Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If you've ever spent any time in or around a nursing home, then you're familiar with the air of stagnation that seems to hang over them, as if they are somehow frozen in time, their residents simply existing in a kind of aimless quiescence.

Shevaun Mizrahi's quietly haunting debut documentary, Distant Constellation, both pierces through that illusion and examines its stark realities. Cinema often treats the elderly as sources of kindly wisdom or as adorable curiosities (see the admittedly heartwarming 2007 documentary, Young @ Heart), rarely treating them as fully formed human beings. By setting her film in a nursing home, Mizrahi seemingly sets herself up for a similar scenario - a filmmaker examining the lives of the elderly that is all take and no give, gleaning their wisdom and experience without acknowledging that even by simply observing that she has become a part of their lives.

Distant Constellation shatters that barrier between filmmaker and subject in devastating ways. It's an often overlooked aspect of documentary filmmaking - how does one observe another human being without inherently becoming part of the story themselves? It's impossible, really, but most filmmakers never really allow themselves to go there; the film isn't really about them after all (Judy Irving's 2003 doc, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, is a notable exception - at the film's heartwarming conclusion she announces that she is marrying her eccentric subject, Mark Bittner). There is a moment late in the film in which one of the subjects, a well-read pianist named Roger with a sly penchant for discussing sexual topics, proposes marriage to Mizrahi on camera during an interview, and in that heartbreaking moment the immediacy of what she is doing comes into sharp focus.

For most of the film, Mizrahi allows the residents to speak for themselves, going about their daily routines in an attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy. There's Osep, a once famous Turkish photographer, now trying to keep his art alive from the confines of his room. There's Selma, a centenarian survivor the Armenian genocide, whose vivid memories of its horrors are chilling reminders of human cruelty in a new time of racial intolerance and the demonization of "the other." There's Serkis and Izzet, who enjoy taking the facility's elevator for rides so they can get a bit of peace and quiet to share gossip. But it's that moment with Roger that really sticks in the memory, opening up a whole new facet of the film - here Mizrahi goes from casual observer to active participant, essentially dissolving the wall not only between filmmaker and subject, but between the subject and the audience as well, leaving us to wonder how we affect them by our observation.


Life goes on inside the Turkish nursing facility - residents seemingly trapped in time, all the while the world outside moves on without them, represented by the construction of a nearby skyscraper, dutifully trudging on through the snow as the knowledge and experience of those inside the nursing home fade away into the past. Mizrahi preserves those memories and experiences in Distant Constellation, brilliantly encapsulating the inevitable progression of time and the changes it brings - a world no longer recognized by those who have been in it the longest. You'll find no blind nostalgia here, though. Mizrahi seeks to parse and analyze the experiences of our elders, musing not only about what wisdom they can impart on us, but also what we as a society, and as observers, can do for them? Do we simply let them waste away, forgotten and alone, as time marches on?

That is the poignant core of Mizrahi's altogether extraordinary film, a keenly observed fantasia on the nature of time and memory. Her artful compositions are often breathtaking (she was a photographer before turning to film), finding small moments of beauty and even playfulness where society often sees only petrification and death. "Time waits for no man," goes the old adage, and while that may be true - here, at least for a moment, it stands still long enough to catch its breath. In these all-too-brief 82 minutes, it imparts the wisdom of a lifetime, and discovers new, unexpected insights for an unknown but inevitable future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


DISTANT CONSTELLATION | Directed by Shevaun Mizrahi | Not Rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters from Grasshopper Film.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Drew Goddard's sophomore feature film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is as much an amalgam of the film noir genre as his previous feature, The Cabin in the Woods, was of horror films. While not as pointedly referential as The Cabin in the WoodsBad Times at the El Royale is very much a modern film noir in the grand tradition of old Hollywood, bringing old tropes and cliches into a new, stylishly appointed package.

Set in a once glamorous hotel on the border between California and Nevada, Bad Times at the El Royale finds a cast of disparate characters, each with their own secrets, converging in a perfect storm of bad decisions and illegal activity. There's a priest (Jeff Bridges) whose motives may not be as pure as they appear; a singer (Cynthia Erivo) whose experiences lead her not to trust anyone; an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who's deep undercover; and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) with a very complicated past.

Each one of their pasts will catch up with them on their night in the El Royale, and Goddard (who also wrote the screenplay) juggles it all with a sharp sense of visual wit and narrative flair. While the film feels a bit bloated at 142 minutes, the characters he creates are so memorable and the milieu so compelling that it's hard not to become invested in the story. The real strength here is Goddard's screenplay - while it may leave a lot of loose threads, it's so well-written that it almost feels like it would make a better play than a film. These characters and their outlandish situations are almost begging for the stage treatment. Whether they're looking for money, sex, absolution, or simply to be left alone, their bad decisions all have consequences that finally get the best of them in one way or another.

