Thursday, April 19, 2018

Roy Ward Baker's Don't Bother to Knock marked the first starring role in a feature film for Marilyn Monroe, and while the 26-year-old sex symbol would go on to much higher profile films in much more iconic roles (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch), but her performance as a troubled babysitter in Don't Bother to Knock might be one of the finest performances the notoriously difficult star ever gave.

Stories of her on-set behavior have become legend - Monroe was often late to the set (or didn't show up at all), couldn't remember her lines, and insisted on having an acting coach with her at all times (an eccentricity memorably spotlighted in the 2011 film, My Week with Marilyn). And yet somehow it all worked - Monroe desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actress rather than just a sex symbol. And while history has remembered her more as the latter, it's always disarming to revisit to her film work to see just how good an actress she really was. Despite her difficult behavior, her process resulted in some fine performances, and in Don't Bother to Knock she digs down deep to create a character as vulnerable as she is terrifying, with a volatility that never dips into empty histrionics.

As Nell Forbes, a babysitter with a haunted past, Monroe embodies a woman slowly coming apart. Her eager uncle sets her up with a babysitting job in the hotel where he works, but she is less interested in spending time with the little girl than she is trying on her mother's clothes, jewelry, and expensive perfume. At first, she just seems like a shy young woman, but Baker gradually begins to reveal signs that not everything is as it seems - a glimpse of scars on her wrist, eating candy that she swore she didn't eat. After a man across the courtyard (Richard Widmark) catches a glimpse of her in the window, she begins a flirtation that becomes the catalyst for her breakdown, flashing back to a former lover who was killed during WWII. Her ensuing mental anguish will soon endanger her, her new lover, and the child as she flounders between fantasy and reality.

Don't Bother to Knock is a feverish, noir-like drama that speeds by at a brisk 76 minutes. Baker slowly ratchets up the suspense in almost imperceptible ways, so that the audience doesn't quite realize how badly things are going off the rails until the characters are in too deep to turn back. It also marked the film debut of 21-year-old Anne Bancroft, who plays a lounge singer previously involved with Widmark. Bancroft shares no screen time with Monroe until the very end of the film, but she radiates a gravity and wisdom far beyond her years, a maturity we would see again in her most iconic role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate 15 years later.

It may not have been particularly well received upon its release, and has been mostly forgotten in favor of Monroe's more high-profile roles, but Don't Bother to Knock remains a surprisingly potent and thrilling film, treating the mental illness of its central character with surprising grace, never blaming Nell for her own trauma. It takes what could have been a lurid plot (an older single man meets up with a young, naive babysitter in a hotel room) and turns it into a wickedly plotted thriller that remains an overlooked high point in Monroe's storied career.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK | Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

What to make of Sergei Parajanov's almost defiantly formless experimental film, The Color of Pomegranates? The film has been the subject of much controversy and academic debate since its release in 1969, after it was butchered by Soviet censors who found it "unintelligible to the masses," and therefore anti-Soviet. The film was intended to tell the life story of 18th century Armenian poet, Sayat-Nova (which was Parajanov's preferred title), but it was ultimately deemed to not have enough to do with him, and the title was changed to The Color of Pomegranates, which endures to this day.

It's true that the film is not a conventional biopic by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Parajanov takes us through a series of tableaux inspired by medieval Armenian art that plunges the audience inside the creative world of its subject. The Color of Pomegranates was never meant to be a literal interpretation of Sayat-Nova's life (he is shown here from childhood all the way to death as an old man, sometimes all at once), rather an impressionistic journey into his mind. The result is 79 of the most dazzling minutes in all of cinema, a dizzying collection of abstract images that bring the poet's words to life. It's a radical departure from the grim, realistic style favored by the Soviets at that time, so it's not difficult to see why it was such a shock to the cultural system.

It is because of its free-wheeling, narrative-free style that it is almost impossible to judge on its own. The film is like nothing else out there - recalling the work of the early surrealists in its dogged refusal to be interpreted literally, set in a medieval world that looks like something out of Pasolini's Trilogy of Life. And yet it is so vivid, so singularly beautiful, that it becomes a completely mesmerizing experience. What makes the film so extraordinary is that it is so open to interpretation. Parajanov breaks up the tableaux withs snippets of Sayat-Nova's poems, recreating the lyrical images in such a way that it allows the viewer to read them however they wish. Each tableau is a rich tapestry of breathtaking imagery and vivid color, from the deep red juice of pomegranates flowing through white muslin, to water cascading down walls and bursting forth from saturated books, to grape juice flowing over stone, Parajanov's keen visual sense is truly incredible.

