Thursday, July 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

It's almost incredible watching John Cameron Mitchell's scorching debut film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in 2019. How could something that still feels so prescient, transgressive, and forward-thinking be nearly 20 years old? Even by modern standards, this modern classic of queer cinema feels at once subversive and progressive, offering a bold vision of gender fluidity and identity that paints a much more complex portrait of masculinity and femininity than we are often given on Twitter.

That's because Hedwig (Mitchell), the victim of a botched back-alley gender-reassignment surgery in East Germany (undergone at the behest of an American GI who discovers that he can only marry young Hansel and take him back to America if he's a woman), is neither full transgender or cisgender. True, she undergoes gender-reassignment, but since she didn't really want it, can she truly be called trans? Or is she in reality a cisgender gay man? Hedwig is unclassifiable, and that's what makes her so emblematic of the core of human sexuality - it's impossible to put Hedwig in a box.

That may be seen as a problematic liability in 2019, at a time when defining ourselves is an essential component for demanding recognition and rights. Hedwig defies classification, a bold, brassy example of gender fuckery that can't quite be defined. Yet Hedwig and the Angry Inch  a rock musical co-written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, seeks to break down those barriers and explore the spaces between classical definitions of male and female. If gender truly is a social construct, then Hedwig seeks to tear it all down, dismantling the very concept of gender into a bold new queer frontier where anyone can be whatever they want to be. The definition of Hedwig lies both in the eye of the beholder, belonging simultaneously to gay, trans, and genderqueer audiences as one of their own, but she also exists for those who aren't sure what they are or where they fit in. She defies even the classifications from within the queer community, making her perhaps one of the most uniquely queer figures in popular culture.

It began as on off-broadway underground musical in 1998 before getting the big screen treatment in 2001, and Mitchell deftly avoids many of the pitfalls that often befall stage musicals adapted to the screen. It's a flashback heavy film, using Hedwig's tour of a series of low-rent seafood joints in pursuit of her one-time lover turned teen idol rock star who absconded with all her songs as a device to explore her backstory. Yet the songs never feel like we're ponderously spinning our wheels in perpetual exposition, because the songs are her story, and not only are they explaining how we got here, they're laying out the film's gender fluid thesis.

This is a film about discovering oneself in the margins of society's rigid gender definitions - a theme it hits on in its poignant centerpiece number, "Origin of Love," early on, before exploring themes of alienation and heartbreak in ways that are both tender and deeply funny. It's camp, drag, and melodrama all rolled into a one, a genderqueer fantasia that brazenly breaks down the holy silos of the masculine and the feminine gender binary and revels in the ambiguity between. And while it remains an important component of the modern LGBT rights movement to be able to find a sense of belonging that can be named and defined, Hedwig and the Angry Inch bravely imagines a world where those barriers are broken and we are free to explore the in-betweenness of things, tapping into the inherent masculinity and femininity inside us all. That it can simultaneously tap into so many aspects of queerness makes it a work of art that is still to this day a film ahead of its time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH | Directed by John Cameron Mitchell | Stars John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Alberta Watson, Stephen Trask, Theodore Liscinski | Rated R for sexual content and language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Mitchell and DeMarco
  • New conversation among members of the cast and crew
  • New conversation between composer and lyricist Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke about the soundtrack
  • Documentary from 2003 tracing the development of the project 
  • Close look at the film’s Adam and Eve sequence
  • New programs exploring Hedwig's creation, look, and legacy through its memorabilia 
  • Deleted scenes with commentary by Mitchell and DeMarco
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, and (on the Blu-ray) portraits of Hedwig by photog­rapher Mick Rock, illustrations by animator Emily Hubley, and excerpts from two texts that inspired the film: Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Marvel is wasting no time moving its Cinematic Universe ahead in the wake of its monster hit, Avengers: Endgamewhich capped off a 22-film series before becoming the second highest grossing film of all time.

Now, barely two months later, Marvel is beginning the next phase of the MCU with Spider-Man: Far From Home  With the biggest threat of the first 22 films now defeated and behind them, the Avengers must now reckon with a changed world, and no one has borne the brunt harder than Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Parker is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), while the world around him struggles to get back to normal after the millions of people who had been wiped out by Thanos' infamous "snap" suddenly re-appear five years later.

