Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The 1980s were something of a dry period for Walt Disney Studios. While films the The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company certainly have their fans, none of them really lit up the box office the way the studio had done in previous decades, and none had the enduring power of classics like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, etc. 

The arrival of The Little Mermaid in 1989 changed all that, and established a musical formula that the studio has been more or less following ever since. Featuring indelible songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who would again collaborate on later studio classics like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman's untimely death in 1991), The Little Mermaid liberally adapted Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale for a new generation, redefining the story and entering into the cultural lexicon in a way the studio hadn't seen for decades.  The story of a plucky young mermaid who dreams of breaking free of her oppressive environment and living on the surface as a human captured the hearts of millions, while songs like "Part of Your World," "Kiss the Girl," "Under the Sea," and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" have become instantly recognizable hits.

The film was responsible for what became known as the Disney Renaissance, which continued on throughout the 1990s, before the studio switched gears again in the 2000s, before returning to (and often subverting) its roots in The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen, and Moana. It has become the target of some criticism in recent years for its depiction of a woman who changes herself in order to attract and please a man, but upon revisiting the film I found that criticism to ultimately miss the point of what Ariel is trying to do. She wanted to be human all along, even before meeting Prince Eric (that's what the entire "Part of Your World" song is about), meeting the human prince just gives her an excuse to pursue and fulfill that dream. Although  watching it as an adult you also realize that Ariel's father, King Triton, was completely right in forbidding her from marrying a man she just met three days ago at age 16 - a trope that Frozen would go on to lampoon in its song, "Love is an Open Door."

Disney would go on to make better films. The Little Mermaid lacks the narrative sophistication Beauty and the Beast, the Shakespearean grandeur of The Lion King, and the sheer dark beauty of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but in its historical context, revitalizing the Disney brand at a time when it had severely stalled during the 1970s and 80s, The Little Mermaid is nothing short of astonishing. It brought Broadway quality music and smartly written lyrics that changed the way animated movies were made. It now occupies a very special place in the  pantheon as the film that gave birth to a new Disney era.

The new Blu-Ray release in Disney's Signature Collection series offers a few new additions from the last Diamond Edition release, chief among them "Alan Menken and the Leading Ladies," a trip down memory lane with Menken and some iconic Disney stars; Jodi Benson (Ariel from The Little Mermaid), Paige O'Hara (Belle from Beauty and the Beast), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas Singing Voice from Pocahontas), Lillias White (Calliope from Hercules) and Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel from Tangled), each getting to sing their signature tune with Menken on piano. It's a delight for Disney fans, who will also be pleased to see that the beautiful Blu-Ray transfer doesn't undo the craft of the original artists by painting over the original colors as some of their previous Blu-Ray releases have (looking at you, Cinderella). It's a film that belongs on every Disney lover's shelf, and this latest version from the fabled Disney vault is its best home video incarnation yet.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THE LITTLE MERMAID | Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker | Stars Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Kenneth Mars, Budd Hackett, Jason Marin, Rene Auberjonois | Rated G | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Few politicians have attracted quite so much controversy in recent times as freshman Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant whose Muslim faith has made her a target for many on the right and even some on the left, her comments about money in politics and America's problematic relationship with the Israeli government making her a target for conservatives and liberals alike.

But who is she, really? Norah Shapiro's documentary, Time for Ilhan was made before Omar was elected to the United States Congress in 2018, but offers a portrait of a woman fighting for justice against a system seemingly stacked against her. Centering around her 2016 run for the Minnesota State House, Time for Ilhan offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the inner workings of Omar's journey toward becoming the first legislator of Somali descent in American history. While her district had a very large population of Somali refugees (a point Donald Trump used as a weapon in his 2016 campaign for President), Omar still faced a fierce primary campaign against 44-year incumbent, Phyllis Kahn, as well as pushback from a party that was unsure of what to do with her.

It's a bit of foreshadowing to the Democratic pushback against Omar's criticisms of Israel just this year. But through grassroots organizing and a focus on ideas rather than experience and longevity, Omar eventually broke through for a resounding victory. Director Norah Shapiro also spends some time with Kahn, who begins the film with a somewhat arrogant sense of entitlement, pooh-poohing Omar's chances and endorsements, before becoming a more contrite and humble figure after Omar's victory.

While Time for Ilhan never really goes beyond surface-level inquiries into the candidate's ideas and motivations, it does take the time to investigate some of the conspiracy theories and fake scandals that continue to plague her.  As the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress (along with Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib), much of the resistance to Omar has been deeply rooted in Islamophobia (see recent remarks by Fox News host Jeanine Pirro about Omar's hijab being unconstitutional). These are clearly very personal and hurtful criticisms for Omar, and she shuts down production of the documentary for several weeks when a particularly nasty rumor about committing immigration fraud by marrying her brother takes route in right-wing circles (an accusation that still floats around in conservative fake news memes to this day). And yet despite the pushback, Omar always comes back stronger than ever, even more determined to fight for the things she believes in.

