Monday, December 11, 2017

Based on the graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, is a unique animated film set in a post-apocalyptic future that is both singular in its vision and unusual in its execution. There's an almost abstract, avant-garde quality to the direction by Vázquez and Pedro Rivero, who previously directed the Goya award winning short, BIRDBOY, a prequel to their latest film.

Off-putting and enchanting by equal measure, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is unlike anything I've ever seen. It tells the story of three children; a mouse named Dinky, a fox named Sandra, and a rabbit named Zorrito, who are living in a devastated world overrun by demons who infest peoples' souls with bitterness and hatred. Birdboy is a kind of savior figure, long thought dead and struggling with his own demons (that he contains by using drugs), pursued by police, and villainized by authorities.

Birdboy is a former friend of Dinky, and she has always known that there was something special about him. So she and her friends trek across the ruined countryside, facing dangerous and even deadly obstacles, in order to find Birdboy and rescue him from his assailants in order to set the world right again. But even if they do manage find him, the drugs may have completely destroyed the person he once was.

Birdboy is both gorgeous and bewildering, beautifully animated but often intentionally abstract and distancing. The world created by Vázquez and Rivero is shockingly brutal and dark, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. And yet it's almost impossible to look away. It's twisted tale of a devastated world populated my medicated shells of people who keep their demons at bay with illicit drugs is a potent one, to be sure. But it's all just so relentlessly bleak that it almost becomes oppressive.

Still, one can't help but admire the artistry and craft on display here. The hand drawn animation is often breathtaking, and its allegorical tale of Christ-like suffering and salvation is a heartrending one. But it's occasionally disorienting story doesn't do its thematic content any favors. As a result, it's a film that's easier to respect than to like, filled with dazzling artwork but saddled with a scattered story that doesn't always connect on an emotional level.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN | Directed by Alberto Vázquez & Pedro Rivero | Stars  Andrea Alzuri, Eva Ojanguren, Josu Cubero, Félix Arcarazo, Jorge Carrero | Not rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, Dec. 15, in select cities.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Knowledge is power, and libraries are temples in Frederick Wiseman's latest documentary, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. There are few filmmakers working today as reliably great as Wiseman, who at 87 years old, is still making some of the most fascinating documentaries in contemporary cinema, each offering a probing and engaging look behind the scenes of their chosen subject.

In Ex Libris, Wiseman tackles the New York Public Library system, exploring how they run, the programs they host, and the people who utilize their services. It's a fascinating cross section of America, where people from all walks of life converge in a quest for knowledge. Whether they are listening to guest speakers, expanding their minds, exploring contemporary issues in an intellectual forum, tracing their ancestry, or simply just trying to check out a mobile hotspot because they can't afford internet for their home. Here, everyone is equal. As one member of the library's board of directors points out, the library is the one place in New York where people don't avoid the homeless. Here, everyone is the same.

A documentary about a library that's longer than Titanic is never going to be a major hit. But what Wiseman achieves here is both beautiful and extraordinary. His keenly observant eye captures a microcosm of America, wherein everyone seeking to broaden their minds finds themselves on an equal plane with their fellow patrons. Ex Libris displays a profound love of facts and knowledge, something we need now more than ever. But deeper than that, it enters into a broader discussion about a venerable institution fighting to stay relevant in ever changing times. Whether they are expanding their e-book selection, or seeking to digitize their entire collection in an effort to open up access to the vastness of human knowledge to a wider audience, the New York Public Library's dedication to learning, even in the face of adversity, is incredible.

Wiseman also shows us the differences in the library branches that serve the different communities. The branches in African American communities, for example, face different challenges than those in more affluent, white neighborhoods. And yet, these libraries, these bastions of learning and culture, become meeting grounds for communities looking to improve themselves, and find ways to make life better for themselves and their children. It is a reflection on inequality not just of the economic kind, but in access to services and knowledge as well, which keep depressed communities reliant on those with better resources.

