Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Judi Dench as Anne Hathaway, Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare
Photo by Robert Youngson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Very little is known about the last days of William Shakespeare, who died in 1616 at the age of 52. The manner and circumstances of his death remain something of a mystery, leaving historians to fill in massive gaps using minimal evidence. What is known is that is that after the Globe Theater burned during a performance of Shakespeare's final play, Henry VIII (a collaboration with John Fletcher), the playwright never wrote again.

Kenneth Branagh has always shown an affinity for Shakespeare's plays, having directed cinematic adaptations of Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Love's Labour's Lost, and As You Like It, so it seems only natural for him to step into the role of the bard himself in his latest film, All is True.  Set in the last years of Shakespeare's life, All is True (which shares its name with the alternate title of Henry VIII  portrays the playwright as a broken man, a distant father returning to Stratford-upon-Avon to mourn the death of his young son, Hamnet, who died years earlier while Shakespeare was away in London.

This is not the winsome, happy-go-lucky Shakespeare of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. The film explores the idea of the world's greatest playwright, one of the finest investigators of human emotion who ever lived, being completely unable to apply that genius to his own personal life. He has all but neglected his family. His wife is distant, his daughters resent him, and Shakespeare, the man who gave us some of English literature's most enduring love stories in Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream is unable to connect with the very people who are closest to him.

All is, of course, not true. The title in and of itself is something of an intentional misnomer, as Branagh is essentially creating Shakespeare fan fiction here. But as the playwright explains, all is true that comes from the heart, and that is perhaps the film's greatest asset - it comes directly from Branagh's heart. It's a strangely shapeless narrative, loosely centered around Shakespeare's mourning for his son while trying to preserve his family's standing by clearing up scandals involving his daughters. All is True is, at its heart, a character study, but it often seems to meander - rushing from one scene to the next with a pace that is often at odds with its elegiac tone.

But when Branagh finally stops trying to connect seemingly unrelated dots and lets his characters speak, All is True really soars. Branagh's scene with Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellan), here portrayed as the unrequited object of Shakespeare's affection from his sonnets, is pure poetry, and his scenes with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), are likewise imbued with a kind of quiet fire. Watching these great actors tackle these characters is a privilege, and Branagh's work as Shakespeare is one of his finest performances.

The whole affair has a kind of autumnal beauty, reflecting on a life that, no matter how well lived, is still filled with regrets; T's left uncrossed, I's left un-dotted. It's a lovely chamber drama born out of a real passion for its subject, and that while that passion may seem oddly muted and underplayed, Branagh's uncharacteristic restraint, even amid such gorgeous production design and vibrant cinematography, displays a disarming maturity of craft. Even when it threatens to traffic in contrived family drama with its final revelations, Branagh's focus on the actors and their performances keep All is True from becoming a melodrama. It's uneven, to be sure, but it's hard not to be swept up in Branagh's hauntingly reflective vision of a lion in winter; a great man now removed from the work that made him a legend, trying desperately to learn the emotional lessons he once wrote about so eloquently, but never got the chance to put into practice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


ALL IS TRUE | Directed by Kenneth Branagh | Stars Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellan, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Matt Jessup, Lydia Wilson | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material and language | Now playing in limited release.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

The third entry in the popular John Wick series, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum picks up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off, with the eponymous assassin (Keanu Reeves) being labeled "excommunicado" by the criminal organization where he once worked for killing a man on the grounds of their sanctuary hotel, The Continental.  With one hour to go before becoming the most hunted man in the world, John Wick sets out to find the man in charge of the High Table in order to clear his name and save his own life. But with nearly every assassin in the world hot on his trail, that's a task easier said than done.

It's important to remember that all three of these films take place back to back to back, essentially making John Wick the world's more tired killing machine. Director Chad Stahelski manages to ratchet up both the action and the stakes while reminding us of Wick's growing weariness. The fight sequences are more bruising, more protracted, and more brutal, with Wick resorting to more and more creative methods with which to dispatch his enemies. The beautifully choreographed action sequences have always been one of the biggest selling points of these films, and Stahelski outdoes himself here. The violence of John Wick 3 has consequences; the audience feels every punch and every shot. Wick may be an unstoppable angel of death, but that doesn't mean his job is easy.