Time for Ilhan is not a great documentary, but there's something deeply inspiring about Omar that Shapiro manages to capture. It's a feel-good hagiography to be sure, but it also offers a more personal look at who Omar really is, free of the noise of cable news punditry and partisan fear-mongering. She has seen the effects of injustice firsthand, and seeks to fight it wherever it takes root, a fight that has lead her to the halls of the United States Congress as part of a new generation of progressive lawmakers looking to shape a more just and equitable nation for all. Personally, I can't wait to see where it takes her next.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


TIME FOR ILHAN | Directed by Norah Shapiro | Not Rated | Now available on DVD and VOD.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Watching Christian Petzold's Transit is, by design, a bit of a bewildering experience. The film throws us in the middle of France during the Nazi occupation, focusing on a German expatriate caught in the middle and trying desperately to get out of the country. But something is off, while the language of the film is absolutely steeped in the verbiage of World War II, the setting is quite modern. Where are we? When are we? Petzold deliberately plays it coy, and the results are as obfuscating as they are mesmerizing.

The title, Transit, works on several levels, as both literal descriptor and ironic subversion. The film's protagonist, Georg (Franz Rogowski), seeks transit papers in order to flee the fascist advance. And yet he, like so many others in his position, find themselves stuck in transit, unable to go anywhere. Like some sort of Kafka-esque Casablanca, Georg is trapped in Marseilles behind enemy lines, forced to stagnate in an ever-increasing sense of ennui. There is no real transit in “Transit.” No one goes anywhere.

Along the way, however, Georg assumes the identity of a well-known author who dies while fleeing the Nazis, in hopes that it will expedite his approval for transit papers. Instead, he finds himself playing a role, and eventually meeting and falling in love with the man's wife, hopelessly waiting for him to return home so they can flee together. It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and hesitation that Petzold sets Transit, a film as much about the existential terror of fascism as it is about the slowly encroaching nature of its dehumanizing philosophy.

Petzold is no stranger to films about loneliness and fascism, having tackled similar ideas in Jerichow (2009), Barbara (2012), and Phoenix (2015). Yet Transit is perhaps is most enigmatic and even opaque work. The audience often feels as lost as his characters, trapped in an existential nightmare from which there is seemingly no escape Each person they meet is in a similar position - looking for a plane to America, a boat to Mexico (another sly modern irony, refugees seeking, and failing to procure, entry into Mexico), anything to get away, as the reality of the fascist occupation becomes more and more normalized. Petzold's characters are often trapped in a kind of purgatory of their own making - here it is thrust upon them by outside forces they cannot control, a fact of life they must eventually learn to accept.

By taking its source, Anna Seghers' 1944 novel of the same name, and updating the setting without updating the language or thematic ideas, Transit creates a timeless portrait of fascism's encroaching insidiousness, the way it worms itself into society and becomes quickly normalized and accepted, beating its subjects into a kind of world-weary limbo, where all sense of time and place, right and wrong become chillingly relative. Perhaps what is most unsettling about the way in which Petzold transplants the language of fascist occupation from 1940 to modern day is just how natural it seems. You may find yourself wondering "wait, what year is it?" as you struggle to find your bearings early on, but once one settles into the film's unique rhythms, it soon becomes clear that we're all lost in time. History repeats itself. Fascism once again rears its ugly head. Whether watching a film or watching the nightly news, Transit's haunting lack of specific time and its eerie recalling of earlier atrocities seems all too real. "What year is it?" indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


TRANSIT | Directed by Christian Petzold | Stars Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese | Not Rated | In German and French with English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, March 11, 2019

At the end of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) managed to send out a mysterious distress signal just before disappearing when Thanos wiped out half the life in the universe. The signal was to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who now has the distinction of becoming the first woman to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's an important milestone for sure, and Larson more than rises to the occasion. The film around her, on the other hand, is more or less standard Marvel fare - not bad by any means, but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table either. Unlike the other solo hero films in Marvel's "Phase 3," Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and especially Black PantherCaptain Marvel mostly sticks to the established Marvel formula, resulting a middle-of-the-pack film that never really asserts a personality of its own.

That's not to say that Captain Marvel isn't a lot of fun - because it certainly is. Set in the 1990s, the film introduces Danvers as a Kree warrior who discovers that her roots actually lie on Earth, where she travels to help prevent an evil race of shapeshifters known as Skrulls from tracking down a light speed engine developed by her former mentor, Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Upon arrival, she meets Shield Agent Nick Fury, some 25 years younger than when we last saw him in Infinity War, young, fresh-faced, and totally oblivious to the extraterrestrial threats that will soon face the planet on a regular basis.

