Friday, April 19, 2019

The Czechoslovak New Wave is perhaps one of the most radical film movements to emerge in the mid-20th century. Not as well known, perhaps, as the French New Wave (certainly none of the films entered the public consciousness quite like Breathless or The 400 Blows), but the filmmakers that emerged from Czechoslovakia, František Vláčil (Marketa Lazarová), Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains), and especially Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus), are among some of the greatest of the last century.

One of the most defiantly revolutionary filmmakers to emerge from the movement was Jan Němec. Whereas the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers had a sort of romanticism inherited from their love of classical Hollywood films (at least until Jean Luc Godard decided he wanted to burn it all down around 1967), there is a sense of anger and absurdity in the Czechoslovak films of the period that seems born from the oppression of the Iron Curtain. No one embodied this sense of rage and cinematic non-conformism than Němec. It was apparent from his very first film, A Loaf of Bread (1960, also included on the Criterion Blu-Ray), which serves as a kind of thematic precursor to his most well-known film, Diamonds of the Night.

Loosely adapted from a novel by Czech author Arnošt Lustig (as was A Loaf of BreadDiamonds of the Night is a nearly stream-of-consciousness nightmare about two young men escaping from a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The films drops us into the action immediately, opening with the two men running through a forest, the sound of gunshots and barking dogs in the background. Němec gives the audience no chance to orient itself in this new world - the world of the film just *is.,* and like its protagonists, we must adapt or die. Němec slowly fills us is, peppering their journey with flashes of previous events that could be anything from flashbacks to fever dreams. We are left to wonder if our protagonists are losing their grip on reality or if what we're watching is even happening at all. The film even features two endings; one in which the young men are gunned down by a gleeful German hunting party, and another in which they escape into the forest once again, their journey still incomplete.

The whys and wherefores are ultimately beside the point to Němec. He directs with a sense of dark surrealism, the imagery of Diamonds of the Night sometimes recalling the disturbing dream-logic of Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou. Němec seems to refract time like light through splintered diamonds, losing all sense of time and place, replacing them with disorientation and fear. It's a visceral experience, the kind one feels in their gut - Němec isn't telling us a story, he's making us *feel* something, and he's throwing out all the rules of narrative cinema in order to do so. It's difficult to watch Diamonds of the Night in 2019 and not see parallels with László Nemes' Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, with its fierce adherence to first-person perspective in a world gone mad. Němec has similar goals here, focusing on the men and their experiences, their bodies taking center stage in his increasingly untethered frame, and yet we are unsure what those experiences really are. The film unfolds in a kind of a dream-state, showing us events multiple times often with different outcomes. Are we watching possible outcomes, or perhaps events from the characters' imaginations, or are the events playing out before us actually happening?

You'll find no answers in Němec's grim world. In fact, Němec was blacklisted shortly after the release of Diamonds of the Night  his films proving to be too subversive to the ruling Communist Party, and Němec never found the success abroad after finally fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1974. Yet Diamonds of the Night remains a touchstone, a film of such raw power that it still feels genuinely radical, a hallucinatory, aesthetically visionary work that redefined the cinematic language - taking the work of the early surrealists and applying it to a kind of emotional and political battering ram. It's a tragedy to think about all the films we lost through Němec's political oppression, but thanks to Criterion's beautiful new Blu-Ray edition, we can still enjoy the treasures we do have, and appreciate them for the masterworks that they are.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT | Directed by Jan Němec | Stars Ladislav Jánsky Antonín Kumbera Ilse Bischofova | Not Rated | In Czech w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection


  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Interview from 2009 with director Jan Němec 
  • A Loaf of Bread, Němec’s 1960 student thesis film, based on a short story by Arnošt Lustig 
  • Arnošt Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Němec, a short documentary from 1993 
  • New interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova 
  • New video essay on the film’s stylistic influences by scholar James Quandt 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Michael Atkinson

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The unique empathy and humanity of the films of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country) has quickly distinguished the pair as two of the most deeply insightful filmmakers working today. Like Frederick Wiseman but with a sense of brevity, Palmieri and Mosher examine the intricacies of small town life with the eye of an ethnographer, exploring the inherent contradictions and inescapable bonds that make America what it is.

So here in 2019, at a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, a film like The Gospel of Eureka seems like a balm for the soul. Set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the film explores the peaceful but tenuous co-existence between a moderately famous passion play and a gospel-themed drag show. In the process, Palmieri and Mosher reframe Christian iconography and ideology through a queer point of view, as the town goes through a brief time of upheaval over a "trans bathroom bill."

