Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The truth may be stranger than fiction in Donald Trump's America, but in our era of fake news and Russian troll farms, the truth was in greater demand than ever. Thankfully, documentary filmmakers rose to the occasion in 2018, exploring the truth on scales both macro and micro. This year gave us documentaries that were howls of outrage, celebrations of kindness in a bitter world, powerful indictments of racism and white privilege, meditations on the mortality and nature of evil, examinations of delusions of grandeur, personal tales of artistic expression, investigations of everyday life in America, and sweeping portraits of political oppression and hatred. Documentarians seemingly left no stone unturned this year, crafting some of the finest documentaries of the decade in the span of a single year. In fact, this year's docs were so good one could make a perfectly respectable Top 10 Films of the Year list that only included documentaries. These 10 films represent some of the finest filmmaking 2018 had to offer, seeking truth in a year when the line between fact and fiction was more blurred than ever.

1 | El Mar La Mar // J.P. Sniadecki & Joshua Bonnetta, USA

Set in the mysterious and lonely Sonoran desert, J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta's El Mar La Mar, the latest documentary from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a bracing and immersive look at the unforgiving landscape over which Mexican immigrants must cross to reach the United States. Sniadecki and Bonnetta push the documentary form to its limits, creating a starkly beautiful and terrifying experience that brilliantly captures the dichotomy of the desert landscape - its lovely vistas juxtaposed against the lingering stench of death in their shadows. The images of lost shoes, discarded shirts, and perhaps most hauntingly, a single pair of glasses, persist in the mind; ghostly reminders of the human toll of the pursuit of a freedom so many of us take for granted. At once a meditation on mortality, a requiem for the lost, and a chilling tone poem, El Mar La Mar is a singular and terrifying evocation of shattered dreams and human longing that marks another breathtaking triumph for one of the most unique documentary projects in the world. No other film in 2019 felt more essential or more damning of our particular moment in time.

2 | Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? // Travis Wilkerson, USA

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.

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 radical 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. In a land built on the backs of slaves, we're all guilty.

3 | Won't You Be My Neighbor? // Morgan Neville, USA

Won't You Be My Neighbor? feels like much needed antidote to our uncivil times. This isn't a film just about being nice, it's a film about love, and the true value of showing love even to those we don't believe deserve it. While I'm under no illusions that this film will somehow fix all that ails us, one can't help but feel that if more people went to see this film, we'd all look at the world a little differently. This is a truly moving film, a work of profound beauty that exalts the best in all of us by examining the life of a man who truly embodied the best of what humanity could be. At a time where hate and animus are rampant, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tender reminder of just how lucky we are to have had a neighbor like Mr. Rogers.

4 | Dead Souls // Wang Bing, France

The nearly 9-hour running time of Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Dead Souls, may be daunting, and will likely scare away many audience members before they ever walk in the door; but there are few cinematic experiences in 2018 as powerful or as essential as Wang's devastating examination of the Chinese re-education camps that were the result of Chairman Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the 1950s.

This is a towering work, recalling Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in its expansive dedication to documenting such large-scale human tragedy. Wang channels the voices of both the living and the dead into a stinging indictment of political oppression and human cruelty, crafting a trenchant and often painful portrait of a largely forgotten atrocity. Even at 9 hours long, we feel as though we have only scratched the surface, and Wang leaves us with the chilling impression that the darkest secrets remain buried under the sands of the Gobi. Dead Souls is not a film for the faint of heart, but no other film this year felt more vital, immediate, or audacious, earning every minute of its gargantuan runtime with gripping, deeply compassionate efficiency.

5 | Hale County This Morning, This Evening // RaMell Ross, USA

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.

In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors. It's offers glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.

6 | Distant Constellation // Shevaun Mizrahi, Turkey

Set inside a Turkish nursing facility where elderly residents are seemingly trapped in time, Shevaun Mizrahi's Distant Constellation poignantly watches world outside move 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.

7 | Shirkers // Sandi Tan, USA

In 1992, a group of teenage cinephiles in Singapore set out to make a film of their own. That film, Shirkers, was written by aspiring filmmaker and critic, Sandi Tan, whose friendship with a mysterious, married, middle aged American ex-pat named Georges would have a profound and lasting impact on her life. A film professor full of tall-tales and dubious motives, Georges absconds with the completed footage, leaving Shirkers as one of Singapore's great cinematic mysteries, a film that wasn't that rocked the island nation's almost non-existent film industry. Twenty years later, the film resurfaces, leading Tan on a quest to understand not only Georges' motives for stealing such a large part of her life, but also the film's impact on its cast and crew.

Tan's love of cinema is present in every frame, recalling everything from the French New Wave to Steven Soderbergh. But at its heart, Shirkers feels like a radical act of self love, a cathartic exorcism of childhood demons that is at once joyful, haunted, and revelatory. What began as a charmingly DIY coming-of-age tale takes on a new sheen when viewed through a critical lens of the circumstances under which it was made. Shirkers was no longer a fiction film, it was the story of a young woman discovering her own identity, and through this documentary, reclaiming her agency from the predator who tried to steal it from her.

8 | Caniba // Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, France

Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was arrested after killing and eating a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevel in 1981, was released after from prison being declared legally insane, and went on to become something of a minor celebrity in Japan. Caniba, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) is 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 is 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. 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.

