Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up." - James Baldwin

After famously losing, and then winning, the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight (2016), a swooning, romantic meditation on the act of being black and gay in America, director Barry Jenkins turned his eye toward something perhaps even more ambitious - an adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, itself a kind of romantic fantasia on black identity.

The two films are cut from the same cloth; poetic and winsome, heartbreaking yet uplifting, making the political deeply personal. In a year that has seen several great films boldly tackle race in America, from Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman to Travis Wilkerson's Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?If Beale Street Could Talk takes a more understated and lyrical route to similar ends. It would be a mistake to assume that Jenkins' subdued style belies a lack of righteous fury. His style may not be radical or indignant, but it gets at the heart of an essential truth about being black in a world dominated by whiteness. Jenkins finds beauty in the essence of blackness in the form of two black people falling in love in spite of the systemic obstacles of the prison industrial complex.

The film's protagonists, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), are an almost idyllic couple, who share a love so pure it almost feels too wholesome for this world. The prim, shy Tish, the strong, doting Fonny - they seem like a match made in heaven. At least until Fonny gets arrested for a rape he did not commit, railroaded by a white police officer with a grudge and a desperate and frightened woman who never saw her attacker. Compounding their troubles, Tish discovers that she is pregnant, a revelation that threatens to tear her family apart. Yet all the while they are sustained by their own intoxicating memories of their courtship, giving them hope for a better future, even when simply existing is a daily struggle.

While the film is set in New York, Memphis' Beale Street, the birthplace of jazz, serves as a kind of metaphor for the black experience. In Baldwin's lush prose, the film informs us that there was a time when every black person in America came from a Beale Street - the "black part of town," a segregated world mistrusted and avoided by white society. With the odds stacked against them and a prison system seemingly designed for the sole purpose of re-enslaving young black men, Tish and Fonny struggle to carve out their own little corner of the world, despite every obstacle thrown in their path by system of white supremacy.

While Moonlight, an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, "Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," was awash in cool blues and purples, If Beale Street Could Talk is distinguished by a warm palate of yellows, reds, and browns; earthy, grounded, and rich. It's a sublime experience - filled with gorgeous costumes, comforting earth tone hues, Baldwin's vibrant prose, and rapturous Nicholas Britell music. It often feels like a Douglas Sirk film by way of Wong Kar Wai; a romantic soap-opera on the surface, but something much deeper and more devastating underneath. Even here, this seemingly perfect love story is held back by forces beyond the couple's control, and yet like generations before them and generations after, they forge through with their heads held high, because they understand their own inherent dignity and worth. It's as inspiring as it is heartbreaking, uplifting as it is painful - an emotional sucker punch that feels pregnant with a constant sense of beauty coupled with an unavoidable air of tragedy. One can't help but be reminded of Ava DuVernay's remarkable sophomore feature, Middle of Nowhere, in its wrenching depiction of a racist justice system's pointed destruction of the black family, as sure sign that Jenkins is in good company here.

"All good art is political! There is none that isn’t." Toni Morrison once said. "My point is that is has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time." If Beale Street Could Talk packs a political punch without ever directly saying so. It is at once a celebration of blackness and an admonishment of white supremacy, and the way it so insidiously (and at times imperceptibly) worms its way into the African American community's daily lives. It is a work of profound and tremulous beauty, a haunting tone poem that feels like the work of an artist filled with hope but constantly on the verge of tears. In the words of Baldwin himself, "Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men." In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins stirs those embers with with a great and fearsome power, releasing them into the wind in a flutter of tiny sparks like a million specks of light in the darkness, folding flashbacks within flashbacks in a non-linear structure that delves deep into the essence of African American life. If Beale Street could talk, its music would be the deep, jazzy, soulful music of love overcoming all things, and Jenkins speaks the language of hope with bracing, enrapturing fluency.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK | Directed by Barry Jenkins | Stars KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis | Rated R for language and some sexual content | Opens Friday, Dec. 14, in select cities.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Outside of the Toy Story franchise, Disney's sequels to its own animated films have historically been something of a mixed bag. Often going direct-to-video, they tend to be designed to make a quick buck off licensing and merchandise rather than adding anything to the story the original set out to tell.

That is thankfully not the case with Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, in which the titular video game villain (John C. Reilly) finds redemption and friendship after becoming tired of his destructive programming. Now, he and his best friend, the glitchy racer Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), spend their evenings goofing off in other video games until the sun comes up, before heading off to their own respective games. But Vanellope wants to break out of their monotonous routine, while Ralph only wants what's familiar and comfortable. When Ralph's efforts to shake things up for Vanellope ends up wrecking her game, the pair find themselves journeying to the internet in order to find a crucial part that could save Sugar Rush. Once inside the internet, Vanellope discovers the vast world outside her backyard, and begins to yearn for new surroundings, even if that means leaving Ralph behind.