Eureka was briefly the home of infamous anti-gay crusader, Anita Bryant, who tried to stage a comeback in the form of a Christian-themed show which proved to be an epic flop. From there, the town played host to notorious anti-Semite leader of the Christian Nationalist Party, Gerald L.K. Smith, who founded "The Great Passion Play" in 1968. To say that the town has had a rocky relationship with the LGBT community would be an understatement, which makes it the perfect place for a film like The Gospel of Eureka  Here, in this former hotbed of homophobia deep in the Bible Belt, gay culture has found a foothold. The filmmakers juxtapose the nightly pageantry of the drag bar with the Great Passion Play, which takes on its own air of camp with its over-the-top spectacle and copious amounts of male nudity.

In fact, one could argue that "The Great Passion Play" is a form of Christian drag - the entire thing is lip-synced to a pre-recorded vocal track, not unlike the musical numbers performed by drag queens in the bar. It's a fascinating dichotomy, and yet Palmieri and Mosher find commonalities between the two worlds. The drag bar is owned by a gay couple who are devout Christians. One of the "Passion Play's" biggest fans is a transgender woman. The owner of a local Christian book store speaks fondly of his gay father. The Gospel of Eureka seeks out and  explores the places where Christianty and queer culture meet, and discovers that the gulf is not as wide as we might think.

Even as locals fight over a new civil rights frontier in the form of discriminatory transgender bathroom bills, the filmmakers discover commonalities where there appear to be none. In Eureka it's not Christians vs. the LGBT community, because there is so much overlap. Eureka becomes a kind of microcosm for America itself, a place where Christianity and queerness not only coexist, but compliment each other. As narrated by the wonderful Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel of Eureka is neither preachy or didactic, instead it eschews hatred and bigotry by investigating overlooked commonalities, rather its the queer subtexts of the gospels and Christian pageantry or the deep and abiding faith of those in the LGBT community.

Much like human sexuality, faith transcends boundaries, refutes hatred, and ultimately finds a place of belonging in the most unlikely of places. At a time when our country feels more divided than ever, films like The Gospel of Eureka feel all the more essential. Its sense of empathy feels almost defiantly out of step with the world at large, and yet it manages to touch on some deep and essential truths. It is a celebration of queerness, of faith, and of the deep and abiding ties that bind. If a place like Eureka can find such a balance, then there's hope for the rest of us.


Kino's new DVD release is light on extras - a couple of deleted scenes and a trailer, but it does bring back one of the crowning glories of home video releases - the DVD booklet. This might not seem like much in the age of comprehensive Criterion booklets, but there's something special about opening up a DVD and finding a booklet with more information about the film, as well as in-depth essay that explores the films ideas. Caden Mark Gardner's essay explores the themes of camp, religion, and queerness of The Gospel of Eureka, keenly highlighting its sense of empathy that never delves into pat "both sides" tropes. It's a lovely addendum to an altogether enchanting film that deserves to find a larger audience in its home video release.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA | Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher | Stars Justin Vivian Bond | Not Rated | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The RiverRun International Film Festival closes this Sunday, April 14, with a screening of Dava Whisenant's Bathtubs Over Broadway.

What begins as a rather charming documentary about a man with a rather eccentric hobby of collecting old industrial musical records, becomes something deeply human and incredibly touching as it explores a little known world of fully produced Broadway style musicals written for corporate sales events.

I'll admit there's something vaguely icky and even troubling about the idea of a jazzy, upbeat musical written to celebrate products and motivate employees to "sell sell sell" for the benefit of a corporate overlord exploiting their labor for profit (and singing a happy tune while doing it), but the core of Steve Young's enthusiasm for these musicals is pure. A longtime writer for "The Late Show with David Letterman," Young stumbled across one of these industrial musicals while researching a but for the show, sparking a lifelong passion that introduced him to a world few ever knew existed.

The musicals are kitschy, American capitalism's answer to Soviet propaganda films. It's jarring and a bit goofy seeing Broadway performers belting out numbers about everything from Coca-Cola to Xerox printers. And yet there's something endearing about their earnestness, and Young's guileless love for them is nothing short of infectious. Like Steve Buscemi's character in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Young avidly collects these rare albums, gushing over having the world's only known copy of some, eventually tracking down some of the actors and songwriters who brought these musicals to life (including Florence Henderson, Martin Short, and Chita Rivera).

Bathtubs Over Broadway uncovers an entirely new genre of American theater, introducing us to some of its unheralded luminaries who are finally getting their moment it the sun. There's something so very wholesome and heartwarming about seeing someone whose work was never made commercially available and only seen once realizing that there are people out there who really appreciate what they did decades ago. And one can't help but wonder if these songs weren't about corporate-specific products, would they be more famous than they are today? Because, quite frankly, much of the music is actually good, the lyrics witty and even a bit cheeky. Real talent and passion went into the making of these musicals, and the film allows a whole new audience to finally appreciate them.