Captain Marvel is essentially a buddy cop film, with Larson and Jackson playing off each other to great effect. The de-aging special effects on Jackson are truly incredible, allowing Jackson to believably play a much younger version of his character, even younger than when we first met him more than a decade ago at the end of 2008's Iron Man. But the heart of the film are the more intimate character moments shared by the film's women. Larson's rapport with Lashana Lynch as her best friend, Maria, and with Bening's benevolent scientist, make for some moments of disarming beauty. It's rare to see a superhero film take the time to allow the characters (and the plot) to breathe, but it between its exposition-heavy dialogue scenes about intergalactic wars, Captain Marvel manages to take a moment to examine not just who its protagonist is, but who she is as a woman, and how she relates to the woman around her.

That's what makes Captain Marvel strong. Here is a character that has spent her entire life being trained to control her emotions, only to discover who true power when she unlearns society's mandates. It's inspiring to see a woman take center stage, giving young girls everywhere a chance to see themselves represented as a powerful heroine on screen. While the film itself may not be the best or most original film in the Marvel oeuvre, it will certainly be something quite special for many. Yet one can't quite help but feel that something this groundbreaking should have felt a bit more fresh and adventurous than it ultimately does, as it spends more time setting the stage for the next Avengers film and establishing its place in the MCU than it does asserting its own personality.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


CAPTAIN MARVEL | Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck | Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

This 1929 German adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's oft-told Sherlock Holmes mystery was the last of the silent Sherlocks, completed just as sound was taking over cinema and silent projects were being shelved or forgotten, seemingly lost in the dustbin of history.

Richard Oswald's Der Hund von Baskerville did gangbuster business in its native Europe, but was never released in America, and thus was never able to really secure an American audience. The film was long thought lost, only for a near-complete 35mm nitrate print to be discovered in Poland in 2009. Missing footage was supplied by a 9.5mm print from a private collector that had been released for the home market in the 1930s (yes, those did exist back then), but the film remains incomplete - relying on publicity stills and intertitles derived from the original German censor records to present the most complete version possible in this new Blu-Ray release from Flicker Alley that at last presents the film to a worldwide audience for the first time.

And what a discovery it is. For a tale that has been told on film and television countless times, Der Hund von Baskerville feels startlingly fresh. Its style rooted is in German Expressionism, the film is a moody thriller filled with deep shadows, off-kilter camera angles, and imposing, gothic sets. Figures creep up eerie staircases, their shadows thrown up against the wall like Nosferatu, and the mist-shrouded moor where the titular hound claims its victims is appropriately chilling. In short, this is one of the finest adaptations of the story ever produced for film. Doyle purists may balk at some of the film's liberties with the original story, but Oswald's haunting take on the material gives it an appropriately mysterious sheen. Carlyle Blackwell's Holmes is dashing and mysterious, while George Seroff's Watson has a few amusing moments of comic relief as the old Baskerville mansion creaks in the night.


The 1914 version of Der Hund von Baskerville, also included on the new Blu-Ray as a special feature, is a different animal from the 1929 version altogether. Scripted by Oswald, but directed by Rudolf Meinert, the film uses Doyle's original story merely as a jumping off point for a tale all its own. Not as eerie or well designed as its 1929 remake, this film is nonetheless notable for the creativity of the liberties it takes with the source material.

There's no real mystery to be solved here; the villain is revealed before Sherlock Holmes even appears in the film. In fact, the villain actually disguises himself as Holmes, and attempts to blow up Baskerville Hall when the real Holmes finally arrives. This version of Holmes is something like a precursor to James Bond, cool under pressure with an affinity for gadgets and disguises (he even disguises himself as a suit of armor at one point to catch the villain). What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in sheer zaniness, throwing the text out the window in favor of a wildly inventive spy caper.

The disc also includes some fascinating behind-the-scenes materials, including a look at Doyle's sometimes strained relationship with the Holmes character, and an examination of the work that went into restoring the long lost 1929 film version. It's a discovery not only for fans of Sherlock Holmes, but for aficiandos of silent cinema as well.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Gaspar Noé is not exactly a filmmaker known for subtlety. His films are often as much assaults on the senses as they are on good taste. His latest cinematic provocation, Climax, arrived at last year's Cannes Film Festival with the requisite controversy - its posters goading Noé's detractors by exclaiming "you despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax."

