Saturday, November 18, 2017

Set in Mississippi during World War II, Dee Rees' Mudbound is an intimate American epic that takes a hard look at race relations through the eyes of two families, one white, one black; one of which owns the land, while the other works it. Both families send sons off to the war, but their experiences, while not that different abroad, are wildly disparate upon their return home.

Life is hard for the white McAllan family. Saddled with a large farm they can't tend to on their own, and lorded over by a virulently racist patriarch (Jonathan Banks), they rely on the black Jackson family to do the lion's share of the work. The Jackson's oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) heads off to war, and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) joins up too, leaving his brother, Henry (Jason Clarke), and sister-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan), behind to take care of the farm.

Yet no matter how hard things get for the McAllans, things are always worse for the Jacksons. Never is this privilege clearer than when Ronsel and Jamie return from Europe at the end of the war. Jamie is greeted as a hero, while Ronsel is constantly reminded that he's back in Mississippi, and in Mississippi black people aren't allowed to use the front door. And when patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), breaks his leg, it falls to his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige) to pick up the slack in order to ensure the McAllans' survival.

We've seen stories like this before. I was most reminded of Robert Benton's Places in the Heart (1984). Yet never has this story been told so indelibly from an African American perspective. Rees (who also directed the equally engaging Pariah) takes a hard look at white privilege and white fragility through the lens of a time that had no words for such concepts. The Jacksons are constantly paying for the McAllan's mistakes, toiling over land they will never be able to own themselves. They are brutalized for stepping out of line and expecting equal treatment. And they are faced with an entirely different set of challenges and struggles than the McAllans.

The McAllans aren't wealthy people. They would never consider themselves to be privileged. But that is just what they are, and Mudbound illustrates that point with a subtle yet firm hand. It often feels like Rees is unfolding a Great American Novel onscreen right before our eyes, turning the struggles of two discordant families who become  a microcosm for American society writ large. The finely appointed period detail and gorgeous cinematography are best experienced on the big screen, which makes it a shame that Netflix is the studio that ended up with the distribution rights. Yet Rees' talent still radiates off the screen. She takes Hillary Jordan's novel and turns it into rough-hewn cinematic poetry, even sometimes calling to mind the works of Days of Heaven-era Terrence Malick.

Mudbound takes a familiar story and makes it feel fresh, and is the perfect example of why we need more films directed by women and people of color. You'll never hear the words "white privilege" mentioned anywhere in the film, but its specter hangs over everything. It isn't so much a film about the destructive recklessness of whiteness as it is the blind naïveté of being the beneficiaries of structural racism designed to uphold white supremacy. It's an American epic for our time, an intricately woven period drama with a rich social conscience that never feels like a screed or a lecture, merely a lived-in portrait of racial imbalance that feels both urgent and essential.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MUDBOUND | Directed by Dee Rees | Stars Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Lucy Faust, Kelvin Harrison | Rated R for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity | Now playing in select cities. Also available on Netflix.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Daniel Sousa's Oscar nominated short film, Feral, is now available to stream on Vimeo. My favorite of the 2014 Oscar nominated shorts, ended up losing to Mister Hublot, but really should have ended up winning the award. Here is my original capsule review of the film:
A wild young boy, raised in the wilderness by wolves, is found by a hunter and brought back to the human world to be “civilized.” But the world is anything but civilized to the young man, who finds himself trapped in a cold, uncaring world longing for freedom. Featuring breathtaking hand-drawn animation, it is easily the strongest of a very good group of nominees. It’s a haunting, abstract, gripping film that looks like a moving work of art. This is what animation should be.
Check out the entire film below, now streaming for free on Vimeo!

On paper, Wonder sounds almost insufferably treacly. The story of a young boy with a facial deformity overcoming adversity and constant bullying in a new school, everything about it just seems ripe for the kind of mawkish pablum that often characterizes these kinds of inspirational dramas. However, in the hands of director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder is actually a sensitive and sincere tear-jerker with real heart.

August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) was born with a chromosomal defect that resulted in a facial deformity, requiring multiple plastic surgeries in order to see and hear properly. Embarrassed by his unusual looking face, he usually hides behind an astronaut helmet, until the day comes for him to leave homeschool and head to 5th grade. Already advanced for his age, especially in science, Auggie quickly takes to the subject matter, but he is constantly targeted by two-faced bullies who go unnoticed by the adults around them. As he begins to open himself up and make friends, he starts to realize that the world can often be cruel, and children even crueler. Through the support of his family, his newfound friends, and his irrepressible spirit, Auggie must overcome his perceived flaws and self doubt and show the world how strong he truly is; teaching everyone he encounters to choose kindness.

Sure, it's sentimental, but never shamelessly so. Chbosky earns the audience's tears by drawing real, fleshed out characters and exploring each story with dignity and grace. "There are always two sides to every story" Auggie's principal says at one point. And in that spirit, Wonder shows us that everyone has their own story to tell. Chbosky goes in-depth to explore each character's motivations, showing us how Auggie's older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic) often feels neglected by the amount of time their parents spend with him; why Auggie's best friend seemingly betrays him in order to fit in with the "cool" kids; and why Via's best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) suddenly stops hanging out with her.

Each one gets their moment in the spotlight, highlighting the fact that we never know what private struggles people are dealing with under the surface. It gives each character depth and agency in their own stories, deftly exploring the idea that there are indeed two sides to every story, and unseen pain often lurking just beneath the surface that we may never know about. "Choose kind" is the film's tagline, and it reinforces that at every turn without coming across as pushy or manipulative. The earnest performances by its cast, especially by Tremblay, who remains one of the best young actors out there today, also help sell its tricky story.

This could easily have been a cloying and sappy film, but it is a testament to Chbosky's skill as a director and screenwriter that it isn't. Wonder is instead a tender and truly moving heart-warmer that comes by its tears honestly. Rather than delve into flagrant schmaltz, it makes a quiet and stirring plea for pure human decency. In a world where bullying now seems commonplace, even from the highest office in the land, and kindness feels like a lost art, what could be more wonderful than that?