The very idea of musicals about bathroom fixtures and ball-bearings seems goofy, and indeed the camp factor is through the roof. But director Dava Whisenant never treats them or her eccentric star as fodder for laughs or derision. Bathtubs Over Broadway is a loving ode to a forgotten piece of American culture, and the people who have kept it alive after history had left it behind. It's an utter and complete delight.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY is the closing night selection of the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Lu Huang and Mason Lee in "Suburban Birds." Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Qiu Sheng's smashing directorial debut, Suburban Birds, opens with a shot peering through the viewfinder of a surveyor's instrument. It scans the landscape as if searching for something, scanning, probing, wondering. It's a visual metaphor that Qiu returns to throughout the film, as we peer into the lives of characters through various lenses, surveying a landscape at once alien and hauntingly familiar.

Suburban Birds often resembles the specific political predilections of Jia Zhangke as filtered through the mystical musings of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, setting a metaphoric exploration of life in modern China amid the literal shifting grounds of a society in flux. Our guide is Hao (Mason Lee), a young engineer tasked with surveying land around a skyscraper that has ominously tilted. Hao begins to suspect that underground tunnels are to blame for the building's mysterious shift, but his supervisors reject the idea, chalking his hypothesis up to his youth and inexperience.

One day, during a routine survey, Hao wanders into an elementary school and discovers a diary written by one of the students. In its pages he discovers a whole new world through the eyes of a young boy also named Hao (Zihan Gong). As young Hao's story of carefree childhood adventures unfolds through the pages of his diary, older Hao begins to see troubling parallels to his own life. Young Hao's friends are mysteriously disappearing, eerily presaging an end to national innocence and a troubling conclusion to Hao's own story as the two lives become inexorably intertwined to the point that they're no longer distinguishable from each other.

Qiu enigmatically blends the stories of the two Haos almost imperceptibly, employing a kind of magical realism to create a sense of mystery and possibility. Suburban Birds is at once a critique of the increasing urbanization of modern China and a tale of suburban ennui in a time of great uncertainty. At first, the two Haos' stories seem completely separate, a strange interruption to the story we had settled into, breaking the films into parallel narratives that don't seem connected. Is it a flashback, or a kind of disruption in time? Are the stories connected, or are their similarities coincidental? Qiu never answers these questions, leaving them almost bafflingly cryptic. And yet, that's what makes Suburban Birds so beguiling. The film most resembles Weerasethakul in its back half, specifically Tropical Malady (2005), as it shifts gears completely and the film we're watching is no longer the film we thought it was.

It is a film that peers through many layers, carefully parsing the lenses through which we view our own lives. Through time and memory, experience and written anecdote, Suburban Birds explores the tenuous connections between life as it is lived and life as we imagine it to be. Life throws us curveballs we can't understand or explain, it leaves ideas unfinished, t's uncrossed, i's undotted. When even the very ground on which we plant our feet seems to be moving beneath us, on what can we base our hopes and dreams? It is here where Qiu most resembles Jia Zhangke, perhaps the foremost chronicler of technology's sometimes destructive advance in modern China, and yet what Qiu seems to be going for here seems somehow more ephemeral and ghostly, less concretely political and more philosophical in nature. It leaves us with far more questions than answers, a portrait of an unstable world undone by its own lack of foresight, where truths that once were buried come raging back to wreck havoc on the present. It's a remarkable debut for Qiu, a mature and throughly mesmerizing film that lingers like wisps of haunted memory on a hazy summer afternoon.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SUBURBAN BIRDS | Directed by Qiu Sheng | Stars Mason Lee, Zihan Gong, Lu Huang, Jing Deng | Not Rated | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Stephen King famously hated his 1983 novel, "Pet Sematary," tossing it in a drawer wandering if he had gone "too far," not digging back out until he needed one more novel to fill a commitment to his publisher. The novel, of course, was a success, and King eventually came around to it.

It is, of course, an extremely dark tale, exploring themes of grief and loss that are as universal as they are unnerving. The novel has been adapted for the screen once before, to some modest success, in 1989 by director Mary Lambert, a film to which Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch's new version hews closely. It's odd that Widmyer and Kölsch chose to essentially remake the 1989 film rather than return to King's rich source material, essentially making some of the same mistakes all over again, perhaps even more egregiously. Both films failed to capture the inherent pain at the heart of the story, in which the Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) discovers a mysterious pet cemetery in the back yard of his family's rural home. After the death of his daughter Ellie's beloved cat, Church, the Creed's neighbor, Judd Crandall (John Lithgow), shows Louis a place just beyond the cemetery that brings things back to life. Louis buries Church there, hoping to spare Ellie the pain of learning about death.

