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.

The lonely landscape of the English countryside provides the backdrop for God's Own Country, the directorial debut of British actor, Francis Lee. It also becomes the catalyst for a budding relationship between two men; Johnny (Josh O'Connor) an inarticulate farmer predisposed to anonymous, casual sex, and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) a Romanian immigrant hired by Johnny's father facing prejudice and mistrust. At first, the two seem natural enemies. Johnny is withdrawn, rebellious, and suspicious of any outsiders. He would much rather have a quick encounter in a bathroom than carry on a conversation with a partner. Gheorghe is much more settled in who he is. He's more assertive, having faced many hardships in the past, and refuses to tolerate Johnny's casual racism.

Alone on the moors with their sheep, what begins as horseplay quickly turns sexual as carnal instincts take hold. Yet Gheorghe refuses to consent to Johnny's brand of quick and meaningless sex. Instead, he introduces him to intimacy, in the process teaching Johnny that there is more to love that just carnal pleasures. The two quickly become something Johnny never expected, but overcoming his old ways may prove impossible.  For Johnny, love is a foreign concept, kept at bay by his narrow concept of masculinity, never allowing himself to feel vulnerable or "weak."

Like a British Brokeback Mountain, God's Own Country is a tale of two sheep-herders in love who can barely express their feelings in words. But like Ang Lee's 2005 masterpiece, it finds something deeply beautiful in the unspoken language shared between the two men. It is haunting, hushed, featuring a lovely score by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (AKA Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie), and bathed in evocative and mysterious glow of the English farmlands. The performances by the two leads are both tinged with sadness and filled with a longing they can barely express in words, but can be seen in downturned eyes and furtive glances.

Lee has made an astonishing debut behind the camera. It is a love story of rare power and depth, whose effects are felt not through words the characters say but through the words they don't. There's a raw, hangdog charm about it, scrappy and agreeably rough around the edges, doggedly imperfect and all the better for it. These are simple men, farmers, salt of the earth, not given to poetry or profound insight. For They're just two people falling in love, feeling something they don't quite understand and have never experienced before, and the results are both intoxicating and heartbreaking.  God's Own Country is a lovely film, a heartfelt and moving exploration of the line between lust and love, where the sometimes erotic nature of masculine friendship spills over from one to the other.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GOD'S OWN COUNTRY | Directed by Francis Lee | Stars Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart | Not Rated | Now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A glossy melodrama produced by David O. Selznick that simply oozes "Hollywood prestige picture" sheen, Portrait of Jennie bills itself as a romantic fantasy, but its central romance is a lot creepier than it was probably intended to be. Joseph Cotten stars as Eben Adams, a struggling searching for inspiration. One day he finds it in the form of Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), a precocious little girl he meets in the park who implores him to wait for her to grow up so they can be together forever.

And wait for her he does. Unable to get Jennie out of his head, he begins to paint her obsessively. It turns out that people like his portraits of Jennie far more than his landscapes, and he becomes a somewhat successful artist while waiting for her to grow up. But there's something strange about Jennie; each time he meets her she seems significantly older, and her knowledge of current events seems to be limited to the past. As she gets closer and closer to 18, Eben begins to realize that Jennie is no normal little girl; and she may not be of his time at all. By the time he discovers the terrible truth, it may be too late to save her from the hand of fate.

There is a beautiful sentiment buried in the heart of Portrait of Jennie - what if the perfect person for us happens to be born in another time? But the way that it is told, with Jennie being so young, and Eben so old (Cotten was 43 at the time) for so much of the story, makes for an uncomfortable situation all the way around. Granted, Cotten was 43 at the time and Jones was 29, but there's just something icky about how the film dresses her up and parades her around like an adolescent, turning her into the prepubescent object of desire for a 40 year old man. At one point, Selznick even considered casting an actual little girl (Shirley Temple was originally considered) to play the role, then shoot the rest of the film Boyhood-style over a period of years as she actually grew up. Time and logistics eventually convinced Selznick to scrap the the plan, which was probably for the best considering how creepy it is already.

Strangely repellent plot aside, Portrait of Jennie constantly feels like its trying to hard to project its own prestige. From the stodgy opening narration, to its color-tinted climax and splashy special effects, Selznick was clearly trying to put the money on-screen. Cinematographer Joseph H. August (who died during filming and was replaced by the uncredited Lee Garmes) shot some of the scenes through gauze to suggest the texture of a painting, but the effect comes off as more gimmicky than anything else. The presence of Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish adds class to the proceedings, but even they get bogged down by the film's self-seriousness. After Gone with the Wind, Selznick spent the rest of his career chasing that film's success, to no avail. He threw everything he had at Portrait of Jennie (including his wife, Jones), but it turned out to be a box-office bomb, despite Oscar-winning special effects. It hasn't aged well in the interim either (even the new Kino Blu-Ray can't really hide the damage to the negative), putting an awkward romance front-and-center that makes one wonder whose fantasy this was in the first place.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.