9 | Infinite Football // Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania

In his latest film, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury.

Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.

10 | Minding the Gap // Bing Liu, USA

Bing Liu's film is something of a quiet wonder. What begins as a kind of document of adolescence centering on three teenage boys who spend carefree days skateboarding and being generally irresponsible, becomes a deeply moving exploration of adulthood as the boys navigate the realities of newfound grown-up responsibilities. It is also a delicately layered study of poverty and the cyclical nature of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, whose effects reverberate through generations. Minding the Gap is a potent and vital distillation of modern masculinity and the crisis facing our young men for whom violence is the only reality they've ever known.

Liu deftly examines the ripple effects and collateral damage not only from the point of view of the young men who were raised by abusive fathers, but on the women who also survived them, and now find themselves the target of their boyfriends' anger. The result is a hugely powerful documentary that delves into the far reaching effects of systemic oppression and cyclical abuse. It's an astonishing filmmaking debut that could have only been made by someone who has lived it, lending it an impressive sense of authenticity and honesty that is hard to shake.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release.
© Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

If you've spent much of the last two years looking around and thinking "where are we going and why are we in this hand basket," then you're not alone. With democratic norms being chucked out the window on almost a daily basis, it's easy to become disillusioned about the state of our political system. But how did we arrive at this moment? Did Donald Trump arrive out of nowhere, or is he the product of system that has been laying the groundwork for someone like him for decades?

That's essentially what director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is trying to investigate in Vice, a biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) on its surface, and a stinging satire of our current political situation underneath. At a time when President Trump is seemingly wiping away every political norm with a constant stream of racism and unchecked corruption, it's easy to look back at the George W. Bush Administration of something akin to nostalgia. Iraq may have been a major blunder, but at least he wasn't calling the press the "enemy of the people" and locking immigrant children in cages, right?

Vice is not about George W. Bush (although he does make a few appearances courtesy of Sam Rockwell), it's about the man behind the curtain. Cheney was perhaps the most powerful VP in history - exercising great executive power and overseeing many operations in the White House without presidential oversight. Vice explores how he got to that point, from his days as a congressional page to Donald Rumseld (Steve Carell) to his days as Secretary of Defense during George H.W. Bush's Administration, all the up to his tenure as Bush 43's Vice President. McKay mixes it all into a non-linear narrative structure that casts Cheney as a kind of Machiavellian villain, always in the shadows, pulling strings behind the scenes but never calling much attention to himself.

The film deploys a mix of styles to explore Cheney's roots and motivations - from Shakespearian tragedy to melodrama to satirical comedy, some landing their punches but most falling flat. The biggest problem with Vice is its eclectic mix of styles doesn't mesh particularly well, the non-linear structure also undercutting any dramatic tension or depth, hampered by a painful framing device featuring an Iraq War vet that comes across as a shameless bit of audience manipulation. The film's scattershot nature doesn't allow us to get to know Cheney in the least. This is part of the point, of course, Cheney's lack of transparency is notorious, and one of the film's major focuses, but the film really fails in its attempts to connect Cheney's machinations to our current political climate.

Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney and Christian Bale (right) as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Matt Kennedy 2018 © Annapurna Pictures

Vice touches on theories of executive privilege and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine that paved the way for unchecked presidential power and the rise of Fox News, but Cheney remains just as enigmatic at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, a "ghost" as the film suggests who basically ran the country for eight years while W's good-natured bumbling masked the sinister imperial ideas roiling behind the scenes. The real standout here is Bale's uncanny performance as Cheney, signature sneer and all, a constantly inscrutable manipulator who played his cards close to the vest. Amy Adams also makes a fine showing as Lynne Cheney by way of Lady Macbeth, and Nicholas Britell's soaring score plays every moment, no matter how ludicrous, as an over-the-top melodrama.

Yet for every satiric touch that hits the mark, many more never even come close. Vice is a mess, an unfocused and unwieldy portrait of Vice President Cheney that never manages to mount more than a surface-level inquiry of his motives and their repercussions. McKay attempts to implicate the audience for allowing Cheney the destructive power he ultimately wielded, but it's an implication that comes out of nowhere. It's as if McKay is throwing everything at us hoping that something sticks. Clearly the target audience is in on the joke here, but the film often feels smug and cynical rather than illuminating or insightful. It is, as Shakespeare would say, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," an occasionally amusing but ultimately hollow exploration of recent history that fails to bring anything new or particularly interesting to the table.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

VICE | Directed by Adam McKay | Stars  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Bill Pullman | Rated R for language and some violent images | Opens in theaters nationwide on Dec. 25.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The nearly 9-hour running time of Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Dead Souls, may be daunting, and will likely scare away many audience members before they ever walk in the door; but there are few cinematic experiences in 2018 as powerful or as essential as Wang's devastating examination of the Chinese re-education camps that were the result of Chairman Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the 1950s.

Through a series of mostly un-edited interviews with survivors shot between 2005 and 2017, Dead Souls paints a haunting portrait of cultural cleansing and Kafka-esque political oppression as the communist government sought to cleanse the nation of rightist thought. Of the thousands of suspected thought-criminals who entered the camps in the barren wastelands of the Gobi desert, only 500 survived to tell the tale. By allowing the survivors to tell their stories uncut, the camera bearing unblinking witness to unspeakable tragedy, giving the audience nowhere to hide or look away.