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WONDER | Directed by Stephen Chbosky | Stars Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Izabela Vidovic, Sônia Braga, Ali Liebert, Noah Jupe, Millie Davis | Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language | Opens today, 11/17, in theaters nationwide!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Say what you will about the film itself, at least the score from Justice League is good. Returning to the DC universe for the first time since 1992's Batman Returns, Danny Elfman not only brings his original Batman theme with him, but John Williams' iconic Superman theme as well, creating a score steeped in the rich history of DC's past.

There has been quite a bit of controversy over whether or not this was the right approach, given that the DC Extended Universe had already established a kind of thematic continuity through Hans Zimmer's work on Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Elfman does preserve Zimmer's Wonder Woman theme, which makes an appearance in "Wonder Woman Rescue," giving it a rhythmic variation that it never received in BvS or in Rupert Gregson-Williams' Wonder Woman.

That is perhaps the greatest asset Elfman brings to the table in Justice League, his ability to intelligently develop thematic material in ways that the DCEU just hasn't done up to this point. As someone who was a fan of Zimmer's Man of Steel, it does seem a shame to completely abandon the bittersweet piano motif, but it's also hard to argue that Williams' Superman theme isn't far superior. These are iconic themes for iconic characters, and Elfman puts a dark spin on the Williams material that mutes its irrepressible optimism in a way that feels more appropriate for this new DC universe.

Williams' theme makes a few brief appearances in "Friends and Foes" and again in "The Final Battle," each time mutated almost beyond recognition, yet still carrying that essential Superman DNA. It's judiciously used, and Elfman wisely strips away its fanfare-like qualities in favor of a more brooding tone, at least until its final triumphant statement.

The Batman theme is used a little more liberally, popping up prominently in "Batman on the Roof," "Then There Were Three," "The Tunnel Fight," and "The Final Battle." Elfman never really gives it a full treatment the way he did in Batman and Batman Returns, but this isn't just Batman's story, so he avoids allowing it to take over. The problem with this is that his new Justice League theme just isn't as strong as either of the classic themes he employs here. It's a serviceable theme, especially when deployed with the composer's signature choirs, but don't expect to walk out of the theater humming it. The same is true for the rather anonymous motifs for Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash, which don't really establish themselves strongly alongside more memorable material for Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Hopefully they will have a chance to become more fleshed out in their own respective films.

Still, it's good to see Elfman in this mode again, with a grand, heroic canvas on which to paint. "The Tunnel Fight" and "The Final Battle" are action powerhouses, especially in their full, extended forms that are included as bonus tracks. There will certainly be those who argue that the DC "sound" established by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is a better fit for this universe than Elfman's work, but his action writing is just so intelligent, and the thematic variations are much stronger than anything we've seen in the DCEU thus far. It's hard not to feel the hair on the back of your neck standing up when the original Batman and Superman themes come bursting out in their full glory. This isn't mere fan service or nostalgia pandering, it's a return to a more classic sound that brings some of the most iconic superhero themes of all time back into the fold. It may dispense with the established DCEU sound, but I would argue that it captures the comic book spirit of the source material, as well as Joss Whedon's lighter style, with greater flexibility and thematic integrity, than anything the series has seen before. By looking to its past, Elfman offers a more engaging path forward for the series that is rooted in its classic history, but charting a bold new path forward.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on streaming platforms and digital download. Available on CD Dec. 8.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

From The Dispatch:

It may often be an excuse for Branagh to ham it up in an iconic role, but it’s just so much fun to watch. It is a lovely and lavish mystery with a refreshingly old-fashioned flair that doesn’t feel like an ironic throwback or shameless nostalgia pandering. It’s just a glittering, star-studded Hollywood drama that uses its cast’s stature to send the audience sniffing down the wrong paths, and have a blast doing it.
Click here to read my full review.

What to make of Andrei Tarkovsky's enigmatic science fiction masterpiece, Stalker? At once a haunting religious allegory and a chilling dystopian vision, Stalker is truly an experience like no other.

Ostensibly a film about three men attempting to journey to the site of a purported alien crash, Stalker's eponymous character is a guide who takes travelers deep into the heart of what is only known as "the Zone," in order to find a fabled Room that is said to grant people's innermost desires. Along the way they face deadly traps and shifting passageways designed to thwart them on their way to happiness, and only the stalkers can see them safely to The Room. Is he a prophet, leading people to the promised land? Is he a false prophet, playing on their hopes and dreams? Is he just a misguided man with misplaced faith?

Stalker dares not only to question religion's role in our world, but to pose the question - "even if our faith in God is in vain, was it still in service of a greater good?" Is a lie an evil even if it brings joy and hope? And what if, in the end, it turns out to be true? Shot in gorgeous, golden sepia, and later (in the Zone) in lovely, muted color, Stalker is a masterwork like no other. The new Criterion Blu-Ray is absolutely flawless, bringing each golden shot to breathtaking life. Like all Tarkovsky's films, it is a slow, deliberate work. Yet not a shot or a sound is wasted (the use of sound here is especially stunning). It's like something out of a dream, guiding us through a haunted, desolate landscape that eerily presages the Chernobyl disaster that would occur seven years later. It's a mesmerizing, utterly un-categorizable work that is undeniably the work of a master artist at the peak of his powers.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

STALKER | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky | Stars  Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn Nikolay Grinko, Alisa Freyndlikh, Natasha Abramova | In Russian w/English subtitles | Now streaming exclusively on FilmStruck! Also available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

There are few filmmakers out there quite so adept at blending fantasy and reality as Hong Sangsoo. There's an almost otherworldly quality to his films - always grounded in reality but always making the audience question what is real and what isn't. He manipulates perception and time in such subtle ways that we often don't realize he's doing it until after the fact. Such a skilled craftsman is he that the seams are always invisible, and the results often breathtaking.

A little background is needed to truly appreciate the deft hat trick that Hong pulls in his latest film, On the Beach at Night Alone. In 2015, the 55-year-old Hong left his wife of 30 years for 34-year-old actress, Kim Min-hee, the star of his 2016 film, Right Now, Wrong Then. It was a film about a director who falls in love with a younger woman; and life, as they say, imitated art. It was a major scandal in Hong's home country of South Korea, and was covered extensively by the Korean tabloids.

In On the Beach at Night Alone, he reunites with Kim Min-hee to grapple with the fallout from their affair. Kim stars as Younghee, an actress who has just returned to Korea from abroad after a torrid affair with a married filmmaker. Trying to put her life back together, she stays with friends until she's back on her feet. However, as alcohol flows at dinner parties with friends, confessions begin to spring forth, culminating in a confrontation with the very filmmaker with whom she had the affair. As the truth comes out, Younghee finds herself questioning everything, and at last coming to terms with the romance that forever changed the course of her life.

Whether On the Beach at Night Alone is art imitating life or life imitating art is hard to say. That's part of what makes Hong's work so extraordinary. It's part confessional, part self-assessment, part fiction - and who's to say where one diverges from the other? It's a kind of meta-cinematic fantasia through which Hong, and by extension, Kim, exorcise their own demons through their art. When Younghee finally unleashes on the director at the end of the film (a powerful scene which helped propel Kim to the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival), is that Kim unloading her feelings on Hong? Or is that Hong punishing himself for his own sins?

The truth, of course, lies in all possible scenarios. Hong's films are beautiful enigmas that seemingly exist in a mysterious place where cinema meets the real world, where one often cannot tell which is which. On the Beach at Night Alone is a fascinating and deeply cathartic work, in which a filmmaker openly grapples with his own inner conflict and guilt. It is rare to see a filmmaker open up to his audience in such a raw and honest way, confronting himself as much as the public that crucified him for falling in love. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is that Hong doesn't just make this about himself. This is Kim's story as much as it is his, and he allows her to speak through her wrenching and emotionally vulnerable performance.

To watch On the Beach at Night Alone is to bear witness to the souls of two artists being laid bare. It is both defiant and confessional, simultaneously seeking justification and absolution. Unlike Hong's 2000 film, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, this is Hong stripped bare by himself, and the results are a singular and poignant act of self-examination and personal catharsis that takes private pain and turns it into an anguished public atonement.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Kim Min-hee, Jung Jae-young, Seo Young-hwa, Kwon Hae-hyo, Song Seon-mi, Moon Sung-keun, Ahn Jae-hong | Not Rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, Nov. 17, in NYC. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The DNA of the French New Wave flows strongly through Gabe Klinger's debut feature, Porto. Like a lovechild of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy, Porto is a rough-hewn tale of a one night stand whose repercussions reverberate throughout the couple's life. Shot on a mixture of 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm film, it often feels like something out of another time; a forgotten New Wave romance featuring the indelible imagery of Demy, the wistfulness of Truffaut, and the tragic fatalism of Godard.

Yet despite its obvious visual inspirations (and a cameo by the cafe from Godard's Band of Outsiders), Porto never feels like a self-conscious or ironic throwback. Its fractured style and beautifully grainy cinematography feel like a natural extension of its narrative. It unfolds like flashes of memory, out of chronological order, creating an almost Rashomon-like portrait of an affair from each participant's perspective.

Jake (Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) are two expatriates living in Portugal, who meet at an archeological dig site and embark on a whirlwind romance. Jake is estranged from his family, Mati is embroiled in an affair with one of her professors. Yet they find solace in each other's arms for one night of passion. When they awake, however, the world (and their brief relationship) looks quite different. But as they go their separate ways, the things said and the feelings that erupt that night continue to haunt them. Unable to shake it, they return to the scene of their one night stand, older but not necessarily wiser.

Klinger's shifting perspectives search for truth in memory, a place where feelings often cloud reality and things said in the throes of passion become lies upon reflection. Porto delicately sifts through the fog of time and raging hormones to find the essence of their relationship. There is no truth here, only feelings, and Klinger expertly leads us through their cloudy memories into a haunted world of lost dreams and shattered second chances. It's an enchanting and often painful exploration of attraction and love, and what happens when those two things diverge through flawed and imperfect people.

Porto is a film of moments, fragments of time lost in the perceptions of the mind. Jake sees their love quite differently than Mati, but their time together affects them both in profound but radically diffrent ways. Perhaps its greatest tragedy, however, is the loss of Anton Yelchin, who passed away before the film was released. As his final performance, it stands as an incredible monument to his talent. It's the finest work of his young career, and a stark reminder of the staggering loss his death represents. It's a haunted, weary performance, that goes from the wide-eyed optimism of the first pangs of young love, to the devastating agony of its loss. He and Lucas have tremendous chemistry, providing the film with its aching, yearning soul.

It all makes for an astonishing debut for Klinger, who directs with an assuredness of style and character that are hallmarks of a consummate filmmaker. He creates a world of textures and feelings rooted in New Wave aesthetics that linger like wisps of smoke slowly fading into the night air. Memory cannot always be trusted, but recollections of emotions can be far stronger. In Porto, when memory begins to fade, feelings are all that is left. It's an elegy not just for Yelchin, but for the idea of what could have been, lost forever in second-guessing and false remembrances. This is unmistakably the debut of a major new filmmaking voice.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PORTO | Directed by Gabe Klinger | Stars Lucie Lucas, Anton Yelchin | Not Rated | Opens Friday, Nov. 17, in NYC. Nov. 24 in LA.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sean Baker is one of the best filmmakers working today. His filmography has deftly examined the lives of those who live in society's margins, often unseen and ignored. One could say that he is perhaps one of our most quintessentially American filmmakers, exploring our country through the eyes of those on its periphery.

The symbolism of that has never been so potent as it is in his latest film, The Florida Project. Named for Walt Disney's original designation for the Orlando theme park that would one day become Walt Disney World, The Florida Project follows the lives of a group of young children who live in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of the Disney parks called the Magic Castle. Covered in garish purple stucco and home to all manner of societal outcasts who are all but homeless, the Magic Castle is a kind of haven for those who have nowhere else to go. Our guide into this world is Moonee (a remarkable Brooklynn Prince), an adventurous and preternaturally sassy little girl with little respect for authority and a rich fantasy life. She, along with her friends, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spend their days spitting on cars, begging for free food, and roaming all over the shabby tourist district they call home, defying adults and adulthood at every turn.

Moonee also spends a large amount of time with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a loud, foul-mouthed hustler who sells counterfeit perfume on the street in order to pay the rent (and sometimes stealing away to catch a glimpse of the Disney World fireworks bursting in the distance). Mooney and Halley have a tenuous existence, rarely able to make ends meet, barely hanging on to what meager life they have. And yet Moonee is blissfully unaware of the decay that surrounds her. As their innocent childhood play soon takes a dark turn, Moonee's seemingly idyllic world soon begins to crumble around her, as circumstances she could never understand puts her on an inevitable path that will likely determine the course of the rest of her life. There, in the shadow of the happiest place on earth, childhood comes to a screeching, painful halt.

I can't remember the last time a film so indelibly captured the cycle of poverty and abuse that keeps so many in this country down. With his shot-on-the-fly, cinéma vérité style, Baker treats each character with dignity, never condescending to them or the situations in which they find themselves. Instead he offers a clear-eyed portrait of abject poverty and the choices families must make in order to merely scrape by. The film unfolds like a modern piece of neo-realism, capturing life seemingly as it happens. And yet the narrative beats are so masterfully composed that we almost don't notice them until they sneak up on us, maximizing their emotional impact. That the film is set in an area of wealth with a renowned veneer of joy is no mistake. Poverty is all around us, even within spitting distance of Walt Disney World. It is as if here they are even more invisible, overlooked in a tourist mecca built on an illusion.

Baker is known for working with non-professional actors, and the cast here is one of the finest he has ever assembled. He makes people who have never acted before, and coaxes out brilliant, multi-layered performances that have more authenticity than many Oscar-winners. These people have seen the things they portray, and you can feel the world-weary resignation in their eyes.  Brooklynn Prince is a revelation, turning in perhaps the most fully realized and utterly heartbreaking performance of the year. She, along with Willem Dafoe as the Magic Castle's long suffering manager, give the film its heart and soul.

From Prince of Broadway (2008), to Starlet (2012), to Tangerine (2015), Baker has given voice to the voiceless, exploring America's oft-ignored underbelly with an uncommon sense of joy. He finds happiness in the darkest of places, and The Florida Project is like a shot of pure, childlike glee. And yet, it is never far away from the inherent tragedy at its heart - that the future of these children is ultimately bleak. What makes it such a remarkable film is how Baker gives it all such a sense of hope, no matter how faint, in the innocent optimism of its young characters. It's a warm, winning, heartbreaking, and deeply moving portrait of those for whom the childlike wonder and happiness that Disney World represents is always in sight, but forever out of reach; a haunting reminder of the increasingly fading hope of the American dream in decline. It's Baker's finest work yet.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT | Directed by Sean Baker | Stars Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera | Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

No one is ever going to mistake either of the Daddy's Home movies for great filmmaking. The first was a rather rote, if occasionally amusing, slapstick comedy about a mild-mannered stepdad (Will Farrell) learning to coexist with the tough-guy biological father of his stepchildren (Mark Wahlberg). It wasn't a major hit, so a the prospect of a sequel was something of a surprise, not to mention somewhat unnecessary. But in the end it manages to justify its own existence, and even provides a few laughs along the way.

Daddy's Home 2 reintroduces us to Farrell's Brad and Wahlberg's Dusty, now happy "co-dads" who are running their united families like a well-oiled machine. However, with Christmas approaching, they discover that their children are actually unhappy with having to split the holiday between the two families. So they plan a "together Christmas" to include both families at once. But things get a little complicated when Brad and Dusty receive word that their own fathers are coming to visit. Brad's dad (John Lithgow) is an effervescent, effeminate motormouth much like his son, while Dusty's dad (Mel Gibson) is a hyper-masculine lady's man with no tolerance for nonsense. At polar ends of the spectrum much like their sons, the duelling grandpas are about to make Christmas a holiday the families won't soon forget, forcing Dusty and Brad to confront old wounds and disrupting the tenuous bonds of their newly formed alliance.

Daddy's Home 2 is a marked improvement on its predecessor, mostly thanks to the presence of Gibson and Lithgow, who gamely dive into the film's silliness. It retain's some of the original film's over-the-top slapstick, but wisely scales it back, focusing instead on more character-driven comedy courtesy of its almost overqualified cast (a bit involving the dads' obsession with keeping the thermostat turned is especially inspired). The script is still a problem, throwing in contemporary buzzwords like "snowflake" in at awkward attempt at being cool, but instead comes across like a lame dad trying to impress the kids with some slang he just heard.

Like most comedies, it's hit or miss. Some jokes land, others don't, but Daddy's Home 2 coasts by on a modicum of charm and a capable cast. Gibson and Lithgow make terrific foils for Farrell and Wahlberg, and their presence provides a major boost for an otherwise mid-grade comedy. It's a rare comedy sequel that actually surpasses the original (although the original wasn't particularly great in the first place), and expands on its premise just enough to make this a world worth revisiting.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

DADDY'S HOME 2 | Directed by Sean Anders | Stars Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, John Cena | Rated PG-13 for suggestive material and some language | Opens Friday, Nov. 10, in theaters everywhere.

Few filmmakers are as skilled at genre revisionism as Walter Hill. His 1995 western, Wild Bill, didn't receive much attention upon its release, grossing a mere $2 million and never cracking the top ten at the box office (it also had the misfortune of opening against Toy Story). Even after the success of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven just three years before, westerns still weren't a hot commodity, even with stars like Jeff Bridges in the lead.

Wild Bill is also not your typical western. It's a biopic of the infamous Wild Bill Hickok (Bridges), based on the novel, "Deadwood," by Peter Dexter, and the play "Fathers and Sons" by Thomas Babe, that peels back the layers of legend that have built up around him in an attempt to
discover the man beneath. It is that very legend that torments Wild Bill in Hill's film, providing an adversary far more potent than any flesh and blood gunslinger. Like all legends, there is some basis in truth to Bill's exploits, but after a while they took on a life of their own. Hill's vision of Bill is a man running from his own persona, yet never quite able to escape. He goes from town to town, yet the myth always precedes him.

Hill presents Bill's story as a kind of kaleidoscope, told through flashbacks and memories that sometimes interject themselves as harsh, black and white VHS hallucinations brought on by Bill's addiction to opium. It's often disorienting, but what makes it so potent is how we're never quite sure if what we're watching is the true story, or another tall tale. In fact, we're also never quite sure if Bill knows the difference anymore either.

Bridges plays him as a brash, temperamental old gunslinger haunted by his past, struggling to carve a life out of a caricature partially of his own design. His relationship with Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) is fraught with unrequited passion, as well as a kind of careworn tenderness of two people desperately want to escape the lives they have built for themselves.

Wild Bill is a clever and often chilling deconstruction of the myths of the Old West. Hill was adept at distilling archetypal masculinity to its psychological essence (see The Driver), and while here it may seem a bit unfocused, as a character study it's absolutely terrific. The black & white flashbacks have not aged well, and now seem less artful and more gimmicky than anything else. And yet, the pain in Bill's soul remains palpable, partially due to Bridges' outstanding performance, but also thanks to Hill's keen understanding of what motivated him.

We may never know who Wild Bill really was (the circumstances surrounding his death and the man who killed him here are complete fiction), but the key aspect of Wild Bill is that perhaps he didn't even know himself. That's the film's quiet tragedy - it's not just an elegy for the myth of the Old West, it's an elegy for a time and a place that never really existed in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WILD BILL | Directed by Walter Hill | Stars Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, Keith Carradine, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, Bruce Dern | Rated R for wild West violence and a sex scene | Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

From The Dispatch:
As the third entry in the Thor series, “Thor: Ragnarok” throws out much of the previous entries’ attempts at grand, Norse-style myth-making in favor of something much lighter on its feet. Director Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows”) infuses more of his own personality in “Ragnarok” than any other filmmaker in the MCU has yet been able to do, save for James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” duology. It’s a colorful, outrageous, gloriously self-aware oddball adventure that isn’t afraid to break the mold and poke fun at its predecessors (a winking theatrical re-enactment of the melodramatic climax of “Thor: The Dark World” is especially hilarious).
Click here to read my full review!

Winnie the Pooh has always had a special place in my heart. So it is perhaps a bit difficult for someone like me to have a truly subjective critical opinion of something that has such innate sentimental value to me. The good news is that Goodbye Christopher Robin manages to avoid overtly saccharine sentimentality, but in favor of something surprisingly dour and downbeat.

Taking its cues from Marc Forster's Finding NeverlandGoodbye Christopher Robin tells the true story of A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and the creation of his most beloved character, Winnie the Pooh. Already a successful playwright, but suffering from undiagnosed PTSD from WWI, Milne and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie) mostly leave the raising of their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) to his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Shellshocked and distant, Milne decides to write an anti-war book, much to the dismay of Daphne, who craves the fame brought on by his more popular work. So she leaves until he is able to write again, leaving Milne and Christopher alone in their cabin in the woods.

Thrown together by circumstance, father and son begin to spend time together in the woods, playing with Christopher's toys - a bear, a baby pig, a tiger, and a donkey. Inspired by their days spent together, Milne begins to write a new book about the adventures of Christopher Robin and his toys, which prove to be a massive success. Suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, Christopher (who prefers to be called Billy) must now share his private life with the world, and soon finds that he is sacrificing his own childhood for his newfound fans.

That's where Goodbye Christopher Robin turns surprisingly dark. At its heart, it's the story of a child being exploited for financial gain by his parents. Christopher had no desire to share Winnie with others, and found his fame to be an intrusion on cherished time with his father that he was never able to reclaim. It's a disarming and heartbreaking road for the film to take, especially for anyone for whom Winnie the Pooh and friends has ever meant anything. It's also rich territory for exploring the idea of fame, intellectual property, and especially how it affects children. Unfortunately, the film mostly pays lip service to those ideas then moves on toward a more conventional happy ending.

And yet there's something beautifully cathartic about that ending, even after its rather manipulative fake-out. Winnie the Pooh has meant a lot to millions of people around the world, in spite of the rather negative impact it had on the real Christopher Robin. One could probably argue that its ending puts a trite fix on the issues it raises, but director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) handles it well. His acknowledgement of the fragility of childhood, coupled with resilience and wonder, make Goodbye Christopher Robin a moving celebration of the essence of what Winnie the Pooh means. It may be a relatively middle-of-the-road weepie, but for anyone who has ever had any affection for that silly old bear, it sure does hit a sweet spot of nostalgia and warmth, and how it is often born from sorrow and pain.

With a little more depth, this could have been something great. As it stands, it's a lovely and wistful walk down memory lane that reminds us that the past isn't always sunny as we may want to believe, but never takes that extra step to probe what that really means.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN | Directed by Simon Curtis | Stars Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther | Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

William Oldroyd's feature debut, Lady Macbeth, based on "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" by Nikolai Leskov, is a hushed, chilly thriller about a young bride named Katherine who begins to exact revenge on the patriarchal structure that turned her into a sex object for her controlling lout of a husband. She soon turns to murder, with the help of her new lover, but as the list of victims grows, it becomes clear that she is heading down a much darker path.

Like I Spit on Your Grave wrapped in a veneer of class and prestige, Lady Macbeth starts off as an old fashioned feminist revenge yarn. But then it gradually morphs into something else; a haunting examination of the slippery slope of moral decline. Unfortunately, it tries to have its cake and eat it too, and by casting Katherine as the Machiavellian figure of its title, without any real goal after the death of her husband, she just kind of becomes generically evil.

It's no fault of Florence Pugh, who turns in one of the year's most riveting performances as Katherine. As a woman learning to harness and control her own sexuality, she exudes a raw, natural magnetism that soon turns cold and distant as the toll of her sins weighs down upon her. I only wish that the film had been worthy of her talents. It sets itself up as a feminist piece, then ultimately undercuts itself by treating her as so one-dimensionally evil. She achieves her goals in the end, but for what purpose other than self-preservation? There's also just something unseemly about its use of Katherine's sexuality in service of an erotic period fantasy, even if her quest starts out as a reaction to that. Her steamy affair with a stable hand, which begins as a sexual assault, doesn't really do anything to rectify it. A subplot involving her black maid, who becomes mute with horror over Katherine's crimes, similarly goes nowhere, despite having tremendous thematic potential.

Lady Macbeth just doesn't seem to know what it's trying to say. It's a beautifully produced and atmospheric work through which Oldroyd shows great promise. But thematically it's a bit of a mess, as its protagonist goes from fighting the patriarchy to becoming a cold-blooded killer with no real motivation or thematic justification to do so.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

LADY MACBETH | Directed by William Oldroyd | Stars Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank | Rated R  for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language | Now available on DVD!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

It has been seven years since Jigsaw, aka John Kramer (Tobin Bell), last appeared in theaters (despite having died in 2006's Saw III). The original Saw (2004) kickstarted what became colloquially known as the "torture porn" genre, which has since faded away in favor of more traditional horror. It's clear that with Jigsaw, the series eighth entry, that Lionsgate is looking to revive its once lucrative franchise with a soft reboot that introduces new characters into the world built by the original series.

It also resurrects the series' now iconic villain, Jigsaw, who has seemingly returned from the grave with five new victims trapped in one of his sadistic "games." Each one has a secret sin, and Jigsaw is determined to make them confess in order to free them from his deadly trap. Matt Passmore and Hannah Emily Anderson star as doctors Logan Nelson and Eleanor Bonneville, who are investigating the deaths of Jigsaw's latest victims, along with the unorthodox Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and his partner, Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennett). As the group begins to suspect each other, the five strangers caught in the trap are fighting for their lives (and limbs), as all signs begin to point to one chilling conclusion - that John Kramer may not be dead after all.

The Saw movies were never a great franchise (although the series did have its highlights), and Jigsaw neither pushes the series in any new direction nor does it do a disservice to what came before. It's simply another Saw movie. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on your relationship with the series and your tolerance for over-the-top scenes of torture and gore. The traps are as outlandish as ever (and in the case of the grain in the silo trap, don't make a lot of sense), but they do harken back to Jigsaw's original intent, to make the victims overcome a life obstacle and atone for their sins, and escape is possible if they're willing to make sacrifices. The traps in the later Saw films after the death of John Kramer tended to be sadistic murder devices over which the victims had no control.

Of course, the film ends with a twist that re-contextualizes everything we've seen, a hallmark of the franchise that returns with a vengeance here. It doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny, but it is a doozy. The biggest issue remains that it just isn't particularly scary. The Saw movies are gross-out movies rather than real horror films, whose main goal is to make the audience cringe rather than feel be truly frightened. As a result, Jigsaw feels strangely incongruous to our times, like some strange remnant from the early 2000s that just doesn't quite fit in with the contemporary cinematic landscape. Jigsaw saw himself as a guardian of morality, and while the film attempts some contemporary relevance, it ends up coming across as an afterthought rather than strong thematic subtext.

I'm just not sure that audiences have the same stomach for such brutal on-screen carnage that they once did. It's not that it's particularly repulsive, it's no more disgusting than anything these films have shown us before, but watching Jigsaw I realized that I felt nothing. Not joy, not disgust, not fright, not boredom, just...nothing.

Maybe that's the most frightening thing about Jigsaw of all. After years of mass shootings and real-life carnage on TV and online, it's going to take a lot more than whirling buzzsaws and acid injections to shock us now. In that regard, perhaps the Saw franchise has outlived its own relevance. In a world grown numb from violent death, Jigsaw just doesn't seem to have place.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

JIGSAW | Directed by  Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig | Stars Matt Passmore, Hannah Emily Anderson, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles | Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and for language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

"Film was born of an explosive."

In 1978, a construction crew stumbled upon thousands of reels of nitrate film from the silent era buried beneath in the ruins of an old swimming pool in an athletic facility in Dawson City, Canada. At its peak, Dawson was the epicenter of the Klondike gold rush of 1898. It was founded on the banks of the Yukon as a mining town, and ballooned to a population of more than 30,000 in less than a year. However, in a year's time, most of the miners had moved on, leaving behind a population of less than a thousand, and a gold industry controlled by a single company and its massive mechanical dredgers. It was a ghost town, a shadow of its brief glory days; and yet the theaters that dotted its streets remained.

Dawson was the final stop on a film distribution line through which new films could sometimes take years to reach their destination. Returning the outdated reels to California proved cost-prohibitive, so the studios ordered the Dawson theaters to destroy them at the end of their rental period. Countless reels were tossed into the Yukon River (the typical method for disposal of trash at the time), and untold numbers were lost to devastating fires due to their combustible nature. Luckily, many were used to fill the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association's pool in order to create a permanent ice rink. There they lay for nearly 50 years, preserved in the permafrost, until their discovery in 1978.

The resulting find is nothing short of miraculous, containing films long thought lost to time. The films, while damaged, are in a remarkable state of preservation, and provide a haunting glimpse into the world of silent cinema, and the lost world in which Dawson once existed. Enter filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose work in repurposing aged and decaying film into new works of art has resulted in such films as Decasia (2002) and The Miners' Hymns (2012). Morrison is the ultimate "found footage" filmmaker, a kind of film historian as artist, taking already existing footage and turning it into something completely new. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, he dives into the Dawson find and presents a celebration of the unique timelessness of the moving image.

Stitching together pieces of the films found in Dawson, Morrison presents the history of a town on the cusp of a new century; a bright, burning beacon that drew treasure seekers from around the world, only to flame out just as quickly when the gold dried up. The Dawson find encapsulates not just the history of Dawson, but the history of the 20th century, featuring unseen newsreels from World War I, early protests for racial equality lead by W.E.B. DuBois, and the very play from the infamous 1919 World Series that tipped off investigators that the game had been fixed. These films, with their distinctly damaged edges, are like peering through a window in the fog of time itself.

Morrison clearly has great respect for these images, and it's hard not to feel a sense of reverent awe in their presence. Each frame is a miracle unto itself, a testament to the resilience and fragility of cinema. And each film comes with its own sense of tragedy - for each film preserved here, there are hundreds more lost forever. It is estimated that over 90% of all films made during the silent era no longer exist in any form. That knowledge gives Dawson City: Frozen Time, with its evocative score by Alex Somers (Sigur Rós), a sense of bittersweet melancholy. And yet here, buried in the frost of one of the great frontiers, was a treasure trove of cinematic history; here in the place where such figures as Sid Grauman and Alexander Pantages discovered their love of film. One could even argue that Dawson City is just as important to the birth of cinema as Paris, France or West Orange, New Jersey (home of the Lumière Brothers and Edison Studios, respectively).

There's just something about these flickering images that is hard to shake; a magic that is almost indescribably beautiful, as if we are watching history come to life through film. Part historical document, part  cinematic fever dream, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a film to be treasured, a living document of a bygone era whose influence continues to echo through history. Luis Buñuel once said, "In the hands of a free spirit the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon. It is the superlative medium through which to express the world of thought, feeling, and instinct. The creative handling of film images is such that, among all means of human expression, its way of functioning is most reminiscent of the work of the mind during sleep. A film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream."

If cinema is the place where dreams meet reality, then Dawson City: Frozen Time is a cinematic reverie that takes us on a mesmerizing and deeply moving journey through history, ultimately discovering a kind of immortality buried beneath the snow. Film was born of an explosive indeed; and here, to appropriate a quote by Woodrow Wilson, it's like history written by lightning.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber!

Hammer Films is best known for its work in the horror genre, churning out reliably eerie exercises in Gothic terror that resurrected such classic characters as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy for a new audience in the 1960s. So The Pirates of Blood River seems a bit of an odd fit for Hammer. It contains no monsters, nothing supernatural; just a band of rowdy pirates lead by the brooding Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee).

Our hero is Jonathan Standing (Kerwin Matthews), a Huguenot pilgrim living on a Caribbean Island run by his devout father, who has turned their little colony into a theocratic nightmare. Standing falls in love with a married woman, and is summarily banished from the colony by his own father, after his beloved rushed headlong into Piranha-infested waters (giving the film its titular Blood River).

Upon escaping from the penal colony, Standing runs headlong into Captain LaRoche's crew, and strikes a deal to get himself back home. But LaRoche is on the hunt for treasure, and he believes the Huguenot village is full of it. Standing soon realizes he may have gotten more than he bargained for, as LaRoche shows that he will stop at nothing to get the treasure, and finally find a place to settle down and retire from pirating.

That's part of what makes The Pirates of Blood River so unique in the pirate genre - LaRoche doesn't want the treasure for the treasure's sake. He's tired and ready to lay down his sword and live the good life. You can see the world weary sadness in Lee's eyes - he's tired of death, tired of killing, and ready to put it all behind him after one last raid. It's a disarmingly soulful performance in an otherwise average film. But coming from an actor like Lee it really shouldn't be surprising. He commands the screen whenever he's on it, with his lilting French accent and hangdog elegance, he elevates every scene he's in. This film is a mostly standard swashbuckler, but it's an awful lot of fun. It may not be your typical Hammer film (the bloodthirsty piranhas offer the only moments of horror), but it's still a stylish adventure, lovingly rendered in all its Technicolor glory on the new Twilight Time Blu-Ray.

It also offers a glimpse into what could have been had Hammer ventured out of their comfort zone more often. The Pirates of Blood River may not quite be on the level of their classic horror films, but it's still a rollicking high seas adventure with a strong villainous performance by Christopher Lee. What more do you really need?

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Movies about real-life acts of heroism tend to fall into a trap of self-seriousness, straining to emphasize how heroic and brave their characters were, without ever really letting us know who they were as people rather than symbols. Joseph Kosinski's Only the Brave is a welcome exception to that rule, taking the time to define its characters and let the audience really get to know them before sending them off to battle.

"Battle," in this case, refers to fighting forest fires. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an elite group of municipal firefighters in Arizona who suffered heavy casualties during the devastating Prescott Fire of 2013. Only the Brave chronicles their heroic attempts to quell the blaze, as well as the personal struggles that drove each man to the sacrifices they ultimately made.

Kosinski takes his time getting to know the characters, allowing them to live and breath as actual people. From the careworn, lived in performance by Josh Brolin as Superintendent Eric Marsh, to Miles Teller's impetuous rookie, Brendan McDonough, each character is given their moment to shine. Even Jennifer Connelly as Marsh's long-suffering wife, Amanda, is given more to do than just be the "concerned wife" character. These feel like real people with real hopes and dreams. Which of course they were, but for Only the Brave to treat them in such a way is something special indeed.

It takes nearly two hours to get to the climactic fire. While the film could have stood to be around 20 minutes shorter, it's all in service of character development. It's hard to fault the film for its leisurely pace when it is all used to create such a positive impact on the story, because in the end it makes the tragic fire that much more harrowing. Under Kosinski's deliberate direction, Only the Brave reaches an emotional crescendo that not only feels earned, it feels cathartic. For nearly two and a half hours, we simply exist alongside these people, and by the end, they almost feel like old friends. It is the normalcy with which the film treats them that gives it such a powerful emotional center, giving us characters to root for who feel like they could be our friends, our neighbors, or even ourselves.

We've seen countless stories like this before, from The Perfect Storm to Lone Survivor to Deepwater Horizon, true stories of real life tragedy that all follow very familiar formulas. While Only the Brave follows a similar structure, Kosinski manages to work within the formula to create something with a little more emotional heft. It's a character-driven drama for adults that strikes familiar notes, but does so with a confidence in its actors and its audience that is both engaging and refreshing. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but in Only the Brave, they feel like real, flesh and blood human beings; just ordinary men trapped in extraordinary situations.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ONLY THE BRAVE | Directed by Joseph Kosinski | Stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Andie MacDowell, Geoff Stults | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Today marks the 11th anniversary of From the Front Row! It's also Halloween, which means it's time to break out the scary movies and settle in for a long spooky night celebrating All Hallows Eve (I'm a homebody, what can I say).

This year, Letterboxd is having a "Hallowe'en Showdown," inviting users to list their favorite Halloween movies. Not horror movies, not movies they love to watch on Halloween, but films that somehow incorporate the holiday itself. So unfortunately, you'll see no Universal monster movies here. And I'm choosing to ignore films like To Kill a Mockingbird, which has a Halloween scene but the holiday isn't particularly integral to the plot.

So in celebration of Halloween, and the 11th birthday of From the Front Row, here is my own list of personal favorite Halloween films for you to enjoy. Comment below with your own favorites, or head on over to Letterboxd to make a list of your own!

(John Carpenter, 1978)

It had to be Halloween. What else could it be? John Carpenter's original kick-started the slasher genre and gave rise to countless imitators, but none can match the first Halloween for sheer, primal terror. Coldly efficient and surprisingly light on gore, Halloween is the ultimate embodiment of the unique spookiness of All Hallows Eve. Drenched in the holiday's iconography, Carpenter's film finds a unique chill in the Halloween atmosphere that will forever embody what the holiday means to me.

(Steven Spielberg, 1982)

While not necessarily what one would consider a "Halloween" film, Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial takes place on Halloween for a good chunk of its running time, and can be quite frightening if you're a small child. E.T.'s trick or treating antics remain endearing, and Spielberg perfectly captures the childlike wonder and excitement of Halloween.

(Algar/Geronimi/Kinney, 1948)

A Halloween perennial for my family, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow represents the back half of Disney's 1948 double feature. Narrated by Bing Crosby, it's a film I've watched on Halloween every year since I was a small child. Crosby's immortal voice, coupled with Washington Irving's classic spooky tale, make for a short film that perfectly captures the Halloween spirit through American folklore. For me, it's not Halloween until I've had an encounter with the Headless Horseman. "So don't try to figure out a plan, you can't reason with a headless man!"

(Kenny Ortega, 1993)

A bomb upon its original release, Hocus Pocus has since become a millennial cult classic. While not a great film, it's undeniably fun, and Bette Midler, Kathy Najimi, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the three witches are a constant delight. What makes this one such a sentimental favorite for me is the way Ortega captures the way Halloween felt to me as a kid, which you'll find is a consistent theme among the films listed here.

(Bill Melendez, 1966)

Another perennial, It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown may not be as good as its predecessor, A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it's hard to resist Linus' simple belief in the Great Pumpkin. I love all the Charlie Brown holiday specials, even if they started trying a little too hard after a while.

(Butler/Fell, 2012)

ParaNorman is just such a treat. It's essentially a horror movie for kids, bathed in references to everyone from Romero to Fulci, and actually manage to pay homage to the great horror movie directors of the 1970s and 80s. A zombie movie with a heart, ParaNorman remains one of my favorite Laika productions, and is a surprisingly moving coming of age tale wrapped in the trappings of Italian giallo horror. Sublime.

(Dwight H. Little, 1988)

Easily the best of the Halloween sequels that feature Michael Myers, Halloween 4 marked the return of the masked killer after the series took a brief detour in Halloween III. It also features one of my favorite openings of the series. It's simple - just a few static shots of eerie farmland decorated for Halloween, but few other films have so indelibly captured what Halloween feels like to me as those 90 seconds. The rest of the film is solid too, and has the second best ending of the franchise (after the original's), but that opening alone is enough to earn the film its place on this list.

(Michael Dougherty, 2007)

Michael Dougherty set out to make a Halloween perennial, and he did in this slyly entertaining anthology that unfortunately never got the theatrical release it deserved. Sam, the "Santa Claus of Halloween," sets about punishing those who do not keep the spirit of the holiday, in the process guiding us through a series of scary stories set on Halloween night. 

(Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)

John Carpenter didn't want the Halloween franchise to get stuck on Michael Myers, and decided to try to turn the series into an annual celebration of the holiday by telling new, Halloween-themed stories each year. The result was a box office bomb, forcing the series to return to the knife-wielding Myers, but Halloween III has since been re-evaluated as a great, standalone horror film in its own right. The tale of an evil corporation that plans to murder millions of children with their masks on Halloween night, Season of the Witch is a wonderfully nasty piece of work that showcases a surprising and bold experiment that never got off the ground, but nevertheless provides a window into a new kind of franchise filmmaking that could have been.

(Henry Selick, 1993)

It has become something of a hipster cult favorite in the years since its release, but Tim Burton and Henry Selick's ingenious blending of Halloween and Christmas iconography is a clever and endearing work that manages to capture the best of both worlds. Just as at home at Christmastime as it is on Halloween, The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a holiday classic, and Danny Elfman's "This is Halloween" is perhaps the holiday's greatest anthem.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an important, albeit an oft-overlooked, issue facing American veterans. It is something that isn't talked about nearly enough, so a film like Thank You For Your Service is in a unique position of being able to start a national dialogue about an affliction that affects hundreds of thousands of our soldiers, and perhaps even more who have never been officially diagnosed. Unfortunately, while its heart may be in the right place, Thank You For Your Service just isn't good enough to carry the weight of the issue it seeks to explore. Average at best, dull at worst, the film plods along without ever really reaching a satisfying emotional crescendo.

It is inspired by a true story about four young men who return from Iraq, each feeling like a different person than who they were when they first left home. Solo (Beulah Koale) is a Samoan career soldier who is obsessed with returning to the war, and turns to drugs when he is unable to get help from the VA. Will Waller (Joe Cole) returns from Iraq to discover that his fiancee has left him. And Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) is a war-weary sergeant who puts on a brave face, but is haunted by the memory of a injured comrade he dropped (Michael Emory) while carrying him to safety. Away from the trauma of war, each struggles to re-integrate themselves into civilian life, each hiding injuries that no one can see and no one understands.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Thank You For Your Service is its depiction of PTSD as a war wound. It may not be visible, but it is just as debilitating. In one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, Solo wishes that he had lost an arm or a leg in the war so that people could understand that he had been injured. The film goes to great lengths to depict how uncaring both the military and civilian worlds can be, and how few people understand what these men are experiencing. Unfortunately, it is saddled with a weak script and lackluster performances that never give it the emotional punch it needs. Teller is reliably strong, but one never quite believes that these men are actually friends. The characters around him are surprisingly bland, and the presence of a miscast Amy Schumer as a grieving war widow proves more distracting than anything else. She is also stuck with some of the film's worst dialogue, which ends up doing her no favors.

PTSD is something that deserves to be discussed seriously. But Thank You For Your Service feels like a perfunctory exploration of the issue, scratching the surface but never really diving deep. Even the title feels like a cursory pat on the back rather than the heartfelt tribute it wants to be, even if it's ultimately a grimly ironic sentiment in context. It never allows us to become invested in its characters, and for a film about mental trauma it spends surprisingly little time exploring who these characters really are. They may feel like hollow shells, but the movie doesn't need to treat them that way. It's an unfortunate missed opportunity that just doesn't do its subject justice. It's certainly serious-minded, but it ultimately coasts on fumes rather than really giving it the emotional weight it deserves.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE | Directed by Jason Hall | Stars Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Joe Cole, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Amy Schumer | Rated R for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.