Monday, October 16, 2017

Review | "Victoria & Abdul" (Frears, 2017)

Few people do tasteful, middle-of-the-road Oscar-bait quite as well as Stephen Frears, especially when actresses like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep are involved. The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Florence Foster Jenkins, the man's name has almost become synonymous with a certain type of blandly inoffensive, "Masterpiece Theater" drama that Oscar voters routinely lap up.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and generally find Frears' particular bland of fluff to be the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. His latest film, Victoria & Abdul, is no different. Although it wades into potentially volatile waters in the form of Britain's historical oppression of India. Based on a true story, the film focuses on the last years of the life of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, reprising her Oscar-nominated role from John Madden's 1997 film, Mrs. Brown), and her friendship with a visiting Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, the Queen becomes intrigued by this friendly, genuine man, the only one in her household who doesn't seem to want anything from her. He rises quickly through the ranks, and is appointed as her "munshi," a spiritual adviser who teachers her Indian languages, history, and Muslim practices.

This does not escape the notice of her family and staff, who become outraged at the idea of an Indian (and a Muslim to boot) having so much influence of the English sovereign, and they begin to plot to undermine Victoria's trust in Abdul so that he may be sent back to India.

Judi Dench (right) stars as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal (right) stars as Abdul Karim in director Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA AND ABDUL, a Focus Features release. Credit : Peter Mountain / Focus Features

One can't help but see echoes of the "magical negro" stereotype in Abdul, whose sole purpose in the story seems to be to help the figurehead of India's oppressive colonizer in her final days. Frears makes a cursory nod to India's independence in the film's postscript, but the inherent conflict of their relationship is largely ignored in favor of a feel-good story of interracial friendship. Yet, by all accounts, the story is mostly true, and it's undeniably heartwarming, even if the film glosses over the larger implications, casting Victoria's heir, Edward VII (Eddie Izzard) as a manipulative racist in order to give the film a clear villain without directly tackling the broader issues of Britain's subjugation of India.

Oversimplification of geopolitical issues aside, Victoria & Abdul is a light, charming entertainment that features yet another stunning performance by Dench. Seeing her return to the role for which she received her very first Oscar nomination is a thrilling experience, and Dench handles it beautifully, tackling Victoria at a very different time in her life - older, wiser, and more weary of the world around her. The film rides on her talents, and is all the better for it, as Frears steps back and lets Dench command the screen with her usual scrappy verve and a healthy dose of vulnerability. She is the film's heart and soul, and her relationship with Fazal's Abdul is actually quite moving, skirting the boundaries between maternal and romantic. It's a lovely story, well told and beautifully acted, and sometimes that's all we really need.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

VICTORIA & ABDUL | Directed by Stephen Frears | Stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izard, Olivia Williams, Adeel Achtar, Michael Gambon | Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review | "The Foreigner" (Campbell, 2017)

It's a shame that American audiences mostly know Jackie Chan from comedic films like Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour, because Chan is actually a gifted dramatic actor and an incredible martial artist. The English-language films in which he has starred haven't historically given him a chance to explore his more serious side, so to see him return from semi-retirement from action films is something of a treat. Unfortunately, the film in question, Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, isn't quite worthy of his talents.

Chan stars as Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese immigrant living in Britain whose daughter is killed during a terrorist bombing carried out by a rogue offshoot of the IRA. Trained by US Special Forces during Vietnam, Quan decided to use his skills to track down the men who murdered his daughter and make them pay. This leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish politician and former IRA member that Quan believes can lead him to the terrorists. As Quan begins to make life hell for the seemingly oblivious Hennessy, he begins to unravel the tangled truth about the terrorists' high-level connections, and an ultimate goal that is less about the reunification of Ireland and more about political gain.

Jackie Chan as Quan and Pierce Brosnan as Hennessy in hotel suite in THE FOREIGNER.
The Foreigner vastly underutilizes Chan, focusing instead on Brosnan's embattled MP. The highlights of the film come when Campbell lets Chan loose, but the action scenes are few and far between. They may be brutal and bruising, but ultimately leave little impact. Chan is fantastic as Quan. His lined face and graying hair betray his age, but he is filled with the grim, resigned determination of a man who has seen it all. The film around him, however, doesn't seem to know what to do with him. Relegating him to the background when it's his quest that give the film its heart.  This is a strangely dull, inert film from the man who directed Casino Royale. Its lethargic pacing doesn't suggest the urgency of the plot, sagging and dragging when it should be sprinting.

Chan commands the screen without saying a word, but the film gets lost in its dreary grays and sterile personality. If it wants to be Taken in Ireland, it fails miserably, turning its focus away from its most interesting character. Brosnan is solid, but his character lacks the emotional core of Chan's. By making him the focus, The Foreigner gravely misjudges the story's heart, resulting in a lackluster, mediocre film without a soul.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE FOREIGNER | Directed by Martin Campbell | Stars Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Katie Leung, Charlie Murphy | Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review | "Happy Death Day" (2017)

A putrid, borderline offensive piece of lowest common denominator sludge, Happy Death Day thinks it's a film about becoming a better person, when really it's content to swim in its own filth. A kind of Groundhog Day by way of Final DestinationHappy Death Day is about a college student who continually relives the day of her death, waking up in the dorm room of a stranger and navigating the drama of her toxic sorority, before being murdered by a mysterious, mask-wearing stranger on the way to a party that night.

Each time she is murdered, she wakes up again the previous morning in the stranger's dorm room bed. Panicked and confused at first, she eventually begins trying to prevent herself from dying, only to die in a new way each time. Yet each time she wakes up, she finds herself increasingly weakened by each new death, and the clock seems to be running out for her to survive the day and stop the cycle of death.

