Saturday, December 29, 2018


The Transformers series has always been something of a mixed bag. Michael Bay's original remains a high point in the filmmaker's career, a solid action/adventure epic that delivered on its promise to bring Hasbro's line of transforming toys to life. While a Writer's Guild strike hampered the franchise's second entry, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Bay rallied for the original trilogy's 2011 conclusion, Dark of the Moon, which remains perhaps the filmmaker's most uninhibited opus of mass destruction.

However, the series has started to resemble something akin to dadaist cinema in recent entries, abandoning all sense of logic and narrative form in favor of incoherent world building and convoluted myth-making. Even Bay's normally strong eye for action had evolved into messy, garish CGI sequences that matched his "kitchen sink" approach to storytelling.

It's refreshing, then, that the series has gone back to basics for its new prequel, Bumblebee. Gone are the apocalyptic stakes of the last three films, replaced by a kind of "girl and her robot" story that actually remembers that these films are based on toys and are ostensibly for children. The result is a film with more heart than any other film in the Transformers franchise, focusing on teenager Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and her relationship with the titular hero. Of course, Bumblebee is pursued by some villainous Decepticons who track him to Earth, and we are treated to some glimpses of the war on the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron before Bumblebee makes his way to our planet. But for the most part the movie is relatively small scale  and self-contained, not so much interested in world-building as it is telling a good story.

Of course, it's a story we've all seen before in some variation, perhaps most notably in The Iron Giant. But director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) keeps the focus on the relationships between the characters, and they carry the film even through its most outlandish moments. It helps that Knight realizes who his audience is, and rather than making a kids movie for grown-ups he plays straight to the young and young-at-heart. It's still a Transformers movie, with all the inherent goofiness that comes with it, and there are times when one misses Bay's penchant for visual mayhem, but Bumblebee manages to deliver on expectations without rocking the boat too much.

That is perhaps what most separates it from Bay's films - it never really takes any big risks or distinguishes its own personality. It works simply because it's more narratively coherent and straightforward than its predecessors. Perhaps it is being graded on a curve because Age of Extinction and The Last Knight were so unwatchable, but there's an almost understated charm beneath its story of giant warring robots that it's hard not to appreciate its relative modesties. The addition of Angela Bassett as villainous Decepticon, Shatter, is an inspired bit of casting, and her enthusiasm for the role is infectious. These elements may not add up to anything earth-shattering, but it's nice to see a major Hollywood blockbuster that's content to focus on character relationships over spectacle. The problem is that we've become so accustomed to large scale visual extravaganzas that when something moderately less destructive like Bumblebee, it almost feels revolutionary.

It's not, of course. Bumblebee is still a film about alien robots that can transform into cars, but unlike its predecessors it seems to understand, and embrace, exactly what it is. That's probably the most revitalizing aspect of Bumblebee of all - it isn't afraid to embrace its inherent silliness, and that gives it far more leeway to have fun. There's nothing new to see here, but Knight gives this series just enough juice to keep it going.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


BUMBLEBEE | Directed by Travis Knight | Stars Hailee Steinfeld, Dylan O'Brien, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, John Ortiz, Peter Cullen | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, December 28, 2018

From Beau Travail (2000) to Let the Sunshine In (2018), Claire Denis has consistently displayed a fascination with the human body and the ways it can move through dance. Anyone who has experienced Beau Travail can attest to the power of Denis' fascination with dance. In her 2005 documentary, Towards Mathilde, Denis turns that fascination into a feature-length celebration of the human body in a mesmerizing portrait of choreographer, Mathilde Monnier, head of the Montpilier National Centre for Choreography in France.

Denis sits down with Monnier for an interview early on in the film, but it soon becomes clear that this will not be the ideal format through which to tell her story. The film quickly transitions into a kind of verité, fly-on-the-wall style doc in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman, content to step back and observe Monnier's process in all its seemingly mundane detail. Yet where Wiseman is more intrigued by process, Denis is enthralled by bodies and movement. Her camera lingers on the bodies of the dancers as they writhe and contort in tentative movement, exploring the choreography before fully embracing it.