The Church that returns from the grave, however, is not the same as the Church that was killed on the Creed's dangerous Maine highway. He's constantly filthy, reeks of decay, and feels somehow...evil. When another tragedy shakes the Creed household to its core, Louis begins to contemplate the unthinkable - what happens if you bring a human back from the dead? We all know where this is going, of course. And while the 2019 Pet Sematary swaps 3-year-old Gage (Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie) for 9-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) as the child who gets run over by a tractor trailer, the story remains mostly the same. The biggest problem, much like in the 1989 film, is that the filmmakers are in such a rush to get to the inevitable zombie massacre that they forget to justify it through the characters' grief. Neither film really lets us believe that Louis would make the choice that he ultimately does. It has to come from a place of complete desperation and overwhelming sadness, but Pet Sematary knows why we're all here. It wants to get to the point, and fast.

That's one of the things that King's novel does so beautifully. Sure it's horrifying, but it's horrifying because it makes Louis' choice to resurrect his dead child feel perfectly natural - we understand why he does it, and even wonder if we would do the same were we in his position. Widmyer and Kölsch just want to to cut to the chase, and when they do, they completely rework King's original ending into something that totally undercuts the thematic integrity of the story. Rest easy, no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the ending of Pet Sematary 2019 isn't born of Louis' self-destructive grief, but from a desire to build upon the story's horror elements. The result feels strangely neutered, delivering on its gory promise but lacking the emotional anguish that made King's novel so troubling.

The 1989 film may look a bit cheesy now, but it was dirtier, meaner, and ultimately a more successful (if imperfect) take on King's material. King adaptations are hot right now, especially after the success of Andy Muschietti's It (2017), but if this perfunctory adaptation is all we're going to get out of some of King's most iconic works, perhaps they should stay buried. As Judd Crandall says, sometimes dead is better.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

PET SEMATARY | Directed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch | Stars Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Lucas Lavoie, Hugo Lavoie, Obssa Ahmed | Rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, April 05, 2019

One of the great joys of being a cinephile in the age of home video is not only the ability to watch a film whenever you want, but the ability to rewatch that film and savor moments in ways that aren't possible in a theatrical setting.

There's no experience quite like watching a film for the first time, not being quite sure what to make of it, while being fully certain that you've just experienced something incredibly unique and profound. That was my experience watching Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas's remarkable debut film, Japón on its new Criterion Blu-Ray. I was familiar with Reygadas - I first encountered him in college when his controversial Battle in Heaven (2005) piqued my interest. Later, his 2009 film, Silent Light, topped my 2009 best of the year list. Yet, for whatever reason, it wasn't until Criterion recently released Japón on Blu-Ray that I finally caught up with it. And what an experience it was.

When the film was over, thanks to the beauty of home video, I was able to immediately rewind the ending and watch it again, and again, and again, still unsure of what Reygadas was trying to convey but fully aware that it was something wholly breathtaking. That final tracking shot, surveying the carnage of a deadly car accident set to Arvo Pärt's haunting "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" is a mic-drop of an ending, but what does it mean? Searching for answers of that sort misses the forest for the trees, because Japón isn't the kind of film that leaves itself open to literal interpretation. Inspired by the likes of Tarkovsky and Dreyer, Reygadas' films often take on an intangible sense of spiritual meaning that works on a level that must be felt rather than made corporeal. To seek palpable answers, to seek ideas made flesh, is to miss the point entirely.

Shot in 16mm CinemaScope, Japón has a lingering, dreamlike quality, a sense of mystery and portent that infuses every moment with a kind of otherworldly beauty. At the center is a painter (Alejandro Ferretis) who has traveled to a remote village in Mexico with the intention of committing suicide. His plans are put on hold when he meets an old woman named Ascen (Magdalena Flores), who is under attack by locals who want to claim land rights over her tiny shack, essentially leaving her homeless. Moved my her plight, the man decides to delay his suicide in order to help her, but their relationship becomes something much more than either of them expected.

Like much of the rest of Reygadas' filmography, Japón puts the sexuality of unconventional bodies front and center. It is often difficult to watch, the man seeking one last sexual coupling before his death, the old woman trying in vain to contort her body as he asks, but as in all Reygadas films, what's going on here goes far beyond mere fornication. It is a film about two lost souls finding themselves, but they don't necessarily find what they're looking for, at least not in each other. It is an enigmatic blend of the sacred and the profane, as much prayer as pornography. But nothing here is meant to titillate or arouse, instead, it's a poetic exploration of the nature of life itself, one that finds something of the divine even in the most desolate and desperate of locations, exploring the very nature of life and death and humanity's tenuous relationship with both. Ascen's name literally means "ascent," and it is here that The Man finds himself closest to God. But to what end? Reygadas leaves that up to the audience, pulling the rug out from under us in the film's final moments and leaving us to contemplate what it was all about.

