Thursday, October 21, 2021

Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris and Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges in 20th Century Studios' THE LAST DUEL. Photo by Patrick Redmond. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

There's a certain satisfaction inherent to watching a Ridley Scott historical epic that's firing on all cylinders. And while this is a genre with which he's often identified, thanks to his Oscar winning Best Picture, Gladiator, his track record here is fairly spotty. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is perhaps his worst film, while Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings have mostly been forgotten, and Kingdom of Heaven was much more well received in its home video directors cut than it ever was in theaters.

That's why it's so thrilling to see him in such clear command of his craft as he is in The Last Duel, a medieval riff on Kurosawa's Rashomon that examines a real life case from the 1300s involving an unpopular knight whose wife accuses accuses the local lord's most favored squire of rape, resulting in a trial by combat that would settle the verdict in the eyes of God.

Scott examines the story from three different perspectives, first through the eyes of Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), who is mostly preoccupied with accumulating lands and titles that he feels are owed to him; then through the eyes of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the accused squire who sees himself as a benevolent Don Juan attempting to rescue Margueritte de Carrouges from a life of marriage to the petty Jean; and lastly from the point of view of Margueritte de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) herself, a lady with little societal agency who finds herself caught between the ambitions of two preening men vying for influence in a patriarchal world. 

The Last Duel is naturally sumptuous to look at, with gorgeous production and costume design by frequent Scott collaborators Arthur Max and Janty Yates, but it's the performances that really sell the film. Each telling of the story is so full of exquisite details and shadings, with the performers subtly adapting their characters to match the perspective of their rivals. The way the same events are depicted, tweaking even this most seemingly mundane of details, is so important to the bigger picture and discerning who is telling the truth. By the time we get to the climactic showdown, which could result in Margueritte's execution for bearing false witness if her husband loses, the film has become such an incisive metaphor for the way men bulldoze the perspectives of women in their quests for self advancement. de Carrouges isn't upset that his wife was raped, he's upset about what people will think of him, and uses the crime to settle a score with an old rival rather than seek justice for his wife, whose life hangs in the balance. 

Each character views the events through their own respective lens, each event colored by their own inherent biases. Either de Carrouges is a noble martyr unfairly hindered by nepotism, a preening, insufferable boor, or a petty, vindictive man seeking vengeance at all costs for perceived slights. And Scott, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, deftly navigates the shifting perspective with disarming grace. It's a rousing, old fashioned epic; but it's also a thrillingly modern exploration of the politics of gender, and how the truth is often obfuscated by our inability to see the bigger picture. Its one of the most fleet-footed and agile two-and-a-half hour films that have come along in quite some time. Every moment is earned; every look, gesture, and performance is important, and it more than earns its epic running time. It's Scott's best film in many a moon, and what a treat it is to see him once again painting confidently on such a grand and sweeping canvas.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE LAST DUEL | Directed by Ridley Scott | Stars Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek | Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

CLINT EASTWOOD as Mike Milo in the uplifting and poignant drama from Warner Bros. Pictures, “CRY MACHO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Clint Eastwood has spent the better part of 30 years, ever since at least his Oscar winning Unforgiven, examining and deconstructing his own star persona and his legacy as both a filmmaker and an actor. If Unforgiven was an exploration of his western persona, and Gran Torino and atonement of sorts for Dirty Harry, then his latest film, Cry Macho, seems to represent a career summation of Clint the man, and the masculine ideal that he has so long embodied.

A great deal of Eastwood's late period work has been preoccupied with examining American myth making, from Flags of Our Fathers, J. Edgar, and the widely misunderstood American Sniper, to Sully and Richard Jewell, few other American filmmakers have spent so much time pulling back the facade on the lies we tell ourselves. It's interesting, then, that Eastwood's work is so often dismissed by left wing critics due to his stated right wing politics, because the text of filmography is anything but patriotic hagiography. Perhaps it's Eastwood's dogged libertarian streak and general distrust of the government, but Eastwood's cinema is all about questioning official narratives, and he isn't afraid afraid to turn that lens back on himself. 

Cry Macho is very much at home amongst Eastwood's more laid-back late period films, occasionally resembling casual hangout films that are driven only by the loosest of plots. Eastwood stars as Mike Milo, a washed up rodeo star who's called upon by his boss (Dwight Yoakam) to travel to Mexico to retrieve his 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), from his scheming mother. Upon arrival, however, Milo finds out that it isn't just the boy's mother who's scheming, and that Rafo is a lost young man caught between two unscrupulous parents who are using him as a park in a bitter divorce. Obligated to carry out his mission and return Rafo to his father, but on the run from his mother's agents and the Mexican federal police, Milo and Rafo lay low in a tiny Mexican village where they forge a tentative friendship, giving Milo a long awaited opportunity to be the father figure he never got to be. 

Failed fatherhood is another fascinating through-line in Eastwood's work, and it rises to the fore here, as he plays a man trying to atone for the sins of his past by protecting another man's child in a way that he couldn't protect his own. Rafo, carrying his beloved fighting rooster named Macho, is filled with adolescent rage, his head filled with very clear ideas of what masculinity should look like, an ideal that Milo has long since come to understand is little more than a facade for weak men to hide behind. In that way, Cry Macho is Eastwood's own treatise on toxic masculinity. And while the film never digs as deep into its own themes as it could, it's impossible not to be fascinated by watching a filmmaker who has himself come to represent an outmoded ideal of masculinity attempt to tear down his own iconography and reveal it for the empty bluster that it is. 

