Friday, January 19, 2018

In 1977, a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), still mourning the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), is struck deaf by a freak bolt of lightning while trying to unravel the mystery of his father's identity. Undeterred, but unable to hear, he sets off for New York City with the only clue he has, an inscribed bookmark found in a book in his mother's old room.

Meanwhile in 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) spends her days at the cinema, gazing at her heroine, silent film actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In the silent pictures, she needs no sound to understand the story and the emotions, and she loses herself there daily, until sound comes along to sweep away the world into which she can escape. So she too sets out to New York to find her long absent mother. Along the way, her story begins to intertwine with Bob's eventually converging in an unexpected.

Todd Haynes has always been an experimental filmmaker, willing to push the boundaries of the form to expand the narrative and its its thematic core. In his latest film, Wonderstruck, he does just that, but perhaps to lesser results than he's achieved in the past. It's a fascinating pastiche, utilizing silent film techniques in the scenes set in 1927, and capturing a distinctive 1970s flair with the help of his usual cinematographer, Ed Lachman, in the scenes set in later years. As the two stories mirror and converge, Affonso Gonçalves' sharp and perceptive editing beautifully and at times seamlessly, combines them into one story, united by blood and common experience, while Carter Burwell's lovely score pulls it all together.

As a technical achievement, Wonderstruck is consistently dazzling, but it's almost too dazzling. Haynes' craft here is so precious, so precise, that it holds the audience at a distance, in awe of his creative vision but left cold by its emotional center. The family connections between Ben and Rose, feels more inevitable than disarming, and the resulting reunion and never quite has the impact that it feels like it should. Haynes is a master craftsman, and there are parts of Wonderstruck that left me breathless, but I was surprised by how un-involving I found the narrative itself. Screenwriter Brian Selznick also penned the source material for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which was perhaps a perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject; a breathtaking ode to film preservation that struck a chord with me. Wonderstruck, on the other hand, feels far more removed from its emotions, hampered by an uneven structure that fraught with awkward pacing.

"We're all in the gutter," Ben's mother tells him,  quoting Oscar Wilde, "but some of us are looking at the stars." Haynes shoots for the stars, all right, connecting non-hearing protagonists to a world of sound, and unleashing the wonders of a purely visual world. While it is certainly ambitious, and undeniably beautiful, its style often feels divorced from its narrative, losing itself stargazing when the story required something more personal;  a solid grounding in human emotions rather than cinematic trickery.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

WONDERSTRUCK | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Tom Noonan | Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking | Now available to stream online exclusively at

Monday, January 15, 2018

It is fitting that Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed Studio Ghibli's final film, When Marnie Was There, should also direct the inaugural feature of Studio Ponoc, the Japanese animation house that rose out of Ghibli's ashes. Mary and the Witch's Flower is an adaptation of Mary Stewart's "The Little Broomstick," about a young girl who discovers a magical flower in the forest that transports her into a world of witches and magic.

Once there, Mary (Ruby Barnhill) is taken to Endor College (which, sadly, has no Ewoks), a school for magic lead by Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who immediately recognize her as a prodigy due to her incredible magic powers. But when Mary reveals that the powers come from the magic flower, it becomes clear that her hosts are not as kindly as they appear, and that the magic flower is something truly dangerous that, in the wrong hands, could do great damage to the magical world.

Mary and the Witch's Flower plays like a kind of "Ghibli's greatest hits," borrowing elements from Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and even Princess Mononoke, resulting in a film that never really establishes a personality of its own. On the one hand, it displays a disappointing lack of creativity for Studio Ponoc's debut feature. On the other hand, it shows they're playing it safe the first time out of the gate, sticking to tried and true story elements that have already been proven to work. That being said, it's an undeniably charming film, even if it's perhaps a bit overly familiar. It's a decently engaging adventure that hinges on the importance of embracing one's differences, and how the things we believe set us apart are often our greatest strengths.

