Saturday, February 16, 2019

At last shaking off the burden of his infamous affair with actress Kim Min-hee, whose repercussions haunted his last three films - On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), Claire's Camera (2018), and The Day After (2018), Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo has returned to some of the pre-occupations that often informed his earlier work in his latest film, Hotel by the River.


Filled with longing and regret, Hotel by the River is the story of a group of quintessential Hong protagonists, separated by emotional distance they are unable to bridge despite their best efforts. It recalls the snowy wistfulness of The Day He Arrives (2012), centering around five lonely people who converge on the eponymous hotel to find their own definition of peace and healing.

On one side we have an aging poet (Joo-Bong Ki) who has summed his two sons (Hae-hyo Kwon and Joon-Sang Yoo) to inform them that he believes he is dying. On the other side, a young woman (Kim Min-hee) who has been betrayed by the man she loves, and has retreated to the hotel with her friend (Seon-mi Song) to recover. Their stories are separate, yet inexorably intertwined, bound by their mutual quest for closure and redemption. And yet, like many Hong protagonists, they remain steadfastly apart, so close to a real connection and yet unable to reach out and make it.

That's the beauty and the inherent tragedy of Hotel by the River a film that is easily Hong's most overtly emotional in years. His characters are broken, lost in their own private reveries of art, loneliness, and fantasy. Hong often explores the inner lives of artists. The denizens of the hotel by the river are poets and filmmakers, those who express their feelings in tangible ways yet are unable to articulate them outside of those bounds. That's what makes them so fascinating - they're walking contradictions, bound by one mode of expression that they can never translate into real life. The poet has no evidence that he is dying, yet he feels it. His sons want closure after a lifetime with an emotionally distant father. The young woman searches for reasons for the betrayal of her former lover. The answers they seek never arrive, yet they all come tantalizingly close to a kind of peace.

On the surface, Hong's films often seem aimless and meandering. And while Hotel by the River is perhaps his most accessible film in recent memory, it still retains his trademark unassuming self-reflexivity, the characters seemingly trapped in a self-imposed purgatory for which they hold the keys to escape, yet never quite figure out how to use them. They may seem talky and disengaged, but that's how Hong gets at the basic truth of their experiences, eschewing the trappings of melodrama for a kind of languid naturalism. One always feels that Hong's films are an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise his own demons, to explore his own feelings and shortcomings both as an artist and a human being, using his characters as avatars for his own insecurities.

There is a poignant sense of remorse that permeates the film that is both tangible and intoxicating, and one comes away with the feeling that we're all just snowflakes in a snowstorm, colliding with each other briefly as we're tossed in the wind, searching for somewhere to land. In Hong's haunted meditation, there is no pretense of having all the answers, and that's what makes it so special. He's out here trying to figure himself out just like everyone else. Like his very best films, Hotel by the River seems like a circuitous trifle on the surface, but within its modestly composed black and white frames lies a profoundly open-ended exploration of the very faults, foibles, dreams, and contradictions that make us human.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HOTEL BY THE RIVER | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Kwon Hae-hyo, Yu Jun-sang | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Usually one of the most consistently strong categories at the Oscars, this year's crop of animated shorts is a decidedly mixed bag - the only real stand-out being Pixar's Bao. Still, there's enough here to be of interest, with an eclectic lineup that finds both joy and sadness in the experiences of childhood and in the act of growing up.


Animal Behaviour


A support group for animals quickly devolves into chaos as the anthropomorphized creatures share their own unique relationship problems. Each problem stems from the animal's own background (the leech is co-dependent, the praying mantis murders her mates), but Animal Behavior is an oddly joyless and ultimately aimless experience.

It's a mostly unpleasant film that never seems to come to a point, shaking things up with the arrival of a moody gorilla, but it's never particularly funny or especially insightful. Easily the weakest of the 2019 Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film.

Bao


An absolute delight. Domee Shi's simple, affecting metaphor for motherhood in which a Chinese mother fears an empty nest after raising an anthropomorphic dumpling is as beautiful and touching as anything Pixar has ever produced. All children grow up eventually, and Bao poignantly chronicles a mother's desire to shield her child from a world that comes crashing unceremoniously through their door anyway. No other film in this category displays such insightful depth or a navigate a metaphor this tricky with such grace.

Late Afternoon


An old woman looks back on a full life, lost in a foggy reverie that blurs fantasy and reality. Would make a charming double feature with the Best Live Action Short nominee, MARGUIRITE, both depicting elderly protagonists reflecting on the past, but the conclusion of LATE AFTERNOON isn't as satisfying.

The way it handles the idea of memory, and the way it crosses over into the woman's present-day life, is lovely and poignant. It's slight, but beautifully animated and realized.