We've all had friends we've outgrown to some degree, whether we moved away from them or their goals and dreams just didn't align with our own. It's a bittersweet part of life that Ralph Breaks the Internet embraces with disarming emotional acuity. Ralph and Vanellope are friends traveling in different directions - one wanting familiarity and routine, the other longing for adventure and the unknown. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a film about moving on and letting go, and reconciling and embracing our loved ones unique ambitions, even if they diverge wildly from our own.

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston skillfully navigate these tricky emotional waters, acknowledging the wistful and sometimes painful beauty of friendship, and it does so with great humor and heart. The film is wonderfully self-referential, creating a dazzling and witty personification of the internet and internet culture that pokes gentle fun at Disney's brand synergy while satirizing everything from social media to online click-bait. The much ballyhooed cameos by the Disney princesses (many voiced by the original actors) offer several comedic highlights, and showcase an unusual willingness for Disney to make fun of itself.

Ralph Breaks the Internet marks a giant leap forward for Disney animation, stepping out of the shadow of Pixar and asserting that even without their partner studio Disney animation is perfectly capable of producing smart, original, and emotionally grounded films apart from their trademark fairy tale/princess musicals. It not only manages to expand the world of the original, but deepen its emotional resonance as well - the mark of a truly successful sequel.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET | Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston | Stars  John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Phil Johnston, Paige O'Hara, Irene Bedard, Mandy Moore, Auli'i Cravalho, Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Kelly Macdonald, Anika Noni Rose, Linda Larkin, Jodi Benson, Ming-Na Wen, Alfred Molina | Rated PG for some action and rude humor | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directing team behind 2015's Meru, return with Free Solo, another documentary about extreme mountain climbers with a death wish. The film centers around Alex Honnold, a "free solo" mountain climber who prefers climbing mountains without the aid of ropes or climbing equipment, scaling mountains on his own with only his hands and wits to guide him.

It's an undeniably impressive feat, but also a potentially crazy one. Free Solo tracks Honnold's quest to scale the nearly vertical face of El Capitan without rope. In contrast with Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi do a better job of questioning their subject's motives (by doing so at all), making Honnold's girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, one of the central figures in the film and drawing attention to the fact that nearly every free solo climber who has gained any notoriety has ended up dead. And yet, Free Solo is such an ultimately joyous and celebratory work that it's difficult to really grapple with the gravity of what Honnold is really doing here. The filmmakers seem to undercut their points at every turn, breezing past the dark places any reasonable train of thought takes them in an effort to heap more adoration on Honnold.

Free Solo seeks first and foremost to frame Honnold's achievement as a great athletic feat, rather than probing his motivations for such a stunt. It doesn't help that Honnold is an often cold and stand-offish figure who really doesn't seem to understand or care about the effect his death would have on those around him. As the film's hero he's certainly difficult to identify with, and yet Chin and Vasarhelyi never seem to challenge or really push him to examine his quixotic and potentially suicidal dream. Tearful interviews with McCandless juxtaposed with Hannold's nonchalance are difficult to watch, and one can't help but wonder - what's the point? Why is all this potential pain worth this feat? Why not do the same thing but with safety equipment?

Hannold can't really answer those questions - he just knows its something he has to do, arrogantly comparing the act of free solo climbing with the "way of the warrior." Free Solo never pushes back on this, treating it all as some sort of mythic quest for greatness. Yet one can't help but feel that this whole thing is so misguided. It's beautifully filmed, to be sure, filled with sweeping mountain vistas and dizzying views, and the final free solo ascent up El Capitan one of the year's most harrowing cinematic set-pieces. But what's it all for? Hannold's ultimately selfish act of recklessness is given a hagiographic treatment that feels both irresponsible and emotionally dishonest, never truly grappling with the ramifications of what it is celebrating.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

FREE SOLO | Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | Rated PG-13 for brief strong language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

A young boy, feeling neglected after the birth of his baby sister, discovers a rift in time that allows him to visit with both past and future versions of his family members as he navigates his way through parental conflicts and sibling rivalries. It's an undeniably compelling premise - rich with possibility and emotional sagacity. Yet Mirai, the latest film from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children), is caught in a strange kind of episodic structure that never really allows that premise to blossom in any sort of satisfying way.

Our hero, four-year-old Kun (Jaden Waldman), is perhaps one of the most unlikable and abrasive protagonists to grace the screen in recent memory. He may only be a toddler, but his constant, wailing temper tantrums become tiresome after a while. Parents of small children may find themselves with a knowing smirk on their faces at that thought, but it makes for unpleasant viewing when the protagonist is just so hard to care about.

