Thursday, November 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

From The Dispatch:

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

Click here to read my full review.

COCO is now playing in theaters nationwide.

At 120 minutes, Justice League is the shortest film in the DC Extended Universe so far. And yet, somehow, it feels just as long as its lumbering, 150 minute predecessors. Plagued by extensive reshoots, and the loss of its director, Zack Snyder, the film is an unfocused mess that never seems to quite figure out what it wants to be.

Warner Brothers clearly wanted a lighter tone than the dour joylessness that marked Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and after his departure invited Joss Whedon, who guided the first and second phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to finish the film. The result is a strange amalgam of the two filmmakers' distinctive styles. The film's color palate is muted and filled with Snyder's trademarked slow motion action shots, but peppered with Whedon's quippy sense of humor. The result is less of a "best of both worlds" scenario and more of a "worst of both worlds" scenario.

The plot centers around Batman's (Ben Affleck) continued efforts to round up a band of superheroes to fill the void left by the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). His cause becomes even more urgent by the arrival of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), a generic villain of the week out to destroy the world for...some reason.  So he and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) set out to track down The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to enlist their help in order to save the world from certain doom.

Unlike the MCU, DC has had little time to set these characters up before thrusting them all together. The only characters who have had their own films are Superman and Wonder Woman (whose film remains the single bright spot in the DC universe), so Justice League spends an inordinate amount of time setting up half of its heroes before they can even begin their quest. The same issue plagued the ill-conceived Suicide Squad just last year, and it doesn't seem like anyone has learned anything.

In fact, the only real highlight of the film is Danny Elfman's score, which brings back his original, 1989 Batman theme, along with John William's iconic Superman theme. While I was an admirer of Hans Zimmer's previous work for the series, it's hard not to feel a thrill at hearing that classic Batman theme supporting the character once again. The rest of the film, unfortunately, lacks the personality of the films those themes were originally written for. Justice League is a bland, generic superhero film that is nearly drowned in garishly computer generated effects. Even Henry Cavill's face has been CGI'd into oblivion, in order to cover the mustache he had grown during the reshoot period. For a movie with a budget as bloated as this, the quality of the visual effects is shockingly low. Steppenwolf looks like a cartoon, and very little in this world seems tangible.

That's part of what sinks Justice League - it's trying to be a cartoonish comic book adventure set in a realistic world, and it just doesn't work. It's a step up from Batman vs. Superman, but that's not saying much, especially considering how good Wonder Woman was. Everything about this just seems rushed. DC has been playing catch-up with Marvel without seeming to understand that they don't need to be Marvel. The Dark Knight Trilogy was better than any single Marvel film, and yet here we are, five films into a cinematic universe that still doesn't feel cohesive or particularly well planned out. There seems to be no guiding vision, and Justice League  is just another symptom of a larger problem that doesn't bode well for the DCEU moving forward.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

JUSTICE LEAGUE | Directed by Zack Snyder | Stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Joe Morton | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

In the early 1990s, AIDS activists across the world took to the streets to persuade their governments to recognize their increasingly dire plight. The most famous of these groups was arguably Act Up, which began in New York City and spread across the world, including in Paris, France, the focus of Robin Campillo's new film, BPM (Beats Per Minute).

Act Up's tactics were controversial, but their message was urgent. Known for invading pharmaceutical company offices and throwing fake blood on politicians, Act Up was willing to do whatever it took to make sure they were heard. BPM gives us an inside look at the decision-making that drove the group in those formative years, fighting against injustice and ignorance as their friends and family were dying around them. Our guides into this world are Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), a young couple who meet at a protest and fall madly in love. Sean is HIV positive, Nathan is HIV negative, something that simultaneously brings them closer together, and pulls them apart. But as Sean's situation becomes increasingly dire, he finds himself becoming more and more radicalized, pushing the organization to ever more extreme forms of protest. But despite the growing unrest within the organization, and the pushback from politicians and the public alike, the fact remains that they are fighting for their lives, and have no time to play nice.

It's a noble and important subject matter, memorably highlighting the seriousness of their situation and their desperation to find a cure, in spite of public ignorance and political indifference. The problem is that, at two and a half hours, the film runs too long, and spends far too much time observing Act Up's meetings than their actual protests. The internal politics of the group are undeniably fascinating, but for a film about a group of young radicals, it's awfully talky. The meeting scenes begin to drag down the narrative momentum, even as fine performances by Biscayart and Valois give the film its heart. The relationship between Sean and Nathan is easily the highlight of the film, shining a light on the human toll of the AIDS epidemic, and the deeply personal reasons behind Act Up's brazen tactics. It feels wholly authentic, and by the time the film reaches its inevitable end, we've become deeply invested in these characters.