Yet despite Noé's gleeful trolling of his critics, Climax has become one of the most acclaimed films of his career, winning the Directors' Fortnight Prize at Cannes while enjoying generally favorable reviews across the board. And it's easy to see why - Climax is one of the most unique and exhilarating cinematic experiences to grace the screen in some time. The film opens on one of the most dizzying, rapturous dance sequences ever put on film (shot in one stunning take), and descends into utter madness as a group of French dancers gathers in a remote gym for a night of rehearsal and partying, only to discover that their sangria is laced with LSD.

The film is a triumph of directorial verve and vision, a raucous descent into Hell with Noé as our jubilantly mad Virgil, set to the pulsing beat of electronic club music. It's a truly sensory experience, but when the LSD starts kicking in, it's a ride like no other. Climax quickly becomes hazy and hallucinatory, even orgiastic in its depiction of human depravity laid bare. Here, the drugs reveal the truth, stripping its characters down to their primal essence. Is this who we really are, Noé wonders? Once the inhibitions are gone and the semblances of polite society ripped away, what is left? The film is at once horrific and beautiful, frightening and exuberant, a visceral landmine in which death is an almost orgasmic experience, achieving another plane of existence that skirts the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

In that regard, Climax is the perfect movie for the world in which we live. Common morality and human decency take a backseat to something much more brutal and primal, a world run by pure id. Yet this is no empty provocation, it’s an exploration of the darkest recesses of the human mind, a window into what we're capable of at our very cores. There's a kind of trance-like quality to the film, and once we're under Noé's spell, there's no turning back. It's at once a slow-burn unravelling and a turbulent, unhinged party that goes quickly off the rails. That Noé manages to balance those two aesthetics is remarkable in and of itself, but to also create something that is as moving as it is horrifying. Climax is often shockingly brutal, but it manages to make us feel the pain of its characters, and to sympathize with their plight. They never asked for this, and the results are often terrifying.

Much of the film is shot in long, unblinking takes, the camera movements replacing editing by being untethered to one specific plane. Noé's camera moves throughout the party like an unseen observer, roving the halls, and even moving up to the ceiling for a bird's eye view so that the audience is at once a dispassionate voyeur and an active participant. There's simply no other film like it in recent memory. It's thrilling, ghastly, tragic, and beautiful, a riotous and sensual visual and aural assault that simply must be seen to be believed. One can't help but feel that this is Noé leaving it all on the dance floor, and the results are truly incredible.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


CLIMAX | Directed by Gaspar Noé | Stars Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Claude Gajan, Maude Giselle, Palmer Taylor, Kastle Thea, Carla Schøtt, Sharleen Temple | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, March 08, 2019


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

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

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

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


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

The disc's bonus features include the requisite making-of docs, but these behind-the-scenes looks are anything but perfunctory. The interviews with directors Moore and Johnston and other animators at Disney Animation in "How We Broke the Internet" provides some fascinating insight into how the film came to be, not only exploring the film's myriad easter eggs, but also the origins of its thematic content. The amount of work that went into building the film's internet environments is impressive,  and the complexity behind the film's climactic showdown with "Ralph-zilla," a surprisingly metaphoric battle against Ralph's own inner demons, is jaw-dropping. These aren't the kind of special features that simply give lip-service to how great the film is, they actually bring a deeper appreciation of the film. While it would have been great to have seen more about the original princess voices getting back together, this Blu-Ray release's features manage to enhance the film rather than simply selling it. And the extended reel of BuzzzTube cat videos is almost worth the price of the disc alone.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


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


Special Features:
Blu-ray & Digital:
• How We Broke the Internet
• Surfing for Easter Eggs
• The Music of Ralph Breaks the Internet
• Deleted Scenes
• BuzzzTube Cats
• Music Videos - “Zero” by Imagine Dragons and “In This Place” by Julia Michaels.


 Digital Exclusive: 

• Baby Drivers – Slaughter Racing School

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven isn't just a remarkable film because of how convincingly it emulates the cinematic language of a filmmaker (the great Douglas Sirk) whose peak came nearly half a century before it was released, but because of how Haynes so accurately uses that language to tell a more modern story that Sirk himself could have never told.

As a result, Far From Heaven feels like the Sirk film that Sirk never made, a long lost work from a Hollywood master who not only elevated the art form, but utilized the platform to advocate for social justice through the guise of overwrought soap operas. One does not have to look far to see the influence of Sirk's particular brand of melodrama in modern film, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's German classic, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul to Guillermo Del Toro's recent Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, the immaculate style and bold color palate that distinguished Sirk's films have inspired filmmakers for decades. Yet no one quite so brazenly attempted to pay homage to him as Haynes, who took the basic elements of Sirk's 1955 film, All that Heaven Allows  and reworked it into a searing, thoroughly modern treatise on race, sexuality, and the lies we tell ourselves in a society that only values conformity.