Perhaps even more so than its predecessors, John Wick 3 is clearly influenced by Hong Kong action cinema, with its blazing mix of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay. Shot in bright, contrasting neons, the film often feels like a cross between the work of Johnnie To and Nicholas Winding Refn, endlessly action-packed and yet somehow light on its feet - a gloriously over-the-top symphony of violence featuring some of the most dazzling action sequences in recent memory.

Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect of the John Wick films is their world-building. Stahelski has created a hyperrealistic world of honor among criminals, where the underworld has risen and the rules of the real world no longer apply. The mythology of the High Table and the endless rules by which its adherents must abide have been gradually revealed over the course of the three films, which began as a simple tale of revenge about a man avenging the death of his dog, and has now expanded to an operatic tale of a brilliant assassin taking on an entire system of criminals as a result. It's a fascinating world, and Stahelski has crafted it beautifully, showcasing a wildly creative and intricately plotted system of petty murderers and minor kings, all playing a part in a grand, overarching network of crime.

The film ends with a setup for yet another film in the series, so don't come to Parabellum expecting closure. But its promise of a fourth film actually feels earned - there's more world here to explore, and Stahelski leaves us wanting more. The John Wick films make up a rare series that just keeps getting better, with a righteous anti-hero at its center who remains compelling not just because he will stop at nothing to get his man, but because all he wants is to be left in peace with his dog, but keeps getting dragged back into work. Who among us can't identify with that?

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


JOHN WICK | Directed by Chad Stahelski | Stars Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Anjelica Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui | Rated R for pervasive strong violence, and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Francisco Reyes in The Wandering Soap Opera. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

You'll be hard-pressed to find a film as sly, smart, and hilarious as Raúl Ruiz's dazzlingly experimental The Wandering Soap Opera. Ostensibly a send-up of Chilean telenovelas, the film offers a series of vignettes, made in the over-the-top style of South American soap operas, that savagely poke fun at Chilean society.

Ruiz, who passed away in 2011, shot the film in 1990, but left it uncompleted. His wife, Valeria Sarmiento, picked up the pieces and completed the film in 2017, five years after the release of Ruiz's final film, Night Across the Street, and its resurrection now makes for a fitting swan song for the legendary filmmaker's career. Ruiz began work on the film upon returning to Chile after a 15 year exile. Chile had undergone myriad reforms in the interim, leaving Ruiz feeling like a stranger in a strange land, an alien in his own country. It was a time when Chile was transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, opening up to the rest of the world in ways it had not before. Ruiz did not see all those reforms as a positive - the democratization of culture also meant a certain homogenization, hence the telenovela structure the filmmaker chose for The Wandering Soap Opera.

Each vignette is set within its own soap opera - a man attempts to seduce a woman with his muscles (that are literal pieces of meat), gangsters with political manifestos kill each other with increasingly self-aggrandizing feats of self-delusion, a group of women lose their husbands, while characters from other soap operas watch their exploits on screen, and strangers meet on the street while searching in vain for a place that must be around here somewhere. Meanwhile, the vignettes begin to bleed together, each person a character in someone else's soap opera, a cheesy melodrama played out on a national scale where reality is merely an abstraction.

Ruiz brilliantly manipulates our perception, exploring the relationship between cinema and the audience wherein we find ourselves watching and engaging with other people who are also watching and engaging with others on screen. The Wandering Soap Opera takes us down a fascinating rabbit hole of media consumption as it satirizes the vapidity of the culture that gave rise to them, as well as the world of lost souls they create. Just as Ruiz felt lost in 90s era Chile, so too are the characters in the film lost, trapped in a wandering soap opera they are at once aware of and yet completely oblivious to. Sure, they're in a soap opera, but it's the people in those other soap operas who are really lost, and around and around we go.

The Wandering Soap Opera may be finally arriving in North American theaters nearly 30 years after it was originally shot, but it feels as vital and timely as ever. It's the work of a master filmmaker interrogating his own art and his place in the society that made him. It's a radical, thrilling, and deeply funny satirization of mass media that boldly implicates the audience in the very culture that gave birth to it. Rarely is cinema so fearlessly and effortlessly manipulated into uncharted territory; even in death Ruiz is still boldly pushing it, and us, into the future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE WANDERING SOAP OPERA | Directed by Raúl Ruiz | Stars Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes, Luis Alarcón, Consuelo Castillo, Roberto Poblete | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes burst onto the international arthouse scene in 2015 with his harrowing Holocaust drama, Son of Saul. The film went on to garner widespread acclaim, eventually taking home the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Yet despite its sterling reputation, “Son of Saul” was a film I found to be cold and distancing, enamored with its own particular stylistic affectations. Nemes doubles down on these affectations in his new film, Sunset, holding his protagonist tightly in frame, forcing the action happening around her to occur in the periphery. This time, however, the technique works on a more fundamental level, seemingly less self-conscious and more thematically justified.

The protagonist in question is Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), an orphaned heiress to a successful Budapest hat company, who returns to her home to work at the shop and reclaim her birthright in the days before World War I. She gets more than she bargained for, however, when the new owners of Leiter's turn her away, and she begins to uncover dark secrets about her family and the business they created.

"The horror of the world hides behind these infinitely pretty things" a man tells Írisz while examining the Leiter hats, and indeed the cracks in the facade of Austria-Hungary's upper crust are beginning to show in Sunset. Acts of terror rock the country, everyone is on edge, and the projected gentility of the nation's ruling class is beginning to fall away. Society is rotten to the core, and Írisz soon finds herself lost in a world that is coming apart at the seams. By keeping the camera focused tightly on her, Írisz becomes something of an avatar for the audience, her inscrutable face a mask onto which viewers can project themselves. The camera is constantly in motion, the whole film seemingly in flux, as it follows Írisz through the streets of Budapest, uncovering snippets of sinister rumors and witnessing ever increasing acts of violence that betray a crumbling society.

Nemes' craft feels far more assured here than it did in Son of Saul. Írisz is a kind of vessel through which the audience witnesses society eating itself from within. It's a similar idea to those put forth in Son of Saul, but here it feels less frustrating self-satisfied and more haunting and unsettling. Shot in golden-hued tones with sumptuous period detail, Sunset feels like a Merchant-Ivory production slowly dissolving before our eyes, the warm cinematography eventually fading into washed out grays and muted colors. It's a disturbing portrait of a world slowly going mad, where the privileged prey on the weak and look the other way as the world disintegrates around them. In that regard, it's less about the socio-political climate of pre-war Austria-Hungary and more about the world in which we live now, a world standing on the brink of catastrophe, careening toward the precipice while disguising the intrinsic rot with shiny baubles to distract from the coming devastation. Sunset plays its cards close to the vest, never quite revealing the true nature of the darkness at its core, yet it’s that very sense of mystery that makes it so universally unsettling. This is a society seemingly hellbent on ushering in its own destruction - we would do well to sit up and listen.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


SUNSET | Directed by László Nemes | Stars Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Susanne Wuest, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn | Rated R for some violence | In Hungarian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The romantic comedy genre seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance of late. From Love, Simon to Crazy Rich Asians, filmmakers are finding ways to play within the established rules of the genre while making it wholly their own.

Jonathan Levine's Long Shot may not break any new ground, but its smart script (by Dan Sterling and The Post scribe Liz Hannah) makes its romantic comedy tropes feel somehow fresh. We've all seen movies where a shlubby guy ends up with a woman way out of his league. Putting aside for a moment the vaguely sexist overtones of this cliche (you rarely, if ever, see the opposite occurring in film), Long Shot feels so genuine and so cleverly written that the lack of originality in its structure takes a back seat to the witty dialogue and winning performances.

Seth Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a guerrilla journalist who reconnects with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), now a successful Secretary of State eyeing a run for President. After reuniting at a Washington fundraiser, Field hires Flarsky to boost her speeches with some of his trademark humor, but the two hit it off and are forced to hide their relationship from the press in order to keep her favorability ratings high, or face losing her dream of becoming the first female president.

It's all fairly standard fare, but achieved with a rare sense of narrative grace. Rogen and Theron are great fun, ditto Andy Serkis, who is nearly unrecognizable as a sleazy, Rupert Murdoch-esque media tycoon. The film manages to explore the idea of the negative influence of money in politics, and how compromise often leads to policies that do no one any good other than to play lip service to real progress. It does dabble in some milquetoast "why can't we all just get along" centrism by the end, which seems to undercut its core message about the detriments of trying to please everyone, only to please no one, but the way it manages to zero in on the corrupting influence of corporate interest in our politics in a comedic way is to be commended.

It's also a grand return to the kind of R-rated comedy of There’s Something About Mary, American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad, in that it doesn't feel aimed at the lowest common denominator. It's a kind of grown-up romantic comedy that doesn't feel like it's pandering to a teen audience, set amongst a modern political landscape that still manages to feel like an escape from our current farcical system without avoiding actual issues. It may feel overly familiar, but Rogen and Theron are such a constant delight, and the screenplay such a winning combination of humor and heart, that it manages to subvert its own clichés even while resting comfortably among them.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


LONG SHOT | Directed by Jonathan Levine | Stars Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Serkis | Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Kim Min-hee in GRASS. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

As an undergrad theater student, one of the most fascinating playwriting exercises I was ever given involved sitting in a coffee shop, listening to the conversations of fellow patrons, and writing them down word-for-word as their own self-contained play.

Hong Sang-soo's Grass is the very embodiment of that exercise come to life on film. Hong is known for his improvisational style of filmmaking, often writing scenes the morning they're to be filmed, giving actors minimal time to learn their lines and prepare. This often results in a kind of languid, stream-of-consciousness style, exploring characters and ideas through breezy conversations and observational bon-mots.

Grass centers around a writer named Areum (Hong regular, Kim Min-hee), who sits in a tiny cafe and observes the world around her. There's a couple awkwardly reuniting, a filmmaker trying to find a new place to live, two people grappling with a mutual friend's suicide. Areum catches snippets of their conversations, often attracting their curiosity. Is she writing about them? Is she ignoring them completely? Or, perhaps most intriguing of all, do the people exist at all?

What makes the film so wonderful is that Hong never directly asks these questions. He brings the disparate characters together and lets them play, but we constantly wonder if what we're actually seeing is what Areum is writing, or if it's actually happening. One could easily watch Grass and never pick up any of these cues, because on the surface it's simply a film about a woman sitting in a cafe while life happens around her. It does not appear to be about anything. But Hong films always seem to operate on multiple levels, there's the film we're watching, and then there's the film that's really happening beneath the surface. Hong is at his best when he's crafting elliptical narratives, playing with time, or even experimenting with reality itself. And yet his films are never flashy or outwardly experimental. They're multifaceted and beguiling, little unassuming emotional depth-charges that only reveal their wonders upon closer examination.

While Grass doesn't quite have the emotional weight of Hong's other 2019 film, Hotel by the River, but it reveals a fascinating window into the filmmaker's unique creative process. It takes snippets of overheard conversations and turns them into something wonderful and new, a summation of life's tiny moments made disarmingly momentous.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


GRASS | Directed by Hong Sang-soo | Stars Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Ki Joo-bong, Seo Young-hwa | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Avengers: Endgame marks the culmination of a series of 22 films that began back in 2008 with Iron Man. It represents perhaps one of the most impressive feats of franchise filmmaking in cinematic history. Whether that's an achievement of artistic or business acumen is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny that what Disney and Marvel have achieved here, guiding a single vision through dozens of interconnected films to tell one overarching story, dubbed "The Infinity Saga," is a truly staggering feat.

The series has had its ups and downs, of course, but what Marvel has done here is made all the more impressive when you look at how its legions of imitators have failed to even come close. Sony attempted a Spider-Man extended universe and fell on its face, eventually returning the character to Marvel, while DC's Justice League debacle tried to reverse engineer the Marvel formula and failed spectacularly. Credit must be given to producer Kevin Feige as much as anyone director, although filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) have been allowed to bring their own personalities into the mix to put their own personal stamp on their respective films.

For the final film in the Infinity Saga, Marvel pulled out all the stops, delivering a massive, three-hour tribute to their wildly popular cinematic universe. It's a film that's surprisingly light on its feet, more so than its somewhat unwieldy predecessor, Infinity War, in which supervillain Thanos wiped out half of all living creatures in the universe. When we reunite with the remaining heroes in Endgame, we are greeted with a demoralized band of Avengers who have all but given up hope. Thanos won, and the dead aren't coming back. Or are they?

Without divulging too much of the film's top-secret plot, Endgame drops us into a world decimated by tragedy, and to its credit, actually takes the time to grapple with the fallout from Infinity War and what that means for not only the Avengers, but for the world at large. Endgame never loses sight of the essential humanity at its core, and the stakes feel real and palpable. Death obviously means very little in comic book films, but filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who also helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Infinity War) never lose sight of the small stakes even in the face of epic, all-out war.


There's a bit of nostalgia at play here - the film plays like a kind of "greatest hits" compilation of the last 11 years of films, and yet it never seems to get too caught up in looking backward. It's a fitting tribute to a saga that has become beloved the world over, so it’s hard to blame them for wanting to celebrate the journey in the grandest form possible. It's absolutely "fan-service," but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. We've waited 11 years for this, and Endgame wants badly to give us the finale we've all wanted to see.

Of course, some heroes are lost along the way, some perhaps permanently (but in a world where anything is possible, hope springs eternal). Endgame plays a delicate balancing act between rip-roaring adventure and the gravity of the situation in which the heroes find themselves. It's remarkably swift for a film that's three hours long, hitting its emotional high notes with confidence without skimping on the character drama that has kept fans coming back for more over the course of 22 films. It may not deliver much in the way of true surprises (most fans figured out pretty much where this was going a long time ago), but the Russo brothers have delivered a satisfying conclusion that absolutely feels worthy of a decade of hype. That's a rare and special achievement, and while the Marvel Cinematic Universe will certainly continue beyond Endgame (Spider-Man: Far From Home is already scheduled for release this summer), let us take a moment to appreciate the incredible feat of storytelling that this film represents. Marvel has been building up to this for 11 years, weaving the story through 22 films, and capping it all off in epic fashion. There's a debate to be had about the homogeneity of product created by Disney's newfound stranglehold on the movie industry, but it's hard to deny that that the Infinity Saga has been an incredibly singular achievement, and Endgame is the finale it has always deserved.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


AVENGERS: ENDGAME Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo | Stars Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Brie Larson, Josh Brolin | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In the cinematic comic book wars, DC has struggled somewhat to find its footing in an era dominated by Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Yet one thing that sets them apart from Marvel is their willingness to experiment and take risks, eschewing homogeneity of product for creative exploration, especially now that they seem to have abandoned their attempt to copy Marvel's model with Justice League.

While DC has attempted to "lighten up" its films in the wake of backlash to the self-serious tone of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, their latest film, Shazam!  is the first outright comedy in their canon. Imagine, for a second, if Penny Marshall's Big were a superhero film, and you're somewhere in the realm of Shazam!. It chronicles the adventures of a teenage orphan who, after being passed around from foster home to foster home, is imbued with superpowers by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou), granting him the ability to transform into an adult superhero in the blink of an eye. 

It's an appealingly goofy premise, made even more so by director David F. Sandberg's refusal to take the film too seriously without condescending to the material. At its heart, Shazam! is a family drama, centering around a family of foster children who create the family they never had. This emotional grounding, coupled with an acknowledgment of the collateral damage wrought by internalized trauma (embodied by the film's villain, played by Mark Strong), makes for something of a unique entry in the superhero genre.

Sandberg cut his teeth on studio horror films like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, and he doesn't gloss over the inherent darkness of the story here. Strong's villain, imbued with the power of the seven deadly sins, is appropriately horrifying, and the stakes freeloads more tangible than your typical superhero film. Unlike Justice League (or for that matter, any of the Avengers films), Shazam! takes the time to explore the idea that one person can't fight evil alone, it can only be defeated by banding together. We are, in essence, stronger together, a point hammered home by the film's bruising extended climax.

Zachary Levi (no stranger to superhero movies, he plays Thandral in the Thor films over at Marvel) is appropriately goofy in the title roles, yet strangely seems much less mature than Asher Angel, who plays his younger self. Yet his rapport with his best friend, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a young disabled boy whose mouth frequently gets him into trouble, is a constant delight. It's all buoyed by a rousing score by Benjamin Wallfisch, who provides one of the most memorable superhero themes this side of John Williams' original Superman. Coming on the heels of the surprisingly stylish and entertaining Aquaman and Wonder Woman (arguably their best film), it's enough to give hope that DC may be turning things around around at last, because Shazam! is one of the most thoroughly entertaining and emotionally grounded films the genre has given us in recent memory.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


SHAZAM! | Directed by David F. Sandberg | Stars Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action, language, and suggestive material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, April 19, 2019


The Czechoslovak New Wave is perhaps one of the most radical film movements to emerge in the mid-20th century. Not as well known, perhaps, as the French New Wave (certainly none of the films entered the public consciousness quite like Breathless or The 400 Blows), but the filmmakers that emerged from Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil (Marketa Lazarová), Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains), and especially Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus), are among some of the greatest of the last century.

One of the most defiantly revolutionary filmmakers to emerge from the movement was Jan Němec. Whereas the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers had a sort of romanticism inherited from their love of classical Hollywood films (at least until Jean Luc Godard decided he wanted to burn it all down around 1967), there is a sense of anger and absurdity in the Czechoslovak films of the period that seems born from the oppression of the Iron Curtain. No one embodied this sense of rage and cinematic non-conformism than Němec. It was apparent from his very first film, A Loaf of Bread (1960, also included on the Criterion Blu-Ray), which serves as a kind of thematic precursor to his most well-known film, Diamonds of the Night.

Loosely adapted from a novel by Czech author Arnošt Lustig (as was A Loaf of BreadDiamonds of the Night is a nearly stream-of-consciousness nightmare about two young men escaping from a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The films drops us into the action immediately, opening with the two men running through a forest, the sound of gunshots and barking dogs in the background. Němec gives the audience no chance to orient itself in this new world - the world of the film just *is.,* and like its protagonists, we must adapt or die. Němec slowly fills us is, peppering their journey with flashes of previous events that could be anything from flashbacks to fever dreams. We are left to wonder if our protagonists are losing their grip on reality or if what we're watching is even happening at all. The film even features two endings; one in which the young men are gunned down by a gleeful German hunting party, and another in which they escape into the forest once again, their journey still incomplete.


The whys and wherefores are ultimately beside the point to Němec. He directs with a sense of dark surrealism, the imagery of Diamonds of the Night sometimes recalling the disturbing dream-logic of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou. Němec seems to refract time like light through splintered diamonds, losing all sense of time and place, replacing them with disorientation and fear. It's a visceral experience, the kind one feels in their gut - Němec isn't telling us a story, he's making us *feel* something, and he's throwing out all the rules of narrative cinema in order to do so. It's difficult to watch Diamonds of the Night in 2019 and not see parallels with László Nemes' Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, with its fierce adherence to first-person perspective in a world gone mad. Němec has similar goals here, focusing on the men and their experiences, their bodies taking center stage in his increasingly untethered frame, and yet we are unsure what those experiences really are. The film unfolds in a kind of a dream-state, showing us events multiple times often with different outcomes. Are we watching possible outcomes, or perhaps events from the characters' imaginations, or are the events playing out before us actually happening?

You'll find no answers in Němec's grim world. In fact, Němec was blacklisted shortly after the release of Diamonds of the Night  his films proving to be too subversive to the ruling Communist Party, and Němec never found the success abroad after finally fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1974. Yet Diamonds of the Night remains a touchstone, a film of such raw power that it still feels genuinely radical, a hallucinatory, aesthetically visionary work that redefined the cinematic language - taking the work of the early surrealists and applying it to a kind of emotional and political battering ram. It's a tragedy to think about all the films we lost through Němec's political oppression, but thanks to Criterion's beautiful new Blu-Ray edition, we can still enjoy the treasures we do have, and appreciate them for the masterworks that they are.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT | Directed by Jan Němec | Stars Ladislav Jánsky Antonín Kumbera Ilse Bischofova | Not Rated | In Czech w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Interview from 2009 with director Jan Němec 
  • A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s 1960 student thesis film, based on a short story by Arnošt Lustig 
  • Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, a short documentary from 1993 
  • New interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova 
  • New video essay on the film’s stylistic influences by scholar James Quandt 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson

Thursday, April 18, 2019

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

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

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

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



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

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


DVD EXTRAS:

Kino's new DVD release is light on extras - a couple of deleted scenes and a trailer, but it does bring back one of the crowning glories of home video releases - the DVD booklet. This might not seem like much in the age of comprehensive Criterion booklets, but there's something special about opening up a DVD and finding a booklet with more information about the film, as well as in-depth essay that explores the films ideas. Caden Mark Gardner's essay explores the themes of camp, religion, and queerness of The Gospel of Eureka, keenly highlighting its sense of empathy that never delves into pat "both sides" tropes. It's a lovely addendum to an altogether enchanting film that deserves to find a larger audience in its home video release.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA | Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher | Stars Justin Vivian Bond | Not Rated | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The RiverRun International Film Festival closes this Sunday, April 14, with a screening of Dava Whisenant's Bathtubs Over Broadway.

What begins as a rather charming documentary about a man with a rather eccentric hobby of collecting old industrial musical records, becomes something deeply human and incredibly touching as it explores a little known world of fully produced Broadway style musicals written for corporate sales events.

I'll admit there's something vaguely icky and even troubling about the idea of a jazzy, upbeat musical written to celebrate products and motivate employees to "sell sell sell" for the benefit of a corporate overlord exploiting their labor for profit (and singing a happy tune while doing it), but the core of Steve Young's enthusiasm for these musicals is pure. A longtime writer for "The Late Show with David Letterman," Young stumbled across one of these industrial musicals while researching a but for the show, sparking a lifelong passion that introduced him to a world few ever knew existed.

The musicals are kitschy, American capitalism's answer to Soviet propaganda films. It's jarring and a bit goofy seeing Broadway performers belting out numbers about everything from Coca-Cola to Xerox printers. And yet there's something endearing about their earnestness, and Young's guileless love for them is nothing short of infectious. Like Steve Buscemi's character in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Young avidly collects these rare albums, gushing over having the world's only known copy of some, eventually tracking down some of the actors and songwriters who brought these musicals to life (including Florence Henderson, Martin Short, and Chita Rivera).

Bathtubs Over Broadway uncovers an entirely new genre of American theater, introducing us to some of its unheralded luminaries who are finally getting their moment it the sun. There's something so very wholesome and heartwarming about seeing someone whose work was never made commercially available and only seen once realizing that there are people out there who really appreciate what they did decades ago. And one can't help but wonder if these songs weren't about corporate-specific products, would they be more famous than they are today? Because, quite frankly, much of the music is actually good, the lyrics witty and even a bit cheeky. Real talent and passion went into the making of these musicals, and the film allows a whole new audience to finally appreciate them.

The very idea of musicals about bathroom fixtures and ball-bearings seems goofy, and indeed the camp factor is through the roof. But director Dava Whisenant never treats them or her eccentric star as fodder for laughs or derision. Bathtubs Over Broadway is a loving ode to a forgotten piece of American culture, and the people who have kept it alive after history had left it behind. It's an utter and complete delight.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY is the closing night selection of the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Lu Huang and Mason Lee in "Suburban Birds." Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Qiu Sheng's smashing directorial debut, Suburban Birds, opens with a shot peering through the viewfinder of a surveyor's instrument. It scans the landscape as if searching for something, scanning, probing, wondering. It's a visual metaphor that Qiu returns to throughout the film, as we peer into the lives of characters through various lenses, surveying a landscape at once alien and hauntingly familiar.

Suburban Birds often resembles the specific political predilections of Jia Zhangke as filtered through the mystical musings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, setting a metaphoric exploration of life in modern China amid the literal shifting grounds of a society in flux. Our guide is Hao (Mason Lee), a young engineer tasked with surveying land around a skyscraper that has ominously tilted. Hao begins to suspect that underground tunnels are to blame for the building's mysterious shift, but his supervisors reject the idea, chalking his hypothesis up to his youth and inexperience.

One day, during a routine survey, Hao wanders into an elementary school and discovers a diary written by one of the students. In its pages he discovers a whole new world through the eyes of a young boy also named Hao (Zihan Gong). As young Hao's story of carefree childhood adventures unfolds through the pages of his diary, older Hao begins to see troubling parallels to his own life. Young Hao's friends are mysteriously disappearing, eerily presaging an end to national innocence and a troubling conclusion to Hao's own story as the two lives become inexorably intertwined to the point that they're no longer distinguishable from each other.

Qiu enigmatically blends the stories of the two Haos almost imperceptibly, employing a kind of magical realism to create a sense of mystery and possibility. Suburban Birds is at once a critique of the increasing urbanization of modern China and a tale of suburban ennui in a time of great uncertainty. At first, the two Haos' stories seem completely separate, a strange interruption to the story we had settled into, breaking the films into parallel narratives that don't seem connected. Is it a flashback, or a kind of disruption in time? Are the stories connected, or are their similarities coincidental? Qiu never answers these questions, leaving them almost bafflingly cryptic. And yet, that's what makes Suburban Birds so beguiling. The film most resembles Weerasethakul in its back half, specifically Tropical Malady (2005), as it shifts gears completely and the film we're watching is no longer the film we thought it was.