All of this is beautifully captured by the new Criterion Blu-Ray, which reconstructs Parajanov's original cut from a restoration by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna. Don't come here looking for an explanation of the film's surreal, dreamlike world, come to lose yourself inside the mind of a poet, where suddenly every thought, every images, becomes a thing of profound and delicate beauty, opening one's eyes to a world of exquisite possibility. Rather than capture the life of a poet, it captures his soul - and that makes The Color of Pomegranates something altogether unique.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES | Directed by Sergei Parajanov | Stars Spartak Bagashvili, Sofiko Chiaureli, Medea Japaridze, Vilen Galustyan  Giorgi Gegechkori | In Armenian and Azerbaijani w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's kind of surprising that a story this wild isn't more well known, but thanks to Maclain and Chapman Way's documentary Wild Wild Country, the strange tale of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers is no longer forgotten history. The Rajneeshi cult, which established a town called Rajneeshpuram in rural Oregon, stacked local government elections to take over the tiny town of Antelope, and then attempted to do the same with the entire county, resulting in the largest mass poisoning in American history, bombings, attempted murder, and rampant marriage fraud, is a perfect example of how the truth can be stranger than fiction, and over the course of nearly 7 hours, the Ways slowly reveal the almost unfathomable extent of the Rajneeshis' influence and criminal activity.

Led by Bhagwan's fiercely loyal personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, the Rajneeshis went so far as to bus thousands of homeless people from across the country to Rajneeshpuram in order to rig local elections in their favor, tampering with local water supplies and restaurants to spread salmonella against townspeople they viewed as their enemies. Wild Wild Country examines this outlandish tale of intrigue and betrayal from all sides, featuring extensive interviews with Sheela, citizens of Antelope, members of the cult (many of whom still stand by their beliefs), and the law enforcement agents tasked with bringing the operation down. It is a truly fascinating story, revealing a rarely seen portrait of America that feels jarringly contemporary, pitting conservative rural Oregonians against a mysterious sex cult, both of whom see their struggle as one of self-preservation.

Wild Wild Country is an outrageous tale of religious intolerance, racism, media sensationalism, and over-the-top provocation that seems to eerily presage and parallel our own contemporary political landscape. The major problem is that the filmmakers tend to focus on the more sensational elements of the story, and mostly ignore what the Rajneeshis really believed. The fact that most of the adherents to Bhagwan's brand of eastern mysticism were white and middle class smacks of wrong-headed cultural fetishization, but we know little about what he really stood for. He remains an enigmatic figure at the center of a wider cultural struggle without much in the way of context, but it sure does make a fascinating story. It deftly explores the line between good and evil through the perspectives of those who lived it, many of whom are still firmly entrenched in their own belief that they were, in fact, completely without blame.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable portrait of a polarized America that is as timely as it is disturbing. If only it had found time over the course of its 400 minute run time to take a closer look at the cause of the Rajneeshi radicalism rather than just the results, Wild Wild Country could have been a truly great story of American unrest. Yet even without that added depth, it remains a compelling and often shocking exploration at the effects of human intolerance and the results of a tribal mentality, one not only displayed by the actual cult, but by those who sought to stamp them out before they even became dangerous. Who really created this monster? That is perhaps the most chilling question at the center of the film, that this bizarre story might in fact be holding a mirror up to America itself, and what we see is something deeply unnerving.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WILD WILD COUNTRY | Directed by Maclain Way, Chapman Way | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix

The story of how Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge while under the influence of alcohol in Chappaquiddick in 1969, killing campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne, was a political scandal that somehow managed to pass into history almost unnoticed. Kennedy survived, of course, going on to become one of the longest-serving and most widely respected Democratic senators in modern history, but he never quite fulfilled the political promise that he (and his family) hoped. John Curran's Chappaquiddick asks us to re-examine that history; not necessarily to re-examine Kennedy, but to take a closer look at how history is written, and how power and privilege create a different set of rules for those born into them.

Through Jason Clarke's uncanny embodiment of Kennedy, Chappaquiddick becomes a character study of a weak and broken man simply trying to live in the shadow of his more successful brothers. When his car goes off the road and into a pond, rather than try to save Kopechne (Kate Mara), Kennedy wanders off in a daze, more concerned with how this will affect him politically than for the life slowly fading away, still trapped in the car. It was later revealed that Kopechne was still alive for quite some time after the accident, and had suffocated trying to keep her head above water rather than drowned. But Kennedy set right to work trying to cover it all up with the reluctant help of his cousin, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and US attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), not reporting the accident until the next morning when Kopechne was already dead.

It isn't long before the Kennedy family goes into damage control mode, even going so far as to bring in former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) to guide the coverup. All the while Ted seems to be floundering, making a series of terrible decisions in his desperation to live up to the family name. Chappaquiddick works best when its examining the outrageous benefits of Kennedy's privilege, blowing the lid off the way politicians are able to manipulate media narratives to their own benefit (Kennedy had the good fortune to get into trouble when the moon landing was dominating headlines). As a character study it falters somewhat, saddling Kennedy with some crippling daddy issues but not going much deeper than that.

Still, Clarke's performance is strong, saddled with layers of pain and regret, and the script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan mines some fascinating political drama out of the story. It may not provide much insight into Kennedy's lack of action, but it does provide a darkly funny and often chilling look at the effects of unchecked privilege and the manipulation of the media for political gain. Whether or not it was right for the voters of Massachusetts to overlook this event and continue to elect Senator Kennedy (who by all accounts went on to become an effective and well-respected representative for his constituents, earning the nickname "lion of the Senate") is left up to the audience, but one can't help but see modern parallels in the way politicians, regardless of party affiliation, continue to spin stories in the national media for their own benefit. Meanwhile, Americans slowly drown while their representatives squabble amongst themselves, trying to figure out how to turn their death into a political victory.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHAPPAQUIDDICK | Directed by John Curran | Stars Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, John Fiore, Taylor Nichols, Lexie Roth | Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Spanish government official awaits a transfer in a Kafka-esque purgatory in rural Argentina in Lucrecia Martel's dazzlingly surreal Zama, a period drama that takes a withering look at contradictions of identity born of colonialism. Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) spends his days wandering around the rural Argentinian coastal town after requesting a transfer from from the territorial governor to the town of Lerma. Desperate to leave the uncivilized wilderness behind, Zama finds himself surrounded by similarly displaced Europeans who insist on adhering to old traditions - wearing fine clothing and impractical wigs, all languishing in the South American heat.

Yet Zama is not a European. He was born in Argentina to European parents, but has never actually been to his home continent. As one fellow Spaniard remarks, "“Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.” This ignites in Zama a deep crisis of identity. Is he European? Is he South American? How long must he stay in Hell's waiting room before he is finally free to be himself?

The problem is he has no idea who he is. Martel creates a haunting portrait of colonial ennui in which the colonists find themselves in an existential crisis of their own design. They enslave and subjugate the natives, but for what purpose? So they can rot in an early grave far from home, lost amid unfamiliar locations and traditions, dreaming of returning to the land of their birth? Martel traps her characters within the very frame itself, often framing Zama in medium close-up, as if he is too big to fit in the shot. By the time Martel frees him from his cinematic cage, it may be too late for him to save himself. And so he remains trapped in a world that seems strangely off-kilter, where characters repeat lines of dialogue for no reason (and don't appear to realize they have done so), and Zama seems to be the only one who notices. It's as if the spirit of Luis Buñuel has settled upon the film, recalling the surrealist satire of films like The Exterminating Angel, where characters become trapped in existential webs they've spun for themselves.

And yet what Martel has achieved here feels so singular. Zama is a dizzyingly original creation all its own, created through Martel's own lyrical screenplay (adapted from the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto) and her clever use of non-diegetic sound, which almost imperceptibly enhances the film's diegetic sound design to suggest a sense of creeping madness and displacement. Zama knows he does not belong here, yet doesn't even know enough about himself to articulate why. By the time tensions with natives come to a head, the whole colony is in a state of mental and emotional disarray, as Zama finds himself on a quixotic quest to track down a murderer that has already been executed (or has he?).

It is that sense of hazy confusion and collective societal amnesia that defines Zama. Martel tackles the inherent contradictions of colonialism and its destructive history by subtly tweaking its practitioners with sly humor and a devastating satirical eye. What, in the end, was the purpose of it all? The characters ponder that very question themselves, as Martel parses through the violent human subjugation and the arrogance of the "white man's burden" that defined European conquest, in the process delivering a towering work of magical realism that takes a hard look at our present through the lens of our past.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ZAMA | Directed by Lucretia Martel | Stars Daniel Giménez Cacho, Matheus Nachtergaele, Lola Dueñas, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Veronese | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

One of the most radical filmmakers of the 20th century gets a strangely conventional and inept biopic in the form of Michel Hazanavicius' Godard Mon Amour (formerly titled Redoutable), a film that seems to both revere and loathe the legendary Nouvelle Vague pioneer without actually understanding him.

Godard is on record as calling this film "a stupid, stupid idea," a pull-quote that the marketing team has seized on for the film's American posters. It's the kind of tactic that Godard would have loved once upon a time, but watching Godard Mon Amour, one is inclined to agree with him, and I was left baffled about who the film is for or why it was made.

The film is based on actress Anne Wiazemsky's autobiography, focusing on her romantic relationship with Godard that began during the filming of La Chinoise (1967). This was around the time when Godard was eschewing what he saw as the bourgeois affectations of mainstream cinema in favor of a more revolutionary style to support his Marxist-Leninist politics. Eventually, Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) and Godard (Louis Garrel) get married, and as the renowned firebrand's discontent with life and cinema (two things that are inexorably linked) continues to grow, his determination to upend the old order begins to put a strain on their relationship. Hazanavicius' Godard is a revolutionary coming to terms with the fact that he is now the old guard, desperately trying to hang on to his relevance but facing a movement that no longer has any use for him.

Or at least that's soul of Garrel's remarkable, eerily spot-on performance. The film itself, however, never allows itself to explore those avenues, instead treating Godard as a goofy, almost Chaplin-eque figure, the Little Tramp playing at Maoism, a wannabe revolutionary out of step with his own time who can't seem to keep his iconic dark glasses from breaking. By the time Godard forms the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin, the film has turned into an all-too-common melodrama (which Godard would certainly dismiss as bourgeois nonsense), with Wiazemsky, a great artist in her own right, playing the utterly cliched long-suffering wife to the difficult genius (a sexist trope brilliantly flipped on its head by Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread).

Hazanavicius has seemingly made an entire career out of emulating the styles of others, from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (easily his best film), to the Oscar-winning The Artist, Hazanavicius often falls into the trap of recreating outmoded styles without grounding them in their proper artistic context. In OSS 117 it didn't matter so much because the film was an outright lampoon. Yet The Artist, and perhaps even more egregiously in Godard Mon Amour, the filmmaker is simply playing the mimic. The black title cards with bold primary color writing, the non-diagetic sound, the droll, descriptive voice-overs, Hazavavicius deploys them liberally, but they serve no real purpose in the greater narrative. Godard stands naked pontificating on the  pointlessness of nudity in film. Garrel turns to the camera to sneer about actors saying any word you put in their mouths. Hazanavicius is using Godard's Brechtian techniques without any of the fire or zeal that made them work in the first place. Godard consistently used such dramatic irony, but never in quite such painfully obvious ways.

Certainly the Godard of this period is not exempt from criticism. The Dziga Vertov Group era is when Godard finally disappeared fully up his own ass, and his misogyny and anti-semitism has been well-documented. But the irreverence of Godard Mon Amour treats him as more of an effete bumbling pseudo-intellectual who doesn't understand the very revolution he's trying to lead. If the film begins with an appealing sense of self-awareness, it soon devolves into self-parody, and eventually into irreverent pablum. It not only does Godard a great disservice, but also doesn't seem to know who its audience is. Fans of Godard will surely hate it, and beyond cinephile crowds he's not exactly a household name. It's a strange and seemingly pointless exercise in self congratulation that turns the romantic travails of two legendary cinema artists into cheap tabloid fodder. The irascible Godard would not be pleased, and in this case, he would be absolutely right.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

GODARD MON AMOUR | Directed by Michel Hazanavicius | Stars  Louis Garrel, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Grégory Gadebois, Tanya Lopert, Micha Lescot, Louise Legendre | Not Rated | In French with English Subtitles | Opens Friday, April 20, in select theaters.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cinema Obscura is a monthly feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

Watching Hải Ninh's 1975 Vietnam war film, The Little Girl of Hanoi, from an American perspective is a somewhat unique and often disquieting experience. Right off the bat, we know that this is not the typical American Vietnam War film, as the opening titles read - "Honoring the heroes of Hanoi who defeated the American imperialist B-52 bombing raid on the capital during 12 historical days and nights, from December 18-25, 1972."

Many American films took a decidedly anti-war perspective in regards to Vietnam, especially those of Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, whose films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July deflated the myth of American exceptionalism, while exploring the disillusion created by the war from a decidedly American perspective. Yet rarely have American audiences had the opportunity to consider the war from the Vietnamese perspective, especially the perspective of the North Vietnamese, who were the very "enemy" we were fighting against.

In The Little Girl of Hanoi, when you hear the words "the enemy," they're talking about Americans. There's something particularly disquieting about realizing the planes the North Vietnamese soldiers are heroically defending their homes from are in fact filled with American soldiers whose families back home would never see them again. But then that begs the question, why do we not feel the same pain for the Vietnamese soldiers when watching American films about the war? It hurts to see the deaths of American GIs cheered as a victory, especially considering that most didn't want to be there in the first place. But one can't help but stop and think that this is how the people of Vietnam must have felt too, as entires families were slaughtered wholesale during American bombing campaigns.

Those bombing campaigns serve as a chilling backdrop for Hải Ninh's film, a haunting tale of a young girl named Ha Ngoc (Lan Huong Nguyen) who is wandering the Vietnamese countryside looking for her father after her mother and sister were killed in the bombing of Hanoi. She is picked up by a kindhearted artilleryman (Thé Anh) who vows to help her find her father, and along the way her heartbreaking story unfolds in flashback. The film is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood in its portrait of childhood innocence destroyed by war. Ha Ngoc wanders through bombed out homes and schools, her happy memories of life before the way unfolding as flashbacks within flashbacks. It's a vision of Vietnam rarely seen in America, of the human toll of the American war effort and its effects not just on the North Vietnamese army, but on the civilians whose lives were forever changed by a full-scale war happening in their own backyard.

The wounds of the Vietnam war were still fresh in 1975 (America withdrew in April of that same year), and it should come as no surprise that the film was never released in American cinemas. We were still several years away from the American cinematic re-consideration of Vietnam, with The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) showcasing a more grim portrait of the war than had John Wayne's jingoistic propaganda film, The Green Berets (1968), earlier on in the conflict.

Make no mistake, The Little Girl of Hanoi is propaganda in its own right, but there's something much more subtle and lyrical about it than even the Soviets, whose style clearly influenced Hải Ninh, were ever able to achieve. At its heart, the film is a deeply humanistic and universal tale of suffering. Hải Ninh frames faces like Carl Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc, his camera lingering on Lan Huong Nguyen's tear-streaked visage as she gives one of the most remarkable child performances ever captured on film. By focusing on faces, he creates a link between character and audience; their suffering becomes our suffering, and through their anguished eyes we begin to see ourselves, understanding the depth of their confusion and pain.

No matter one's opinion of the Vietnam War (although at this point, I don't know how anyone can think of it as a positive), it's almost impossible not to understand the deep sense of suffering at its core. And even though America is clearly considered the enemy here (which from this perspective, is fair enough), it is a film of deep empathy. It is a tragedy on a staggering scale, of loss of human life for a reason that no one in the film seems to understand. It is a tale of the  human cost of American hubris, that offers a fascinating peek behind "enemy lines" from a perspective rarely seen. We might live in a society that still demonizes Jane Fonda as "Hanoi Jane" for visiting North Vietnamese troops during the war, but one can't help but feel that opening our collective eyes to films like The Little Girl of Hanoi might help people understand that there were needless losses on both sides of a terrible conflict that America should never have been a part of in the first place.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Phantom Thread is one of those films whose riches are best revealed over multiple viewings. On my first viewing, I was enraptured by director Paul Thomas Anderson's style, and by what is reportedly Daniel Day Lewis' final performance. Upon second viewing, I realized just how funny this film really is.  Once you know where everything is going, the threads of Anderson's gorgeous tapestry begin to reveal themselves. This is not the veneration of a "difficult genius" as some have accused it, it is a lampoon of those figures.

As Reynolds Woodcock, a temperamental English fashion designer, Day-Lewis has never been funnier. He's a domineering man who likes everything just so, a creature of habit and routine who flies into fits of rage whenever anything is out of place. On the surface, his relationship with his girlfriend, Alma (the luminous Vicky Krieps), a waitress he meets on a weekend in the country, seems emotionally abusive. He is prone to fits of anger, hurls insults when he is disturbed, and finds himself annoyed by even the most innocuous of sounds. Yet underneath the bluster is a little boy who just needs to be cared for, as evidenced by the unusual and vaguely kinky arrangement the two come to in the end involving poison mushrooms. That has been a point of contention for some, that the film is somehow an apologia for toxic masculinity. I think it's actually the opposite. Woodcock is a laughable figure, a petulant and immature child; Alma doesn't so much tame him as she does control him. She refuses to be bullied, and takes matters into her own hands to quell his childish outbursts. She's the one with the real power here, taking the great man down a peg an slyly deflating Reynolds' preening machismo.

The Blu-Ray thankfully preserves the grainy textures of Anderson's cinematography. This is one of the most tactile films I've ever seen, you can almost feel the fabric of Mark Bridges' sumptuous Oscar winning costumes between your fingers. Every thread of it is woven so carefully, so purposefully; Phantom Thread is an intoxicating brew of sensual pleasures. Day-Lewis is reliably brilliant, but it's Krieps and Lesley Manville as Reynolds' sister Cyril who really own this movie, outmaneuvering and shutting down Reynolds' ridiculousness at every turn. He's a petty tyrant, but Alma and Cyril not only know how to hold their own, they're the real brains of the operation.

The special features on the Blu-Ray offer little insight into the film, but why should it? The film stands as its own haunting enigma, both romantic, disturbing, and deeply funny. The special features offer brief glimpses into Anderson's process (a reel of camera tests featuring commentary by the filmmaker is especially fascinating), and a mock fashion documentary about the House of Woodcock that feels like a newsreel straight out of the 1950s. The real star here, of course, is the film, which remains one of the high points of cinema in recent memory. It's a luscious, bewitching concoction that's as rich as Reynolds' cream and as potent as Alma's poisoned mushrooms; in short - it's a brilliant and scintillating feast that will likely be long remembered.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

PHANTOM THREAD | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville | Rated R for language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Pictures.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The title of Blockers should really be Cock Blockers. Its marketing campaign has cheekily alluded to this, usually setting a rooster on top of the title in all of its advertising materials. But this R-rated tale of parents attempting to cock block their teenage daughters makes up for the PG-rated title in other ways. Blockers is American Pie for the #MeToo era, a film as much about sexual agency as it is about sex, tracking the efforts of three teenage girls who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

In American Pie, the horny high schoolers discovered that there's more to relationships than sex, whereas the lesson learned by the girls of Blockers is less about avoiding sex and more about choosing when they do it on their own terms. Their parents, however, aren't so keen on this idea, and when one of their daughters leaves their computer open, and iMessages start popping up with information about their agreement to lose their virginity at prom, the parents spring into action, crashing the prom in order to stop the kids from going through with it.

Hilarity, of course, ensues, as the decidedly uncool parents attempt to blend in with the partying high-schoolers, and valuable lessons are learned all around. Yet this female-led raunch-fest has a heart and a sense of purpose that is rare in these sort of teen sex comedies. In the end some of the teens decide to go ahead and lose their virginities, some choose to wait for another time, and some decide the time is right to come out of the closet, but the point is that it's their choice, and their parents learn the hard way that their children have grown up and are at last ready to leave the nest and make their own choices.

Lest you think Blockers is trying to wag its finger at us, it's a truly funny comedy that has plenty of R-rated laughs. Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz are terrific leads, playing the parents as sincerely concerned about their children rather than controlling helicopter parents. Director Kay Cannon, a writer making her directorial debut after penning all three Pitch Perfect films, balances the sexual humor with a sense of actual wit and humanity. This isn't Oscar Wilde, but there's a layer of sensitivity beneath its bawdy exterior that makes it surprisingly endearing.

Maybe it's a sign that I'm becoming an old fuddy-duddy, but I couldn't help but sympathize with the parents' desire to protect their children (the parties they attend are filled with hard drugs and alcohol), but in the end its message of body autonomy is both positive and well executed. It represents a natural progression of a genre that has long been trapped in regressive ideas of sexuality (especially female sexuality), and treats its characters not like objects, but like fully developed human beings. And that in itself makes Blockers something of an anomaly that deserves to be celebrated.

GRADE  - ★★★ (out of four)

BLOCKERS | Directed by Kay Cannon | Stars Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, John Cena, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Graham Phillips | Rated R for crude and sexual content, and language throughout, drug content, teen partying, and some graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Erika Cohn's documentary, The Judge, introduces us to Kholoud Al-Faqih, who became the first ever female judge of an Islamic Shari'a court in Palestine. Shari'a law and women's equality aren't exactly two things western audiences would see as compatible, but Al-Faqih is looking to change that perception, bravely leading the charge for women's rights in the Muslim world.

Naturally, Al-Faqih is met with a lot of resistance, even from those who support her, which makes The Judge an often fascinating exploration of the tensions between tradition, religion, and the law. Female subjugation, Al-Faqih argues, isn't based on the Qu'ran, but on ancient patriarchal tradition, and hopes to upend centuries of inequality simply by being good at her job. Her presence on the court also helps ensure that a justice system by and for men understands where women are coming from, rather than simply protecting the interests of men.

That's what makes Al-Faqih so special, she isn't just there to make history or to be the first, she's there to provide a balancing viewpoint in an otherwise male-dominated system. In a world where men are allowed multiple wives as a way to prevent infidelity (a luxury that women are not afforded) Al-Faqih becomes a voice for those who have been without one since the time of Muhommad. At first, The Judge examines her normal caseload, which is often filled with family disputes, but soon becomes a riveting look at the backlash she faces when the men who originally advocated for her lose their power.

The men in the film seem surprised that Al-Faqih would have a problem with the lack of female judges. "Women have equality," they claim, "and we have no quotas for judges. What's the problem if all the judges are male if they see women as equal?" The Judge is a quiet but firm rebuke to those outmoded ideas, as Cohn explores the importance of female perspective when male privilege prevents them from seeing or understanding the obstacles women face, calling on all men to wake up and do better.

The Judge may take place in Palestine, but it's an eye-opening portrait of rampant male privilege and the struggle for women simply to be heard. It's also a deeply unnerving study of internalized sexism, as even some of the very women Al-Faqih seeks to help think that women are just too emotional to be judges. Yet Cohn does not let western audiences off the hook. Inequality may be more obviously pronounced in the Arab world than in the west, but it is no more insidious. In a world of seemingly exaggerated, normalized sexism, Cohn finds a universal plight among women struggling against a system created by men for their own benefit. It would be a mistake for American viewers to write this off as an exotic problem in a far away land, it's happening right in our own backyard. The Judge is a bracing study of a fearless pioneer whose quest for justice reverberates far beyond Palestine and into a world that is still woefully skewed in the favor of men.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE JUDGE | Directed by Erika Cohn | Not Rated | In Arabic w/English subtitles | Opens April 13 in New York City, additional cities to follow.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The topic of white radicalization and the rise of the far right has unfortunately become a major issue in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Europe has been suffering the consequences of white unease in the face of increased diversity and changing demographics for longer than America has, as previously majority white nations struggle with how to deal with an influx of immigrants and shifting viewpoints on civil rights.

It is into that witch's brew of simmering white resentment that Laurent Cantet (The Class) dives in his latest film, The Workshop. Here, a group of young people from varying backgrounds come together for a writing workshop with a famous author in La Ciotat, a former bustling port town in southern France. The author, Olivia (Marina Foïs), attempts to find common ground between her students by having them put their creatives minds together to create a unique work of art - the only stipulation is that it must take place in their hometown of La Ciotat. While most agree that the story must be a murder muster set in the shipyards, where aging dock workers are struggling with the loss of their union and their way of life, white local Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) is resistant. Why, he asks, should he care about a struggle with which he has no relation?

The writing sessions soon become fraught with tension and racial provocation, with Antoine demeaning the perspectives of others and hurling accusations at Muslim students of supporting terrorist acts. Soon, his anger threatens to boil over as he becomes strangely fixated on Olivia, harboring a love/hate relationship with her and her ideas that he can never quite articulate, and it isn't long before his confusion and suppressed rage becomes violent.

It's all a very tricky line for Cantet to walk, to explore the origins of white resentment without sympathizing with his protagonist. Like Olivia, Cantet seeks to understand without condoning, to probe without justifying. The takeaway here is that the kids are not all right. We may be in the midst of an inspiring student-led revolution against gun violence in the United States, but Cantet warns of a future divorced from our past. In the case of the French characters in The Workshop, angry young men with no real sense of history or belonging react violently to a changing world. They become radicalized by right-wing ideology that gives them a sense of community and purpose, the rigidity and order of fascism providing their lives with structure, uniting around the common enemy of multiculturalism.

It's fertile ground for cinematic drama, and the workshop scenes are indeed riveting, the ideas flying fast and furious, the resentments unearthed over French colonialism like a scab ripped of a raw wound. To his credit, Cantet does not attempt to solve the problem in the span of two hours, leaving us with more questions than he does answers. Antoine's surly sense of self-confidence belies a deep seated insecurity, and Cantet manages to empathize with his lack of direction in life without justifying his racism or xenophobia, nor does he ignore the perspectives of the black and Arab people in the group (or even the more progressive white kids). The film provides a fascinating microcosm of French society, uncovering old wounds and exploring the possibility of a more enlightened future.

All this makes one wish that Cantet had come at this from a more distinct point of view. The Workshop tends to treat its audience like dispassionate observers rather than participants in an ongoing dialogue, and its ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, a kind of ambiguous question mark that feels like unsatisfying resolution to Antoine's arc that solves his sense of powerlessness a bit too easily.  Cantet uses video games to suggest a kind of distance between what kids see online and the real world, a violent fantasy with no consequences. Antoine plays video games but mostly rambles around in their worlds, much like he does in real life, aimlessly searching for a goal, a purpose which he may never find. It's as if Antoine is merely an observer of his own life, allowing right-wing viral videos to stoke his feelings of loneliness and angst. Perhaps that is what Cantet is getting at here, his roving camera like an impartial 3rd party observing the often electrifying workshop sessions.

There are just so many ideas at play here, many that connect and some that don't, but you have to admire the way in which Cantet works through so many issues on so many different levels. Even when the film's allegiances remain frustratingly opaque, one can't help but be enraptured by the dexterity of the dialogue and the metaphorical structure of the craft. It's the kind of film that continues to grow in retrospect, its shifting points of view revealing previously unseen layers and thematic depth. The Workshop is so frighteningly timely that it's easy to become lost in the details of the drama, trying to fit each piece into a contemporary political context. And yet Cantet manages to deliver a story that is as universal as it is specific, offering a chilling and ultimately hopeful portrait of a world looking for a common connection in all the wrong places, when the community and belonging they so desperately seek has been right in front of them the whole time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WORKSHOP | Directed by Laurent Cantet | Stars Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Warda Rammach, Florian Beaujean, Julien Souve, Olivier Thouret, Issam Talbi | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

John Krasinski's A Quiet Place features what is arguably one of the most ingenious horror movie premises to come along in years. Set in a post-apocalyptic near future, humans are hunted by blind creatures that hunt using their extremely acute hearing. If you make a sound, you die.

It is into the world that the film drops us, with only the faintest hints at the disaster that created it. This is the daily reality for its characters now, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. That is perhaps Krasinski's greatest achievement here, bringing the idea of imagination back to mainstream cinema and using it so very, very well. We never do really get a good look at the creatures in full; Krasinski reveals them slowly, filming them in quick flashes or in pieces. First we just see a spindly arm, then a mouth, rarely the entire thing all at once. Krasinski understands that what we don't see, or in some cases hear, is far more frightening, and his use of sound as a dramatic device is brilliantly realized.

Krasinski himself stars as Lee Abbott, alongside his real-life spouse Emily Blunt as Lee's wife, Evelyn. Lee and Evelyn are two parents struggling to raise a family in a newly sound-free world. Their daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf, which in this world is both a blessing and a curse. The family all speaks sign language (which comprises much of the film's dialogue), but Regan cannot hear if a sound has attracted the monsters, so Lee spends his days trying to perfect her hearing aids. Evelyn is also pregnant, and as the baby's due date draws near so too does the threat that the creatures may hear her, and soon the entire family is running for their lives as the mysterious monsters converge on their farm. If they can stay silent they will live, but make one sound, and they will all die.

A Quiet Place feels a bit like a modern Hitchcock, with Krasinski building tension through sound (or lack thereof). Much of the film is totally silent, the dialogue spoken in sign language, the only sound coming from the rustling of trees and grass, or Marco Beltrami's hushed score. This creates an almost unbearable sense of dread, keeping us on the edge of our seat waiting for the next burst of sound. By its very nature the film is rife with jump scares, but they're judiciously used and perfectly in tune with the story.

The film that it reminded me most of, however, is M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. The mysterious creatures, the farm setting, the creature's ultimate weakness, hews very close to the plot of Shyamalan's 2002 hit. The very premise sounds like the kind of thing that would spring from Shyamalan's imagination. And yet Krasinksi actually does Shyamalan one better. Whereas parts of Signs felt like a gimmick, A Quiet Place uses its high concept premise to the fullest. Its scares never feel cheap, its emotion never feels unearned. It's a remarkable achievement, both conceptually and artistically, a tightly controlled thrill ride that expertly builds tension in a dazzling highwire act of suspense. Krasinski uses classical Hollywood techniques to craft something that feels thrillingly unique, a bold formal experiment that pays off in spades.  Once this thing gets its hooks in you it doesn't let go, and Krasinski has now firmly established himself as an exciting new filmmaker to watch.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A QUIET PLACE | Directed by John Krasinski | Stars  Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Cade Woodward | Rated PG-13 for terror and some bloody images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Tyler Perry's Acrimony is a rare foray into R-rated territory for the filmmaker. Outside 2010's R-rated For Colored Girls, Perry tends to hew closer to PG-13 rated fare, throwing in just enough salty language for effect without alienating his often faith-based audience. 

In Acrimony, he delves into the deep-end of the newfound freedom brought on by the R-rating, tackling the story of a wronged woman in ways that display considerable artistic growth for the filmmaker. I know I'm one of the few critics out there who has been banging the drum for Perry all along, but I'll stand by my assertion that he is one of the most distinctive auteurs working today. Acrimony is both a step forward and a step backward for Perry, as he works to subvert his own formula while indulging in some of his worst directorial habits.

The best thing about the film is easily Taraji P. Henson's delightfully deranged performance. As Melinda, a woman dealing with the perceived betrayal by the man she loves, Henson is a marvel of slowly boiling rage, like a kettle coming to a boil over the course of two hours. There is a moment near the beginning of the film that is perhaps one of the most stunning shots of Perry's career; a chilling long-take with a slowly unraveling Henson at its center against the backdrop of a foggy Atlanta sky.  Perry's last few films featured some really sloppy filmmaking, but this shot displays a jaw-dropping level of control anchored by a tremendous performance.

At first we think we're watching yet another Perry film about an abusive husband and his long-suffering wife. Melinda's husband, Robert (Lyriq Bent) is a bit of a lout. She catches him cheating before they're even married, and he spends years of his life on a quixotic quest to build a self-recharging battery, throwing away all their money, while Melinda toils away to support him. But slowly we begin to realize that, while Robert is far from perfect, he might have not been such a bad guy after all, and that Melinda's suspicions and mistrust may be coming from within.

It's fun to watch Perry subverting his own formula, and the resulting fireworks display of drama makes for some delicious pulp. But Perry also tends to get in his own way, overlooking so many minor details and mistakes that it hurts the overall product. The film was reportedly shot in just over a week, and it shows. A woman emerges from the ocean with bone dry hair. A delivery truck for the family business clearly has a temporary logo pasted over the real one. A couple walking beside a river are clearly standing in front of a poorly rendered green screen. I'm not sure if Perry doesn't notice these things, or if he thinks no one else will, but along with the awkward dubbing in Boo 2, these are some of the most blatant oversights of Perry's career.

The movie is fun regardless. It's a gloriously seedy soap opera and Henson devours the scenery with great relish. But it's a shame to see the details of Perry's narrative get so unceremoniously swept aside. The devil  is often in the details, and in Acrimony, Perry doesn't seem particularly concerned with the craft of his film, which is disappointing because he is so clearly capable of better. He's a filmmaker who continually shows great promise, not to mention a keen understanding of his audience and his own particular storytelling language, but the breakneck speed at which he works tends to leave little time to really shape his films into something truly special.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

ACRIMONY | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Nicolet, Ajiona Alexus, Tika Sumpter, Lyriq Bent | Rated R for language, sexual content and some violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.