One Small Step


A young girl dreams of becoming an astronaut in this lovely Chinese animated short that explores the wondrous world of a child's imagination before connecting it to real world achievement to make those dreams a reality.

Supported by her father who is with her every step of the way (even after passing away), the young girl shoots for the moon in the most moving way possible. It falters a bit in the middle, throwing off its own pacing by shifting its structure, a move that undercuts its emotional momentum, but it still lands with a satisfying and heart-wrenching confidence. ONE SMALL STEP has heart to spare, but it never feels cloying or saccharine. Instead, it explores childhood dreams and familial love in a powerfully understated way, and ends with a lovely grace note connecting the girl's childhood play with her father that is sure to tug on the heartstrings.

Weekends


Perhaps the most abstract of this year's nominees for Best Animated Short, WEEKENDS follows the misadventures of a young boy being shuffled back and forth between his divorced parents, and the rich fantasy life he creates for himself in order to cope.

Great concept, but the execution is hit-or-miss, seemingly meandering in its attempt to illustrate the crushing sameness of the young boy's routines. But it gets at some essential truths of his experience, lost in a world without something to hold on to, all he has that's a constant is his beloved rocking horse. But some haunting imagery and an intriguing idea don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole.

The 2019 Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short are now playing in select theaters nationwide. On Demand today, Feb. 15.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


In the 1950s nudity was still banned in American films by the Production Code. Exploitation filmmakers, however, discovered a loophole - nudity was permissible if it was a non-sexual depiction of a nudist lifestyle. 

Nudist camp films had been around since the 1930s, when documentaries about nudists drew audiences of curiosity seekers, but in the late 50s these evolved into "nudie cuties," as Russ Meyer debuted The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959, taking these films toward something akin to softcore pornography.

Enter Doris Wishman, a New York City filmmaker who took up directing after the death of her husband. After a 1957 New York court ruling allowed for the depiction of nudity on screen as long as it was in a nudist context, Wishman made Hideout in the Sun (1958). This was followed quickly by 1961's Nude on the Moon, a bizarre low-budget sci-fi film in which a crew of astronauts land on the moon only to discover a matriarchal race of nudists populating its sun-dappled landscape. Nude on the Moon was recently the subject of a Wishman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, featuring filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh, author of the 1995 zine, The Films of Doris Wishman. Now reprinted by the Light Industry for the first time in nearly 25 years, Ahwesh's loving tribute to Wishman's scrappy, do-it-yourself spirit.

In fact, there's something charmingly rough around the edges about Ahwesh's zine. Clearly a product of 1990s underground fan culture, it's a collection photocopied posters, typed out transcripts of interviews, and cut out images pasted into collages. The Films of Doris Wishman is a clear labor of love, beginning with a transcript of an extended video interview with Wishman in the Florida sex shop where she worked in Florida at the time. Wishman is a real character, gleefully selling dildos at 70 years old while reminiscing about the days making exploitation films and dealing with unscrupulous distributors. She makes no bones about the fact that she was in it for the money, but she was good at what she did, and she knows it.

A still from NUDE ON THE MOON.

There's an almost dreamlike quality to Nude on the Moon. Shot on a shoestring budget in Florida, the film imagines a tropical paradise on the moon populated by topless telepaths lead by a queen who is curious about the strange newcomers. Actress Marietta stars in a dual role as the Moon Queen and a mousy secretary who pines for brilliant scientist Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown), who it turn falls in love with the Moon Queen, only to realize he's been in love with his secretary all along.

What makes Wishman's films so fascinating is that on the surface they appear to be all about male wish fulfillment; two men make a spaceship, fly to the moon, and discover a bunch of naked women. But there's something else going on here, perhaps due to Wishman's female perspective in a genre usually dominated by the male gaze. The topless women in Nude on the Moon aren't ogled the way one might expect in a film of this nature. They simply...are. Their nudity is just a fact of life, neither sexualized now commented upon. In some ways, Wishman was to nudity in film what Herschell Gordon Lewis was to gore, an exploitation pioneer who knew how to turn a quick buck. One would be hard-pressed to call the films "good" - Wishman was clearly working quickly and on a limited budget with the goal of titillating audiences. But like the Agnés Varda of softcore porn, Doris Wishman is a charming and fascinating figure whose eccentric talent has been lovingly remembered in Ahwesh's engaging fan zine. Anyone even remotely interested in the history of exploitation cinema would do well to pick it up.

The Films of Doris Wishman is now available from Light Industry. Check out Light Industry at Metrograph: Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn's The Deadman + Doris Wishman's Bad Girls Go to Hell on March 16.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a film so bizarrely conceived and rendered that it almost takes on a kind of unintentional avant-garde quality, completely disregarding any sense of narrative cohesion or recognizable form. This would almost be admirable if it weren't so aggressively dull - another overproduced CGI behemoth in Disney's modern live action catalogue that is gorgeously designed but devoid of any real heart.