At 91 years old and still as vital and prolific as ever, Eastwood is still searching and growing, taking stock not just of a career but of an entire life. His legendary distaste for multiple takes and lack of perfectionism often result in some performances from his non professional cast that are rough around the edges, but there's something almost more authentic about it for that. There's a languid, lackadaisical quality to Cry Macho that might be misconstrued as lack of depth, but therein lies its deceptive charm. This is a filmmaker with nothing left to prove, a living legend reflecting on himself and his own mythology in ways that are rarely seen on screen. It's an elegiac western that feels like a reflective summation of an entire career. Minor Eastwood? No. This is the work of a major filmmaker refusing to go quietly into that good night.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CRY MACHO | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Stars Clint Eastwood, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven, Dwight Yoakam, Fernanda Urrejola, Horacio García Rojas | Rated PG-13 for language and thematic elements | Now playing in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become such an ubiquitous, monocultural institution that, for me anyway, it's beginning to feel more like a chore than escapism - each new entry representing a piece of a corporate puzzle that only serves as connective tissue to still more product we are expected to consume. The series has become such a hydra at this point, spinning off both movies and television shows (not to mention the comics on which they're based), that the constantly expanding, overlapping, and self-referencing has worn out its welcome. 

Clearly this hasn't dampened its popularity with general audiences, who continue to show up in droves, making each new film an event unto itself - but ever since the story essentially came to an end after a decade's worth of world building in Avengers: Endgame, the sense of fatigue has felt all the more pronounced. That's why Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is such an unexpected pleasure. After having all but written off the MCU, I found myself drawn into the refreshingly standalone world of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Both products of a union between Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of an ancient crime syndicate called the Ten Rings, and Li (Fala Chen), a member of an elite fighting force sworn to protect the one earthly realm that Xu was unable to conquer. 

Having renounced their birthrights and escaped to separate lives on opposite sides of the world, Shang-Chi and Xialing find themselves reunited by their father's quest to at last conquer their mother's homeland. Convinced that she is still alive and being held captive, he is determined to set her free at all costs, but an ancient evil awaits behind the gates, and his arrogance threatens to destroy everything.

Shang-Chi himself is not a particularly interesting hero, but the supporting cast is aces; Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are in a class by themselves and they own every scene they're in. Ben Kingsley is also great fun reprising his role as Trevor the actor from Iron Man  3 (Xu Wenwu, it turns out, is the real Mandarin, and is none-too-pleased with Trevor's appropriation of his image), and Awkwafina and Meng'er Zhang's journeys are both more interesting than anything involving Shang-Chi.  The martial arts fight sequences are also much more kinetic and tactile than the usual CGI superhero hammering (again, Yeoh and Leung are best in show here). The whole thing has the feel of a wuxia epic. And no, we're not working on the level of a King Hu, Ang Lee, or Zhang Yimou here, but it's easy to become swept up in its story because Cretton is a smart enough filmmaker to fill what could have been throwaway roles with tremendous actors. The choreography is more engaging, the emotional beats more resonant, the stakes are more personal and tangible, and there's a hint of a soul here that has been largely missing from the MCU. It's certainly taking from bigger and better sources, but it's nice not feeling like I've got to remember minute details of 20 other movies and 50 years of comics to understand the characters and the plot.

Shang-Chi is the first Marvel movie in a very long time that really made me feel something, and not just like I was doing homework for the next inevitable entry. It is thrilling and transporting in a way the MCU hasn't been in a while; and while it naturally connects to the cinematic universe at large in the credit scenes, overall it feels like a self-contained fantasy adventure, which is such a breath of fresh air for the series. One hopes that Phase 4 will focus less on crafting interweaving stories and more on developing films that stand on their own merits - and while I'm not holding my breath on that front, not since Black Panther has the world of a Marvel film felt so vibrantly alive.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS | Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton | Stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Ben Kingsley | Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Nia DaCosta's legacy sequel to the influential slasher film, Candyman (1992), takes a lot of the original film's subtext and makes it text, reimagining the titular murderous spirit as a symbol of black trauma and rage, a vengeful judgment against white supremacy's brutal legacy.

Candyman (2021) acknowledges the events of the original film, but one need not have seen the 1992 film in order to understand what's going on here. DaCosta updates the idea and continues the story without trafficking in a phony sense of nostalgia. Instead, she builds upon what is already there, updating the concept for an era in which Black Lives Matter continues to be a resonant mantra and debates about "critical race theory" haver permeated the national political landscape. Here, Candyman isn't just an urban legend, a children's fairy tale based on the tale of a black man who was murdered by a mob in the 1890s for falling involve with a white woman. Here, Candyman is, as one character puts it, the entire swarm, a howl of rage at historical injustice whose power only grows with each black person murdered at the hands of lynch mobs and  police who have terrorized the housing project of Cabrini Green for generations. Candyman is, to put it simply, generational black trauma personified.

