devoid of the personality and charm that are often present even in Perry's most pedestrian works.

Billed as a star-vehicle for Tiffany Haddish, a hot-commodity following her star-making performance in Girls' TripNobody's Fool instead wastes Haddish in a supporting role and turns the focus on her sister, Danica (Tika Sumpter), an uptight marketing executive who is dating a man she has never met. After Danica picks her foul-mouthed, over-sexed sister, Tanya (Haddish), up from jail, Tanya immediately sets out to find out the real identity of Danica's mysterious boyfriend to find out if Danica is in fact being "catfished." All the while, her perfect man may be staring her in the face, a handsome barista named Frank (Omari Hardwick) who greets her with coffee and a rose every morning and his coffee shop.

The problem here is that it doesn't seem like Perry can make up is mind as to what he wants Nobody's Fool to be. The catfishing plot-line is quickly dropped, segueing into a romantic comedy in which the stuck-up Danica can't get over her hang-ups about Frank's criminal past. Then, just when it appears to be coming to a close, it hits us with a totally unnecessary third act twist that not only derails the plot, it destroys any remaining sympathy we may have had for Danica. It's a clear attempt by Perry to subvert romantic comedy tropes in which a man gets to make mistake after mistake, only to be forgiven and taken back by the woman. But Danica is just too flawed and too arrogant to root for. She's the kind of character that would normally be a villain in Perry's films, yet here she is as a romantic lead that's impossible to root for or care about.

The film is saved from complete oblivion by Haddish, but Perry's improvisational directorial style doesn't do her a lot of favors, giving her ample room to play, but her anarchic presence is often more than the film can handle. It's also got quite a bit more language and graphic sex than the typical Perry joint, which isn't in and of itself a problem, but it feels incongruous with Perry's style. It's as if he's trying to break out of the faith-based comedy mold that made him famous into something more edgy (see also his other 2018 film, Acrimony, where it felt more natural), but it just doesn't fit the film, coming across as a naked attempt to be more mainstream rather than serve the film. It may not feature some of the same instances of sloppy directing present in his last two films, Acrimony and Boo 2, but it's much more of a narrative mess - devoid of Perry's usual affable charm or melodramatic flair; and no amount of Haddish's spirited comedic patter can save it from itself.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

NOBODY'S FOOL | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Whoopi Goldberg, Missi Pyle, Amber Riley, Chris Rock | Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, and for drug material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, November 09, 2018

There's never been a film (or series of films) quite like Patrick Wang's A Bread Factory. Essentially one film told in two parts, Part One: For the Sake of Gold, and Part Two: Walk with Me a While, A Bread Factory examines the plight of a small-town arts center about to be gentrified out of existence by a foreign conglomerate.

Wang, who first appeared on the American independent film scene in 2011 with the remarkable drama, In the Family, has a style like no other, a kind of point-and-shoot aesthetic that nevertheless feels staunchly formal. His actors occupy spaces that at once feel tightly controlled and yet assembled on the fly, creating something that feels wholly organic yet incredibly specific. In For the Sake of Gold, Wang introduces us to Dorthea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), longtime parters and proprietors of a community arts center in Checkford, finding artistic truth in charmingly DIY productions. The Bread Factory, long a space for personal exploration and community engagement, is deep in rehearsals for a performance of Euripides' Hecuba, when a couple of performance artists from China bring a major conglomerate onto the block, vying for the same arts council funding as The Bread Factory. Facing the end of their life's work, Dorthea and Greta rally a cast of oddball characters, including a local journalist and her plucky intern, in order to convince the local council to save their funding and stop the government corruption seeking the use the newcomers for personal gain.

In Walk with Me a While, Wang changes the ballgame, examining the aftermath of the events of the first film and how they affect the community. Strange tourists begin to descend on Checkford, and it becomes clear that the foreign conglomerate's showy, impersonal brand of art may be changing the little town forever. Walk with Me a While is a more melancholic film than its predecessor, but both films are filled with a quiet sense of hope. What sets Part 2 apart is how Wang deftly melds genres together, introducing musical sequences to differentiate the tourists from the citizens of Checkford. It's a bracing stylistic experiment that beautifully examines life in a changing world. Of the two films, it is perhaps the strongest. Yet taken together as two parts of one whole, these films are a celebration of not just the arts, but of small town arts programs.

Wang shoots in long static takes, often in medium close-up, capturing his actors' performances in totality. It's like a high wire act without an act, the lack of cuts putting emphasis on the performers and what they’re saying rather than directorial style. By filming entire performances, including the climactic performance of Hecuba at the end of Walk with Me a While, Wang immerses us deeply into the world of these characters, allowing us to live alongside them for a while. By splitting the story into two films, Wang takes us beyond the plot and into these characters' lives. Yet it's more than just a four-hour film split in two, the cut feels natural. Both films feel like complete entities that are nevertheless inexorably a part of the same whole.

And what a beautiful whole it is. A Bread Factory is a warm-hearted ode to local arts programs, how they serve not only as a place of belonging for everyone in the community, but as an outlet for people of all ages to explore themselves. Over the course of two films, Wang examines the Bread Factory's impact on its community, and the community's impact on the Bread Factory and its proprietors. They're two lovely, altogether wonderful films that find a deep humanity in their subjects, demonstrating a clear affection for its idiosyncratic characters and the niche they've carved out for themselves in Checkford. And yet there's a kind of sadness that hangs over these films, a kind of mourning for the role of money in the arts, a necessary evil they both rely on and are torn down by. In the end, the quality of the work matters little in the face of public indifference or lack of funding, and that's the inherent tragedy at the core of both films.  Passion can only go so far, but sometimes that passion is worth more than anything money can buy. In A Bread Factory that passion bleeds through every frame - it's an endlessly charming labor of love that firmly establishes Wang as one of the most unique and vital voices in American independent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A BREAD FACTORY PART ONE: FOR THE SAKE OF GOLD | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Glynnis O'Connor, Philip Kerr, Jeanine Garofalo | Not Rated

A BREAD FACTORY PART TWO: WALK WITH ME A WHILE | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, James Masters, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Zachary Sayle, Jessica Pimentel | Not Rated

Both films are now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Perhaps America's foremost living documentarian, Frederick Wiseman's expansive documentaries have covered everything from prisons to the Paris Opera Ballet to the New York Public Library to the halls of Berkeley University to French cabaret clubs. Each one an incisively observational slice of life, chronicling the minutiae of life in their respective milieus. 