Some laugh to mitigate the discomfort, others cry in remembrance of their fallen loved one, still others rage in anger - why bring up still-raw wounds of the past? The one thing they all share in common is that none of them actually subscribed to right-wing ideology. All were faithful communists who dared to voice criticism of individuals within the party, or of procedures they found to be inefficient. When given the chance to speak out and criticize internal operations, those who took the opportunity were accused of being rightists and shipped off to the camps for re-education through hard labor.. Through systematic starvation, the Chinese government sought to stamp out any criticism by eliminating anyone it perceived as a threat. Any deviation from absolute, blind faith was considered a grievous betrayal of the state.

Wang shoots with a ragged, often improvised style. The subjects sit in the frame and recount their stories uninterrupted and in painstaking detail, giving powerful, first-hand accounts of human atrocity on an unimaginable scale. It is both a tribute to the strength of the survivors and a memorial to the dead whose souls still haunt China, bones littered across the wilderness as stark reminders of oppression and intolerance run amok. It is a bruising, taxing, marathon of a film - the interviews only interrupted by hushed visits to the remnants of the camps, or in one case, the heartrending funeral of one of the survivors - itself a howl of grief for the sacrifice of that generation. Each testimony is riveting in its own right - especially in the film's final third in which Wang introduces us to the wife of one of the camp's victims, a cadre who collaborated with the government to help run one of the camps, and an angry former inmate who has no desire to give that part of his life any more space in his own mind.

It is clear from these three diverse interviews that the pain and loss of the anti-rightist campaign continues to reverberate throughout Chinese culture, a kind of lost generation still not allowed to speak. And yet through the power and righteous conviction of Dead Souls  they have finally found their voice. This is a towering work, recalling Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in its expansive dedication to documenting such large-scale human tragedy. Wang channels the voices of both the living and the dead into a stinging indictment of political oppression and human cruelty, crafting a trenchant and often painful portrait of a largely forgotten atrocity. Even at 9 hours long, we feel as though we have only scratched the surface, and Wang leaves us with the chilling impression that the darkest secrets remain buried under the sands of the Gobi. Dead Souls is not a film for the faint of heart, but no other film this year felt more vital, immediate, or audacious, earning every minute of its gargantuan runtime with gripping, deeply compassionate efficiency.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DEAD SOULS | Directed by Wang Bing | In Chinese w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

Coming on the heels of Sony's ill-advised and goofy Venom film, the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seemed destined for failure. An animated Spider-Man film from the studio that brought us the execrable The Amazing Spider-Man 2, completely separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe iteration of the character, seemed like a questionable prospect at best.

The lack of expectations leading up its release turned out to be a mark in its favor, because Into the Spider-Verse isn't just good, it's one of the best superhero movies to be released in the last 10 years. It's clever, engaging, dazzlingly animated, and just plain fun. Perhaps most important of all, it never takes itself too seriously, presenting a refreshingly irreverent, sometimes tongue-in-cheek attitude (thanks to the sharply written screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) that gives us Spider-Man like we've never seen him before.

In fact, it gives us several Spider-Mans we've never seen before, because it justifies its existence by exploring alternate universes where there can be infinite iterations of the character. Our hero here is Miles Morales (Miles Morales) rather than Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the half-black half-latino teenager who takes up Spider-Man's mantle after the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) opens up a portal into another universe in an attempt to resurrect his dead wife and child, killing Parker in the process. However, it also brings an older version of Parker (Jake Johnson) into Morales' universe, along with a 1930s noir Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage), Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), futuristic Spider-Woman Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Together they must stop the Kingpin from restarting his massive collider and get back to their own universes before it destroys them all.

Into the Spider-Verse dispenses with most of the usual superhero origin tropes, winking at the audience as it flies through them in Cliffs Notes fashion. And yet it never treats its story like a joke. It gives us fully developed characters worth caring about, and an original story that feels like nothing we've ever seen in a superhero movie before. It grounds its story in actual human emotion, even while wowing us with its stunning animation, tightly crafted action sequences, and diverse cast of heroes each making their mark. In many ways, Sony has actually out-Marveled Marvel Studios, introducing us to a wide universe of possibilities without ever once feeling like it only serves a small part in a much wider plan.

It never loses sight of the fact that Morales is just a kid struggling to navigate his daily life while taking on massive responsibilities. He is not a fully formed hero yet, and that's what makes his Spider-Man so special. By making it an animated rather than live action film, it gives the filmmakers great leeway in crafting its visual milieu, and the results are often jaw-dropping. The climax, with its multiple colliding universes smashing into one another, is perhaps one of the year's most sensational sequences, taking Into the Spider-Verse into another astral plane of superhero filmmaking. This is the real deal, a side-splitting, suspenseful, and genuinely moving film that bounces Sony back from the misstep that was Venom and proves there is more than one way to tell a superhero story. This genre isn't out of gas yet.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE | Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman | Stars  Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicolas Cage, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Mahershala Ali, Liev Schreiber, Oscar Isaac, Chris Pine, Jorma Taccone, Zoë Kravitz, Kathryn Hahn, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin | Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Set in the 1970s in Mexico City, Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is a kind of fantasia of the mundane, a loving and often haunting semi-autobiographical tale of a nanny named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and her effect on the family she serves.