Happy Death Day feels like it was written by someone who is trying very hard to capture how "kids today" talk, and completely embarrassing themselves in the process. I'm not in my twenties anymore, but does anyone actually say things like "did you get some of that fine vagine" or "stop looking at me like I just took a dump on your mom's head?" You're likely to spend more time cringing at the dialogue than at the sanitized, PG-13 death scenes.


But the most egregious moment comes when one of the sorority sisters makes a mocking impression of a mentally handicapped person. The audience I saw the film with thought it was hilarious, which was far more disturbing than any of the horror the film had to offer. It's 2017, how is this still funny to anyone? It truly is Trump's America now.

By the time the film reaches its laughably contrived conclusion, Happy Death Day has more than worn out its welcome. It even manages to name-drop Groundhog Day, clearly thinking that it's being exceedingly clever. Unfortunately, there's nothing particularly clever about this film. It's a collection of stereotypes and lame plot devices masquerading as a movie. But more that than, it's a film that tries to appeal to the audience's worst instincts. In that regard, it's an act of cinematic sadism, a mean-spirited, self-satisfied piece of teeny-bopper schlock that attempts to clothe its snickering immaturity in a half-baked moral.

Don't fall for it.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)

HAPPY DEATH DAY | Directed by Christopher Landon | Stars Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Bayle, Rob Mello | Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity | Opens today, Oct. 13, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review | "Battle of the Sexes" (2017)

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes isn't so much the casual sexism on display in 1973, but the fact that we really made that much progress since. Sure, you don't see many men (outside the FOX News Channel...and maybe the current White House) going on TV and explaining how men are superior to women and that they need to stay in the kitchen, all with a condescending refrain of "little lady." But it's still there, people just know better than to express those feelings out loud most of the time. It's comical in the context of the film, but there's an underlying sense of anger that percolates under neath Battle of the Sexes, you can almost hear Dayton and Faris saying "you laugh...but we're still dealing with this crap 40 years later."

The film centers around the now legendary tennis match between former men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and the #1 women's player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), which became a flashpoint in the women's rights movement. King was fighting for the respect of her male colleagues, while Riggs was fighting to prove that men were superior to women. It is that dichotomy that gets right to the heart of issue at hand - when one side is fighting for equality while the other side is fighting for superiority, then the playing field is far from equal.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.
© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
It's hard to be mad at Riggs for all this. While Carell plays him as an affable goofball, the self-described "male chauvinist pig" was more of a hustler than anything else, a larger than life showman who was in it more for the money than anything else. Yet the way the men around him turn the match into a chance to prove once and for all that women players do not deserve equal pay or respect makes the stakes much higher for King, who is also struggling with her own sexuality, discovering budding feelings for her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their relationship is the tender heart of Battle of the Sexes, but it is King's drive and passion for proving the mettle of women everywhere that keeps the film moving, buoyed by Stone's spirited and deeply moving performance.

We all know how this turns out. Knowing that the outcome is pre-ordained, Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) choose instead to focus on how King got there rather than the destination itself. The moment of final victory is also somewhat underplayed, as the filmmakers focus on its impact on King herself, spending the final minutes of the film with King alone in her locker room. That they choose to go small when they could have gone over-the-top is admirable. While the film occasionally overplays its emotional hand (the final line by Alan Cumming feels a bit too on-the-nose), its tendency to focus on its characters and their own personal journeys, rather than how their actions affected the nation at large, makes it all the more touching. The lovely score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) is also a huge asset in that regard, never overstepping but always supporting the underlying emotion with subtle dignity. King's struggle becomes a microcosm of the female struggle for equality, and it's wrapped in the guise of a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that now feels all too immediate in Trump's America. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, we'd probably be looking at this film in a much different light. It wouldn't have ended sexism, obviously, but watching Battle of the Sexes in 2017 is as much a heartbreaking experience as it is a funny one. That it strikes that balance so well and so gracefully is a beautiful thing indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BATTLE OF THE SEXES | Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris | Stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen | Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

On "Blade Runner 2049"

Ryan Gosling in Denis Villeneuve's BLADE RUNNER 2049.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
From The Dispatch:
Ridley Scott’s original “Blade Runner” is a seminal work of science fiction, an introspective rumination on the nature of life and what it means to be human. It was the sci-fi offspring of German Expressionism and film noir, and remains a staggering example of intelligent mainstream filmmaking that turned a sometimes marginalized genre into pure pop art. Rather than operate as a vehicle for 1980s nostalgia, Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” feels like a natural, even essential, continuation of the story of the original film. Villeneuve wisely takes the themes of Scott’s “Blade Runner” and explores them from a new angle, while maintaining fidelity to the world built by its now classic predecessor.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Jean-Pierre Léaud | A Retrospective

In the last month, there have been not one, not two, but three major Blu-Ray releases from the filmography of the iconic French actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Two from the height of has career as a muse of the French New Wave muse, and his most recent role in Albert Serra's remarkable The Death of Louis XIV. After a lifetime of great performances, from his iconic freeze-frame in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, to countless Jean-Luc Godard films (AlphavillePierrot le Fou, and Masculin Feminin, just to name a few), to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, and Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, to Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre and La Vie Die Boheme, and Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus, Léaud has earned his place in the cinematic pantheon, having worked with some of the greatest French filmmakers of all time.