Hoping to settle back into his life as a high-schooler, Parker looks forward to a school trip to Europe, where he plans a romantic rendezvous with MJ (Zendaya). His plans are put on hold, however, by the arrival of a new threat - a group of ancient titans known as the Elementals, and the only person who can stop them is a hero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who claims to be from another universe. Soon, a darker plot is uncovered, and Parker will be forced to choose between living an uneventful life as a normal teenager and stepping up and fulfilling his destiny by following in the footsteps of his hero, Tony Stark.

Far From Home manages to grapple with the aftermath of Endgame while still maintaining the light touch that distinguished Spider-Man's previous solo MCU outing in Homecoming (2017). It doesn't exactly chart a bold new course for the series as the beginning of the new phase, rather it serves as a kind of palate cleanser to bridge the gap between the Infinity Saga and whatever is to come. Yet it's also grappling with more interesting ideas than the average MCU film, pitting Spider-Man against a villain who can seemingly manipulate reality to the point that no one, not even the audience, can trust their own eyes because our very perception of the narrative is being carefully controlled. In our era of fake news and Russian troll farms that churn out falsified information for the gullible masses, how can the truth ever muscle its way through to the light of day?

The film doesn't answer these questions, setting up a potentially major plot thread moving forward in the next phase of the Marvel saga. But it is impressive how director Jon Watts manages to balance these weighty themes with the seemingly inconsequential (but extremely funny) day-to-day struggles of adolescence, as the teenage protagonists navigate romantic travails and the simple awkwardness of growing up. The Spider-Man films have become some of the most nimble and entertaining of the MCU films thus far, so it’s no wonder that Marvel seems to be placing their bets on the character as the new standard-bearer moving forward. Holland is a terrific Spider-Man, his youthful energy giving the character a sense of innocence he's never quite achieved in other iterations. He is matched moment for moment by Gyllenhaal, whose Mysterio is one of the MCU's most clever creations (even if his expository dialogue can come off as a bit stiff).

As the third MCU film to be released in 2019 (after Captain Marvel and Endgame), Far From Home had the unenviable task of following up the film that was essentially the series' first major denouement, but rather than try to outdo the epic Endgame it attempts to reset the series with more minor stakes, yet those stakes represent a potentially deeper existential threat than Thanos ever posed. Rather than wiping out half of all life in the universe, this villain seeks to wipe out truth itself. And in 2019, there's nothing more terrifying, or more relevant, than that.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME | Directed by Jon Watts | Stars Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon | Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, July 05, 2019

The idea of the "meet cute," in which two strangers have an awkward romantic meeting, is a trope almost as old as the movies themselves. Romantic comedies are so chock-full of them that their presence almost pulls the audience out of the film because the scenario is just too outlandish to be believed.

In his dazzling new romance, Asako I & II, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) takes those tropes and turns them on their head, subverting the very idea of the "meet cute" and investigating the root of love and why we develop feelings for each other in the first place. Its an ambitious subject, to be sure, but one handled with such understated grace that it transcends mere navel-gazing and emerges as something tremulous and haunting, a deeply felt treatise on romantic desire and the nature of love itself.

Asako (Erika Karata) is a college student who meets and falls in love with a mysterious drifter named Baku (Masahiro Higashide). Baku's friends warn Asako that he is notorious for disappearing without warning, but he promises that he will always come back to her. Then one day he leaves home, never to return. Years later, Asako meets a businessman named Ryohei (Higashide again) while working in Tokyo, and is instantly struck by his similarity to Baku. She is immediately drawn to him, and Ryohei is quickly taken with her odd sense of familiarity and strong attraction to him. Soon, Asako must confront the true reasons for her attraction to Ryohei, and when Baku re-enters her life, now a famous actor beloved by young women throughout Japan, it threatens to upend the life she thought she knew.