Captured on 8mm and 16 mm film by cinematographers Agnès Godard and Hélène Louvart, Towards Mathilde takes on a kind of languid sensuality, like hazy memories and impressions being filtered through time. This allows Denis to not only explore the process and theory of Monnier's art, but its practical applications through the human body. Denis so beautifully investigates physicality and movement by simply observing and allowing the dancers to tell the story. It's a visceral, often mesmerizing experience that showcases Denis' talents as a visual filmmaker fully in command of her art.

The DVD from Grasshopper Film also includes Denis' arguably superior 2015 documentary short, The Breidjing Camp. If Towards Mathilde finds Denis channeling Frederick Wiseman, The Breidjing Camp finds her channelling her great contemporary, Agnes Varda. Inquisitive and probing, even playful, where Towards Mathilde is languid and lyrical, The Breidjing Camp examines life in a Chad refugee camp set up more than a decade ago to house those displaced by the conflict in Darfur.

THE BREIDJING CAMP.

Africa has always been near and dear to the filmmakers heart, and she has explored French colonialism's effects on the continent in multiple films. But here it feels more personal, more raw. Through interviews with refugees, camp employees, and local officials, Denis investigates the situation from multiple points of view, leaving one with the distinct impression that life in the camps isn't quite a good as officials would have us believe. Residents are grateful that Chad has offered them a temporary home, but the camp, once populated by tents, is now dotted by permanent structures as the situation in Darfur has deteriorated rather than improved while western powers continue to turn a blind eye.

Denis manages to find happiness and sorrow within the camp, but a clear dichotomy between the official story and the reality within the camps. People are still suffering, even if the situation is better than the one the refugees face at home. The Breidjing Camp allows Denis to put a human face on the suffering in Darfur, in the process discovering that the situation on the ground is not as black and white as it may seem on the surface. It is a testament not only to human resilience, but to the deafening indifference of a world that still refuses to see the humanitarian crises taking place in Chad.

Together, the two films offer a different perspective on Denis as a filmmaker, one who not only explores the human condition through fiction but also in stark reality. There are few filmmakers working today with such a keen sense of perception, and Towards Mathilde is a lyrical inquiry into human beauty just as The Breidjing Camp examines its ugliness. Taken together, they're an unforgettable portrait of a filmmaker of extraordinarily profound empathy and humanity.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


TOWARDS MATHILDE | Directed by Claire Denis | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on DVD from Grasshopper Film.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


In a year when so many things seemed to be going wrong, one thing that seemed to be going very right were the movies. 2018 was a fantastic year for cinema. Filmmakers made the epic intimate and the political personal, examining the world in which we live with grace and candor. The ten films that hit me the most this year came from a diverse array of filmmakers, some living and some who haven’t been alive for three decades. They are statements of love, joy, sadness, pain, portraits of who we are and reflections of where we’ve been. Yet each one has something in common – a shared sense of empathy, no matter how caustic, that offers an uncommon insight into what it means to be a human.


1 | THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Orson Welles, USA)

A film seemingly from beyond the grave, Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind began production 40 years ago, and became the legendary filmmaker's final obsession, a project decades in the making that was never completed before his death. Finally assembled by Peter Bogdanovich , Welles' final film can finally be recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever.


2 | THE RIDER (Chloé Zhao, USA)

Chloé Zhao's sophomore feature is a rough-hewn elegy for the American west and the archetypal masculine mystique of the cowboy. At a time when toxic masculinity and its devastating effects dominate the news, Zhao, who was born in China before immigrating to the United States to study political science at Mount Holyoke College, has crafted something deeply special; a film that offers more insight into wounded masculinity than just about anything else in recent memory. Forget "Hillbilly Elegy,' The Rider is the profound exploration of rural ennui we need.

Through the achingly authentic performance of her non-professional lead and some truly breathtaking cinematography by Joshua James Richards, The Rider paints a heartbreaking portrait of a generation of young men searching for their identity, set against the backdrop of the fading American West. It's a delicate and tremulous thing, at once confident and gentle, lyrically composed yet as stoic as the American masculine ideal it so carefully deconstructs. This is a major film by a major filmmaker, a stirring and compelling search for the idea of the American man at a time when toxic masculinity has brought us so much ill through its anger and fragility. Zhao seeks to find another path forward through the myths of our past, and the results are nothing short of stunning.