It is a film that peers through many layers, carefully parsing the lenses through which we view our own lives. Through time and memory, experience and written anecdote, Suburban Birds explores the tenuous connections between life as it is lived and life as we imagine it to be. Life throws us curveballs we can't understand or explain, it leaves ideas unfinished, t's uncrossed, i's undotted. When even the very ground on which we plant our feet seems to be moving beneath us, on what can we base our hopes and dreams? It is here where Qiu most resembles Jia Zhangke, perhaps the foremost chronicler of technology's sometimes destructive advance in modern China, and yet what Qiu seems to be going for here seems somehow more ephemeral and ghostly, less concretely political and more philosophical in nature. It leaves us with far more questions than answers, a portrait of an unstable world undone by its own lack of foresight, where truths that once were buried come raging back to wreck havoc on the present. It's a remarkable debut for Qiu, a mature and throughly mesmerizing film that lingers like wisps of haunted memory on a hazy summer afternoon.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


SUBURBAN BIRDS | Directed by Qiu Sheng | Stars Mason Lee, Zihan Gong, Lu Huang, Jing Deng | Not Rated | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Stephen King famously hated his 1983 novel, "Pet Sematary," tossing it in a drawer wandering if he had gone "too far," not digging back out until he needed one more novel to fill a commitment to his publisher. The novel, of course, was a success, and King eventually came around to it.

It is, of course, an extremely dark tale, exploring themes of grief and loss that are as universal as they are unnerving. The novel has been adapted for the screen once before, to some modest success, in 1989 by director Mary Lambert, a film to which Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch's new version hews closely. It's odd that Widmyer and Kölsch chose to essentially remake the 1989 film rather than return to King's rich source material, essentially making some of the same mistakes all over again, perhaps even more egregiously. Both films failed to capture the inherent pain at the heart of the story, in which the Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) discovers a mysterious pet cemetery in the back yard of his family's rural home. After the death of his daughter Ellie's beloved cat, Church, the Creed's neighbor, Judd Crandall (John Lithgow), shows Louis a place just beyond the cemetery that brings things back to life. Louis buries Church there, hoping to spare Ellie the pain of learning about death.

The Church that returns from the grave, however, is not the same as the Church that was killed on the Creed's dangerous Maine highway. He's constantly filthy, reeks of decay, and feels somehow...evil. When another tragedy shakes the Creed household to its core, Louis begins to contemplate the unthinkable - what happens if you bring a human back from the dead? We all know where this is going, of course. And while the 2019 Pet Sematary swaps 3-year-old Gage (Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie) for 9-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) as the child who gets run over by a tractor trailer, the story remains mostly the same. The biggest problem, much like in the 1989 film, is that the filmmakers are in such a rush to get to the inevitable zombie massacre that they forget to justify it through the characters' grief. Neither film really lets us believe that Louis would make the choice that he ultimately does. It has to come from a place of complete desperation and overwhelming sadness, but Pet Sematary knows why we're all here. It wants to get to the point, and fast.

That's one of the things that King's novel does so beautifully. Sure it's horrifying, but it's horrifying because it makes Louis' choice to resurrect his dead child feel perfectly natural - we understand why he does it, and even wonder if we would do the same were we in his position. Widmyer and Kölsch just want to to cut to the chase, and when they do, they completely rework King's original ending into something that totally undercuts the thematic integrity of the story. Rest easy, no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the ending of Pet Sematary 2019 isn't born of Louis' self-destructive grief, but from a desire to build upon the story's horror elements. The result feels strangely neutered, delivering on its gory promise but lacking the emotional anguish that made King's novel so troubling.

The 1989 film may look a bit cheesy now, but it was dirtier, meaner, and ultimately a more successful (if imperfect) take on King's material. King adaptations are hot right now, especially after the success of Andy Muschietti's It (2017), but if this perfunctory adaptation is all we're going to get out of some of King's most iconic works, perhaps they should stay buried. As Judd Crandall says, sometimes dead is better.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


PET SEMATARY | Directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch | Stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed | Rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.