In All that Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman stars as a middle aged widow whose affair with her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), creating a scandal amongst her children and the town as a whole. In Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore is Cathy Whitaker, a picture perfect 1950s housewife whose husband, Frank, is a successful business executive (together they make up "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech" 1957). But underneath the seemingly perfect facade, trouble is brewing. Frank, it turns out, is gay, and despite his best efforts to "cure" himself, he can't overcome his own desires. Cathy turns her gardener, a black man named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), for comfort, immediately scandalizing the town and turning Frank against her.

Hayes is clearly dealing with issues here that Sirk could have never directly addressed, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is exactly how Sirk would have handled them. Far From Heaven is perhaps one of the most remarkable tributes by one filmmaker by another ever made. From the sumptuous costume design by Sandy Powell to Ed Lachmann's breathtaking Technicolor cinematography with its vibrant fall colors and striking blue tones (gorgeously rendered on the new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber), to the luscious score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird), Far From Heaven is awash in stunning period detail in both style and substance. Its characters are all trapped, by their sexuality, their race, their gender, by the very artifice of the extravagant sets that surround them, unable to communicate with each other or express how they truly feel. As a result, the most profound moments are often found in what the characters can't bring themselves to actually say, the words left unspoken leaving the most lasting emotional impact.


That's what makes Julianne Moore's Oscar-nominated performance so incredible (although she ended up losing the award to her co-star from The Hours, Nicole Kidman), she walks a fine line between emulating the acting style of 1950s melodramas and allowing moments of real emotion to shine through the cracks in the facade. Those moments when the real Cathy is allowed to appear are utterly devastating, and they say a lot about not only the world in which the characters lived, but the world we live in today. The elements of acting are essentially on display, but the way in which Moore uses those obvious, more presentational modes of expression becomes a kind of performance with a performance. It's a truly impressive thing to watch - it's one of the great acting achievements of the 21st century.

It's easy to look at a film that deals with ideas of homophobia and racism in the 1950s and think of these things as issues of another time (hi, Green Book), and yet despite its period trappings, Far From Heaven never feels anything less that contemporary. This isn't just about characters from the 1950s, it's about characters trapped by circumstance, by an intolerant society, by keeping up with appearances, spending a lifetime performing for others rather than living for one's self. Those performances make up the core of Haynes' film, a work filled with self-conscious artifice that uses its own artificiality to explore some essential truths. Never has such fakery felt so painfully, or so beautifully, honest.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


FAR FROM HEAVEN | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Celia Weston, June Squibb | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on March 16, 2019.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the culmination of a trilogy of films that began with 2010's How to Train Your Dragon and continued in 2014 with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a rare sequel that both depend and expanded upon the world established by the original. Collectively they make up some of the finest animated films of the last decade, not only providing great stories (based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell) but gorgeous animation and sweeping, Academy Award nominated music. Like most threequels, unfortunately, The Hidden World doesn't quite live up to the lofty promise of its predecessors, but that doesn't mean it’s completely without merit.

The film picks up a year after the last film, with Chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon, Toothless, leading the dragon riders of Berk to rescue dragons from captivity in order to create a utopia where humans and dragons co-exist side by side peacefully. But the arrival of an evil dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) soon forces the vikings to abandon Berk in search of the dragons' hidden home world, with a rare female night fury serving as bait for Toothless to lead them right into Grimmel's trap.

There's still plenty to admire here. The animation remains breathtaking, and John Powell's score rattles the theater walls with epic power. But the film just doesn't quite measure up to the previous entries in the series. It feels strangely rushed, as if the filmmakers are trying to hurry up and wrap things up The Hidden World lurches from one scene to another without taking the time to let the gravity of the previous scene settle in. It even combines and intercuts unrelated scenes that undercut the film's narrative drive. It's as if it doesn't want to grapple with the real thematic meat of the story.

These films have always succeeded most in mirroring Hiccup and Toothless' growth as leaders. The Hidden World finds them both grappling with their own abilities while also falling in love and discovering what it means to be a part of a family. Much of this is ultimately glossed over in the film's breakneck race to the finish line. The conclusion marks an emotionally tinged coda for the franchise that feels satisfying in context but doesn't quite seem to match the boldness that marked the previous films. Much like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda trilogy, the third part is a marked step down from a towering middle film, yet Kung Fu Panda 3 actually managed to one-up The Hidden World in its ability to guide the series to a natural conclusion. The How to Train Your Dragon series is stronger overall, and The Hidden World stands on its own just fine, but in the context of the high bar set by the other films in the franchise, it leaves something to be desired.