The real heart and soul of the film is, as the title suggests, Kun's little sister, Mirai (Victoria Grace), who visits Kun in an older form and helps guide him through the avalanche of feelings that are overwhelming his young mind. Mirai, as both baby and teenager, represents Kun's future as both older brother and guide, yet here it is the younger sibling helping to teach the younger about responsibility sibling love. Kun also meets his mother as a young girl, discovering that she was often just as naughty as he (and that she learned many of her parenting techniques and bad habits from her own mother), as well as his grandfather as a young, uncovering the truth behind a long-held family legend about how he proposed to Kun's grandmother.

These vignettes are often quite moving, yet they never really connect to one another, and Kun shows little character growth after each episode. No matter how many adventures he goes on with the older Mirai, he still seems to resent and even hate her in her younger form. The lack of growth means the film never really picks up any real momentum, so that even its most emotional segments don't quite land with the same power that they perhaps could have. It's beautifully animated, and the score by Masakatsu Takagi is lovely, but narratively it often feels like it's spinning its wheels.

It exists mostly in a child's fantasy world, the parents (John Cho and Rebecca Hall) mostly clueless or distracted, but it seems to be missing a key component to hold it all together and connect its many threads. Anyone with a younger sibling (or an older one, for that matter) will likely find something to recognize in Mirai, especially in the way it connects the dots between the past and future of a family, each moment reverberating through time to create the people we are today. But it never quite figures out how to convey that in a way that ties all its myriad elements together.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MIRAI | Directed by Mamoru Hosoda | Stars John Cho, Rebecca Hall, Victoria Grace, Jaden Waldman, Crispin Freeman | Rated PG for hematic elements including some scary images | Showing nationwide Dec. 5 and Dec. 8. Now playing in select cities. Click here for ticket information.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Filmmaker Julian Schnabel is first and foremost a painter. While he has six directing credits to his name since 1996's Basquiat, Schnabel is perhaps best known for his work in the art world rather than in film. Yet there is something almost painterly about his films. It was obvious in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with his stunning use of close-ups to suggest the inner life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a paralyzed man who could only communicate by blinking.

His latest work, At Eternity’s Gate, is something else entirely - a breathtaking tribute to one artist by another. Here, Schnabel examines the final days of the legendary Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). As he did in Basquiat, Schnabel has turned his passion for a great artist and turned it into something deeply personal, often abstract, and genuinely profound. This is not a typical biopic; Schnabel isn't interested in the historical details of Van Gogh's life, nor is he interested in creating a linear through-line in which to play connect-the-dots with facts. Just as Van Gogh was an impressionist painter, so too is At Eternity’s Gate an impressionist film, capturing the inner workings of the artist's singular vision, seeking to evoke his emotion and passion in striking visual ways.

Unlike last year's beautiful but thuddingly literal Loving VincentAt Eternity’s Gate recalls Van Gogh's visual style without copying it directly. Schnabel offers a window into Van Gogh's mind, often filming in first person POV to put is directly in his shoes. When we look at the world through Vincent's eyes, colors become brighter, objects become distorted, and suddenly we see the vibrant beauty in even the most mundane objects of nature's abundance. It's an exhilarating experience, and Schnabel spends long, wordless sequences lingering on landscapes as Van Gogh trudges through the countryside in a kind of ecstatic reverie, seeing the world around him as it can only be seen by a great artist.

Rather than illuminate Van Gogh as a historical figure, At Eternity’s Gate chooses instead to illuminate him as an artist. Its unlikely audiences will leave the film knowing more about him than when they went in, but that's not really the point here. Schnabel is more interested in how Van Gogh saw the world, in examining what made him tick, what motivated him to create some of the most beautiful paintings ever created. Through Dafoe's deeply acutely introspective performance, Schnabel is able to imagine the world is seen by one the great masters of the medium, a man who found success only in death, yet saw the world in a way no one else did. Much like the artist himself observed the world, the film sees him not necessarily as he really was, instead examining the essence of the man through work he created.

It's a thrilling thing to watch one artist grapple with the work of another in such a passionate and evocative way. It's something like a daydream, a wistful and yearning work that pines for the beauty in all things, combining vibrant cinematography by Benoît Delhomme and pensive music by Tatiana Lisovkaia to create a fully immersive experience. It suggests Van Gogh without directly copying him, leaving us with winsome and haunted impressions of a man we're really only able to know by the artwork he left behind. At Eternity’s Gate recognizes that legacy as a kind of gift to the world that reverberates into the infinite, mysterious and unknowable, and seeks not to understand, but to feel a legend as only another artist truly could.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AT ETERNITY'S GATE | Directed by Julian Schnabel | Stars Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Jason Reitman is no stranger to political satire, having weaved political and social commentary into films like Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air with some success, and into films like Men, Women, & Children with some measure of ham-fisted awkwardness. Yet his latest film, The Front Runner, is his first to tackle real-life politics head-on, chronicling the unravelling of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1988.

Hart (Hugh Jackman), who was running for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president (which eventually went to Michael Dukakis, who went on to lose to George H.W. Bush), was widely considered to be the front-runner to not only win the nomination, but to win the presidency itself. He was a charismatic, forward-thinking progressive who had worked on the McGovern campaign, and wasn't afraid to advocate for big ideas and progressive change after eight years of the still popular Ronald Reagan's presidency.

His candidacy was undone, however, by his affair with a campaign staffer, uncovered by reporters from the Miami Harold after Hart dismissively told a reporter inquiring about rumors surrounding his marriage to hire a tail and follow him around, insisting that they would be very bored. The Herald took it as a challenge, and his political career ended up in shambles as a result. Reitman takes Hart's downfall and uses it as a crux for an examination of both journalistic and political ethics in the age of Trump in The Front Runner.

Using Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and a roving camera that evokes Altman's own political 1988 political satire, Tanner '88The Front Runner attempts to paint an intimate portrait of journalistic ethics and its relationship to power, and the importance of personal integrity in leadership. In the #MeToo era, was Hart simply a man having a consensual relationship outside his marriage, or was he abusing his power? Are the personal lives of our leaders none of our business? Where is the line on what its acceptable for journalists to report? There are so many inherent questions in this story that it's a shame that the result is so staid and dramatically inert.

The moral ambiguity of The Front Runner is part of its purpose, but rather than explore the moral gray areas of this incident, it mistakes not having a point of view for insight.  The film raises a lot of questions but mostly brushes them under a rug, refusing to really grapple with difficult issues in any profound way. Its use of a lone female reporter at the Washington Post voicing token opposition to Hart feels like a pat acknowledgment of #MeToo ideals, but it almost feels like lip service to the idea rather than actual reflection. The film also spends precious little time examining what Hart actually stood for (save for a brief moment of acceptance shown to his lesbian daughter that plays like some sort of screenwriting shorthand), choosing instead to focus on the scandal, which has considerably less impact as a result.

To his credit, Reitman never attempts to absolve or condemn Hart, asking the audience instead to fill in the gaps on their own. The problem is that in his attempt to create some sort of dramatic neutrality he made a film that's just not particularly interesting. Jackman is in fine form as Hart, and Vera Farmiga makes the most out of a thankless "long suffering wife" role. But why this film, and why now? Is it a wistful look back on a time when we held our leaders to a higher standard? Is it an exploration of how we reached out current era when salacious gossip takes center stage in our media? The Front Runner doesn't seem quite sure what it is, which is what sets it apart from the Altman films it so brazenly emulates. Altman always had a twinkle in his eye, an inherent eye for cutting through bullshit. The Front Runner never quite gets there, languishing instead in a kind of inchoate examination of the heart of modern American politics that, much like Hart's campaign, never quite seems to get off the ground.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE FRONT RUNNER | Directed by Jason Reitman | Stars Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Kaitlyn Dever, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge | Rated R for language including some sexual references | Now playing in select theaters.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

In 1992, author Lee Israel, whose biographies on figures such as Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder had met with either mild success or public indifference, found herself working menial hourly jobs just to get by. No longer a viable name in publishing, Israel was at a loss; unwilling to give up her career as an author, yet unable to sell her dream biography of an obscure vaudeville star.

While researching her new book, she runs across a letter from Noël Coward in a dusty volume in the library, and is inspired to start forging letters from famous literary figures, selling them for exorbitant sums and raking in the cash. But when buyers become suspicious, Israel soon finds herself in far more trouble than she ever anticipated.

The great irony of Israel's predicament, of course, was that for the first time in her life, people were clamoring to pay for her writing. Yet no one knew they were her words - written under the guise of far more well-known authors, Israel was finally getting the praise she always felt like she deserved, but someone else was getting all the credit. Melissa McCarthy beautifully embodies that inner conflict as Israel in Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me?, taking the idea of the sad-sack loner she has played to such great comedic effect in films like Identity Thief and Tammy and giving it an added sense of pathos. McCarthy takes an inherently unlikable character, a bitter alcoholic whose acerbic wit is usually at someone else's expense, and makes the audience feel for and even identify with her.

Yet while Israel is busy alienating everyone in her life, save for her similarly devious but none-too-bright partner in crime, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), McCarthy is busy worming her way into our hearts, making us care about the plight of a woman who was, by most accounts, wholly unpleasant. The film is based on Israel's own confessional memoir of the same name, and yet it doesn't hold back in depicting her myriad flaws. Heller never asks us to absolve Israel's crimes, but she does ask us to understand her motivations as a flawed human being in a desperate situation. McCarthy takes this to the next level, digging into Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's biting screenplay with relish, finding the humanity of her character even at her most repellant.

The film cuts a few narrative corners along the way - a scene near the end of the film featuring a frail Hock to let the audience know that he  contracted AIDS feels like a last-minute piece of Oscar-baiting character development shorthand - but Heller keeps the action tightly focused on Israel and McCarthy's beautifully burnished performance. Shot in drab browns and grays, Can You Ever Forgive Me? indelibly captures Israel's shabby life, but McCarthy gives it the warmth it needs as the film's morally dubious center. She allows us to peak inside the mind of a woman who made some bad decisions and got in way over her head. And while none of us may take even a seemingly innocent crime to such devastating lengths, it illustrates the slippery slope between white lies and felonies with disarming narrative grace, reminding us that being a criminal doesn't necessarily make one a monster.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? | Directed by Marielle Heller | Stars  Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella | Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

During the early part of the 20th century, black travelers in the American south often travelled with a slim green volume called "The Negro Motorist Green-book," which detailed safe, black-friendly restaurants, hotels, and shops throughout the Jim Crow south. This important piece of African American history has of course been given the Hollywood treatment with a white man at the center of the story.

Like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, with feel-good racial politics straight out the 1980s, Peter Farrelly's Green Book tells the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a racist tough-guy who is hired to be the driver for black classical pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), providing security for the musician's dangerous tour through the deep south in 1962 while using the eponymous Green Book as his guide. Along the way the two form a fast friendship that would last a lifetime, as Lip learns to overcome his own prejudices once he sees the discrimination and outright hostility that Shirley faces at every turn.

On the surface it's a nice story about breaking down walls and washing away deep-seated prejudice. Where it falters is in the simplistic way it tackles these themes. Lip, a no-nonsense Italian from New York, is shocked that the effete and cultured Shirley has never had fried chicken or listened to Little Richard, and insists on feeding Shirley the food and playing him the music "his people." It's set up as a comedic moment, but there's something deeply cringe-worthy about a scene in which a white man essentially teaches a black man what it means to be black based on his own stereotypical assumptions. Lip eventually learns what it really means to be black in America as he witnesses more overt racism first-hand, but Green Book seems to traffic in the kind of feel-good idea that all racism is obvious and malicious, a common mis-conception that allows white people to pat themselves on the back for not being the kind of racist that would make a black person use an outhouse rather than allow them to use the bathroom in their home.

The reality, of course, is much more complex than that; racism is a much deeper issue than hating someone because of the color of their skin. Yet the touchy-feely theme at the heart of Green Book,  that we're all the same color beneath the skin, is the kind of saccharine, surface-level platitude that keeps us from confronting the systemic and often unseen heart of racism, and allows racists to continue to believe themselves to not be racist.

Thematic queasiness aside, Green Book is a slickly made and often affecting film, anchored by two magnificent performances by Ali and Mortensen. But for every moment of genuine emotion, the film comes screeching to a halt thanks to its strangely outdated and often quaint depiction on racism in America. The America of 1962 may have worn its racism more obviously on its sleeve, but just because we no longer have separate facilities for black people and white people doesn't mean that racism has been solved. It's easy to watch a film like Green Book and think "thank goodness things aren't like that anymore." But while things have certainly improved since the 60s, it's dangerous to believe that racism is a thing of the past. It hasn't disappeared, it has simply evolved.

Racism, if you will forgive the expression, is not a black and white issue, and simplistic crowd-pleasers like Green Book only serve to perpetuate that outdated notion. In a year that has given us such complex studies of race in America like Spike Lee's brash BlacKkKlansman, Barry Jenkins' heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk, and Travis Wilkerson's incendiary documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?Green Book feels like a relic, offering a Band-Aid for a wound far too deep to be healed by such surface-level hokum. Its heart may be in the right place, but there's something almost naive, even reductive, in the way it takes a black man's story and puts a white man at its center, insisting that racism is a problem that only a white man with a black friend can solve.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

GREEN BOOK | Directed by Peter Farrelly | Stars Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

“For mothers” reads the post-script of Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, a wise, wonderful, and altogether marvelous film about the long-suffering manager of a knock-off Hooters sports bar dealing with the seemingly never-ending crises of middle management. 

Stuck between an absentee owner who has no idea what actually goes on in his business, much less any real connection to his employees, and a working class staff unable to leave their daily problems at the door, Lisa (a luminous Regina Hall) displays both the patience of Job and the steely determination of a working class queen.

Kind, big-hearted almost to a fault, yet completely understanding of the world around her and her place in it, Lisa faces each of the day's problems with a smile, dealing with with everything from employee theft to owner incompetence, to a cable failure before a big fight, to unruly customers, all while trying to make the next week's schedule and host an off-the-books benefit car wash for one of the waitresses.

“All I wanted to do today was one good thing," she sighs at the end of yet another long day in which seemingly nothing went right. Yet it is her calm, nurturing presence that that keeps the ship from capsizing in the midst of myriad storms. Lisa may not be a mother, but as the film's dedication suggests, her penchant for barely holding it together for the sake of others while putting out fire after fire is a testament to the strength of mothers and working class women everywhere for whom just getting through the day is a daily struggle. Support the Girls exists at an intersection of race, gender, and class, each character working paycheck to paycheck in exhausting, thankless jobs that society at large would consider "unskilled" for minimum pay. Yet Bujalski displays a keen understanding that it is these very service industry workers who are perhaps the most overworked and underpaid. Lisa, so dedicated to her job that she stops to ask a customer how his meal was even after quitting, represents a thoroughly modern working woman who doesn't take shit off of anyone while trying to keep food on the table and the world around her from falling apart.

For Bujalski, whose trademark brand of improvisational realism first brought the term "mumblecore" into the popular lexicon with films like Beeswax and Computer ChessSupport the Girls is perhaps his most formal work yet. But never once does he sacrifice verisimilitude for structural precision. Support the Girls is a warm, funny, sublimely entertaining film, anchored by a soulful performance by Regina Hall, whose smiling face barely hides the weariness underneath. She deserves all the awards buzz that she will never get for a film of this scale, but it's a performance for the ages that cannot be praised enough. It's one of the understated wonders of the year in film, a small-scale miracle that peels back the smiling, attractive facade of the American service industry and reveals the blood, sweat, and tears that keep the fantasy going.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS | Directed by Andrew Bujalski | Stars Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, Shayna McHayle, Dylan Gelula, AJ Michalka | Rated R for language including sexual references, and brief nudity | Now playing in select theaters and on demand.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The second part in a planned five-film series of prequels to the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is very much a middle film. There are enough tidbits and engaging set-pieces here to keep Harry Potter fans entertained, but not really enough to sustain an entire film. In fact, Crimes of Grindelwald seems to exist only to set up the next film, tantalizing us with clues and snippets of information but never really fully existing on its own. It's a collection of references and foreshadowings rather than a fully formed film in its own right.

Picking up where 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left off, The Crimes of Grindelwald finds awkward hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being sent on a mission by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to track down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the deadly obscurus from the first film who is now being sought by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) because of his immense power. As Grindelwald's influence over the wizarding world grows, the stage is set for the fabled first wizarding war, as Grindelwald seeks to subjugate muggles in order to bring the world's witches and wizards out of hiding and into the real world.

That's about where the clarity of the plot ends. The Crimes of Grindelwald is chock full of subplots and obscure bits of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world lore, but very little of it adds up to anything particularly satisfying. Grindelwald's Trump-ian rhetoric, demonizing those who are different in the name of some vague, wrong-headed idea of freedom gives the film some timely relevance, but it's all lost amid a flurry of exposition and arcane Potter mythology that feels as though Rowling is trying to cram as much backstory to the Harry Potter novels as possible without allowing the Fantastic Beasts series to live and breathe on its own.

That's not to say that there aren't some terrific set pieces here - a circus scene featuring the woman who will one day become Voldemort's pet snake, Nagini, is a visual wonder (but begs the question of why we needed a back story for Voldemort's snake), and Grindelwald's climactic rally offers a chilling look into how easily good people can become radicalized by seductive demagogues. Like its Academy Award winning predecessor, the film is gorgeously designed; featuring sumptuous costumes and lavish sets that immerse us into the wizarding world of 1920s Paris, and James Newton Howard's sweeping score is some of the composer's finest work in years.

The problem is that it's all in service of an inert narrative that ultimately leads nowhere, resulting in a film that is very much less than the sum of its parts. Not much actually happens in The Crimes of Grindelwald; much dialogue is spent on exposition (including several scenes and flashbacks dedicated to expounding on the Lestrange family tree), but the film doesn't actually have a story of its own. The climax is a bewildering CGI showdown, followed by still more exposition topped off by a last-minute twist that seems to be the only reason the film exists in the first place; yet still somehow adds nothing to the story we've just experienced. If the goal was to leave audiences wanting more, it succeeds. Unfortunately, we have to sit through an entire film to realize that we've just watched an extended teaser for yet another film that promises to answer all our questions at a later date. One has to admire the way Rowling has attempted to deliver a wizarding world for adults who grew up with Harry Potter, but this dark and joyless film is bound to leave audiences scratching their heads than experiencing any kind of wonder.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD | Directed by David Yates | Stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Johnny Depp, Zoë Kravitz | Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Much like his last two films, Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2011), both lyrical examinations of women attempting to cope with tragedy, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong's Burning is a kind of anti-mystery, a film where murder is the catalyst for a much larger exploration of Korean society.

Unlike those previous films, however, the woman at the center of the story is not the protagonist, rather the almost abstract projection of male fantasy for the film's two male leads - Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) a smitten delivery boy with whom she grew up, and Ben (Steven Yeun), the enigmatic new boyfriend she picks up on a spontaneous trip to Africa.  Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) exists as a kind of blank slate on which the two men project their fantasies and ideals. For Jongsu, she is the "manic pixie dream-girl" he has been in love with his entire life, having grown up nearby idolizing her from afar. For Ben, she is a kind of toy, something to be picked up and thrown away on a whim. Jongsu is immediately suspicious of Ben's motives. Heartbroken by her seeming rejection of him after a mid-afternoon tryst before she jets off to Africa on a journey of self-exploration, Jongsu spends months visiting her apartment to feed her cat and masturbate on her bed, all the while constructing a vision of Haemi that doesn't really exist.

When Ben confides to Jongsu one night that he burns down greenhouses as a hobby (while Haemi dances naked in the sunset before them, a kind of embodiment of the fantasy the two men have constructed between them, sublimely and portentously scored to Miles Davis jazzy improvisations from Elevator to the Gallows), it isn't clear if he's speaking literally or metaphorically. This is where Lee starts building his expertly crafted mystery, because soon after Haemi disappears, and Jongsu seems to be the only one who notices or cares. Ben, intoning "you can make it disappear as if it never existed" with an almost detached nonchalance about his burned down greenhouses, seems the most likely suspect. But as Jongsu attempts to track her down, he uncovers a series of lies and deceptions that lead him to dubious conclusions, and leave the audience questioning whether Haemi existed in the first place, or if she was some sort of male fantasy, a ghost being chased by horny and entitled young men.

Ben is almost a caricature of the entitled rich, while Jongsu is a kind of shiftless man-child for whom women are more sexual objects than real people, fodder for masturbatory fantasies rather than actual relationships. Lee shoots the film mostly from Jongsu's point of view, placing us in the hands of an unreliable narrator we're not sure we can trust. Is Haemi dead? Is Ben a murderer? Or did Haemi  (or at least Jongsu's version of Haemi) ever exist at all? Burning is a hazy, haunted evocation of a trio of lost souls trying to navigate life, trying (and often failing) to craft identities for themselves when they don't really know who they are themselves. Haemi has fallen into a trap of credit card debt, a problem among many Korean women trying to "keep up with the Joneses," while Ben and Jongsu embody twin pillars of male entitlement and rage.

That male rage is what percolates so darkly at the heart of Burning. Every frame seems to vibrate with it, clouding not only the characters' judgment but the perception of the audience as well. It obscures everything, from character motives to the truth itself, leaving the audience to feel its way through the fog. It's a disorienting, bracing, wholly exhilarating experience, filled with an unnerving and often eerie sense of impending doom that can't be stopped. Lee purposefully leaves the audience questioning its own eyes, positioning the film squarely in a moral gray area that forces the audience to question and evaluate itself. At one point the film's working title was "Project Rage" (it's loosely based on the short story, "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami), and indeed every frame seems to be saturated with anger. Yet that anger is always bubbling beneath the surface, seething and churning in a dark maelstrom that only occasionally breaks the surface. That hidden nature of its anger makes the film all the more disturbing. In a world of mass shootings almost exclusively perpetrated by angry young men, it is the rage you cannot see that is the most frightening, and the hardest to combat until it comes bursting through when something finally snaps. In Lee's haunted world we know a snap is coming, and when it finally arrives we're left with a sense of disquiet. We either just witnessed a moment of justice, or an act of cold-blooded cruelty. But what is most disturbing is Burning's final and most troubling query - is there really a difference?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BURNING | Directed by Lee Chang-Dong | Stars Yoo Ah-in Steven Yeun Jun Jong-seo Kim Soo-kyung Choi Seung-ho | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Dorothy Dalton, Rudolph Valentino, and Walter Long in MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY (1922)

Famously cut down in his prime at the age of 31 in 1926, silent movie star Rudolph Valentino was at the time arguably the most famous face in Hollywood. Valentino may not enjoy the same reputation as contemporaries Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Mary Pickford today, but at the time of his death he was a major star whose beauty in films like The Sheik lit up screens and hearts in equal measure. 

Perhaps Valentino is less remembered today because of the quality of his films. While Chaplin and Keaton made their masterpieces, and Pickford displayed a remarkable eye for talent and quality projects, Valentino was not so lucky in that regard. Valentino's undeniable beauty and piercing eyes are what made him a star, while his films were the 1920s equivalent of modern day blockbusters. Audiences flocked to see Valentino, but his films were often forgettable melodramas that haven't endured in cinema history the way he has.

While his most famous roles were in The Sheik (1921), its sequel Son of the Sheik (1926), and Blood & Sand (1922), Valentino started playing smaller roles much earlier, working his way up through the ranks to starring roles. Flicker Alley has collected many of these films into their new two-volume Rudolph Valentino Collection, which is an invaluable chronicle of the rise of a superstar.

Volume 1 contains two longer films that were early starring vehicles for the young star - Eyes of Youth (1919) and Moran of the Lady Letty (1922). In Eyes of Youth, a woman faced with the choice between two men, one a wealth playboy, the other her true love, is given the opportunity to look into the future to see where her decisions will ultimately lead in this melodrama, featuring Valentino in a supporting role.

Eyes of Youth is very much the kind of overripe soap opera that was popular in its day, but it was also surprisingly progressive in its view of sexual politics and the way women's lives were affected by the decisions of powerful men. Valentino's role is brief, but his smolder is unmistakable, and director Albert Parker (best known for the silent Douglas Fairbanks adventure, The Black Pirate) has a strong visual sense, resulting in some lovely cinematography by Arthur Edeson (Casablanca, Frankenstein).

Released a year after the success of The Sheik, Moran of the Lady Letty finds Valentino in full-on star mode, sending him off on the high seas took off on the high seas as a wealthy heir who gets shanghaied by a band of smugglers, where he meets a beautiful sailor's daughter who has lost her ship. Some leaps in logic and time can be accounted for by missing pieces of the film, but Moran of the Lady Letty is a handsome production, beautifully restored for the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition. Valentino shines in one of his earliest leading roles, and the spirit of adventure on display here would serve him well later in his short career.

Volume 2 of the collection contains more supporting roles and bit parts showcasing Valentino's path to fame. He appears as a romantic interest in 1918's A Society Sensation, which was truncated to 2 reels from a longer version after he became a hot commodity a few years after its release. A wealthy young man falls in love with the daughter of a fisherman, who may or may not be a long-lost duchess in this 1918 short film. The longer version has been long since lost, and this shortened cut excises a lot of the plot development to focus on Valentino rather than Carmel Myers' lead.

The surviving cut isn't particularly good. Valentino is an attractive lead and its easy to see why he became a star, but A Society Sensation is a cheaply produced melodrama at heart, diced to pieces as a cheap cash-in on a newly bankable star making it little more than a charming curio at this point.

1919's Virtuous Sinners is an obscure film in which Valentino only had a small, supporting role. An abused housewife is cast out by her husband, only to fall in love a with a criminal who she comes to love and support after he robs a bank to pay for an injured child's medical bills. Valentino plays a member of the man's gang, but the film is something of a truncated trifle that falls into the all-too-common silent trap of sermonizing its message with blunt force.

Standing on the precipice of stardom, Valentino appeared in a rare villainous role in James Vincent's Stolen Moments (1920), a romantic drama about a young woman (Marguerite Namara) in the deep south caught between an upstanding young man (Albert L. Barrett) and a latin lothario (Valentino).

A mostly dull, listless melodrama, the film was reduced from 5 reels to 2 after Valentino became a mega-star in the wake of The Sheik to focus more on his sleazy character, resulting in a stilted work that puts unnecessary focus on a secondary character, neutering its narrative drive. The only surviving elements of the film showcase some sophisticated editing, but its overall structure is so off-kilter that it just doesn't work. Interesting only as a piece of the Valentino puzzle, showcasing an actor about to enter the stratosphere. Volume 2 of the collection also includes The Young Rajah, a "lost" Valentino film made on the heels of The Sheik, quickly capitalizing on the young superstar's new found "exotic" persona.

While none of them are great films, they nevertheless offer a window into one of Hollywood's most indelible and inscrutable stars, a towering figure in film history who nevertheless remains something of a mystery to many. Like an early James Dean, Valentino was gone way too soon, a star that shone brightly before being snuffed out just as quickly. In Flicker Alley's new MOD Blu-Ray Valentino shines once again, making it a must-have set for enthusiasts of silent film.

The Rudolph Valentino Collection Volumes 1 and 2 are now available from Flicker Alley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Features:

The special features on the new Blu-Ray disc are mostly perfunctory - short behind-the-scenes featurettes that featuring cast and crew gushing about the production but offering little insight into the process. One featurette in particular shows great promise - "Pooh And Walt Become Friends," which chronicles how Walt Disney discovered and optioned A.A. Milne's original Winnie the Pooh books through his daughter, but its brevity leaves one wishing it were longer and more in-depth. More intriguing for grown-up viewers, perhaps, is the brief but emotional look at voice actor Jim Cummings reuniting with Winnie the Pooh in "Pooh Finds His Voice," and a featurette chronicling the process in which the stuffed characters were brought to life through a mix of practical and digital effects. While the featurettes are geared more for children (even though the film is really aimed at adult fans of Pooh and Friends), they offer some tantalizing, if all-too-brief tidbits that could have benefitted from a little more insight. Still, this is one Disney fans will want in their collection to revisit again and again, like a warm and familiar blanket on a cold winter's night.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN Directed by Marc Forster | Stars Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones | Rated PG for some action | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download.