From The Dispatch:
Alfredson is a skilled stylist, but it appears that “The Snowman” got away from him. It’s a plodding whodunit that never really gives the audience a reason to care, resulting in a tired crime drama that feels like “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”-lite. It might be one of the most painfully misguided, poorly conceived mainstream films of its caliber in recent memory.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

It is fitting that producer Dean Devlin would make his directorial debut with a film like Geostorm. Devlin partnered with global destruction extraordinaire, Roland Emmerich, on films such as Independence Day and Godzilla, and is no stranger to large scale carnage. Geostorm would never be mistaken for a good film by any basic critical measure. It's big, loud, exceedingly dumb, and lacks any discernible sense of basic logic. And yet, it's so unselfconsciously ridiculous that one almost can't help but admire the way in which it throws reason to the wind and goes all-in on its unabashed outlandishness.

It almost feels like something that should have been released in 1997 rather than 2017. It's a hilariously implausible disaster film set in a near future where the world has come together to devise a global network of satellites that can control the weather in order to combat the effects of global warming. The world appears to have been saved, that is until satellites begin malfunctioning, resulting in isolated extreme weather events.

So the United States government calls upon the network's volatile mastermind, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), to fix the problem. What he discovers isn't an isolated bug, but a hack whose aim is destruction on a global scale. If the malfunctions continue, it will result in a worldwide storm event that could wipe out the majority of human civilization.

It matters little who's behind it all. The answer is both obvious and outrageous all at the same time. Geostorm is just interested in getting to the action, and it more than delivers on that front. This is a film that understands and appreciates its own silliness, and embraces it wholeheartedly. Yet it's not that kind of ironic, tongue-in-cheek awfulness of something like Sharknado. There's a sincerity about it that is kind of endearing. The characters are cookie-cutter, the exposition is clunky, the power-anthem heavy score by former Hans Zimmer protege, Lorne Balfe, sounds like 100 other standard action movie scores. But somehow, it all comes together to make something so generically inoffensive that its familiarity begins to work in its favor.

It feels completely incongruous to what's cool in 2017, but it's that dogged sense of unabashed revelry in pure, cinematic destructive spectacle that makes the film so compulsively watchable. Its science is pure junk, its plot twists inane, its script unadulterated nonsense, but in spite of all that, it remains a gleefully over-the-top piece of pop trash that has but one thing on its mind, and delivers it with such conviction that manages to succeed on its own terms. Geostorm is no work of fine art, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

GEOSTORM | Directed by Dean Devlin | Stars Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abby Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Andy Garcia, Ed Harris | Rated PG-13 for destruction, action and violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.
(Left to right) Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in Director Noah Baumbach’s THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) to be released by Netflix.
Few filmmakers portray family dysfunction quite so incisively as Noah Baumbach; whose acerbic wit and dark view of human nature have resulted in some of the most painfully hilarious portraits of stunted emotional growth and families in decline in recent memory. His latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is perhaps his most humane work yet, adding layers of emotion and regret that permeate his typically acidic dialogue.

The family in question here, the eponymous Meyerowitzes, are lorded over by patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), an artist of mild repute who now spends his days as a professor at a New York University. Troubled by his lack of success, Harold lives vicariously through his children, Matthew (Ben Stiller), Danny (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), each a disappointment in their own way. Danny and Jean both had artistic tendencies, but failed to really pursue them; while Danny's daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), makes pretentious, borderline pornographic student films at her film school. Matthew is the only one who became financially successful by going into business, a fact for which Harold simultaneously loves and resents him for. They all find themselves together after an unexpected brain ailment leaves Harold incapacitated, forcing them to confront their demons and come to terms with their past.

The Meyerowitz Stories is arguably Baumbach's finest work since The Squid and the Whale. There's a certain air of melancholy that hangs over the film, permeating every frame with a sense of missed opportunity and a lifetime of buried feelings. The character relationships have a sense of history, built on shared pain and things left unsaid.  Harold Meyerowitz is one of Baumbach's most indelible creations, a lovable curmudgeon who is both arrogant and trapped by his own sense of failure an inadequacy, qualities he then projects onto his offspring in an attempt to make up for his own shortcomings. This is the kind of character Baumbach writes so well, yet you never feel the sociopathinc detachment one feels in similar characters from Squid or Margot at the Wedding. Harold isn't lashing out at those he loves, or using them to build himself up, he's simply using them as conduits for his own self-loathing. He may be selfish, but he isn't intentionally cruel.

"If he's not a great artist, then he's just a prick," Danny opines at an art show celebrating his father. In that moment, he captures the haunting, painful beauty of The Meyerowitz Stories. It's as much about old men facing their legacies as it is about their descendants grappling with what that legacy means to them. They are that legacy, and coming to grips with who that makes them, not just as an individual but as part of a tapestry whose threads are inseparable from one another, is a key part of achieving emotional maturity. Baumbach's characters haven't reached that level yet; but in this, his most gentle film, they're imperfectly lurching toward a state of, if not maturity, then at least a kind of grudging acceptance of who they really are.