The adventures of Hiccup and Toothless have given us a decade of cinematic magic and wonder. Even if their final film isn't their strongest moment, they're still a charming pair, and The Hidden World manages to take their characters in interesting directions without sacrificing the core of who they are. It's a moderately engaging tale of adventure and friendship filled with dazzling visuals and a glorious score, but this rushed conclusion to such an incredible franchise can't help but feel just the slightest bit disappointing.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD | Directed by Dean DeBlois | Voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington | Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Jim McKay's En El Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) is a film so naturalistic that it almost feels like a documentary - a vérité-style examination of the lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in in Brooklyn that looks as though could have been shot on the fly as it occurred.

McKay never attempts to lay any kind of false drama or contrived plot on the proceedings, stringing it all together with the loosest of storylines centering around a bicycle deliveryman named José (Fernando Cardona) who moonlights as his local soccer team's captain on Sunday afternoons, his one day off.  One day his boss informs him that their restaurant will be catering a large party that Sunday and that he needs "all hands on deck." José's lone day off is cancelled. That also happens to be the day of the local championship, and as the team's best player, they're likely to lose without José there to lead them to victory.

It's a simple plot, centering around an issue that may not sound like that big a deal. It's just a soccer game, right? En El Séptimo Día is a deeply political film, but it isn't making any grand pronouncements here. Instead, McKay aims for something much more understated. José's boss had promised to help him get his green card, yet works him six days a week, and then takes his one day off, forcing him to work despite something very important to José happening that day. It's very much a form of exploitation. These micro-aggressions and abuses make up daily life for these immigrants - working from day to day in fear of their boss' whims without any protections to keep them from being exploited.

The film deservedly won the John Cassavetes Award at this past weekend's Independent Spirit Awards and is more than worth seeking out. It manages to take a complicated and contentious issue and distills it to its most essential human elements.  This is no angry political screed, it's a quietly revolutionary act of protest. The immigrants at the center of En El Séptimo Día aren't afforded the basic decency of a day off, the needs of their employers superseding the lives of the workers. What it lacks in dramatic power it makes up for in its deep sense of empathy. McKay's natural style recalls neorealist vision of DeSica and the scrappy, DIY aesthetic of Sean Baker. Like those two filmmakers, McKay arrives at a deep political truth about those who live on society's margins.  If your livelihood depends on your employer, and their reach extends into your personal life, what else can they control? Exploitation exists in myriad forms, and En El Séptimo Día explores them with a clear-eyed grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


EN EL SÉPTIMO DÍA | Directed by Jim McKay | Stars, Fernando Cardona, Donal Brophy Gilberto Jimenez, Abel Perez, Genoel Ramírez | Not Rated | In Spanish & English w/English & Spanish subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cinema Guild.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short not only comprise the strongest of the short film categories, but one of the strongest categories of the entire ceremony. Tackling subjects from racism to fascism to immigration to the patriarchy to death itself, these five nominees are a hard hitting bunch that offer a wide variety of perspectives into the world in which we live.


Black Sheep

There's an essential truth at the heart of Black Sheep about what it's like to live as a black man in a white world, but the re-enactments all but destroy the film's power. It's almost not even a documentary, but a narrative film narrated by its subject, a black teenager who, in the face of racism and prejudice, attempts to assimilate to his surroundings by bleaching his skin and wearing blue contacts.

It's a heartbreaking look at the deeply personal toll of racism, privilege, and a society designed by and for white people. But its impact is blunted by its unnecessary re-enactment structure, which distracts from the power of its subject's words.

End Game

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's End Game explores end-of-life care through the eyes of several subjects facing death due to terminal illness.

Reminiscent of the 2013 nominee, JoannaEnd Game is a sensitive and yet surprisingly positive exploration of palliative care, following the doctors tasked with preparing the patient and the families, and the subjects who are facing the end of their lives. For such heavy subject matter, Epstein and Friedman display a light touch. Here, death is neither a tragedy nor a cause for celebration, it's merely a fact of life, and End Game treats its subjects with a clear-eyed dignity that is deeply powerful.


Lifeboat

Skye Fitzgerald's harrowing documentary short follows the efforts of a German non-profit dedicated to rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean as they struggle to make the perilous journey from Africa to Europe. More urgent and necessary than the similarly themed documentary feature, Fire at SeaLifeboat not only examines the rescue operations but the plight of those fleeing violence and persecution.

While there's no cure for xenophobia, Lifeboat expertly takes the right-wing talking points that refugees should stay behind and fix their own countries and chucks them right out the window. No one would brave conditions like this and risk their lives if it weren't the better alternative. It's a powerful examination of a growing humanitarian crisis that pulls no punches in depicting the human element that is so often lost in political rhetoric.