One must give credit to directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston for going for broke here, because unlike the mostly wooden Beauty and the Beast live action remake, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is genuinely trying to create something fantastic and new. The world it conjures resembles Narnia on hallucinogenic mushrooms, taking its protagonist through a closet and into a world dividing into four kingdoms; three living in harmony while the fourth stands in rebellion under the rule of the evil Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).

Using Tchaikovsky's immortal ballet as a starting point, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms goes off the rails pretty quickly, delving into some overly complicated mythology in which our heroine, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), discovers a world created by her late mother as a child in her godfather's attic. Left by the wayside as her mother grew up, the world has fallen into neglect while awaiting her return. With the help of a stalwart nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight), Clara sets out to restore order to the realm.

At its core, The Nutcracker is a pretty standard issue fantasy epic in which a "chosen one" appears to save the fantasy world from some sort of catastrophe. It is anchored by two of the most lifeless lead performances to ever headline such a big budget film, with Mackenzie Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight unable to conjure any charisma or chemistry that could possibly make us care about their characters. The MVP here is Keira Knightley, whose bubbly and unhinged take on the Sugarplum Fairy is the kind of "shoot for the moon" performance that is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Knightley, with her squeaky voice and cotton candy hair, makes the film her own, completely giving herself over to the ridiculousness surrounding her and fully embodying its off-kilter weirdness. The always reliable composer, James Newton Howard, also comes through with a lovely score that makes great use of Tchaikovsky's iconic music.

The rest of the film, however, is a mess. It's certainly unlike any major blockbuster in recent memory, with its Rat King made up of teeming throngs of swarming rats, to poor Richard E. Grant's icicle hair, to the underused Helen Mirren's exiled villain who lives in a world of cracked dolls and creepy clowns, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms almost seems to be channeling Disney's darker days of the 1980s, when oddball films like Return to Oz were the order of the day. Unfortunately, it's a sumptuously designed visual feast that has no real personality or soul of its own. It looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, and the ballet sequence is appropriately stunning. If only the rest of the film had put forth as much effort as Knightley at the team of designers.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS | Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston | Stars Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight | Rated PG for some mild peril | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


For many, silent films often seem like relics, ancient remnants of times gone by that hold little relevance to the world we live in today. As a student of cinema who loves the silent period, I've always found them fascinating, and yet there is something almost alien about them, a window into a bygone world that feel somehow removed what what is familiar to modern audiences.

It is in that spirit that Peter Jackson approached his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, the film was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Using original footage shot by war photographers on the front, Jackson set out to examine life in the infamous WWI trenches. Yet rather than simply show us the silent black and white footage we've all seen before, Jackson instead digitized, cleaned up, and colorized the footage so that it looks like it was shot yesterday.

Normally this kind of tampering would raise hackles of the cinema purist in me. Visions of badly colorized TV shows and movies that permeated the airwaves in the 80's and 90's come quickly to mind, completely destroying the artists' original intent, steamrolling their carefully crafted black and white images. But, as Jackson explains, this is something different. The black and white war footage isn't because of artistic choice, it was because of necessity. The war photographer did the best they could with what they had, but what Jackson has done is let us see the war as it really was.

Truth be told, the colorization isn't the most impressive part of They Shall Not Grow Old  It could have easily kept the black and white of the original footage and simply been restored to new glory by Jackson's technicians. The way they took old, almost unusable footage that was either under or overexposed and made it crystal clear for the first time in a century is jaw-dropping. The color still has that sort of sickly, faded quality that has always plagued colorized black and white footage, and yet one almost forgets they're watching something that's 100 years old. It's as if Jackson has reached through time and offered us a glimpse into the past. Never has the first world war felt so immediate. As an artistic statement it exists in a gray area, but as a historical artifact it is a meticulously researched and invaluable resource.

What Jackson has done to this footage is stunning. Not only will it help preserve the memory of the men who fought and died in WWI, but it's also an impressive feat of film preservation. While the black and white version would have perhaps been preferable, but They Shall Not Grow Old works miracles with the raw footage of the war that has gone unseen for decades. It's a unique cinematic experience that offers a rare glimpse into a nearly forgotten war that has never felt as tangible as it does here, and the results are often as chilling as they are haunting.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD | Directed by Peter Jackson | Rated R for disturbing war images | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Unless you’re a professional Oscar watcher or a film critic, chances are the categories most likely to leave you scratching your head are the three short film categories – Best Live Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary Short. Thankfully, these films are no longer as obscure and inaccessible as they once were and are now available in select theaters through Oscar night. Like always, this year’s nominees for Best Live Action short are a mixed bag, but often showcase fantastic up-and-coming talent at the start of fruitful careers.


Detainment

In 1993, toddler James Bulger was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Vincent Lambe's short film, Detainment, takes the transcripts from the police interviews to piece together a harrowing reenactment of the boys' questioning and the events leading up to their crime.

 There has been some controversy over the film due to Lambe's never having sought the permission of Bulger's family to make the film, but that doesn't negate the fact that the performances by the two young leads are some of the most stunning child acting ever captured on film. Ely Solan (Jon) brilliantly captures the desperation of a child caught doing something he knows he's wrong, wildly flailing for sympathy as he tries to cast blame on his partner in crime. Leon Hughes (Robert), on the other hand, channels a chilling detachment for all sense of basic morality. Each is manipulative and sociopathic in his own way, and the young actors are uniformly incredible. There is a discussion to be had about whether or not the film is exploiting a family's tragedy, but Lambe displays a powerful sense of mood as he navigates tricky thematic waters. One almost wishes he had more time to explore the "why" rather than just the "what," but Detainment's occasionally uneven balancing act between haunting and macabre will be a tough pill to swallow for many.

Fauve

Two young boys head out to an old rock quarry, goading each other to increasingly dangerous feats of childhood daring. Their carefree reverie is suddenly shattered when the game becomes all-too-real, leaving one of them desperately seeking help in a lonely and desolate hellscape.

Filmmaker Jérémy Comte creates a powerful sense of isolation that adds to the film's tension, and the central performances by the two boys are full of young, unbridled adolescent swagger and machismo cut short by the crushing arrival of reality. But the finale is much too on-the-nose, undercutting the otherwise strongly realized portrait of innocence lost.

Madre

Perhaps my favorite of the 2019 nominees for Best Live Action Short, Rodrigo Sorogoyen's Madre, a harrowing, 18-minute exercise in gradually escalating suspense that frays the nerves without ever showing the event around which it centers.

 A mother receives a phone call from her young son, who has been left alone by his father on a beach in another country. While she is on the phone, the boy informs her that a strange man is watching him. What follows is nearly 20 minutes of sheer terror as the mother tries to direct her son to safety from hundreds of miles away, completely helpless and only able to listen to her son's terror on the other end of the phone. Its end credit song choice is jarring considering what we've just witnessed, but Madre is an exceedingly effective genre exercise that proves that less is often much, much more.

Marguerite

An elderly woman and her home care nurse form an unusual and beautiful friendship after the revelation that the nurse is a lesbian reawakens an old, unrequited love from the old woman's past.

Marguerite plays with the audience pre-conceived notions about age and attraction. When the nurse reveals that she was talking with a girlfriend on the phone rather than a boyfriend, we expect the old woman to react negatively. Instead, something wholly unexpected happens, revealing a lifetime of longing and regret born from being unable to be who she was always meant to be. It's a lovely and beguiling short - easily the most emotionally affecting of the Best Live Action Short nominees which makes it a likely winner. It handles its subject with great care and a deep sense of humanity, striking its notes with lyricism and grace.

Skin

Easily the strangest of this year's Best Live Action Short nominees, Skin, which is already being developed into a feature film, attempts to examine cycles of prejudice imparted on the next generation through the lens of two warring gangs, one white, one black, whose escalating reprisals leave their children scarred. While its heart is in the right place, its strange exoticism surrounding the black gang members feels exploitative and even a bit animalistic.

By casting the white boy and his racist family at the center of the narrative, director Guy Nattiv inadvertently seems to be confirming their prejudices, especially when the most brutal act of revenge comes from the black gang against the white protagonists. It seems to revel in its lurid violence, becoming strangely fetishistic in a misguided attempt to illustrate the futility and pointlessness of racism. Instead, it engages in a bizarre "both sides" argument that ultimately doesn't hold water.


The 2019 Best Live Action Short nominees are now playing in select theaters. On Demand Feb. 19.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The unique empathy and humanity of the films of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country) has quickly distinguished the pair as two of the most deeply insightful filmmakers working today. Like Frederick Wiseman but with a sense of brevity, Palmieri and Mosher examine the intricacies of small town life with the eye of an ethnographer, exploring the inherent contradictions and inescapable bonds that make America what it is.

So here in 2019, at a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, a film like The Gospel of Eureka seems like a balm for the soul. Set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the film explores the peaceful but tenuous co-existence between a moderately famous passion play and a gospel-themed drag show. In the process, Palmieri and Mosher reframe Christian iconography and ideology through a queer point of view, as the town goes through a brief time of upheaval over a "trans bathroom bill."