Despite the fact that both Baku and Ryohei are played by the same actor, there are no fantasy or science fiction elements present in Asako I & II  Instead, it is imbued with a kind of magical realism that forces the audience to question the characters' circumstances. Hamaguchi grounds his film firmly in reality, yet we can't quite help but wonder (much like Asako) if the man who calls himself Ryohei isn't actually Baku after all. That makes the film something of a romantic mystery, yet the biggest question at the heart of the film isn't about Ryohei's identity - it's about why Asako loves him. Does she really love him, or does she love him because he reminds her so much of Baku? Why are we drawn to someone in the first place - is it really them we love, or the idea of a lost love; a great what-if from the past that was never fulfilled.

There's no tidy answer here, although Hamaguchi does offer a glimmer of hope at the end. What's so remarkable about Asako I & II is how delicately it weaves its tale of romantic confusion. It's a masterfully crafted work of romantic introspection that probes deep without feeling ponderous; Hamaguchi's light touch asking difficult questions and arriving at something at once hopeful and haunting.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ASAKO I & II | Directed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi | Stars Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Kôji Seto, Rio Yamashita | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Routine car trouble becomes a life-long obsession for three film students  working on a project who get more than they bargained for when a benevolent stranger offers them assistance out of the blue. The encounter is marked by a poetic monologue by the helpful stranger (Michael "Clip" Payne) that seems to unlock the mysteries of life for novelist, Allison (Emily Davis).

His words continue to haunt her until one day she discovers them in a book - the words that gave her such comfort, it turns out, were not the man's own, but rather a quote from a novelist. Allison feels shaken and betrayed, while her boyfriend, an obnoxious cinematographer with delusions of grandeur (Eamon Monaghan), seems mostly un-phased. The event sparks a kind of existential crisis for the couple, who begin questioning their own reality. What is real? Has their whole life been a lie? What can be trusted? A seemingly benign act of appropriation sends them spinning out of control, lost in a world where nothing is what it seems.

Then comes the hat trick - everything about The Plagiarists is borrowed from other works. Every line of dialogue belongs to another literary work. This revelation sends the audience reeling in such a way that we too begin questioning our own reality. Director Peter Parlow interrogates the very nature of modern reality in an era dominated by fake news and untrustworthy sources, undermining our own expectations and throwing a philosophical curve-ball that forces us to reevaluate everything we've just watched.

The rudimentary low-budget aesthetic of The Plagiarists is occasionally off-putting (it was filmed on vintage TV news cameras), the performances amateurish, often ringing false. But it's all part of Parlow's disarming parlor trick, sending up the tropes of DIY independent filmmaking while asking the question - is anything original anymore? Are our own thoughts compromised by the ideas of others? Where do our ideas end and others' begin? Parlow borrows from other sources in ways that seem so natural, and yet there's always something slightly off about the whole thing that we can never quite put our finger on. When we can no longer trust our own eyes and ears, what can we trust? Running a scant 76 minutes, The Plagiarists is a work of experimental beauty, asking big questions while slyly subverting audience expectations, leaving us just as bewildered, fascinated, and unnerved as its protagonists. It's a clever, boldly realized, and incisive debut for Parlow.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PLAGIARISTS | Directed by Peter Parlow | Stars Michael "Clip" Payne, Emily Davis, Lucy Kaminsky, Eamon Monaghan | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The original Toy Story trilogy represents not only one of Disney/Pixar's finest achievements, it's also one of the most perfectly crafted cinematic trilogies ever made. The arc from the first film to the last is so beautifully executed that it seems only natural that the prospect of a Toy Story 4 was initially met with some skepticism.

On the one hand, the resulting film isn't bad; Pixar rarely makes films that are outright poor, but despite some cute moments and an appealing cast of new and familiar characters, it never quite shakes the feeling of being wholly unnecessary. At the end of Toy Story 3  a grown up Andy left his beloved toys with a young girl named Bonnie before heading off to college, leaving a generation of filmgoers in tears, bidding farewell to an era and the childhoods of many who grew up with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Toy Story 4 picks up where that film left off, with the toys adjusting to their new lives in Bonnie's bedroom.

But the prospect of Bonnie similarly growing up is looming large, and Woody (Tom Hanks), now often relegated to the closet while Bonnie plays with other toys, feels a special need to take care of her much as he did Andy. When Bonnie makes a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) out of a spork during arts and crafts time at school, Woody takes him under his wing despite his vehement protests that he is not a toy, but little more than a piece of trash. When the pair become separated from Bonnie's family during a road trip, Woody must do everything in his power to rescue the beloved Forky and return him safely to Bonnie, reuniting with old friends and making quirky new ones along the way.