A Night at the Garden

This harrowing account of a Nazi rally disguised as a "pro-America rally" that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1939 reveals terrifying parallels between the Nazi ideology and the "America first" agenda of the Make America Great Again crowd. Standing in front of a fascistic painting of George Washington and flanked by swastikas, the speakers decry every form of diversity while extolling "white, Christian values" to a roaring crowd.

Then...the film just ends. It feels like a set up without a follow through, never really examining what brought the rally about nor its ramifications. A few brief clips, and it's all over. Those 7 minutes are truly frightening, but A Night at the Garden feels like a brief intro for a much longer and much more interesting film.

Period. End of Sentence.

Easily the most delightful of this year's crop of Oscar nominated documentary shorts, Period. End of Sentence. follows a group of young women in India working toward de-stigmatizing menstruation in a patriarchal society that refuses to even discuss it.

Seeing that many women go without pads, and the societal taboo surrounding tampons, these young women start a business to provide low cost pads to women, and open up a discussion around menstruation in an attempt to educate men for whom the subject remains both mysterious and embarrassing. A rousing piece of feminist activism, Period. End of Sentence. explores an oft-overlooked topic, still taboo even in the United States, in a way that is both educational and entertaining. A gem.

The Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short are now playing in select theaters and On Demand.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

With the influx of new Academy members and a preferential ballot system that asks voters to rank their choices rather than vote for their favorite outright, the Academy Awards have become increasingly difficult to predict in recent years. This makes the ceremony more exciting to watch, but something of a headache for Oscar prognosticators who pride themselves on “getting it right.”

Despite the fact that the Academy’s board and telecast producers have seemed hellbent on making every bad decision imaginable, before walking them back after immense public pressure (the Kevin Hart debacle, an Oscar for “best popular film,” only performing two of the five Best Original Song nominees, and presenting some awards during commercial breaks), this year’s Oscar ceremony is shaping up to be the most wide-open in recent memory.


Best Picture

Any one of these films could conceivably win, as there has been no clear frontrunner for this entire season. The Producers Guild went for Green Book, Screen Actors Guild for Black Panther, Directors Guild for Roma, Editors for The Favourite and Bohemian Rhapsody, and neither of the Writers Guild winners were nominated for Best Picture. So where does that leave us? BlacKkKlansman is the only film to have been nominated for all of the above, indicating wide industry support which could help it in a preferential ballot, and A Star is Born has likewise been present at nearly all of this year’s awards shows. This is truly anyone’s game for the first time in recent memory. My best guess? Roma takes home Best Picture, becoming the first foreign language film to ever win the award. It’s widely beloved within the industry and has the most nominations of any film this year (tied with “The Favourite”). But at this point, nothing would surprise me.

Prediction: Roma
Preference: The Favourite


Best Director

Alfonso Cuarón seems like a more solid winner here for “Roma” than he is for Best Picture, but his win at the DGA cemented him as the frontrunner. He’s won recently (for “Gravity”), but as a jack of all trades who also wrote, shot, edited, and produced his own film, his achievement perhaps has the highest degree of difficulty, which should help him win over voters. But don’t count out Spike Lee, at long last nominated after decades in the business (and having been famously overlooked in 1989 for “Do the Right Thing”). A win for him would be a historic moment, making him the first black Best Director winner. Can voters resist the chance to make history with a pointedly anti-Trump film?

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Preference: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman


Best Actor

What once looked like a lock for Christian Bale has become Rami Malek’s award to lose. His performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody has become one of the most lauded performances of the year. He’s easily the strongest aspect of his film (which is arguably the worst film to receive a Best Picture nomination in at least 20 years), so this could be the Academy’s chance to laud a film they clearly loved.

Prediction: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate


Best Actress


Glenn Close has been racking up awards all season for her performance in The Wife. She’s a beloved industry vet who is seen as “overdue,” so her victory here is likely, especially since A Star is Born hasn’t performed as well as expected. Lady Gaga could still pull off an upset, same for Olivia Colman in The Favourite, a film they clearly really like. But this is Close’s to lose.

Prediction: Glenn Close, The Wife

Preference: Lady Gaga, A Star is Born


Best Supporting Actor


Green Book’s Mahershala Ali is the only actor this season to have made a clean sweep of the precursors, which makes his victory here all by assured. But he just won this award two years ago for Moonlight, and he’s really a lead in Green Book, could Oscar voters be looking for some fresh blood? No one has campaigned harder this year than Richard E. Grant. His humble presence and clear sense of excitement and gratitude could lead him to an upset (plus it’s a true supporting performance), but the safe bet is on Ali.