GRADE -★★★½ (out of four)

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) | Directed by Noah Baumbach | Stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Candice Bergen, Judd Hirsch, Rebecca Miller | Not rated | Now playing on Netflix and in select theaters.

Friday, October 20, 2017

From L to R: Diamond White as "Tiffany," Yousef Erakat as "Jonathan," Tyler Perry as "Madea," Patrice Lovely as "Hattie," Lexy Panterra as "Leah," and Inanna Sarkis as “Gabriella" in Tyler Perry’s Boo! 2 A Madea Halloween. Photo by Chip Bergman.
I've always been a Tyler Perry apologist. I'm sure I'll lose some film critic cool points for even saying this, but I think the man is an unheralded auteur with a clear and distinct cinematic voice. Boo! A Madea Halloween was Perry's biggest box office hit to date, but remains one of his least inspired films. In fact, the whole thing came to life because of a joke in Chris Rock's 2014 film, Top Five. Due to its box office success, we now have a sequel, Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, a disappointingly tired retread that brings no new ideas to the table, and runs on recycled jokes that quickly wear out their welcome.

Perry once again stars as the indomitable Madea, her cantankerous brother, Joe, and her long-suffering nephew, Brian. The plot is much the same as the original; Brian's daughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), has just turned 18 and wants to go to the Halloween frat party that she was too young to attend the previous year. Brian once again puts his foot down, but his ex-wife, Debrah (Taja V. Simpson), lets her go anyway.

After the events of the last film, the frat is no longer allowed to have parties at the frat house, so they head out to Camp Derrick, a remote summer camp that was the location of a brutal massacre several years earlier. Not about to let Tiffany get away with lying to her father, Madea and Joe load up Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Patti (Patrice Lovely) and head off to bring her home. But something spooky is going is going on at Camp Derrick; students are being picked off one by one, and Madea and the gang are about to come face to face with some more Halloween haunts.

Perry is clearly a talented entertainer, but Boo 2 is surprisingly sloppy work. Several obviously dubbed curse words stick out like a sore thumb, while Hattie, perhaps one of the most grating recurring characters in Perry's filmography, gets more screen time than ever before. A few more notably weak performances also drag down the proceedings, and give the film the overall feeling of being thrown together in a hurry. Perry is known for working quickly, often churning out two films a year, but Boo 2 feels more rushed than efficient. He dials the silliness up to an 11 and never lets up, with characters wildly mugging for attention and no straight role to bring balance to the warring over-the-top personalities. It's just an all around mess, joyless and uninspired where Perry's films are usually gleeful and lovingly crafted. There are a few laughs here and there, mostly when Perry gets to improvise with himself and Davis' Aunt Bam. Seriously, these two are great together - more of them and less of the kids would have taken this film a long way. Instead, we get a slapdash mess that will probably only please Perry's most hardcore fans, while leaving most everyone else perplexed and unamused.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

BOO 2! A MADEA HALLOWEEN | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tyler Perry, Cassie Davis, Patrice Lovely, Yousef Arakat, Diamond White, Lexy Panterra, Andre Hall, Brock O'Hurn, Tito Oritz | Rated PG-13 for sexual references, drug content, language and some horror images | Opens today, Oct. 20, in theaters everywhere.

From The Dispatch:
"It plods along amiably, but it has no real teeth or soul. The paintings are arresting, even mesmerizing, but what’s going on beneath them just isn’t particularly interesting. It’s doubtful that if this film weren’t 100 percent hand-painted that anyone would be paying any attention to it at all. And yet, it’s such a singular visual achievement that it almost must be seen to be believed. It’s a film that’s easy to recommend, because it’s essentially a living work of art."
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Judi Dench (right) stars as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal (right) stars as Abdul Karim in director Stephen Frears’ VICTORIA AND ABDUL, a Focus Features release. Credit : Peter Mountain / Focus Features
Few people do tasteful, middle-of-the-road Oscar-bait quite as well as Stephen Frears, especially when actresses like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep are involved. The Queen, Philomena, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Florence Foster Jenkins, the man's name has almost become synonymous with a certain type of blandly inoffensive, "Masterpiece Theater" drama that Oscar voters routinely lap up.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and generally find Frears' particular bland of fluff to be the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. His latest film, Victoria & Abdul, is no different. Although it wades into potentially volatile waters in the form of Britain's historical oppression of India. Based on a true story, the film focuses on the last years of the life of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, reprising her Oscar-nominated role from John Madden's 1997 film, Mrs. Brown), and her friendship with a visiting Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, the Queen becomes intrigued by this friendly, genuine man, the only one in her household who doesn't seem to want anything from her. He rises quickly through the ranks, and is appointed as her "munshi," a spiritual adviser who teachers her Indian languages, history, and Muslim practices.

This does not escape the notice of her family and staff, who become outraged at the idea of an Indian (and a Muslim to boot) having so much influence of the English sovereign, and they begin to plot to undermine Victoria's trust in Abdul so that he may be sent back to India.