In his latest film, Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman turns his camera on the goings on in a small mid-western town in America's heartland. Here, Wiseman invites us to sit in on town council meetings, observe farm life, attend a Masonic lodge ceremony, and even bear witness to a funeral. Wiseman's films always unfold as if we're watching life as it is lived in real time, dipping in and out of daily activities like a dispassionate observer quietly going door to door. Monrovia, Indiana is no different, but at a comparatively svelte 143 minutes, it feels quite brief by Wiseman's standards.

It also seems to be purposely avoiding the elephant in the room - and that's Donald Trump. This is deep in the heart of Trump country, something that Wiseman vaguely alludes to in shots of bumper stickers for sale at a street vendor showcasing slogans supporting God, guns, and America, love it or leave it. Yet, as his way, Wiseman never comments on the violent undercurrent of some of these messages, and they never come up again. There's something to be said for a film in our increasingly partisan times that simply observes, showcasing flyover country life for Wiseman's more coastal audiences. That is, after all, Wiseman's style - observe but don't comment. He simply shows what he sees. But here he almost seems to be actively avoiding the subject.

Perhaps the overwhelmingly white population of Monrovia, Indiana doesn't have politics on the mind as much at the moment because Trump's policies aren't affecting them negatively. Perhaps Wiseman chose to avoid it altogether. But it does seem like an odd choice to briefly acknowledge the virulent undercurrents running beneath the otherwise pleasant town meetings and friendly socializing only to never mention it again. It's a strange misstep in an otherwise stellar film, one of Wiseman's most purely emotional works. It makes riveting cinema out of a vote to appropriate funds for a bench in front of the local library, and a a town hall debate about a fire hydrant. These sorts of seemingly mundane business are Wiseman's forte, and his ability to find beauty and wonder in the moments of life that would end up on the cutting room floor of most documentaries is what makes him such a special filmmaker.

But perhaps the most masterful touch of Monrovia, Indiana is Wiseman's decision to end the film with a funeral. The final 30 minutes of the film is spent in the company of a woman we likely never met, and yet by the time the film is over we felt as though we knew her. We mourn with her family, their tears become our tears. She could have been anyone, but for a moment her funeral becomes a projection on which the audience projects its own losses. She's our grandmother, our aunt, our sister, our mother. In fact, it's almost as if Wiseman is mourning the very way of small town life chronicled here. As the small towns of America's past fade away, little pockets like Monrovia still cling to their memories, seemingly untouched by time.

And yet time marches on - it's the quaint contradiction inherent in Monrovia, Indiana. It feels like a film that would have felt much more impactful 2-3 years ago, but now it seems to stand as a stark reminder of what happens when isolated white communities ignore the world around them, and the noise of the Trump era howling around it can't be drowned out. It makes for a fascinating companion piece with Wiseman's 2015 film, In Jackson Heights, which chronicled a much more diverse, but no less engaged, neighborhood in Queens, New York - a kind of "two Americas" portrait that says as much about where we are today as any pundit on a 24 hour news network or a breathless 2 AM tweet storm from the White House. Wiseman is a peerless filmmaker, and Monrovia, Indiana is a testament to his talent as a quiet observer. Perhaps what he's really doing here is simply cutting through all that noise and listening to the people on the other side. In 2018, we could all use a little bit more of drowning out the noise and simply listening. Monrovia, Indiana may not be "America," but it's certainly a part of a greater community, and a brilliant tapestry of work that Wiseman has been weaving for decades.

GRADE - ★★★½(out of four)

MONROVIA, INDIANA | Directed by Frederick Wiseman | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, November 05, 2018

There is something uniquely droll about the humor of contemporary Romanian cinema that is often so dry that it's almost imperceptible. Take, for instance, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a film ostensibly about an old man dying from neglect by the Romanian healthcare system, being touted as "The most acclaimed comedy of the year" in all of its promotional materials. And yet, despite its tragic underpinnings, Mr. Lazarescu was funny simply because it was so absurd. It was a comedy of errors disguised as a tragedy, a darkly hilarious examination of a grim reality meant to help its audience "laugh to keep from crying."

Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) is similarly droll, if more overtly funny, taking aim at small town silliness regarding a point of local pride - a revolution that may or may not have happened in their little town years earlier. It has been over a decade since the so-called Romanian New Wave began, with filmmakers like Porumboiu, Puiu, and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) bursting onto the international scene with their austere social consciences and sparse style. While each filmmaker has their own unique style and thematic interests, Porumboiu has carved out a unique niche for himself as a kind of satirical cultural critic, examining bureaucratic nonsense in a way that demonstrates both a love for society's oddballs, and a penchant for taking a pin to the balloon of self-importance.

In his latest film, a documentary called Infinite Football, Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury. Ginghină proposes redesigning the field into an octagonal shape to prevent players from getting stuck in corners, dividing teams up into sub-teams each with specific rules, and eliminating off-sides rules by keeping all but a select few players on their own respective sides of the field so that they don't over-exert themselves by running up and down the entire length of the field for the whole game.

Ginghină is so singularly convinced that his rule changes will revolutionize the sport that he envisions himself as a kind of superhero posing as a mild-mannered pencil-pusher by day and acting as a savior of football by night. For his part, Porumboiu mostly steps back and allows Ginghină to explain his system, and then explain it again, constantly revising and and updating his plan when it proved impractical in real life until it becomes so complicated he can barely explain it to anyone. There are very few cuts in the scant 70 minute run time of Infinite Football. Porumboiu is content to point his camera, sit back, and let Ginghină fashion his own rope by which to hang himself.