Told predominantly from the point of view of the children (and therefore from Cuarón's POV), Roma examines the banalities of Cleo's day-to-day life as she attempts to balance her personal life with her service to her family, something to so consumes her life that it almost becomes her whole identity. Cuarón paints much on Aparicio's seemingly emotionless visage, but her powerhouse performance quietly suggests the roiling emotions beneath. After becoming pregnant by a shiftless lout, Cleo finds herself being cared for by her employers. The parents having just split up, the family is now in disarray, with ever more responsibility falling on the mother to keep the household from falling apart. This means even more work for Cleo - a beloved caretaker for the children who will never truly be a part of the family.

That's the tragic dichotomy at the heart of Roma - Cleo is perhaps the key holding the entire family together. The children see her as a kind of superhero, a surrogate mother seemingly destined to never have children of her own. And yet she is constantly reminded, through actions both micro and macro, that she doesn't really belong in this world. Even when the family invites her along on a beach vacation to help her recover from a devastating personal tragedy, she is still treated like a servant, despite being told that she would not have to work. The film has been criticized somewhat for this sequence especially for turning Cleo into some sort of idealized hero, a working class savior of the upper class. Yet this is a fundamental misreading of Cuarón's intentions. Roma may be a tribute to his childhood nanny, yet it is her quiet resilience being celebrated, not her servitude.

Cuarón clearly understands the sacrifices Cleo is making here, and Roma feels as much like an atonement for the sins of his family as it does a celebration of her sacrifices. Cleo's suffering isn't being celebrated - her strength is. The film is inherently tragic, a kind of elegiac tribute to a woman who gave up her own life and personal autonomy to serve someone else's, and nowhere does Cuarón suggest that this was a good thing. Cleo is a hero, but she's a tragic one; a saint, but a flawed one. To young Cuarón she was an angel sent from heaven, but adult Cuarón knows better, and so does the audience. That's what makes Roma such an incisive examination of class relations - it's that dichotomy between the children's view of Cleo and the adults' treatment of her that highlight her struggle. She's the family's lynchpin, but is constantly being reminded that she's not really family. For every moment of kindness and warmth she still must wade through an actual sea of shit left by the family canine dog in the family's narrow garage every day, much too small for the massive, showy car it's meant to house.

Shot in stark black and white by Cuarón himself, Roma feels at once epic and intimate, like hazy, half-recalled memories and impressions of a childhood that is perhaps not as rosy as it once appeared to be. Even the film's moments of joy are always underscored by a hint of melancholy. Surrounded by social change and unrest, the privileged family may seem a kind of sheltered oasis, yet Cleo must still suffer the realities of lower class life, even while surrounded by privilege. In that regard, Roma is a kind of examination of Cuarón's own privilege, exploring both class and racial inequalities through a stirring, black and white lens that feels something less like a plea for atonement than a sincere and loving apology.

That's what makes Roma a success where films like Green Book have failed. Roma confronts and actively examines privilege, whereas Green Book blithely pretends it doesn't exist. Directed, shot, and edited by Cuarón, it is clearly a deeply personal work for the filmmaker, a tribute to a woman who shaped his life and finally deserves her place in the spotlight. Yet it is not without its pain, as Cuarón acknowledges what was good for him may not have been so good for her. That makes for something unique and deeply human, a complex and wrenching exploration of privilege and class relations that cuts deep with a kind of sharp naturalism that recalls De Sica and a haunted magical reverie worthy of Fellini. Few other films have so indelibly captured the contradictions of the relationship between servant and employer, showcasing a true craftsman's eye for extrapolating life's often unjust inconsistencies.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ROMA | Directed by Alfonso Cuarón | Stars Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa | Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Viola Davis stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton
© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Steve McQueen is a filmmaker that is impossible to put in a box. His filmography thus far has been wildly varied, from his searing debut feature, Hunger, which featured Michael Fassbender as an Irish dissident on a hunger strike, to Shame, a frank examination of the life of a sex addict, to the Oscar-winning slavery drama 12 Years a Slave.

His latest film, Widows, is a stylish genre exercise that couldn't feel further away from the seriousness of those previous films, and yet it somehow feels right at home for a man who isn't afraid to ask difficult questions even in the midst of a heist film. v is the kind of film that sneaks up on you, masquerading as an action film when in reality McQueen has something much more complex on his mind.

Centering round four women whose husbands died during a botched robbery, Widows examines issues of race, class, and politics as the women decided to take up their husbands' mantle and pull off the next planned job in order to pay off debts to the target of their last job. The target - a white politician (Colin Farrell) running in a majority black ward in Chicago whose power stems from dynastic family politics rather than anything he has earned himself. Yet his opponent, a black populist running to retake his ward from the corporate powers that have gentrified it and bled it dry, is just as corrupt; deploying violent fixers to settle old debts.

It falls to Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), wife of crime boss Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), to clean up the mess left by the men around her. Yet the deeper in she gets, the more it becomes clear that the dirty dealings perpetrated by those in power go much deeper than she realized. v has no time for the machinations of powerful men, where worship of money and the free market has corrupted the political process beyond all hope. McQueen knows that the men with the money always run the show, and will stop at nothing to get power in order to acquire even more money. Viola Davis is here to put a stop to that nonsense, and she burns it all to the ground with a vengeance.

Make no mistake, this is Davis' show. She gives a ferocious performance of great resolve barely masking her world-weary resignation about having to clean up a yet another white man's mess. Strong turns by Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodruguez, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall provide excellent back up for Davis. McQueen also wisely plays off the film's violence with a striking nonchalance. He makes the wounds matter, but he never dwells on them. The violence is quick, brutal, and never quite what we expect. McQueen is more interested in the consequences of that violence, and the consequences are never pretty. His tightly crafted style and astute understanding of both human nature and political reality makes Widows something special indeed - a thriller with a social conscience and a hell of an ensemble cast.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WIDOWS | Directed by Steve McQueen | Stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal | Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos.
© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos is something of an acquired taste, dividing audiences into "love its" and "hate its" in almost equal measure. His penchant for using alienating absurdity to uncover societal rot is a symptom of his origins in New Greek Cinema, where he first emerged on the world stage with 2010's Oscar-nominated Dogtooth.

His latest film, The Favourite is something of a departure for the filmmaker, marking the first time he's directed a film that he has not written himself. And yet it also bears the unmistakable hallmarks of his stylistic proclivities. It also finds the filmmaker moving away from the more insular and obfuscating nature of his last two films, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. As a result, The Favourite is perhaps his most accessible film thus far, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have the same depth or visual wit.In fact, it's arguably his finest film to date.

Set in the court of Great Britain's Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in the early part of the 18th century, The Favourite is a chamber drama that is something of a satire of stuffy chamber dramas, pitting Lady Sarah (Rachel Weiss), right-hand of the weak-willed Queen, against her ambitious servant Abigail (Emma Stone), for the Queen's favor. Both of them recognize that real power is in proximity to power, and like a twisted take on All About Eve set in the world of 18th century British royalty, The Favourite is a deliciously acerbic battle of wills that often teeters on the border of high camp.

Lanthimos' films often have an air of absurdity, and working from a dazzlingly caustic screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, he rakes the aristocracy over the coals with devious aplomb. His frequent use of fish-eye lenses distorts the frame so that the lush costumes and sumptuous set-designs are often off-kilter, taking on a sinister quality that is often belied by the sheer goofiness of the cutthroat situations in which the characters find themselves. Inside the halls of power is pursuit of naked ambition for ambition's sake, where influence and personal power is protected at all costs often at the expense of those outside the palace walls.

Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima.
© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The men of the film are also marginalized to the point of non-existence, their own weak attempts at securing a foothold in the court rebuffed with cold indifference. The Favourite belongs to its women, while the oafish men prance around court jockeying for influence, the real power is exchanged between Queen Anne and her consorts, a delightful twist on the historic reality, perhaps, but one that cuts to the bone with its razor-sharp lampooning of masculine preening and outsized egos.

It is that incisive ability to cut through extravagant exteriors to expose the rot within that makes The Favourite such an extraordinary achievement. It's an acidic, nasty, bitter pill that is as outrageously entertaining as it is profoundly unsettling. Davis and McNamara's mischievous screenplay gives its three lead actresses plenty to chew on, and each dives in with voracious relish. It's a high-class soap opera with impish instincts, like a cobra coiled up and ready to strike at a moment's notice - beautiful but deadly. It's the kind of film that cuts deep and then laughs at the wounds it inflicts, blithely refusing to take any prisoners in its devastating mockery of the powerful.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FAVOURITE | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weiss, Nicholas Hoult | Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language | Opens Friday, Dec. 14, in select cities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up." - James Baldwin

After famously losing, and then winning, the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight (2016), a swooning, romantic meditation on the act of being black and gay in America, director Barry Jenkins turned his eye toward something perhaps even more ambitious - an adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, itself a kind of romantic fantasia on black identity.

The two films are cut from the same cloth; poetic and winsome, heartbreaking yet uplifting, making the political deeply personal. In a year that has seen several great films boldly tackle race in America, from Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman to Travis Wilkerson's Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?If Beale Street Could Talk takes a more understated and lyrical route to similar ends. It would be a mistake to assume that Jenkins' subdued style belies a lack of righteous fury. His style may not be radical or indignant, but it gets at the heart of an essential truth about being black in a world dominated by whiteness. Jenkins finds beauty in the essence of blackness in the form of two black people falling in love in spite of the systemic obstacles of the prison industrial complex.

The film's protagonists, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), are an almost idyllic couple, who share a love so pure it almost feels too wholesome for this world. The prim, shy Tish, the strong, doting Fonny - they seem like a match made in heaven. At least until Fonny gets arrested for a rape he did not commit, railroaded by a white police officer with a grudge and a desperate and frightened woman who never saw her attacker. Compounding their troubles, Tish discovers that she is pregnant, a revelation that threatens to tear her family apart. Yet all the while they are sustained by their own intoxicating memories of their courtship, giving them hope for a better future, even when simply existing is a daily struggle.

While the film is set in New York, Memphis' Beale Street, the birthplace of jazz, serves as a kind of metaphor for the black experience. In Baldwin's lush prose, the film informs us that there was a time when every black person in America came from a Beale Street - the "black part of town," a segregated world mistrusted and avoided by white society. With the odds stacked against them and a prison system seemingly designed for the sole purpose of re-enslaving young black men, Tish and Fonny struggle to carve out their own little corner of the world, despite every obstacle thrown in their path by system of white supremacy.