Reading is fundamental, as the old saying goes. In Ex Libris, it's absolutely essential. In a world gone digital, with facts and reality under constant attack, these institutions serve as one of the last remaining strongholds of what is real, proving that libraries are far from obsolete. In fact, they're more crucial now than they've ever been.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

EX LIBRIS: THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY | Directed by Frederick Wiseman | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Truth is often stranger than fiction, as James Franco surely discovered in making The Disaster Artist, a real-life tale that is perhaps one of the most singularly bizarre events in cinematic history. Franco himself stars as Tommy Wiseau, an amateur filmmaker who dreamed of being a Hollywood star. He, along with a 19-year-old aspiring actor named Greg (Dave Franco) he met in an acting class, decide to make their own movie after being turned down for part after part.

The result was The Room (2003), perhaps one of the most infamous bad movies ever made, a film that has gone down in history as a creative disaster of such epic proportions that it has actually managed to turn a profit on its reported $6 million budget through a successful series of midnight screenings. Now considered a cult classic, the story behind The Room is just as wild as the film itself. Wiseau, with his peculiar accent and idiosyncratic worldview, is often late to the set, unprepared, unaware of the filmmaking process, and obsessed with a singular artistic vision that only he understands. It isn't long before the cast and crew begins to realize that he has no idea what he's doing, and unrest starts to spread.

Paranoid and convinced that everyone is betraying him, Wiseau becomes increasingly volatile as the production lurches over its 40 day shooting schedule, throwing continuity out the window and lashing out at anyone who questions his methodology. It isn't long before even Greg, his one real friend, begins to question whether or not their dream of becoming real Hollywood filmmakers is actually worth it.

Even after watching the film, Wiseau remains an enigmatic figure. No one knows how old he is, where he's really from, or where he got his seemingly endless supply of money. Franco wisely doesn't attempt to unravel those mysteries, making Wiseau a quirky and somewhat endearing figure. His passion is undeniable, and The Disaster Artist celebrates that singular drive to create, even if the results aren't necessarily "good." It is reminiscent of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and yet there is a seemingly different perspective here. Whereas Burton revered Wood and his films, Franco seems to be snickering at Wiseau even as he attempts to laud his persistence and drive. It even treats a scene that amounts to sexual assault by a filmmaker as fodder for laughs, which in 2017 feels a bit tone deaf.

As a result, its climax doesn't come across as touching so much as an attempt to reverse the film's previous lampooning of Wiseau with a last minute emotional coda. It calls to mind Michael Stephenson's Best Worst Movie, which walked that fine line with more finesse in its exploration of the cult phenomenon around Troll 2. Still, The Disaster Artist is undeniably funny, and Franco is impressive as Wiseau, turning in perhaps the most accomplished performance of his career. I'm just not sure that we're not laughing at Wiseau, rather than with him.

In the year that also brought us James Gray's masterful The Lost City of ZThe Disaster Artist feels like a lesser exploration of the kind of singular obsession that burns too brightly for its own good. It creates an indelible character, to be sure, but one can't quite escape the feeling that it's punching down rather than up, its detached irony ending up as too arch and smug to really stick the landing.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE DISASTER ARTIST | Directed by James Franco | Stars James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Judd Apatow, Hannibal Buress, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith | Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Watching Joe Wright's Winston Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, mere months after the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a strange experience. It somehow manages to feel like both an essential extension of, and a lesser cousin to, Nolan's towering visceral achievement. And yet, it couldn't be further away from the feverish chaos of Dunkirk, dwelling instead in the darkened halls of Parliament where words rather than bullets are the weapons of choice.

The film focuses on the days leading up to Operation Dynamo, the civilian boat evacuation of Dunkirk that was depicted in Nolan's film, and Churchill's singleminded struggle to convince Parliament that war, rather than appeasement, was the only way to stop the Nazi advance across Europe. After Neville Chamberlain was forced out of office in 1940, Churchill was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain to form a coalition government. Yet many in his party believed that the only way to keep from being invaded by Germany was to strike an agreement with Hitler and stay out of the war raging in Europe.

Churchill believed strongly that Hitler would never hold up his end of any bargain, and that Britain's allies currently being overrun by the German military on the continent needed Britain's help rather than its apathy. So he set out to convince his cabinet, his Parliament, and his king, that Britain must fight, only to find his entire military stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, surrounded by a superior German force. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Churchill is forced to risk invasion and the annihilation of the British homeland, or strike a bargain with an evil tyrant and abandon the rest of Europe to its fate.

Darkest Hour often feels like the flip-side of the Dunkirk coin, showing us what was going on in the halls of power leading up to and during the evacuation.  Yet what makes it so interesting isn't just Gary Oldman's remarkable performance as Churchill, it's how it displays a much different kind of violence. Churchill "weaponizes the English language," as one vanquished foe begrudgingly grumbles. And indeed, while war wages in Europe, a war of words wages in Britain.

It is unfair to compare the film to Dunkirk, however, because they really have nothing to do with each other, other than focusing on similar events from very different perspectives. But they compliment each other very well, even if Dunkirk is ultimately the more daring and stylistically engaging work. Darkest Hour is more akin to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, yet Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) doesn't quite have Spielberg's uncanny sense of pacing. It drags here and there, and has a rather familiar dramatic structure, but for the most part it's riveting cinema, turning parliamentary procedure into the stuff of great drama.

Oldman is, of course, every bit as good as you've probably heard, nearly unrecognizable under makeup and prosthetics in a role that seems tailor-made to win an Oscar. Oldman tears into the role with great relish, and deserves all the praise that's surely heading his way in a way that brushes aside any comparison's to John Lithgow's Emmy-winning turn as Churchill in the Netflix series, The Crown. The film itself may seem like the most basic form of Oscar bait, but Wright has a knack for visualizing the seemingly un-cinematic, and he creates a compelling film out of the backroom deals and Parliamentary finagling that went into convincing Britain to wage war against Hitler. It may not be as lofty or as moving as it seems to be trying to be, but it is nevertheless a solid chamber drama anchored by an incredible performance by its star. It also deserves to be watched in conjunction with Dunkirk. Together they make an unintentional diptych that presents a wide-ranging and powerful portrait of the events leading up to WWII, ending in similar places and giving greater insight into the the early stages of the most deadly conflict in modern human history from the perspectives of the men on the ground, and the men who sent them there.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DARKEST HOUR | Directed by Joe Wright | Stars  Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Richard Lumsden | Rated PG-13 for some thematic material | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) prefers to be called Lady Bird, thank you very much. Because Christine is the name her parents gave her; and parents, as we all know, are clueless. In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's wise and wonderful directorial debut, teenage rebellion is commonplace, not necessarily as an act of parental rebuke, but as an assertion of one's own identity.

Lady Bird's parents are not wealthy, yet she goes to an upscale Catholic school in Sacramento where she and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) spend their days talking about boys and working on the school play. They're not outcasts, but they're certainly not the cool kids either. That's when Lady Bird meets the handsome and talented Danny (Lucas Hedges), and falls madly in love. His family lives in a nice part of town; and since she is from, as she puts it, "the wrong side of the tracks," she finds herself drawn to his more lavish lifestyle, and begins neglecting her old friends and creating a new persona in an attempt to advance her own social status.

Ashamed of who she is and where she's from, and constantly nagged by her mother (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird will do almost anything to get as far away from her family as possible, only applying to schools on the opposite side of the country. But the more she denies who she is and where she comes from, the more she begins to realize that maybe home isn't quite so bad after all.

Coming of age films are nothing new, nor are films in which the main character learns that there's no place like home. But there's just something so honest and real about Gerwig's characters. Set in 2002, Lady Bird is likely to hit very close to home for viewers of my generation who were in high school in the early 2000s, but its themes are universal. Gerwig also displays a keen understanding of how class affects identity, and one's belief in their own potential. Lady Bird's family assumes there's no way she can get into a good college, and they couldn't afford it if she did, so why even entertain the thought? That doesn't make them love her any less, but her parents' practicality clashes her idealism, putting a limit on her dreams through no real fault of their own.

Sharp, disarmingly perceptive, and wickedly funny, Lady Bird is perhaps the most incisive coming of age film since Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World (2001). It is a film of great empathy that seems to have an instinctive grasp of not only what it feels like to grow up in middle America, but what it what it means to be a millennial. Gerwig nails my generation in all its messy, awkward, messed up glory, searching for answers in a world that doesn't seem to care about our problems. And yet there's a deep wisdom in its ultimate acknowledgement that maybe our parents weren't as wrong as we once thought they were. Maybe we don't have everything figured out after all. And maybe they don't either. But the real beauty of Lady Bird is that it doesn't really matter who has the answers, because we're all just trying to figure out this life together.

What Gerwig has achieved here is simply remarkable. Lady Bird is a beautifully performed and smartly written coming-of-age comedy that displays an astonishing mastery of craft and character, exploring the complexities of growing up with intelligence and insight. It's a touching and genuine portrait of millennial unease made with true grace and wit. In a world that consistently denigrates our generation, blaming us for every problem under the sun, Lady Bird treats us with warmth and understanding, while gently admonishing us not to ignore the knowledge of those who came before. That balance, that respect, that striking sense of introspection, is a marvelous thing indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LADY BIRD | Directed by Greta Gerwig | Stars  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen Henderson, Lois Smith, Odeya Rush | Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

From The Dispatch:
It doesn’t always work. McDonagh is far more comfortable with blunt force exchanges than the more tender moments. As a result, “Three Billboards” often feels well-intentioned but rough around the edges. McDormand is tremendous, as are Harrelson and Rockwell, and their conviction helps the creakier elements land. But even though you sometimes get the feeling that McDonagh is out of his comfort zone, the film has a kind of lived-in charm that is hard to resist. He nails small town Americana (it was filmed in the mountains of North Carolina, which has been my home for half my life now), and even manages to end on a note of hope.
Click here to read my full review.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI is now playing in theaters everywhere.

I was a fan of figure skating from a young age, so I have distinct memories of the 1994 assault on Nancy Kerrigan for which Tonya Harding gained infamy. Being only seven years old at the time, I wasn't fully aware of all the circumstances surrounding the attack, but I remember the shock of discovering that one of Kerrigan's fellow figure skaters was involved. Even at seven, it just all seemed to crazy to believe.

Therein lies the premise of Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya; it all is absolutely too crazy to be believed. Combining testimony from both Harding (Margot Robie) and her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), as well as Harding's mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), and co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Gillespie paints a "truth is stranger than fiction" portrait that is an admitted amalgam of truth and lies filtered through the eyes of those who lived it. What makes the story so fascinating is that the testimony of the key players is so wildly different, and I, Tonya revels in the half-truths, exaggerations, and outright fabrications to craft a tale that exists somewhere in between truth and fiction.

Robie's Tonya is a troubled woman, with an abusive mother and an abusive husband, who wants nothing more than to be the best figure skater in the world. The first American woman to land a triple axel in a competition, Harding was undeniably talented, but was unpolished; an unrepentant bad girl whom the judges had little patience for. The film examines the thorny circumstances surrounding the infamous assault on Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics, which lead to Harding being banned from professional figure skating, but wonders just how complicit she really was. Was it a ridiculous prank that got out of hand? Did the acceptance of sending death threaters to Kerrigan (the initial plan that lead to the assault) make her culpable in the final outcome?

Harding, for her part, refuses to take the blame for anything, which is what makes her such a complicated figure. She's foul-mouthed and rough around the edges, and surrounded by idiots that constantly push her down the wrong path. It's a cast of larger-than-life characters straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film, if Tarantino ever made a film about figure skating. But Gillespe has bigger aims, asking us to examine our own complicity in a culture of celebrity that helped breed, and then destroy, the persona known as Tonya Harding. In one of the film's most chilling moments, Robie's Harding looks directly into the camera and accuses the audience of being her abusers, every bit as responsible for tearing her down as the family that abused her physically.