These new Blu-Ray releases provide a career-spanning look at the work of one of French cinema's greatest icons, whether as a mouthpiece for the political musings of Jean-Luc Godard or as an actor in his own right. Together they form an essential piece of the actor's filmography, and looking back over the three films, it's not hard to see why the man is now a living legend - not just for his performances, but for the chances he took with the filmmakers with whom he chose to work.


LA CHINOISE (1967, Kino Lorber)
Available Oct. 17

The camera becomes a literal weapon in Godard's La Chinoise, the film that marked the beginning of the director's radical Maoist period. While his previous film, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, was perhaps the first indication of the political direction he was heading, La Chinoise finds Godard at his most radically experimental, exploring the conflicts in Leftist politics in Europe at the time, between those who preferred Soviet Marxism-Leninism, to those who (like Godard) preferred the Chinese Maoist ideas that brought forth the Cultural Revolution.

La Chinoise (The Chinese) follows a band of student revolutionaries who are holed up in their apartment, surrounded by copies of Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book," extolling the virtues of communism while parsing the philosophical differences in their viewpoints and preparing for a revolution that may never come. It's almost more of an essay than a film, and its intentional use of Brechtian alienation techniques make the film a difficult watch (especially when Godard is advocating for terrorism as a legitimate avenue of political and cultureal change). At the same time, it's difficult not to be drawn in by what Godard is doing here. This is the work of a man trying to figure out where he stands. La Chinoise is filled with long, rambling, sometimes disjointed philosophical discussions of Leftist politics and foreign policy.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jean-Luc Godard's LA CHINOISE.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
It is very much a product of its time (the Vietnam war hangs heavy over every frame), but there are times when it feels strikingly immediate. It is not the work of a filmmaker who is out of control; Godard clearly has a strong vision for what he's doing here. Every frame is alive with vibrant, perfectly coordinated primary colors (which really pop on Kino's new Blu-Ray), so that even when he's revealing the camera or the slate or other means of production, nothing ever feels random or unintentional. La Chinoise is not a manifesto, it's an exploration, not so much and advocation for revolution but a preparation for its inevitability. Godard is very intentionally exploring ideas here. And while he eventually disappeared up his own ass when he joined the Dziga Vertov group and started and started churning out insufferable political treatises, La Chinoise is a fascinating portrait of an artist trying to understand his own place in the world, both as an artist and as a human being. It's not an easy film, by any means, and it isn't always a particularly good one, but as a piece of film history, it's an undeniably intriguing piece of work.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

LE GAI SAVOIR (1969, Kino Lorber)
Available Oct. 17


By 1969, Godard was so deep into Leftist politics that he was barely recognizable as the filmmaker behind Breathless and Band of Outsiders. At this point in his career, he was experimenting with Brechtian alienation techniques, eschewing anything he saw as hewing too close to Hollywood escapism, deciding instead to craft his films without any regard for narrative flow in order to convey ideas. Cinema became his weapon in a Marxist-Leninist revolution that would never come. 

Le Gai Savoir (Joy of Learning) was released after the French student uprising of May 1968, of which Godard was very much a part. The result is perhaps Godard's most stylistically radical work. While the ideas put forth in La Chinoise (1967) were arguably more extreme, Le Gai Savoir takes Godard's experimentation with film form to the next level. In the film, Godard encourages the audience to intellectually "start from zero," to return to the basics and to re-educate and re-orient our way of thinking. Like a Marxist Yoda, Godard is telling us that we must "unlearn what we have learned." Rather than preach at us, Godard himself attempts to dismantle cinema itself, throwing out all convention and traditional filmmaking techniques, and invents a new cinematic language to examine political philosophy.

Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jean-Luc Godard's LE GAI SAVOIR.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The title is somewhat ironic, as you'd be hard-pressed to call Le Gai Savoir  "joyful," but there is a playfulness to Godard's experimentation to that is undeniable. He frames his characters in darkness, two people (played by Léaud and Juliet Berto) sitting in a void of nothingness, discussing political philosophy. What is art's role to play in the revolution? How can art affect change? Is art inherently political? Godard never provides answers, he is constantly asking questions. Le Gai Savoir  isn't a film designed to educate so much as open the mind. But isn't that the purpose of education in the first place? It's a consistently engaging dismantling of film form. It may not be anyone's definition of "entertaining," but watching Godard re-invent the language of cinema is nothing short of thrilling. It's one of his most visually striking films, a dazzling display of ideas and form designed not only to make the audience question the role and purpose of art, but their own place in society and how one engages politically with that art. Godard redefines cinema, and turns Le Gai Savoir into a film like no other.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (2017, Cinema Guild)

In Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, the face of Léaud, as France's longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, lies shrouded in a great dome of hair, his regal features dimmed but no less striking when lost in the giant pompadour wig. He is a monarch in decline, a dim shadow of a man about to be lost in time, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants whose bumbling attempts to affirm his every whim are in fact hastening his death rather than preventing it.

There's something truly haunting about watching one of France's most legendary actors in such a role. The Death of Louis XIV almost feels like a meta-theatrical elegy for a titan of the silver screen (like The 400 Blows, its most powerful moment is a freeze-frame of the actor's face). But it is also a quietly chilling portrait of fading power.

When word of the Sun King's quickly deteriorating health gets out, friends, acquaintances, and attendants flock from all over to catch one last glimpse of him. By the end of the film, they literally tear him apart, all but feasting on the remains as they divide him up. There's something both coldly ironic and grimly hilarious about the way they scrape and bow, politely applauding ("bravo, sire!") just because he managed to eat a bite of his meal.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Louis XV in a scene from Albert Serra's THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Serra shoots the film like a classical drama, composing each frame like its own painting. The result is often breathtaking (it's an undeniably gorgeous film), but not without meaning. Everything is carefully arranged, the dying king is constantly bathed in a warm, glowing light, and yet the specter of death hangs over every frame. This is how power ends, aged and shriveled, with little to show for it. What good is all the extravagance and all the power when those who surround him can do little to help? Without their leader telling them what to do, they are helpless; easily duped by charlatans and awed by the false sense of majesty now lying prone on an opulent bed.