That seeking, probing, and questioning is what Japón is all about. The Man may be our Virgil on either an ascent into Heaven or a descent into Hell, but it is left up to a profoundly moved audience to decide which.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

JAPÓN | Directed by Carlos Reygadas | Stars Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection

Special Features: 
  • New 2K digital restoration, supervised by director Carlos Reygadas, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante 
  • Video diary shot by actor Alejandro Ferretis during the film’s production 
  • Adulte, a 1998 short film by Reygadas 
  • Deleted scene 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli, behind-the-scenes photographs, and a selection of Reygadas’s original storyboards

Thursday, April 04, 2019

After the success of Green Book, the prospect of another film in which a racist gets redeemed after meeting an extraordinary person of color is enough to elicit groans and eye-rolls. Hollywood has often tried to portray racism as a result of intentional hate and malice, ignoring its institutional and at times invisible qualities, completely divorced from conscious hatred and built into the very fabric of our society.

While Robin Bissell's The Best of Enemies absolutely takes a micro rather than a macro look at racism in America, it avoids many of the pitfalls that Green Book fell into. The story is somewhat well known here in North Carolina - how black civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) became close friends with C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the local president of the Ku Klux Klan, after serving on a board together to come up with a solution for improving black schools in Durham in 1971. The resulting conference lead to Ellis resigning from the Klan and helping to bring integration to Durham schools, an issue he had previously fought against.

If you think it sounds like another "redeem the racist white man" movie, you'd be partially correct. To its credit, however, while the film is very much about listening to one's enemies, it is very much not engaging in the kind of disingenuous "very fine people on both sides" rhetoric that is its own special brand of racism. The Best of Enemies does not necessarily exonerate Ellis, showing in the end that he still has to grapple with the system of white supremacy that he helped build and uphold by creating the first KKK youth corps in America. The film does not pretend that what Atwater and Ellis did in any way ended racism, or that their story provides any sort of blue print for "listening to racists" in order to solve racism. What it does is tell a remarkable, self-contained story that actually takes the time to acknowledge the systemic nature of white supremacy, and that the battle is far from over.

Films like this often serve to make racism seem like a thing of the past, their happy endings absolving white people of responsibility for a system of white supremacy that still very much exists today. The "charette" at the center of the film (a meeting that brings two opposing sides together to listen to one another) is not shown as a template for giving quarter to the ideas of racists, because the film acknowledges that the only ones there who really had anything to learn were the white people. Yet the film never goes so far as to employ white savior tropes, and Ann Atwater is never portrayed as a "magical African American friend" who redeems Ellis, which already sets the film apart from the likes of Green Book. As portrayed by Henson, Atwater is a fierce advocate and community organizer. That her tenacity eventually wins Ellis over takes a back seat to her efforts to better her own community, and Henson is a force of nature who digs down deep and delivers a terrific performance.

It would be great if Hollywood would acknowledge racism for the complex problem that it is, rather than simply a matter of redeeming one racist at a time. But The Best of Enemies doesn't try to tell us that Atwater and Ellis' friendship changed the hearts or minds of any other racists. It's simply a lovely story, and less a testament to a white man's change of heart than a portrait of one very real woman's tireless advocacy and how it lead to integration and an opportunity for better education for the black children of Durham. It may be a rather straightforward melodrama, but it's a largely affecting story of two people who beat the odds, a bigoted man who needed to open up and listen, and the extraordinary woman who made him hear what he needed to hear, and made a difference in one small Southern town.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE BEST OF ENEMIES | Directed by Robin Bissell | Stars Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley | Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference | Opens Friday, April 5, in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

The best of Disney's recent glut of live-action remakes of their animated classics have been the ones that haven't hewed so closely to the original films as to become almost shot-for-shot remakes. I'm thinking, of course, of Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and David Lowery's Pete's Dragon, both fantastic films in their own right that captured the spirit of the original while charting their own course.

Tim Burton may be responsible for one of the absolute worst Disney remakes, 2010's garish Alice in Wonderland, but he has more than redeemed himself with his new remake of Dumbo (1941), a delightful flight of fantasy that expands beyond the original film and becomes something wholly its own.

The film is squarely in Burton's comfort zone, there's a circus, unusual characters, and a protagonist who doesn't fit in with the world around him. Burton has always had an affinity for society's outcasts, from Vincent to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Frankenweenie, the loners and the unloved have always been the center of Burton's universe. So the story of a big-eared elephant who overcomes his differences by learning to fly seems a perfect vehicle for Burton, bringing in a certain sense of emotional grounding that has been missing from his more recent filmography.