Act Up remains controversial even to this day, yet BPM humanizes their efforts by framing it as a literal life-or-death situation. It gives the story an urgency that the film often doesn't take advantage of, bogging it down in the makeshift parliamentary procedure of their meetings. The result is a film that moves in fits and starts, coming alive with in its personal moments and rousing scenes of protest, and grinding to a halt as it rushes through the demonstrations to take us back to yet another meeting.

It's hard, though, not to be drawn in by the magnetic characters created by Biscayart and Valois, who give us one of the most heartbreaking portrayals of love torn apart by the ravages of AIDS since Angels in America. Unfortunately, the rest of the film never quite captures that same sense of weight and thematic substance. BPM could have used a little bit more of Act Up's uncompromising spirit to keep it from becoming too bland. As it stands, it's a film that plays it way too safe with subject matter that is still far too raw to be relegated to scenes of endless committee meetings. Its heart is in the right place, but its energy never really manages to match the pain and the power of its own central performances.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE) | Directed by Robin Campillo | Stars Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Arnaud Valois, Adèle Haenel, Antoine Reinartz, Felix Maritaud, Ariel Borenstein, Aloïse Sauvage | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities

Friday, November 24, 2017

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, colloquially known as Vatican II, instituting sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church by the time the council closed three years later under Pope Paul VI.

The reforms of Vatican II provide the backdrop for Margaret Betts' Novitiate, the story of a young woman who dreams of one day becoming a nun. Raised in a non-religious home, Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) is sent to a Catholic school after being offered a full scholarship. Having seen little love at home from her constantly fighting parents, Cathleen finds herself drawn to the idea of being a bride of Christ, living a life fully devoted to love. She decides to take the vows, and enters a convent run by an iron-fisted Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who wants nothing to do with the reforms of Vatican II. Refusing to implement the reforms, the Reverend Mother keeps things in the convent as they have been for hundreds of years, utilizing strict discipline and draconian techniques of punishment and shame. Along the way, Cathleen must decide if her life devoted to God is worth the pain and sacrifice, or if she is headed down the wrong path.

Novitiate takes a surprisingly complex look at the life of a nun, exploring ideas of faith, doubt, and love with a deep sense of respect for its subject. As the nuns question their devotion to their beliefs (and sometimes question their beliefs themselves), some begin to deal with attraction for one another in spite of their strict vows of chastity. Betts navigates these tricky waters with great sensitivity, never exploiting it for cheap eroticism. Some of the nuns have such deep fervor for their faith that it borders on mania, but what I found so impressive about the film is how it never judges its characters. Whether they have found a beautiful connection to God, or a self-defeating adherence to an outdated moral code, is left up to the audience. Yet one can't help but find a kind of beauty in the purity of heart and purpose that Sister Cathleen seeks. Novitiate understands that these are not perfect people, but finds a kind of peace in that pursuit of godliness, even as it explores the sometimes darker consequences of religious guilt and shame.

The film falters, however, in its characters' motivations. Cathleen's journey from her non-religious family to devout Catholic is glossed over without ever really connecting the dots. This tendency to take shortcuts in character development continues to be a problem throughout the film, so that actions taken by certain characters often don't quite make sense in context. There are so many fascinating ideas percolating beneath the surface of the film that it's a shame it continually undercuts its power by shortchanging the characters, who are often more like archetypes that actual people. Melissa Leo's Reverend Mother is a mostly stereotypical creation, an over-the-top caricature of a strict, tradition-bound nun.  Leo, for her part, tears into the role with great relish, but it's an underwritten part with a disappointing character arc, once again lacking real depth in her evolution. She's fun to watch, but the character is pure cliché.

While Vatican II is mentioned often, Novitiate spends little time examining the real effects of the reforms, mostly relegating them to a postscript at the end of the film. It soars when its focusing directly on the young women and their personal struggles with feelings of inadequacy in the face of an unyielding concept of perfection that is impossible to maintain. When people are constantly told they are in a natural state of sin, and can never live up to the expectations of the almighty, it can put an ungodly amount of pressure, especially for those who seek to be His earthly emissaries.