The idea of a homemade toy finding a home among Bonnie's "real" toys is an appealing one, but it's a conflict that is resolved all-too-quickly in favor of the film's action/adventure plot. The film's villain, a creepy antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody's voice box, is perhaps one of Pixar's most intriguing antagonists. Rather that follow their usual formula of revealing a seemingly benign character to be evil, Toy Story 4 takes the opposite approach with Gabby Gabby, giving her a poignant twist that subverts what Pixar has conditioned audiences to expect.

Nevertheless, there's a strange sense of "been there, done that" to the whole thing. Toy Story 4 is moderately engaging, and it's always nice to spend time with these characters, but it mostly feels like an afterthought to the original trilogy, attempting to take the story in new directions that it didn't really need to go. The existential drama of toys trying to find their purpose and their place has given the series some truly gut-wrenching emotional moments, but nothing in Toy Story 4 reaches the level of Toy Story 3 s crushing denouement. It feels as though we've already said goodbye to these characters, so saying goodbye again doesn't have quite the same impact as it may have otherwise. It's as if we just said a tearful goodbye to a relative and watched them drive off into the sunset, only to return to dash back into the house really quick because they forgot their phone. It's nice to see them again, and we all had a good laugh, but the previous goodbye was much more emotionally satisfying.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TOY STORY 4 | Directed by Josh Cooley | Stars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Blake Clark, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Keanu Reeves, Patricia Arquette, Jordan Peele, Timothy Dalton, Keegan-Michael Key, Kristen Schaal, Laurie Metcalf, Bonnie Hunt, Lori Alan, Jeff Garlin, Tony Hale, Estelle Harris, Bud Luckey, Jeff Pidgeon, Christina Hendricks, Ally Maki, Don Rickles, Bill Hader, June Squibb | Rated G | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors.

Ross lyrically traces not only the unique culture that has grown up in this area, he also examines the perceptions of African American life as seen through the lens of white America's depictions of them. The result is a film that recalls the raw power and verisimilitude of Charles Burnett's seminal classic of black cinema, Killer of Sheep, examining not only the results of a system that has kept this community impoverished, but the joys they have managed to find it spite of their situations. This isn't just a film about poverty, its not just a film about blackness and what that means in modern society. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a unique and undefinable thing, a kind of Walt Whitman-esque exploration of America's roots that reverberates through time, space, and culture. Notice how Ross balances the seemingly random scenes of Quincy and Daniel's everyday lives, with moments of observational beauty, whether it's a deer trying to cross the street, an approaching storm, or a country road at sunset.

The film is, above all, a meditation. There's something attractively ragged about its structure, interspersing major life milestones with life's little details often overlooked in cinema - whether it's a child playing on the floor for minutes on end, or simply friends hanging out in a yard after dropping by unexpectedly. Hale County has the ebbs and flows of life as it is lived by those unseen, but underneath it all is the pulsing lifeblood of something much bigger. Even in its small, unassuming scale, in feels somehow monumental, profound in a way that can't quite be put into words (not surprising considering that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is credited as an artistic advisor). Even though Ross never directly answers the questions of what it means to be an American, or what it means to be black in America, it almost seems as if the answers are buried here somewhere amidst the poetic mundanity of existence in this dusty southern town, once the home of poor sharecroppers, now the home of a poor black population surrounded by a white power structure that doesn't seem to understand it.

Yet Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn't here to provide answers. It's here to offer a glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.

The Blu-Ray disc is surprisingly light on extras, especially considering this is Cinema Guild's first Academy Award nominee, but it lovingly captures the film's scrappy beauty, and features an insightful essay by Patricia J. Williams.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING | Directed by RaMell Ross | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cinema Guild.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Midsommar, the sophomore feature film from Ari Aster (Hereditary), is the a kind of waking nightmare that reaches down into the darkest corners of the human soul where few horror films ever dare to go. A brilliantly disturbing distillation of grief, Midsommar takes Hereditary's haunting exploration of generational trauma to the next level, investigating themes of broken humans grappling with immense tragedy and the sometimes deeply painful path to healing and catharsis.