The story is, by now, familiar. But Burton doesn't simply retell Dumbo with real actors. This time, Dumbo's circle is bought out by a sinister corporation who wants to exploit Dumbo for cash while laying off the rest of the circus performers. There's something deeply ironic about Disney releasing this film the very week that they laid off the entire staff of Fox 2000 after buying out 20th Century Fox, but Burton almost seems to be mischievously tweaking the very company he's working for. That's not to say that Disney released a film whose content they were unaware of, because naturally they're in full control of their own intellectual properties, but there's something almost subversive about the anti-corporate message at the heart of Dumbo. Call it hypocrisy on Disney's part, call it tone-deafness, call it what you will, but I applaud what Burton is doing here, tweaking the machine and thumbing his nose at the capitalist system from the inside.

Dumbo is Burton's best film in recent memory, at least since Sweeney Todd (2007), finding a sense of wonder and beauty in the trappings of a turn-of-the-century circus. It's all thoroughly modern, with an anti-captivity message and a noticeable lack of the racist crows from the original (the Jim Crow character was cringe-y even by the standards of 1941), but Burton finds an old-fashioned spirit of kindness and generosity in a film that could have easily been another product in Disney's live action assembly line. Come for the timeless story, stay for Danny DeVito as a two-bit huckster with a heart of gold and Michael Keaton's wonderfully bizarre performance as the villainous CEO. There's a glimmer of some old-school Burton lunacy here, and in Dumbo it actually feels like something akin to an emotional return to form. When Dumbo takes off on the wings of Danny Elfman's soaring score, you'll believe an elephant can fly.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DUMBO | Directed by Tim Burton | Stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Alan Arkin | Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide

Friday, March 29, 2019

No other film in the 2018 Oscar race got a more raw deal than Damien Chazelle's First Man. One of the crowning achievements of the year in cinema was routinely ignored at every turn, only managing four (well deserved) technical nominations, and one win for Best Visual Effects. Yet no other film last year was so masterfully directed, so beautifully composed, or as deeply powerful as this. One day we will look back on this past Oscar season and scratch our heads as to why such a towering work was so inexplicably overlooked.

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

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

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

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

The Blu-Ray release magnificently preserves the grainy aesthetic of the earthbound scenes, making the stunning moon landing sequence stand out in its breathtaking clarity. The making-of featurettes offer a smorgasbord of behind-the-scenes tidbits that actually work to deepen ones appreciation of the craft that went into the making of the film. Perhaps most impressive, "Shooting for the Moon" details the process of shooting the claustrophobic outer-space scenes, and how the filmmakers built giant LED screens around motion-enabled cockpit sets, essentially building a theme park ride in which to shoot the actors in order to garner the most authentic performances possible. Those shots of the men looking out of their cockpits at the Earth and sky below weren't made possible with a green screen, they're brought to life through a new spin on the old technique of projections. Such completely immersive filmmaking is hard to find, and that sense of tangible reality created by Chazelle and his team of designers is keenly felt within the film. It's an achievement on a rare scale deserves to finally find its audience on home video.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIRST MAN | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Shea Whigham, Christopher Abbott, Brian d'Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Patrick Fugit | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital platforms.

Special features include:

  • · Deleted Scenes
  • · Shooting for the Moon 
  • · Preparing to Launch 
  • · Giant Leap in One Small Step 
  • · Mission Gone Wrong
  • · Putting You In the Seat 
  • · Recreating the Moon Landing
  • · Shooting at NASA
  • · Astronaut Training 
  • · Feature Commentary with Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer and Editor Tom Cross

Thursday, March 28, 2019

It's been over 50 years since we last saw Mary Poppins on screen in 1964. Perhaps one of Walt Disney's most beloved classics, Mary Poppins has entered into the popular lexicon in a way few films ever have. With Disney's current penchant for raiding its own back catalogue for sequels and remakes, it was perhaps inevitable that they should eventually return to Poppins, despite the fact that original star Julie Andrews is now too old to reprise the ageless role in a direct sequel.

So the studio turned to Emily Blunt, who capably (but not completely) fills Andrews' prim shoes as the titular magical nanny. Set some thirty years after the original film, Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns finds Mary returning to the London home of the Banks family, where widower Michael (Ben Whishaw) now lives with his three children, and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer). A series of bad financial decisions has put the Banks family on the brink of losing their home, and unless they can locate their father's bank shares by the end of the week, they'll lose the Banks house.

Naturally, Mary Poppins comes to the rescue, along with lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), leading the family through a fun-filled romp that teaches them all to let go and recapture their childhood. The film follows a very similar trajectory as its predecessor, very carefully replicating original musical numbers with new songs that are far less memorable. "Can You Imagine That" is the new "A Spoonful of Sugar," "The Royal Doulton Music Hall" replaces "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" stands in for "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Turning Turtle" is another silly supporting character sidebar much like "I Love to Laugh," and "Nowhere to Go But Up" is the modern answer to "Let's Go Fly a Kite." Yet for the most part, it all feels like reheated left-overs, never able to recapture the original film's simple magic. It hews so closely to the plot and structure of the original film that it is never able to establish any sort of personality of its own, or really any reason for existing in the first place.

No other studio is quite so adept at weaponizing nostalgia as Disney. But the formula is starting to feel tired. Mary Poppins Returns follows very similar thematic territory to the studio's other belated 2018 sequel, Christopher Robin, yet that film managed to handle ideas of recapturing childhood with greater care. By contrast, Mary Poppins Returns feels overstuffed, brimming with elaborate musical numbers and grand production design, but never really goes anywhere. Even the appearances of Dick Van Dyke (reprising his role of the bank manager from the original film) and Angela Lansbury in the film's final 20 minutes can make up for the lackluster quality of the preceding two hours.

Van Dyke and Lansbury are naturally the highlights of the film (sending the film off in a wistful sense of whimsy it had been sorely lacking up to that point), and the film does manage to pick up steam after its climax (which makes the mistake of arriving the obvious solution to the problem at hand after quite a bit of superfluous suspense), but the whole affair is so listless that its manufactured joy never feels genuine or particularly magical, bludgeoning the audience into submission with its nostalgic cheerfulness rather than with the graceful touch that made Christopher Robin so endearing. Moments of inspiration (the lovely animated sequence mid-way through, Meryl Streep's wacky cameo, David Warner as an ancient Admiral Boom) are then drowned by director Rob Marshall's busy and overstuffed musical numbers that have the spirit but none of the wonder of the original Mary Poppins. It's a film that's been focus-grouped within an inch of its life, immaculately designed to follow its formula to the letter without offering any surprises or any real warm and fuzzy recollections of its predecessor, unless it's to wonder why you're not just watching the original film instead.

The special features on the Blu-Ray, however, manage to capture a sense of wonder and nostalgia that the film itself is never quite able to. Seeing Dick Van Dyke return to the Cherry Tree Lane set, singing some of his signature tunes from the original Mary Poppins, is sure to be a delight for fans of the original film. Some perfunctory blooper reels and deleted scenes are fun, but the making-of doc (featuring Emily Blunt's first nervous attempt at flying) and Van Dyke's recollections are what really steal the show. If you, like me, found the film a bit underwhelming and less nostalgic than it perhaps wanted to be, the focus on Van Dyke in the supplements adds a sense of magic the film lacks when he isn't on screen.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MARY POPPINS RETURNS | Directed by Rob Marshall | Stars Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Karen Dotrice, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, David Warner | Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital platforms.

Special Features Include:
  • Bloopers
  • Blu-Ray Bonus Extras
  • Deleted scenes
  • Deleted song: The Anthropomorphic Zoo
  • Over an Hour of Bonus Including a Sing-Along Edition 
  • The practically perfect making of Mary Poppins Returns

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Purportedly the last film to feature his now iconic Madea character, Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral is the 11th film in which the filmmaker as appeared as the character, and you can practically feel the indifference dripping off this thing. Perry has often gotten flak from critics about his lack of directorial polish, but I've always found something fascinating and personal in his work. However, the overall quality of the work has been slipping of late, especially in the last few Madea films, that began coming off the rails with the release of Boo: A Madea Halloween.

Perry seems eager to put the character behind him, and A Madea Family Funeral reflects that general sense of ennui. There's nothing new here, and the same old jokes feel tired and listless. He doesn't even bother to give the film a proper ending, with Madea wandering off the porch in the middle of another argument and then cutting straight to the requisite blooper reel over the end credits.

The film combines the worst tendencies of the two Boo films and Perry's usual domestic drama aesthetic. While Boo and Boo 2 moved away from Perry's brand of wholesome comedy featuring Madea's wisecracking wisdom mixed with religious flavored domestic drama, A Madea Family Funeral at least attempts to put the more serious drama at the forefront. It's "better" than Boo 2 in that it has some semblance of a plot, but unfortunately long sequences of Perry riffing off himself as no less than 4 different characters, along with Aunt Bam (the delightful Cassi Davis) and the painfully unfunny Hattie (Patrice Lovely, who has inexplicably been given more and more to do since debuting in Boo, bog the film down. The central drama, in which a distant Madea relative dies while cheating on his wife, uncovering a wealth of infidelities within the family, is nothing new in Perry-world, and Madea doesn't really do much to fix any of it.