If at times it feels a bit like Tarantino-lite (there are shades of The Hateful Eight here), it's because Goddard borrows from many of the same references. Tarantino, of course, bases most of his films on his own cinematic favorites, and Goddard is no different, taking everything from film noir to Agatha Christie to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and turning it into a neon-lit mystery that feels thoroughly modern.

Goddard's storytelling sensibilities are top notch, even when the film begins to feel too long; his instinct for just how much information to reveal (and how much to keep in the dark) is remarkably sharp, and the result is an engaging thriller whose characters make the overlong film worth the ride.  Add to that some evocative cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey and a disarmingly emotional score by Michael Giacchino, and you have a winning formula that overcomes most of its faults to provide a compelling and thoroughly entertaining yarn.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE | Directed by Drew Goddard | Stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan | Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, October 15, 2018

In 2013, two filmmakers redefined the documentary form and pushed the boundaries of the cinematic medium. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Leviathan boldly saw beyond the confines of the frame, freeing itself from the cinematic space in breathtaking ways. It was the best film of 2013, and remains the finest documentary of the century.

How can one possible follow up such a film? For Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, who had looked so brashly outward in Leviathan, the answer was by turning the camera around and looking inward. Their chosen subject - Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was arrested after killing and eating a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevel in 1991. Sagawa was released after being declared legally insane, and went on to become something of a minor celebrity, even going so far as to draw a manga about his crime, reveling in every gruesome detail of the murder and its aftermath. The resulting film is Caniba, perhaps one of the most disturbing films ever made, a dark and haunting plunge into the mind of a monster, inviting the audience into a truly unnerving world that feels like we're staring into the deepest pits of Hell.

The camera remains tightly on Sagawa's face for much of the film. Partially paralyzed by a stroke, his skin is taut, his face expressionless, his nose upturned, like some kind of demonic inversion of Renee Falconetti's Joan of Arc. And yet, there's something disturbingly human about him. Sagawa almost painfully human in Caniba, untouchable and foreign and yet strangely recognizable, a man with insatiable desires of the flesh that have nevertheless broken one of society's deepest taboos. He speaks not only his crime, but of his own desire to be consumed by the woman he killed. He covets pain, pure blinding brilliant intense pain, both as retribution and as part of a deep-seated sexual desire that he can't explain.

Where did it come from? Is it something intrinsically wrong with him? Is it natural? Was it nature, or nurture? The question comes into sharper focus through Sagawa's brother and caretaker, Jun Sagawa, who as it turns out share's his brother's masochistic desires, minus his sadism. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor watch as Jun wraps himself up in barb wire and repeatedly stabs himself in the arm in an act of sexual ecstacy. The two men couldn't be further apart - Jun never tipped took the step into harming others as his brother did. So why is watching him burn himself to achieve orgasm so horrifying? Who is he hurting other than himself? Is he really any different than his more infamous brother?


Caniba never answers these questions, resulting in a work that feels as morally dubious as it is enthralling. Who was the woman that Sagawa killed? Why are both of these men, who knew nothing of each other's fetishes, both so driven by such extreme sexual depravity? Paravel and Castaing-Taylor choose not to go there, for them, staring into the darkness of the human soul is enough. One could question the moral responsibility of the filmmakers to question or challenge Sagawa, but I would argue that they don't need to. Aesthetically, Caniba is a terrifying journey into the underworld, a film that worms its way under the skin and unnerves through its chillingly dispassionate observation of one of the deepest human perversions. But underneath its horrifying surface is something even more disquieting, the nagging feeling that this example of the most monstrous of human evil isn't that much different from us after all.  To risk delving into pop culture cliche, Caniba does an even better job than Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight of illustrating just how thin the line between civilization and madness really is. As Heath Ledger's Joker famously intoned, "Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!"

A troubling thought, indeed; one that reinforces Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's mastery of their craft. Here, they take a monster and show us the human underneath. Rather than sensationalizing their gruesome subject, they use it to hold a mirror up to the audience, and the disarming act of introspection should make us all a little nauseous.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


CANIBA | Directed by Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, Oct. 19, at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

It's interesting that Blake Williams' Letterboxd account lists Godard's Goodbye to Language and Lynch's Inland Empire among his favorite films, because his new experimental film, PROTOTYPE, owes much to their particular aesthetic, both Godard's revolutionary use of 3D and Lynch's nightmarish sound design.

Yet Williams isn't simply emulating his heroes here. PROTOTYPE is almost dadaist in its sense of avant-garde experimentalism, a proud work of surrealist cinema in the tradition of Man Ray (Return to Reason), Germaine Dulac (The Seashell and the Clergyman), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Hollis Frampton (Zorns Lemma), and Stan Brakhage (Window Water Baby Moving). Williams feels like both their successor and their peer, standing proudly among the avant-garde artists of old while boldly forging his own path into a brave new world of cinema.

