Tuesday, December 10, 2019

What to make of Hu Bo's mammoth debut (and final) feature film, An Elephant Sitting Still? Clocking in at nearly four hours long, Hu's film is a bold, frustrating, unwieldy, altogether brilliant work of art that feels like the work of a master filmmaker working at the peak of their craft. Instead, it's the work of a 29-year-old making his first film, a deeply personal and clearly quite painful artistic statement on the world he saw around him. The filmmaking process was reportedly fraught with difficulties, and Hu faced much pushback from the Chinese distributor about the film's marathon length. It was if the world was conspiring against his bringing his film to life. When the film was completed, Hu took his own life.

One does not want to romanticize Hu's suicide in any way, or turn An Elephant Sitting Still into some grand artistic statement of a tortured soul who flew to close to the sun. Such tropes glamorize suicide as something beautiful or desirable, a road to cinematic immortality. But it is difficult not to see the film through the lens of Hu's untimely death, because An Elephant Sitting Still is a film of deep sadness and regret. Even its imposing length is a comment on the crushing weight of existence, not unlike Scorsese's The Irishman, in which time itself seem to weighing down upon you. There's no point in pretending that this is an easy film to watch - you feel the gravity of every moment, and it is an enormous burden to bear. But perhaps most hauntingly at all, it ends on a dissonant chord of hope, the bleating of mythical elephant of the title, a figure of Mongolian legend that stoically takes any abuse hurled its way by the world around it.

One can't help but see Hu's image in that metaphor, surrounded by a world of pain, absorbing abuse from all sides. That that creature becomes a source of hope for the suffering is the aching heart of An Elephant Sitting Still, as its four protagonists seek the eponymous elephant as a kind of respite from their own troubled lives. These four loosely connected characters' lives intersect and drift apart, occasionally bumping up against each other like ships moored to a dock, but each goes their own way, seeking something they cannot quite define. There's Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a quiet loner who takes the blame when his friend is accused of stealing a cell phone from their school's most ruthless bully. There's Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu), a petty gangster whose affair with his best friend's wife results in the man's suicide. There's Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), the object of Wei's affections, who is struggling with a secret affair with one of their teachers. And finally there's Wang Jin, an old man facing being put in a nursing home when his family decides to move to a smaller apartment in another town so their son can attend a better school.

Each character is facing personal adversity both self-made and beyond their control, ranging from abuse, infidelity, and economic instability. Elders are cast aside because the appearance of attending a good school is more important. The well-being of animals is ignored. Children are told they will amount to nothing, their personalities and futures defined by the economic circumstances of their surroundings. People are selfish, cruel, and unkind. Viewed through a certain lens, An Elephant Sitting Still is a deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic film, and knowing what we know about Hu now, it's a disquieting treatise on the way he viewed the world around him. Characters seemingly drift aimlessly through the frame, Hu's camera swirling around them, often placing them in the middle of the frame, their backs facing the camera, as if the audience is following them. Cinematographer Fan Chao employed mostly natural light, embracing darkness and shadow, existing in dimly lit spaces. Clouds hang over the gray skies, pressing down over the characters' heads; austere, melancholy, and oppressive.

This is clearly a film that came from a very dark place, but that's what makes it so revelatory. Few other films have captured the essence of depression so indelibly. It's a work of incredible anger and anguish, but it's also a tremulous and delicate thing, epic in length but intimate in scope, a film that constantly turns its focus inward as it reacts to the darkness of the world around it. Some may consider this insular, but Fan Chao's expressive camerawork turns the pain of the characters into outer expressions of sadness. It's as if the film was conjured from thin air, gorgeous, elemental, and tortured; Hu's consciousness made manifest and brought into being by sheer force of will. That final ray of light found in togetherness is what makes it all worth it - a note of hope that Hu never afforded himself. This light in the darkness in the form of an elephant trumpeting in the pitch black of the Mongolian desert is a moment so piercing that it almost seems like a cry from Hu himself - a warning, an admonition, or perhaps a word of comfort that it doesn't have to end the way it did for him. No matter how you interpret it, An Elephant Sitting Still stands as a monument to a tremendous unrealized talent taken from us too soon, who left behind an unforgettable meditation on what it means to cling to hope when the world around you seems utterly bleak.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL | Directed by Hu Bo | Stars  Zhang Yu, Peng Yuchang, Wang Yu, Wen Congxi, Li Xiang Rong Dong | Not Rated | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from KimStim Films

Monday, December 09, 2019

SAM ROCKWELL as Watson Bryant and PAUL WALTER HAUSER as Richard Jewell in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “RICHARD JEWELL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Claire Folger. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Over the course of his last five films, Clint Eastwood has been chronicling the stories of real Americans in extraordinary circumstances. From Chris Kyle in American Sniper, to Sully Sullenberger in Sully, to the young soldiers who stopped a terrorist in The 15:17 to Paris, Eastwood's fascination with the resilience and simple heroism of everyday Americans has seemingly become the focus of the octogenarian filmmaker's late career.

In his latest film, Richard Jewell, Eastwood explores the story of the eponymous security guard who discovered the Centennial Park bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and successfully raised the alarm and helped clear the area before becoming the subject of the much-publicized FBI investigation into the attack. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was initially hailed as a hero by the media, before the FBI investigation became national news, turning Jewell's life upside down by painting him as a lone-wolf bomber who was disgruntled over his failed career in law enforcement.

There are several ways to interpret this "innocent white guy railroaded by the federal government and the media" tale. There's the obvious conservative "scapegoating the white man," and then there's the hot-off-the-presses "Trump is innocent and the media and deep state are out to get him" read, which seems like a stretch. Neither of those seem particularly plausible, because despite his appearance at the 2012 Republican Convention where he infamously carried on a conversation with an empty chair, Eastwood is not the conservative polemicist that right-leaning critics wish he was, or that left-leaning critics often accuse him of being.

Placing Eastwood in that sort of left/right binary often oversimplifies what he's really doing. While choosing a white man as the "regular Joe getting screwed over by the system" is certainly a right-wing trope, Eastwood is much too savvy a filmmaker to embrace something so simplistic. What we actually have here is an indictment of a cynical system propped up by both law enforcement and corporate media that ignores humanity in pursuit of ratings and power. That's the world in which Richard Jewell exists, where the story of Richard Jewell the terrorist became more interesting than the story of Richard Jewell the hero, and in order to save face the FBI stuck to its theory despite overwhelming evidence that Jewell could not have possibly committed the crime. It's an exploration of a system that views sincerity as inherently suspicious and past missteps as evidence of present wrongdoing.