Madea has been more of an agent of chaos than a source of wisdom in recent films, and that continues here, as she mostly sits on the sidelines and complains and does little to influence the plot around her. The appeal of the character has always been her no-nonsense (and often unorthodox) brand of tough love and wisdom, but it seems like Perry has run out of ideas for her, filling the film instead with tired (and vaguely homophobic) jokes that are all set-up and no payoff. While it's doubtful that this is his final film featuring the characters (she's far too popular to put to bed forever), A Madea Family Funeral shows that its definitely time to give her a nice, long rest.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

A MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tyler Perry, Patrice Lovely, Cassi Davis, Ciera Payton, KJ Smith, David Otunga, Quin Walters, Selena Anduze | Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, language, and drug references throughout | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

After the success of 2017's Get Out (grossing over $176,000,000 domestically and garnering writer/director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), anticipation for Peele's follow-up film was high. Sophomore features can be a difficult hurdles for filmmakers who achieve so much success right out of the gate, but Us deftly avoids the sophomore slump for Peele and showcases him as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

Us is arguably an even more complex film than Get Out  Much was made about the social themes that made Get Out so unforgettable, and Us continues Peele's exploration of societal ills as horror, but this time the conclusions he reaches are so cut-and-dried. Us is a much thornier film, one that grapples with difficult questions without coming to any definitive conclusions. While Get Out explored unexamined racism in white liberals ("I would have voted for Obama three times if I could have"), US has a much broader target. Here, the villains are quite literally us.

The film begins as a home invasion thriller (a la Funny Games and The Strangers), in which the Wilson family is terrorized by a family that looks exactly like them. They call themselves "the tethered," shadows of people from the world above who live underground, whose lives mirror those of their tethered counterparts, two bodies sharing one soul, inexorably linked but never co-existing. But the time has come for them to emerge from the shadows and take their place in the outside world, killing their tethered counterparts and ushering in a new era of humanity ruled by those forgotten by society.

Peele quickly expands the home invasion aesthetic into something much grander and broader in scope. It's not always easy to see what Peele is going for here - Us is an incredibly dense film, layering ideas and subtexts into a veritable feast that works as both a straight horror film and an acerbic commentary on reckoning with the sins of America's past. Here we have America's forgotten, all wearing red, rising up from underground to build a wall across the country. But it would be irresponsible to read the film as simply a critique on Trump-era policies. Us is also a film about confronting the past, and the monster within ourselves. America was a nation built on the backs of slave labor, and that original sin comes back to haunt the film's characters in often terrifying ways.

Us forces us to grapple with our own culpability in systems of oppression. What if, after all this time, the monster is really us? At what point do we have to acknowledge that we have benefitted from invisible privilege? It's a wholly fascinating work, a film that operates on so many levels simultaneously that it often feels like an astonishing high-wire act, built around a truly spectacular performance by Lupita N'yongo in a dual role. Few mainstream films ever deal with issues like this on such a deep level, but Jordan Peele is quickly establishing himself not as a great filmmaker, but a quintessential chronicler of our nation. He holds a mirror up to the audience, and what we see is far more terrifying than anything he could ever depict on screen.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

US | Directed by Jordan Peele | Stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker | Rated R for violence/terror, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Dog lovers rejoice, at long last here is a film about "man's best friend" that isn't the cinematic equivalent of syrupy ice cream sundae with plenty of sugar on top. Animals in film have become a sort of tool for easily manipulation and a shortcut to the tissue box, but Heddy Honigmann's documentary, Buddy, is none of those things, deftly avoiding overt sentimentalism in favor of a more direct exploration of the unique relationships humans have with our canine companions.

The dogs in question are service animals - each one devoted to its owner in its own way, and their owners depend on their faithful presence in every aspect of their lives. Whether their owners are blind, unable to walk, suffering from PTSD or severe autism, the dogs form unique bonds with their humans that goes far beyond typical human/pet relationships.

Much like last year's Kedi was for cat-lovers, Buddy will doubtlessly be beloved by dog-lovers everywhere. But it isn't as much about the dogs as it is about the people. Buddy is a disarmingly human story, as each human discovers something about themselves through their relationship with their dog. Honigmann patiently listens as her subjects recount tales of animals past, each one a singular presence in their life, bringing something new to the table before passing away and making way for a new service animal to come stand by their side. While some are just starting out with their first dog, some older subjects have had far more, and they wistfully reminisce about the cycle of life that has lead them to this moment.

Buddy is an uncommonly patient and observant film, teasing out deep and often profound truths as it examines the lives of its subjects and their relationships with the animals they love. Is it possible for a human to have an actual relationship with an animal? Can dogs truly feel love as we know it? Honigmann asks a lot of questions over the film's brief 86 minute runtime, but she leaves us with a kind of mysterious beauty. There is something very special about each and every one of these animals, something that can't quite be put into words. Yes, dog lovers, be prepared to shed a tear or two. But fear not, they won't necessarily be tears of sadness. This isn't your typical "child and their dog" story, it's something much deeper than that. It's a layered, joyous, and yet melancholic meditation on the nature of life, mortality, and companionship, and the results are something uncommonly beautiful.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BUDDY | Directed by Heddy Honigmann | Not RatedIn Dutch with English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.