 "We'll do better next time" the head physician says directly to the camera, almost as an apology; but will they? Or is this just how we react to the idea of power? The Death of Louis XIV strips away the mythic reverence for monarchs and shows us something else, a pitiable, helpless human being with no one to turn to when death finally comes to call. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more so when Louis implores his young heir to be a better king than he. It is a quietly powerful examination of power, wealth, and mortality that lingers and troubles, anchored by a truly magisterial performance by a lion in winter.

The Cinema Guild Blu-Ray also includes an insightful essay by my former In Review Online colleague, Jordan Cronk, as well as Serra's 2013 tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Cuba Libre, a mesmerizing short film that powerfully captures Fassbinder's style. But the real highlight here is the feature film itself. The Death of Louis XIV is a hushed and exhilarating stunner and one of the very best films of 2017.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Monday, October 09, 2017

Review | "The Mountain Between Us"

It's a bit disarming to see the name of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad pop up at the end of a glossy Hollywood melodrama like The Mountain Between Us. This is, after all, the director behind such raw, essential explorations of Palestinian life as Paradise Now (which followed the radicalization of two young suicide bombers) and Omar, both of which were nominated for Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. His English-language debut is about as far from those films as it's possible to be, which is either a testament to his versatility as a director, or of Hollywood's ability to hamper a filmmaker's unique voice.

The Mountain Between Us is not a bad film, but it's also a fairly predictable love story wrapped in a survival drama, in which two strangers find themselves stranded in the middle of the wilderness after their charter plane crashes in the mountains. Luckily for us those two strangers are Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, who together keep the film compulsively watchable. These are two actors who would be compelling, to employ the old cliche, reading the phonebook; but in this case that's not an exaggeration. Both actors do top-notch work here; Elba as a surgeon on his way to a critical operation, and Winslet as a journalist on the way to her wedding. Lost in the snow with food running out, the two must rely on each other in order to survive, and along the way begin to develop feelings for one another.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba star in Hany Abu-Assad's THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
There's never much question about where this is heading, but Winslet and Elba are just so good that they make us forget that the film we are watching often borders on ridiculously over-the-top. One can actually find quite a bit to admire about The Mountain Between Us; Mandy Walker's cinematography captures the snow covered mountain vistas with a kind of lonely grandeur, and Ramin Djawadi's lovely score is one of his finest works for the big screen. It's all the more disappointing, then that the rest of the film is just so cold and anonymous, especially considering the immense talent assembled here. Assad just doesn't quite seem to know what to do with the central romance, and the film drags on a bit too long as a result.

It's a crowd pleaser, to be sure, and it hits pretty much all of its expected notes with great gusto. Yet one can't help but feel that a lighter touch would have made the character drama at it's heart so much more compelling. Elba and Winslet are magnetic from the start, and do their best to elevate the otherwise tired material. Had the film focused even more on them and their budding relationship, and their own inner conflicts, this could have been a great film. Instead it's merely an average one with a pair of excellent performances keeping it afloat.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US | Directed by Hany Abu-Assad | Stars Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney | Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

From the Repertory | October 7, 2017

BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF (1953, Twilight Time)

Robert D. Webb's Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was either the second or third filmed shot in CinemaScope, depending on who you ask. Either way, this early widescreen film was a hit for 20th Century Fox, most likely because of the novelty of its cinematography. The film itself is a bit of a slog, a dry Romeo & Juliet riff set amid two warring families of sponge-divers. Who knew that the world of sponge-diving was so cutthroat?

It's interesting that even in 1953, there were themes of environmental degradation, in which sponges had been hunted so much that they were nearly non-existent near shore, pushing divers further and further out to sea to collect the coveted commodities. The dangers of diving deeper and deeper mark the central conflict of the film. After the deadly reef claims his father, our hero becomes more determined to make the dive and claim the sponges that lie at the bottom, no matter what dangers await him.

The film certainly looks great, the Technicolor and CinemaScope mix really pops, especially on the new Twilight Time Blu-Ray, but it's all in service of a paper-thin plot, blandly executed by Robert Wagner and Terry Moore's dull leads; a pair that lacks any semblance of chemistry whatsoever. But they're pretty, just like the underwater photography, which makes Beneath the 12-Mile Reef little more than an experiment to show off the new CinemaScope technology. Attractive leads + pretty scenery = something Fox could use to showcase their new "see it without glasses" answer to 3D and the growing threat of television. It's a historical curiosity now, but unfortunately its story doesn't really live up to the CinemaScope grandeur.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

HOUR OF THE GUN (1967, Twilight Time)

John Sturges revisits the story of his own 1957 film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 10 years later in Hour of the Gun, a film that subverts the myth of that legendary battle and examines its moral ramifications, as well as the toll it took on its participants. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, here portrayed by James Garner and Jason Robards, aren't so much heroes here as men caught in a morally dubious family feud with the traditionally villainous Clantons. The iconic gunfight is quick and nasty, leading to Earp's Captain Ahab-esque quest for revenge against the Clanton clan.

Hour of the Gun upends the glamorous mythology of the American west, and shows us the ugly underbelly that isn't quite as cut-and-dried as our legends would have us believe. While the film loses steam in its second half, it remains a fascinating study of American myth-making. It shows the Old West as a lawless frontier, where even the "good guys" are flawed and fallible. It's much more about the consequences of violence than it is the violence itself, presaging the revisionist westerns of the late 60s and 70s like The Wild Bunch and Lawman (also a recent Twilight Time release). Sturges has the guts to confront a myth he helped perpetuate 10 years earlier in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and examines the effects of its morally questionable violence on the men who helped perpetrate it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KILL BABY, KILL! (1966, Kino Lorber)

Mario Bava was perhaps one of the greatest horror aestheticians of all time. Even in a weaker film like Kill Baby, Kill, Bava still dazzles with his visual prowess and evocative sense of time and place. Here, he introduces us to a tiny Victorian-era village that is plagued by a curse wrought upon them after the death of a young girl decades before, who returns from the grave to compel those who wronged her family to commit suicide.

Not as graphic as some giallo horror, Kill Baby, Kill is more of an atmospheric ghost story; all Gothic architecture and fog. It takes a while for anything to really start happening, which is typical of giallo; they often failed to live up to their lurid premises. But Bava was more of an artist than a smut peddler, and he uses suggestion to his advantage here,  telling a classic ghost story with spooky flair. Taking cues from such disparate inspirations as Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete and Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, Bava creates a chilling tale with a painter's eye. The brightly colored lighting, the elaborate sets, the striking cinematography, it all adds up to something more than its simple plot. Bava made stronger films with stronger thematic content, but Kill Baby, Kill is an undeniably beautiful entry in the director's canon, marking perhaps one of his most stunning visual achievements, turning classical horror into something akin to poetry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TITANIC (1943, Kino Lorber)

Made in Germany in 1943, Herbert Selpin’s Titanic was conceived by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself as an anti-British propaganda piece, laying the blame for the disaster at the feet of British greed. While human arrogance certainly played a part in the sinking, Selpin and Goebbels imagine a battle for control of the White Star Line between Bruce Ismay and John Jacob Astor, the former pushing Captain Smith to race to New York in order to set a world record win the Blue Ribband (never a realistic goal for the real Titanic) in order to drive up stock prices, the latter trying to drive White Star stock prices down in order to buy a majority share and take over the company. They even go so far as to make up a completely fictional German officer who is the only honorable person in the film to stand up to the rampant avarice on display.

The problem for the film was that Germans were on a figurative Titanic of their own in 1943, and it was never released for fear that the scenes of mass panic would demoralize audiences. Not to mention the fact that the irony of accusing Britain of naked thirst for power seemed to have been completely lost of Goebbels. Even so, during production, Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo and the film was taken over by an uncredited Werner Klinger (Selpin was found dead in his cell the day after his arrest). It’s unfortunate that Titanic is filled with such blatant and often disgusting propaganda (its slander of real people is unconscionable), because it also has some genuinely affecting scenes, and the special effects are top-notch for the time. In fact, since the film was never actually released in complete form, some of the visual effects shots were recycled for Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film, A Night to Remember.

Excise the cringe-inducing anti-British sentiment, and Titanic is actually a largely effective (if often historically inaccurate) disaster film. But it’s hard to separate the film from its troubling legacy and connection to Nazi Germany. It’s surprisingly fact-based at times, complete nonsense at others, yet ultimately inextricable from the evil regime that created it, making it a fascinating case study in how propaganda bends facts to suit its own agenda.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

On "American Made"


From The Dispatch:
It’s a story that’s so absurd that it could only be true. Yet its basis in reality is what gives it its bite. While Liman focuses more on Seal than the circumstances that surrounded him, it also serves as a striking portrait at the circular firing squad of America’s ill-fated “War on Drugs.” It’s the inherent ridiculousness of it all that makes the film so compelling, and Liman uses Cruise’s smarmy sense of charm to maximum effect; an all-American success story built on the ruins of failed policy and attempted nation building.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

On "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"


From The Dispatch:
Like its predecessor, it is long, loud, and has a nasty streak a mile wide, bludgeoning the audience over the head with constant, overly CGI-enhanced action sequences that feel more like cartoons than fights with actual stakes. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by recent films like “Atomic Blonde,” whose bruising action scenes feel more grounded and actually mean something. Every punch is felt and has real consequences for the narrative. The action scenes in “Kingsman” feel like the gee-whiz daydreams of a pre-teen boy playing with action figures.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, September 25, 2017

From the Repertory | September 25, 2017

GUN FURY (1953, Twilight Time)

Raoul Walsh made some iconic films in his time (White Heat and The Public remain two of the touchstones of the gangster genre). This 3D western...is not one of those. Made near the end of his long career, and starring Rock Hudson and Donna Reed, Gun Fury is a pretty standard issue genre picture about a former Union soldier left for dead after a stagecoach robbery, who rides out to take vengeance on the former confederates (remember when they were the bad guys?) who kidnapped his fiancee.

The hokey 3D cinematography has left the film tinted an odd shade of blue, but beyond its cosmetic issues, the film just isn't that interesting. Hudson is a strangely bland hero, Reed a lifeless heroine. Only the villains provide any real life to the proceedings - with Philip Carey and a young Lee Marvin chewing the scenery as two of the heavies.  The problem isn't that it's bad; it's a perfectly serviceable western adventure, but it never rises above the level of a middle of the road shoot-em-up that feels decidedly mediocre.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

LAWMAN (1971, Twilight Time)

On the surface, Michael Winner's Lawman appears to be a typical western template - a group of cattle rustlers guns down a man during a drunken, rowdy night, and are pursued by a straight-shooting marshal (Burt Lancaster) who is determined to bring them to justice. What isn't typical is the subtext that Winner (Death Wish) weaves throughout this gritty morality tale that is made up more of shades of gray than black and white. Lancaster's titular lawman, Jared Maddox, is judge, jury, and executioner, more concerned with gunning down his targets than actually bringing them in for a trial. His targets, under the employ of a wealthy cattle baron, are willing to negotiate, as the patriarch has had enough killing on both sides. And the town's marshal, Cotton Ryan Cotten (Robert Ryan), is on the baron's payroll and so tired of bloodshed that he would rather avoid rocking the town boat than seek justice.

Lawman is a tale of police brutality and small town corruption as much as it is a shoot-em-up western, a film where no one is truly good or truly bad. Rather than give us stereotypical western outlaws, Winner paints the story's villains as three dimensional people, so much so that we often find ourselves sympathizing with their plight. And while Maddox appears to be a pillar of lawful virtue, he is almost a terrorist in his own right, descending on the small western town like a deadly whirlwind, bringing violence to their once sleepy streets. One could read the film as just another western of lawful good versus chaotic evil, but Lawman is so much more than that. It almost presages Unforgiven's elegiac take on the genre's violent implications, acknowledging that just because someone wears a badge doesn't mean they're the hero.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SEPTEMBER (1987, Twilight Time)

Everyone is in love with someone, but no one is in love with the person who is in love with them in Woody Allen's achingly beautiful September. Overshadowed, perhaps, by Hannah and Her Sisters from the previous year, it is an often forgotten gem of Allen's career. Modeled after the unrequited romantic entanglements of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, September is arguably one of Allen's most emotionally astute dramas. Gone are Allen's neurotic hallmarks (although the film is not devoid of humor), focusing instead on the deeply human wants and desires of his characters.

The story centers around Lane (Mia Farrow), a woman recovering from a suicide attempt at her family's vacation home. She is in love with Peter (Sam Waterston), a struggling writer, who is in turn in love with her best friend, Stephanie (Dianne Wiest). Too busy to notice that the kind older gentleman next door (Denholm Elliot) is also infatuated with her, Lane spends the weekend warring with her overbearing mother (the incomparable Elaine Stritch) and her distant father in law (Jack Warden). Allen shifts between the wants and needs of each character, exploring their deepest desires and their most private faults. Each character feels fully developed and completely real. It's one of Allen's most free-flowing films, drifting in and out of each character's story without a strong central plot, drawing us into their unique stories before reaching one of his most beautifully burnished crescendos.

It's telling that the film is called September - the first month of autumn, as each of the film's characters seem to be poised at a crossroads in their lives. It is a film that feels haunted by sense of inevitable change, of passing time and chances fading away, like summer turning slowly into fall. Allen's writing has never been better than it is here, crafting a lovely and knowing look into the very nature of attraction and the self-sabotage that often goes with it. September is an incredible film, and perhaps the most beautiful and moving film Allen has ever made - a perfect storm of acting, writing, and direction that subtly seeps into the heart and lingers long after the credits have rolled. A little known but hugely powerful triumph.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

SPACECAMP (1986, Kino Studio Classics)

A group of young space-campers are accidentally launched into space in Harry Winer's 1986 adventure, SpaceCamp. Lead by Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), an astronaut who is stuck teach kids at the camp while impatiently waiting for her chance to go to space, the kids must learn to work together in order to survive their dire circumstances, and return the space shuttle to earth. It's an outlandish scenario, of course, but a spirited adventure, nonetheless, featuring a delightful score by John Williams and a great group of kids that includes Leah Thompson, Tate Donovan, and Joaquin Phoenix in his film debut (here credited as "Leaf").

SpaceCamp was a box office flop in 1986. Its release was delayed for months due to the Challenger disaster earlier that year (due to a similar malfunction as the one that causes the accidental launch in the film), and when it was finally released, audiences just weren't ready for such a lighthearted film about something that had so recently turned to tragedy. Still, with some time and distance, SpaceCamp has proven to be a charming and highly entertaining film, that captures the childlike thrill of space travel through the eyes of those whose wide-eyed dreams of becoming astronauts at last become a reality.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Friday, September 15, 2017

From the Repertory | September 15, 2017

THE LOST WORLD (1925, Flicker Alley)

In 1929, a mere four years after the original theatrical release of The Lost World, the widow of one of the film's original financiers struck a bargain with First National to remove it from circulation and destroy all known prints. The theory is that that First National hoped to avoid overshadowing the release of the similarly themed new sound epic, King Kong, which would also feature visual effects by the one and only Willis O'Brien, ensuring that the silent Lost World would not be compared unfavorably with this new visual effects extravaganza. Thankfully, their efforts failed, and thanks to years of effort to piece together the disparate elements culled from various incomplete prints, we have a nearly complete restoration of The Lost World in all its glory.

Based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who makes an appearance at the beginning of the film), The Lost World is the story of a professor who puts together a ragtag team of adventurers to journey into the Amazon in order to prove to the world that the dinosaurs he claims to have seen truly exist.  It's not among the finest of silent films, but it's undeniably fun, despite an uncomfortable blackface performance that will make modern audiences cringe. Yet what makes THE LOST WORLD so remarkable is its special effects. O'Brien's stop motion animation is every bit as stunning here as it would be in King Kong eight years later. Kong may be the better film, but Lost World paved the way for it.