It's unfortunate, then, that a film about embracing one's own unique qualities is so lacking in, well, uniqueness. It's a fine amalgamation of stronger films, but it's hard to escape the feeling that we've seen this all done before. Still, Takatsugu Muramatsu's score is gorgeous and bursting with energy, and the animation is often breathtaking. In the English dub, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent are clearly having a blast, and young Ruby Barnhill (The BFG) makes for a plucky heroine. It's a solid start for the fledging Studio Ponoc, and one can only hope that it leads to bigger and better things, opening doors to take greater chances in the future. It's an enjoyable film, to be sure, but it lacks that certain creative spark that made Ghibli films so special. Hopefully Ponoc learns from Ghibli rather than just rehashing their older films, and becomes a new creative force in Japanese animation, filling the giant shoes left empty by one of animation's most venerable institutions.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER | Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi | Stars Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Louis Ashbourne Serkis | Rated PG for some action and thematic elements | Opening in theaters nationwide on Jan. 18 for one night only via Fathom Events. Click here for ticket information.

It's hard to overstate the complexity of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention the Christians in the region, have been raging for almost all of recorded history, an issue further exacerbated in the 20th century as conflict over land rights and the lack of a Palestinian state lead to widespread violence. To detail all the intricacies of the conflict here would be a fool's errand, but Ziad Doueiri's The Insult brazenly attempts to boil centuries of history into one disagreement between two men, with decidedly weak results.

The Insult, which is Lebanon's official foreign language entry to the 2018 Oscar ceremony, is such a gross oversimplification of a complex and layered issue that it's almost offensive. Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian contractor who lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon. One day while attempting to fix a gutter belonging to Tony Hanna, a Lebanese Christian, Tony (Adel Karam) refuses the repair, smashing the new gutter with a hammer, spilling water all over Yasser. Yasser responds naturally, calling Tony a "fucking prick." Outraged, Tony demands an apology, and when Yasser refuses, takes his complaint to Yasser's employer. Yasser finally relents, but when he goes to apologize, Tony tells him that he wishes that Ariel Sharon had wiped out all the Palestinians. It is at that point that Yasser truly loses his temper, punching Tony in the gut and breaking two of his ribs.

The conflict only escalates from there, heading to the courts, with both men refusing to back down out of pride. It is a conflict of words that escalated to violence, and the Palestinian and Christian communities in Beirut soon take sides in their own camps, entrenched in centuries of animosity. It isn't long before Tony is accused of Zionism, and tempers begin to flare, threating to engulf the city in violence over the pride of two men who refuse to see the other's point of view.

Like Paul Haggis' much maligned Oscar champion, CrashThe Insult attempts to put a Band-Aid on a deep wound, arriving at the most trite possible solutions for an issue steeped in history and violence. Doueiri is asking "Why can't we all just get along?" Which is a valid question, but The Insult's "kumbaya" mentality is just so painfully reductive that it almost seems like an insult to both sides in and of itself. Doueiri posits that both sides are, in fact, victims, and that they must meet in the middle to find common ground. In one of the film's most ridiculous moments, Tony begins to find that common ground when Yasser reveals that he prefers German made goods over Chinese goods, a position Tony had taken over auto parts earlier in the film. It's a scene that rivals Batman vs. Superman's now infamous "Martha moment" for its sheer absurdity.

It's hard to deny that its heart is in the right place. It begs for a deeper examination of the roots of the conflict, and for mutual understanding of the ways in which both sides have been victimized. Unfortunately, the film itself never manages the level of depth for which it advocates. Using these two men as symbols for their respective sides comes across as simplistic rather than layered, reducing the conflict to an inane spat giving neither side the dignity it deserves. This is especially true considering that Yasser is so clearly in the right in the context of the film, and yet both sides are made to look equally culpable in a mess that could have been easily avoided.