I only wish the film had followed that line of thought a little more convincingly, as it's a goldmine of thematic riches. I, Tonya is a film about our culture of celebrity and the merciless 24 hour news cycle as it is about Harding herself. It's a film that dwells on speculation and suggestion rather than actual facts, and it asks us to examine our own thirst for scandal and consumption of such tabloid journalism affects real people. Robie's Harding is neither angel nor devil, she's a wounded woman living in a world that as much of her own devising as it is of those around her. Where does Harding the media creation end, and Harding the person begin?

Who's to say? That's what I, Tonya is getting at here. It's not a perfect film. It's sharply written, and Robie and Janney are sensational, but it leaves some of its strongest thematic content untapped. Yet even if it isn't as psychologically complex as it could be, it still dwells in a kind of ambiguity that makes us question our perception of a person and an event we thought we understood.  It doesn't ask us to like Harding, it only asks that we empathize with another human being, and acknowledge that perhaps, just maybe, there are multiple sides to a story that once seemed cut and dried. By peering beneath the seedy supermarket tabloid veneer of its story, it manages to find a disarming humanity that goes much deeper than the sensational headlines ever suggested.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

I, TONYA | Directed by Craig Gillespie | Stars  Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Caitlin Carver, Bobby Cannavale | Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity | Opens this Friday, Dec. 8, in select cities.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

There was a moment in Call Me By Your Name when I realized my heart was full and I was deliriously in love with the rapturous magic of cinema. Such is the power of Luca Guadagnino's magnificent new film, which explores the mysteries, the ecstasies, and the heartbreak of first love through the eyes of a teenage son of an American professor and an Italian woman living in Italy.

The moment comes about two thirds of the way through the film, as young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the handsome of grad student currently living with his family, frolic in front of a waterfall accompanied by Sufjan Stevens' haunting new song, "Mystery of Love." There's just something so tender, so beautiful, and so carefree about that scene that I found myself completely transported, lost in a moment so sublime that it almost seemed to radiate across the boundaries of the screen.

Up to that point, we've watched Elio and Oliver go from begrudging acquaintances (Elio is annoyed that he has to give up his room for their new guest) to hesitant friends, to full blown lovers, as Elio navigates the first pangs of young love. Oliver, on the other hand, is more hesitant. As the film takes place in the 1980s, his feelings for Elio are more taboo, and he holds back out of respect for Elio and his relationship with his family. That the two will eventually become lovers is never in question, what makes the film so engaging is how the two leads navigate their characters' emotions. Chalamet is absolutely extraordinary as Elio, exuding a languid, un-self conscious sensuality that is at once confident and vulnerable. It's a magnetic performance; honest, playful, and lived-in, the crowning achievement of an incredible year for the young actor (he also appears in Lady Bird and Hostiles).

Hammer is more aloof but no less effective as Oliver, a more mature and self-aware man who understands his place in Elio's life, even if the sometimes starry-eyed Elio himself can't quite grasp it. That's what makes the film so heartbreaking - both the characters know this can't possibly work. Both have separate lives in countries on opposite sides of the world, but what they feel is so deep and so powerful that they can't possibly deny it. They are both matched by Michael Stuhlbarg's beautifully understated performance as Elio's father, who shares a most tender and poignant scene with Chalamet near the film's end that is almost a small, self-contained masterpiece of writing and acting all its own.

“Is it better to speak, or to die?" asks a character in a German folk tale read aloud by Elio's mother (Amira Casar). It's the central question of Call Me By Your Name, recalling Tennyson's old adage that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Is it better to hide one's feelings, knowing it will save heartbreak in the long run, or to speak up and embark on a journey that one knows will only lead to loss? That, as Sufjan Stevens softly croons, is the mystery of love. Luca Guadagnino has crafted a love story for the ages, a singularly breathtaking work of art that recalls the work of Bergman (Summer Interlude hangs heavy here), Bertolucci, and Visconti. I can't remember the last time I found a film so wholly enrapturing. There is a haunting and piercing timelessness in the way it captures those fleeting moments of fiery, moon-eyed passion that come with it.