THE LOST WORLD (deluxe Blu-Ray edition)
The film is a grand old-fashioned adventure and special effects showcase that makes a direct appeal to the young and the young at heart. It doesn't always hold up, and its pacing has a tendency to drag, but it's so visually impressive that it continues to endure today. It's hard to underestimate the influence of this film, as it continues to inspire modern films from Jurassic Park to Up.

Flicker Alley's new Blu-Ray is a typically impressive affair, loaded with special features and featuring a striking new transfer. The most notable special features are two early short films by O'Brien, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., and The Ghost of Slumber Mountain. O'Brien directed the stop-motion short film, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C., for Thomas Edison in 1917, about two cavemen who are competing for the same woman. and while it may be rather primitive even by 1917 standards (this was, after all, two years after The Birth of a Nation), what is most impressive about it is the animated figures. An early example of just how truly talent O'Brien was, R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. is an  astonishing showcase for for his craft. The figures are incredibly fluid, even believable, outshining the otherwise roughly-hewn film.

A much more cohesive showcase of Willis O'Brien's talents, this short film, coming merely a year after the much rougher R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is a bit of a dry run for  The Lost World. Framed as a story told by an uncle to his nephew, we are introduced by an explorer who is shown a lost world of dinosaurs by a mysterious ghost in an abandoned cabin. Feels like a tall tale that would be spun at bedtime to amuse children, The Ghost of Slumber Mountain is both outlandish and wildly entertaining. Its impressive stop motion presages O'Brien's triumph on The Lost World seven years later, yet stands on its own as a spirited and evocative adventure.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

REBECCA (1940, The Criterion Collection)

Alfred Hitchcock's first American feature was also his only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It's no wonder either; working with uber-producer David O. Selznick, fresh off the success of 1939's Gone with the Wind, Hitchcock was given his most lavish budget and production resources of his career up to that point. The result is a fascinating hybrid of the two icons' styles, one that is neither fully Hitchcock or fully Selznick, yet still manages to bear the signature stamps of both.

Rebecca, based on the novel by  Daphne Du Maurier, features the sumptuous grandeur of a Selznick picture, and the macabre hallmarks of Hitchcock. Yet Hitchcock was famously exasperated by Selznick, and one can't quite escape the feeling that this wasn't quite the film Hitchcock wanted to make. Yet despite the thick layers of Selznick gloss, Rebecca is still a chilling Gothic romance, a ghost story with no ghosts, in which the never named Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is haunted by the memory of her new husband's first wife, Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine (left) and Judith Anderson (right) in Alfred Hitchcock's REBECCA.
We never see Rebecca, not even in pictures or paintings, yet her spirit hangs over every frame, as the new Mrs. de Winter is constantly compared and contrasted with the woman who came before her. And no one is more disappointed by the new Mrs. de Winter than the mansion's grim head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose relationship with Rebecca clearly went much deeper than that of servant and master. Hitchcock never shied away from homosexual themes (see Psycho and Rope for further examples), yet never is it more blatant than it is in the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Much of Hitchcock's personality is woven into the subtext of the film - slathered in Selznick gloss on the outside, teeming with dark psychological character drama on the inside. It's like a horror film in which nothing frightening ever really happens - the horror here being a haunting memory of a domineering human whose influence manages to extend beyond the grave. It is telling that Hitchcock never tells us the new Mrs. de Winter's name - Rebecca is the only name that really matters, denying the new Mrs. de Winter an identity of her own until the bitter end.

While Rebecca may not quite be top tier Hitchcock, it's impressive just how much of his personality he was able to infuse into the film in spite of Selznick's heavy hand. The sparkling wit of his British pictures is noticeably dialed back here, but it still manages to make some notable appearances. Hitchcock would go on to make better films in his ensuing decades working in America, but Rebecca remains an unusual gem in his career, a meeting of two cinematic titans who made a film that managed to feel like a product of both and neither of them at the same time.

The new Criterion Blu-Ray is an improvement on the already excellent MGM disc from 2012, and has a much smoother quality, featuring more striking contrast in the black & white cinematography; not to mention an entire second disc of special features that make this a must-have for Hitchcock fans.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TOM SAWYER/HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1973/1974, Twilight Time)

Colorful musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic tale, featuring toe-tapping numbers by the legendary Sherman Brothers and a score by the one and only John Williams. Presented by Reader's Digest, Tom Sawyer certainly has that sunny, all-American, and yes, abridged feeling of an issue of Reader's Digest; but there's also something undeniably charming and even innocent about its wistful view of a bygone era. While the songs may not be as memorable as the Shermans' best works (you likely won't be coming out humming the tunes like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), but under the eye of director Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), Tom Sawyer has the sweep of grandeur of a musical in the classic Hollywood style, even if the songs don't always fit comfortably into the narrative.
Johnny Whitaker (left) as Tom Sawyer and Jeff East (left) as Huckleberry Finn in TOM SAWYER.
The direct sequel toTom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn sees Jeff East reprise his role as the titular character, setting off on the Mississippi with runaway slave, Jim (Paul Winfield). By nature a darker story than Tom Sawyer, so its musical numbers seem even more shoe-horned into the narrative. Glosses over many of the book's racial themes in its quest to be a cheery musical, but the leads are strong (especially Winfield), and Harvey Korman and David Wayne inject some much needed energy in the film's second act as a pair of wily con men.

The problem with this pair of Reader's Digest films is that they just don't lend themselves naturally to the musical format. The Sherman Brothers make a valiant effort, but the songs just don't stick, and often feel out of place. Tom Sawyer benefited from its all-American sunny disposition and happy-go-lucky lead (East can't quite carry this film like Johnny Whitaker did as Sawyer), but Huckleberry Finn feels like its just trying too hard to make this story happy, when its saddled with the weight of America's original sin. Come for Winfield's soulful performance and a spirited second act, but overall this adaptation of Huck Finn doesn't quite live up to Mark Twain's original work.