Prediction: Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Preference: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Best Supporting Actress

The winner of the SAG award, Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, isn’t nominated for an Oscar, leaving this category wide-open. The likely winner is Regina King from If Beale Street Could Talk, but the film didn’t get as much support across other categories as expected, making her a vulnerable frontrunner. The ladies of The Favourite likely cancel each other out, leaving Amy Adams as a potential spoiler. Still, King’s performance is undeniably great. If the Academy didn’t even nominate Adams for her stunning work in Arrival, awarding her for playing Lynne Cheney in Vice seems like an insult.

Prediction/Preference: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Original Screenplay

Prediction: Green Book 

Preference: The Favourite


Best Adapted Screenplay

Prediction: BlacKkKlansman

Preference: If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Foreign Language Film

Prediction: Roma (Mexico)
Preference: Shoplifters (Japan)


Best Animated Feature

Prediction: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Preference: Isle of Dogs


Best Documentary Feature

Prediction: Free Solo

Preference: Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Best Original Score

Prediction/Preference: If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Original Song

Prediction/Preference: “Shallow” from A Star is Born


Best Cinematography

Prediction/Preference: Roma


Best Costume Design

Prediction/Preference: The Favourite


Best Production Design

Prediction: The Favourite

Preference: First Man


Best Film Editing

Prediction: Vice

Preference: The Favourite


Best Sound Mixing

Prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: First Man


Best Sound Editing

Prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: First Man


Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Vice

Preference: Border


Best Visual Effects

Prediction/Preference: First Man


Best Live Action Short

Prediction: Marguerite

Preference: Mother


Best Documetary Short

Prediction/Preference: Period. End of Sentence.


Best Animated Short

Prediction/Preference: Bao

Saturday, February 16, 2019

At last shaking off the burden of his infamous affair with actress Kim Min-hee, whose repercussions haunted his last three films - On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), Claire's Camera (2018), and The Day After (2018), Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo has returned to some of the pre-occupations that often informed his earlier work in his latest film, Hotel by the River.


Filled with longing and regret, Hotel by the River is the story of a group of quintessential Hong protagonists, separated by emotional distance they are unable to bridge despite their best efforts. It recalls the snowy wistfulness of The Day He Arrives (2012), centering around five lonely people who converge on the eponymous hotel to find their own definition of peace and healing.

On one side we have an aging poet (Joo-Bong Ki) who has summed his two sons (Hae-hyo Kwon and Joon-Sang Yoo) to inform them that he believes he is dying. On the other side, a young woman (Kim Min-hee) who has been betrayed by the man she loves, and has retreated to the hotel with her friend (Seon-mi Song) to recover. Their stories are separate, yet inexorably intertwined, bound by their mutual quest for closure and redemption. And yet, like many Hong protagonists, they remain steadfastly apart, so close to a real connection and yet unable to reach out and make it.

That's the beauty and the inherent tragedy of Hotel by the River a film that is easily Hong's most overtly emotional in years. His characters are broken, lost in their own private reveries of art, loneliness, and fantasy. Hong often explores the inner lives of artists. The denizens of the hotel by the river are poets and filmmakers, those who express their feelings in tangible ways yet are unable to articulate them outside of those bounds. That's what makes them so fascinating - they're walking contradictions, bound by one mode of expression that they can never translate into real life. The poet has no evidence that he is dying, yet he feels it. His sons want closure after a lifetime with an emotionally distant father. The young woman searches for reasons for the betrayal of her former lover. The answers they seek never arrive, yet they all come tantalizingly close to a kind of peace.

On the surface, Hong's films often seem aimless and meandering. And while Hotel by the River is perhaps his most accessible film in recent memory, it still retains his trademark unassuming self-reflexivity, the characters seemingly trapped in a self-imposed purgatory for which they hold the keys to escape, yet never quite figure out how to use them. They may seem talky and disengaged, but that's how Hong gets at the basic truth of their experiences, eschewing the trappings of melodrama for a kind of languid naturalism. One always feels that Hong's films are an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise his own demons, to explore his own feelings and shortcomings both as an artist and a human being, using his characters as avatars for his own insecurities.

There is a poignant sense of remorse that permeates the film that is both tangible and intoxicating, and one comes away with the feeling that we're all just snowflakes in a snowstorm, colliding with each other briefly as we're tossed in the wind, searching for somewhere to land. In Hong's haunted meditation, there is no pretense of having all the answers, and that's what makes it so special. He's out here trying to figure himself out just like everyone else. Like his very best films, Hotel by the River seems like a circuitous trifle on the surface, but within its modestly composed black and white frames lies a profoundly open-ended exploration of the very faults, foibles, dreams, and contradictions that make us human.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HOTEL BY THE RIVER | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Kwon Hae-hyo, Yu Jun-sang | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC.