Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What to do with the troublesome legacy of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation?

It is by any measure a virulently racist film. It has always been an uncomfortable film to watch, but it has been made even more so in the Trump era, with its celebration of lynching and voter intimidation, and imagery of a heroic Ku Klux Klan riding in to save innocent white folk from savage black ruffians. Here, simmering white resentment for the glorious lost cause of the Confederacy takes center stage, bringing the current resurgence of white nationalism into sharper focus. It was a phenomenon in its time, but even then not without controversy. It was rightfully protested by the NAACP, a reaction that so blindsided Griffith that he made his next film, Intolerance, as a sort of defense. And yet, Griffith's complete surprise that anyone would have been offended by Birth of a Nation is telling. It is a film where black people are seen as inhuman monsters at worst, uppity social climbers who don’t know their place at best, with scheming mulattos and shiftless black soldiers bent on revenge against the white man being the norm. Griffith went to to qualify the content with an intertitle claiming that it “represents no race of today” as if that somehow excused its racism. It’s the same excuse used by racists today, who insist they don’t hate black people, they’re just stating “facts.”

Intolerance has taken Birth’s place on most Greatest Films of All Time lists, but it’s impossible to ignore that fact that Birth came first. Intolerance is an undeniably great film, but Birth of a Nation was the real groundbreaker, and we ignore that at our own peril. It’s certainly easier to point to Intolerance as the true masterwork, but doing so is almost a cop-out so as to avoid discussion of its infinitely more problematic and controversial predecessor. Yet Birth of a Nation is a film that deserves, no demands, to be acknowledged, if for no other reason than to come to terms with the racist history it represents.

Birth of a Nation is undoubtedly a great film. It is an artistic and technical triumph that created the template for almost every action film since, and its influence is still felt today. Its heart-pounding cross-cutting between three different locations and events for its astonishing climax was groundbreaking in its day, and manages to tell a streamlined story without confusing the audience by switching locations mid-scene. Just look at The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars for an example - their climaxes rely on techniques pioneered by Griffith over 100 years ago.

And yet, Griffith’s powerful artistry was in service of something truly vile, not unlike the powerful imagery of Leni Riefenstahl, who used her undeniable talent to further the Nazi cause. Not all art serves the common good. Great art can be, at its core, evil. Therein lies the problem with The Birth of a Nation. It is an artistically daring, beautifully crafted, evil film. So where does that leave us as a modern audience?

Do we relegate it to the dustbin of history, ignored and forgotten despite it’s undeniable historical significance? Or do we resurrect it so we can understand it for what it is? I think it belongs in a museum (figuratively speaking), much like the confederate monuments it now recalls, where it can be learned from in a proper academic setting. Its craft and artistry are impeccable, but it remains one of the most ideologically reprehensible films ever made. That complicated legacy makes The Birth of a Nation a difficult one to discuss, because it represents the dehumanization of an entire race. But to ignore it is to ignore the problematic roots of not only our cinematic history, but of America itself. It says a lot about where we come from, and how we got where we are today. To watch the film in 2018 is to be forced to grapple with our racist past, and the origins of an art form and a nation built on exploitation and subjugation of people of color. It is a legacy that must be acknowledged, for without an understanding of that history we can never truly atone and move forward. To forget is to ignore the pain and suffering of millions, and the roots of systemic racism that persists today.

But why release it on Blu-Ray now, at a time when such attitudes are returning to the mainstream? Is it not like unearthing and celebrating a Confederate monument? Yes and no. Given its proper context, The Birth of a Nation is a chilling reminder of the power of propaganda, and a warning of the dangers of festering white resentment. It explains so much about our current society, and perhaps unwittingly, offers a roadmap to combat it. To the privileged, equality can feel like oppression, and while Griffith may have felt quite differently, his film lays bare the ugliness of white nationalism even as it strives to do the opposite. It is a film of fearsome power, a work of art that is directly responsible for the resurgence of the KKK in its time. It is a film with blood on its hands, a work of great and terrible beauty that has never looked better than it does in this 100th anniversary restoration by Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow.

Tread lightly in revisiting this film. Twilight Time has done an exemplary job of placing the film in its proper historical context, and the disc is perhaps the finest the label has ever produced. Nevertheless, it conjures horrifying images that are especially difficult to stomach in the age of Trump. But we must understand its place in our history. We must study and appreciate its dark power. And we must not allow it to happen again.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


THE BIRTH OF A NATION | Directed by D.W. Griffith | Stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, Joseph Henabery | Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.


Special features:
  • Disc 1: The Feature Film (191 Minutes) Restored by Patrick Stanbury With the Original Joseph Carl Briel Score, conducted by John Lanchbery in Both 5.1 and 2.0 Audio 
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Prologue 
  • D.W. Griffith in conversation with Walter Huston, star of his 1930 sound film Abraham Lincoln. 
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Intermission and Introduction to Act 2 
  • Huston recites sections from Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People. 
  • Disc 2: Outtakes and Original Camera Tests Stills and Collections Gallery 
  • Silent Feature: The Coward (1915 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Reginald Barker) Released nine months after The Birth of a Nation premiered, this Civil War drama concerns the weak-willed son (Charles Ray) of a Southern officer (Frank Keenan), forced to enlist at gunpoint, and coming to terms with cowardice. 
  • Silent Short: The Rose of Kentucky (1911 ~ Directed by D.W. Griffith) Three years before shooting on Birth began, Griffith made his only other film featuring the Klan, in this case labeled the Night Riders, and cast as the villains. 
  • Silent Short: Stolen Glory (1912 ~ Directed by Mack Sennett) Sennett, who had worked under Griffith at Biograph, had a great fondness for improvising comedy shorts around actual events, in this case a parade of the Grand Army of the Republic, the principal veterans organization for those who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. 
  • Silent Short: The Drummer of the 8th Original Edit, The Drummer of the 8th 2015 Re-Edit (1913 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Jay Hunt) Presented in two versions. The Re-Edit shifts the position of later, seemingly out-of-order sequences encountered in the Library of Congress original negative holdings. Both cuts use all existing footage. 
  • The Birth of a Nation Score Recording Sessions in 5.1 Audio 
  • D.W. Griffith on Lux Radio Theater with Cecil B. DeMille 
  • The Birth of a Nation: The Legacy Directed, Written and Edited by John McCarty 
  • The Clansman: From Stage to Screen Directed and Edited by Daniel Griffith 
  • Text Essay: We Can Never Censor the Past by Kevin Brownlow 
  • Text Essay The Birth of a Nation: The 2015 Restoration by Patrick Stanbury 
  • Text Essay Fighting Back: Responding to The Birth of a Nation by Ashley Clark

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The most striking thing about Michael Moore's 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, is how painfully relevant it still is. Despite having been made 16 years ago, it feels like it could have been released yesterday. Moore's incendiary examination of American gun culture feels as vital and in-tune with our society as ever. If anything, things have actually gotten worse in America, the 1999 Columbine massacre having been surpassed many times over as the deadliest school shooting in American history.

So it is perhaps with this in mind that the Criterion Collection is releasing the film on Blu-Ray for the first time. While those who find Moore's brand of agitprop to be distasteful are unlikely to feel any differently now, watching the film in 2018 is like getting hit by a lightning bolt. Moore occasionally overplays his hand (his ambush interview with Dick Clark adds little to the film), Moore has never felt as focused or as curious as he is in Bowling for Columbine. What sets this film apart from his other films, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Where to Invade Next, is the fact that Moore isn't necessarily advocating for specific legislative action. He's simply asking a question - why do Americans murder each other with guns at a rate astronomically higher than the rest of the developed world?

Is it our violent history? Surely the English and the Germans have equally violent pasts.  Is it the amount of violent video games and movies we consume? These entertainments are widely consumed in the rest of the world. Do we just have more guns? Canada is a nation of hunters and gun ownership is widespread. So what is it about America that leads to such a wildly disproportionate amount of gun murders? Moore never comes to a conclusion, but what conclusion is there to come to? So he turns his lens toward America's fetishistic love affair with guns, the seemingly unrestrained ease of access, and the NRA's rabid obsession with resisting all forms of gun control in the name of freedom at the expense of children's lives.

The villain here is the late Charlton Heston, former president of the NRA, whose rallying cry of "from my cold, dead hands" echoes through the film as the NRA descends on cities still grieving recent gun tragedies. Moore, a lifelong NRA member and avid hunter, never advocates for the abolition of the Second Amendment or for banning guns, but posits that much of America's obsession with guns can be traced back through our racist past and fear of the "other." His climactic showdown with Heston is appropriately awkward and difficult to watch, but it's also illustrative of a difficult conversation that we as a society still refuse to have.

Bowling for Columbine is not a film that necessarily benefits from a Blu-Ray upgrade. Moore's guerilla-style filmmaking doesn't lend itself to the highest quality footage in the first place. But the film has never felt more essential and necessary than it does now. What sets Moore apart from other political filmmakers (like, say, Dinesh D'Souza) is his grasp of the cinematic language and his inquisitive mind, always searching, always seeking. And whether or not he ultimately arrives at satisfactory answers is left to the viewer. He selectively edits and chooses the facts that most support his case (the sequence interviewing Canadians about American gun violence is most indicative of this unfortunate habit), but even when he wades into the weeds to prove a point, he never loses sight of the bigger picture.

At a time when children continue to die at the hands of firearms in ever greater numbers, Bowling for Columbine remains a key exploration of America's gun culture. That it is still so relevant is a tragedy in and of itself, but it has also never felt more important. This new Blu-Ray edition from Criterion is a welcome a return for a film that deserves a new day in the sun, so that hopefully in the near future it will at last feel hopelessly out of date.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE | Directed by Michael Moore | Rated R for some violent images and language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features Include:
  • New high-definition digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Michael Moore Makes a Movie, a new documentary featuring Moore, chief archivist Carl Deal, supervising producer Tia Lessin, and field producer Meghan O'Hara 
  • Programs covering Moore's return to Colorado in 2002, his 2003 Oscar win, and three film-festival Q&As with Moore 
  • Excerpt from a 2002 episode of The Charlie Rose Show featuring Moore 
  • Corporate Cops, a segment from Moore's 2000 television series The Awful Truth II 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Eric Hynes

Friday, June 15, 2018

It's been 14 years since The Incredibles first introduced us to the Parr family, a family of superheroes living in a world where "supers" have been made illegal. Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the original film left off, with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) doing battle against the Underminer, a nefarious villain bent on robbing the city's banks from underground. Unfortunately, the heroes do almost as much damage as the villain in their attempt to stop him, turning public opinion against the very idea of superheroes, and once again forcing them underground.

They are soon approached by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), two millionaires with a soft spot for superheroes, who want to start a PR blitz to change the hearts and minds of the world and get superheroes legalized again. There's only one catch; to start out they only want the least destructive member of the Parr family - Elastigirl. So while Mr. Incredible stays home to raise the kids, Elastigirl heads off to fight crime, but it isn't long before a new threat rears its ugly head, one that wants to humiliate all superheroes on a world stage, and take them down once and for all.

A lot has changed about the moviegoing landscape since the Incredibles were last on the screen. Superhero movies now litter the multiplex, and the idea of a crime fighting family no longer feels like a novelty. But trust Disney and Pixar to show that the genre still has something to say, because Incredibles 2 an endless delight. While it sacrifices some of the thematic resonance of the original for more slam-bang action sequences, Incredibles 2 still manages to explore ideas of gender inequality, fragile masculinity, and familial relations within the context of an animated kids movie.  The villain, Screenslaver, uses screens to turn his victims into mindless zombies, demonizing an entire group of people (in this case, superheroes) in order to persuade politicians to legislate bigotry.

Yes, the Incredibles have entered the Trump era. Whereas the first film dealt with the idea that if everyone is special then no one is, Incredibles 2 turns its eye on the irrational fear of the other. While its message gets a bit muddled in its attempt to be too many things at once. The idea of being a slave to our devices is a potent one, but that's not the villain's ultimate goal. Ultimately, it has too much going on to give any of its themes more than passing lip service, hewing close to the studio's established formula in its character beats and plot twists. Yet in true Pixar fashion, it manages to deliver a good time anyway, making it a cut above other Pixar sequels like Monsters University and Cars 2 and (and maybe just a step below Finding Dory).

Rather than trying to lampoon the recent superhero glut, director Brad Bird chooses instead to do many of them one better - adding in an element of heart and familiarity in regard to the realities of life. The best parts of both Incredibles films remains their attempts to be extraordinary people in an ordinary world, and that's where Incredibles 2 really soars. It is film about finding what makes you unique in a world of incredible people, and for all its flash and pizazz, it's the heart that lies at its center that makes it worth returning to this well after 14 years.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


INCREDIBLES 2 | Directed by Brad Bird | Stars  Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr, Isabella Rossellini | Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language | Opens today, June 15, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

It has been 42 years since Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader introduced us to Travis Bickle, the eponymous taxi driver of Taxi Driver, who befriended an under age prostitute (Jodie Foster) and set out to clean up his crime-ridden streets. Bickle has since passed into the cultural canon, thanks in part to Robert DeNiro's iconic performance. And while Schrader's new film, First Reformed, doesn't have any moments to equal Bickle's legendary "you talkin' to me?" monologue, much of that same rage toward rampant injustice shines through.

This time, our protagonist isn't a taxi driver, but the pastor of a small parish in upstate New York that is nicknamed "the souvenir shop." First Reformed is a historic landmark preserved by a local mega-church that has become something of a living relic, a curiosity where tourists can purchase t-shirts or hats. The church, much like the corporate entity of which it is an arm, no longer bears much resemblance to an actual house of worship.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) dutifully goes through the motions each Sunday, offering his brief homily to an ever diminishing congregation. He wants little to do with the megachurch that sponsors him, but would rather shrug off any real pastoral duties to someone else. He drowns his frustrations with alcohol as he embarks on a year-long journey of recording all his thoughts in a journal that he intends to burn when it is complete.

Then one day he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young woman whose husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) has just been released from a Canadian prison after being arrested during an environmental protest. Mary is worried about Michael's emotional state, and asks Toller to counsel him. Through their chats, Toller discovers a troubled young man who believes that it is a sin to bring a child into a broken world, where climate change will leave an uninhabitable planet behind for the next generation, and he wants his wife to have an abortion. It isn't long before Toller and Mary discover the true extent of Michael's radicalism, but rather than be repulsed by the violence Michael wishes to enact in order to save the planet, Toller becomes enthralled by it.

Disenchanted by the world around him, and exasperated by the commoditization of the gospel on display through his megachurch parent and its corporate sponsor, Toller embarks on a journey of faith of his own, as he questions not only his role as a steward of God's creation, but as an agent of God in a world where faith is just another product of capitalism and a tool of cynical politicians who put money and power over the God they claim to serve.

First Reformed is an angry howl of grief at a world gone mad. Schrader has given us a modern, more subtle incarnation of Travis Bickle through which to explore faith and the church's role in an increasingly convoluted world. What is the purpose of a church that chooses to look the other way as God's creation is destroyed? What happens to a church that exists simply to placate its followers rather than to teach hard truths? Is it moral to bring a child into a broken world? Schrader offers no answers, in fact you can feel him grappling with those questions in nearly every frame.


Schrader directs with a kind of hushed reverence that recalls the work of Bresson and Dreyer (Dreyer's Ordet springs most readily to mind), yet with a kind of apocalyptic fatalism that recalls Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. The film is shot in a boxy 1.33:1 frame that gives its characters nowhere to hide, starkly exposed to a world that is no longer comforting or familiar, the old megachurch platitudes (recalling the insular, self-absorbed teachings of Joel Osteen) no longer holding any value when there is so much suffering beyond the church walls.

There's so much going on in First Reformed that it's almost impossible to fully absorb in one sitting.  Its musings on faith, sin, violence, capitalism, politics, morality, and the intersection of all of those things make for meaty drama. Schrader expertly builds layer after layer, building to an explosive climax that zigs exactly when we expect it to zag. That's part of what makes the film so special - every time we think we know where it's going, Schrader takes is somewhere else. It's a raw, ragged, angry work, born out a deep sense of exasperation and hopelessness in the face of rampant indifference to a world in pain. It is as if Schrader is exorcising his own demons here, working through his thoughts and feelings on the state of our world, using Reverend Toller as a vessel through which to peer into the void and ponder what it's all about in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


FIRST REFORMED | Directed by Paul Schrader | Stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill | Rated R for some disturbing violent images | Now playing in select theaters.



Movie stars behave badly and look great doing it in Gary Ross' Ocean's 8, a spinoff of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven trilogy, which was itself a remake of Lewis Milestone's 1960 original starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

This time, however, the thieves are all women, lead by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney). Upon her release from jail after being setup by former lover, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), Ocean immediately sets about assembling a crack team to pull off a massive jewelry heist at the annual MET gala. The plan - to lift a priceless diamond neckless off the neck of movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) and replace it with a fake before anyone notices what happened.

Her team consists of her best friend and master criminal, Lou (Cate Blanchett), a washed up fashion designer looking for a big break (Helena Bonham Carter), a security camera expert (Sarah Paulson), a top-notch hacker (Rihanna), a jeweler (Mindy Kaling), and a pickpocket (Awkwafina). By the end, not only will they all be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and have gotten revenge on the man who betrayed Ocean and locked her away.

Ocean's 8 is a breezy caper filled with all the elements we've come to expect from the Ocean's films, we get to watch beautiful people make off with millions and look great doing it. It's undeniably fun, and the cast is more than game, but there is almost no conflict in the film at all. The whole thing goes off without a hitch, everything goes according to plan, the film never even hints at any kind of possible trouble. This breezy nonchalance worked for Ocean's Eleven, in part because of Soderbergh's effortless sense of style. Ross can't quite pull off that same sense of carefree charm, but he is aided by a terrific cast that pulls the film along.

Like a glass of cheap champagne, Ocean's 8 is the kind of film that is enjoyable in the moment, but whose pleasures fade quickly. The cast is fun to watch (Awkwafina is a special delight all her own), but without any conflict the movie simply glides by without leaving much of an impression. In Ocean's Eleven, the heist was almost beside the point, taking a backseat to the sparkling character drama in the foreground. Here, Ross belabors the whys and wherefores but never really gives the audience a reason to care, leading to a fun, frothy, and ultimately forgettable heist movie.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


OCEAN'S 8 | Directed by Gary Ross | Stars Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Armitage, James Corden, Dakota Fanning, Elliott Gould | Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ari Aster's Hereditary belongs in a rarified pantheon of great modern horror films. It is a genre undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years, with filmmakers exploring the emotional depths of the genre beyond what you might find in your typical multiplex slasher film. The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, Get Out, Raw, It Comes at Night, The Invitation, and Let the Right One In are among some of the films in this new wave of modern horror, many of which explore the emotional undercurrents of their subjects, using horror as a tool to examine other psychological traumas.

In the case of Hereditary, that trauma is grief. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is mourning the death of her mother, a domineering woman with whom she was estranged for many years. After moving in with the Grahams, Annie's mother quickly became unusually close with her daughter, Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro, whose face is perhaps one of the most unique and expressive in modern cinema). Charlie takes her grandmother's death especially hard, and soon begins exhibiting some distressing behavior, as if she is somehow still connected to her grandmother's spirit. When yet another tragedy strikes the Graham family, they are all forced to confront their pasts, and the inner demons passed from one generation to another.

Make no mistake, Hereditary is an unabashed horror film, an unnerving slow burn that builds to a feverish crescendo that feels like an act of actual evil. But at its core it is a study of shared grief. Every frame of the film seems saturated with a kind of inner pain and turmoil, each character trying to escape the grip of an abusive past that they can never quite shake. In the end, this lack of love, this selfish lack of empathy, leads to unimaginable tragedy, a cycle of generational resentment that ends up bringing down an entire family.

This is most embodied by Toni Collette's force-of-nature performance. Every breath, every moment, whether said or unsaid, is a barely repressed howl of anguish - the cry of a woman at the end of her rope, crumbling under the pressures of her role as a wife and a mother. It's a glorious thing to behold. Her performance, much like the film itself, serves as an extended metaphor for the effects of depression, leading not only the characters to question their own sense of reality, but the audience as well. Aster wisely chooses not to connect every dot, strange events have no explanation, and don't need one. He constantly sews seeds of doubt in our minds as the line between reality and fantasy become inexorably blurred. Characters say things they don't mean (or do they) make irrational decisions, and ultimately find themselves drowning in a mess of their own making, directed by forces beyond their control.

Aster, with the help of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Grace Yun make the Graham's house feel like one of the dollhouses Annie spends so much of her time making, the characters merely dolls being moved around by a mysterious hand. It's an ingenious visual metaphor, as if we the audience are somehow peering through an idyllic facade to the unspoken pain beneath. Even in its most mundane moments, Hereditary seems somehow infected by an unseen and unspoken evil. Like depression, it worms its way under the skin almost unnoticed, until it has its hooks buried deep inside. This is a truly great work of horror, an explosive and terrifying tale of shared and inherited trauma that is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply disturbing.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HEREDITARY | Directed by Ari Aster | Stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd | Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Go to any community theater production of one of Anton Chekhov's plays, and you're likely to find a well-intentioned, faithfully dramatic interpretation of Chekhov's words, but you're not as likely to find his often sly sense of humor shining through the text.

Chekhov's sense of humor is at the forefront of Michael Mayer's new cinematic adaptation of The Seagull. It is especially apparent in Annette Bening's boozy, megalomaniacal performance as Irina Arkadina, Chekov's supreme monster mother, full-time family matriarch and part-time self-absorbed actress.  Her lover, renowned playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), joins her family for a weekend retreat, where he develops feelings for Nina (Saorise Ronan), the winsome love of Irina's son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose head remains firmly planted in the clouds, where his ambitions often supersede his talent. Also along for the ride is Masha (Elisabeth Moss), a depressive family friend with long-held feelings for Konstantin that he does not return.

There's enough romantic drama here to full a Shakespearean comedy - everyone is in love with someone who is in love with someone else. Yet despite its comic trappings and often biting wit, The Seagull is, at its heart, a tragedy. Konstantin's all-consuming love for Nina fuels his work, even as she becomes Trigorin's latest muse, leaving Irina embittered and angry. The rage boiling at the center of The Seagull comes from Chekhov himself, who wrote the play as a kind of meta-theatrical critique of the pretensions he saw in artistic society. Theatre was changing around him, and Chekhov's text is filled with commentary on the push and pull between new kinds of theatre (like his own) and the old guard (represented by the stodgy Trigorin).

Much of that is lost, unfortunately, in the play's translation to the screen. Mayer plays it mostly straight, setting the film in the late 1800s when the play was written, but the whole affair seems to lack the thematic density that is so important to what Checkhov wrote. The humor is there, the production is sumptuously designed, the cast is stacked with top-notch talent. Yet it is as if the very translation of the film has left something behind on the stage. As such, The Seagull feels like a film without a foundation, the actors working on characters that don't have the building blocks they require. Only Bening is really able to take her character to the next level, embodying the aging Irina, who must watch as she is overtaken in nearly every way by the young ingenue, Nina, in much the same was as she was in her Oscar nominated role in Being Julia.

The Seagull is often regarded as the first of Chekhov's four major plays. It is a theatrical touchstone in more ways than one - Constatnin Stanislavky worked with Chekhov and used it to help develop his groundbreaking acting techniques, and influential acting teacher Uta Hagen made her stage debut in the play when she was only 18. And yet this film version feels somehow staid and safe, robbed of its natural theatrically and trapped by the confines of its own frame. It's a fine production, easy to watch and well-performed, but outside of its natural habitat it just never has the chance to soar.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE SEAGULL | Directed by Michael Mayer | Stars Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy | Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

You're lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a drifting derelict boat. There's no land for thousands of miles. Your food is running low, your radio is broken, and you have no way to call for help. This is no Hollywood fantasy, this is exactly what happened to Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp on a voyage from Tahiti to California in 1983, after their boat was seriously damaged by Hurricane Raymond.

It's a compelling tale of survival against impossible odds, but you wouldn't know that necessarily from watching Baltasar Kormákur's new film, Adrift, which seems intent on undercutting any natural tension its story might have. Shailene Woodley stars as Oldham, a young woman in her early twenties intent on escaping from her home in San Diego and traveling the world. While in Tahiti, she meets Sharp (Sam Clafin), an English sailor who wants to do exactly that by circumnavigating the globe in a yacht he built himself while working at a shipyard in South Africa. The two quickly fall in love and decide to help out a friend by sailing their boat back to California, but soon have their fateful encounter with a powerful hurricane that will leave them drifting in the middle of the ocean with little hope of survival.

There's a strong story here, unfortunately Kormákur saddles the film with a flashback structure that does the narrative no favors. Adrift continually cuts back and forth between Tami and Richard's early relationship, and their plight on the open ocean in the aftermath of the storm. This positions the hurricane at the end of the film rather than the beginning, causing the film to skip a second storm entirely ("it was just a squall!" Tami dismisses, in an attempt to explain why the film cuts away from it so suddenly) in its build-up to the storm we all know is coming. Every time the film starts to create any dramatic tension, it cuts away in another flashback, ultimately using its climactic storm as an extended flashback that adds little to what we've already seen. It also suffers from some weak characterization, using Tami's vegetarian diet as an awkward plot point when she refuses to go fishing even when it becomes apparent that they may soon starve to death.

The film eventually hits us with a groan-worthy and painfully obvious twist that has been apparent since the opening shot of the film, treating the reveal like an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy reversal when it's really just an awkward plot device meant to create a story where there wasn't really one before. What's sad is that what actually happened is far more interesting than fake-out invented by screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith, and could have resulted in something closer to J.C. Chandor's similarly themed and infinitely superior All is Lost.

On the plus side, Adrift boasts some top-notch cinematography by Robert Richardson, who often shoots at water level as if the audience is right there in the ocean with them. At times it even recalls Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's brilliant 2013 avant-garde documentary, Leviathan, in the way Richardson allows the camera break free from the established confines of the frame. While it isn't as radical as Leviathan's unique spatial sensibilities, it's a strong element in a film with few other high points. The piano-driven score by Academy Award nominated composer Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) is also quite lovely.

In the end, however, its all in service of a film that is fundamentally flawed from the ground up. The entire thing is based on a deeply dishonest premise. Had it been edited in a more linear fashion it might have preserved some of the story's inherent suspense, but the last-minute twist really undermines the credibility of the whole affair. There's a good movie in this story somewhere, but Adrift just isn't able to do it justice.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


ADRIFT | Directed by Baltasar Kormákur | Stars Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin | Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window has the distinction of being one of the films that inspired the critics of the French New Wave to coin the term "film noir." Lang had always made expressive use of light and shadow in his films, dating back to the German Expressionist influences seen in films like Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, and M. Yet here, the shadowy domestic drama (the stark contrast beautifully preserved on the new Kino Blu-Ray), the femme fatale, the murderous intrigue (and the fedoras), all make their appearance in what would become the hallmarks of the American noir as we know it today.

Of course, film noir's roots are in the German Expressionist tradition championed by filmmakers like Lang, who eventually emigrated to America, bringing the style with them. Released in 1944, The Woman in the Window is one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon, and while Lang certainly made stronger films during this period (1945's Scarlet Street, also starring Edward G. Robinson, arguably being his finest American picture), it's hard to deny the historical importance of The Woman in the Window.

Robinson is wonderfully cast against type as Richard Wanley, a mild-manner professor who takes a shine to a lovely woman in a painting on the street near his usual evening haunt. One night, while admiring the painting after a nightcap with his friends, he meets the painting's subject, the beautiful and mysterious Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), and returns with her to her home. It isn't long, of course, before they are interrupted by a jealous lover, and Wanley, a criminal justice professor, kills the man in self-defense. Rather than call the police and risk his marriage, Wanley decided to dispose of the body himself (after all, who would ever know he was in any way connected to either of these people).

Naturally, things do not go according to plan. And it isn't long before Wanley's good friend, the District Attorney, is assigned to track down the killer, putting the professor uncomfortably close to the case. Lang directs with an almost Hitchcockian sense of suspense, laying in a wry sense of humor as Wanley is forced to take part in his own investigation. But as the circle closes in, Lang expertly ratchets up the tension, especially in the thrilling cover-up sequence, which displays particularly Hitchcockian influences as it chronicles Wanley's missteps, both known and unbeknownst to our protagonist.

It also borrows, somewhat coincidentally, from Josef von Sternberg's 1930 masterwork, The Blue Angel (also available from Kino Lorber).  Von Sternberg was a contemporary of Lang's who was known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, and Blue Angel, which he made in both German and English language versions at the same time, told the story of a straight-laced professor whose infatuation with a lounge singer becomes his undoing. The Woman in the Window follows a similar idea to a different conclusion, and features a last-minute dramatic twist that undermines much of the dramatic tension that it has so painstakingly built (one can't help but wonder if the decidedly bleak first ending ran afoul of the Production Code).

Yet even with its cop-out ending, The Woman in the Window remains a potent piece of work. It showcases Lang potently adapting his style for American audiences, and in the process helping to develop one of America's most indelible contributions to cinema history. But like many American achievements, it was based on foreign styles, built by immigrants, adapted from something which had come before - a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for American history in general.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW | Directed by Fritz Lang | Stars  Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Dan Duryea, Thomas E. Jackson | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics on June 19.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Of all the Star Wars films of the Disney area, none has been plagued by such public behind-the-scenes problems as Solo: A Star Wars Story. The second standalone Star Wars adventure, following 2016's Rogue OneSolo was originally to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street). But after some creative differences with producer Kathleen Kennedy, the pair was fired despite having nearly completed filming. Kennedy brought on Ron Howard to complete the film, who re-worked and re-shot much of it to adjust the Lord and Miller's more improvisational, comedic tone.

Yet Howard is a capable professional, and having worked with both George Lucas and Harrison Ford on American Graffiti in 1973, was perhaps the filmmaker best suited to take on this project all along. He, along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and his son, Jonathan, return to the series' storied past to tell the tale of young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), making his way as an outlaw on his home planet of Corellia, and in the process push any thought of the production's troubled history out of mind.

After he is separated from his love, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) during a failed escape attempt, he vows to return one day to rescue her. His plans get sidetracked when, after joining the Imperial Navy in order to become a pilot, he finds himself in the company of a band of outlaws led by Becket (Woody Harrelson), who recruits him and his newfound friend, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), to help him raid a fuel train before it can be stolen by a rival bandit known as Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). His partnership with Becket soon lands him in hot water with Becket's boss, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who instructs him to pull off a nearly impossible heist on the mining planet of Kessel, or face the full fury of his intergalactic crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn.

Solo carefully charts the renowned rogue's back story, showing us how he meets his best friend, Chewbacca, how he was given his last name, how he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and how he made the infamous Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Much of this is fan service, of course, but what is so refreshing about Solo is that it isn't attempting to be a grandiose space opera in the typical Star Wars tradition. There's no mention of the Force, no lightsabers, no sense of mythical destiny, the fate of the galaxy is not at stake; rather Solo is an old-fashioned heist movie, a kind of western set in space (which is what the original Star Wars was meant to be).


It's a refreshingly small-scale film, or at least as small scale as a Star Wars film can be. Howard isn't so much interested in moving the pieces where they need to be for the next film (although the ending offers tantalizing possibilities for future sequels), he's more concerned with showing the audience a good time, and in that regard he delivers in spades. Ehrenreich can't quite fill Harrison Ford's shoes, but then again, who can? He does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of Han Solo as well as Ford's iconic performance, while Glover brings some entertaining new shades to Billy Dee Williams' suave swindler, Lando Calrissian (can we have a Lando movie next?).

Perhaps the film's greatest strength, however, is John Powell's score. Working from a jaunty new Han Solo theme by John Williams, Powell delivers thrilling musical accompaniment to Han's early adventures. Even though we mostly know the outcome here (we already know where Han ends up in a few years at the beginning of 1977's original Star Wars), but Howard and company manage to provide enough surprises to keep us on the edge of our seats (a World War I inspired battle sequence early in the film is especially ingenious). The film is set in a time where Imperial rule is pretty much accepted fact, and as such the film is mostly unconcerned with the greater goings on in the galaxy. There's something refreshing about a focused, small-scale adventure set in the Star Wars universe, and while Solo doesn't necessarily chart a bold new course for the franchise, it marks a welcome departure that is at once familiar and yet not quite like any Star Wars film we've seen before, taking it back to its Saturday matinee serial roots with a sense of breezy adventure and devil-may-care charm.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY | Directed by Ron Howard | Stars  Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, May 25, 2018

If the 2016 R-rated hit, Deadpool, poked a hole in superhero self-seriousness, its 2018 sequel, Deadpool 2, takes aim squarely at the superhero team-up films that have become so pervasive.  Just as crass and irreverent as ever, the new film puts Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) at odds with his old friends Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, both members of the X-Men, who prefer to do things by the book. They convince him to leave his outlaw ways behind and join the X-Men, and learn to work together with a team.


Deadpool, of course, would rather chart his own path, and when the X-Men are called to save an angry young mutant calling himself Firefist (Julian Dennison) who has lost control of his powers, ends up on the wrong side of the law when he kills one of the aides from Firefist's oppressive, anti-mutant school. Jailed alongside the the young rebel, they soon come under attack by a time travelling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin), who has come back in time to kill Firefist while he is young to prevent him from slaughtering his family in the future. In order to stop Cable, Deadpool must, of course, assemble a new team of misfits, for only together can they be strong enough to take on not only Cable, but the increasingly angry Firefist and his new friend, Juggernaut (Reynolds again).

Or at least, that's what the film wants you to believe anyway, as it takes down Deadpool's newfound teammates with gruesome glee, poking merciless fun at everything from Justice League to The Avengers to X-Men. Yet filmmaker David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) doesn't just coast on occasionally obnoxious, meta-textual humor that defined the original film. Sure, it doesn't take itself seriously, but it actually takes the time to give us characters worth caring about. It doesn't pay much attention to time or place, or even series continuity (when does this film take place?), details are clearly beside the point here. There are still plenty of fourth-wall breaking quips from the "merc with a mouth," but underneath it all is a surprising amount of heart.

Reynolds is as roguishly charming as ever, but the real scene-stealers here are Dennison and Brolin, who deftly blur the lines between hero and villain, testing our allegiances and finding humanity in their respective characters. There are no villains here, merely characters with opposing goals, and Deadpool uses that to its advantage, finding a surprising amount of hope in a dark and seemingly hopeless world.

The wildly vulgar humor won't be for everyone, but Leitch does a fantastic job of balancing the film's tongue comedy with some genuine character moments and tightly choreographed action. Its themes of trying to prevent a child from becoming a murderer seems a but misplaced when Deadpool himself kills so dispassionately (not to mention the fact that the man he wants so desperately to kill is his abuser, the school's fanatical headmaster), which seems to be the kind of inconsistency the filmmakers would just as soon sweep under the rug. But Leitch is a fine stylist, and he manages to take the snickering teen boy humor of the original film and give it some much needed focus, resulting in a film that is more emotionally satisfying and more cohesive than its predecessor.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


DEADPOOL 2 | Directed by David Leitch | Stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Karan Soni | Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book Club is one of those movies that works a lot better on paper than it does in execution. Bringing together Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen as four best friends who decide to spice up their mostly non-existent sex lives by reading E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, the film seems like a can't-miss proposition on merit of its cast alone. Unfortunately, it relies on them a bit too heavily, coasting by on their charisma and chemistry, but failing to deliver a particularly satisfying story.

It plays a lot of narrative connect-the-dots as it attempts to emulate other female-centric comedies such as Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated. Unfortunately, Book Club doesn't have a talent like Nancy Meyers behind it, and the result hackneyed screenplay that leans heavily on silliness, without doing its cast much justice. Keaton leads the pack as Diane, a Santa Monica widow whose overprotective children (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) want her to move to Arizona to live with them. Fonda is a wealthy hotel magnate named Vivian who loves sex but refuses to commit, even at 70. Bergen is a reserved federal judge named Sharon who believes she well past her prime, and Steenburgen is a retiree who wants to reignite the passion with her husband (Craig T. Nelson).

They all meet monthly for a book club meeting, but when Vivian introduces the BDSM romance, "Fifty Shades of Grey," they all find themselves looking for ways to rekindle the fire in their love lives. It isn't long before Diane meets a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia), which puts her at odds between her own happiness, and the happiness of her overbearing daughters.

It's a charming premise, and the cast throw themselves into it gamely, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The jokes are often hit-or-miss, and many are buried by the awkward way in which first-time filmmaker Bill Holderman tries to shoe-horn them into the action. Add that to some uneven editing and questionable green-screen effects and you have a film with a great cast, a great premise, and absolutely no idea what to do with either. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of these four fine actresses, but they deserve better than this; all four now in their seventies but just as vital and vibrant as ever. There’s something to be said about a film that celebrates the sexuality of women of a certain age, but ultimately it feels more like a missed opportunity. Come for the effortless rapport of the stars, but don't expect the film to fully deliver on their promise.


GRADE – ★★½ (out of four)


BOOK CLUB | Directed by Bill Holderman | Stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Alicia Silverstone | Rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout, and for language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Cinema Obscura is a monthly feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

Including a film by a filmmaker as universally revered as Dziga Vertov in my Cinema Obscura series might raise a few eyebrows. While he is hardly a household name, Vertov is nevertheless regarded as one of the great filmmakers by cineastes and film historians, who consider his 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, to be one of the greatest films ever made. On the other hand, Vertov is hardly a household name, and while most film historians tend to focus on Man with a Movie Camera, his later work is often just as fascinating from a historical point of view, if for somewhat different reasons.

By the time Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin in 1934, Stalin's regime was already cracking down on what they saw as "revolutionary" filmmaking. The Bolshevik revolution was over, and the Communist Soviet government was well established at that point. Stalin demanded that films be of a simple language, easily understood by the masses, and so Vertov's Kino-Eye theory was suddenly out of step with the very government it once helped prop up.

The idea of Kino-Eye was that film should eschew the romantic narratives of bourgeois filmmaking and embrace a sense of realism that was beneficial to the public. While Vertov's editing style was decidedly avant-garde, he flouted the idea of narrative cinema in favor of filming life as it happened, rather than try to stage it himself. These ideas would later be embraced by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin when they formed the short-lived Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 in an attempt to radicalize modern filmmaking for Marxist goals. But as Three Songs About Lenin shows, even Vertov was forced to abandon his own ideals as Stalin moved away from the founding principles of the very revolution he helped implement.

Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's death, and peering through a modern lens, it almost resembles something one could imagine Fox News might make about Donald Trump. It is a shamelessly effusive hagiography of the Communist hero that makes him out to be more god than man, ironic given the atheistic bedrock of Soviet thought. It was also a deeply personal work for Vertov, who clearly venerated Lenin, but it's almost sad watching how the filmmaker's style was neutered by the government in order to make it more straightforward. In fact, its very core is a betrayal of Vertov's Kino-Eye principles. While much of the film is comprised of re-edited newsreel footage, much of it was staged for the sake of the film, a departure from the organic reality Vertov sought in his filmmaking.

The film is comprised of three segments, each featuring a folk song about Lenin from some far-flung corner of the USSR. It's interesting, now, watching a communist film decry Islam as a prison for women, and realize just how much the Soviet government shares with modern conservatives in the age of Trump. The first song is a celebration of a Muslim woman breaking free of her veil, its Islamaphobic undertones painting Muslims as barbaric and backwards, and the Soviets as benevolent liberators, a bit of agitprop self-aggrandizement that ultimately proved to be false.


And yet, even with its state-sanctioned roadblocks, there's something about Three Songs About Lenin that is hard to shake. Vertov was clearly a master of editing. Whereas his contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein, used montage as a storytelling tool, Vertov used it to illicit emotion. Much of the film was culled from newsreels, and Vertov managed to turn them into pure visual poetry. No one did propaganda films like the Soviets, and while government restrictions eventually tamped down the avant-garde elements that initially distinguished them, Vertov took the cards he was dealt and still managed to turn them into cinema magic. He conducts Three Songs like a symphony in three parts, eventually building to an ecstatic crescendo that admittedly veers into some pretty painful deification that seems even more cringe-worthy in retrospect, as the breathless pronouncements of the invincibility and permanence of Lenin's achievements now seem somewhat quaint.

Despite that fact, Three Songs About Lenin is often overlooked in favor of Vertov's more famous works. Man with a Movie Camera remains the ultimate representation of his Kino-Eye aesthetic, a pure union of captured image, found footage, and montage. But it is worth exploring the rest of his filmography. In his quest to find truth through cinema, Vertov often found the exact opposite, and is therefore a fascinating study in propaganda and where cinematic observation becomes manipulation through use of editing, cinematography, and music choices. Like the regime that gave birth to it, the film has been all but lost to history, forgotten and hacked to pieces in the years since its release. The most complete version, reconstructed from both the sound and silent versions, is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.