The film centers around a young couple named Dani (Florence Pugh) and  Christian (Jack Reynor) who are seemingly on the rocks. Christian is becoming tired of Dani's clingy nature, and Dani desperately needs his emotional support. Christian's desire to break up with her is put on hold when a family tragedy forces him to step up and be a supportive boyfriend to Dani, putting further, unseen stress on their relationship, and Dani soon finds herself on a vacation to Sweden with Christian and his friends to which she had not been previously invited.

The goal is to study a reclusive pagan commune in the Swedish wilderness that is celebrating their Midsommar festival. But what begins as a hallucinogenic drug-fueled holiday in paradise soon turns dark as the cult's strange customs take increasingly disturbing turns. Friendships are strained, relationships are tested, and eventually the true nature of the commune's interest in the group becomes fatally clear.

Aster has already proven himself adept at getting under audience's skins, but Midsommar feels like it's operating on another level entirely because it all takes place in broad daylight. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski oversaturates every frame with glaring white light, so much so that one almost has to squint while watching the film. The constant, overbearing daylight sets the audience on edge immediately, and Aster subtly manipulates the frame to suggest his characters' deteriorating mental state in ways that are disorienting and disquieting. He makes us question our own eyes in ways that feel quietly revolutionary, and as the inherent absurdity of the situations reach a fever pitch, it's hard to know whether to laugh or be terrified.

Midsommar often walks a fine line between horror and comedy, and Aster manages to illicit laughter while creating a deep-seated sense of unease. What really sells this dichotomy is the cast - especially Florence Pugh, who delivers a performance for the ages as a woman grappling with unimaginable grief who's desperately seeking catharsis. While Reynor may seem out of his depth next to Pugh, his performance is deceptively strong, playing an affable doofus whose maturity level is clearly not ready for a committed relationship. The pair are well matched, and Reynor's intentional lack of depth makes Pugh's arc all the more powerful.

Aster has been quoted as saying that he conceived the film after a break-up, and the film is indeed filled with a haunting sense of regret and longing. But it's also a ferocious and angry work that has no qualms with burning down the past and rebuilding oneself from its ashes. That's what makes the film so raw and cathartic, its keen understanding of millennial dating and relationships makes the decisions of the characters make sense even in the most absurd circumstances. That is perhaps Midsommar's most unnerving aspect - even amid such over-the-top horror, it remains grounded in real human emotion, making the dark choices its characters are forced to make feel all the more real. Like The Last Jedi before it, Midsommar seeks to kill the past and watch it burn - and we are left to wonder if we should be trying to put out the fire, or furiously giving it fuel.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MIDSOMMAR | Directed by Ari Aster | Stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harmer, Anna Åström | Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language | Opens Wednesday, July 3, in theaters nationwide.

Monday, June 17, 2019

An entertainer rises from obscurity, bolstered by a fascinated media and a fawning public, to become formidable political demagogue who spouts hollow "man of the people" populism as a means to power.

Sound familiar? Cinephiles were quick to point out the eerie parallels between Andy Griffith's Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes from Elia Kazan's 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, and Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. And while there are certainly some differences, it's hard to ignore the striking similarities. Here's populist sensation born out of near-constant, uncritical media attention, who becomes a monster; drunk on his own power and his ability to sway the public through plain-spoken faux-folksy pablum and preying on the insecurities and prejudices of a naive public.

It's part of what makes A Face in the Crowd such a ferociously prescient picture, as if Kazan somehow peered into the future and saw what was coming - a perfect storm of unchecked power and a complicit media. It recalls Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) in its pitch black emulation of a future it couldn't possibly know, but presages anyway. Griffith, making his film debut here, is a wonder, making the most of his unique, down-home charm and giving it a sinister spin. We're a long way from the noble "sheriff without a gun" of The Andy Griffith Show. Kazan was known as an actor's director, and what he pulls out of Griffith is extraordinary - even reportedly going so far as to get Griffith drunk for his fiery final scene. Yet the film really belongs to Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries - the reporter turned lover turned unlikely hero who discovers, cultivates, then ultimately brings down "Lonesome" Rhodes. Her character arc, as she slowly begins to realize what she has unleashed upon the world, is a thing of great and terrible beauty - bringing into sharp relief the unique talent that Kazan had with actors.