One can't help but see echoes of the "magical negro" stereotype in Abdul, whose sole purpose in the story seems to be to help the figurehead of India's oppressive colonizer in her final days. Frears makes a cursory nod to India's independence in the film's postscript, but the inherent conflict of their relationship is largely ignored in favor of a feel-good story of interracial friendship. Yet, by all accounts, the story is mostly true, and it's undeniably heartwarming, even if the film glosses over the larger implications, casting Victoria's heir, Edward VII (Eddie Izzard) as a manipulative racist in order to give the film a clear villain without directly tackling the broader issues of Britain's subjugation of India.

Oversimplification of geopolitical issues aside, Victoria & Abdul is a light, charming entertainment that features yet another stunning performance by Dench. Seeing her return to the role for which she received her very first Oscar nomination is a thrilling experience, and Dench handles it beautifully, tackling Victoria at a very different time in her life - older, wiser, and more weary of the world around her. The film rides on her talents, and is all the better for it, as Frears steps back and lets Dench command the screen with her usual scrappy verve and a healthy dose of vulnerability. She is the film's heart and soul, and her relationship with Fazal's Abdul is actually quite moving, skirting the boundaries between maternal and romantic. It's a lovely story, well told and beautifully acted, and sometimes that's all we really need.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

VICTORIA & ABDUL | Directed by Stephen Frears | Stars Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izard, Olivia Williams, Adeel Achtar, Michael Gambon | Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Jackie Chan as Quan and Pierce Brosnan as Hennessy in hotel suite in THE FOREIGNER.
It's a shame that American audiences mostly know Jackie Chan from comedic films like Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour, because Chan is actually a gifted dramatic actor and an incredible martial artist. The English-language films in which he has starred haven't historically given him a chance to explore his more serious side, so to see him return from semi-retirement from action films is something of a treat. Unfortunately, the film in question, Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, isn't quite worthy of his talents.

Chan stars as Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese immigrant living in Britain whose daughter is killed during a terrorist bombing carried out by a rogue offshoot of the IRA. Trained by US Special Forces during Vietnam, Quan decided to use his skills to track down the men who murdered his daughter and make them pay. This leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish politician and former IRA member that Quan believes can lead him to the terrorists. As Quan begins to make life hell for the seemingly oblivious Hennessy, he begins to unravel the tangled truth about the terrorists' high-level connections, and an ultimate goal that is less about the reunification of Ireland and more about political gain.

The Foreigner vastly underutilizes Chan, focusing instead on Brosnan's embattled MP. The highlights of the film come when Campbell lets Chan loose, but the action scenes are few and far between. They may be brutal and bruising, but ultimately leave little impact. Chan is fantastic as Quan. His lined face and graying hair betray his age, but he is filled with the grim, resigned determination of a man who has seen it all. The film around him, however, doesn't seem to know what to do with him. Relegating him to the background when it's his quest that give the film its heart.  This is a strangely dull, inert film from the man who directed Casino Royale. Its lethargic pacing doesn't suggest the urgency of the plot, sagging and dragging when it should be sprinting.

Chan commands the screen without saying a word, but the film gets lost in its dreary grays and sterile personality. If it wants to be Taken in Ireland, it fails miserably, turning its focus away from its most interesting character. Brosnan is solid, but his character lacks the emotional core of Chan's. By making him the focus, The Foreigner gravely misjudges the story's heart, resulting in a lackluster, mediocre film without a soul.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE FOREIGNER | Directed by Martin Campbell | Stars Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Katie Leung, Charlie Murphy | Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A putrid, borderline offensive piece of lowest common denominator sludge, Happy Death Day thinks it's a film about becoming a better person, when really it's content to swim in its own filth. A kind of Groundhog Day by way of Final DestinationHappy Death Day is about a college student who continually relives the day of her death, waking up in the dorm room of a stranger and navigating the drama of her toxic sorority, before being murdered by a mysterious, mask-wearing stranger on the way to a party that night.

Each time she is murdered, she wakes up again the previous morning in the stranger's dorm room bed. Panicked and confused at first, she eventually begins trying to prevent herself from dying, only to die in a new way each time. Yet each time she wakes up, she finds herself increasingly weakened by each new death, and the clock seems to be running out for her to survive the day and stop the cycle of death.

Happy Death Day feels like it was written by someone who is trying very hard to capture how "kids today" talk, and completely embarrassing themselves in the process. I'm not in my twenties anymore, but does anyone actually say things like "did you get some of that fine vagine" or "stop looking at me like I just took a dump on your mom's head?" You're likely to spend more time cringing at the dialogue than at the sanitized, PG-13 death scenes.

But the most egregious moment comes when one of the sorority sisters makes a mocking impression of a mentally handicapped person. The audience I saw the film with thought it was hilarious, which was far more disturbing than any of the horror the film had to offer. It's 2017, how is this still funny to anyone? It truly is Trump's America now.

By the time the film reaches its laughably contrived conclusion, Happy Death Day has more than worn out its welcome. It even manages to name-drop Groundhog Day, clearly thinking that it's being exceedingly clever. Unfortunately, there's nothing particularly clever about this film. It's a collection of stereotypes and lame plot devices masquerading as a movie. But more that than, it's a film that tries to appeal to the audience's worst instincts. In that regard, it's an act of cinematic sadism, a mean-spirited, self-satisfied piece of teeny-bopper schlock that attempts to clothe its snickering immaturity in a half-baked moral.

Don't fall for it.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)

HAPPY DEATH DAY | Directed by Christopher Landon | Stars Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Bayle, Rob Mello | Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, crude sexual content, language, some drug material and partial nudity | Opens today, Oct. 13, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.
© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes isn't so much the casual sexism on display in 1973, but the fact that we really made that much progress since. Sure, you don't see many men (outside the FOX News Channel...and maybe the current White House) going on TV and explaining how men are superior to women and that they need to stay in the kitchen, all with a condescending refrain of "little lady." But it's still there, people just know better than to express those feelings out loud most of the time. It's comical in the context of the film, but there's an underlying sense of anger that percolates under neath Battle of the Sexes, you can almost hear Dayton and Faris saying "you laugh...but we're still dealing with this crap 40 years later."

The film centers around the now legendary tennis match between former men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and the #1 women's player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), which became a flashpoint in the women's rights movement. King was fighting for the respect of her male colleagues, while Riggs was fighting to prove that men were superior to women. It is that dichotomy that gets right to the heart of issue at hand - when one side is fighting for equality while the other side is fighting for superiority, then the playing field is far from equal.

It's hard to be mad at Riggs for all this. While Carell plays him as an affable goofball, the self-described "male chauvinist pig" was more of a hustler than anything else, a larger than life showman who was in it more for the money than anything else. Yet the way the men around him turn the match into a chance to prove once and for all that women players do not deserve equal pay or respect makes the stakes much higher for King, who is also struggling with her own sexuality, discovering budding feelings for her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their relationship is the tender heart of Battle of the Sexes, but it is King's drive and passion for proving the mettle of women everywhere that keeps the film moving, buoyed by Stone's spirited and deeply moving performance.

We all know how this turns out. Knowing that the outcome is pre-ordained, Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) choose instead to focus on how King got there rather than the destination itself. The moment of final victory is also somewhat underplayed, as the filmmakers focus on its impact on King herself, spending the final minutes of the film with King alone in her locker room. That they choose to go small when they could have gone over-the-top is admirable. While the film occasionally overplays its emotional hand (the final line by Alan Cumming feels a bit too on-the-nose), its tendency to focus on its characters and their own personal journeys, rather than how their actions affected the nation at large, makes it all the more touching. The lovely score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) is also a huge asset in that regard, never overstepping but always supporting the underlying emotion with subtle dignity. King's struggle becomes a microcosm of the female struggle for equality, and it's wrapped in the guise of a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that now feels all too immediate in Trump's America. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, we'd probably be looking at this film in a much different light. It wouldn't have ended sexism, obviously, but watching Battle of the Sexes in 2017 is as much a heartbreaking experience as it is a funny one. That it strikes that balance so well and so gracefully is a beautiful thing indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BATTLE OF THE SEXES | Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris | Stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen | Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.
Ryan Gosling in Denis Villeneuve's BLADE RUNNER 2049.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
From The Dispatch:
Ridley Scott’s original “Blade Runner” is a seminal work of science fiction, an introspective rumination on the nature of life and what it means to be human. It was the sci-fi offspring of German Expressionism and film noir, and remains a staggering example of intelligent mainstream filmmaking that turned a sometimes marginalized genre into pure pop art. Rather than operate as a vehicle for 1980s nostalgia, Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” feels like a natural, even essential, continuation of the story of the original film. Villeneuve wisely takes the themes of Scott’s “Blade Runner” and explores them from a new angle, while maintaining fidelity to the world built by its now classic predecessor.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

In the last month, there have been not one, not two, but three major Blu-Ray releases from the filmography of the iconic French actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Two from the height of has career as a muse of the French New Wave muse, and his most recent role in Albert Serra's remarkable The Death of Louis XIV. After a lifetime of great performances, from his iconic freeze-frame in Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows, to countless Jean-Luc Godard films (AlphavillePierrot le Fou, and Masculin Feminin, just to name a few), to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, and Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, to Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre and La Vie Die Boheme, and Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus, Léaud has earned his place in the cinematic pantheon, having worked with some of the greatest French filmmakers of all time.

These new Blu-Ray releases provide a career-spanning look at the work of one of French cinema's greatest icons, whether as a mouthpiece for the political musings of Jean-Luc Godard or as an actor in his own right. Together they form an essential piece of the actor's filmography, and looking back over the three films, it's not hard to see why the man is now a living legend - not just for his performances, but for the chances he took with the filmmakers with whom he chose to work.

LA CHINOISE (1967, Kino Lorber)
Available Oct. 17

The camera becomes a literal weapon in Godard's La Chinoise, the film that marked the beginning of the director's radical Maoist period. While his previous film, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, was perhaps the first indication of the political direction he was heading, La Chinoise finds Godard at his most radically experimental, exploring the conflicts in Leftist politics in Europe at the time, between those who preferred Soviet Marxism-Leninism, to those who (like Godard) preferred the Chinese Maoist ideas that brought forth the Cultural Revolution.

La Chinoise (The Chinese) follows a band of student revolutionaries who are holed up in their apartment, surrounded by copies of Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book," extolling the virtues of communism while parsing the philosophical differences in their viewpoints and preparing for a revolution that may never come. It's almost more of an essay than a film, and its intentional use of Brechtian alienation techniques make the film a difficult watch (especially when Godard is advocating for terrorism as a legitimate avenue of political and cultureal change). At the same time, it's difficult not to be drawn in by what Godard is doing here. This is the work of a man trying to figure out where he stands. La Chinoise is filled with long, rambling, sometimes disjointed philosophical discussions of Leftist politics and foreign policy.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jean-Luc Godard's LA CHINOISE.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
It is very much a product of its time (the Vietnam war hangs heavy over every frame), but there are times when it feels strikingly immediate. It is not the work of a filmmaker who is out of control; Godard clearly has a strong vision for what he's doing here. Every frame is alive with vibrant, perfectly coordinated primary colors (which really pop on Kino's new Blu-Ray), so that even when he's revealing the camera or the slate or other means of production, nothing ever feels random or unintentional. La Chinoise is not a manifesto, it's an exploration, not so much and advocation for revolution but a preparation for its inevitability. Godard is very intentionally exploring ideas here. And while he eventually disappeared up his own ass when he joined the Dziga Vertov group and started and started churning out insufferable political treatises, La Chinoise is a fascinating portrait of an artist trying to understand his own place in the world, both as an artist and as a human being. It's not an easy film, by any means, and it isn't always a particularly good one, but as a piece of film history, it's an undeniably intriguing piece of work.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

LE GAI SAVOIR (1969, Kino Lorber)
Available Oct. 17

By 1969, Godard was so deep into Leftist politics that he was barely recognizable as the filmmaker behind Breathless and Band of Outsiders. At this point in his career, he was experimenting with Brechtian alienation techniques, eschewing anything he saw as hewing too close to Hollywood escapism, deciding instead to craft his films without any regard for narrative flow in order to convey ideas. Cinema became his weapon in a Marxist-Leninist revolution that would never come. 

Le Gai Savoir (Joy of Learning) was released after the French student uprising of May 1968, of which Godard was very much a part. The result is perhaps Godard's most stylistically radical work. While the ideas put forth in La Chinoise (1967) were arguably more extreme, Le Gai Savoir takes Godard's experimentation with film form to the next level. In the film, Godard encourages the audience to intellectually "start from zero," to return to the basics and to re-educate and re-orient our way of thinking. Like a Marxist Yoda, Godard is telling us that we must "unlearn what we have learned." Rather than preach at us, Godard himself attempts to dismantle cinema itself, throwing out all convention and traditional filmmaking techniques, and invents a new cinematic language to examine political philosophy.

Juliet Berto and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Jean-Luc Godard's LE GAI SAVOIR.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The title is somewhat ironic, as you'd be hard-pressed to call Le Gai Savoir  "joyful," but there is a playfulness to Godard's experimentation to that is undeniable. He frames his characters in darkness, two people (played by Léaud and Juliet Berto) sitting in a void of nothingness, discussing political philosophy. What is art's role to play in the revolution? How can art affect change? Is art inherently political? Godard never provides answers, he is constantly asking questions. Le Gai Savoir  isn't a film designed to educate so much as open the mind. But isn't that the purpose of education in the first place? It's a consistently engaging dismantling of film form. It may not be anyone's definition of "entertaining," but watching Godard re-invent the language of cinema is nothing short of thrilling. It's one of his most visually striking films, a dazzling display of ideas and form designed not only to make the audience question the role and purpose of art, but their own place in society and how one engages politically with that art. Godard redefines cinema, and turns Le Gai Savoir into a film like no other.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (2017, Cinema Guild)

In Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, the face of Léaud, as France's longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, lies shrouded in a great dome of hair, his regal features dimmed but no less striking when lost in the giant pompadour wig. He is a monarch in decline, a dim shadow of a man about to be lost in time, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants whose bumbling attempts to affirm his every whim are in fact hastening his death rather than preventing it.

There's something truly haunting about watching one of France's most legendary actors in such a role. The Death of Louis XIV almost feels like a meta-theatrical elegy for a titan of the silver screen (like The 400 Blows, its most powerful moment is a freeze-frame of the actor's face). But it is also a quietly chilling portrait of fading power.