Where it falters is in its portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) as a completely unscrupulous villain. The characterization of Scruggs is so cartoonishly evil that if she had a mustache she would certainly be twirling it.  That Eastwood affords her a last minute redemption of sorts that is not given to overzealous FBI agent Tom Shaw (John Hamm) does little to negate the fact that her portrayal carries with it a whiff of misogyny, but it does drive home Eastwood's central point that the real villains here are the FBI and the inability to admit mistakes in order to preserve the veneer of authority. On the plus side, Paul Walter Hauser is a revelation, turning in a truly extraordinary performance that lifts him up into a new realm after playing mostly goofy simpletons in films like I, Tonya and Blackkklansman. Hauser is so compelling as the affable and thoroughly ordinary Jewell, a man whose zeal for doing good sometimes leads him into trouble, that his performance gives the film a complex emotional center. Jewell may not be perfect, but he certainly didn't do this.

In fact, Richard Jewell is perhaps the best-acted film Eastwood has directed in a long time. The filmmaker is known for his breakneck shooting pace and disdain for multiple takes, but here the performances seen so authentic and lived in, especially those of the aforementioned Hauser and Kathy Bates as Jewell's supportive but devastated mother. Bates has a tendency to overdo southern accents, but she's pitch perfect here. It's a film solidly in Eastwood's comfort zone, to be sure, but no one can craft a compelling, straightforward drama quite like he can. His continued exploration of the lives of unassuming, imperfect men who perform heroic acts in moments of great stress and adversity make for a fascinating window into Eastwood's libertarian worldview, where acts of heroism are discounted and ignored by a cynical system that wants a cut of the glory for themselves. Agree with him or not, it's hard to ignore Eastwood's ability to craft riveting drama out of real-life events with an astonishing narrative economy that puts its human elements front and center.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

RICHARD JEWELL | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Stars Paul Walter Hauser Sam Rockwell Kathy Bates Jon Hamm Olivia Wilde | Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images | Opens Friday, Dec. 13, in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

There are several moments throughout Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story in which the camera is allowed to linger on the prickly, volatile performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a warring couple struggling through a divorce. 

It is in those moments that the film comes vibrantly, thrillingly alive, drunk on the ferocity and deeply felt conflicting emotions of the performances, performing an emotional high wire act that feels impossibly real. The film constantly feels on the verge of falling apart, there’s no way it can possibly sustain such intensity, and yet those lengthy monologues in which the central characters grapple with years worth of frustration and pent up anger feels like a virtuoso piece of cinema in which the actors have gone off script and the cameras are there to capture it all. And yet it never falls apart, it never falters. Baumbach absolutely does maintain that intensity throughout the film, sustaining it through the power of his acerbic dialogue and the twin titan performances at its center.

It is in those moments that the film comes vibrantly, thrillingly alive, drunk on the ferocity and deeply felt conflicting emotions of the performances, performing an emotional high wire act that feels impossibly real. The film constantly feels on the verge of falling apart, there’s no way it can possibly sustain such intensity, and yet those lengthy monologues in which the central characters grapple with years worth of frustration and pent up anger feels like a virtuoso piece of cinema in which the actors have gone off script and the cameras are there to capture it all. And yet it never falls apart, it never falters. Baumbach absolutely does maintain that intensity throughout the film, sustaining it through the power of his acerbic dialogue and the twin titan performances at its center.

By filming these meltdowns as single takes, Baumbach deepens their emotional verisimilitude, and Driver and Johansson perfectly calibrate their journeys for maximum impact. And yet neither ever lose their essential humanity. Divorce is certainly not a new theme in Baumbach's work - his 2004 masterpiece The Squid and the Whale examined a family break-up from the point of view of the children. Marriage Story turns this around and examines its effect on the couple, giving both Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) their day in court, so to speak.  Charlie, a New York based theatre director, wants to keep his family in the Big Apple as he fosters a growing theatre company about to make its Broadway debut, while Nicole, an actress who gave up her promising career in film to headline Charlie's theater company, wants to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in front of a camera. These tensions soon come to a head, as years worth of resentments and petty grudges come bubbling to the surface, putting sharp focus on the strain in their marriage that they had been ignoring for far too long.

Much debate has been made in certain circles, especially on Twitter, about who the film sides with, but I think that misses an essential point of what Baumbach is trying to do here. While it is likely Baumbach drew a lot of inspiration for the from from his 2013 divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marriage Story seems to harbor to lingering resentment or animosity. Instead, it feels like an act of pure catharsis, taking into account the whole of a marriage, the good and the bad. If anything, it's the laywers who come off the worse, who pick at the marriage like vultures, as represented by Laura Dern (who masks ruthless efficiency with a bubbly, cool-mom demeanor), Alan Alda, and a hilariously gauche Ray Liotta. Even when they're scoring accurate points against the opposing team in a kind of proxy war, one feels that the lawyers are doing nothing but deepening the divide between Nicole and Charlie.

Yet even among such stinging acrimony, and Marriage Story absolutely does take its characters to some very dark, despairing places, pummeling each other with biting words that they may or may not really mean, one can't help but feel that there's a glimmer of home at its core. Not necessarily that Nicole and Charlie will reunite; that ship, it seems, has sailed. But when Baumbach focuses on the good times, what made the marriage work in the first place, the film becomes a truly bittersweet work of art. The marriage may not have worked in the end, but that doesn't mean it was a waste of time, and those moments when Marriage Story steps back and takes account of the marriage as a whole, for better or for worse, it makes the final outcome all the more painful, and yet somehow understandable. It's as if Baumbach is exorcising his own demons here, and the result is a fiery, astonishingly honest account of marital and personal failure that is nevertheless filled with a real desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. It's a remarkable feat of raw-nerve acting, intuitive writing, sharp direction, and a deeply empathetic sense of humanity.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MARRIAGE STORY | Directed by Noah Baumbach | Stars Adam Driver, Scarlet Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta | Rated R for language throughout and sexual references | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas. Photo by Andre D. Wagner. (c) 2019 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Few images have the power to create such immediate feelings of fear and anxiety as blue lights flashing in a rearview mirror. While for white people this often means you're going to get an expensive ticket and you might be late for work, for black people it conjures up images of unarmed people of color who have been murdered by police officers for no other crime than driving while black. Black filmmakers understand this and have used that to their advantage in a post-Black Lives Matter world where such issues have received greater cultural attention. Nowhere was it more indelibly employed than in Jordan Peele's Get Out, which utilized the flashing blue lights to create perhaps the film's most memorable scare in a way that gave white audiences a brief taste of that sense of terror that black audiences understood on a much deeper, much more real level.