That idea of unrelenting guilt and self-loathing is easily Novitiate's strongest aspect, along with Sister Cathleen's singleminded quest to fully devote herself to the idea of pure love. Unfortunately, the film often takes too many narrative shortcuts, leaving thematic avenues unexplored with weak character development. There's something undeniably haunting about Sister Cathleen's desire for "something more," but without a satisfying character arc, the audience is left in a similar position, with little "divine guidance" from the filmmaker to satiate us.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

NOVITIATE | Directed by Margaret Betts | Stars Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Liana Liberato, Denis O'Hare | Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 11/24, in Charlotte, NC, at the Manor Twin and Park Terrace.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

From The Dispatch:
There are moments here and there when the film shines (Plummer's take on Scrooge's climactic graveside speech is genuinely affecting). It's bathed in a kind of nostalgic yuletide glow that occasionally springs to life with an amiable sense of Christmas cheer. But then it builds to a climax with an attempt to psychoanalyze Dickens that is half-baked at best, historically irresponsible at worst.
Click here to read my full review.

The Man Who Invented Christmas opens today in theaters nationwide!

What is silence? Is it simply the absence of noise? The lack of talking? Is complete silence even possible? In a world filled with noise pollution, be it mechanical or political, Patrick Shen's meditative documentary, In Pursuit of Silence, seeks quietude away from the hustle and bustle in order to meditate on what it means to truly be in the presence of silence.

Shen doesn't just seek silence, he actively explores what silence is. While the answer may seem simple on the surface, the film approaches the topic from angles both scientific and spiritual, as both an absence of decibels and a removal from the world's unnecessary nonsense (memorably embodied by the talking heads of 24 hour news). Through interviews with scientists, theologians, monks, and social advocates, Shen paints a picture of an increasingly noisy world in desperate need of slowing down and appreciating the silence.

Whether one finds themselves, finds God, of finds something else in the silence is up to them. But what I found so interesting about the film is that true silence isn't really possible. Even in the world's quietest rooms, isolated from all sound, you begin to hear the sounds of your own body. Escaping noise is more than just escaping loud sounds, it's about slowing down and looking within, taking a moment to separate yourself from the breakneck pace of the world and just existing.

In Pursuit of Silence is an almost zen-like experience, filled with breathtaking imagery and haunting moments of complete tranquility. It's easy to find oneself feeling drowsy while watching it, but that doesn't mean it's boring. In fact, it's quite mesmerizing. But as it unplugs itself from the world's overbearing noise pollution, its hushed aural qualities lend themselves easily to relaxation and peace.  In w world of constant social media updates, political grandstanding, and competition, Shen looks for something more. It says something about who we are that the idea of silence feels so alien, even radical, to the point that the film feels like a philosophical meditation on a completely abstract concept.

There's something deeply beautiful about its simple quest for a moment of peace in a hectic world. There's so much going on around us that we miss because of our constant connectedness. Shen isn't asking us to unplug, or shaking his fist at the "kids these days," but looking at a world where noise, both literal and figurative, has become detrimental to our health. At 81 minutes, it feels brief, and it establishes its thesis rather quickly. But there's undeniable power in its brevity. In Pursuit of Silence is the kind of film that may make you want to find a quiet room and

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE | Directed by Patrick Shen | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Cinema Guild.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I can't remember the last time I saw a heist thriller that was as vibrant and full of life as Benny and Joshua Safdie's Good Time. It plays like a shot of adrenaline (or maybe something stronger) straight to the heart. But what makes this movie so special isn't its visceral energy or expertly crafted suspense; rather the fact that it is, at its core, a love story. Not a love story in the romantic sense, of course; no, Good Time is a story about how far we're willing to go for family, in this case, a brother.

Robert Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a small time criminal in New York City who stages a bank robbery with his mentally handicapped brother, Nick (Benny Safdie). Nick, however, panics, and is quickly caught by police and ends up in jail on Rikers Island. Knowing that Nick isn't mentally equipped to handle incarceration in such a dangerous place, he sets out to collect the bail money to have him released. Before he can collect the full amount, Nick is hospitalized after getting into a fight with another inmate. Taking matters into his own hands, Connie decides to bust Nick out of the hospital. What follows is an intense, psychedelic race through New York's underworld, evading the cops in order to rescue his brother from a life behind bars. It's a feverish game of cat-and-mouse involving mistaken identities, unsavory characters, haunted houses, and one very valuable Sprite bottle full of acid.

Everything Connie does is out of love for his brother, giving every crazed moment of the Safdie brothers' neon-lit fever dream a powerful emotional center. It's like a drug-induced paranoid hallucination, taking the audience on one wild ride through seedy New York backstreets and  crime-ridden neighborhoods. But while Connie may be a criminal, Good Time never paints him as a bad person, he's just doing what he believes needs to be done.

The Safdies cleverly play with the audience's sympathies, much as they did in their bracing 2015 debut, Heaven Knows What, populating their film with flawed people in increasingly dire situations. It's a near perfect blend of colorful cinematography, frenetic editing, and pulsing score; creating a grungy, rave-like aesthetic that is like nothing else we've seen on screen this year. Pattinson commands the screen, giving perhaps the finest performance of his career as a man racing against the clock (and against his own human foibles) to save the only person he really, truly cares about. It's a rollicking, raucous thriller, masterfully composed by the Safdies in garish shades of neon and stark fluorescent light. Good Time is simply great filmmaking, an electrifying high-wire act without a net that hits hard, hits fast, and never lets up.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GOOD TIME | Directed by Benny and Joshua Safdie | Stars Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster, Necro | Rated R for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content | Out today, 11/21, on Blu-Ray and DVD

Monday, November 20, 2017

There are few more singular or distinctive filmmakers working today than Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek auteur who seems hellbent on defying every narrative convention and conquering every bulwark of "good taste." His latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is a deliciously twisted examination of justice and personal responsibility that is at once a horror film and an absurdist comedy; a veritable molotov cocktail thrown into a world of complacency and emotional detachment.

"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind," the old saying goes. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a cardiac surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) strikes up a friendship with a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose father died on his operating table years ago. Martin at first expresses interest in becoming a surgeon himself one day, and ingratiates himself with Dr. Murphy's family. But his friendship begins to grow uncomfortably close, crossing personal boundaries as Martin attempts to set the doctor up with his mother (Alicia Silverstone).

It soon becomes clear that Martin's intentions are anything but benign, as he confronts Dr. Murphy with the purpose of his interest; each member of the Murphy family will fall ill and eventually die, unless Dr. Murphy kills one of them in retribution for the death of Martin's father. Once the balance of the universe is restored, they can go on living their lives as if nothing happened.

As is typical of Lanthimos' filmography, the outlandish concept is stripped of all outward emotion, as each performance becomes  an almost rote line reading to suggest the emotional detachment of the characters. When emotion does shine through (and it does, thanks to an incredibly talented cast), Lanthimos makes sure it counts. It is disarming to watch characters have such frank conversations about deeply person topics like menstruation and puberty without any discernible feeling, but it reinforces the Murphys' disengagement with the world around them. Even as Dr. Murphy faces the test put to him by Martin, he still refuses to admit any culpability on his part, with tragic results.

Trying to divine specific meanings from a Lanthimos film can be a somewhat Sisyphean task. They are often deliberately obfuscating, but no less fascinating for that. He creates such indelibly specific worlds, where the unusual is treated as completely commonplace. The intentionally stilted dialogue and stiff performances, coupled with the atonal music, throw the audience out of their comfort zones, putting is in completely unfamiliar territory. Unable to see where the story is going, we are forced to trust the filmmaker to guide us through, almost as if blindfolded. It's wonderfully disorienting, and the results are often intoxicating.

But in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the dangers of a lack of personal responsibility, especially among the upper classes, oblivious to the damage caused to those beneath them, is frighteningly palpable. Not to mention the tragic sacrifices often made on the altar of pride. I couldn't help but be reminded of Ruben Östlund's Palme D'Or winning The Square, another dark satire of upper class ennui that constantly holds our hand, whereas Lanthimos turns us loose in this world to fend for ourselves. I find Lanthimos' approach to be far more interesting (not to mention artistically daring). It may ultimately be about different things to different people, but that's what makes it so dynamic. You'll be hard pressed to find a more haunting or twisted social satire this year, or one that leaves such a lasting and disquieting impression.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER | Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos | Stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp | Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Art is a powerful tool for social change. It has the power to change hearts and minds, start movements, and affect real progress in a society. But what happens when that power is wielded irresponsibly, or not at all? That is the central thesis of Ruben Östlund's Palme D'Or winning film, The Square, which examines the unexamined lives of the cultural elite through the eyes of Christian (Claes Bang), a Swedish art museum curator who comes up with a ludicrous concept for an art exhibit designed to make people want to help their fellow man.

It's called "The Square," a marked off area on the ground outside the museum, marked with a vague concept statement about equality and sharing responsibility with those who stand inside it. How that applies to reality is up to the viewer, but Christian certainly doesn't understand it better than anyone else, despite lofty pronouncements to the contrary. In fact, Christian is too preoccupied with problems of his own to really pay too much attention to what's going on at his museum. After his phone and wallet are stolen in a staged robbery in the street, Christian tracks the device to a rundown apartment building in an unsavory part of town. His solution? Drop threatening letters in each mailbox in the building and hope for the return of his belongings. It works, but opens up a whole new set of problems as those who have been wrongly accused come looking for retribution. His life is further complicated when his hip young marketing department releases a tone-deaf advertisement for "The Square" in a clueless attempt to generate controversy, blithely ignoring the actual purpose of the piece, causing an equally ridiculous media firestorm.