And yet there is something endearing, and even a little sad, about Ginghină's obsession. Porumboiu essentially lets him explain himself for 70 minutes, and his case is certainly convincing because he himself is so sure of what he's doing, but one can't quite escape the feeling that this quixotic quest to change the way the world plays soccer is something of a fool's errand. At what point does confidence become delusion? Or is soccer, in this instance, just a metaphor for something more?

That's the real question at the heart of Porumboiu's drolly funny and strangely melancholy film. Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.

As for Ginghină, his crusade may not have brought him fame or glory, in fact it's brought him little more than indifference at every turn, as the problems he perceives (born mostly out of childhood trauma) are not seen as actual issues by anyone else. And yet it just might have given him personal fulfillment in the form of a life's work, even it if means nothing to anyone but him. Who then, Porumboiu asks, are we to judge?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

INFINITE FOOTBALL | Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu | Not Rated | In Romanian w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, 11/9, in select theaters.

Friday, October 26, 2018

There's something to be said for a film that is able to take complex ideas like systemic racism and white privilege and presents them in a clear, straightforward, and emotionally honest way. George Tillman, Jr.'s The Hate U Give is one such film, a work that grapples with big ideas in easily digestible ways, resulting in a rousing, crowd-pleasing drama about what it's like to be black in America in 2018.

Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) stars as Starr Carter, a black teenager caught between two worlds - the world of her predominantly white, suburban private school, and the world of her hometown, a predominantly black area of town known for its high crime rate and drug abuse. Her parents sent her to the private school as a way to get her away from the influence of drug dealers in her local high school, but she finds herself denying her own identity, pretending to be more "white" in order to fit in.

But when she is the witness to the murder of another black teenager by a white police officer, she begins to seriously question her place in society. Will she speak up and tell the truth about her friend's murder? Or will she stay silent so as not to rock the boat, and be seen by her white friends as a radical from the ghetto?

Police shootings of unarmed black men have become a major cultural issue, especially in recent years. The Hate U Give examines their impact on all involved, how they reverberate through families and neighborhoods and feed into historic mistrust of the police in the black community. Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how it so succinctly articulates ideas of white privilege and racial identity. "I don't see color," Starr's boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), insists at one point. To which Starr replies, "If you don't see my blackness, then you don't see me."

The title comes from a song by Tupac Shakur in which the phrase Thug Life stands for "The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody." The idea that the cycle of hate and violence will only continue as long as children are brought up in a world filled with both. While the breaking of that cycle in the film feels a bit too easy, the ideas leading up to that climax are powerfully articulated. Its illustration of racism, and how it often rears its ugly head in the most subtle of ways, is striking in its directness. The damage systemic, institutional racism, upheld by racist power structures and centuries of ingrained white supremacy, has become so normal that it's difficult for white people to recognize their own privilege.

The Hate U Give isn't trying to preach to white people (although it does have a tendency to overstate its themes out loud via voice-over), it's a vital and deeply felt expression of what it means to be black, and why racial identity is so important to historically marginalized groups. It's a topic few mainstream films ever touch, yet Tillman does so with humor and grace, and an unmistakable fire that is hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE HATE U GIVE | Directed by George Tillman, Jr. | Stars  Amandla Stenberg, Lamar Johnson, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common, TJ Wright, Issa Rae, Algee Smith, K.J. Apa, Sabrina Carpenter | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

In celebration of the release of David Gordon Green's new Halloween sequel/reboot, and in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, From the Front Row takes a look at the 40-year history of the Halloween franchise with all its highs and lows along the way. 40 years. 11 films. Here we go.

At this point, John Carpenter's original Halloween has become so iconic, so endlessly imitated, that it's almost easy to forget just how effective, how perfect, a film it actually was. Despite eight sequels and two remakes, Halloween's luster remains undimmed after 40 years. If Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the grandfather of the slasher genre, then Halloween is its father, spawning an entire sub-genre of horror where masked, knife-wielding killers stalk unsuspecting teenagers and dispatch them with merciless abandon.

Yet no one did it better than Halloween. Not Friday the 13th. Not A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not Scream. While it took inspiration from such films as Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (1971) and Charles B. Pierce's The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Halloween laid the groundwork in popularizing the genre and has never been topped. It's often surprising to discover just how simple it was. Before all the subplots about Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being serial killer Michael Myers' sister, before giving him a niece Michael spends three movies trying to kill in order to annihilate his entire family, before the clumsy attempts to connect him to a cult of druids and ancient pagan rituals, Michael Myers was simply known as The Shape, a masked killer stalking babysitters on Halloween night.

As The Shape, he materialized out of nowhere, calm, soulless, completely focused, a force of nature who could be anywhere at any time. He was the Boogeyman, he was, in many ways, fear itself. Carpenter gives us just enough back story to let the audience know who and what Michael is, but his motivations remain a mystery. He was, as Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance) opined, "purely and simply evil." That's the beauty of Halloween - it's a cat and mouse game, free of unnecessary myth-building or attempts to psychoanalyze the killer. It almost feels pure, a distillation of the eternal struggle between good and evil, shadow and light, perfectly represented by Carpenter's own iconic score, which turned what was once a standard drum rhythm into one of the most primally terrifying pieces of music ever composed; simple, repeating, building, unstopping, like the evil it represents  - Carpenter's music and the film it supports remain not just the gold standard for American horror, but one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.

Picking up right where the original Halloween (1978) left off, Halloween II (1981) promises "MORE of the night HE came home." Of course, more of the same is all it really gives us, just in higher doses. Michael Myers continues his Halloween night killing spree (this time with more blood), while Laurie Strode is taken to Haddonfield Hospital with Michael right on her trail. Why is Michael so obsessed with Laurie? It turns out she's his sister, and he's bent on finishing what he started as a child - killing off his entire family.

The revelation that Michael is actually Laurie's brother undercuts some of the randomness that made the original film so terrifying, but it begins a piece of Halloween mythology that lasted all the way through five more sequels and two remakes before being retconned in 2018's Halloween - that Michael's ultimate goal is to kill his entire family. It feels like an unnecessary bit of explanation but isn't really the biggest issue with Halloween II, given that it at least gives Michael some sort of motivation to continue through the sequels unlike so many other slasher franchises.