Whereas Peele used that moment to punctuate his film, first-time feature filmmaker Melina Matsoukas opens with it, and where Get Out later revealed it to be a fake-out, in Queen & Slim it is all too real. The film opens with a couple having their first date after matching on Tinder. On their way home, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are pulled over by a belligerent cop for swerving on an empty street due to a playful argument. The situation quickly escalates and the cop shoots Queen in the leg as she's trying to pull her phone out of her pocket to record the altercation, leading Slim to overpower the cop and shoot him with his own gun. And so two perfect strangers find themselves on the run from the law, unlikely heroes in a struggle against systemic oppression.

Like a black Bonnie and Clyde, Queen and Slim head across the countryside, and are elevated to folk hero status, inspiring demonstrations and riots nationwide as the police leave no stone unturned to track them down. Desperately heading for Florida so they can escape to Cuba, Queen and Slim find themselves falling in love, and Matsoukas positions their love story against a canvas of social unrest, where something beautiful is found even in the midst of hatred and oppression - Queen and Slim carry on because they have no other choice.

It's a satisfying inversion of the Bonnie and Clyde story, where the outlaws only become so through an act of self-defense, with Matsoukas displaying supreme confidence in her first feature film (she also directed Beyoncé's stunning visual album, Lemonade). The film does suffer from some structural issues; in one particularly troubling scene police dispatch peaceful demonstrators with tear gas leading to a shocking act of violence that is juxtaposed with the film's protagonists making love in a car.  While Matsoukas clearly wants to find beauty in the darkness, that melodramatic moment seems strangely incongruous with the rest of the film, and it falters when it pulls back from Queen and Slim to show their effect on the world around them. Its most powerful moments come from their own perspective, as they learn of the movement they inspire, and the conflict that causes within them. Are they heroes? Are they outlaws? Or are they something in between?

That inner conflict is what drives Queen & Slim. And despite any structural quibbles one may have with the film, it's hard not to be deeply by such an impassioned howl of grief and anger. It's raw and painful like a fresh wound, you can almost feel the deep-seated weariness of a filmmaker who is purely and simply tired of a world that punishes black people the color of their skin. Matsoukas, working from an incisive screenplay by Lena Waithe, not only explores themes of police violence and "driving while black," it also delves into ideas of the double standards placed on black people in American society, that one has to achieve some sort of perfection in order to be accepted by a predominantly white culture.

It's a damning indictment of white privilege made my a black artist who is fed up because she knows a white couple would never have been put in this situation in the first place. It's a haunting, devastating film, anchored by two incredible lead performances, especially from Jodie Turner-Smith, whose Queen is a fiercely determined lawyer who is through playing nice with structural racism and is ready to assert herself as an independent black woman.  I know the voice of a white male critic on a film like this is perhaps the last thing the world needs, but what the world does need is more films like Queen & Slim y filmmakers like Matsoukas, who are unafraid to bare their hearts and leave their anger and frustration on the screen in electrifying ways. It's a movie about our moment, certainly, but it's less a "ripped from the headlines" issue drama and more of an artfully crafted exorcism, a channelling of hundreds of years of systemic oppression into a blinding and beautiful work of art that feels like throwing a firecracker into a crowd. You can feel the weight and the rage in every frame, boiling over into something at once weary and unsettled, clinging to a shred of hope even when the darkness seems all but inevitable.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

QUEEN & SLIM | Directed by Melina Matsoukas | Stars Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloë Sevigny, Bokeem Woodbine, Flea, Indya Moore | Rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Billed as an "anti-hate satire," Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit makes a seemingly rather bold attempt to set a comedy in Germany during the height of WWII. The problem is that its not particularly bold - Jojo Rabbit takes the story of Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis), a young boy whose passion for the Nazi party and the Hitler youth is manifested in his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). 

Jojo dreams of joining the army and killing Jews, whom he's taught have teeth and fangs and other outlandish attributes by the disgruntled commandant of his local Hitler Youth chapter (Sam Rockwell, who just keeps getting cast as racists). The problem is that he's small for his age and rather weak, making him a target for the older boys. His mettle is eventually put to the test when he discovers a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic who changes his life forever.

It's certainly tricky territory for a film about the Holocaust, but it's not the first time Hitler has been targeted for laughs. From Walt Disney's Oscar-winning Der Fueher's Face, to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, to Mel Brooks' The Producers, to the 2015 German film, Look Who's Back, Hitler has been the target of satirists since he was in power. Since fascists thrive on fear hate being laughed at, one of the best ways to rob them of their power is through laughter. Like Harry Potter's boggarts, dressing monsters up as clowns makes them harder to take seriously as human beings. The problem is that Jojo Rabbit neither has the courage of its own convictions or the tonal dexterity to navigate its own tricky waters. It's essentially toothless, neither edgy enough to break new ground or savage enough to leave any real wounds upon the hateful people it targets. Instead, it's a cloying drama dressed up as satire.

Waititi has displayed a unique sense of humor in films like What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok, but he seems out of his element here, doing a Wes Anderson impersonation that ultimately falls flat. In fact, Anderson's own fascist satire, The Grand Budapest Hotel, did a much better job of walking the line between comedy and pathos, something that Jojo Rabbit fails to do, especially as it takes a more serious dramatic turn at the end.

The idea of Hitler as an imaginary friend isn't necessarily offensive, but the film is just too gentle-hearted to land any real punches. With the rise of white nationalism and the return of Nazism to mainstream discourse, turning Nazis into clowns may seem like a good idea on the surface, but Waititi avoids going for the jugular, choosing instead to craft a narrative about a young Nazi boys making friends with a young Jewish girl and learning to let go of his hatred. It's a nice sentiment, but the "why can't we all just get along" message at the heart of this thing feels hopelessly naive. There's something gleefully subversive about the idea of casting a man of color as Hitler, but that's about as radical as it gets, choosing surface level satirical signifiers over anything truly incendiary. It's somehow tasteless and yet not tasteless enough at the same time, it's core message never rising above a pat "Nazis are bad, mmmkay?"

Waititi's wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of humor often gets lost in his struggle to strike just the right tonal balance, ultimately a fool's errand to turn such heavy material into a charming coming-of-age tale that just so happens to feature Nazis. The film certainly has good intentions, but it gets woefully lost somewhere on the road to hell.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

JOJO RABBIT | Directed by Taika Waititi | Stars Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi ,Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, December 02, 2019

It took Martin Scorsese nearly 10 years to develop and make his epic mob drama, The Irishman, a sprawling portrait of the rise and eventual decline of mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and his friendship with two equally charismatic and powerful figures - mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and infamous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

That the film reunites Goodfellas stars De Niro and Pesci (who came out of retirement for the role) is no mistake - The Irishman (or I Heard You Paint Houses as it's labeled in the opening credits) finds Scorsese in a deeply reflective mode, taking account of a long and storied career in his 25th feature film. It's almost as if he's getting the gang back together for one last hurrah, but The Irishman isn't all fun and games, it's a melancholy and mournful epic with the sweep of Visconti and the inner torment of the best of Powell and Pressburger. It's a group of aging legends all facing mortality, and the results are nothing short of electrifying.

Over the course of three and a half hours, The Irishman traces Sheeran's rise from a lowly truck driver to Bufalino's enforcer and right-hand man to Hoffa's best friend and confidant. The film spans decades, beginning with Sheeran as an old man in a nursing home and ending back right where it started, flashing back across the years like the fading recollections of an old man's final confession. It's all framed by a leisurely road trip taken taken by Sheeran, Bufalino, and their wives, slowly winding their way across the countryside toward some unknown destination with a dark purpose known only to Bufalino. The trip is marked by frequent pitstops along the way, much like the film itself, taking its leisurely time winding through the past toward a violent conclusion.

Rather than casting different actors to play the younger versions of characters, such as De Niro playing a young version of Marlon Brando's Vito Corelone in The Godfather Part II, Scorsese employs cutting edge digital technology to de-age the actors, shaving decades off the stars' septuagenarian faces. The technique has been met with some controversy, and there is a certain cognitive dissonance seeing actors we know to be in their 70s suddenly appear to be in their 30s and 40s, but it wears off quickly and never distracts from the story at hand.

The film's massive length may be a deterrent for some, but it's not without reason. Scorsese takes his time developing Frank's story, allowing the sheer weight of the time passed to weigh on both Frank and the audience. We feel the heaviness of the passing time, but it never feels ponderous thanks to Scorsese's impeccable pacing, aided by his stalwart editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Scorsese displays supreme confidence in his craft by allowing his story to breathe, the narrative unfolding gradually and deliberately like a great novel unfolding on screen. It allows the characters to build relationships not only with themselves but with the audience, which makes the emotional impact of the film's final act all the more powerful. It is here where The Irishman delves deep, interrogating a man whose life was defined by death at long last facing his own mortality. Scorsese slyly introduces each new character with an onscreen caption describing their eventual untimely death. In the mob, no one gets away clean, so to what does Sheeran owe his unnaturally long (by wise guy standards) life? Here is a man at the end of a long life, his friends long gone, abandoned by his family (Anna Paquin's near-silent role as his estranged daughter speaks more in her silence than any dialogue ever could) taking into account a life of murder and ultimately betrayal, for whom these sins are merely another day at the office.

Scorsese shoots the film's murders with a dry sense of matter-of-factness, characters casually stroll into frame, gun down an unsuspecting victim, then calmly walk out of frame again, leaving the lifeless body to bleed out on the sidewalk. There's nothing glamorous about it, but neither is particularly repulsive - it's just business, nothing personal, and that's what makes it all so disturbing. What kind of effect does a life like that have on a man? That's the question that lies at the film's sorrowful heart. Frank Sheeran spent a lifetime painting houses (a mob term for caring out hits; in other words, decorating walls with blood), while Scorsese has spent a great deal of his career chronicling the lives of men like Frank, men whose lives are defined by those they take, in spite of (or perhaps because of) a strict, but perhaps misguided, moral code. In that regard, The Irishman feels like the summation of a career, a late-period masterpiece that takes into account a life's work. It is perhaps one of Scorsese's most reflective films, a broad-ranging meditation on life, mortality, and betrayal through the eyes of an old man in twilight, all his friends gone in violent ends, facing the end alone. Are we to feel sorry for him? To pity him? Or perhaps mourn the existence of the violent patriarchal power structures he spent a lifetime upholding? What are we to make of such a man? In Scorsese's masterful hands it becomes an American tragedy writ-large, a sweeping portrait of great potential cut down by greed and corruption, and a road to hell paved by the best of intentions. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, four lions in winter, all deliver some of the finest work of their respective careers in a film that can only be described as a monument of American cinema.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE IRISHMAN | Directed by Martin Scorsese | Stars  Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston | Rated R pervasive language and strong violence | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Sergio Pablos' new animated wonder, Klaus, feels like a film from another time, a gorgeous hand-drawn work of art that recalls everything from the Disney renaissance of the 1990s to the darkly beautiful work collaborations between Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg of the 1980s.

Klaus re-imagines the Santa Claus myth as the story of a spoiled young brat names Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) who gets banished by his father, the wealthy owner of a lucrative mail company, to be the postmaster of a remote Arctic island called Smeerensburg. Hoping it will teach the young man maturity, the father tells him that he must deliver 6,000 letters within a year or be cut-off from all financial support. Upon arrival in Smeerensburg, Jesper discovers that the grim, depressing island is populated with miserable people who never send letters because they're in constant feuds that are so ancient they no longer remember what they're fighting about.

Dejected, Jesper begins to wonder if he will ever return home to his luxurious ways - that is until he meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a reclusive woodsman with a house full of toys. After helping Klaus deliver a toy to a lonely young boy, Jesper concocts a plan, and soon he has every child on the island writing letters to Klaus for toys. But while Jesper is just hoping to meet his quota, his actions have the unintended consequences of bringing joy to the island's children, and in turn their parents, whose newfound happiness begins to melt old grudges and unite warring families, much to the chagrin of the village elders, who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.

The film hits a lot of familiar story beats - Jesper's true motives are, of course, revealed to Klaus and all his newfound friends, even after he has forgotten about his quota and is genuinely come to love them. But Pablos creates such an indelible world and handles the story arc with such grace that it hardly matters. The characters are so lovingly drawn, the landscapes so breathtaking in their idiosyncratic detail, that Klaus often feels like we're truly watching a myth being born. This unique take on the origins of Santa Claus examines the jolly old elf not so much as a literal person with magical powers, but as an idea of the spirit of giving, a fact that will likely go over many young heads but will hit adults square in the heart. This is the kind of animated film studios so rarely make anymore, a uniquely designed original story with a heart a mile wide.

It's almost a shame it's not getting a wider theatrical release, but thanks to Netflix it's available in every living room in the country just in time for Christmas. Klaus feels like a new holiday classic, a fresh new take on an ancient legend that finds new life in these hand-drawn images that gives Santa an origin story as heartbreaking as anything in Disney/Pixar's Up. You'll find no ironic pop-culture references here, no arch self-references or pandering humor - this is good old-fashioned storytelling that takes a look an ancient myth through new eyes, and emerges as a thoroughly charming and often quite moving tale of the power of simple kindness. It's a brand new Christmas tradition ready to be discovered.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KLAUS | Directed by Sergio Pablos | Stars Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, Norm Macdonald | Rated PG for rude humor and mild action | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish and Ian McKellan as Roy Courtnay in New Line Cinema’s suspense thriller THE GOOD LIAR, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Chiabella James. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

On paper, there are few more enticing teams than Ian McKellan and Helen Mirren, two legends of the British stage and among the finest actors of our time. This was clearly not a fact lost on director Bill Condon, who hired them to co-star in his screen adaptation of Nicholas Searle's novel, The Good Liar.

The resulting film isn't really up to the talents of either actor, but it's such a pleasure to watch these two at work that it hardly matters. The Good Liar is a pulpy beach read at heart, and both Mirren and McKellan tear into the purple material with great relish. McKellan plays Roy Courtnay, a sleazy septuagenarian who preys on wealthy women by setting up dates online, earning their trust, then eventually draining their bank accounts before moving on to the next target. His latest unsuspecting victim is Betty McLeish, a loving grandmother and recent widow with a sizable savings who is looking for a companion. And she finds one in Roy, or so it appears. But as Roy zeroes in for the kill, lulling Betty into a sense of false security, it becomes more and more apparent that all is not as it seems, and that Roy's lifetime of lies may have finally caught up with him.

There is a twist, of course, anyone who saw one of the film's prolific trailers should have picked up on that right away, but Condon does a good job of keeping the audience on its toes, always waiting for the shoe to drop, to the point that we begin to wonder if it's coming at all. Where the film falters is in its delivery - a laboriously expository scene that has all the personality of a villain laying out his devious plan to the hero just before he's killed. Condon also spends far too much time dealing with the intricacies of Roy's convoluted banking schemes, and the little bank transfer machines that look like ancient calculators feel like the most contrived of cinematic devices to make something inherently un-cinematic seem interesting.

Yet despite the film's somewhat cumbersome plotting, Mirren and McKellan are a constant pleasure to watch, and Carter Burwell's lilting score adds a sense of depth to the mystery. The film makes a last-minute attempt at some modern-day relevance with some nods to the #MeToo movement and the idea that those who are complicit with Nazis, even adjacently, can never escape justice for their crimes, it feels a bit incongruous with other otherwise surface-level pleasures it offers. The Good Liar wants to be both a breezy, entertaining mystery and a knowing social thriller, and its attempt to address those issues come across as clumsy at best, insincere at worst. It only really succeeds when it embraces its pulpy roots, and that's mostly thanks to the talents of its legendary stars. When we're in their hands The Good Liar feels like pure movie magic, but once the facade is removed its seams begin to show. Like its titular liar, Condon fools us into thinking we're watching a great film, when in reality it's merely a nicely dressed potboiler with a great cast.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE GOOD LIAR | Directed by Bill Condon | Stars Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter | Rated R for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by: Lacey Terrell

Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a much darker, more complicated film than its marketing would suggest. While Tom Hanks' Mr. Rogers has been at the forefront of the film's marketing campaign, the film really isn't about Mr. Rogers at all; it's an emotionally thorny family drama about a cynical and wounded man coming to terms with his trauma and taking the first steps toward mending the rifts in his family.

That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire magazine who is known for his often damning investigative journalism. Lloyd is a new father, and his sister is getting married (for the third time), an event that brings his own father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), back into the picture after many years apart. Jerry is dying, and wants to reconcile with his children, but Lloyd doesn't want to forgive him for abandoning his family at their darkest hour. Then, out of the blue, Lloyd is assigned to do a puff piece on Fred Rogers, legendary children's show host of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood." At first, Lloyd is resistant, but soon becomes determined to crack Mr. Rogers' kindly facade, after all, how can anyone be so nice? Surely it's all an act.

Yet the more Lloyd pushes, the more Mr. Rogers doubles down on his kindness to Lloyd, even taking a special interest in him and his family. It isn't long before Lloyd almost finds himself tortured by Mr. Rogers' unflappable belief in simple human goodness. But his determination to push Mr. Rogers' sense of decency eventually forces him to turn his journalistic insights on himself, and barely recognizes the man staring back at him from the mirror.

Heller frames the film like a feature-length episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for grown ups, with Hanks' kindly presence guiding us through Lloyd's trials and tribulations. It's an ingenious structural choice that allows Heller, along with screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, to acknowledge that the emotions of childhood through which Mr. Rogers helped guide countless millions of children eventually give way to the much more complex problems of adulthood. And yet the root of them isn't so much different than what we experienced when we were kids. Through his interviews with Rogers, Lloyd discovers a more complex man with much deeper, complicated feelings than he expected, but he also discovers a man with a profound understanding of the intricacies of the human heart.

Matthew Rhys stars in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by: Lacey Terrell

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a remarkable film. At its heart it's very much about about kindness and self-love and all those things Mr. Rogers has come to represent. But it’s also about much more than that - dealing with trauma, and learning to let go of anger. But perhaps most of all, it acknowledges that these are painful things, and that it’s OK feel and acknowledge those things. For Mr. Rogers, acknowledging negative emotions wasn't a weakness, it was the very root of strength, of taking control of ones emotions and oneself.

This movie goes to some dark places, but it emerges hopeful. No other film this year has felt quite so cathartic, as if Mr. Rogers is somehow exorcising our accumulated pain from beyond the grave. This is in no small part due to Hanks' uncanny performance, which doesn't seem so much an imitation as a channelling of Rogers' spirit. But the film isn't really about Mr. Rogers as much as the idea we all have of him - and rather than deify him, it humanizes him, as a human being like all of us, but who found a way to deal with the hurt inside. There's some really emotionally complex, powerful stuff here, and Heller navigates it with great care, deftly speaking to the part of all of us where child that we were meets the adult that we are.

That final shot of Mr. Rogers alone in his studio banging on his piano are going to stick with me for a long time. They’re beautiful notes, but those few dissonant chords suggest a more complex emotional life than perhaps we saw. And yet nothing about him feels fake or inauthentic. Mr. Rogers was the man we saw on TV. He remains a symbol for all that is kind and good; but the film, like the man, invites us to grapple with and acknowledge the negative feelings inside. People hurt. They feel sadness, anger, regret. But to embrace those things, to meet them head on and wrestle with them rather than sweeping them under the rug - that’s a good feeling.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD | Directed by Marielle Heller | Stars Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper, Susan Kelechi Watson | Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, November 25, 2019

There was a time when any sequel to one of Disney's animated hits would have gone directly to video with a different voice cast and less meticulously designed animation. But gone are the days of direct-to-video sequels like The Lion King 1 1/2, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure, or The Return of Jafar. With Disney increasingly focused on mining its established intellectual properties to keep nostalgic millennials returning to theaters to revisit their childhoods, it should come as no surprise that they should start capitalizing on their most popular animated properties with big screen sequels.

First up is Frozen II, a follow-up to 2014's unexpected mega-hit that turned Princess Anna and Queen Elsa into two of Disney's most profitable characters and "Let it Go" into a household tune. But this is no throwaway cash-grab sequel, writer/director Jennifer Lee actually takes the time to build the world of Arendelle while also tackling real world issues in a way that's both entertaining to children and palatable to adults. In short, Frozen II is Disney's best film of 2019.

The sequel picks up just after the events of the original film. Elsa is queen of Arendelle, Anna has recovered from her frozen heart, and Kristoff is unsuccessfully attempting to plan a way to propose to her. But Elsa is plagued by mysterious voices that seem to be calling her to a place far away, a place that may hold the answer to her icy powers. So she sets off with Anna, Kristoff, and her trusty snowman, Olaf, to discover the truth behind and an Arendellian legend, but along the way they may discover more than they bargained for - the fate of their parents, and the true and tragic history of Arendelle.

It's a much deeper story than the original Frozen, one that goes to some surprising and unexpectedly dark places. Frozen II is essentially a case for reparations and racial justice for indigenous people. And just in time for Thanksgiving! A lot of families will surely see this over the holidays, and while it may go over some heads this film brings some hard truths about reckoning with a national past built on racism and genocide.  It might actually be one of the boldest calls for social justice I’ve ever seen in a children’s film, and will certainly give families a lot of important ideas to discuss. The songs may not be as memorable as the original, often taking on a more Broadway-esque quality focused more on advancing the plot than sticking in the audience's heads, but Elsa's show-stopping "Show Yourself" number is an admittedly spectacular piece of animation, and Kristoff's "Lost in the Woods" hilariously apes 80s music video conventions like some sort of lost Michael Bolton tune.

You have to give Disney credit for taking this to a really dark place and emerging with a hopeful but unequivocal call to tear down the deeply engrained racist power structures that have held us up for so long. It acknowledges that real change is often painful but necessary, and doesn't let its characters off the hook for their complicity in propping up a deeply inequitable system. Elsa and Anna learn some hard truths about their family and the kingdom they love, but rather than lash out at those their nation has wronged and dismiss it as ancient history, they make change happen at all costs, even at their own expense. It's an important lesson to learn about history and our responsibility toward those whose peoples have been marginalized and ravaged by colonialism, and a surprising thematic core for an animated sequel to a Disney princess movie, but Lee handles it with surprising dignity and grace, even going so far as to sign a contract with indigenous leaders to respectfully portray their culture. It is the Thanksgiving movie we need, one that actually takes the time throw back the curtain on a sunny history written by colonialist victors, and offer a roadmap for national healing. One can only hope that the next generation is paying close attention.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FROZEN II | Directed by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck | Stars Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Ciarán Hinds | Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo by Merrick Morton TM and © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. 

Fueled mostly by gasoline and testosterone, James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari is the kind of film that will likely entertain legions of insomniac dads at 2:00 AM for years to come once it makes its basic cable debut.

Set in 1966, Ford v Ferrari tells the true story Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a race car designer and a driver who helped the Ford Motor Company design the world's fastest race car in order to go head to head with reigning world champion Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans in France. Yet despite Miles' hard work poured into creating the vehicle, Ford executives don't trust his brutally honest, unpredictable demeanor, and refuse to let him race the car he built, leading to tensions between the corporation and their racing team on their way to victory.

The biggest problem with the film is that it never gives us a good reason to care about any of this. The entire conflict was born out of an (accurate) insult Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) hurled at Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) when Ford tried unsuccessfully to buy the Ferrari company, leading Ford to seek revenge by beating Ferrari at his own game. Shelby and Miles unwittingly become part of preening peacock fight and continue to seek glory for the Ford brand despite the corporate interference, mistrust, and outright hostility they encounter at every turn.

Mangold attempts to reframe the competition to be more about Shelby and Miles seeking personal glory in spite of the corporate pissing contest going on around them, but their decisions always end up returning to what is best for the Ford Motor Company even if the executive decisions seem counterintuitive to that goal. The bottom line is that everything here is a testament to corporate greed and fragile male egos - why are we as an audience supposed to care that some CEO got his feelings hurt and decided to try to win a race for revenge? Is it because Enzo Ferrari is Italian, and we're supposed to pull for the all-American Ford Motor Company out of some sort of patriotic fervor despite the fact that Henry Ford II is kind of a jerk and his workers are clearly being exploited to settle personal scores? Ford v Ferrari never explicitly descends into any sort of jingoism, but that's clearly the implication here. Ford is better than Ferrari because Ford is American. It doesn't matter that Ford's takeover offer was insulting to Ferrari, Ford is a by-god American and we're supposed to be on his side because he's a giant car manufacturer and has a wise-cracking driver played by Christian Bale.

The racing scenes are admittedly thrilling, often coming to life with a bracing energy, but without laying any sort of emotional groundwork there's nothing really at stake here. Who cares if Ford gets his win? Miles gives him what he wants and still gets screwed over, but Ford is still the good guy here? There's also only one woman in the entire film, and she's turned into such an insufferable nag at one point that she almost feels like a caricature. The whole movie seems built to stroke a very specific part of the male ego, where fragile masculinity can move mountains to settle a personal score but achieve nothing for the actual betterment of humanity. Ford v Ferrari is an old-fashioned Hollywood drama, sure, but it's old fashioned in all the wrong ways – it’s bloated, over-long, and celebrates the achievements of men only as they live to serve the capitalist machine, leaving anything resembling actual human drama in the dust.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

FORD V FERRARI | Directed by James Mangold | Stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe | Rated PG-13 for some language and peril | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


While he was notoriously difficult to work with, Josef von Sternberg (who borrowed the "von" from Erich von Stroheim) was a master craftsman and one of the greatest filmmakers of the early 20th century. While he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich (including his 1930 masterpiece, The Blue Angel), he made three films at the end of the silent era that stand among his very best

Much of his work before Underworld is either lost or truncated. After catching the eye of Charles Chaplin, Chaplin hired Von Sternberg to direct a comeback vehicle for his onetime lover, Edna Purviance called A Woman of the Sea. Chaplin was so displeased with the film that he never released it, and the film is now the only film connected with Chaplin to have been lost. Still, Von Sternberg did things his own way, and eventually landed a gig as a director-for-hire on the Paramount gangster picture, Underworld (1927). The film was an instant smash-hit that catapulted Von Sternberg into the upper echelon of filmmakers working at the time and helped popularize the gangster genre  The story of a charismatic gangster (George Bancroft) who begins to suspect that his girlfriend is in love with his best friend while he sits on death row, Underworld showcases Von Sternberg's mastery of light and shadow. Its luridly evocative look at honor among the gangsters and thieves who populate the Dreamland Cafe of Chicago is the stuff that old Hollywood dreams are made of, a shadowy tale of virtue among vice that The film is a masterwork of building tension, as Von Sternberg carefully lays the groundwork for the drama that will come to a head in its violent climax. He manages to convey so much information with so little (an entire jewelry store heist is conveyed in just four quick shots), lulling the audience into a kind of rhythm that pays off beautifully when they're all finally cornered during the climactic shoot-out.


In The Last Command (1928), Emil Jannings stars as a high-ranking Russian general who finds himself taking low-paying work as a Hollywood extra after the Bolshevik Revolution under the direction of his former rival (William Powell), a Communist spy now directing a film about the Revolution in America. Jannings won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor for his towering performance as a man becoming unhinged from reality, unable to tell the difference between the real Revolution and the make-believe one he finds himself recreating for the cameras.

While the film spends much of its time in an extended flashback to Grand Duke Alexander's glory days commanding the Czarist army against the Bolsheviks, where he falls in love with a beautiful spy, it's Janning's final scene that really sticks in the memory. There he is, commanding an imaginary army under the glare of the studio lights, lost in a world that no longer exists. It's easy to see why Jannings won the Academy Award, and Von Sternberg captures something really special here. While the film doesn't quite have the energy of Underworld, Jannings gives the film a morally complex center. In 1928 world sympathy laid more with the deposed Czarists than with the Communist revolutionaries, here depicted mostly as a bloodthirsty mob, but Jannings' performance is filled with both fire and humanity - he's a tyrant brought low, paying penance for a life of abusing those under him, and yet somehow we feel sorry for this man. Even his rivals realize this, after watching the madness consume him his onetime enemy can't help but be moved. It's a film unafraid to exist in shades of gray which looks even more remarkable in our own black and white times.


And finally we come to The Docks of New York, a film that demonstrates Von Sternberg's striking versatility. Whereas Underworld solidified the template for the gangster genre and The Last Command took us back to the Russian Revolution, The Docks of New York is a simple love story. George Bancroft reunites with with Von Sternberg as Bill Roberts, a stoker aboard an ocean liner who  falls for a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. He soon finds himself caught between his love for a woman and his love for the sea, but his own moral code eventually forces him to stand up to his old bosses and embrace a new life on land.

The Docks of New York is, at its core, a song of the working class. Released a year after F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, it recalls that earlier film's working class milieu while presaging Jean Vigo's seafaring romance, L'atalante, which would come five years later. Von Sternberg finds such beauty in the film's grungy locales (an early shot in which the action takes place in the reflection on the water is especially lovely), examining the often disarming moments of joy and happiness even amidst the harshest of conditions. He also revisits a similar idea from Underworld, putting the protagonists in a rowdy nightclub; except this time it's not a collection of high society criminals, but a truly seedy underworld of its own. And yet even in this rouge's gallery of thieves and murders Von Sternberg finds something of value, just as his two lovers find something in each other no one else can see. The fog-shrouded shores of New York provide Von Sternberg with his most beautiful canvas, and he delivers some of his most evocative work, his use of light and shadow no longer conveying the dichotomy between light and dark in men's souls but singing an eerie, wistful hymn to the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.

Taken together, these three films represent a stunning run of artistic successes for Von Sternberg, even if they represented increasingly diminished financial returns after the astronomical success of Underworld. Criterion's packaging of these early masterworks, much like their similar box set of Von Sternberg's later collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, is a veritable showcase for the filmmaker's work, his breathtaking ability to paint with light on full display on Blu-Ray, representing some of the finest work from one of cinema's greatest enfant terribles.

UNDERWORLD - ★★★(out of four)

THE LAST COMMAND - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK - ★★★½ (out of four)

3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman in Billy Woodberry's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS.

What's new on Blu-Ray and DVD.


In the 1960s, “nudie cuties” were a popular form of scintillating exploitation films before hardcore porn became mainstream in the 70s. This single-disc release from Kino Lorber includes two "classic" nudie-cuties from 1963, The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Adam and the Six Eves. Neither are what you might call "good," are of some historical interest. The Bellboy and the Playgirls was co-directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola making his feature film debut. Coppola helmed the color 3-D sequences, while Fritz Umgelter handled the bulk of the work. It's a rather bland film (especially considering it was basically supposed to be porn), and there's nothing you wouldn't see in a fairly tame R-rated film today, with topless women making occasional appearances as a hapless bellboy/aspiring house detective discovers that they're lingerie models in the midst of shooting a commercial.

Adam and the Six Eves features a lot more nudity, but still nothing particularly shocking by today's standards. The film centers around a chubby treasure hunter who stumbles across a desert oasis populated by beautiful women who are guarding a secret. The film has no dialogue, and is instead narrated by the man's wise-cracking donkey. Some of the one-liners are genuinely funny, but this is one strange film. Its director, John Wallis, never made another film, but in one fell swoop nearly becomes the Ed Wood of porn with the shoddily constructed cardboard sets and truly head-scratching framing device. But in the end, it's just an excuse to ogle naked breasts, and in that regard it delivers on its promise, even if the sight of the treasure hunting hero doing the ogling while his donkey makes fun of him is anything but erotic. Still, they're a fascinating piece of cinema history even if they will mostly be of interest for fans of psychotronic film.

ADAM AND THE SIX EVES - ★ (out of four) 


BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (Billy Woodberry, 1983)

Like its spiritual predecessor, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978), Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts focuses on a black working man in the African American Watts district of Los Angeles.  Except in this case, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is more of a *not* working man, because he finds himself perpetually un and under employed, spending his days at home with his harried wife, Andais (Kaycee Moore) and their children.

Andais wants him to get a job, while Charlie insists there's no work to be found. This leads to Charlie wandering listlessly through the streets of Watts, and eventually into the bed of a neighbor, leading to a titanic clash between Charlie and Andais that has far-reaching consequences for their family. Moore is so good in this scene, her feelings so real and raw, that Woodberry was reportedly unable to capture a third take. The first take was interrupted when Hardman improvised grabbing Moore, an act that so enraged her that she channeled her emotions into a fiery second take, resulting in a scene that feels almost uncomfortable in its veracity. Woodberry filmed it all in one, single take, with the camera wandering around the Banks' kitchen as if the audience is an unseen third party bearing witness to a domestic dispute that we shouldn't be seeing, but can't possibly escape. In those nearly 10 uninterrupted minutes, Moore channels the energy of a woman who has had enough, fed up with her deadbeat husband's excuses and releasing years worth of pent up frustration.

What makes Bless Their Little Hearts so remarkable is Woodberry's attention to the smallest details, the way in which the fly-on-the-wall nature of the film creates what I like to call a kind of poetry of the mundane. Woodberry sets out to capture a very specific time and place, in this case the African American Watts neighborhood, and the lives of th people in it who are just trying to get by. Poverty is rampant and jobs are scarce, and Woodberry follows his characters as they attempt to find things to fill their empty time. The grainy, black and white cinematography adds another layer of verisimilitude, and every frame is alive with a kind of jittery energy teeming with life, constantly threatening to burst forth from the screen. Woodberry is an unheralded virtuoso, and Bless Their Little Hearts is a revelation that can at long last be given its due.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

GEBO AND THE SHADOW (Manoel de Oliveira, 2014)

Manoel de Oliveira was 104 years old when he directed Gebo and the Shadow. It would end up being the Portuguese master's final film, but it's the work of a filmmaker who remained prolific and vibrant right up to his last day, churning out such late-period masterworks as Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2010) and The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) well into his hundreds. De Oliveira was the last remaining filmmaker from the silent era - his first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial was released in 1931, four years after the advent of sound but before it had fully caught on in Portugal.

Over 80 years into his career, the influence of silent film was still keenly felt in de Oliveira's work, mainly in his use of blocking. De Oliveira never moved the camera around much, carefully composing the minimal amount of shots he needed to convey his meaning, often leaving the camera in one place for an entire scene. And yet what could easily be seen as a blocky, static mise-en-scene comes alive, its characters perfectly placed in their surroundings so that their words come to vibrant life. Each frame of a de Olivera film could be hung on a wall as a painting, and Gebo and the Shadow  is no different. It's an understated family drama about an old man named Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) whose son, Joao (Ricardo Trêpa) has run away from home and descended into a life of crime. Gebo tries to hide the unsavory details on Joao's life from his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), but eventually everything comes to light when Joao shows up back at home unannounced. De Oliveira deftly explores the family dynamics while crafting a moving tale of a man willing to do anything to protect his family.

It tends to get lost a bit in its sometimes rambling dialogue scenes, but de Olivera never loses sight of the plot for long, bringing it all back for a powerful ending that explores the shadow children can cast over a family's entire existence. De Oliveira concocts striking images (the disembodied hands emerging from the darkness in the opening scene feel like something straight out of the silent era) in very confined spaces, leaving us with a film that should feel cramped and claustrophobic but instead feels consistently vibrant and alive, a testament to the extreme talent of its director who ran rings around much younger filmmakers for nearly a century.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LION KING (Jon Favreau, 2019)

The original animated film holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who grew up in the 1990s, and it remains one of Disney's finest achievements of the era. The remake brings very little new to the table - adding a few lines of dialogue here, a reworked song there, but for the most part this new Lion King is content to be a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, hitting all the familiar notes fans of the original have come to expect but offering nothing new of any real note. The more realistic animation is certainly eye-popping, but the characters lose something in their transition to more life-like incarnations. They're less expressive and engaging as "real" animals; as such, the film lacks the emotional core that made the original so endearing.

In fact, the entire film lacks a certain elegance in its translation to photo-real animation. For all the epic vistas the film shows us, it's impossible not to recall its animated counterpart, and the way in which the colorful drawings of the original Lion King expressed the emotions and feelings of the narrative with such grace. This new Lion King is often thuddingly literal - simply tracking characters trotting through musical numbers rather than bursting into swirls of color and song. For a film full of such breathtakingly real images, the musical numbers are often flatly staged, the realism constantly undercutting the story's vibrant emotions and narrative drive.

GRADE★★ (out of four)

TOY STORY 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

The idea of a homemade toy finding a home among Bonnie's "real" toys is an appealing one, but it's a conflict that is resolved all-too-quickly in favor of the film's action/adventure plot. The film's villain, a creepy antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody's voice box, is perhaps one of Pixar's most intriguing antagonists. Rather that follow their usual formula of revealing a seemingly benign character to be evil, TOY STORY 4 takes the opposite approach with Gabby Gabby, giving her a poignant twist that subverts what Pixar has conditioned audiences to expect.

Nevertheless, there's a strange sense of "been there, done that" to the whole thing. Toy Story 4 is moderately engaging, and it's always nice to spend time with these characters, but it mostly feels like an afterthought to the original trilogy, attempting to take the story in new directions that it didn't really need to go. The existential drama of toys trying to find their purpose and their place has given the series some truly gut-wrenching emotional moments, but nothing in Toy Story 4 reaches the level of Toy Story 3 s crushing denouement. It feels as though we've already said goodbye to these characters, so saying goodbye again doesn't have quite the same impact as it may have otherwise. It's as if we just said a tearful goodbye to a relative and watched them drive off into the sunset, only to return to run back into the house real quick because they forgot their keys. It's nice to see them again, and we all had a good laugh, but the previous goodbye was much more emotionally satisfying.

GRADE★★½ (out of four)