A Face in the Crowd unfolds like a play - the screenplay by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) humming with a kind of rough-hewn power. It has never felt more relevant than it does today, and one almost wishes that some intrepid theater artist would adapt it for the stage to comment on our current times. Yet its new Blu-Ray treatment from The Criterion Collection brings it to life at a time when the world needs it the most. It's a haunting satire of America's fascination with celebrity and the power of the media to create uncontrollable sensations whose lust for fame and power become vicious cycles - fueled by media attention and the public's lust for a juicy story and a charismatic star. Here in 2019 we may be wondering where our Marcia Jeffries is to expose Trump's true nature to his supporters. But while the revelation of Rhodes' distain for them rubes who follow him is ultimately his undoing, one has to wonder if Kazan and Schulberg's dark vision wasn't too hopeful about human nature in the end. In 2019, we have to wonder if anything matters at all. The film's most nagging idea is that maybe A Face in the Crowd didn't take the satire far enough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A FACE IN THE CROWD | Directed by Elia Kazan | Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features include:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan 
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith 
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Irreverent, self-referential, and gleefully misanthropic, Jean-Luc Godard's 1983 film, First Name: Carmen, was released near the beginning of the legendary raconteur's return to feature filmmaking in the early 1980s. In the decade since his radical left-wing period with the Dziga Vertov group in the early 1970s, the filmmaker mostly concerned himself with documentaries and experimental short films before reuniting with long-time cinematographer Raoul Coutard (Breathless) and writer Anne-Marie Miéville for this loose adaptation of Bizet's opera - Carmen.

Once the French New Wave's most iconoclastic Enfant terrible, Godard reinvents Carmen as something of a domestic terrorist (whose political motivations are never fully revealed) who falls in love with a bank guard, who becomes something of a patsy-cum-parter in crime. Carmen invents a fake movie as a front for her organization, and approaches her doddering Uncle Jean (played Godard himself in full-on self-parody mode) about using his home as a location.

Jean, a "washed up" film director, gets dragged back into commercial filmmaking kicking and screaming, making no bones about his disdain for the whole enterprise. Godard pokes gentle fun at himself, rambling on about his Maoist days ("he's not in favor anymore") and shaking his fists at the "kids these days." But Godard is nothing if not self-aware, and he drops all pretense of being anyone else, as characters begin to call him "Mr. Godard" by the end of the film.

Rather than his trademark jump-cuts, Godard works toward a similar effect with sounds, blending diagetic and non-diagetic music to contrast against the action, often dropping it in and out seemingly at random. First Name: Carmen is Godard at his most playful, tweaking the system that has called him back in and poking holes in society's sacred cows (he even critiques Shakespeare). This is absolutely the Godard we all know and love to hate; arrogant, defiant, and yet unendingly fascinating. First Name: Carmen is at once the kind of Hollywood gangster picture Godard used to worship, but also a deconstruction and dismantling of the same. He ends with the coda: "In memoriam small movies." Much as he did in Weekend (1967), Godard is railing against the very idea of cinema and its place in our world. What exactly he's trying to convey is anyone's guess, because at its core First Name: Carmen is a really just a bit of trolling. But nobody does it like Godard, perhaps the greatest troll in cinema history - and he's certainly in rare form here.

Godard tackled the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon for this 1993 meditation on the nature of the divine. Wracked by a troubled production, in which star Gerard Depardieu stormed off set never to return (and never to be replaced), Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe is Me) is at once one of Godard's most deeply felt and most obfuscating works.

The filmmaker himself would later become one of the film's chief detractors, writing it off as a failure despite widespread acclaim in France  (Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the best films of 1993). It's certainly a muddled work, as Godard restructured much of it after Depardieu left the project. Hélas pour moi centers around a man named Simon (Depardieu) who is possessed by the spirit of God so that God may experience and examine human life through his marriage with Rachel (Johanna ter Steege). In order to fill the gaps left by his falling out with Depardieu, Godard frames this drama in flashback, as a book published named Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) investigates reports of God's arrival on Earth.

It's a wildly experimental work, to be sure, marked by some of the most gorgeous imagery Godard ever produced (courtesy of cinematographer Caroline Champetier). And yet, its ideas are so scattershot that they never reach the level of spiritual focus achieved by Bresson, who was a clear influence here. Godard is probing and exploring, but his musings are too opaque to be fully engaging. His usual experimentations with non-diagetic sound design that was so integral to this period of his career seems somewhat subdued, still very much present but of less thematic import. The film seems somewhat lost, at once a criticism of humanity from the point of view of God (one of Godard's most vain provocations) and an existential treatise on cinema and international politics, informed by the global conflicts happening in the early 1990s. It's undeniably fascinating work, but as was Godard's wont, especially during this period, his attempts to radically reinvent the cinematic language don't always jell with the ideas he's attempting to interrogate.

Godard's The Image Book is at once perfectly at home with his other late-period collage films such as Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, and yet completely unlike anything the 88-year-old Nouvelle Vague iconoclast has ever made. It's part of the filmmaker's quest to investigate and reinvent the cinematic language, a life-long passion for Godard at least since 1967's Weekend, in which he infamously declared the "end of cinema."

His last film, Goodbye to Language (2014), similarly tried to redefine the cinematic language, a brazen attempt to force viewers to reevaluate the very way we watch and engage with movies. There his medium was 3D, experimenting with the prevalent gimmick of the day to explore the multiple dimensions cinematic plane. In The Image Book  he moves in a different direction entirely. Now having re-written cinematic language, he seeks once again to make audiences redefine their preconceptions about the confines of the film frame and explore the dynamics of the moving images.

Through re-tooled images from cinema history (taken from such films as Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down) and an often shifting aspect ratio, Godard is quite literally making the audience look at these familiar images from alternate points of view. He even goes so far as to repurpose images from his own films, (including bits of Hélas pour moi) in what could be seen as either an act of supreme ego or self-interrogation. It's an effect created by the way Godard transfers films from VHS to his DV camcorder, as the camera attempts to adjust to the different aspect ratio, yet this digital "mistake" was purposefully left in.

The value of these images, in fact the very nature of their beauty (or lack thereof) lies in our own perception of them. Godard gives us the tools to decode them, but intentionally leaves us without a guidebook. Through the various lenses he places in front of them, be they digital imperfections, analog glitches, or simply the fog of time, The Image Book asks us to look at the world around us in ways we've never before considered. It's an endlessly fascinating and somehow wistful work, a career summation by a legendary iconoclast who continues to reinvent himself well into his ninth decade of life, now looking back at a life's work and asking "what was it all for?" The answer lies somewhere buried in the bleary fragments of images recorded from Godard's VHS player, a radical reinvention of cinematic language that will be studied and appreciated for decades to come.


The Image Book is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. First Name: Carmen and Hélas pour moi will be released on June 18.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

19 years ago, the cinematic superhero craze got its kick-off in the form of Bryan Singer's X-Men, spawning a series of imitators as rival studios rushed to capitalize on its success with superhero franchises of their own. Looking back on it now, the original X-Men is a surprisingly character driven, mid-budget film whose sequel, X2: X-Men United remains perhaps the high point in 21st century superhero filmmaking.

The X-Men series went on to spawn 10 films, including a spin-off trilogy featuring Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, making it the longest running superhero series outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that hasn't been subjected to some sort of hard reboot. That's all likely to change now after the release of Dark Phoenix - whose release arrives mere months after the complete acquisition of its parent studio, 20th Century Fox, by the Walt Disney Company.

Disney, of course, owns the MCU, and since the X-Men originated in Marvel Comics, it's all but likely that their current incarnation will be wiped clean to make way for a new iteration to join the world of the Avengers. It's something of an inauspicious end for the series. While fans have long clamored for an X-Men/Avengers mashup, its a shame to see the venerable series come to such a weak conclusion, its glory days long since past, unceremoniously dumped into theaters by Disney who's clearly in a hurry to move on.

Everything about Dark Phoenix feels phoned-in, even defeated, as if the filmmakers somehow knew the end was near. First-time director Simon Kinberg (long-time producer of the series) seems completely lost, tasked with crafting an epic ending to a series that no one, not even the actors involved, seems to care about anymore. The actors are all on auto-pilot (the usually terrific Jennifer Lawrence seems especially over it), to the point that most of them feel like they're just fulfilling terms of a contract rather than giving it their all. Meanwhile, Kinberg seems determined to take the franchise in a darker, grittier direction, even going so far as to hire composer Hans Zimmer to craft a muscular score similar to his work on Man of Steel, sounding nothing like anything previously heard in the X-Men universe.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Raven/Mystique in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Photo Credit: Doane Gregory.

The Dark Phoenix Saga was previously tackled by the series in the much maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, in which psychic heroine Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is saddled with unlimited power she's unable to control. Rather than improve the story, Dark Phoenix seems to have learned nothing, taking the worst elements of The Last Stand and doubling down on them, resulting in a film that's neither different enough to be worth the trouble nor bold enough to truly stand out on its own. This could be because Kinberg wrote the screenplay for both films, and he hews close to previously covered territory here.

Yet the weak script is only part of the film's troubles, which relies on obvious themes ("my emotions make me strong") rather than dealing with the true issue at the heart of the film - the fact that burying Grey's trauma rather than dealing with it head-on are what caused her problems in the first place. Turner does her best with the subpar material, but the film completely wastes Jessica Chastain as the emotionless alien villain, Vuk, and the characters are so poorly drawn that their motivations (and subsequent reversals) often make little sense. Gone is the social commentary that once set this franchise apart, not to mention its inherent optimism about the future and its place for those who are different. In its place is a strange sort of anonymity, just another self-serious superhero dirge that doesn't know how to have fun. Dark Phoenix represents the dying throes of a once illustrious comic book franchise making one last half-hearted gasp before being obliterated by the Disney juggernaut.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DARK PHOENIX | Directed by Simon Kinberg | Stars  Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

The prospect of another musical biopic of a popular rock musician following so closely on the heels of the aggressively bland Bohemian Rhapsody may seem like a hard pill to swallow, especially considering that director Dexter Fletcher was the filmmaker who stepped in at the last minute to finish Rhapsody after Bryan Singer went AWOL. 

But Fletcher seems determined not to make the same mistakes twice, turning his Elton John biopic, Rocketman, into the film Bohemian Rhapsody could and should have been. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody, with its troubled production and too many cooks in the kitchen, often felt like a rote connect-the-dots between Queen's creates hits, Rocketman instead allows the songs to flow naturally from the story. Fletcher isn't trying to show us the inspiration for each of John's hit songs, eschewing Bohemian Rhapsody s thudding literalism for a kind of musical fantasia, the songs belting out like Broadway numbers to accompany the major events in the singer's life.

From partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his infamous drug addiction, to his romantic relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), Rocketman traces the life of Elton John (Taron Edgerton) in a way that is familiar to the musical biopic genre. However, Fletcher reinvigorates the formula by infusing the film with a bracing shot of John's colorful personality, taking the audience inside his mind for a peek into his creative process. These aren't necessarily events as they actually happened, but Fletcher captures the exhilarating spirit of those events, levitating the characters (and the audience) into a kind of phantasmagorical cinematic ecstasy.

Rocketman also refuses to treat John's sexuality as a liability (the way that Bohemian Rhapsody did with Freddie Mercury). Elton is an unabashedly queer figure, and Fletcher doesn't shy away from this, leaning into the singer's campy personality and yearning for true love from another man (which he eventually finds as the film reminds us in its requisite coda). John is memorably embodied by Taron Edgerton, who impressively enough actually does his own singing, emulating the him with striking soul and wit.

While the film strikes many familiar notes for anyone who has ever seen a movie about a rock star, Fletcher manages to reinvent those cliches by untethering Rocketman from the confines of reality. Instead, he turns the film into a joyous celebration of a legendary entertainer, a warts-and-all emulation of who Elton John is, saving it from being yet another standard issue biopic and embruing it with a heart and soul all its own.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ROCKETMAN | Directed by Dexter Fletcher | Stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh | Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Having now seen Khalik Allah's altogether extraordinary film, Black Mother, twice now; I can confidently say that it has left me at a complete loss for words.

It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.

Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into a singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

BLACK MOTHER | Directed by Khalik Allah | Not ratedNow playing in select theaters.