No, the biggest issue with Halloween II is that it's just kind of dull. It feels pedestrian and uninspired where Halloween felt fresh and terrifying. Everyone involved is just going through the motions, with the exception of Donald Pleasance, who starts to unveil the Captain Ahab-like obsessiveness in Dr. Loomis that will only ratchet up throughout the rest of the series. Halloween II continues the original film, but it doesn't have any of its intensity or verve. Even The Shape, once so purposeful and deliberate, feels slow and lumbering here. On the plus side, the empty hospital is an appropriately creepy location for Michael's final massacre, and his final confrontation with Laurie with his tears of blood in a silent room conjures up some strong images. And for sheer creepiness, it's hard to beat the image of Michael Myers stalking through the empty halls of a hospital at night. Halloween II is solid in fits and starts, but it never really distinguishes itself from the glut of substandard slashers that its predecessor helped spawn.

The odd-duck, the black sheep - Halloween III: Season of the Witch departed from the Michael Myers storyline, the first step in a planned Halloween anthology series telling spooky stories set around Halloween. It was Carpenter's original concept for the Halloween franchise - one not set around Michael Myers but around the holiday itself. It ultimately proved to be a failure, and the series returned to Myers for Halloween 4. Because of this, Halloween IIIgets something of a bad rap, but examined on its own merits, it's not a bad film at all.

Had Halloween II  not focused on the Michael Myers story, the idea of a Halloween anthology might have worked. But since one sequel had already featured Michael Myers, audiences were conditioned to expect more. Halloween III introduces us to Silver Shamrock, an evil novelty toy company bent on sacrificing millions of children on Halloween night through their booby trapped masks, ubiquitously advertised on TV stations everywhere in order to ensure as many children beg their parents for them as possible. It's a goofy premise, but its distinctly 80s mix of sci-fi and horror works surprisingly well meshing perfectly with the Halloween theme.

The film is supported by a pulsing score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth that helps create its dread-soaked atmosphere, itself rooted in classic B-movie sci-fi horror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No one will ever mistake Halloween III for a great film, but it is a misunderstood one, a curious experiment in franchise filmmaking that was as bold as it was ultimately foolish. Taken apart from the Halloween franchise and evaluated as a stand-alone film, it's a solid piece of 80s horror, and a fascinating "what-if" that offers a window into an alternate universe where the series took a vastly different direction. It leaves one to wonder - which direction could have ultimately yielded greater results? With a brief look at the dearth of creativity apparent in some of the later Halloween sequels, it's a tantalizing question indeed.

Easily the strongest of the original Halloween sequels, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers sought to return the series to its roots after the box office failure of Halloween III. With Jamie Lee Curtis deciding not to return, producers decided to focus on her daughter, seven-year-old Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), now living with her adopted family after her mother was killed in a car accident years earlier (don't worry, this will all get ret-conned later).

Michael Myers is, of course, not dead - and his doctors have decided to transfer him to another facility on the night before Halloween (they never learn, do they?). When he learns that he has a niece, he kills the ambulance crew and makes a bee-line for Haddonfield, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The middle section is mostly standard slasher fare, but director Dwight H. Little infuses it with enough eerie autumnal atmosphere to elevate it above the pack. The evolution of Dr. Loomis into Captain Ahab chasing his great white whale (Michael Myers) is nearly complete here, and the pitch perfect ending (the strongest of any of the sequels) allows his quixotic journey to come full circle.

It's unfortunate that Halloween 5 chose to brush this film's ending under the rug, because it leaves so much room for a new direction for the franchise that the producers chose to completely ignore. Yet even though its promise goes unfulfilled in subsequent films, Halloween 4 feels like the most genuine successor to the original Halloween of any of the sequels. This thing just feels like Halloween, capturing the misty mornings and fading browns of late fall with a spooky air of a rural community on All Hallows Eve. Add to that a town in darkness, a wiped out police force, and a roving band of angry, gun-toting rednecks, and you have a film that provides some of the most fun of any slasher sequel to date.

If Halloween 4 was one of the best Halloween sequels, then Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, is one of the worst. The film began shooting without a complete script, and it shows. Picking up right where Halloween 4 left off,  Halloween 5 finds Michael crawling away from the mine explosion that was thought to have killed him in the previous film, and shacking up with an old man who nurses him back to health.

One year later, he awakes on the night before Halloween and heads back to Haddonfield to kill off his young niece, Jamie Lloyd, who has been in the hospital ever since attacking her mother on Halloween the year before. Rather than do anything interesting with Jamie's character after she seemingly became Michael's murderous successor in the fourth film,  Halloween 5 instead decides to quickly rehabilitate her and keep the franchise going in the same direction. Michael, now almost completely divorced from the faceless, anonymous boogeyman idea from the original  Halloween, is now hell-bent on wiping out his family. This time, however, instead of cutting down anyone who gets in his way, he goes on a mostly pointless killing spree, attacking a Halloween party of teenagers that has nothing to do with Jamie - in fact Jamie, sensing he's there through her newfound psychic link with Michael, comes to him instead.

The psychic link idea isn't the dumbest idea this franchise has ever had, but it's awfully close, and it borrows heavily from territory already covered at this point by the Friday the 13th series (it even apes one of Jason's more famous kills). Michael is also followed around by a mysterious "Man in Black," whose identity is never revealed, leaving that ultimately pointless loose end for the makers of the next film to deal with (which they did, poorly). What's frustrating about  Halloween 5 is that it's a successor to the film that kickstarted the slasher genre, still the best film that the genre has ever produced, and at this point in the series the filmmakers were leading from behind, copying from the copycats rather than blazing new trails.

Halloween 5 is a mess. It's clear that the filmmakers didn't know where this was headed, and the result is an aimless, muddled mess, filled with awkwardly placed comic relief and a sense that no one is really behind the wheel here.

It took six years for filmmakers to figure out what the hell to do with the mess that was Halloween 5, and the resulting film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers did nothing to clear things up, instead muddying the waters with bizarre subplots about druid cults and ancient runes. In the world of the sixth Halloween film, Michael is the victim of an ancient curse, dictating that he must kill every member of his family before he can be free to pass the curse onto another.

The mysterious Man in Black from Halloween 5 is revealed to be Dr. Wynn, under whose watch Michael escaped from the sanatorium in the original film, now played by Mitchell Ryan. It turns out that Wynn is the leader of this cult, for whom Michael is some sort of mystical guardian, and they have forced him to have a child with his niece, Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy, stepping in for Danielle Harris). It's all very convoluted, and done no favors by having too many cooks in the kitchen - the writer, director, producers, and studio honchos all trying to exert influence over the troubled production.

The theatrical cut of the film was all but destroyed by reshoots that left so many loose ends hanging that the film just doesn't make any narrative sense. The producer's cut rectifies some of these issues, but the "Michael as mystical druid enforcer" angle is just so aggressively dumb (not to mention a betrayal of the integrity of the established character and series mythology). In some ways, it's actually a better directed film than its predecessor, which began filming without a completed script and mostly felt like a tired retread. The middle section of The Curse of Michael Myers actually feels somewhat spooky and cohesive (the death of Kim Darby's Debra Strode is especially terrifying), but it all goes off the rails in the ludicrous finale, which transfer's Wynn's "curse of thorn" to Dr. Loomis.

Michael Myers has always been somewhat supernatural, but by removing his humanity and turning to magic to explain his evil, The Curse of Michael Myers takes away what made him so scary in the first place, and replaces it with something that feels like goofy make-believe. It's just too strange, too outlandish, and too convoluted to be frightening, serving as a constant reminder of just how far away we are from the world created by John Carpenter in 1978.

Set and released 20 years after the original HalloweenHalloween H20 was, in many ways, the sequel that the original film needed and the fans had always wanted. The film allowed an adult Laurie Strode to confront her tragic past and finally put it behind her - at least until Dimension Films decided to trot Michael Myers out again for another substandard sequel in 2002.

Coming out two years after Wes Craven so indelibly deconstructed the slasher genre with ScreamHalloween H20 has a decidedly 90s aesthetic, but it allows the original slasher franchise to adapt, grow, and fit in comfortably with a more cynical, savvy audience that was hip to the genre's tricks. It's a film that is very much in tune with its own past. Director Steve Miner, who also helmed Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, understood the roots of the slasher genre and did a fine job adapting it for a 1990s audience, despite a few studio mandated setbacks, including switching the Michael Myers mask mid-production resulting in an inconsistent look for the iconic killer.

Set in a rural prep-school, Halloween H20 has spooky atmosphere a-plenty. But its highlight remains the 20-years-in-the-making showdown between Laurie Strode and her brother, Michael Myers. It's a film as much about confronting childhood trauma as it is about a knife-wielding killer. Laurie can only run from her past for so long before it catches up with her, affecting not only her own well-being but that of her family as well. It's a almost shame that this is being ret-conned by David Gordon Green's new Halloween, because even though it feels dates with its 90s teen movie tropes and icons, it has a real sense of gravity, weight, and sense of history that was often missing from the other Halloween sequels. This one got it what made the original film so special, and it reckons with history in a way that remains a series highlight, even if it's no longer official canon.

By 2002, the slasher genre had basically become a parody of itself. Scream had upended the genre's tropes in such a way that it was difficult to take them seriously, especially when the film in question was taking them very seriously. Into that world stepped Halloween: Resurrection, the final entry in the mainline Halloween series before Rob Zombie's 2007 remake.

Released three years after The Blair Witch Project, and at the height of reality TV popularity (Survivor and Big Brother were major hits), Halloween: Resurrection attempted to piggyback onto this new found footage trend by focusing on a group of teens who spend the night in the Myers house for a company called Dangertainment, who equips them all with bodycams to broadcast their adventure on the internet.

Putting aside for a moment its now badly dated depiction of early 2000s internet technology, Halloween: Resurrection was a blatant attempt to make the aging slasher series appeal to the youth market of 2002. The results, featuring a host of bland young actors and a karate-kicking Busta Rhymes, are awkward at best, laughable at worst. Director Rick Rosenthal, who also helmed Halloween II (making him the only director to tackle multiple Halloween sequels), gives Resurrection a more cohesive storyline than Halloween 5 and 6, but the story is just so dumb that it hardly matters.

There seems to be a good idea buried here somewhere, examining the idea of becoming so desensitized by violence and reality TV that we can no longer distinguish between them and real life horror, but Resurrection never allows itself to go there, aiming for cheap thrills over everything else. And that's not to mention the truly, mind-numbingly awful way it wraps up Laurie Strode's storyline, unceremoniously killing her off in the opening scene. Thankfully, David Gordon Green rectified that injustice in his new Halloween (2018), but this bottom of the barrel sequel feels like a cheap knock-off of the original, ending the series with a pathetic whimper rather than the bang it deserved.

On the surface, Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) remake seems ill-advised from the start - a film that ostensibly attempts to explain the origins of Michael Myers, a character made frightening by being a the blank face of pure, inescapable evil. Surprisingly, it works for the most part, excelling in the first half when it focuses on young Myers (Daeg Faerch), a child with such cold, terrifying eyes that he was seemingly born to play the young version of one of cinema's most iconic serial killers.

The lurid, trashy milieu stands in stark contrast to the suburban setting of the original Halloween, showing Michael's troubled upbringing and his special relationship with his baby sister, Boo. There are moments that are perhaps some of the most disturbing of the entire franchise - young Michael beating a bully to death, murdering a nurse in the hospital while his mother looks on. But when the film reaches the part of the story already covered by John Carpenter, it falters somewhat - Zombie's brutal style standing in stark (and inferior) contrast to Carpenter's more understated suspense building. Rob Zombie's Michael Myers is a force of nature, an unstoppable battering ram who breaks through doors, walls, and anything that gets between him and his intended victim. Yet at a time when most horror remakes seemed aimed at a teen market, Zombie's vision was decidedly more hardcore and uncompromising.

Once Michael gets going he's like an out of control locomotive, essentially a child in a man's body pitching a temper tantrum. Born of abuse and hate, Michael has no clear outlet other than violence, and he exacts it on everyone he meets. Yet in recapping Carpenter's original Zombie feels somehow constrained, and the ideas he begins to explore here are much better articulated, and much more original, in his superior sequel Halloween II (2009).

Perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Halloween of them all, Rob Zombie's Halloween II boldly dances to the beat of its own drummer. Rather than follow the plot of the original Halloween II, which picked up on the same night as the first film (a fact that Zombie acknowledges in an extended dream sequence at the beginning), this Halloween II fast forwards to two years after the Halloween night massacre survived by Laurie Strode.

Michael Myers is presumed dead, although his body is missing. Dr. Loomis has let fame go to his head, and is on a nationwide book tour making money off his involvement in the murders. And Laurie has moved in with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter, Annie (Danielle Harris), as she attempts to recover from the trauma of that night. Her recovery is not going well; she is plagued by nightmares and begs her therapist for drugs. All the while Michael is slowly making his way home to finish the job he started two year prior, haunted by images of his deceased mother, and dreams of reuniting his family in the afterlife.

Halloween II is essentially an exploration of the aftermath of tragedy. Zombie deftly juxtaposes Laurie's journey of recovery with Michael's own deteriorating mental state. What's so great about Zombies films is that Michael is so clearly human, a living, breathing person who's as much a product of trauma as his sister. Zombie alludes to Paul Wegener's 1920 German Expressionist classic, The Golem: How He Came Into the World, casting Michael as a kind of misunderstood monster, born of pain and suffering, cursed with this affliction by the very family he seeks to reunite in death. Here, Michael and Laurie are vastly different (or are they?) twin products of abuse and violence, as much about what’s going on inside them as it is what’s happening around them. There are no easy answers here, no happy endings, no bright lights at the end of the tunnel - just broken humanity and the carnage left in its wake. It's almost shocking that a major studio released a film this abstract, savage, and surrealistic in wide release. It’s better than any of the original Halloween sequels, a brilliantly surreal nightmare journey into the heart of darkness that is not only a great Halloween film, but a great film period.

To read my review of David Gordon Green's Halloween, click here.

Series ranking:

1. HALLOWEEN (1978)
2. HALLOWEEN (2018)
3. HALLOWEEN II (2009)
5. HALLOWEEN H2O (1998)
7. HALLOWEEN II (1981)
8. HALLOWEEN (2007)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Walther Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) was something of a reaction to the heavily stylized German Expressionist movement that was such a major influence on German cinema in the 1920s. Carl Mayer (The Last Laugh), drawing inspiration from the Kammerspiel movement, which took a more naturalistic look at lower-middle class German life, conceived a "melody of pictures" that would pay tribute to the daily life in the city.

While the Kammerspiel movement was short-lived, its adherents included the likes of F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst. Mayer's vision was something else entirely, a kind of documentary that would strive for the ultimate in realism - portraying real life in Weimar-era Berlin. These "city symphonies" were not a new concept (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta predates it by about six years), but Berlin: Symphony of a Great City  actually predates, and in many ways presages, Dziga Vertov's seminal avant-garde documentary, Man with a Movie Camera (1929, also available from Flicker Alley).

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City rushes us into the heart of Germany's capital on a train, its rhythmic editing suggesting not only the speed of the locomotive, but the fast-paced heartbeat of the city itself. Ruttmann focuses mainly on the city's industrial elements rather than its people, emphasizing technical progress and economic might over personal storytelling. But there's something so joyous, so rapturous, so glowing about its celebration of national achievement (one can't help but be reminded of the ecstatic milk separator sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's Old and New). It provides a fascinating glimpse into life in Weimar-era Germany, one made even more poignant and chilling by the knowledge of what happened after. The subsequent rise of Hitler and the downfall of liberal democracy in Germany casts a haunting pall over Ruttmann's film in retrospect. The Germany we see here is progressive, forward thinking, a shining beacon for industrial and cultural innovation. It would not last.

Despite Mayer's vision of a naturalistic tour through Berlin, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City  is anything but naturalistic in construction - its Soviet-style editing giving the film a more expressionistic feel. Yet rather than be confined to the studio, Ruttmann was set free to explore the world around him. It's a film teeming with life, brimming with the energy of a boisterous and vibrant metropolis. It remains a hugely influential documentary work, one that found dramatic drive through image and montage rather than through talking heads or narration. This is pure cinema, a work of visual rapture that often feels like stepping into a time machine, inviting us into a world long since past. It remains one of the most essential, evocative, and beautifully effective documentaries ever made. While not a regular release from Flicker Alley, this manufactured-on-demand Blu-Ray is a must-have for fans of silent film - what it lacks in special features it makes up for in image quality - the 2K restoration brilliantly capturing its dynamic immediacy.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY | Directed by Walther Ruttmann | Not Rated | Now available on MOD Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

While the western is often regarded as one of the most essentially American of film genres, with its visions of lone gunslingers in white hats riding across the vast expanses of the American west, it often borrowed liberally from other genres (especially Japanese samurai films). No genre without its own influences, and the western is no different.

In German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach's Western, the genre is present if not overtly, at least in spirit, repurposing its vision of colonization and racial conflict into modern-day Bulgaria. It's a testament to the pliability of the genre's tropes, as well as the universal sensibility of any genre, that it fits so well here, in this story of German construction workers who have been tasked with building a dam near a rural Bulgarian community on the Greek border.

These would-be colonizers are at once invigorated and empowerd by the rural landscape. Seemingly free from the confines of society as they know it, they soon run afoul of the locals when project foreman, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) gets a little too friendly with a woman attempting to swim in a river near their campsite. Stoic silent-type, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), becomes fascinated by the local people. A German veteran of the French Foreign Legion, Meinhard is seemingly a man without a country; a wanderer looking for a place to belong. He is treated with a mix of suspicion and fascination by the Bulgarians, some of whom haven't quite forgotten the scourge of the Nazis from World War II.

The simmering tensions between the German construction workers and the Bulgarians soon threatens to boil over, born of historic mistrust and colonial arrogance. Yet Grisebach flips the genre's formula on its head, never allowing the promised showdown to come to pass. Colonialism in Western is a much more subtle, long-term evil than something so easily settled by a gunfight at the OK Corral.  Her slow-burn direction creates a world where hostility always bubbles just beneath the surface, a kind of cultural alienation belied by the sweeping mountain vistas that pepper the film's landscape like John Ford's beloved Monument Valley locales. Meinhard Neumann's craggy face becomes the perfect, impassive canvas for Grisebach's study of masculinity and its effects on the landscape - brooding, emotionless, a passive observer of a changing world.

Western is a quietly austere inversion of the mythology of the American west that examines its basis in colonialism and cultural annihilation that takes great pleasure in subverting western tropes. It feels organic and lived-in, observational and astute, the kind of slow-burn film that takes some time to settle into, but rewards its viewers' patience in spades. Yet perhaps its most lingering and disquieting idea is that perhaps the western, with its mythical visions of cowboys taming a wild land, wasn't quite as noble and benign as once we imagined; built instead on the celebration of cultural destruction and genocide, transcending cultures and continents, whose effects linger with us still today.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WESTERN | Directed by Valeska Grisebach | Stars  Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifo | Not rated | In German and Bulgarian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Monday, October 22, 2018

It has been 40 years since John Carpenter's original Halloween made the slasher a film a genre all its own, spinning off eight sequels and two remakes, not to mention countless, equally prolific imitators like Friday the 13th.

While Halloween is arguably the best of the slasher genre, its sequels have always lead from behind, allowing its imitators to innovate while Halloween struggled to keep up with the rest of the slasher landscape. Yet one thing that has always separated it from the rest of the pack is the presence of a clear protagonist - Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). While Some of the later sequels abandoned her altogether, her presence was always keenly felt, giving her a daughter who carried the fourth, fifth, and sixth entries, before returning to Laurie for the 20th anniversary film, Halloween H20, in 1998.

Halloween H20 ignored all the sequels except for the original Halloween and its sequel, Halloween II, which took place on the same night as the first film, picking up the moment its predecessor left off. Once again ignoring all previous sequels, David Gordon Greene's Halloween takes the series back to its roots, in the process also throwing out Halloween II as if it never existed. In ret-conning Halloween II, Greene erases the series' most enduring plotline - that Laurie was actually the sister of serial killer Michael Myers, whose guiding motivation was to wipe out his entire family.

That one change brilliantly allows the entire franchise to reset, returning Myers to his most simple and terrifying form - a faceless serial killer who murders without reason or remorse. He is evil incarnate, with no real motivation or guiding philosophy - the kind of evil it is impossible to understand or fight. The resulting film allows the now 60 year old Laurie to confront her traumatizing past once and for all, and the man who changed her life forever 40 years ago.

Halloween is a horror movie for the MeToo era, a brutal reckoning with the legacy of trauma and the collateral damage it inflicts on three generations of women, in the form of Laurie's daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Karen's childhood was also dictated by Laurie's childhood trauma, and when Myers (Nick Castle, who also played the role in the original Halloween), the lines of his mask now reflecting Laurie's own careworn visage, escapes from the asylum that has held him for the last four decades, his ensuing murderous rampage demonstrates that personal trauma has a way of affecting everyone, not just the person to whom it originally happened.

This time Laurie is ready to confront her past head-on, setting the stage for an epic showdown 40 years in the making. It's a near-perfect blend of nostalgia and innovation, updating the concept for the modern era while hewing close to what made the original film so great in the first place. Green's direction is crisp and straightforward, not unlike Carpenter's no-frills thrills from the original film, and the screenplay he co-wrote with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley imbues the concept with not only a sense of humor, but a kind of dramatic weight not often felt in films of this nature. Green deftly switches Laurie and Michael's roles, allowing Laurie to at long last turn the tables and exact her revenge in spectacular fashion on the man whose abuse overshadowed her entire life. And Carpenter returns to provide the score once again - co-written by Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, Carpenter's music takes his iconic theme and turns it into a kind of requiem for a life interrupted, inescapably colliding with the ghosts of the past.

Of course, in the venerable slasher tradition, Halloween leaves the door open for yet another sequel. But here it feels earned, even inevitable - even after Laurie finally puts the trauma of the past behind her, it never really goes away, always waiting just around the corner to rear its ugly head. It's a new Halloween for a new time, a thrilling and emotionally satisfying return to Haddonfield, Illinois that is at long last the sequel that Laurie Strode, and Jamie Lee Curtis, deserved all along.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HALLOWEEN | Directed by David Gordon Green | Stars  Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patto,n Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss | Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

When one thinks about the greatest Italian directors, one often thinks of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti. And yet, of all those filmmakers, Visconti's films remain the least seen and revered in the United States.

Visconti may not have been as prolific as some of his fellow Italians in the cinematic pantheon, and yet his triumphs are among some of the finest films of the period. His most well-known film, The Leopard (1963), his multigenerational family epic, is Italy's answer to Gone with the Wind, a sumptuous and sprawling film that unfolds like a great novel. His 1960 film, Rocco and His Brothers, however, is a different beast altogether. No less grand in emotional scope, but more intimate in focus, Rocco and His Brothers is more reminiscent of the Italian Neorealist movement, of which his contemporary, De Sica, had been at the forefront.

De Sica had moved on to more colorful entertainments like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964) at this point in his career, but the spirit of Neorealism is alive and well in Rocco, bridging the gap between the melodramas that were popular in the 1960s and the gritty naturalism that had preceded them.

Set against a changing social milieu, the film centers around one Italian family moving from their rural home to the big city of Milan, where cultural mores clash with a quickly evolving society. Two brothers become involved with the same woman, and Rocco, the film's de facto guide, finds his moral compass hopelessly broken as he becomes tasked with keeping his family from falling apart.