The Insult is slickly made, to be sure, but it lacks the depth to back up its ambition. It wants to boil down a thorny issue to its most essential parts, and in so doing does neither position justice. There's a great deal of drama and thematic meaning to be derived from this issue, but in its quest for easy answers, The Insult ends up insulting the intelligence of its audience rather than allowing us to draw conclusions on our own.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE INSULT | Directed by Ziad Doueiri | Stars Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Diamand Bou Abboud | Rated R for language and some violent images | In Arabic w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Woody Allen's Alice (1990) came after a string of more serious endeavors, September (1987), Another Woman (1988), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). While not an outright comedy, ALICE was a return to the warm, romantic nostalgia of films like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987).

While many often point to Annie Hall and Manhattan as the high points of Allen's career (an opinion I won't dispute here), I would argue that he had no stronger creative period than the time between 1985 and 1989. The six films he directed in those five years are among the very best of his career, yet they're often the most overlooked. Allen seemed less interested in experimenting with form during that period (although Ingmar Bergman's influence still hangs heavy) and more interested in looking inward, churning out some of his most fascinating characters and resonant plot lines.

Alice marked the end of that remarkable run, returning to the magical realism of Purple Rose to tell the story of a wealthy woman named Alice (Mia Farrow) who becomes bored with her stagnant lifestyle. Surrounded by empty opulence and suffering from a bad back, she visits an acupuncturist in Chinatown named Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), who prescribes a treatment that soon has her conversing with the ghost of a former lover (Alec Baldwin), turning invisible to spy on her cheating husband (William Hurt) and her backstabbing friends, and embarking on a tentative affair with an acquaintance (Joe Mantegna).

The problem is, there's really nothing in Alice that Allen hadn't done before, with better results. Unhappy women, infidelity, imaginary romantic heroes, therapy; almost all of it had been touched on in the previous five years. Alice feels like a light-hearted amalgam of the films Allen made between 1985 and 1989. And yet, it isn't without its charms. Farrow is at her most Allen-esque here; so much so that you can almost hear him saying every word of her dialogue. The striking costume design, most notably Farrow's red hat (beautifully rendered on Twilight Time's new Blu-Ray), adds a remarkable sense of color to her drab surroundings. Clearly Alice was meant for something more than the hand she was dealt. It's interesting, then, that at the end of the film, when she finally breaks free of the confines of her previous life, her clothes are drab and her surroundings are colorful.

Allen's attention to these details is what keeps Alice afloat, along with Farrow's spirited performance. His ear for dialogue is strong as always, but the film still feels recycled. This is really the beginning of Allen's penchant for "playing the hits" rather than pushing himself and experimenting with style and form as he had in the 70s and 80s (his very next film, Shadows and Fog, attempted to return to his formal experimentation phase with decidedly lesser results).  Its slight sense of innocence is part of its charm, but the magical realism seems more contrived than it did in Purple Rose, allowing Allen to take narrative shortcuts rather than really examine his characters.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Special Features Include:
  • Isolated Music & Effects Track
  • Original Theatrical Trailer 
ALICE | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Mia Farrow, William Hurt, Joe Mantegna, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Keye Luke, Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd | Rated PG-13 | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

As we were leaving our screening of Proud Mary, my wife remarked to that "it seemed like the whole point of that movie was so Taraji P. Henson could shoot people to the tune of 'Proud Mary.' I liked it." And she's not wrong, everything about the film seems to be building to that moment, and when it comes, it's every bit as glorious as we've hoped it would be. The rest of the film certainly feels built out from there, but when the movie is this fun and well executed, its thinness of plot almost seems beside the point. And if Proud Mary is anything, it's certainly a lot of fun.

Henson stars as Mary, a hitwoman with a heart of gold, who takes an interest a young boy named Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) after being assigned to take out his father. The boy ends up becoming a drug runner for a rival syndicate, and when one of his deals goes wrong, Mary rescues him and takes him in. Seeing that the boy has been abused, she lets her temper get the better of her, taking out a rival drug lord and triggering an all-out war between two of Boston's most powerful crime operations, one of which is lead by the surrogate father (Danny Glover) who once adopted her off the streets just like she adopted Danny. Danny's presence further complicates matters, leading Mary to once again take matters into her own hands so she can at last retire in peace.

Proud Mary has its roots in the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s like Foxy Brown and Shaft. Director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) shoots with a no-frills, no-nonsense style, utilizing tremendous narrative economy to quickly establish time and location in order to move the plot along. At only 88 minutes, Proud Mary moves along at a breakneck clip, and it does so without belaboring the story with unnecessary exposition. Who is Mary? How did she end up killing people for a powerful drug lord? We get hints along the way, but ultimately it doesn't matter. All that matters is the story at hand, and Najafi isn't afraid to get his hands dirty to tell it.

Like its blaxploitation brethren, Proud Mary takes us into the grit and grime of the inner cities, out of which a powerful African American hero arises to exact justice on those who would keep them down (Quentin Tarantino paid similar homage to the genre in Jackie Brown). As such, the film also feels thoroughly modern, with Taraji P. Henson putting her own spin on the lone-wolf hero whose latest incarnations have been John Wick and Atomic Blonde. And boy does Henson nail it. Here is a proud black woman, kicking ass and taking names in Trump's America, and it is a thrilling thing to behold. Henson is a bonafide star, and Proud Mary is the vehicle she deserves.

Its Achilles heel is its weak script, which often gets bogged down in cliches, but Henson is just so good, and Najafi's direction so solid, that the film resonates in spite of its occasionally wooden dialogue. Together they deliver a truly thrilling action film that moves like lightning and never lets up. Najafi doesn't cut corners, instead he trims the fat, keeping the ball rolling without any unnecessary detours. And through it all, there is Henson; magnetic, assured, vulnerable, and truly, utterly in command of every moment. Henson's Mary is a hero I would follow anywhere. This is good, old-fashioned, no-bullshit action filmmaking, and Henson is its steely yet maternal heart. I loved every minute.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PROUD MARY | Directed by Babak Najafi | Stars Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Danny Glover, Billy Brown, Neal McDonough, Margaret Avery | Rated R for violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

No other filmmaker has quite captured the heroic middle class ethos of Liam Neeson quite like Jaume Collet-Serra. Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015), has a keen understanding not just of Neeson the actor, but of Neeson the icon, and he deftly harnesses that image, weaponizing it into a symbol of working class angst raging against the machine.

Their latest collaboration, The Commuter, is nothing new. Neeson,  one time cop-turned-insurance salesman whose humdrum routine takes him on a commuter train into New York City every day. That is until he is laid off in typically soulless fashion; 60 years old and five years from retirement, he suddenly finds himself facing unemployment and unimaginable debt left over from the 2008 economic crisis. Unable to bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), he heads back to the train to take one last journey home. Things are looking pretty bleak, until he meets Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a mysterious woman who offers him $100,000 if he just does "one little thing:" find a fellow commuter on the train and tag them with GPS unit. He can walk away clean, $100,000 richer, never knowing what happens to them.

The offer is tempting for a man who just lost everything, and he begins to search for the mysterious passenger. But as he gets closer and closer to the truth, he begins to realize that he is in over his head, and that the people he is working for are willing to do anything to keep their secret, even if it means killing every single passenger on the train.

The Commuter is not great art; nor is it trying to be. It's a very familiar dish that Collet-Serra and Neeson have served up before. This time, however, everything is dialed up to an 11; almost as if it's a parody of late-period Neeson action films. Collet-Serra understands the inherent ridiculousness of the plot, and rather than try to pass it off as something it isn't, he embraces it with reckless abandon, throwing in gratuitous explosions, fist fights, outlandish stunts, and one truly outstanding single-take action sequence. Cinematographer Paul Cameron, who also shot Michael Mann's gorgeous Collateral and Tony Scott's Man on Fire, captures the sequence with such flair; tussling bodies breaking both the the visual plane and the confines of the passenger car, blows raining down like hailstones; it's easily the most dynamic and thrilling sequence to come from the Collet-Serra/Neeson collaboration thus far.

Neeson, whose craggy face is looking more lined than it has in the past, can still deliver a beating like no one else, growling about his family and taking on the bad guys with down-to-earth, everyman righteousness. This time, however, his struggle against a faceless entity reflects his own financial struggles. He's just a regular guy who has put in decades of work only to be screwed over by soulless corporate executives that he will never meet.

That's why I believe Neeson's films resonate with so strongly with audiences:  he represents a kind of "Average Joe" fighting against circumstances outside of his control, a struggle that is all-too-familiar to the ordinary, working class citizen. There's no one else who could make a line like "On behalf of the American middle class, go fuck yourself!" work better Neeson, but he speaks for the forgotten men and women of American better than Donald Trump ever will.

Neeson has said that this will likely be his final action movie. After all, he's 65 years old, and his exploits are becoming less and less believable with each passing film. But believability has never been the point of these movies. They have always been about the everyman triumphing against the greater forces that seek to control his life. There's something essential in that fantasy, I think, and a major part of why Neeson is the major star that he is. People come to see his "particular set of skills" in action, fighting for his family and for a chance to take control of his own life in a world run by bigwigs who could care less about the little guy. Neeson stands up for the little guy, and no other filmmaker gets that quite like Collet-Serra, who boldly embraces that working man fantasy with a sly wink. The Commuter is over-the-top, outlandish, and often downright silly. But it strikes a chord for anyone who's ever felt at the mercy of an unfeeling system. Liam Neeson is the hero we need, and I hope his collaboration with Collet-Serra continues for years to come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE COMMUTER | Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra | Stars Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif | Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein once wrote that if he could be granted one wish to have directed any film, he would have chosen John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Eisenstein considered the film a perfect marriage of form and content, where the montage, cinematography, music, and performance came together to create a stirring representation of its subject.

Indeed, Ford employs a sparse, unassuming style in his tale of a young, plainspoken Illinois lawyer, never drawing attention itself, rather serving to focus on the man himself. Much like Lincoln, Ford's film plays its cards close to the vest, seemingly unadorned and modest, yet packing an immense intellect and sly emotional power.

Set years before the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, and long before he became president, Young Mr. Lincoln is a fictionalized account of a murder trial, with Henry Fonda's Lincoln as a kind of prototypical Atticus Finch, a quiet hero standing up for two young men unjustly accused of killing a man who attacked them. The film is primarily a courtroom drama, one in which Lincoln charms the room with slyly cutting remarks against his opponent. He's a tall, ungainly man, whose humble demeanor belies a razor sharp intellect whirring beneath the surface. Ford also tweaks the myth of "Honest Abe," showing Lincoln blithely cheating in a game of tug-of-war, in which he jumps in to help the underdog team by tying their rope to a wagon. Lincoln was a man of strong moral fiber, but he wasn't above resorting to less than scrupulous tactics as long as justice was done.

It would make a fascinating double feature with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, showcasing the man at the beginning and the end, Lincoln before the legend, and Lincoln after. Fonda's Lincoln has not yet become the historical figure we all know. He's real, down to earth, grounded in moral certitude, yet searching for the direction he will take. Ford hints at Lincoln's future, most explicitly in the portentous final shot of the future president walking into a storm. His camera admires him without exalting him, placing him alone, apart from his surroundings, even from lower angles so as to accentuate his height. Clearly this is a great man, but we don't know it yet, and neither does he. That's the beauty of Young Mr. Lincoln; it captures greatness in transition. And while the incident that gives the film its plot never actually happened, it exudes the essence of a man finding the compass that will guide him for the rest of his life.

As Eisenstein pointed out, Ford would go on to make grander, greater films. But none were quite so discreetly powerful as Young Mr. Lincoln. It's one of his most assured, accomplished works, an expertly crafted slice of Americana that portrays our nation, not necessarily as it is or was, but as it was always meant to be.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring film scholar Joseph McBride (Searching for John Ford: A Life) 
  • Omnibus: “John Ford,” part one: filmmaker Lindsay Anderson’s profile of the life and work of director John Ford before World War II 
  • Talk show appearance by actor Henry Fonda from 1975 Audio interviews from the seventies with Ford and Fonda, conducted by the director’s grandson Dan Ford 
  • Academy Award radio dramatization of the film 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an homage to Ford by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein 
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN | Directed by John Ford | Stars Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan, Eddie Collins, Pauline Moore | Now available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

From The Dispatch:

“The Post” quietly lauds good old fashioned American values. It’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for 2017, except this time, Mr. Smith is wearing a skirt and heels. It also gives us hope for the future; at a time when journalism is under constant attack, it reminds us of the power of the truth, and its calamitous effect on those in power who would attempt to keep it from the people. In that regard, “The Post” feels like the movie of the moment, taking a hard look at our own time through the lens of the past. It’s one of Spielberg’s most potent and pointed films in recent memory.

Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Having not seen the previous three Insidious films, I intentionally avoided watching them before seeing the franchise's fourth installment, Insidious: The Last Key, to see if it managed to hold up on its own. Surprisingly, the answer is yes, which is all the more shocking considering that the film was released in January, usually a dumping ground for substandard horror product that the studios would rather bury.

Set in 2010, just before the events of the first film, The Last Key focuses on Lin Shaye's paranormal investigator, Elise Rainier, previously a supporting character but now elevated to lead role. Rainier is called in to investigate yet another haunting, this time in her childhood house (she refuses to call it a home), where she first learned she had psychic abilities. Returning to the place where it all began forces her to confront her past, her abusive father's painful impact on her life, and the demon that has tormented her family for nearly 60 years.

The most striking thing about The Last Key is its use of silence. Director Adam Robitel, whose only previous directing credit is a little-seen found footage horror film from 2014 called The Taking of Deborah Logan, displays a keen understanding for what scares people. The film does rely on jump scares, as so many other modern horror films do, but they seem to flow naturally from the story. These aren't the usual fake-outs accompanied by stabs of music on the soundtrack. They almost always come out of complete silence at moments when they are least expected. The prevalence of silence, free of unnecessary sound design or electronic bass rumbling designed to create artificial suspense, gives the film a consistently unnerving atmosphere, so that when the scares do come, they feel earned, offering a much needed break in the tension. It's a bold move for a mainstream horror film, but it pays off.

Where the film falters, however, is in Leigh Whannell's screenplay, which relies far too heavily on awkward comic relief courtesy of Rainier's two bumbling assistants, Specks (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who spend much of the movie creepily leering at Ranier's young nieces. Those scenes stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the film, and that their gross advances ultimately pay off feels incongruous to the #MeToo consciousness of 2018.

When it's focused on the spooky stuff, however, the film mostly works. The prominent presence of locations and characters in the film's advertising that are nowhere to be found in the finished product betray heavy post-production tinkering, but one can't help but wonder if it isn't for the better. Robitel seems to understand that the scariest things are in our imaginations, and he lets the audience fill in the blanks ourselves for most of the running time, cleverly playing on childhood fears of dark rooms and things that go bump in the night. But by the time all the ghosts come out to play for the film's climax, it all feels like a bit of a letdown, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, before directly leading into the events of the original Insidious.

The good news is that one need have no prior connection to these characters to feel for them, and the fact that a major Hollywood franchise is putting a woman in her 70s front and center is pretty remarkable. Shaye makes for a compelling heroine, refusing to be a victim and taking charge where men frequently fail, and her grounded and performance gives the film an emotional center. The Last Key is as much about confronting inner demons as real ones, coming to terms with a painful past in order to create a better future. Unfortunately, the real demons turn out to be less interesting than the figurative ones, and as they take center stage in the film's third act it loses much of its steam. Here, evil feeds off hate and can only be defeated with love, which is a nice sentiment but one that doesn't quite get the spotlight it deserves, leading to an emotional coda that doesn't quite feel earned. Nevertheless, it's much than a January horror film really ought to be (especially as the fourth film in an eight year old franchise), which makes it something of a pleasant surprise. Robitel shows great promise as a filmmaker, and with a stronger script could potentially become a real force to be reckoned with.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY | Directed by Adam Robitel | Stars Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Tessa Ferrer | Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

A troupe of Polish actors get caught up in espionage and intrigue when the Nazis invade Poland in Ernst Lubitsch's delightful wartime screwball comedy, To Be or Not to Be. Perhaps not as pointed as it could be, given that it was released right after the US entered World War II, making its subject a difficult one for comedy, but Lubitsch's fabled magic touch is on full display here. The set-up and repeated punchlines of the recurring gags are all aces, and Lubitsch even manages to pull the heartstrings (a recurring motif involving Shakespeare's "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech from The Merchant of Venice is especially poignant) while giving audiences permission to laugh during a very dark period in our history.

The idea of a Jewish filmmaker and crew lampooning the Nazis feels especially heroic and subversive for the time, using The Merchant of Venice as its rallying cry, but Lubitsch keeps the proceedings moving along with its rapid-fire sense of humor, and its healthy skewering of pomposity of all kinds, be it harmless (self-absorbed actors), or deadly (self-styled gods).

To Be or Not to Be is now streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Scott Cooper's Hostiles opens with one of the most stunning acts of brutality I've seen on screen in a long time. Its brutality stems not from its graphic nature (although there are quite a few disturbing images), but from the frankness with which it depicts its violence. A band of Comanches rides over a hill and slaughters a family of settlers with a startling matter-of-factness, mercilessly gunning down the children and scalping their father. The only survivor is the mother, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), who escapes with her dead infant by hiding in the nearby forest.

It is a familiar scene from so many westerns: renegade Native Americans attacking white families with cruel barbarism; cold, unfeeling, evil, the very face of uncivilized savagery. But Cooper isn't playing to 1950s stereotypes, because in the very next scene, he introduces us to Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), an Army captain known for his ruthless treatment of the indians, capturing a family of natives with similar inhumanity. The Comanche warriors from the film's opening aren't monsters, they're part of a cycle of violence created by unchecked and often callous western expansion.

Blocker's barbaric reputation preceeds him. Soldiers speak in hushed whispers of a time when he cut a man "from stem to stern" (and we get the distinct feeling they're all talking about separate episodes). Now, he is on the brink of retirement, but isn't quite ready to put the old ways behind him. Once a soldier, always a soldier. That's why he's selected for a special mission: to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to his home in the Montana territory after years in a federal prison. Blocker is furious, and refuses the assignment, until he is threatened with losing his pension unless he complies.

Reluctantly, he sets out with a small contingent of soldiers and his Native charges, whom he immediately treats like prisoners. Along the way they encounter Rosalie, who joins their group but is immediately fearful of Chief Yellow Hawk and his family. Her presence softens something in Blocker, and as they also fall under attack by the Comanche war party, he begins to realize that the only way to survive this last mission is to band together with his old enemies, and finally put the past to rest.

Hostiles is not necessarily a journey of redemption. By the time the film reaches its quietly powerful conclusion, we're not entirely sure that Blocker is "redeemed" in a classical sense. The sins of the past may be too great. The important part of this, and it is keenly realized in Bale's incredibly poignant, morally ambiguous performance, is that Blocker realizes and comes to understand that fact. It may be too late for him and for Yellow Hawk; all they have known is violence and war, a lifetime of killing and hate. But it is not too late for the next generation.

The biggest issue here, it turns out, is the script, which gives us one howler of a scene set during a monsoon around two thirds of the way through, featuring an awkwardly on-the-nose apology to Yellow Hawk for their unforgivable treatment at the hands of the white man, and a painfully obvious plot device that can be seen coming a mile away. The film's eventual mirroring of that vicious opening scene also falls a bit flat. Everything up to that point is so expertly crafted, the tension so carefully tightened, that its failure to fully stick the landing is disappointing. And yet the actors sell it all with such conviction, not to mention Cooper's otherwise solid directorial voice. Bale, for his part, has never been better, reminding us all why he is one of our finest living actors. He is backed up by an impressive supporting cast that includes such accomplished veterans as Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Q'orianka Kilcher, Timothée Chalamet (cementing his up and comer status after Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird), Peter Mullan, and Stephen Lang. It is thanks to them that the film is able to mostly pull off something so few films ever really have the courage to do; it transports us and fully immerses us into another world without compromise or false comfort.

Cooper riffs on John Ford's The Searchers in a minor key, filling Hostiles with sweeping vistas that recall the grand Monument Valley locations that graced so many classic westerns. On the other hand, there is something colder here, a societal rot at its core, an idea that an America built on such violence cannot ever fully heal. Yet all is not without hope. The film ends on a beautifully understated question mark, a kind of inversion of The Searchers' iconic final shot in which John Wayne, no longer welcome in this brave new world, stands silhouetted by a dark door frame. Perhaps this truly is no country for old men, perhaps the old ways of thinking must die. What civilized world would have a place for a man like Blocker anyway?

It may be an often unrelentingly bleak work, but in the end Hostiles posits instead that the only way forward is forgiveness, both of one's self and of others. It's a lovely idea, maybe naive but perhaps necessary. Carried away on the wings of Max Richter's plaintive and elegiac score, Bale rides off into the sunset, leaving behind a chilly, haunted resignation to the way things are, with a tentative and uncertain note of possibility. In a world of seemingly unending and relentless darkness, what could be more beautiful than that?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HOSTILES | Directed by Scott Cooper | Stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Q'orianka Kilcher, Jonathan Majors, Timothée Chalamet, Peter Mullan, Stephen Lang | Rated R for strong violence, and language | Now playing in select cities. Opens everywhere Jan. 19. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

By the time Otto Preminger's courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder has come to an end, the audience understands the verdict, but we're not quite sure we agree with it. That's the beauty of Preminger's fierce, uncompromising exploration of the American legal system, which presents two equally plausible scenarios for the crime in question, effectively turning the audience into the jury.

We root for Jimmy Stewart because, well he's Jimmy Stewart. We root against George C. Scott's belligerent prosecuting attorney because of the way he bullies the witnesses. Yet, the facts that he presents are nevertheless compelling. That's the brilliance of Anatomy of a Murder, it forces us to take into account things that we may not have otherwise considered. Are our perceptions of the case colored by how likable the attorneys are? Are we influenced, perhaps, by factors beyond the facts presented in the case? Preminger, who himself held a law degree, understood that a trial is merely theatre by another name, and the way in which cases are presented are often just as important as the facts themselves. When Stewart leads a witness to present opinions that the jury is then ordered not to take into account, his client asks him: "how can they disregard something they've already heard?" With a glint in his eye, Stewart deadpans: "They can't."

Preminger constantly holds his cards close to the chest, never letting on what actually happened, while bucking Production Code standards with frank discussions of rape, panties, and sperm. Instead, he lets the sparring attorneys pull the audiences this way and that, holding us in their thrall for nearly 3 hours right up until the very end. In fact, the actual verdict is almost treated as an afterthought. Ultimately, the verdict here doesn't matter. The decision reached by the jury makes sense; it fits the facts presented. Yet even in that moment of supposed clarity, the nagging thought remains - so does the alternative.

Now streaming on Filmstruck through Jan. 21, 2018!

From The Dispatch:
“All the Money in the World” isn’t just a great film, but Christopher Plummer, who replaced a disgraced Kevin Spacey at the 11th hour, turns in a tremendous performance, made all the more impressive by the fact that he had only mere days to create the character and film his scenes. Much of the talk surrounding the film will likely center on this, and rightfully so, because what Scott and Plummer have achieved here is nothing short of a minor miracle. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that not only is Plummer’s performance as J. Paul Getty a thing of dark beauty, “All the Money in the World” is also one of Scott’s strongest films in years.
Click here to read my full review.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is now playing in theaters everywhere!