When word of the Sun King's quickly deteriorating health gets out, friends, acquaintances, and attendants flock from all over to catch one last glimpse of him. By the end of the film, they literally tear him apart, all but feasting on the remains as they divide him up. There's something both coldly ironic and grimly hilarious about the way they scrape and bow, politely applauding ("bravo, sire!") just because he managed to eat a bite of his meal.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Louis XV in a scene from Albert Serra's THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Serra shoots the film like a classical drama, composing each frame like its own painting. The result is often breathtaking (it's an undeniably gorgeous film), but not without meaning. Everything is carefully arranged, the dying king is constantly bathed in a warm, glowing light, and yet the specter of death hangs over every frame. This is how power ends, aged and shriveled, with little to show for it. What good is all the extravagance and all the power when those who surround him can do little to help? Without their leader telling them what to do, they are helpless; easily duped by charlatans and awed by the false sense of majesty now lying prone on an opulent bed.

 "We'll do better next time" the head physician says directly to the camera, almost as an apology; but will they? Or is this just how we react to the idea of power? The Death of Louis XIV strips away the mythic reverence for monarchs and shows us something else, a pitiable, helpless human being with no one to turn to when death finally comes to call. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more so when Louis implores his young heir to be a better king than he. It is a quietly powerful examination of power, wealth, and mortality that lingers and troubles, anchored by a truly magisterial performance by a lion in winter.

The Cinema Guild Blu-Ray also includes an insightful essay by my former In Review Online colleague, Jordan Cronk, as well as Serra's 2013 tribute to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Cuba Libre, a mesmerizing short film that powerfully captures Fassbinder's style. But the real highlight here is the feature film itself. The Death of Louis XIV is a hushed and exhilarating stunner and one of the very best films of 2017.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Monday, October 09, 2017

It's a bit disarming to see the name of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad pop up at the end of a glossy Hollywood melodrama like The Mountain Between Us. This is, after all, the director behind such raw, essential explorations of Palestinian life as Paradise Now (which followed the radicalization of two young suicide bombers) and Omar, both of which were nominated for Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. His English-language debut is about as far from those films as it's possible to be, which is either a testament to his versatility as a director, or of Hollywood's ability to hamper a filmmaker's unique voice.

The Mountain Between Us is not a bad film, but it's also a fairly predictable love story wrapped in a survival drama, in which two strangers find themselves stranded in the middle of the wilderness after their charter plane crashes in the mountains. Luckily for us those two strangers are Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, who together keep the film compulsively watchable. These are two actors who would be compelling, to employ the old cliche, reading the phonebook; but in this case that's not an exaggeration. Both actors do top-notch work here; Elba as a surgeon on his way to a critical operation, and Winslet as a journalist on the way to her wedding. Lost in the snow with food running out, the two must rely on each other in order to survive, and along the way begin to develop feelings for one another.

Kate Winslet and Idris Elba star in Hany Abu-Assad's THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
There's never much question about where this is heading, but Winslet and Elba are just so good that they make us forget that the film we are watching often borders on ridiculously over-the-top. One can actually find quite a bit to admire about The Mountain Between Us; Mandy Walker's cinematography captures the snow covered mountain vistas with a kind of lonely grandeur, and Ramin Djawadi's lovely score is one of his finest works for the big screen. It's all the more disappointing, then that the rest of the film is just so cold and anonymous, especially considering the immense talent assembled here. Assad just doesn't quite seem to know what to do with the central romance, and the film drags on a bit too long as a result.

It's a crowd pleaser, to be sure, and it hits pretty much all of its expected notes with great gusto. Yet one can't help but feel that a lighter touch would have made the character drama at it's heart so much more compelling. Elba and Winslet are magnetic from the start, and do their best to elevate the otherwise tired material. Had the film focused even more on them and their budding relationship, and their own inner conflicts, this could have been a great film. Instead it's merely an average one with a pair of excellent performances keeping it afloat.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US | Directed by Hany Abu-Assad | Stars Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney | Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF (1953, Twilight Time)

Robert D. Webb's Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was either the second or third filmed shot in CinemaScope, depending on who you ask. Either way, this early widescreen film was a hit for 20th Century Fox, most likely because of the novelty of its cinematography. The film itself is a bit of a slog, a dry Romeo & Juliet riff set amid two warring families of sponge-divers. Who knew that the world of sponge-diving was so cutthroat?

It's interesting that even in 1953, there were themes of environmental degradation, in which sponges had been hunted so much that they were nearly non-existent near shore, pushing divers further and further out to sea to collect the coveted commodities. The dangers of diving deeper and deeper mark the central conflict of the film. After the deadly reef claims his father, our hero becomes more determined to make the dive and claim the sponges that lie at the bottom, no matter what dangers await him.