Living in a world designed to comment on reality but never grapple with it directly, Christian's cocoon of privilege completely divorces him from what's actually going on outside it. He pays lip service to bettering humanity and being a responsible citizen of the world, but his art allows him to keep it at a distance rather that participate in it. He sees no irony when he turns away a beggar asking for spare change, only to enlist the man's help to find his lost children minutes later. He expects the lower classes to help him, but when it comes to helping them in turn, he is always full of excuses.

The Square is a biting satire of the disconnection of the wealthy elite from the struggles of the lower classes. As someone who found the satirical concept of Östlund's last film, Force Majeure, too broad, I was pleasantly surprised by The Square's much sharper focus. It calls to mind Luis Buñuel's 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, in its ruthlessly absurdist lampooning of the unchecked privilege of the wealthy. But unlike Buñuel's masterpiece, Östlund isn't quite able to stick the landing. By the time Christian finally learns his lesson, he records himself delivering a monologue into his phone (he may as well have been staring directly into the camera) laying out the theme of the film. It's as if Östlund doesn't quite trust his audience enough to get it, and it ends up undercutting the film's thematic power.

Still, the film contains two of the most bravura scenes of the year; one involving a hilarious wrestling match over a used condom, and the other featuring motion-capture expert Terry Notary (Kong: Skull Island) as an actor portraying an ape in a ridiculous art installation that goes way too far in attempting to push its audience out of their comfort zones. Östlund is clearly onto something here, but his instinct to generalize often undermines the effectiveness of the final product. I can't help but wonder what a filmmaker like Maren Ade, whose 2016 film Toni Erdmann covers similar satirical territory in a much more subtle style, would do with this material. Östlund has the formal chops, but he just doesn't trust the audience, constantly reinforcing his message with unnecessary affectations. The result is a film that is merely good when it should have been great, insisting on holding our hands and asking "do you get it?" rather than allowing its brilliantly bitter wit to speak for itself.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE SQUARE | Directed by Ruben Östlund | Stars Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Christopher Læssø, Marina Schiptjenko, Sofie Hamilton | Rated R for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence | In Swedish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities nationwide.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a teenage boy who spends most of his days roaming around the streets of Brooklyn with his coterie of ne'er-do-well friends smoking pot, hanging out at vape shops, and loitering around the local beach front. It's an aimless existence, soaking in the sun and chasing girls down by the pier, taking no responsibility and having not a care in the world.

But Frankie isn't so sure he's interested in girls. At night, when his friends are all gone, he trawls gay cam sites on the internet looking for men. He begins meeting older men for drugs and sex.  When he finally meets a girl he's interested in at the beach, he finds he can't perform in bed. Afraid to reveal his feelings to the world, he instead buries them down deep, leading him down a dark path from which there may be no return.

Beach Rats is quite possibly the most authentically queer film of the year. Eliza Hittman has an uncommonly keen eye for the feelings of a young man struggling his sexuality, and the avenues through which he chooses to express it. She explores gay hookup culture without judgement, and even when the film takes a potentially tragic turn, it is the culture of toxic masculinity that is ultimately to blame. Frankie's journey feels wholly authentic, even if some of the plot elements don't really work. Frankie's sick father feels more like a undeveloped plot device than actual character development.

Still, Dickinson's performance is remarkable, it is a turn full of vulnerability masked by teenage bravado. He makes us feel his inner turmoil, and makes the heartache of the closet feel almost palpable. Frankie comes alive in his encounters with other men, and we see what might even be the pangs of first love by the end, at least until Hittman threatens to veer into hoary "kill your gays" territory. Thankfully, she doesn't fully delve into that outmoded trope, instead using it as a moment to explore the devastating effects of Frankie's lies, both to himself and to his friends and family.

I only wish that it had gone deeper. Beach Rats is a film that manages to be both erotic and heart wrenching, an introspective portrait of a young man in transition and learning to be who he truly is. But it never really grapples with the issues it raises in a particularly satisfying way. Unlike, say, Moonlight, which juggled many thorny issues of identity with aplomb, Beach Rats is merely content to observe and report. Even still, Dickinson's powerful performance offers a poignant window into the soul of a boy in the process of becoming a man, but doesn't quite know what that means. And while it may falter as an in-depth character study, as an exploration of a young man's awakening sexuality, it's as evocative as they come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BEACH RATS | Directed by Eliza Hittman | Stars Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff, Frank Hakaj, David Ivanov, Anton Selyaninov, Nicole Flyus | Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language | On Blu-Ray and DVD Tuesday, Nov. 21

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.