TOM SAWYER - ★★★ (out of four)
HUCKLEBERRY FINN - ★★½ (out of four)

VARIETÉ (1925, Kino Lorber)

This rarely seen gem of silent German cinema is at once a melodrama and a stunningly designed work of art that rivals many of its contemporaries in terms of sheer cinematic ingenuity. While not part of the German Expressionist movement that was going on around the same time, there are certainly elements of German Expressionist design present in Varieté, especially at the beginning. This sordid tale of a trapeze artist (the great Emil Jannings) who leaves his wife and child for a beautiful dancer (Lya de Putti) is a soap opera at heart, but director E.A. Dupont has a true artist's eye. His evocation of the pageantry of the circus, and the pulsing energy of the fair, is nothing short of dazzling. And thanks to the gripping performances of Jannings and de Putti, Varieté becomes something much more than its story suggests. As was typical for many films of its era, it turns into something of a morality play by the end, but Dupont imbues the proceedings with haunting sense of ambiguity. It's an almost operatic tale of personal tragedy, made great by Dupont's keen visual innovations and sense of character.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review | "Wind River"

Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), steps behind the camera to direct one of his own scripts for the first time for Wind River; a murder mystery set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the desolate, snow-covered plains of Wyoming. His only other directing credit was the critically maligned 2011 horror film, Vile, but if Hell or High Water proved anything, it's that the man can write. While Wind River isn't quite the film the Hell or High Water is, there's still a strong sense of purpose and place, of the hard boiled inevitability of violence in a place that has fallen through the cracks of society at large.

Jeremy Renner stars as Cory Lambert, a hunter with a haunted past who finds the body of a young woman in the middle of the frozen wastelands. Ill-equipped to handle a murder investigation, the tribal police calls in the FBI, who sends a rookie agent named Jane Banner to handle the case. When it becomes clear that they will be receiving no outside help, Jane asks Cory to help her track down the men who raped the young woman and left her to die, leading them both into the dark underbelly of a town that has been left to die every bit as much as their frozen murder victim.


Sheridan establishes an atmosphere of isolation right from the outset, and the film is anchored by strong performances by Renner and Olsen. There are a few moments that seem to betray Sheridan's relative inexperience behind the camera - a major dialogue scene is shot by a stationary handheld camera, resulting in a distracting lack of focus rather than the intended feeling of authenticity. And the film's postscript, informing us that there is no database for missing Native American women, is undercut by the fact that the film isn't really about that. So the film never quite earns the gravitas that it seeks, but as a tough-as-nails police procedural, it works. Wind River is an often gripping murder mystery that aims to be a deeper exploration of the plight of those on society's fringes (not unlike Hell or High Water). While it never quite matches its own ambitions, Sheridan still manages to deliver a crackerjack mystery that relies on characters rather than twists, turns, or shocks.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WIND RIVER | Directed by Taylor Sheridan | Stars Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, John Bernthal | Rated R for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

On "Whose Streets?"

Activist Brittany Ferrell and crowd of protesters in WHOSE STREETS?, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

From The Dispatch:
A haunting look at how the death of one young man became a flash point for a movement that endures today. It is a remarkably assured debut for Folayan, who captures the protests with a sense of urgency. She knows this is a story that needs to be told, and she presents a powerful account of the protests that we never saw on the news. And even as the President of the United States tries to equate Black Lives Matter with Nazis and the KKK after the events of Charlottesville, “Whose Streets?” attempts to show the other side of the story.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review | "Marjorie Prime"

An elderly woman resurrects her long dead husband through hologram technology in Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime, a haunting and remarkable meditation on memory and mortality.

There's so much to unpack in this thing that it demands more than one viewing, and likely, more than one review. Based on the play by Jordan Harrison, Marjorie Prime allows its characters - the elderly woman, her daughter, and her son-in-law, to relive their memories of their loved ones with a life-like digital approximation that they create by feeding it memories. The memories they give it are usually only the good memories, often which are fabricated in order to build the life they wish they had. It is simultaneously somehow devastating and life affirming, a treatise on the human inability to let go of the past, and our desire to control our own lives through selective memory, it is also a celebration how our loved ones are never truly gone, they live on through our memory. But how accurate are those memories? As Geena Davis' character points out, memories are like "photocopies of photocopies."

Jon Hamm (left) and Lois Smith (right) in FilmRise's MARJORIE PRIME.

Perhaps the film's most indelible moment comes as one character is busy feeding memories into a hologram. When the hologram questions why she is doing that, she responds simply - "to make you more human." The hologram later turns it around, querying her need to connect with people from her past. Upon hearing her response, the hologram replies - "Ah. You want to be more human too."

Marjorie Prime is a heartbreaking exploration of what it means to be human, of what it means to be alive. It's like a more philosophical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - beautifully encapsulating humanity at its most vulnerable. What is left of us, when all we have is our memory? What is left of us when memory is all that we are? This is a major film - a powerful and probing work that isn't afraid to ask Big Questions without providing overly sentimental or patronizing answers. From Almereyda's inquisitive screenplay, to the raw, honest performances by Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, and Jon Hamm, to Mica Levi's dream-like store, Marjorie Prime is a captivating work that unfolds like wisps of memory, desperately looking to the past for answers, companionship, common experience. What it finds is the beautiful and heartbreaking essence of human life.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MARJORIE PRIME | Directed by Michael Almereyda | Stars Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.