Cabrini Green has long sense been gentrified, the remaining tenements now mostly abandoned and forgotten by as upscale apartments and art galleries have made  it a hot commodity with skyrocketing property values, the former tenants now displaced. Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist living with his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), in a high-rise apartment overlooking the old housing projects. Anthony is looking for inspiration for his new gallery installation, and finds it in the Candyman legend, inadvertently resurrecting the vengeful spirit (Tony Todd, reprising his role from the original film) from his eternal slumber. As the body count grows, Anthony becomes more and more obsessed with Candyman, and soon he and those he loves are forced to grapple with his bloody legacy, and how they are inexorably connected.

Many black critics have pointed out the use of black suffering as horror fodder in films such as Antebellum, and while that discussion has surely been had regarding Candyman, DaCosta actually takes the time to grapple with the idea of how art can both heal and exacerbate trauma. By making her protagonist an artist, one trying to grapple with the violence he's seeing, it's almost as if DaCosta herself is wrestling with how to depict those violence and pain, and how her efforts can both exacerbate and help to acknowledge them. Turning Candyman into a kind of folk hero is a stroke of genius, a ghostly crusader fighting injustice from beyond the grave. While it often paints with an overly broad brush, DaCosta has created a beautifully idiosyncratic and haunting film, a thing of rare and terrible beauty that is at once a singular and wonderfully off-kilter work. Both Abdul-Mateen and Parris are terrific in the leading roles, and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe admirably steps into Philip Glass' massive shoes, evoking his minimalist circular rhythms to achieve something both beautiful and terrifying. 

Not every part of Candyman lands, but that's part of what make it so fascinating. You can feel DaCosta grappling with the film's thorny thematic content, probing, exploring, and experimenting. "Say his name," a now familiar mantra for the Black Lives Matter movement, becomes a similar rallying cry for Candyman here, because there is power and agency in remembrance. I will leave Candyman's success on that front to more learned critics of color whose experiences are imbedded in the film's depiction of trauma, but what is undeniable is that DaCosta seems to be working through these ideas herself right before our eyes. And the results are mesmerizing, terrifying, and strangely cathartic - messy, passionate, and gloriously inventive in all the right ways.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CANDYMAN | Directed by Nia DaCosta | Stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams, Tony Todd | Rated R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Capsule reviews of films currently playing in theaters and On Demand.


David Lowery's dreamlike retelling of the ancient chivalric romance, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," The Green Knight is a haunting, surreal epic, an adventure for the heart and mind whose pleasures are more cerebral than action-oriented. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who accepts the challenge of a towering supernatural knight (Ralph Ineson) to land a blow upon him in return for his axe. In return, the knight will strike a similar blow upon the challenger in one year's time. Gawain beheads the knight, but as the one year mark grows closer, he becomes restless, knowing his fate likely drawing near. So he sets off on a quest that will confront him with a series of moral and ethical quandaries that will challenge his wits, his strength, and his mettle to become a true knight of the chivalric code.

The Green Knight is an ethereal spectacle; part Tarkovsky, part Herzog, a surreal morality play that feels at once ancient and contemporary, a myth spun out of time. Lowery has such a keen sense of time and place, not unlike his 2017 film, A Ghost Story, its mist shrouded imagery bursting forth on screen like faded memories of a time long forgotten. It's a big screen epic with a decidedly intimate focus, deconstruction both the historical notion of chivalry and the idea of courage itself,  borne on the wings of Daniel Hart's mesmerizing score and breathtaking cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

RESPECT (Liesl Tommy, USA)

Anyone whose ever seen a musical biopic can likely predict most of the beats of Liesl Tommy's Respect, even if one isn't all that familiar with the details of the life of Aretha Franklin. Jennifer Hudson gives a powerhouse performance as Franklin, but the film around her seems to be going through the motions, presenting vignettes from her life without much bothering to present them in a way that gives any sort of narrative arc. In fact, it mostly feels  as if the movie was constructed around Hudson, giving her a chance to tear into Franklin's impressive discography but never really allowing her to dig deep into the legendary singer's rocky, extraordinary life. Tommy attempts to use Franklin's civil rights activism as the emotional crux of the film, but surprisingly never really explores it, focusing instead on her musical career and the relationships between the singer, her father, and her first husband, whose push and pull over her life account for much of her ups and downs in the early years. Its enough to leave the audience wanting more by giving us something akin to a paint-by-numbers, Cliffs Notes summary of the Queen of Soul's life. Aretha deserves better.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


James Gunn's The Suicide  Squad is certainly an improvement over David Ayer's 2016 original, although that's a fairly low bar to clear. It serves as a kind of soft-reboot of the concept, carrying over only Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn and Viola Davis' Amanda Waller in a new adventure about supervillains sent out on dangerous missions with the knowledge that they likely won't return. Gunn's film certainly doesn't take as serious a route as Ayers, seemingly poking fun at itself at every turn, and giving us a villain that's essentially a giant starfish. The film gets a few laughs here and there; but if you, like this writer, are suffering from superhero burnout, not even Sylvester Stallone as a sentient shark man can save this from a sense of overall tedium. Lacks the overall sense of goofiness of Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and thrilling filmmaking verve of Cathy Yan's standalone Harley Quinn adventure, Birds of Prey, but still manages to entertain in fits and starts.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Kim Minhee in "The Woman Who Ran." Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

THE WOMAN WHO RAN (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)

Hong Sangsoo at his most deceptively mundane, The Woman Who Ran has all the hallmarks of Hong's straightforward, conversational style, masking a great deal of emotional undercurrents running just beneath the surface. Here, Gamhee (Kim Min-hee, the filmmaker's constant muse) encounters three old friends while her husband is away on business, their interactions betraying unspoken conflict and unexpected warmth in varying and often bracing ways. The Woman Who Ran is perhaps the loosest of Hong's more recent films, even less invested in a particular destination than usual, as it focuses instead on exploring subtle human interactions. Hong finds heartache and humor embedded in the most seemingly commonplace of conversations, from old friends reminiscing to new neighbors insisting that their cats are stealing from them. It may not have the same emotional impact of some of the prolific filmmakers other works like On the Beach at Night Alone or Hotel by the River (it most closely resembles the wit and brevity of Grass), but there are few pleasures more endearing or satisfying than unpacking and exploring the many layers of a new Hong Sangsoo joint.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

(Criterion Collection)

If Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby isn't moment-for-moment the funniest film ever made, it can certainly lay a claim to being in the top five. Notoriously a flop upon its original release, and helped earn Katherine Hepburn the label of "box office poison" by Harry Brandt of the Independent Theatre Owners of America (a title she wouldn't shake until the release of The Philadelphia Story two years later). It's almost impossible to fathom now, given the film's classic status and Hepburn's iconic reputation. And while hindsight is often 20/20, as the saying goes, watching Bringing Up Baby more than 80 years after its release, it feels as if everyone involved was working at the absolute peak of their talents.

Hepburn, acting against type as a flighty heiress, is a constant delight. Cary Grant, himself playing against type as a bookish paleontologist whose life is upended by a smitten Hepburn's lovelorn antics, is nothing short of perfection. Together, they search for a missing dinosaur bone while baby-sitting a leopard named Baby, whose subsequent escape wreaks havoc on a tiny town. It is, to put it bluntly, the perfect screwball comedy, a rapid-fire barrage of ludicrous mayhem whose absurdity only gets funnier as it goes along, thanks in huge part to the game dedication of its cast; their straight-faced dramatic deliveries only making the silliness of their situations that much more heightened. The Philadelphia Story may be remembered as Hepburn's come-back, but it's Bringing Up Baby that truly represents her finest comedic work, an endearingly cheeky film that pushed the bounds of the Production Code right underneath the censors' noses, and whose timeless comic situations continue to enchant and entertain audiences generations after its initial release.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

MIRROR (Criterion Collection)

Perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky's most personal work, 1975's Mirror is a puzzle box of refracted memories, reflecting the filmmaker's own recollections of childhood against the shifting landscape of 20th century Soviet history. Rejected by Soviet critics at the time for its relative formlessness, Mirror is nonetheless a stirring and striking work, a poetic exploration of the moments that make up a life as seen by an artist attempting to take full measure of his life up to that point. More abstract than most of his films, Mirror is pure Tarkovsky id, a series of vignettes interspersed with newsreel footage that feels like a life flashing before one's eyes.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

OBJECTIVE, BURMA! (Warner Archive)

Hollywood war films made while World War II was still raging tended to have a fairly jingoistic tone, focusing on lifting a war weary nation's spirits rather than the grim realities of the carnage happening overseas. Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma!, starring famed swashbuckler, Errol Flynn, is something of a different animal. It's darker, grittier, and and much more honest in its depiction of the war in the Pacific than many of its contemporaries, making it one of the finest American war films to be released during WWII. 

Walsh was never interested in glorifying violence or engaging in sentimentality - he was far more interested in the psychological toll violence took on his characters (see White Heat, High Sierra, and Gun Fury). While Objective, Burma! certainly engages in some of the casual racism toward the Japanese that was common in American cinema at the time, Walsh's unblinking portrayal of the ugliness of war sets the film apart from much of Hollywood's output in 1945. The film centers around a high stakes mission behind enemy lines to capture a strategic Japanese outpost in Burma prior to the Allied invasion, and although the film ends with the successful arrival of American troops, its clear that the toll the war has taken on these men won't end with a simple happy ending. Flynn was never more steely or ferocious than he was here; gone is the joyous romanticism of Robin Hood or the boyish  charm of Essex, in its place is an unsettling grimness, we believe that this man has seen a lot of terrible things. It's a Hollywood production from 1945 so there's no blood, but it feels more authentic than many other films from the period. It occasionally feels overlong and not completely focused on its ultimate goal, but there's something about the way it meanders in the middle section that makes it feel more real, and that we're trapped in this hell with these men. It's an oft overlooked gem of its genre that stands ripe for rediscovery. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


Jaunty Busby Berkeley musical about two baseball player cum entertainers (Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly) whose lives are upended when their team is inherited by a beautiful woman (Esther Williams) they assume knows little about baseball. It turns out she knows more than they do, and Sinatra falls head over heels in love, while Kelly gets caught up in a gambling scheme by some local gangsters to throw a game. The numbers were staged by Kelly rather than Berkeley so expect more tap-dancing than large scale production numbers. Everyone here was much better somewhere else, but this is a fun, frothy comedy that throws away its ending, but plods along amiably on the charm of its stars and Berkeley's charming (if subdued) direction.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A still from Marlon Riggs' BLACK IS, BLACK AIN'T, courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Marlon Riggs'  searing film debut may feel like a PBS documentary you might see played in schools (which, in fact, it is), but Ethnic Notions (1986) is such a comprehensive text on the origins of racist stereotypes in America that it demands to be one of the bedrocks of American cinema. 

Riggs traces racial stereotypes from the origins of minstrel shows to reinforce the idea that enslaved people were happy, docile, and unintelligent, to the post-Civil War image of Black people as lusty brutes who needed the confines of slavery to be controlled. The film examines how these tropes evolved over time, from the pickaninny, the mammy, and the Sambo into more modern images like Aunt Jemima, shaping white perception of Black people through popular culture and guiding racist legislation and that still exists today. Riggs deftly juxtaposes even seemingly innocuous images with the horrible ideas they inspired, pulling no punches in its depiction of American history through the lens of anti-black propaganda. It may have been released in 1986, but Ethnic Notions is just as essential and relevant as ever, presenting a disturbingly clear case for the existence of systemic racism by exploring the ways in which insidious imagery has been used to marginalize Black people from the very beginning of the American experiment.

After the success of relatively more straightforward documentary, Ethnic Notions, Tongues Untied (1989) saw Marlon Riggs truly blossom into his own artist, delivering a poetic exploration of what it means to be Black gay man in America in the 1980s. Here, Riggs speaks in a clear voice, celebrating his queerness and his blackness and how those two identities intersect and fuel each other. It's at once joyous, celebratory, and sobering, examining not only the unique joys of Riggs' life but its challenges in a world that seems determined not to understand him. It's a work of unerring beauty, fusing the poetry of  Essex Hemphill with the beauty of black bodies intertwining, celebrating a uniquely marginalized identity and taking pride in its exultation. 

Still, Tongues Untied pulls no punches in its depiction of the prejudices faced by Black gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis. Riggs acknowledges the revolutionary act of being a Black gay man in a country built on racism and actively marginalizing the LGBT community, while examining his own place within that community as a Black man. It's  a film that is consistently vibrant and alive, humming with the sheer joy of embracing one's own identity while exploring the challenges that identity presents in America. It is a bracing statement of self-identity and a towering work of self-expression and self-reflection, beautifully capturing a time and place yet reverberating through the decades as a work by an artist boldly stating his Black queerness, standing tall as an essential queer text and a bold, uncompromising act of pride.

Made up of pieces of interviews and footage of protests seemingly left over from Tongues Untied,  Marlon Riggs' 1990 short film, Affirmations (1990), makes for a dazzling companion piece to his own seminal 1989 documentary, revealing in the beauty of queer love and the first delicious moments of self discovery. It's an affirmation of Black queer identity and an act of radical self love that is a brief but powerful statement about embracing one's true self and living authentically even if the rest of the world hasn't quite caught up.

Riggs celebrates the eroticism of Gay black love in his 1991 short, Anthem, which adds a propulsive hip hop beat to erotic images of gay Black men. Riggs' exploration of what it means to be a gay Black man in the late 80s and 90s may feel rough around the edges, but they're so unerringly authentic and filled with such a celebratory lust for life that they're impossible to ignore. Anthem is one of his most purely joyous works, a depiction of gay Black men as sexual beings, unashamed of their love, their bodies, or their identities. Released in 1991, it feels nothing short of revelatory.

A still from Marlon Riggs' TONGUES UNTIED, courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Riggs then chronicled the history of Black representation on television in Color Adjustment (1992) searing companion piece to his breakout documentary, Ethnic Notions.  From Amos & Andy to The Cosby Show to Roots to Good Times, Riggs examines how Black people have been represented on screen and how those depictions intertwine with both racist stereotypes and assimilationist ideals designed to make white people more comfortable. It's a fascinating film, and Riggs offers no easy answers, often questioning even the depictions thought to be progressive with on screen editorials like "is this positive?" Riggs interviews television legends like Norman Lear and Esther Rolle, interrogating popular culture through its depiction of Black life, and how those depictions both reinforced and challenged racial stereotypes, often at the same time.

A searing short film chronicling the experiences of five black gay men with AIDS, No Regret is one of Riggs' most deeply personal and searing films. Riggs allows the men to tell their stories uninhibited, at first shrouded by black filters that obscure parts of their faces, that eventually vanished, allowing the men to recount their experiences of being black and queer, and how those experiences often informed each other. They deliver these experiences directly to the camera, almost making eye contact with the viewer. It's a bracing depiction of proud, personal affirmation, confronting notions of race and sexuality that persist even beyond 1993, and dismantle the stigma of HIV by proudly embracing their own identities and examining how those identities have shaped their outlooks and their treatment in society.

His final film was also perhaps his most all-encompassing and definitive statement on race and sexuality. Shot while he was dying of AIDS-related complications, and assembled by his team after his death, Black Is...Black Ain't examines blackness in all its many facets, confronting colorism, homophobia, historical stereotypes, and historical ideas of what it means to be Black in America. Riggs also examines how sexuality intertwines with race, speaking directly to the camera from his hospital bed; still questioning, still probing, still interrogating the complex notions of race and sexuality and the intersections between, in what is essentially a sprawling summation of his life's work. It is an incredible, essential work, one that purposefully leaves more questions than it answers as it seeks a definition to something that means many different things to many different people, all thought the lens of the many ingredients in his mother's gumbo. It's a completely masterful work, a work of avant-garde brilliance whose prismatic lens lends its subject a breathtaking scope.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

  • New high-definition digital masters of all seven films, with uncompressed monaural or stereo soundtracks on the Blu-rays 
  • Four new programs featuring filmmaker and editor Christiane Badgley; performers Brian Freeman, Reginald T. Jackson, and Bill T. Jones; filmmakers Cheryl Dunye and Rodney Evans; poet Jericho Brown; film and media scholar Racquel Gates; and sociologist Herman Gray 
  • Excerpts from a 1992 interview with director Marlon Riggs 
  • Brief introductions by Riggs to Tongues Untied and Color Adjustment 
  • Long Train Running: The Story of the Oakland Blues (1981), Riggs’s University of California, Berkeley, graduate thesis film 
  • Introduction to Riggs from 2020 featuring filmmakers Vivian Kleiman and Shikeith, and Ashley Clark, curatorial director of the Criterion Collection 
  • I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs (1996), a documentary by Karen Everett that features interviews with Riggs; Kleiman; filmmaker Isaac Julien; African American studies scholar Barbara Christian; several of Riggs’s longtime friends and collaborators; and members of his family 
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing 
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic K. Austin Collins

Friday, August 06, 2021

Left to Right: Winston Duke as Will, Zazie Beetz as Emma in NINE DAYS. Photo by WYATT GARFIELD. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

A lonely man sits in a ramshackle cabin in the middle of a barren desert. He spends his days watching old VHS tapes chronicling the lives of several unknown people, seemingly shot from the perspective of person themselves. These, it turns out, are the souls that Will (Winston Duke) once approved to be born on Earth. But when one dies unexpectedly, Will's world is thrown into turmoil, and he must select a new soul to grant the gift of life, a task complicated by his determination to uncover the reason behind the death of one of his greatest achievements.

The parade of souls that come through his home undergo a series of interviews, not unlike a job interview, to determine if they are suitable for life on Earth. But one soul in particular challenges all of Will's preconceived notions of life itself. Emma (Zazie Beetz) refuses to answer many of his questions, rejecting their premises completely, she follows him as he goes about his work and interrogates his methods. She is frustrating, she is unique, she is, in fact, full of life. Will finds his entire worldview challenged, and his understanding of life itself put to the test.

It's a fascinating premise for a film, and first time feature filmmaker Edson Oda guides Nine Days with a quiet sense of restraint, anchored by Winston Duke's stoic performance. Oda wisely doesn't spend much time trying to explain the world of the film, it simply exists within the four walls of the Will's house surrounded by a sandy windswept landscape. It's contemplative, but ultimately a bit stagey, its action confined to a very specific space that never quite feels particularly cinematic, despite the intriguing premise. In some ways, it recalls Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime, another somewhat metaphysical exploration of existence that managed to more easily transcend its liminal sense of space. 

Oda's writing is sharp, but one often wishes that the characters were more developed for something that's clearly meant to be a character study. Their emotional beats often hit hard but it's difficult to escape the feeling that we're missing the same things about them that Will is, unable to see them as clearly defined personalities. It's denouement is a lyrical powerhouse, but there's always something about it that somehow feels distant and intangible, as if it never quite fully embraces the spiritual ramifications of its premise. There's certainly a lot to love here, and Oda has established himself as a talent to watch, as Nine Days seemingly lays the groundwork for bigger and better things to come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NINE DAYS | Directed by Edson Oda | Stars Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale | Rated R for language | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, August 02, 2021

Movies based on Disney attractions have historically been a mixed bag. Pirates of the Caribbean famously launched a successful franchise, even if the sequels mostly failed to live up to the simple charms of the original. Dinosaur (2000), The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003), and Tomorrowland (2015) didn't make many waves, while Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) was mostly well received by critics, even if most people probably don't even realize it was inspired by a Disney attraction that closed in both Disneyland and Disney World in 1993. 

With only one Disney attraction spawning a bona fide hit, it's not surprising that it's taken this long for the studio to try again. But if any Disney attraction not already based on a movie was ever going to be turned into a big screen extravaganza, Jungle Cruise makes the most sense. An opening day attraction at Disneyland and a pet project of Walt himself, the Jungle Cruise is an enduring classic that was already loosely inspired by a movie (The African Queen), so its translation to the big screen wasn't a giant leap. With its parade of corny jokes and loose exploration plot, the ride provides a pretty wide canvas on which to apply any original story.

Enter Jungle Cruise, which casts Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, an intrepid scientist determined to prove the existence of a mythical tree known as the "flowers of the moon," in hopes of using the tree's magic to create new healing medicines and help bring an end to the destructive conflict of World War I. Her guide into the Amazon rainforest is Frank Wolff (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), the skipper of a dilapidated river boat who specializes in cheesy adventure rides for wealthy tourists. They are pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German royal who hopes to use the flowers to help Germany win the war. But first, they must both face an army of undead conquistadors, led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who are forever cursed to haunt the Amazon after an unsuccessful attempt to find the flowers of the moon hundreds of years earlier. 

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter, Non-Stop), Jungle Cruise plays well on established properties like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, and even Disney's own Pirates of the Caribbean to create an agreeable mix of comedy and swashbuckling action. Collet-Serra, who has made something of a career out of crafting enjoyable B-thrillers starring Liam Neeson, has an eye for action, and the set pieces in Jungle Cruise often feel like a throwback to epic adventure films of old. Its biggest drawback, however, is that its over-reliance on CGI makes it feel much less tangible and more plastic than the original Pirates, lowering the stakes as well as the grandeur. Aguirre and his conquistador brethren feel like knockoffs of Davy Jones and his crew from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and don't look half as good, despite it being 15 years later. 

But there's also plenty to enjoy here; amusing supporting performances by the always welcome Plemons and Paul Giamatti as a frazzled gangster, while Emily Blunt makes for an engaging lead in the vein of Rachel Weisz's character from The Mummy, and Jack Whitehall charms as her foppish brother, whose love of high living puts him constantly at odds with his jungle surroundings. It's a solid adventure yarn, and Collet-Serra balances its tone well, keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of the ride, but its occasionally questionable CGI makes one long for the more grounded action of the original Pirates of the Caribbean, whose use of CGI complemented its real elements rather than the other way around. It may be standard operation for tentpoles these days, but Pirates almost feels like the last of a dying breed, and Jungle Cruise never quite captures that same spark. 

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

JUNGLE CRUISE | Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra | Stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Dani Rovira | Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence | Now playing in theaters nationwide and on Disney+ with Premiere Access

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson) in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Marvel has all but gotten its formula down to a science at this point, turning into a well-oiled machine that churns out easily digestible content multiple times a year. Due to the effects of COVID-19, Black Widow is the first new Marvel film to hit theaters in nearly two years, since Spider-Man: Far From Home was released in July of 2019. 

Originally slated for release in 2020, Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, that follows the adventures of the titular heroine, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016) left her exiled from the Avengers. Here, we see her reunited with her sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who was also a victim of Soviet-era mind control experiments designed to create an unstoppable force of "widows," female super soldiers under the control of Dreykov, aka Taskmaster (Ray Winston). Together, they must reunite with Yelena (Rachel Weiss) and Boris (David Harbour), two Soviet operatives who once posed as their parents in a Cold War-era spy mission in the United States, to take down Dreykov before he can unleash his widows, infiltrate world governments, and impose his will upon international affairs.

Black Widow is a slick entertainment in the standard Marvel style, hewing more closely to the paranoid spy thriller vibe of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, right down to its typically over-the-top climactic superhero smackdown taking place on an enemy vessel in the sky. Pugh and Harbour make especially entertaining additions to the MCU, and director Cate Shortland (Somersault) peppers the film with some engaging set pieces that alternate between action and comedy. The problem with Black Widow is how, perhaps moreso than any other film in the MCU, it typifies the kind of uncomfortable relationship between Marvel and the interests of American imperialism that as been a through-line in the series.

Of course, some films in the MCU certainly pay lip service to questioning institutions, as SHIELD agents actually being secret HYDRA agents have made up major plot points in the film, but the belief in the American ideal, no matter how flawed its institutions may be, remains a cornerstone of the MCU as embodied by contrasting heroism of WWII era patriot, Captain America, and billionaire entrepreneur, Iron Man. Black Widow s plot revolves around a Cold War era mind control plot being carried out by Soviet agents who embed communist spies right into American neighborhoods. These mind control tactics come to represent a hegemony of thought, a lack of personal freedom, and Natasha's escape to the United States represents an achievement of liberty, a shedding of the chains of communism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the portrayal of Harbour's Red Guardian, a kind of Soviet foil to Captain America, as a total buffoon. Drunken and overweight, with the words "Karl" and "Marx" tattooed across his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Red Guardian comes off like a store brand Captain America, a Soviet-era knockoff who's rivalry with Cap is completely one-sided and quixotic. 

Whether out of a sense of comedy or something more insidious, Black Widow's anti-communist subtext almost feels Randian at times, taking potshots at Soviet inferiority at every turn, reinforcing the idea of America's (and therefore capitalism's) inherent superiority. It should come as no surprise that a film churned out by the biggest entertainment conglomerate on earth, is in fact a de facto apologia for American exceptionalism, but it's certainly indicative of the way capitalism is treated as the inevitable default, and communism becomes a punchline served up for cheap yuks. Its consistent and sometimes subtle digs feel almost propagandistic, working to undermine socialism by relying on hoary Cold War cliches that would have felt old hat even 30 years ago. 

Black Widow is certainly a slick entertainment, but that's what makes its underlying themes so troubling. By turning its human trafficking plot into a Cold War farce, it loses any potential teeth it could have had by shrugging it off as a problem of communism, trapping its adherents in a prison of conformity. There's certainly a lot to like here, but don't be fooled by its shiny veneer, because what makes this film tick is ultimately a tired bit of imperialist corporate propaganda designed to make capitalism seem like a moral default rather than a destructive aberration. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

BLACK WIDOW | Directed by Cate Shortland | Stars Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material | Now playing in theaters nationwide, and on Disney+ with Premiere Access.

Monday, July 05, 2021

The first part of a planned trilogy being released over a period of a few weeks on Netflix, Fear Street Part 1: 1994, is based on R.L. Stine's popular series of horror novels for teens that were kind of like the older, meaner cousin of Goosebumps during the 1990s. 