Speaking of Luis Buñuel at a dinner party in the film, a family guest says that "cinema is a mirror of reality and it’s a filter." Call Me By Your Name is absolutely both. As both an embodiment of the emotions of young love and an idealization of its innocence and beauty, it is a film that feels somehow recognizable and yet larger than life, as if some loves are too good and pure for this world. I try not to throw around the word "masterpiece" too often, but some films defy any other descriptor. Call Me By Your Name is a masterpiece; a wise, wonderful, and perfectly crafted romance that lingers and enchants, standing tall as one of the finest cinematic achievements in recent memory.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME | Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Stars  Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel | Rated R for sexual content, nudity and some language | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Few contemporary filmmakers have been chronicling the immigrant experience with as much tenderness as Aki Kaurismäki. His 2011 film, Le Havre, touched on the subject through its tale of an African boy who stows away on a Finnish ship, and is taken in by an old man. It was a beautiful film, but one that feels even more timely now in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. So Kaurismäki reworked the plot of Le Havre into The Other Side of Hope, a direct comment on the plight of Syrian refugees.

Instead of an African boy, the subject here is an adult Syrian named Khaled (Sherwan Haji), who stows away on a boat to escape the violence in his hometown of Aleppo. After his request for asylum is denied, he goes on the run, where he meets Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling salesman who has just left his wife to make a living on his own. Their paths cross after Wikström buys a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that he tries unsuccessfully to transform into a bar, a sushi place, and an Italian eatery, with increasingly laughable results. Despite his unsuccessful efforts to become a restauranteur, Wikström endeavors to help Khaled in any way he can, including helping him track down the long lost sister he left behind in war-torn Syria.

Despite its heavy subject matter, The Other Side of Hope is a gently comic tale of disparate souls united by a common humanity. Kaurismäki's typical deadpan sense of humor highlights the absurdity of his characters' respective journeys, showing the relative ease with which the white Wikström fails upward, stumbling into success through sheer luck, while the arguably more talented Khaled faces constant prejudice, mistrust, and hatred.

The refugee crisis has been just as controversial in Europe as it has been here in America, and Kaurismäki examines it as a consummate humanist. Khaled is denied asylum despite clear evidence that sending him back to Syria would endanger his life, while the citizens of Finland, many of whom are arguably less qualified for their jobs than the hard working Khaled (personified here by Wikström's hilariously lazy employees), that will never understand the obstacles the refugees have overcome.

Kaurismäki has stated that The Other Side of Hope is the second part of a planned trilogy with Le Havre, loosely titled the "refugee trilogy" (originally the "harbor trilogy" but changed due to current events). It ultimately feels like a lesser companion to Le Havre, but it also feels more urgent, repurposing plot elements from the previous film to directly comment on the current crisis. While it takes a bit too long to throw its two lead characters together, it isn't without reason, even if the result is a bit structurally awkward. But it wouldn't be a Kaurismäki is awkwardness weren't at the forefront, and his dry visual wit remains as sparkling as ever. Kuosmanen, who has been a frequent Kaurismäki collaborator ever since 1985's Calamari Union, is perfect as the stone-faced Wikström, while Haji, an actual Syrian refugee who came to Finland in 2010, gives the film its resolute heart. It may not have the same emotional impact as Le Havre, but it's hard to resist the amiable warmth and bittersweet sense of melancholy Kaurismäki employs in order to engender empathy from his audience. That is, perhaps, the finest achievement of The Other Side of Hope - taking a controversial, hot-button topic, and whittling it down to the humanity beneath the rhetoric.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE | Directed by Aki Kaurismäki | Stars Sakari Kuosmanen, Sherwan Haji, Simon Al-Bazoon, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu, Ilkka Koivula | Not Rated | In Finnish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Shot in gorgeous shades of green, Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water is a breathtaking fairy tale take on one of cinema's greatest monsters. Del Toro has always been fascinated with monster movies, and that love has informed much of his work, from Cronos (1993) to Pan's Labyrinth (2006) to Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013).

Following in the footsteps of Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is a monster movie with a heart, a film about outcasts finding each other in a world that doesn't understand them. It's a romantic riff on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, wherein a mysterious half-man, half-fish creature (Doug Jones) is brought back form the Amazon and stored at a top secret government facility for study. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at the facility, is all alone in the world save for her aging roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her fellow janitor, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Each is alienated in their own way - Giles is gay and Zelda is black, and in the 1960s both were seen as a huge liability.

It is in this island of misfits that Del Toro sets his tale. Elisa soon discovers an affinity with the creature, who is treated only with violence by his military captors, lead by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and responds in kind. In Elisa, however, he finds a kindred spirit, and she soon hatches a plan to break him out of the facility. Pursued by the military and a group of Soviet spies, Elisa and the creature form a unique bond that is all their own.

By turning The Creature from the Black Lagoon into a love story by way of Douglas Sirk, Del Toro creates a singular tale of interspecies relationships that takes on something much deeper than its potentially icky ramifications suggest. This isn't a film about bestiality, it's a film about those left behind by society finding kindred spirits, where societal taboos break down and the freaks find the love and acceptance they deserve, naysayers be damned. In that way, The Shape of Water feels very much like the film we need right now, a gentle and heartrending reminder that being different doesn't mean having to live a life alone.

After her tremendous performance in Maudie, Hawkins is having an incredible year, and her performance here is something deeply tender and soulful without ever uttering a word. She is matched by the peerless Shannon and the ever-reliable Spencer, proving that they're two of the finest actors working today. But one can't ignore the fine work of Doug Jones, who makes us care about this creature even under thick layers of impressive makeup effects. He and Hawkins are the heart and soul of the film, and their conviction helps sell Del Toro's often outlandish story.

Like a warmer and fuzzier Pan's LabyrinthThe Shape of Water is sumptuously designed in the way that all Del Toro films are, featuring impeccable production and costume design; not to mention a glorious score by Alexandre Desplat, whose lilting main theme burrows its way into the mind and carries us out of the theater on bittersweet wings. Everything about the film is just so lovely; even in the moments of graphic violence that so often appear in Del Toro's films, he manages us to show us the ugliness of the world without losing sight of its beauty. It is our differences that make us unique, and Del Toro understands that that is an asset, not a liability. This gentle fairy tale that reminds us that we are not alone, no matter how isolated we may feel. At once thrilling and stirring, The Shape of Water is a like a big, warm hug of a movie, wrapping us the warm embrace of an ocean of feelings that will dazzle the senses and make the heart soar. It's one of his finest achievements.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE SHAPE OF WATER | Directed by Guillermo Del Toro | Stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language | Opens today, Dec. 1, in New York and Los Angeles.

If you've seen a Woody Allen film in the last 10 years, chances are you've already seen a better version of his latest film, Wonder Wheel. Saying that it is an amalgam of the weakest elements of his last three or four films doesn't really say much for Wonder Wheel, nor does it say much for the later period output of the legendary filmmaker. It's difficult to deny the man's talent, having released more than one masterpiece in his career. And when you're as prolific as he is, well...they can't all be winners.

Still, there have been highlights in his recent work - Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013), Cafe Society (2016), and his Amazon TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes (2016), have all had something to offer. But Wonder Wheel seems to cherry pick all the things about those films that didn't work, and combine them into something that still very much does not work.

Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a waitress quickly approaching 40 and stuck in a dead-end marriage to an alcoholic Coney Island carousel operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi). They live in a run down apartment overlooking the Wonder Wheel, barely scraping by with Ginny's young son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), who likes to set things on fire. Their life is interrupted by the arrival of Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who is on the run from her ex-husband, a mobster, who now wants her dead. Things are further complicated when Ginny meets a handsome young lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) on the beach, and begins to fall in love. But Mickey, it seems, has eyes for Carolina instead.

Allen takes the love triangle and mobster subplots from Cafe Society, mixes it with the midlife crisis histrionics of Blue Jasmine, and throws in some of Magic in the Moonlight's stilted dialogue for good measure. Those who have grown exasperated with late period Allen will find little to change their minds here. Winslet and Belushi do they best they can with Allen's awkward dialogue and static blocking, but there's only so much they can do.

The real highlight here is the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris), who takes the glowing colors of the Coney Island midway and projects them onto the faces of the actors in breathtaking ways. The way he paints with color is nothing short of stunning, and his work makes Wonder Wheel one of Allen's most beautiful films, up there with Manhattan and Shadows and Fog. Storaro easily steals the show, and it's almost worth watching for his work alone, even if its in service of one of the director's weakest films.

With its toothless character drama, grating narration, and overall feeling of lethargy, one can't help but feel that Allen's heart wasn't really in this one. Wonder Wheel is the reheated leftovers of better films, elevated by some truly extraordinary camera work by a legendary cinematographer. But even Storaro's gorgeous color palate can't mask the fact that we've all been here before.

GRADE -★★ (out of four)

WONDER WHEEL | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Max Casella, Geneva Carr | Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking | Opens today, Dec. 1, in select theaters.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The work of Agatha Christie is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, with Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express currently playing in theaters worldwide, with a sequel on the horizon. So it's not really surprising that Julian Fellowes, our foremost chronicler of the travails of the British upper crust, would tackle a Christie novel for the screen. After all, Fellowes won an Oscar for his screenplay to Robert Altman's Christie riff, Gosford Park in 2001, so this seems like a natural fit.

Unfortunately, Crooked House isn't nearly in the realm of Gosford Park, nor is it in the realm of Fellowes' celebrated TV series, Downton Abbey. It feels like a TV movie, but not in a good way - a kind of PBS movie of the week that is lost amid a swirl of sumptuous costumes and lavish sets. Set in a country estate in the 1950s, CCrooked House is the story of a wealthy British family torn apart when their elderly patriarch is murdered, and the prime suspect is his new young wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a former dancer who has always been regarded with suspicion by the rest of the family.

Skeptical of this narrative, his granddaughter, Sophia (Stefanie Martini), enlists the help of former flame and private investigator, Charles Hayward (Max Irons), to solve the crime. Once he arrives at the estate, however, he discovers a den of vipers all out for themselves, and all with potential motives to kill in order to reap the benefits of their impressive inheritance. But as evidence continues to mount against Brenda, it becomes clear that she is either a murderer, or is being framed by an especially devious mind.

Crooked House builds to an undeniably surprising conclusion, but not before slogging through a lot of mundane build up that never really leads anywhere. Fellowes and director Gilles Paquet-Brenner send us scurrying down rabbit holes as they introduce the large ensemble. The problem is that there are only two characters who are particularly interesting, save for Glenn Close's imperious Lady Edith and Gillian Anderson's boozed-up former actress, Madga. Both are clearly having a grand old time chewing the scenery, and the film comes alive every time they're on screen.

Regrettably, the rest of the film can't come close to matching their energy, and they almost seem to be acting in a completely different movie altogether. That is, at least until the film reaches its melodramatic conclusion. They may brighten up their drab surroundings, but they can't save a film that feels like a weak episode of Poirot rather than a stand alone feature. It's certainly a deliciously dark tale, but it never really gives into its sordid, over-the-top tendencies until it's too late.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

CROOKED HOUSE | Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner | Stars  Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Glenn Close, Honor Kneafsey, Christina Hendricks, Terence Stamp, Julian Sands, Gillian Anderson, Christian McKay | Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content | Now playing on demand. Opens in select theaters on Dec. 22.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

From The Dispatch:

Anyone who has ever seen a Pixar movie will likely see the twist coming a mile away, but “Coco” puts a fresh new spin on the studio's now familiar formula. It's a classic tale about pursuing your dreams and the importance of family, but rarely have we seen such stories told with such artful conviction. “Coco” is a wonder, a dazzling and deeply moving candy-colored fantasia fueled by the power of music. And what glorious music it is; Michael Giacchino's score, accompanied by memorable songs ("Remember Me" is a haunting stunner) has the power to make the toes tap and the heart soar.

Click here to read my full review.

COCO is now playing in theaters nationwide.