Eureka was briefly the home of infamous anti-gay crusader, Anita Bryant, who tried to stage a comeback in the form of a Christian-themed show which proved to be an epic flop. From there, the town played host to notorious anti-Semite leader of the Christian Nationalist Party, Gerald L.K. Smith, who founded "The Great Passion Play" in 1968. To say that the town has had a rocky relationship with the LGBT community would be an understatement, which makes it the perfect place for a film like The Gospel of Eureka  Here, in this former hotbed of homophobia deep in the Bible Belt, gay culture has found a foothold. The filmmakers juxtapose the nightly pageantry of the drag bar with the Great Passion Play, which takes on its own air of camp with its over-the-top spectacle and copious amounts of male nudity.

In fact, one could argue that "The Great Passion Play" is a form of Christian drag - the entire thing is lip-synced to a pre-recorded vocal track, not unlike the musical numbers performed by drag queens in the bar. It's a fascinating dichotomy, and yet Palmieri and Mosher find commonalities between the two worlds. The drag bar is owned by a gay couple who are devout Christians. One of the "Passion Play's" biggest fans is a transgender woman. The owner of a local Christian book store speaks fondly of his gay father. The Gospel of Eureka seeks out and  explores the places where Christianty and queer culture meet, and discovers that the gulf is not as wide as we might think.


Even as locals fight over a new civil rights frontier in the form of discriminatory transgender bathroom bills, the filmmakers discover commonalities where there appear to be none. In Eureka it's not Christians vs. the LGBT community, because there is so much overlap. Eureka becomes a kind of microcosm for America itself, a place where Christianity and queerness not only coexist, but compliment each other. As narrated by the wonderful Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel of Eureka is neither preachy or didactic, instead it eschews hatred and bigotry by investigating overlooked commonalities, rather its the queer subtexts of the gospels and Christian pageantry or the deep and abiding faith of those in the LGBT community.

Much like human sexuality, faith transcends boundaries, refutes hatred, and ultimately finds a place of belonging in the most unlikely of places. At a time when our country feels more divided than ever, films like The Gospel of Eureka feel all the more essential. Its sense of empathy feels almost defiantly out of step with the world at large, and yet it manages to touch on some deep and essential truths. It is a celebration of queerness, of faith, and of the deep and abiding ties that bind. If a place like Eureka can find such a balance, then there's hope for the rest of us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA | Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher | Stars Justin Vivian Bond | Not Rated | Opens Friday, Feb. 8, in NYC.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Nicole Kidman stars as a washed up, alcoholic cop in this hard-boiled modern film noir from director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation). It's a familiar story - a grizzled cop seeks revenge against the one that got away, a villain from their past who has haunted them ever since. It's a role that has been inhabited by the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney; anti-heroes who operate outside the law to bring about their own brand of justice.

Destroyer flips the script, casting a woman as the cop who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Erin Bell (Kidman) is a former undercover agent for the LAPD whose parter, Chris (Sebastian Stan), was killed by a bank robber named Silas (Toby Kebbell), with whom the pair were embedded. After a murder with a familiar calling card hints to Erin that Silas has returned, she sets out to find him and kill him by any means necessary, even if that means operating as an outlaw herself. All the while she's struggling to keep her own family together, as her rebellious teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) looks for ways to distance herself from her self-destructive mother through a series of cries for help.

The film is at once a police procedural and an existential drama exploring the unravelling of a woman who has experienced incredible trauma. Unfortunately it isn't particularly interesting in either facet, relying mainly on Kidman's impressive performance and a third act twist that completely reframes the narrative but doesn't really change much about the character or her methods. Destroyer is certainly handsomely crafted, featuring some bleakly lovely cinematography by Julie Kirkwood and an evocative score by Theodore Shapiro, but the film never escapes the feeling that we've seen all this before in TV shows like True Detective, Hannibal, and even Law & Order.

Kidman's performance certainly elevates the material, as does its gender-swapped take on an old formula, but there's little to distinguish its bland narrative despite Kusama's attempts to provide a fresh perspective. Bell is an impressively fallible character, but one never quite escapes the feeling that we've seen all this done better before. It feels more like an attempt to secure Kidman an Oscar nomination (which never materialized) than a film in its own right. She's certainly terrific in the role, but it's ultimately a film about a performance that is riddled with clichés and undercooked drama.

For all its grim, portentous atmosphere, it never achieves the level of self-reflection or genre deconstructionism that it seems to be reaching for. Kidman certainly gives it her all, but the character never really breaks out of the age-old cinematic identifiers of trauma; alcoholism and broken family life. It's a kind of narrative shorthand that often passes for character development, but is more often than not a crutch to mask a lack of depth. In the case of Destroyer, it starts as a clever twist on the classic film noir, but never manages to distinguish itself from the very tropes of the genre it's seeking to subvert.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


DESTROYER | Directed by Karyn Kusama | Stars Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Toby Kebbell, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss | Rated R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

This is a new feature here at From the Front Row, in which we take a look at a film that was released 100 years ago, examining what was going on in the world of cinema exactly a century ago.  This year we will periodically be exploring the films of 1919, starting with Irving Willat's shockingly savage Behind the Door.


"I told him...that if I ever caught him I'd skin him alive; but he died before I finished... Damn him!"


There are few films from the silent era as startling or as darkly gruesome as Irving Willat's Behind the Door, a WWI revenge thriller released only one year after the Great War ended. The film follows Oscar Krug (the extraordinary Hobart Bosworth), an American taxidermist who has the misfortune of having German heritage just as the USA declares war on Germany. Attacked by the neighbors he once called friends, Oscar volunteers for the military, and is made captain of a ship.

Distraught, his wife stows away on the ship in order to stay with him during the war. When his ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, the two are cast adrift in a lifeboat, only to be rescued by an enemy vessel. Rather than save them both, the U-Boat captain takes Oscar's wife, and casts him back out to sea to drown, sending Oscar on a bloody quest for revenge.

Despite the fact that some of the film remains lost, Behind the Door is a harrowing experience. It may tame by today's standards, but it's hard to deny the visceral impact of its horrific climax. Willat pulls no punches when it comes to the horror that awaits the U-Boat captain at Oscar's vengeful hands. The film was something of a sensation at the time, quickly gaining an infamous reputation for its grim subject matter.

Yet there is a tenderness underneath its bloody exterior. At its heart, Behind the Door is a love story, one that continues just as strongly after death. Willat stages action sequences with a true master's eye - the scene in which the townspeople attempt to kill Oscar for his German heritage is especially thrilling, illustrating the depth of the suspicion and bigotry that was directed at those of German descent (some things, it seems, never chance). The restoration on the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray is simply stunning, utilizing illustrated placeholders to take the place of the missing scenes, helping the story continue almost seamlessly. Behind the Door is a forgotten treasure, a haunting tale of love and vengeance that stands as one of the most gruesome and disturbing films of the silent era.

 GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Behind the Door is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

THE HAUNTED CASTLE.

Made almost exactly one year before his masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau's The Haunted Castle (1921) often seems like a trial run for the more famous (and clearly superior) film. If nothing else, it's a showcase for Murnau's mastery of light and shadow, but the film itself is an often unfocused murder mystery set in a gothic mansion that features neither hauntings nor castles.

Haunted, in this case, speaks to memories rather than ghosts, as the mysterious Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) crashes a weekend hunting party one dark and stormy night, upsetting the guests over rumors that he murdered his own brother. But Count Oetsch isn't there to strike again, he's there to reveal the identity of the real murderer, and along with the long-awaited Baroness Safferstätt (Olga Tschechowa), he sets about clearing his name and revealing the dark secrets of the the castle's citizens.

Murnau is clearly a master craftsman, but The Haunted Castle is filled with portent and dread that never really add up to much, culminating in a final reveal that seems strangely anti-climactic. The film is only 81 minutes long, but it seems to drag on forever as it builds up to its climax, belaboring flashbacks and overwrought drama to mask the fact that it doesn't really have a particularly strong plot. It's certainly beautiful - Murnau crafts some of his most strikingly lovely shots here (a sepia-tinted flashback sequence is especially breathtaking), but the film's narrative is often left spinning its wheels.

There's no doubt that Murnau could conjure up an eerie, Gothic atmosphere like no other, but that's really all that The Haunted Castle as going for it, and all the ominous looks and heightened dramatics really add up to nothing by the end. Murnau would recycle much of the best bits of the film for Nosferatu a year later (specifically a vampiric dream sequence that comes out of nowhere), which makes The Haunted Castle something of an interesting curio for fans of German silent cinema.

The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) is essentially the B-side of Kino's new Blu-Ray release of The Haunted Castle, yet it's actually the stronger of the two films. Thematically, it makes a perfect pairing with The Haunted Castle - both films feature misunderstood aristocratic protagonists attempting to clear their name, outwitting the corrupt grifters and sycophants who seek to stab them in the back for their own advancement.

THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE.

Yet the 1924 film takes an entirely different approach to the material. Whereas The Haunted Castle is dark and portentous, Finances of the Grand Duke is light and comedic, taking a much less self-serious route to similar ends. Murnau was not a filmmaker known for making fluffy comedies, and there are certainly darker underpinnings to the story as the Duke's enemies attempt to have him assassinated (a plot line clearly inspired by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 10 years prior). Yet by shaking off the gloomy and sinister trappings of The Haunted Castle  Murnau actually delivers a much more focused and straightforward film.

Working from a screenplay by none other than Thea von Harbou (a frequent Fritz Lang collaborator who also wrote Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, The Testament of Dr. MabuseDie Nibelungen, and Destiny), The Finances of the Grand Duke is a bit of a madcap caper in which a debt-ridden duke attempts to escape creditors and other vultures looking to tear his kingdom apart in order to marry the much wealthier princess of Russia, who is likewise surrounded by incompetents and corrupt bureaucrats. While "charming" is perhaps not the right word to use her, Murnau is clearly having fun with this, and it feels fresh and invigorated where The Haunted Castle felt bloated and heavy-handed. There are chases (both by sea and by car) mistaken identities, disguises, and kidnappings, piling on subplots without ever losing focus of its ultimate goal.

The 1994 restoration on the new Blu-Ray edition leaves something to be desired - the film is in dire need of a clean-up, especially in comparison to the lovely (and more recent) restoration of The Haunted Castle. Yet the disc's sole special feature is a commentary track on The Finances of the Grand Duke and one can't help but wonder why this film didn't merit its own separate release, rather than as the bottom of a double bill of lesser Murnau works? Regardless, in an age of ephemeral digital media (RIP Filmstruck), physical media is more important than ever, and the chance to own these two oft-overlooked films should excite cinephiles and silent film fans everywhere. Even at his most minor, Murnau was a fascinating filmmaker whose ability to paint with light remains as striking as ever, and watching him attempt to satirize the privileged in Weimar-era Germany is a hard prospect to resist.

THE HAUNTED CASTLE - ★★ (out of four)
THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE - ★★★ (out of four)


Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on Feb. 12.

Monday, January 28, 2019

For this writer, the antics of Laurel and Hardy conjure up memories of Saturday mornings spent with my grandfather, watching the legendary comedy duo's short films on AMC (back when they actually broadcast real American Movie Classics). Every Laurel and Hardy fan has their own story to tell, of course, but for the generations who grew up with these two gentle comics since their first pairing at Hal Roach Studios in 1926, there was no one more reliably funny or more charmingly relatable.

There were more certainly more daring (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd) and more versatile (Charlie Chaplin) comedians working during the silent era, yet none were more instinctual or made the transition to sound more seamlessly than Laurel & Hardy. While Keaton's career all but ended with the advent of sound, and Chaplin continued making silent films well into the 1930s, Laurel & Hardy carved out a unique niche for themselves,  completely inseparable and reliant on each other, and possessed of a singular drive to entertain.

The film Stan & Ollie shows us a different side of the comedy team. By the time we meet Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), the glory days of the 1920s and 30s are behind them, and the two men are now coasting on the fumes of their celebrity. The year is 1953, and the two men are attempting to jump-start their stalled film careers by taking a live tour across the UK, performing some of their greatest hits to increasingly thin audiences. There's a certain warmth and familiarity that goes along with this sort of sentimentally tinged biopic, and yet director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid many pitfalls of the genre by reframing the narrative around a part of the subjects' lives that most aren't familiar with.

Stan & Ollie isn't an origin story or a glorified "making-of" film that chronicles how they made their most beloved films. Instead, it picks up in their twilight years, trying to recapture their former glory, while at the same time reopening old wounds from Hardy's perceived betrayal of his partnership with Laurel by taking a contractually obligated picture called Zenobia without him in 1939, alongside Harry Langdon. It was a wound that would never quite heal for Laurel, and it serves as the crux of the drama in Stan & Ollie.

There's a kind of elegiac charm here that is hard to resist, as two lions in winter set out to prove that they're still viable so they can make one last film that will never be. Coogan and Reilly are both excellent as the iconic duo, indelibly capturing their famous rapport with a beautiful mixture of imitation and homage. It captures the gentle spirit of Laurel and Hardy while taking a peek behind  the facade to explore both the tension and the true love and respect that made them who they were. Stan & Ollie is the kind of film that derives from a true passion for its subjects, borrowing snippets from some of their most famous films (fans will surely recognize callbacks to County Hospital and their Academy Award winning The Music Box) without feeling as though it's simply wallowing in nostalgia. It's a warm-hearted and loving ode to one of the greatest comedy teams of all time that manages not only to capture the spirit of its subjects - it reminds us why we fell in love with them in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


STAN & OLLIE | Directed by Jon S. Baird | Stars Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones | Rated PG for some language, and for smoking | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a celebrity in recent years. Her reputation as the dissenter on a mostly conservative country has resulted in an almost superhero-like status on the left. She was the focus of not one but two different films in 2018, including the Oscar-nominated documentary, RBG, as well as the biopic On the Basis of Sex, a pleasant but not particularly challenging look at her younger days as a female lawyer in a male-dominated world.

The film centers around Ginsburg's landmark gender discrimination case before the U.S. Court of Appeals in which she argued that a tax law that excluded a single man from a caretaker credit for looking after his ailing mother was unconstitutional. The ruling helped strike down generations of discriminatory laws that targeted women; by putting a man at the center of the case, Ginsburg brilliantly played against popular prejudices of the day to illustrate the damage caused by laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.

Structurally, On the Basis of Sex is a fairly standard courtroom drama with a mid-range prestige drama veneer. Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer are in fine form as Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, but the film breaks no ground and never really pushes itself beyond its comforting, hagiographic roots. Ginsburg is, without a doubt, a figure to be celebrated, and her achievement is one that has impacted the lives of generations of women, paving the way for greater equality under the law in the decades since. By focusing on this pivotal event in Ginsburg's career, director Mimi Leder is able to explore a side of her that those who only see her as the elderly Supreme Court Justice never got to see - young, prim, reserved, yet possessed of a fiery appetite for justice.

It is telling, however, that the film's most emotional moment comes in the late-breaking appearance by the Justice herself. On the Basis of Sex is a mildly engaging, competently made film. But it's also not a particularly exciting one. Much like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation GameOn the Basis of Sex plays it completely straight. The results are pleasant but often uninspired, an enjoyable history lesson that is as noble in intention as it is ultimately forgettable.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


ON THE BASIS OF SEX | Directed by Mimi Leder | Stars  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root | Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content | Now playing in theaters nationwide

It has been 19 years since the release of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000). As the follow-up to his breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, the film was greeted by some at the time as a disappointment. The mind-blowing twist at the end of Sixth Sense set a high bar of expectations, and it wasn't long before Shyamalan became pigeon-holed for making feature-length "Twilight Zone" episodes that featured a shocking turn of events at their climax. Audiences expected to be shocked every time, spending more time trying to guess the twist than engaging with the story Shyamalan was trying to tell.

Unbreakable's ending isn't so much a shocker as it is a complete reframing of the film we just watched. The now iconic twist at the end of The Sixth Sense served a similar purpose, but Unbreakable s is a much more subtle and yet seemingly inevitable turn of events. In the years since, the film has garnered quite a few fans, and in this critic's estimation, it is Shyamalan's finest work as a filmmaker to date. It's an elegantly crafted mystery that smartly deconstructs comic book mythology. So when the twist at the end of 2017's Split revealed that it was set in the same world as Unbreakable  anticipation for a long-promised Unbreakable sequel hit an all-time high.

Shyamalan has always said that he originally envisioned Unbreakable as the first part of a trilogy exploring superhero mythology. His latest film, Glass, is not exactly the film he promised all those years ago, but that's part of its appeal. The film picks up nearly 20 years after the events of the first film. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) now owns his own security business while moonlighting as "The Overseer," a cloaked vigilante who takes down petty criminals with the help of his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark).

Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), aka "The Horde," is still on the loose, and has kidnapped a new group of young women. When a failed confrontation ends with both Crumb and Dunn in a mental institution with Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) under the treatment of one Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson), the reality of their situation comes into question. Do they really possess superhuman abilities? It's point Mr. Glass is determined to prove to the world, and a dastardly plot to validate comic book mythology and reveal the superhumans to the world soon begins to take shape.

Much like Unbreakable Glass constantly subverts audience expectations, denying us the climactic showdown it promises. The film turns left every time we expect it to turn right. Shyamalan has many faults as a filmmaker; he often ignores critical details that get in the way of his narrative, his writing often has an awkward, expository cadence, and yet there are few filmmakers working today as consistently interesting. Glass is not a great film, but it is a fascinating one. It's a sequel to a 20 year old drama about real life super heroes that is actively deconstructing its own mythology even as it's building it. In that regard it's often like a dog chasing its own tail, yet it clearly follows a familiar superhero trajectory while similarly undercutting audience expectations.

Glass is not the elegantly crafted genre deconstruction that Unbreakable was. But you'll be hard pressed to find a mainstream filmmaker so boldly grappling with big ideas, even if his experiments don't always land. It's a messy, sometimes unwieldy film, yet one can't help but be enthralled by what Shyamalan is doing here. Just as composer West Dylan Thordson strips down James Newton Howard's original musical themes from Unbreakable, so too is Shyamalan stripping away the trappings of popular myth making to its barest essence, reframing the narrative and exploring the origins of superhumans through the lens of society's complicated reactions to the extraordinary. This is in no way the film we expected it to be - it seems strangely straightforward, anti-climactic, and meandering, and yet that seems like the most thematically appropriate way to honor the legacy of Unbreakable.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


GLASS  | Directed by M. Night Shyamalan | Stars James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard | Rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.