This first entry in the trilogy introduces us to a group of teenagers from the seemingly cursed town of Shadyside, where seemingly normal people have been turning into murderers for generations. After an encounter with a group of bullies from a wealthier rival town, the teens soon find themselves under siege by a gang of killers from the town's haunted past - and must band together to break the centuries-old curse or die trying. 

Fear Street 1994 plays a bit like Scream meets Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, taking elements from various Fear Street novels and using them as both a winking nod to horror films from decades past and a terrifying thriller in its own right. And yet, despite its use of a nostalgic property from the 1990s, never feels like its leaning too hard into dewy-eyed recreations of childhood properties. This is, first and foremost, a horror film, and director Leigh Janiak wastes no time in letting us know that we are far, far away from Goosebumps kiddie horror, even though its aesthetic is very grounded in the kind of teen horror films that populated the cinematic landscape in the 1990s. It also distinguishes itself by putting a queer romance front and center rather than on the periphery, with its two "final girl" protagonists former girlfriends whose relationship has been on the rocks ever since one of them chose status over love by moving to the rival town, Sunnyvale. 

It it going to reinvent the horror genre the way some have claimed in rapturous social media notices? Most likely not, it's all a bit too rooted in elements of the past to really pave the way for horror's future, but that doesn't stop Fear Street 1994 from being one hell of a good time. It's been a long time since we've seen a horror film that's this much fun, a purely enjoyable chiller that beautifully captures the feeling of its pulpy teen novel roots. I can't wait to see where this series goes next.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FEAR STREET PART 1:  1994 | Directed by Leigh Janiak | Stars Kiana Madeira, Olivia Welch, Julia Rehwald, Benjamin Flores Jr., Fred Hechinger, Ashley Zukerman | Rated R for strong bloody violence, drug content, language and some sexual content | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix 

Setting out to recreate the grand, star-studded variety show feel of Ziegfeld's Follies, Ziegfeld Follies is a series of impressively mounted acts, from dance numbers to songs to comedy routines to Vaudeville acts, featuring the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Red Skelton, and more. 

The film is framed as a heavenly reverie, as the great Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell, briefly reprising his role from The Great Ziegfeld) looks down from above and imagines the thrill of throwing one last Follies. What follows is a veritable who's who of Hollywood stars of the 1940s, in which must have felt like a refreshingly carefree spectacle to weary audiences as World War II neared its end. There are certainly highlights here - Judy Garland's delightfully tongue-in-cheek satire of stardom, "A Great Lady has an Interview," Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dancing "The Babbit and the Bromide" (in their first of only two on-screen pairings), the disastrous but beautiful "bubble dance" in the final number, "Beauty," Victor Moore as a harrowed client facing a fine begging his brash lawyer, Edward Arnold, to "just pay the $2!" But the sheer amount of material in the two hour film almost feels oppressive. What would have been stunning on the stage becomes tedious on film, as the novelty of the variety show structure begins to wear thin long before the back-loaded succession of heavy-hitting acts gives us what we've wanted to see all along.

There's something charmingly sincere about its nostalgic recreation of what is now essentially a lost artform, bringing some of Hollywood's most glittering stars together for a dazzling, carefree variety show right at the end of WWII. But its lack of overarching theme or cohesion makes it an often tough sit, and the Ziegfeld looking down from heaven framing device is just way too cutesy for its own good. There are certainly individual elements to enjoy here, and it looks gorgeous in its new Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Archive, but the scattershot nature of Ziegfeld Follies may test the patience of even the most ardent fan of classic Hollywood musicals.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES | Directed by Vincente Minelli | Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, James Melton, Victor Moore, Red Skelton, William Powell, Edward Arnold, Marion Bell, Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in MADAME CURIE.

Mervyn LeRoy's Madame Curie seems to check every box of an Academy friendly biopic. Major stars? Check - Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon were hot off the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) and were in  especially great demand. Socially conscious topic? Check. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in a male-dominated profession, whose discovery of radium was one of the major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. 

Films like this were all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s (The Great ZiegfeldThe Life of Emile Zola, The Story of Louis Pasteur, Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees, Yankee Doodle Dandy, the list goes on...). The Academy's love affair with biopics is well known and continues to this day, and while Madame Curie certainly has many of the tropes that are familiar to the genre, it's also not as dry as its subject matter might suggest.

The script may be a bit hackneyed and heavy on the exposition (it's certainly working overtime to make complex scientific ideas as easy to understand as possible), but thanks to a luminous performance by Garson in the title role and sharp direction by LeRoy (Gold Diggers of 1933, Little Caesar), Madame Curie positively hums at the excitement of exploring a new frontier. The film is first and foremost a love story between Marie and her husband Pierre (Pidgeon), but LeRoy wisely blends their burgeoning and deepening love into the wonder of scientific discovery. 

It's an ingenious move, and the film is stronger because of it, transcending its rather staid biopic roots and often tingling with a kind of magic that sets it apart from its often dry biopic siblings. The film was ultimately nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Garson), and Best Actor (Pidgeon), ultimately losing the top Oscar tone other than Casablanca. While Madame Curie certainly hasn't endured the same way that film has, and it never hits the heights of Mrs. Miniver, it's certainly a fine studio production that is much better than its nearly non-existent reputation might suggest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MADAME CURIE | Directed by Mervyn LeRoy | Stars Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Travers, Albert Bassermann, Robert Walker, C. Aubrey Smith, May Whitty | Available June 29 from Warner Archive