Of course, dadaists like Ray and Dulac eschewed all explanation of deeper meaning in their work, which in their intentionally obfuscating refusal to adhere to anything resembling storytelling or artistic norms, often ended up being pure cinema rather than anti-cinema, as was their intention. I'm not sure that's what Williams is really going for here, but his stark, often non-sensical imagery seems rooted in that tradition.

Using the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 as a jumping-off point, PROTOTYPE creates an alternate world viewed through a series of television screens that envisions its aftermath and legacy. But as Williams takes us into the dark heart of the storm, we soon get the feeling that we aren't watching people through a screen, but that we are the ones being watched instead; the screens offering figures from the past a window into our world rather than the other way around. It's a brilliant, haunting effect, repurposing old footage in ways that feel thrillingly new.

There is no single, clear explanation for PROTOTYPE, nor should there be, It's a mesmerizing, immersive experience unlike anything else. It feels like a journey into another realm of consciousness, exploring the boundaries of the cinematic medium and questioning what's possible, a visual and aural fantasia that feels like a kind of analog nightmare made up of abstract images and roaring sound effects. Williams throws the rulebook out the window and starts from scratch, creating a film that is at once a searing exploration of our own relationship to visual media and an audacious reinvention of the cinematic language. Just as Godard bid farewell to the old ways of artistic expression in Goodbye to Language, with its equally brash use of 3D, PROTOTYPE takes those ideas and transforms them once again into an electrifying, uncompromising redefinition of what it means to be a film.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


PROTOTYPE | Directed by Blake Williams | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

It's probably safe to assume that most Americans are familiar with Neil Armstrong and his legendary, history-making walk on the moon in 1969. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" has entered the cultural lexicon like few other phrases before or since. What's not as well known is how Armstrong came to that moment, becoming the first man to walk on the moon after overcoming great personal and professional adversity.

First Man is that story. Fresh off the success of La La Land (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director), Damien Chazelle chose a remarkably ambitious project for his follow-up film, his first not centered on jazz music. Reuniting with his La La Land star, Ryan Gosling, as Armstrong, Chazelle takes an uncommonly personal look into the life of an American hero. Gosling plays Armstrong with a kind of understated grace, a man not seeking glory or attention but in some ways an escape from the grief over losing a child.

Chazelle traces Armstrong's journey to the moon from the earliest training missions all the way to his iconic moonwalk, immersing us not only in the world of NASA in the 1960s, but in Armstrong's relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), who is much more than just a character who holds down the home front and looks concerned. As accidents claim the lives of fellow astronauts, the Armstrongs struggle to come to terms with the thought that Neil might not survive his Icarus-like quest. For all the film's majesty and wonder, these scenes are what really make the film so special. Screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) gives the film a backbone grounded in real human emotion, while Chazelle frames all the space scenes from Armstrong's point of view. As a result, First Man is an often dirty, extremely tactile film, eschewing the clean brightness so often associated with movies about space and replacing it with a grungy sense of lived-in realism.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren's grainy camerawork, with its verité-style handheld aesthetic, keeps the action focused on the interiors, favoring close-up shots within the spacecraft cockpits over sweeping shots of celestial grandiosity, its inky shadows and rich blue textures resembling contemporary films from the 1960s. The result is a wholly immersive cinematic experience, using stellar sound design and a beautifully understated score by Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz to envelop the audience in the Gemini and Apollo missions. By resisting the urge to overemphasize the scale of NASA's, and by extension Armstrong's, achievements, Chazelle and his crew have crafted a film that is both grounded and deeply engaging. It's an incredible achievement on a technical level, but even more impressive is its focus on the emotional backbone that made it all possible.

First Man never loses sight of the human cost of exploration and national achievement, wondering aloud if the destination is ultimately worth its staggering toll. What was it all for? Exploration for the sake of exploration? A symbolic victory against an enemy? Human folly? Or was it about something much more, something perhaps more profound than anyone ever imagined? Chazelle takes an epic tale and brings it down to earth, making the monumental personal and the historic immediate. Rarely are films of this scale so deeply intimate and yet so grandly realized. First Man inspires awe not just through the scope of its story but because of its depth of feeling. It's a visceral, mesmerizing experience that does great justice to the event, and to the man, that inspired it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


FIRST MAN | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Shea Whigham, Christopher Abbott, Brian d'Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Patrick Fugit | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language | Opens Friday, 10/12, in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

In 1946, Travis Wilkerson's great grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in his store and got away with it. It was a source of pride for SE Branch all his life - he had gunned down a black man in cold blood and walked away scot-free. Wilkerson, a radical political filmmaker and documentarian, delves into his family's dark past in his new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a chilling and courageous act of self-reflection that refuses any attempt to atone for the past, instead examining how he himself is complicit in a racist past.


Wilkerson's film is neither apologia nor explanation, instead it takes both a macro and micro look race in America, and how whiteness has systemically denied the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to people of color since America's inception. But Wilkerson does not come to make peace, he comes with a sword. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an impassioned polemic that seeks to destroy whiteness at its very core, to dismantle racist power structures and undo decades of systemic oppression. Wilkerson juxtaposes the story of his great-grandfather's crime with other tales of black people being cut down by whites who faced no consequences, (SAY THEIR NAMES he admonishes), as well as scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, dismissing it as a liberal fantasy where a noble white man stands up for what's right.

Who is the real Atticus Finch? Wilkerson asks. Can any such person exist? The answer, Wilkerson posits, is no. We are all complicit in racist oppression. While he seeks to apologize to the Spann family for a tragedy that he can never undo, Wilkerson explores how he benefitted from his grandfather's crime. Here is a white man, the great-grandson of a racist murderer, making a film about a black man cut down in his prime. Wilkerson now has opportunities that man, and by extension his family, will never be afforded, all because of racism. It's a powerful indictment of an irreparably broken system, one that Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? insists must be rebuilt from the ground up.

This is a radical sledgehammer of a film, a ferocious work of avant-garde essay filmmaking that dares to hold a mirror up to a white audience and demand that we examine our own complicity in a racist society. How can we ever fix a system when the very idea of whiteness itself is the problem? Has the institution of whiteness so entrenched itself in American life that we can never actually move forward without starting over to fix the head start we've given ourselves? What Wilkerson has achieved here is truly stunning, a revolutionary act of allyship in which a white filmmaker grapples with his own past, and his place in a world built by racist ancestors. It's a deep examination of privilege that refuses to let its audience off the hook. This is not an easy film to watch - it is designed to make its audience uncomfortable. But it also feels wholly necessary to achieve its ends. "I never owned a slave" the argument often goes, "why should I have to pay for my racist ancestors?" Wilkerson puts that idea to bed quickly. In a land built on the backs of slaves, we're all guilty.

Did you wonder who fired the gun? It was us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? | Directed by Travis Wilkerson | Not Rated | Now available on DVD and iTunes from Grasshopper Film.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Gothic mansions, stormy nights, darkly lit hallways, and elongated shadows populate Robert Siodmak's 1946 chiller, The Spiral Staircase, a haunted house tale where the ghosts are all too human. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, a mute caretaker for the elderly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance), whose spooky old mansion hides a multitude of dark secrets, and was once the location of a grisly murder.

The past soon comes back to haunt them all as the killer has seemingly struck again, strangling a handicapped young woman at a nearby hotel. As family and guests take shelter in the mansion during a raging storm, it soon becomes clear that the killer is among them, and that he has his sights set on Helen in a ghoulish quest to rid the world of perceived imperfections. Helen, unable to speak due to a recent trauma, is left to her own devices to uncover the murderer before she too falls victim to his maniacal ideology.

Released just one year after the end of WWII, The Spiral Staircase gives its serial killer villain a motivation resembling that of the Nazi dream of racial and physical purity by having him prey only on those with  physical handicaps. In a world that had just confronted real evil, nothing supernatural could possibly be as frightening as the horrors of the Holocaust. Siodmak understands this, and the idea that the killer could be anyone, even a friend, takes center stage. The world knew that monsters were real in 1946, and that seemingly normal people could harbor evil ideologies in their hearts without anyone ever knowing it. It's something that makes The Spiral Staircase feel frighteningly timely in 2018; a woman robbed of her voice by past trauma being pursued by a well-respected white man whose hateful worldview drives him to lord his power over society's disadvantaged, seeking to rid the world of those he deems lesser.

This isn't an attempt to lay a modern political worldview on a 70-year-old film, this was very much something being dealt with in society in 1946 as well. The world had stood up to the Nazis and won, and in so doing had learned something very important about the dark side of humanity. Its feminist backbone stands in stark relief when viewed through a modern lens, but the villain is very much the product of a time where innocence had just been shattered and we realized that extreme, prejudicial ideologies were lurking in the hearts of men.

The Spiral Staircase is a spooky, atmospheric film with the heart of a ghost story. But there's nothing supernatural about it. Its horror stems from a very real evil that continues to haunt us today. The new Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics beautifully restores its inky black shadows from a stunning 4K scan, giving the film new life at a time where it has suddenly become more relevant than ever. Audiences in 1946 had faced this horror head on, and The Spiral Staircase stands as a stark warning to anyone who may have to face it again.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE | Directed by Robert Siodmak | Stars Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Gordon Oliver, Elsa Lanchester | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Friday, October 05, 2018

Comic book fans have been itching for a decent big screen incarnation of popular anti-hero, Venom, ever since before the ill-advised Spider-Man 3 failed to do the character justice back in 2007. The idea of a morally ambiguous "hero" who essentially has multiple personalities (in the form of an alien "symbiote" inhabiting his body) is undeniably appealing.

It has been 11 years since the character was last seen on screen, and Venom billed itself as the film fans have been waiting for. Starring Tom Hardy as the titular anti-hero, Venom attempts a fresh take on the character that only works thanks to Hardy's delightfully off-kilter performance, while the film around him flounders in tonal confusion.

R-rated superhero movies have proven their viability with Deadpool and Logan, and if ever a superhero movie needed to be rated R it's Venom. Venom snacks on bad guy's heads, discusses eating their eyes, lungs, and brains, and generally wreaks bloody havoc on anyone who stands in his way. The problem is almost all of this happens off-screen. Venom is a bloodless PG-13 spectacle that is so clearly pulling its punches that it's hard to take it seriously, as it aims right down the non-offensive middle in an attempt to broaden its mainstream appeal. The result is a weak, toothless affair that ends up pleasing no one in its attempt to please everyone.

The humor is awkwardly placed, the action scenes are frenetically cut in order to edit around the carnage, and in the middle of it all Tom Hardy is having a blast a mild-mannered reporter Eddie Brock and his destructive alter-ego. Hardy's performance demonstrates what the film could have been with a better script and more cohesive direction, the odd blend of lame humor and dark, vengeful action never really allowing the film to have a personality of its own.

Venom is clearly Sony's attempt to do a film similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while Venom is indeed a Marvel Comics character, Sony's endeavor to emulate Disney's successful Marvel formula feels strangely dated, feeling more like the glut of cartoonish, blue-tinted superhero movies like Daredevil and Fantastic Four that littered the multiplexes in the early 2000s. It's a grave miscalculation for a character as dark as Venom. And while the character design is far superior to the 2007 take on the character, nothing in Venom is as interesting as anything Sam Raimi attempted in the original Spider-Man trilogy.

It's a surprisingly generic, listless film (even down to the strangely anonymous score by Ludwig Göransson, fresh off the success of the vastly superior Black Panther earlier this year), filled with poorly rendered CGI effects and painfully tin-eared dialogue that doesn't do its cast any favors. Hardy is enough to give one hope for future films (despite a mid-credits stinger featuring Woody Harrelson in a ghastly wig), but unless Sony truly embraces the darkness of a potential face-off between Venom and his serial killer arch-nemesis, Carnage, then this franchise is already dead on arrival.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


VENOM | Directed by Ruben Fleischer | Stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language | Opens today, 10/5, in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

An old woman dreams of going home in Peter Masterson's tenderhearted cinematic adaptation of Horton Foote's play, The Trip to Bountiful. Foote, who received an Oscar nomination for adapting his own play, also wrote the screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Tender Mercies, writes with a kind of sun-drenched nostalgia that looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, even at its darkest, and that positive spirit permeates The Trip to Bountiful at every turn.

The film is anchored by an Oscar-winning performance by Geraldine Page as Mrs. Watts, the elderly hymn-singing protagonist who lives with her work-obsessed son, Ludie (John Heard) and his self-absorbed wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). Stuck with Jessie Mae's nagging and insistence that she sit around the house all day and do nothing (and never, ever, sing hymns), Mrs. Watts longs to escape and return to her hometown of Bountiful, a tiny farm community all but forgotten by the rest of the world. Squirreling away her pension checks (which Jessie Mae demands be turned over as rent), Mrs. Watts saves up her money and waits patiently for her chance to run away. And when that moment finally comes, she jumps on a bus and skips town, heading toward Bountiful with a heart full of hope.

Along the way, however, she discovers that no one remembers Bountiful. No trains go there, no one even knows it exists. But it exists in her heart just as strongly as it did when she lived there. Determined to get to Bountiful at all costs, she strikes up friendships with fellow travelers that carry her ever closer to her destination, finally finding a kind of personal freedom she had forgotten was possible.

The Trip to Bountiful is a lovely, nostalgic film about going home - even if the home you remember no longer exists. Home, in this case, is more of an idea than an actual place, Bountiful having long ago faded from reality to memory. Foote hammers that point home perhaps a bit too strongly, tending toward holding the audience's hand through its ideas rather than conveying them naturally. But Page is so good as Mrs. Watts that it's hard not to become invested in her single-minded journey. Accompanied by a score made up mostly of old hymns (most notably "Softly & Tenderly"), The Trip to Bountiful invites viewers to come home, whatever that word may mean for them.

Masterson's relaxed direction makes for pleasant viewing, even as it skews toward over-emphasizing its themes, a weakness carried over from Foote's screenplay. Jessie Mae's character is just so cartoonishly awful that it's hard to take her motivations, and therefore the crux of the plot, seriously. Thankfully, Page's performance is so strong that it grounds the film when it threatens to disappear into its own nostalgic haze. She's so real that one almost wants to reach into the film and give her a hug, despite the ridiculousness of the mostly over-the-top histrionics of Jessie Mae's overbearing villain.

The new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics has cleaned up the film significantly, and its warmly filtered cinematography is lovely in high definition. Sure, it looks as if its lost in a hazy dream, a hallmark of films of this nature from the era (see Driving Miss Daisy, The Whales of August, and The Man in the Moon), but it's hard to resist Page's stalwart Mrs. Watts and her determination to return to the place of her childhood. It's a theme that feels perfectly modern, and yet rather than weaponizing its nostalgia the way so many modern films do, The Trip to Bountiful acknowledges that home may not be exactly the way we remember it. We may not be able to physically go home, but its effects last a lifetime, even if we can never quite recapture them in quite the same way. At a time when it's easy to become lost in nostalgia for a better time, it's a sobering, if ultimately uplifting, lesson to learn.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL | Directed by Peter Masterson | Stars Geraldine Page, John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Richard Bradford, Rebecca De Mornay | Rated PG | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Ricky D'Ambrose's debut feature, Notes on an Appearance, calls to mind the cryptic, non-mystery aesthetic of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, the answers to our questions mattering less that than the journey that brought them to us. However, unlike Antonioni's film, I'm not completely convinced that there's really as much beneath the surface as the film lets on.

The mystery of Notes on an Appearance surrounds the disappearance of a young man named David (Bingham Bryant) amid a sudden interest in violent fascist ideology. As his friends attempt to track him down, they are left with only scraps of paper, notes, and calendar entries, accompanied by quotes from a fascist philosopher named Stephen Taubes (Stephen F. Cohen) whose death has created a resurgence in his own popularity. Where the young man went is ultimately beside the point as his friends begin to peel back the layers of a reprehensible ideology, and the search eventually begins to take a personal toll on them all.

D'Ambrose's narrative economy is impressive, turning the milieu of its bustling NYC locations into lonely, alienating spaces - where the presence of millions of people doesn't negate the societal disconnect felt by so many. Each shot is tightly controlled and precisely composed, drained of all emotion and distilled to its most basic essence. What are the characters saying? What are they really trying to convey? D'Ambrose focuses not on the main action, but rather on objects in the periphery - cups of coffee (filled and unfilled), journal entries, photographs, answers hiding in plain sight but never fully acknowledged. Subtle shifts in surroundings signify greater paradigm changes in the world around them, inserted into the frame at regular rhythms designed to condition the audience then disrupt the familiar routines when they're gone.


It's this kind of attention to detail that makes Notes on an Appearance so fascinating, and yet it often feels more like an academic exercise than a fully formed cinematic experience. D'Ambrose is experimenting, pushing boundaries, exploring the cinematic space with a Bresson-like austerity and an ear for conversation and narrative construction that recalls Matías Piñeiro (Viola, Hermia & Helena). This is cinema stripped of all excesses, quiet, observant, and haunting. And yet it seems to speak more to its filmmaker's own innate potential than it does to its own merit. It feels like a practice run for something bigger, a 60 minute exercise in form and craft that's easier to respect than it is to like.

And yet, one can't help but be fascinated by what D'Ambrose is attempting here. It is what the filmmaker refers to as a "scrapbook movie" made up of scraps of paper, unfinished ideas, and impressions; "a clunky ensemble vehicle about a handful of young people collectively living out the consequences of a discredited worldview" to quote D'Ambrose's director's statement. There's just something about the entire affair that seems completely timely, even though it was eight years in the making, speaking to a kind of generation ennui felt at a time when violent ideologies are rearing their ugly heads. It's a perplexing time to be alive, and Notes on an Appearance captures that dazed and confused sense of discord and aimlessness that so indelibly describes life in 2018. And if it comes off as self-consciously controlled, it's only because it is an attempt to make sense of a world that does not and can not make sense, as if it was assembled from puzzle pieces that just don't quite fit. D'Ambrose is clearly a filmmaker to watch, whose ideas and musings, much like Bresson's, are inexorably tied to film form in such a way that finds emotional truth through stylistic distance. Consider this writer's interest piqued.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE | Directed by Ricky D'Ambrose | Stars Keith Poulson, Tallie Medel, Bingham Bryant, Madeleine James, Kathryn Danielle, A.S. Hamrah | Not rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Having previously burst onto the international scene in 1962 with Ivan's Childhood, for which he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky was faced with the task of choosing the follow-up to his impressive debut.

When presented with the idea of creating a film based on the life of renowned Russian artist, Andrei Rublev, whose medieval religious icons have become one of the cornerstones of Russian art, Tarkovsky at first balked at the idea of making a historical epic. But when he realized that he would have almost complete artistic freedom since little is known about Rublev's life, he decided to undertake the project. The result was Andrei Rublev, a film of such monumental power and stature that it almost seems to stand apart of from not only film history, but from cinema itself.

If Ivan's Childhood established Tarkovsky as a major filmmaker, then Andrei Rublev secured his place in the pantheon. A sweeping yet intimate epic of art and faith, Rublev is at once a dream, a prayer, and a cry of anguish; as much about the pain and beauty of creation as humanity's own penchant for self-destruction. Tarkovsky recounts Rublev's life through a series of vignettes, observing the artist in moments of great anguish and personal crisis. We never actually see Rublev paint. As Tarkovsky wrote in an essay prior to making the film:
We would like to depart from the traditional dramaturgy, with its canonical completism and its formal and logical schematism, which so often prevents the demonstration of life's complexity and fullness. After all, what is the dialectic of the personality? Phenomena that a man encounters or in which he participates become part of the man himself, a part of his sense of life, a part of his character. Therefore, the events of the film must not be a backdrop on which the protagonist is imprinted. Often, films about people of art are constructed according to the following scheme: an event occurs, the hero observes it. Then the viewer sees him think it over, and then he expresses his ideas about the event in his works.

In other words, Tarkovsky didn't set out to create a literal biopic, illustrating a cause and effect of the events surrounding Rublev and the icons he would eventually paint. Instead, Andrei Rublev presents us with a series of loosely connected (if it all) vignettes, some not even featuring Rublev, that set us squarely in the societal and spiritual milieu of medieval Russia. Tarkovsky uses these vignettes to illustrate the world that gave birth to Rublev's art, and the human brutality that inspired the artist to reach for the divine. These vignettes are filled with indelible images, paint spilling into a river, mud slung across a white canvass, naked pagans dancing in the moonlight, a violent raid on a peasant village, a man taking flight in a makeshift hot air balloon, itself a kind of metaphor for humanity's (and by extension, Rublev's) quixotic determination to get closer to God.

And yet, what Tarkovsky has achieved here is something that almost defies words. The stark black and white imagery (stunning on the new Criterion Blu-Ray), accompanied by the hushed sound design with its wordless vocals and tolling bells, immerses us in a dream that feels at once sacred and profane. It's a meditation on art and faith, to be sure, but it's also a film that examines the human condition in memorable and often breathtaking ways. It's as if Tarkovsky managed to distill the creative process to its most carnal and holy elements and projected them onto a screen for the world to see. And we, as humble audience members, are all but helpless to its overwhelming power. Like art itself, Andrei Rublev is a vast, complex, almost unknowable work that nevertheless feels like it conveys some sort of universal truth that is just beyond human comprehension.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


ANDREI RUBLEV | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky | Stars  Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolay Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Irma Raush, Nikolay Burlyaev | In Russian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

As the weather begins to turn cooler, the leaves start changing color, and the calendar at last turns to October, thoughts start turning toward Halloween and haunted houses, trails, and carnivals begin popping up in seemingly every fairground, theme park, and corn field in the country.

Gregory Plotkin's Hell Fest seems to live and breathe the autumn air and haunted ebullience that permeates October, coming to life amid the cheaply constructed halls and and neon lights of a sideshow haunted attraction that looks like it could have popped up in any small town in America. The film follows a group of college students into the eponymous carnival for a night of spooky fun. They are nagged by an urban legend of a girl who was murdered in a haunted house very similar to the one they're going to, her body left undetected amongst the grotesque props for three days before being discovered.

Once inside the maze of cheesy scares and outrageous costumes, they find themselves stalked by a masked killer who targets obnoxious guests who just don't seem to be in the mood for a good scare, ensuring that the scares become all-too-real. When they attempt to alert the authorities no one believes them. They are, after all, in a haunted house - stalking and creepy behavior are to be expected. It isn't long before bodies start dropping right before their eyes, and they're the only ones who know that this isn't just part of the act.

It's an ingenious premise, one that seems so obvious that it's surprising someone hasn't come up with it before now. As someone who has spent more than a decade designing, managing, or acting in haunted attractions, this writer was consistently impressed with how Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) so indelibly captures the look and feel of that world. Less impressive, however, is the script. The characters are all uniformly bland and forgettable, the drama poorly written and their personalities woefully one-dimensional. Each character has one character trait from which they never stray, making it hard to care when the knife starts slashing.

Indeed, everyone in Hell Fest is little more than kill fodder for the anonymous murderer who stalks them. On the other hand, Plotkin is clearly having a blast, and that infectious sense of fun is what makes the film worth watching. It's an agreeably good-natured fright-fest that gleefully evokes the spirit of sideshow haunted houses, managing to overcome its weak script and wooden characters through its delightfully spooky desire to entertain. It even mines a few genuine scares through its suggestion that the killer could be anyone at any haunted house in the country, in a surprisingly effective homage to the ending of John Carpenter's Halloween (it even tips its hat to the great Lucio Fulci at one point), tapping into that innate “what if it’s not fake after all” fear that makes these haunts so fun Hell Fest is essentially the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park funhouse - it provides just the right amount of visual pizazz and things that jump out and yell boo. The audience is fully aware that this is no great shakes, but it's a hell of a fun ride anyway.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


HELL FEST | Directed by Gregory Plotkin | Stars Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Roby Attal, Matt Mercurio, Courtney Dietz | Rated R for horror violence, and language including some sexual references | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Near the end of Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born, the fourth version of the oft-told tale, Sam Elliot's Bobby Maine, brother of Bradley Cooper's Jackson Maine, looks at Lady Gaga's newly anointed pop star and tells her that all the songs that have ever been written are comprised of the same 12 notes in different octaves; what makes them unique is how the artist plays them. It's a direct defense why this story, which has been filmed in 1937 with Janet Gaynor, 1954 with Judy Garland, and 1976 with Barbra Streisand, needed to be told yet again in 2018.

The story is, of course, quite familiar at this point. A young woman who dreams of becoming a singer meets a superstar who gives her a big break, only to self-destruct as her rise to stardom mirrors his fall. The first two A Star is Born films chronicled Hollywood stardom, while the most recent two have turned their eyes on the music industry. Enter Lady Gaga as Ally, a waitress who spends her time crooning at a gay bar when she isn't bussing tables. When rock superstar Jackson Maine stumbles into the bar one night looking for a drink, he is instantly smitten with her singing, and invites her out for a whirlwind night on the town.

Soon the two become inseparable, and after he invites her onstage at one of his concerts to perform a song she wrote, the performance goes viral and Ally finds herself a star on the rise, racking up Grammy nominations and performing on Saturday Night Live. But as Ally is on her way up, Jackson is on his way down, struggling with alcoholism and a overall sense that the glory days are behind him, a perfect storm that begins to have a detrimental effect on Ally's own fragile career.

Unlike in the previous iterations of A Star is Born, Ally's rise is marked by a kind of selling out. Her music is inauthentic vapid pop that doesn't reflect her own personality as an artist. It's a curious reflection of Gaga's own career, which began with electronic dance more suited for night club dance floors than the soulful pop that has since become her hallmark. Gaga has acted in films before, showing up in small roles in films like campy grindhouse movies like Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; she even won an Golden Globe for her work on FX's American Horror Story. Nevertheless, her performance in A Star is Born feels like a revelation. The moment when she first steps up to that mic is one of the most breathtaking things we've seen on screen in recent memory, a moment of iconic weight that feels as if we're seeing Lady Gaga for the first time, a star truly being born before our eyes.

For his part, Cooper's direction recalls that of Bob Fosse, emulating Fosse's use of light from Cabaret and his gritty musical aesthetic and emulation of addiction so memorably showcased in All That Jazz. While the film loses some steam by the end, and seems to approach its inevitably tragic climax a bit too quickly, Cooper and Gaga carry it over the finish line on the strength of their chemistry. Gaga's voice is incredible of course, but what's really impressive is how she sells her relationship with Cooper so completely. Cooper explores the destructive nature of addiction (always hinted at in the other films, but never has Maine been so far gone from the get-go) and the high price of fame with a great sense of empathy and narrative grace.

A Star is Born has always been a tragedy at heart, a tale of a phoenix rising from the ashes and overcoming adversity to become the best version of herself. And while it may not quite hit the lofty heights achieved by William A. Wellman's 1937 original or George Cukor's 1954 Technicolor version (arguably the most famous of the lot), it is an overwhelmingly emotional experience whose power is hard to shake. It takes a timeless story and looks at it with fresh eyes, allowing Lady Gaga to reach down deep and touch a raw nerve deep within her soul. It is truly a star-making performance, and despite having a decade of astronomical fame behind her, A Star is Born heralds the arrival of Gaga not just as a singer/songwriter with a penchant for theatrics and wild costumes, but as a fully formed and multi-talented artist who can no longer be discounted as one of the finest talents in a generation.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


A STAR IS BORN | Directed by Bradley Cooper | Stars Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliot, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos | Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse | Opens Friday, Oct. 5, in theaters everywhere.