Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The story of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is so outlandish that it can only be a true story, or as the the opening titles promise, "some fo’ real shit."

In the 1970s, a black undercover detective by the name of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who was the first African American to serve on the Colorado Springs Police Force, successfully infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, even going so far as befriend the organization's Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who was in the process of trying to clean up the group's image in order to make his racist rhetoric more palatable to mainstream society.

While Stallworth cultivated his relationship with the Klan over the phone, he is represented in person by his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who had never had to reckon with his own Jewish identity until confronted with the klansmen's unmitigated hate for Jews. Together, they uncover a terrorist plot that threatens the local black community, as a local student advocate group's vocal opposition to white supremacist policies makes them a target for the KKK.

Stallworth went on to write a book about his experiences, which has now been adapted into a ferocious new film by Spike Lee that feels very much like the movie of our moment. BlacKkKlansman is a film steeped in the righteous anger of a man who can't believe that we're still having to fight the same battles in 2018 as we did in the 1970s and beyond. Lee's use of footage from films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) remind us just how deeply engrained racism and the romanticization of the mythic "lost cause" of the Confederacy are in our culture, dismantling the idea of a post-racial society with a blunt force instrument.

BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle film, but Lee has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. It is clear that he has neither the time nor the inclination to tiptoe around the issue at hand. This an angry film, a bold work of cinematic sturm und drang that feels like a howl of fury into a raging maelstrom. Lee draws direct parallels to Duke's campaign for a more respectable, less overtly racist KKK to the rise of Donald Trump and the resurgence of white nationalism since the 2016 election, an idea scoffed at by characters in the film that has since become all too real.

This is a radical, impassioned, brilliant work that is as much as essential portrait of our time as it is an historical document. Lee blends action, comedy, drama, and documentary styles into a wildly entertaining and deeply disturbing treatise on America's racist history and our current political climate, borne of a refusal to confront and deal with our own racist past. It is Lee's most crucial statement as an artist, as if it is seemingly the culmination of a life's work of exploring black identity in America. It has the markings of a new American classic, a vibrant and vital portrait of American hate. Rarely has a film been so painful, so raw, and yet so full of life. BlacKkKlansman is unmistakably the work of a major filmmaker working at the peak of his talents, a haunting and harrowing letter to a racist nation that lands with all the devastating power of a nuclear bomb.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

BLACKKKLANSMAN | Directed by Spike Lee | Stars  John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Ashlie Atkinson, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin | Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Contrary to what its title (and plot synopsis) might lead one to believe, Mark Rydell's Cinderella Liberty is not a Cinderella story.  The central character may resemble the "whore with a heart of gold" cliché, you'll find no redemption rags-to-riches stories here.

The title in fact refers to a specific type of military leave, granted to John Baggs Jr. (James Caan), a Navy seaman on shore leave suffering from a minor health issue and a giant paperwork mishap that causes him to miss his next deployment. Only allowed out of the hospital until midnight, he meets a beautiful barroom hustler named Maggie (Marsha Mason) for what he thinks will be a one-night stand. But when he finds that she has a young son at home with a head full of rotten teeth and a severe case of anger management issues, he takes a deeper interest in Maggie's life. He decides to take the boy under his wing, taking responsibility for his and Maggie's wellbeing, in hopes to one rescue her from her life of prostitution, and boy from his beer-swilling, tobacco-chewing lack of parental guidance.

Mason went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for raw performance as Maggie (John Williams' folksy score was likewise nominated for an Oscar that year), but the real heart and soul of the picture is Baggs' relationship with young Doug (Kirk Calloway). Much is made of Doug's mixed race in the film, as if that somehow made Maggie's sexual escapades more egregious. Thankfully, Rydell avoids the implicit racism of the screenplay's attitude toward Doug by completely un-senimentalizing the character. Doug will indeed face a harder life in the 70s due to his mixed race and social standing, and Rydell treats the character with empathy rather than judgement, even when he seems to do the opposite with Maggie's character.

Maggie is not, as stated earlier, a whore with a heart of gold, and despite John's best efforts to change her, she may be too far gone in a lifestyle of self-absorption born of poverty and desperation. The proceedings are given a kind of gritty, grounded look by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), who brings the streets of Seattle to dreary, seedy life. There's nothing glamorized or romanticized about Cinderella Liberty. It is awash in shades of gray and brown and set amidst a series of dirty bars, adult book stores, and porn theaters that make up its characters' daily reality. Adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who also gave us another film about Naval leave the same year - Hal Ashby's masterpiece, The Last Detail), Cinderella Liberty feels grounded and lived in, but its characters often feel inconsistent. Traits are picked up then dropped, decisions are made seemingly at random, and grudges are quickly reversed. If this is to reflect the often messy nature of human interaction, it only works to a certain degree, instead coming across as narrative shorthand rather than believable characterization.

It's this scattershot attention to plotting that really holds the film back. Cinderella Liberty is filled with lovely moments that never quite add up a one satisfying whole. And its overly sentimental ending undoes the harsh realities that it dwelled in previously. Its three central performances, especially that of a beautifully understated James Caan, hold the film together nicely, but it never really comes together in a way that takes it to the next level.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

CINDERELLA LIBERTY | Directed by Mark Rydell | Stars James Caan, Marsha Mason, Kirk Calloway, Eli Wallach, Burt Young | Rated R | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time

Monday, August 13, 2018

Ever since Steven Spielberg's Jaws made audiences afraid to go in the water back in 1975, Hollywood has been trying to recapture the shark attack magic with little success. There's something primal and terrifying about the idea of real life flesh eating monsters swimming in the vast, unknown expanses of our oceans, mindlessly eating whatever unsuspecting victim may wander into its hunting grounds. Sharks are eating machines, incapable of feeling or remorse, intent on one thing - to feed itself and make more sharks.

This has led them to become one of Hollywood's favorite boogeymen, leading to such films as Deep Blue Sea, Shark Night, The Shallows, 47 Meters Down. None of them, however, have managed to conjure that same sense of deep-seated terror (the closest was 2003's low-budget thriller, Open Water), so the recent trend has been to plant tongue firmly in cheek, as evidenced by the success of the ubiquitous (and purposefully goofy) Sharknado franchise on the SyFy network. It is into that self-aware atmosphere that Jon Turteltaub's The Meg arrives. Turteltaub, perhaps best known for his work on the National Treasure films (not to mention Disney's Cool Runnings), is no stranger to self-mocking adventure films, and on paper The Meg looks like another over-the-top summer popcorn film with nothing but some cheesy thrills on its mind.

Unfortunately, the film is plagued by a truly awful, paint-by-numbers script that is credited to no less than 4 screenwriters who seem to have written it by committee. The Meg is filled with groan-worthy dialogue and paper-thin characters built on flimsy exposition and lame one-liners (none of which have the climactic punch of Chief Brody's "smile you son of a -" from Jaws). Not even the presence of action movie stalwart Jason Statham as a deep-sea rescuer facing down a giant, prehistoric shark known as a megalodon can save the film from its pacing issues and uninteresting characters.

Statham growls and glowers his way through some of the film's most painfully contrived dialogue for over an hour before the massive shark ever reaches the shore, doing battle with the creature on the high seas in a similar showdown to the final half of Jaws. The problem is the 113 minute film actually feels much longer, and spends way too much time trying to get to know the shark-bait characters before they're inevitably eaten by the film's antagonist. But instead of giving us characters worth caring about, The Meg paints them in the broadest possible terms, peddling in cliches and eccentricities rather than anything resembling actual feeling.

It's painful watching the cast wade through such murky dialogue and awkward exposition for a film that's little more than a big budget B-movie  that doesn't even have the "so-bad-it's-good" entertainment value of the Sharknado films. It's neither silly enough to work as a comedy nor serious enough to be really suspenseful, instead it is made up of pieces of much better films that it hurls into the water like so much chum, hoping unsuspecting audiences will take a bite.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE MEG | Directed by Jon Turteltaub | Stars Jason Statham, Ruby Rose, Jessica McNamee, Robert Taylor, Rainn Wilson, Li Bingbing, Cliff Curtis, Masi Oka, Page Kennedy, Winston Chao | Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

There is perhaps no more awkward time in a person's life than middle school. Whether you were a popular kid, an outcast, a nerd, a jock, or any manner of middle school stereotypes, awkwardness is just part of the package of the early teen years. As such, Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade will likely hit painfully close to home for many.

Thankfully for those of my generation, having attended middle school in the late 90s, smart phones weren't around to record our awkwardness and preserve it for posterity. That isn't a luxury anymore, and Eighth Grade immerses us into the life of 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth grader on the cusp of high school, whose buoyant YouTube channel showcases a confident and exuberant personality that is merely a mask for the shy and insecure girl she is in reality.

She watches makeup tutorials to present a picture-perfect version of herself online, in reality she is frumpy and gawky, all slumped shoulders and uncovered acne. She is every bit the typical teenager, constantly embarrassed by her loving but chronically uncool dad (Josh Hamilton), while suffering from raging hormones and a changing body that is growing far too fast for her mind to keep up. And even though she longs to be popular, she can't quite get passed her own awkwardness to approach the cool girls in school, even after being invited to a pool party at the house of the eighth grade's resident "mean girl," who just got voted "best eyes" in the school, but you'd never know it since she never looks up from her phone.

It is here where Kayla first encounters Aiden (Luke Prael), school hunk and male winner of the "Best Eyes" class superlative award, and Gabe (Jake Ryan), her male equal in awkwardness. While Kayla spends time trying to get Aiden's attention (who, rumor has it, only dates girls who send nude pics), hang out with older kids, and convince the world that she's "cool," she soon begins to realize that the world doesn't end in eighth grade,

Writer/director Burnham expertly handles thorny issues of sexuality, self-worth, and staying true to yourself even when you don't yet know who that is. What makes Eighth Grade so extraordinary is just how authentic it feels. It doesn't feel like a movie made by adults trying to understand "kids these days," nor does it feel like an after school special trying to mine soapy melodrama from issues kids face every day. Thanks to Burnham's compassionate and deeply human screenplay, along with the marvelously lived in performance of young Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade is a fly-on-the-wall look at life as lived by actual 13-year-olds that is at once hilarious, cringe-inducing, and achingly empathetic.

Burnham so perfectly nails the agonizing beauty of growing up that the film is often difficult to watch, but it's never less than a rewarding experience. It is an impressive and assured directorial debut that not only makes us thankful that middle school is firmly in the rearview mirror, but finds a powerful truth in the human experience of crafting one's identity in a digital world - even when social media pressures us into a new kind of "keeping up with the joneses" at younger and younger ages, kindness is still the coolest character trait of all.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

EIGHTH GRADE | Directed by Bo Burnham | Stars Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael | Rated R for language and some sexual material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have always been strangely overlooked in the United States. If it weren't for Martin Scorsese's championing of films like The Red Shoes, it's unlikely they would be as well known as they are, but since they are British films rather than Hollywood productions, you don't often hear them mentioned alongside contemporary Hollywood hits like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz

Yet Powell and Pressburger, collectively known as The Archers, were making films that were every bit the equal of those Hollywood classics, infusing classical storytelling techniques with wartime angst and lush Technicolor cinematography. A Matter of Life and Death was made in 1946, just after the end of WWII and at the heigh of the Archer's creative run that also included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

After the wartime, morale-boosting successes of Colonel BlimpA Canterbury Tale, and I Know Where I'm Going, The British Ministry of Information approached Powell and Pressburger, requesting they make a film that celebrated the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. The result was A Matter of Life and Death (also known as Stairway to Heaven for its American release), a film designed to improve relations with the US during the postwar period. At its core is a love story between a Peter (David Niven), a British pilot who has been shot down over enemy territory, and June (Kim Hunter), an American dispatcher who hears his final words over the radio.

Peter, however, does not die; instead he miraculously lands in the ocean and washes up on the British shores. Once home, he seeks June out, and the two fall madly in love, sharing a deep connection borne from Peter's near-death experience. There is only one problem - he actually was supposed to die that night, but due to a Heavenly error, he was accidentally left on Earth. When his "conductor" (Marius Goring) returns for his soul, Peter refuses, saying that while he was ready to die during the war, circumstances have changed due to his newfound relationship with June, and he wishes to remain alive. He files an appeal with the Heavenly court in order to grant himself an extension to continue his newfound love with June with a new lease on life.

Powell and Pressburger never explicitly tell us whether the climactic trial is real or a product of Peter's mind resulting from a traumatic brain injury following his near-death experience. While the word is never said out loud, his symptoms are that of epilepsy, leaving room for doubt as to the veracity of what we're seeing on screen. That's part of the magic of A Matter of Life and Death, no matter what you choose to believe, it's still a beautiful tale of the perseverance of love in the face of death. The Archers chose to shoot Heaven in stark black and white, while the scenes on earth are in glorious Technicolor. Powell later explained this was to subvert audience expectations, but it also gives Peter and June something beautiful enough that they would want to resist Heaven to stay behind.

And what breathtaking Technicolor it is. This film marked legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff's first solo effort, and he masterfully transitions between the color and black & white sequences using some truly jaw-dropping fades that would be difficult to pull off now without the aid of computer effects. The film even makes tongue-in-cheek mention of it, as the angelic Conductor 71 laments that "one is starved for Technicolor up there." And it's easy to see why - every shot of this thing is a marvel, achieving such a vibrant depth of color that it almost makes modern cinema seem drab in comparison. Cardiff's mastery was apparent right out of the gate, and the range of color in the new 4K restoration on the Criterion Blu-Ray is simply breathtaking.

Yet what makes A Matter of Life and Death so resonant now is that trial sequence, in which an American prosecutor (Raymond Massey), still upset about being shot down by a British soldier during the American Revolution, spars with Peter's defense attorney (Roger Livesey) over Peter's fate on Earth. This is where the special relationship comes into sharp focus, as the prosecutor seeks to dismiss the British character, and the defense seeks to strengthen its bond with the Americans. It is here that, when confronted with a jury made up of representatives from British colonies, that the defense demand a jury of Americans. When they arrive, each and every one is an immigrant - black, Asian, Native American, Italian, Indian, representing an American melting pot in a way that is surprisingly diverse for 1946, but is especially moving today. Powell and Pressburger had a special affinity for America, and their tribute to its ideals in A Matter of Life and Death mark some of their most deeply meaningful work.

Whether it is a supernatural romance, or a metaphor for a man clinging to life after a traumatic injury, A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable, magical realist fable, one in which the "love at first sight" catalyst never feels hokey or contrived. The films of The Archers often feel like the Golden Age of Hollywood at its peak, yet somehow better, more connected with their characters, and more emotionally grounded. Powell and Pressburger created magic with shadows and light, and in A Matter of Life and Death, they created a love story for the ages, that not only reinforced the strength of the special relationship between England and America, but in the American ideal itself. It may be a cliché to say at this point, but they really don't make them like this anymore.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH | Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | Stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack 
  • Interview from 2008 with filmmaker Martin Scorsese 
  • Audio commentary from 2009 featuring film scholar Ian Christie 
  • New interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, director Michael Powell’s widow 
  • New short documentary on the film’s special effects featuring film historian Craig Barron and visual-effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw 
  • The Colour Merchant, a 1998 short film featuring cinematographer Jack Cardiff 
  • The South Bank Show: “Michael Powell,” a 1986 television program featuring Powell 
  • Restoration demonstration 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Despite having earned widespread acclaim for films such as Nobody Knows and Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1995 debut feature film, Maborosi, has seemingly been forgotten by western audiences. After winning the coveted Palme d’Or just this year for his latest film, Shoplifters, Maborosi has come back into focus thanks to a beautiful new Blu-Ray edition from Milestone Films.

While family dramas like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son have established Kore-eda as seemingly the heir apparent to Yasijiro Ozu, Maborosi is something of a different animal. There are flashes of Ozu's thematic interests here, but Kore-eda has something else in mind. Following a young woman mourning the sudden death of her husband, Maborosi is more of a mournful mood piece than a family drama. Quiet and hushed, more is said between lines of dialogue than is ever actually spoken aloud. Haunted not just by the death of her husband, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is also plagued by memories of the death of her grandmother, who wandered off from home to die when Yumiko was very young.

Her husband's sudden departure by apparent suicide brings that tragedy back into sharp focus, leaving Yumiko to piece her life back together by retreating to the coast with her young son. Much of the drama is internalized, and Kore-eda allows the silences and spaces between words to carry much of the weight. His static mise en scène and sense of hushed introspection recalls Hou Hsiao-Hsien moreso than Ozu. Although Kore-eda's style continued to evolve, there's something remarkably powerful and assured about Maborosi. It explores ideas of shared pain and cyclical grief, as Yumiko's past becomes a fresh source of pain through her tragedies in the present.

"It's harder to say goodbye if we keep postponing it." Yumiko laments at one point. Her inability to let go of the past leaves her unable to deal with the problems of the present. Kore-eda's camera deftly captures that sense of isolation and loneliness through precise framing and stark lighting contrasts, casting Yumiko as a woman in the shadows, surrounded by light she can never quite reach.

Maborosi is a film of feelings and textures that establishes character without the need for traditional plot structures. Kore-eda masterfully builds dramatic tension through glances and silences to suggest his lead character's inner turmoil, leading to a film that beautifully embodies the soul crushing nature of grief. It's a noteworthy debut for a significant filmmaker, who continues to grow and redefine himself as an artist with a singular yet versatile voice.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MABOROSI | Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda | Stars Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naito, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe, Midori Kiuchi | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Milestone Films

Special features include:
  • Commentary by Linda Ehrlich, independent film scholar and Associate Professor Emerita from Case Western Reserve University with special thanks to Yuki Togawa Gergotz. 
  • Birthplace, a video documentary with actress Makiko Esumi.
  • New English subtitles by Linda Hoaglund with Judith Aley, and the assistance of Linda Ehrlich. 

Friday, August 03, 2018

Nostalgia is the focus of Disney's new live action Christopher Robin, which imagines the titular character's drab adulthood after leaving behind the Hundred Acre Wood and his beloved friends, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, and Owl. 

Taking its cues from Steven Spielberg's HookChristopher Robin finds Robin (Ewan McGregor) toiling away as a middle manager for a luggage company in the days after World War I, his life now devoid of the magic and wonder it once held for him as a child. When his boss forces him to forgo a vacation with his wife and daughter in order to come up with a plan to save the struggling company, Robin begins to despair. That  is until Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) shows up to ask Robin to return with him to the Hundred Acre Wood to help find his missing pals. Resistant at first, Robin soon finds himself on a glorious adventure back to his childhood, reuniting him with his friends and reminding him what life is all about in the first place.

As Christopher Robin whisks its hero back to his childhood, so too does it transport the audience to a simpler time. Fans of Winnie the Pooh will find quite a bit to love here, from Cummings' lovely performance as Pooh, a role he's been playing in animated Disney films for decades, to Brad Garrett's wonderfully droll Eeyore. The score by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion pays loving homage to the classic original songs by the Sherman Brothers from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Richard M. Sherman also penned 3 new songs for the film), setting the film firmly in the world audiences have grown to know and love for generations.

On the other hand, the screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder plays it just a little too safe, never acknowledging what the original film seemed to make quite clear - that Pooh and the gang are stuffed animals that only come to life in Christopher Robin's imagination. In doing so, it seems to miss a perfect opportunity to explore Robin's relationship to his childhood, and reawakening the fantasy and wonder that stems from the imagination. Instead, it goes for a rather familiar plot line that borrows liberally from Hook and even Disney's own Mary Poppins (which is about to get its own belated sequel in the form of Mary Poppins Returns this December).

Still, the screenplay features many charming moments, sensitively directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), a filmmaker who is no stranger to the nostalgic weepie. It is somehow fitting, given that the original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was an episodic adventure that featured no overarching plot (it was mostly stitched together from previously released short films). Perry, McCarthy, and Schroeder allow the relationship between Pooh and Christopher Robin to take center stage, and Cummings gamely steals the show as the ever-hungry "silly old bear." His scenes with Christopher Robin, especially in their escapades through London, are the beating heart of the film, both warmly funny and disarmingly moving.

There's something hauntingly elegiac about Christopher Robin, almost if it is somehow as much about putting aside childish things as it is about recapturing one's childhood. In the end, it's really about finding a balance between the two, but there are moments, especially in the first half of the film, that feel almost transcendent in their gossamer beauty. It may not reach the heights of the other cute stuffed bear that came out this year (Paddington 2), but its warmhearted embrace of its classic characters and their importance in the lives of so many elevates it above last year's Goodbye, Christopher Robin, which offered a much darker take on the story of the real-life Christopher Robin. Time spent in the company of Pooh is never wasted, and Christopher Robin isn't perfect, it is nevertheless a welcome and beguiling return to the world of the Hundred Acre Wood.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN | Directed by Marc Forster | Stars Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones | Rated PG for some action | Opens today, 8/3, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

American audiences are probably most familiar with the China's wuxia genre through Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which sparked something of a modern revival for the genre in the early 2000s, leading to such films as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower.

Wuxia, which translates to "martial heroes," is in no way a new genre, dating back over 2,000 years as both oral tradition and literature. It continued well into the 20th century as a popular cinematic medium in China, but the genre really came into its own in the 1960s under the direction of legendary filmmaker, King Hu, who pioneered the idea of action choreography. Hu not only refined the ancient tales through cinematic craft, he also changed the way action films were made - his action sequences were more disciplined, more tightly crafted than much of what had come before, grounding the violence in real-world consequences. Dragon Inn was his first film after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and it breathed new life into the wuxia genre in ways that are still influencing filmmakers today, from Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou to Tsai Ming-Liang (who paid tribute to the film in his elegiac masterpiece, Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed liberally from it in both Kill Bill - Vol. 1 and The Hateful Eight.

Dragon Inn's influence over The Hateful Eight is especially interesting, considering how much it shares in common with the western genre of its time. Yet, unlike the Japanese samurai films from which westerns were borrowing around the time for their lone gunslinger myths (and vice versa), Hu crafted a film for which there is no leading role, and the heroes only achieve their goals by working together. The film is set mostly in the eponymous inn, where disparate ruffians, soldiers, and mercenaries converge to intercept a family of prisoners being transported to their exile after the death of their father, a decorated general, at the hands of a ruthless eunuch who usurped power in the region.

Hu provides enough back story in the film's prologue to fill an entire other film, chronicling the rise of the eunuchs and the splintering of the army into warring factions. It's a lot of information to absorb, but the film quickly establishes that this is all secondary to the interpersonal conflict that unfolds within the confines of the inn. While the eunuch, Tsao (Pai Ying), sends his soldiers to murder the children of General Yao to quell any potential uprising, several groups of lone freedom fighters also appear at the inn in order to protect them. The brilliance of Dragon Inn is that none of them know who each other is, and friend and foe alike are pitted against each other from the moment they walk in the door.

Before they engage in psychical violence, however, they must first engage in a battle of wits, subtly testing each other to see on what side their allegiance lies. Hu builds most of the film's suspense out of these encounters, as the characters attempt to root each other out through wordplay, charm, intimidation, and even poisoning, showing the audience his hand but never allowing the characters to know what is really going on. It's a very Hitchcockian technique, and by the time the film erupts into violence in its third act, Hu has so thoroughly wound up the tension that the entire films seems to be balancing on a knife's edge. Hu makes the transition by bursting out of the drab confines of the inn into the the colorful landscapes that surround it, the film's color scheme suddenly reflecting its own kinetic energy.

As the film wears on, Dragon Inn becomes more impressionistic, almost abstract, in the way that it not only depicts the final showdown between the heroes and the villainous eunuch, but in how it expresses the inner turmoil of the characters. It's a sight to behold, tightly choreographed and beautifully shot, establishing Hu as a true master of the cinematic language. If the film is unfamiliar to western audiences, surely that is because it has been widely unavailable on home video until the release of the new Criterion Blu-Ray that, while relatively light on special features, features a truly stunning 4K digital restoration. It is a bold step into the 21st century for a wuxia classic whose influence continues to be keenly felt in modern cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack 
  • New interview with actor Shangkuan Ling-fung 
  • Interview from 2016 with actor Shih Chun 
  • New scene analysis by author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix 
  • Newsreel footage of the film’s 1967 premiere in Taipei, Taiwan 
  • Trailer 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Andrew Chan

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tom Cruise might be insane. And I'm not talking about the "couch-jumping scientologist" brand of insane, I mean that if Mission: Impossible - Fallout is any indication, I'm not entirely sure that the man has any regard for life and limb. Cruise has become known for personally performing death-defying stunts without a double in the Mission: Impossible films, and he once again outdoes himself in the series' sixth entry, Fallout, which finds him skydiving and dangling from helicopters as he seeks to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.

The film deals directly with the, ahem, fallout from the last film, Rogue Nation, bringing back international terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as the catalyst for a plot to bring down the global world order and reshape society as we know it. The splintered remnants of Lane's group, now known as The Apostles, intends to obtain stolen Russian plutonium in order to detonate two nuclear weapons at unknown locations, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is called in to stop him. This time, however, he is joined by CIA operative, August Walker (Henry Cavill), who is assigned to keep an eye on him after a mission goes wrong. As they get closer to their target, however, the lines between who is a friend and who is a foe become increasingly blurred, and it isn't long before no one can be trusted.

Fallout marks the second film in the series directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who is now the only filmmaker to helm more than one Mission: Impossible film. Yet it is clear that he and Cruise work well together, and in continuing the story from Rogue Nation, it allows both actor and filmmaker to deepen the story they started in 2015. And what a story it is - the amount of sustained tension that McQuarrie is able to create is stunning, just when you think that the film must be reaching its climax, it hits you with yet another escalation, and it does so without sacrificing pacing or character. McQuarrie, along with cinematographer Rob Hardy (Annihilation), allow the camera to explore the space within the frame in spectacular ways, each shot and each cut seemingly precision crafted for maximum suspense.

Cruise's stunt work is also every bit as jaw-dropping as advertised, and it adds a level of authenticity to the film that sets Fallout apart from the over reliance on CGI that plagues much of its action movie brethren. It is Cruise's dedication, and McQuarrie's sharp eye for visual storytelling, that make the film such a resounding success. For a franchise that is now 22 years old and on its 6th film (with a seemingly ageless action star now approaching 60), Mission: Impossible is showing no signs of slowing down or slipping into irrelevance. This is top-tier action filmmaking, the kind of no-holds-barred, balls-to-the-wall extravaganza that manages to root its spectacle in actual human emotion, justifying its excesses by fully committing to their high stakes.

We've come along way since the more cerebral spy movie roots of Brian De Palma's original Mission: Impossible (1996), but McQuarrie and Cruise have continued to build upon a successful formula in ways that deliver real summer movie thrills that prove you don't have to sacrifice soul to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT | Directed by Christopher McQuarrie | Stars Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Frederick Schmidt, Kristoffer Joner, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley | Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Under Capricorn is likely not the first film that comes to mind when one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock, yet it says something about the man's talent when a film this good is among his worst films. I use the term "worst" in comparison with the rest of his stellar filmography, because Under Capricorn is by no means a bad film, but it doesn't quite measure up to the master's greatest triumphs.

It often feels like Hitchcock on autopilot, perhaps due to the similarity of its plot to the director's own Rebecca from 9 years earlier, the only Hitchcock film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Set in Australia in 1831, Under Capricorn stars Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta Flusky, the wife of a former convict turned wealthy landowner named Sam (Joseph Cotten) who begins to fall for Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), charming Irishman who has immigrated to the continent to begin a new life in the territory governed by his uncle. Charles is instantly drawn to the enigmatic Henrietta, but her alcoholism hides a dark secret, jealously guarded by her jealous housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) who may or may not harbor feelings of her own for Sam.

Although the film was based on a novel by Helen Simpson, which was then adapted into a play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, the jealous housekeeper subplot feels like reheated leftovers from the superior Rebecca. That doesn't stop Bergman delivering a fiery performance as a woman saddled with a lifetime of guilt whose only release is through a bottle. Under Capricorn is also one of Hitchcock's most beautiful films, mostly due to the work of legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes). Cardiff's trademark Technicolor brilliance paints the screen with vibrant colors, stunningly rendered in the 4K restoration featured on the new Blu-Ray edition from Kino Lorber, which at last rescues the film from bleary obscurity.

Cardiff, perhaps the greatest cinematographer of all time, who brought such breathtaking life to the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, seems a perfect fit for Hitchcock's period aesthetic, as the two explore more of the single-take shots that defined Rope just one year prior. This style ultimately proved too difficult for the world of Under Capricorn, but the film does feature some striking tracking shots  that pull us seamlessly into the world of 19th century Australia, when the veneer of high society barely masked the young nation's troubled roots, whose citizens seek an escape from their reputation as a nation of criminals.

There's certainly a lot to admire here. While the film was marketed as yet another Hitchcock murder mystery, Hitch himself envisioned it as a drama, and constantly pulls the focus toward the inner life of his characters. In the end, it was yet another box office failure for the master of suspense in a string of flops, but part of that can be attributed to the film's misleading marketing. Hitchcock was trying something new here, a melodrama where the terror comes from within, from the rot created by burying secrets, both for Henrietta and for the nation of Australia as a whole. But despite its sumptuous stylistic departure, it never quite escapes the feeling that we've seen Hitchcock tackle similar themes in superior ways, and Under Capricorn deservedly takes a back seat to some of his more well known masterpieces.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

UNDER CAPRICORN | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Stars Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O'Dea | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Despite having been released in 1958, William Wyler's epic western, The Big Country, feels like a very modern rebuke of toxic masculinity. Gregory Peck stars as James McKay, a former ship captain who moves out west at the end of the Civil War, bringing with him a very different way of life to a foreign and unfamiliar territory.

It is immediately that he does not fit in, making enemies of a suspicious ranch hand (Charlton Heston), and finding himself drawn into a bitter land dispute by his fiancee, Pat (Carroll Baker), whose father, Major Henry Terrill (Burl Ives), is a wealthy cattle baron. McKay's peaceful ways and his family loyalties are soon put to the test as the Terrills go to war over their land, leading to a violent confrontation that will change them all.

Few actors have ever embodied quiet masculine dignity quite like Gregory Peck. Like his iconic Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, McKay is a man looking for an alternate path, a calm, clear-headed man of principle who refuses to be swayed by the lawlessness of his environment. William Wyler directs the film with an appropriate sweep and grandeur, in keeping with the western standards of the day. And yet, Wyler has something else on his mind besides mere spectacle. It is a big country indeed, and it often dwarfs the figures Wyler places in the frame. Wyler subverts the western archetype of the lone gunslinger by making the lone gunslinger figure a pacifist. And although he does get into a few scuffles (including one memorable knock-down, drag-out brawl with Charlton Heston), it is ultimately his philosophy that wins the day in the face of violence and hatred.

The Big Country is perhaps one of the finest Hollywood westerns of the period. Wyler explores themes of violence, pacifism, and the ripple effects of both, asking whether or not violence has any purpose in a modern, civilized world.  The film looks especially good on the new Blu-Ray release from Kino Lorber, which does justice to the scope of Franz Planer's breathtaking cinematography, making it an easy purchase to recommend. Here, Wyler showcases our own big country by demonstrating just how very small we are in comparison, the violent struggles of a few mere blips on the face of the sprawling landscape.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE BIG COUNTRY | Directed by William Wyler | Stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The problem with jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and by extension, its new sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is that rather than flowing naturally from the story, the songs often feel shoe-horned in, as if the story is there to serve them rather than the other way around. Naturally, the draw of the Mamma Mia! films are the songs by Swedish pop group, ABBA. If that's the main draw bringing you to Here We Go Again, then you likely won't be disappointed, as it combines songs from the musical with other ABBA songs not previously heard in the original film.

The plot, interestingly enough, takes its cues from The Godfather Part II, juxtaposing the journey of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) with that of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), as a young woman (Lily James). Donna, you see, has passed away since we last saw her, and Sophie is attempting to complete her mother's dream of renovating her Grecian hotel in her memory. As Donna's best friends (Julie Walters, Christine Baranski) and Sophie's three fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård) descend on the island to celebrate Donna's life, the film flashes back to tell the story of how Donna met all three men, and came to be in possession of the building in the first place.

The film drags for most of its nearly 2-hour running time, getting bogged down in a story that we already pretty much know the ending of. It is admittedly better directed than the original Mamma Mia!, which lacked both personality and visual panache, but what Here We Go Again has in technical prowess it lacks in storytelling and writing. The songs don't seem to fit the narrative at all, and what tenuous connections they do share with the plot seem forced. Its lack of Meryl Streep is also one of its major weaknesses, although when she finally does show up at the end of the film, the film wisely makes the most of her limited screen time. The film is really only worth watching for Cher as Sophie's long-lost grandmother, who doesn't even show up until the film is almost over.

In fact, it isn't until Cher's arrival on the island that the film becomes the kooky, campy free-for-all that it always should have been. One has to commend director Ol Parker (Imagine Me & You) for attempting to keep the film grounded in something resembling real emotion, but it is only when he lets the film veer into spectacularly gaudy musical mayhem in its final 15 minutes that it really begins to soar. Watching Cher belt out ABBA tunes surrounded by fireworks and glitter is easily the highlight of the film, and she proves that even at 72 years old she's still got presence and charisma to spare.

If only the film had managed to muster up that kind of energy in the previous hour-and-a-half. Here We Go Again may not be as insufferably bubbly as its predecessor, but it also never really justifies a reason for existing, either. It mostly feels like a greatest hits album from Mamma Mia! minus Meryl and plus Cher, although Cher isn't in it nearly enough to save the film. Fans of the original may find something to love here, but otherwise it's just a tidied-up version of something we've seen before. "Here we go again," indeed.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN | Directed by Ol Parker | Stars Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Cher, Meryl Streep | Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp, the third Marvel film to be released this year, is something of a light-hearted breather for the studio after the gravity of Black Panther and the apocalyptic destruction of Avengers: Infinity War. By contrast, Ant-Man and the Wasp is an agreeably small-scale heist movie that shies away from the weighty themes of 2018's other Marvel films.

It's also, almost by its very nature, the lesser of the three films. 2015's Ant-Man was something of a surprise, and fun and funny romp that remains one of Marvel's best. Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn't quite reach those heights, that doesn't mean it isn't without its particular charms. Picking up in the aftermath of 2016's Captain America: Civil War, the film finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest for the destructive events that happened in Germany during Civil War. His mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), are both in hiding from the authorities, working on a new project to save Hank's wife (and Hope's mother), Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfieffer) from the Quantum Realm, where she was trapped 30 years before after shrinking down too far.

But someone else is also seeking the same technology sought by Pym and Van Dyne - someone who has been phasing in and out of the Quantum Realm since childhood, and will do anything it takes to steam Pym's inventions and stop them from rescuing Janet in order to save her own life. So Scott gets called back into action as Ant-Man once again, but his adventure could cost him his freedom, and possibly even more.

Director Peyton Reed retains the light touch evident in the original, making Ant-Man and the Wasp a clever and breezy adventure. While nothing can top the climactic battle atop a Thomas the Tank Engine playset from the original film, the car chase near the end of the film featuring a giant Pez dispenser is a lot of fun. The problem is that it has quite a few pacing issues, cutting narrative corners in the name of storytelling economy but sacrificing a natural flow. Scenes often abruptly cut away from harrowing moments only to show the characters totally safe a split second later. It's often jarring, and makes the film feel strangely off-kilter.

On the other hand, Evangeline Lilly really comes into her own as The Wasp, actually becoming a more interesting hero than Ant-Man, and the film's villain joins Black Panther's Killmonger and Infinity War's Thanos as sympathetic villains with understandable, if misguided, goals. The now requisite end-credits stinger also explains where our heroes are during Thanos' purge at the end of Infinity War, and sets up some major questions for that film's as-yet-untitled sequel.

Marvel's 10th year has been a banner year for the studio. While Ant-Man and the Wasp  may not quite stack up to the rest of their 2018 output, it nevertheless offers a brief and entertaining respite from the seriousness that has dominated its more recent films. While it might not satisfy fans looking for more definitive clues as to the future of the franchise, it serves as a nice lighthearted breather before what promises to be an epic and potentially devastating finale for the most recent phase of films.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP | Directed by Peyton Reed | Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne | Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.