His inability to budge and adapt eventually leads to the complete dissolution and destruction of the family in an almost operatic allegorical display of familial rot, where Italian society's stifling religious conservatism lead to a strict moral code from which there was seemingly no escape. Yet Visconti never allows his film to descend into histrionics, instead keeping the focus personal in order to heighten its sense of tragedy. Even at nearly three hours long, Rocco and His Brothers is a fleet-footed, intensely realized work, given new life through a pristine 4K transfer now available on Blu-Ray from Milestone Films.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS | Directed by Luchino Visconti | Stars Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, Renato Salvatori, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focás, Rocco Vidolazzi, Claudia Cardinale | In Italian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Milestone Films.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If you've ever spent any time in or around a nursing home, then you're familiar with the air of stagnation that seems to hang over them, as if they are somehow frozen in time, their residents simply existing in a kind of aimless quiescence.

Shevaun Mizrahi's quietly haunting debut documentary, Distant Constellation, both pierces through that illusion and examines its stark realities. Cinema often treats the elderly as sources of kindly wisdom or as adorable curiosities (see the admittedly heartwarming 2007 documentary, Young @ Heart), rarely treating them as fully formed human beings. By setting her film in a nursing home, Mizrahi seemingly sets herself up for a similar scenario - a filmmaker examining the lives of the elderly that is all take and no give, gleaning their wisdom and experience without acknowledging that even by simply observing that she has become a part of their lives.

Distant Constellation shatters that barrier between filmmaker and subject in devastating ways. It's an often overlooked aspect of documentary filmmaking - how does one observe another human being without inherently becoming part of the story themselves? It's impossible, really, but most filmmakers never really allow themselves to go there; the film isn't really about them after all (Judy Irving's 2003 doc, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, is a notable exception - at the film's heartwarming conclusion she announces that she is marrying her eccentric subject, Mark Bittner). There is a moment late in the film in which one of the subjects, a well-read pianist named Roger with a sly penchant for discussing sexual topics, proposes marriage to Mizrahi on camera during an interview, and in that heartbreaking moment the immediacy of what she is doing comes into sharp focus.

For most of the film, Mizrahi allows the residents to speak for themselves, going about their daily routines in an attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy. There's Osep, a once famous Turkish photographer, now trying to keep his art alive from the confines of his room. There's Selma, a centenarian survivor the Armenian genocide, whose vivid memories of its horrors are chilling reminders of human cruelty in a new time of racial intolerance and the demonization of "the other." There's Serkis and Izzet, who enjoy taking the facility's elevator for rides so they can get a bit of peace and quiet to share gossip. But it's that moment with Roger that really sticks in the memory, opening up a whole new facet of the film - here Mizrahi goes from casual observer to active participant, essentially dissolving the wall not only between filmmaker and subject, but between the subject and the audience as well, leaving us to wonder how we affect them by our observation.

Life goes on inside the Turkish nursing facility - residents seemingly trapped in time, all the while the world outside moves on without them, represented by the construction of a nearby skyscraper, dutifully trudging on through the snow as the knowledge and experience of those inside the nursing home fade away into the past. Mizrahi preserves those memories and experiences in Distant Constellation, brilliantly encapsulating the inevitable progression of time and the changes it brings - a world no longer recognized by those who have been in it the longest. You'll find no blind nostalgia here, though. Mizrahi seeks to parse and analyze the experiences of our elders, musing not only about what wisdom they can impart on us, but also what we as a society, and as observers, can do for them? Do we simply let them waste away, forgotten and alone, as time marches on?

That is the poignant core of Mizrahi's altogether extraordinary film, a keenly observed fantasia on the nature of time and memory. Her artful compositions are often breathtaking (she was a photographer before turning to film), finding small moments of beauty and even playfulness where society often sees only petrification and death. "Time waits for no man," goes the old adage, and while that may be true - here, at least for a moment, it stands still long enough to catch its breath. In these all-too-brief 82 minutes, it imparts the wisdom of a lifetime, and discovers new, unexpected insights for an unknown but inevitable future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DISTANT CONSTELLATION | Directed by Shevaun Mizrahi | Not Rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters from Grasshopper Film.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Drew Goddard's sophomore feature film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is as much an amalgam of the film noir genre as his previous feature, The Cabin in the Woods, was of horror films. While not as pointedly referential as The Cabin in the WoodsBad Times at the El Royale is very much a modern film noir in the grand tradition of old Hollywood, bringing old tropes and cliches into a new, stylishly appointed package.

Set in a once glamorous hotel on the border between California and Nevada, Bad Times at the El Royale finds a cast of disparate characters, each with their own secrets, converging in a perfect storm of bad decisions and illegal activity. There's a priest (Jeff Bridges) whose motives may not be as pure as they appear; a singer (Cynthia Erivo) whose experiences lead her not to trust anyone; an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who's deep undercover; and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) with a very complicated past.

Each one of their pasts will catch up with them on their night in the El Royale, and Goddard (who also wrote the screenplay) juggles it all with a sharp sense of visual wit and narrative flair. While the film feels a bit bloated at 142 minutes, the characters he creates are so memorable and the milieu so compelling that it's hard not to become invested in the story. The real strength here is Goddard's screenplay - while it may leave a lot of loose threads, it's so well-written that it almost feels like it would make a better play than a film. These characters and their outlandish situations are almost begging for the stage treatment. Whether they're looking for money, sex, absolution, or simply to be left alone, their bad decisions all have consequences that finally get the best of them in one way or another.

If at times it feels a bit like Tarantino-lite (there are shades of The Hateful Eight here), it's because Goddard borrows from many of the same references. Tarantino, of course, bases most of his films on his own cinematic favorites, and Goddard is no different, taking everything from film noir to Agatha Christie to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and turning it into a neon-lit mystery that feels thoroughly modern.

Goddard's storytelling sensibilities are top notch, even when the film begins to feel too long; his instinct for just how much information to reveal (and how much to keep in the dark) is remarkably sharp, and the result is an engaging thriller whose characters make the overlong film worth the ride.  Add to that some evocative cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey and a disarmingly emotional score by Michael Giacchino, and you have a winning formula that overcomes most of its faults to provide a compelling and thoroughly entertaining yarn.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE | Directed by Drew Goddard | Stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan | Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.