The film certainly looks great, the Technicolor and CinemaScope mix really pops, especially on the new Twilight Time Blu-Ray, but it's all in service of a paper-thin plot, blandly executed by Robert Wagner and Terry Moore's dull leads; a pair that lacks any semblance of chemistry whatsoever. But they're pretty, just like the underwater photography, which makes Beneath the 12-Mile Reef little more than an experiment to show off the new CinemaScope technology. Attractive leads + pretty scenery = something Fox could use to showcase their new "see it without glasses" answer to 3D and the growing threat of television. It's a historical curiosity now, but unfortunately its story doesn't really live up to the CinemaScope grandeur.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

HOUR OF THE GUN (1967, Twilight Time)

John Sturges revisits the story of his own 1957 film, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 10 years later in Hour of the Gun, a film that subverts the myth of that legendary battle and examines its moral ramifications, as well as the toll it took on its participants. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, here portrayed by James Garner and Jason Robards, aren't so much heroes here as men caught in a morally dubious family feud with the traditionally villainous Clantons. The iconic gunfight is quick and nasty, leading to Earp's Captain Ahab-esque quest for revenge against the Clanton clan.

Hour of the Gun upends the glamorous mythology of the American west, and shows us the ugly underbelly that isn't quite as cut-and-dried as our legends would have us believe. While the film loses steam in its second half, it remains a fascinating study of American myth-making. It shows the Old West as a lawless frontier, where even the "good guys" are flawed and fallible. It's much more about the consequences of violence than it is the violence itself, presaging the revisionist westerns of the late 60s and 70s like The Wild Bunch and Lawman (also a recent Twilight Time release). Sturges has the guts to confront a myth he helped perpetuate 10 years earlier in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and examines the effects of its morally questionable violence on the men who helped perpetrate it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KILL BABY, KILL! (1966, Kino Lorber)

Mario Bava was perhaps one of the greatest horror aestheticians of all time. Even in a weaker film like Kill Baby, Kill, Bava still dazzles with his visual prowess and evocative sense of time and place. Here, he introduces us to a tiny Victorian-era village that is plagued by a curse wrought upon them after the death of a young girl decades before, who returns from the grave to compel those who wronged her family to commit suicide.

Not as graphic as some giallo horror, Kill Baby, Kill is more of an atmospheric ghost story; all Gothic architecture and fog. It takes a while for anything to really start happening, which is typical of giallo; they often failed to live up to their lurid premises. But Bava was more of an artist than a smut peddler, and he uses suggestion to his advantage here,  telling a classic ghost story with spooky flair. Taking cues from such disparate inspirations as Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete and Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, Bava creates a chilling tale with a painter's eye. The brightly colored lighting, the elaborate sets, the striking cinematography, it all adds up to something more than its simple plot. Bava made stronger films with stronger thematic content, but Kill Baby, Kill is an undeniably beautiful entry in the director's canon, marking perhaps one of his most stunning visual achievements, turning classical horror into something akin to poetry.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TITANIC (1943, Kino Lorber)

Made in Germany in 1943, Herbert Selpin’s Titanic was conceived by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself as an anti-British propaganda piece, laying the blame for the disaster at the feet of British greed. While human arrogance certainly played a part in the sinking, Selpin and Goebbels imagine a battle for control of the White Star Line between Bruce Ismay and John Jacob Astor, the former pushing Captain Smith to race to New York in order to set a world record win the Blue Ribband (never a realistic goal for the real Titanic) in order to drive up stock prices, the latter trying to drive White Star stock prices down in order to buy a majority share and take over the company. They even go so far as to make up a completely fictional German officer who is the only honorable person in the film to stand up to the rampant avarice on display.

The problem for the film was that Germans were on a figurative Titanic of their own in 1943, and it was never released for fear that the scenes of mass panic would demoralize audiences. Not to mention the fact that the irony of accusing Britain of naked thirst for power seemed to have been completely lost of Goebbels. Even so, during production, Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo and the film was taken over by an uncredited Werner Klinger (Selpin was found dead in his cell the day after his arrest). It’s unfortunate that Titanic is filled with such blatant and often disgusting propaganda (its slander of real people is unconscionable), because it also has some genuinely affecting scenes, and the special effects are top-notch for the time. In fact, since the film was never actually released in complete form, some of the visual effects shots were recycled for Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film, A Night to Remember.

Excise the cringe-inducing anti-British sentiment, and Titanic is actually a largely effective (if often historically inaccurate) disaster film. But it’s hard to separate the film from its troubling legacy and connection to Nazi Germany. It’s surprisingly fact-based at times, complete nonsense at others, yet ultimately inextricable from the evil regime that created it, making it a fascinating case study in how propaganda bends facts to suit its own agenda.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

From The Dispatch:
It’s a story that’s so absurd that it could only be true. Yet its basis in reality is what gives it its bite. While Liman focuses more on Seal than the circumstances that surrounded him, it also serves as a striking portrait at the circular firing squad of America’s ill-fated “War on Drugs.” It’s the inherent ridiculousness of it all that makes the film so compelling, and Liman uses Cruise’s smarmy sense of charm to maximum effect; an all-American success story built on the ruins of failed policy and attempted nation building.
Click here to read my full review.