While Moonlight, an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, "Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," was awash in cool blues and purples, If Beale Street Could Talk is distinguished by a warm palate of yellows, reds, and browns; earthy, grounded, and rich. It's a sublime experience - filled with gorgeous costumes, comforting earth tone hues, Baldwin's vibrant prose, and rapturous Nicholas Britell music. It often feels like a Douglas Sirk film by way of Wong Kar Wai; a romantic soap-opera on the surface, but something much deeper and more devastating underneath. Even here, this seemingly perfect love story is held back by forces beyond the couple's control, and yet like generations before them and generations after, they forge through with their heads held high, because they understand their own inherent dignity and worth. It's as inspiring as it is heartbreaking, uplifting as it is painful - an emotional sucker punch that feels pregnant with a constant sense of beauty coupled with an unavoidable air of tragedy. One can't help but be reminded of Ava DuVernay's remarkable sophomore feature, Middle of Nowhere, in its wrenching depiction of a racist justice system's pointed destruction of the black family, as sure sign that Jenkins is in good company here.

"All good art is political! There is none that isn’t." Toni Morrison once said. "My point is that is has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time." If Beale Street Could Talk packs a political punch without ever directly saying so. It is at once a celebration of blackness and an admonishment of white supremacy, and the way it so insidiously (and at times imperceptibly) worms its way into the African American community's daily lives. It is a work of profound and tremulous beauty, a haunting tone poem that feels like the work of an artist filled with hope but constantly on the verge of tears. In the words of Baldwin himself, "Fires can't be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men." In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins stirs those embers with with a great and fearsome power, releasing them into the wind in a flutter of tiny sparks like a million specks of light in the darkness, folding flashbacks within flashbacks in a non-linear structure that delves deep into the essence of African American life. If Beale Street could talk, its music would be the deep, jazzy, soulful music of love overcoming all things, and Jenkins speaks the language of hope with bracing, enrapturing fluency.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK | Directed by Barry Jenkins | Stars KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis | Rated R for language and some sexual content | Opens Friday, Dec. 14, in select cities.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Outside of the Toy Story franchise, Disney's sequels to its own animated films have historically been something of a mixed bag. Often going direct-to-video, they tend to be designed to make a quick buck off licensing and merchandise rather than adding anything to the story the original set out to tell.

That is thankfully not the case with Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, in which the titular video game villain (John C. Reilly) finds redemption and friendship after becoming tired of his destructive programming. Now, he and his best friend, the glitchy racer Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), spend their evenings goofing off in other video games until the sun comes up, before heading off to their own respective games. But Vanellope wants to break out of their monotonous routine, while Ralph only wants what's familiar and comfortable. When Ralph's efforts to shake things up for Vanellope ends up wrecking her game, the pair find themselves journeying to the internet in order to find a crucial part that could save Sugar Rush. Once inside the internet, Vanellope discovers the vast world outside her backyard, and begins to yearn for new surroundings, even if that means leaving Ralph behind.

We've all had friends we've outgrown to some degree, whether we moved away from them or their goals and dreams just didn't align with our own. It's a bittersweet part of life that Ralph Breaks the Internet embraces with disarming emotional acuity. Ralph and Vanellope are friends traveling in different directions - one wanting familiarity and routine, the other longing for adventure and the unknown. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a film about moving on and letting go, and reconciling and embracing our loved ones unique ambitions, even if they diverge wildly from our own.

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston skillfully navigate these tricky emotional waters, acknowledging the wistful and sometimes painful beauty of friendship, and it does so with great humor and heart. The film is wonderfully self-referential, creating a dazzling and witty personification of the internet and internet culture that pokes gentle fun at Disney's brand synergy while satirizing everything from social media to online click-bait. The much ballyhooed cameos by the Disney princesses (many voiced by the original actors) offer several comedic highlights, and showcase an unusual willingness for Disney to make fun of itself.

Ralph Breaks the Internet marks a giant leap forward for Disney animation, stepping out of the shadow of Pixar and asserting that even without their partner studio Disney animation is perfectly capable of producing smart, original, and emotionally grounded films apart from their trademark fairy tale/princess musicals. It not only manages to expand the world of the original, but deepen its emotional resonance as well - the mark of a truly successful sequel.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET | Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston | Stars  John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Phil Johnston, Paige O'Hara, Irene Bedard, Mandy Moore, Auli'i Cravalho, Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Kelly Macdonald, Anika Noni Rose, Linda Larkin, Jodi Benson, Ming-Na Wen, Alfred Molina | Rated PG for some action and rude humor | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directing team behind 2015's Meru, return with Free Solo, another documentary about extreme mountain climbers with a death wish. The film centers around Alex Honnold, a "free solo" mountain climber who prefers climbing mountains without the aid of ropes or climbing equipment, scaling mountains on his own with only his hands and wits to guide him.

It's an undeniably impressive feat, but also a potentially crazy one. Free Solo tracks Honnold's quest to scale the nearly vertical face of El Capitan without rope. In contrast with Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi do a better job of questioning their subject's motives (by doing so at all), making Honnold's girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, one of the central figures in the film and drawing attention to the fact that nearly every free solo climber who has gained any notoriety has ended up dead. And yet, Free Solo is such an ultimately joyous and celebratory work that it's difficult to really grapple with the gravity of what Honnold is really doing here. The filmmakers seem to undercut their points at every turn, breezing past the dark places any reasonable train of thought takes them in an effort to heap more adoration on Honnold.

Free Solo seeks first and foremost to frame Honnold's achievement as a great athletic feat, rather than probing his motivations for such a stunt. It doesn't help that Honnold is an often cold and stand-offish figure who really doesn't seem to understand or care about the effect his death would have on those around him. As the film's hero he's certainly difficult to identify with, and yet Chin and Vasarhelyi never seem to challenge or really push him to examine his quixotic and potentially suicidal dream. Tearful interviews with McCandless juxtaposed with Hannold's nonchalance are difficult to watch, and one can't help but wonder - what's the point? Why is all this potential pain worth this feat? Why not do the same thing but with safety equipment?

Hannold can't really answer those questions - he just knows its something he has to do, arrogantly comparing the act of free solo climbing with the "way of the warrior." Free Solo never pushes back on this, treating it all as some sort of mythic quest for greatness. Yet one can't help but feel that this whole thing is so misguided. It's beautifully filmed, to be sure, filled with sweeping mountain vistas and dizzying views, and the final free solo ascent up El Capitan one of the year's most harrowing cinematic set-pieces. But what's it all for? Hannold's ultimately selfish act of recklessness is given a hagiographic treatment that feels both irresponsible and emotionally dishonest, never truly grappling with the ramifications of what it is celebrating.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

FREE SOLO | Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | Rated PG-13 for brief strong language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

A young boy, feeling neglected after the birth of his baby sister, discovers a rift in time that allows him to visit with both past and future versions of his family members as he navigates his way through parental conflicts and sibling rivalries. It's an undeniably compelling premise - rich with possibility and emotional sagacity. Yet Mirai, the latest film from Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children), is caught in a strange kind of episodic structure that never really allows that premise to blossom in any sort of satisfying way.

Our hero, four-year-old Kun (Jaden Waldman), is perhaps one of the most unlikable and abrasive protagonists to grace the screen in recent memory. He may only be a toddler, but his constant, wailing temper tantrums become tiresome after a while. Parents of small children may find themselves with a knowing smirk on their faces at that thought, but it makes for unpleasant viewing when the protagonist is just so hard to care about.

The real heart and soul of the film is, as the title suggests, Kun's little sister, Mirai (Victoria Grace), who visits Kun in an older form and helps guide him through the avalanche of feelings that are overwhelming his young mind. Mirai, as both baby and teenager, represents Kun's future as both older brother and guide, yet here it is the younger sibling helping to teach the younger about responsibility sibling love. Kun also meets his mother as a young girl, discovering that she was often just as naughty as he (and that she learned many of her parenting techniques and bad habits from her own mother), as well as his grandfather as a young, uncovering the truth behind a long-held family legend about how he proposed to Kun's grandmother.

These vignettes are often quite moving, yet they never really connect to one another, and Kun shows little character growth after each episode. No matter how many adventures he goes on with the older Mirai, he still seems to resent and even hate her in her younger form. The lack of growth means the film never really picks up any real momentum, so that even its most emotional segments don't quite land with the same power that they perhaps could have. It's beautifully animated, and the score by Masakatsu Takagi is lovely, but narratively it often feels like it's spinning its wheels.

It exists mostly in a child's fantasy world, the parents (John Cho and Rebecca Hall) mostly clueless or distracted, but it seems to be missing a key component to hold it all together and connect its many threads. Anyone with a younger sibling (or an older one, for that matter) will likely find something to recognize in Mirai, especially in the way it connects the dots between the past and future of a family, each moment reverberating through time to create the people we are today. But it never quite figures out how to convey that in a way that ties all its myriad elements together.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MIRAI | Directed by Mamoru Hosoda | Stars John Cho, Rebecca Hall, Victoria Grace, Jaden Waldman, Crispin Freeman | Rated PG for hematic elements including some scary images | Showing nationwide Dec. 5 and Dec. 8. Now playing in select cities. Click here for ticket information.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Filmmaker Julian Schnabel is first and foremost a painter. While he has six directing credits to his name since 1996's Basquiat, Schnabel is perhaps best known for his work in the art world rather than in film. Yet there is something almost painterly about his films. It was obvious in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, with his stunning use of close-ups to suggest the inner life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a paralyzed man who could only communicate by blinking.

His latest work, At Eternity’s Gate, is something else entirely - a breathtaking tribute to one artist by another. Here, Schnabel examines the final days of the legendary Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). As he did in Basquiat, Schnabel has turned his passion for a great artist and turned it into something deeply personal, often abstract, and genuinely profound. This is not a typical biopic; Schnabel isn't interested in the historical details of Van Gogh's life, nor is he interested in creating a linear through-line in which to play connect-the-dots with facts. Just as Van Gogh was an impressionist painter, so too is At Eternity’s Gate an impressionist film, capturing the inner workings of the artist's singular vision, seeking to evoke his emotion and passion in striking visual ways.

Unlike last year's beautiful but thuddingly literal Loving VincentAt Eternity’s Gate recalls Van Gogh's visual style without copying it directly. Schnabel offers a window into Van Gogh's mind, often filming in first person POV to put is directly in his shoes. When we look at the world through Vincent's eyes, colors become brighter, objects become distorted, and suddenly we see the vibrant beauty in even the most mundane objects of nature's abundance. It's an exhilarating experience, and Schnabel spends long, wordless sequences lingering on landscapes as Van Gogh trudges through the countryside in a kind of ecstatic reverie, seeing the world around him as it can only be seen by a great artist.

Rather than illuminate Van Gogh as a historical figure, At Eternity’s Gate chooses instead to illuminate him as an artist. Its unlikely audiences will leave the film knowing more about him than when they went in, but that's not really the point here. Schnabel is more interested in how Van Gogh saw the world, in examining what made him tick, what motivated him to create some of the most beautiful paintings ever created. Through Dafoe's deeply acutely introspective performance, Schnabel is able to imagine the world is seen by one the great masters of the medium, a man who found success only in death, yet saw the world in a way no one else did. Much like the artist himself observed the world, the film sees him not necessarily as he really was, instead examining the essence of the man through work he created.

It's a thrilling thing to watch one artist grapple with the work of another in such a passionate and evocative way. It's something like a daydream, a wistful and yearning work that pines for the beauty in all things, combining vibrant cinematography by Benoît Delhomme and pensive music by Tatiana Lisovkaia to create a fully immersive experience. It suggests Van Gogh without directly copying him, leaving us with winsome and haunted impressions of a man we're really only able to know by the artwork he left behind. At Eternity’s Gate recognizes that legacy as a kind of gift to the world that reverberates into the infinite, mysterious and unknowable, and seeks not to understand, but to feel a legend as only another artist truly could.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AT ETERNITY'S GATE | Directed by Julian Schnabel | Stars Willem Dafoe, Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestrup | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Jason Reitman is no stranger to political satire, having weaved political and social commentary into films like Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air with some success, and into films like Men, Women, & Children with some measure of ham-fisted awkwardness. Yet his latest film, The Front Runner, is his first to tackle real-life politics head-on, chronicling the unravelling of the Gary Hart presidential campaign in 1988.

Hart (Hugh Jackman), who was running for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president (which eventually went to Michael Dukakis, who went on to lose to George H.W. Bush), was widely considered to be the front-runner to not only win the nomination, but to win the presidency itself. He was a charismatic, forward-thinking progressive who had worked on the McGovern campaign, and wasn't afraid to advocate for big ideas and progressive change after eight years of the still popular Ronald Reagan's presidency.

His candidacy was undone, however, by his affair with a campaign staffer, uncovered by reporters from the Miami Harold after Hart dismissively told a reporter inquiring about rumors surrounding his marriage to hire a tail and follow him around, insisting that they would be very bored. The Herald took it as a challenge, and his political career ended up in shambles as a result. Reitman takes Hart's downfall and uses it as a crux for an examination of both journalistic and political ethics in the age of Trump in The Front Runner.

Using Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and a roving camera that evokes Altman's own political 1988 political satire, Tanner '88The Front Runner attempts to paint an intimate portrait of journalistic ethics and its relationship to power, and the importance of personal integrity in leadership. In the #MeToo era, was Hart simply a man having a consensual relationship outside his marriage, or was he abusing his power? Are the personal lives of our leaders none of our business? Where is the line on what its acceptable for journalists to report? There are so many inherent questions in this story that it's a shame that the result is so staid and dramatically inert.

The moral ambiguity of The Front Runner is part of its purpose, but rather than explore the moral gray areas of this incident, it mistakes not having a point of view for insight.  The film raises a lot of questions but mostly brushes them under a rug, refusing to really grapple with difficult issues in any profound way. Its use of a lone female reporter at the Washington Post voicing token opposition to Hart feels like a pat acknowledgment of #MeToo ideals, but it almost feels like lip service to the idea rather than actual reflection. The film also spends precious little time examining what Hart actually stood for (save for a brief moment of acceptance shown to his lesbian daughter that plays like some sort of screenwriting shorthand), choosing instead to focus on the scandal, which has considerably less impact as a result.

To his credit, Reitman never attempts to absolve or condemn Hart, asking the audience instead to fill in the gaps on their own. The problem is that in his attempt to create some sort of dramatic neutrality he made a film that's just not particularly interesting. Jackman is in fine form as Hart, and Vera Farmiga makes the most out of a thankless "long suffering wife" role. But why this film, and why now? Is it a wistful look back on a time when we held our leaders to a higher standard? Is it an exploration of how we reached out current era when salacious gossip takes center stage in our media? The Front Runner doesn't seem quite sure what it is, which is what sets it apart from the Altman films it so brazenly emulates. Altman always had a twinkle in his eye, an inherent eye for cutting through bullshit. The Front Runner never quite gets there, languishing instead in a kind of inchoate examination of the heart of modern American politics that, much like Hart's campaign, never quite seems to get off the ground.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE FRONT RUNNER | Directed by Jason Reitman | Stars Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Kaitlyn Dever, Ari Graynor, Mike Judge | Rated R for language including some sexual references | Now playing in select theaters.