3 | 24 FRAMES (Abbas Kiarostami, France)

Jean-Luc Godard once said that "cinema is truth at 24 frames per second." In Abbas Kiarostami's dazzlingly experimental 24 Frames, the final film completed before his death, the revered Iranian filmmaker explores the very idea of truth in art and cinema through a series of vignettes, or "frames." Each frame is a still image, a painting or photograph, brought to life through computer animation in order to examine what happened before and after the image was captured.

These images, Kiarostami posits, only capture a moment in time and therefore tell an incomplete story. They are, inherently, false. What follows is a bold, probing work that questions and explore the very idea of cinema and truth itself. Each frame is a story unto itself - sometimes playful, sometimes tragic, each looking at works of art in new and exciting ways, like an art gallery come to life through the magic of the silver screen. Kiarostami uses sound to suggest action happening outside the frame, the images extending into infinity beyond the bounds of art and film and into the world around us. It is no mistake that there are 24 frames in total - most films are projected at 24 frames per second. And in this, his final artistic statement to the world, Kiarostami has crafted a haunting and meditative examination of the very nature of the medium to which he devoted his life - one final masterpiece to question and challenge what is possible through art.



4 | LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Claire Denis, France)

Based upon Roland Barthes' "A Lover's Discourse: Fragments," Let the Sunshine In finds Claire Denis directing with a kind of sardonic distance - at once warm and bitter, joyous and stinging - each moment of mirth almost negated by the nagging sense that Isabelle is making the same mistakes over and over again. No one grows, no questions are answered, there is no clear satisfying arc for Isabelle, and therein lies the film's inherent tragedy. Binoche is luminous as always, a woman who, through multiple romantic and sexual encounters seeks fulfilment through a man rather than through herself, refusing to "let the sunshine in" and be happy with herself. It is a tragedy played out across Binoche's face in the final moments of the film, the dawning wonder in her eyes as she begins to fall for a charming charlatan's snake-oil pitch just as piercing and heartbreaking as Timotheé Chalamet's tears over the end credits of Call Me By Your Name. It's Denis' most emotionally wrenching work since 35 Shots of Rum, a beautifully understated and often transcendent exploration of the painful and bittersweet contradictions of the human heart.


5 | FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle, USA)

Audiences going into First Man expecting an epic retelling of Neil Armstrong's iconic walk on the moon were instead treated to an introspective character study about grief and loss. This may have contributed in part to the fact that the film underperformed at the box office and faded from the Oscar conversation before it ever got off the ground, but Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his Oscar-winning musical, La La Land, boldly looks inward even as its protagonist adventures outward, examining the deep personal cost of exploration and America's pioneering spirit. Chazelle takes an epic tale and brings it down to earth, making the monumental personal and the historic immediate. Rarely are films of this scale so deeply intimate and yet so grandly realized. No other film this year was so wholly immersive or more immaculately crafted. 


6 | HAPPY AS LAZZARO (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)

Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher infuses her enigmatic fable with the wit of Hal Ashby, the religious gravity of Carl Dreyer, and the medieval absurdity of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Elements such as time and place have little meaning, in fact Happy as Lazzaro feels more like a dream, untethered to such earthly concerns, shot in beautifully hazy 16mm by Hélène Louvart. Seasons can change from shot to shot, the sharecroppers' milieu shifts from that of an 19th century farm to modern day. Where and when the film takes place is fluid. What matters is Lazzaro, our Christ-like hero, who serves as our surrogate in this world of injustice and pain. Lazzaro is seemingly too good for this world - pure beyond understanding. Here Rohrwacher grapples with faith and class struggles in mysterious and fascinating ways - posing the haunting question; would we recognize the face of God if we saw it? Rohrwacher reaches out and captures a spark of the divine, something intangible and cryptic yet wholly wondrous, even miraculous - an enchanting modern parable of simple goodness destroyed by a world that can't possibly understand it that somehow still manages to provide a glimmer of hope for a better future.


7 | EL MAR LA MAR (J.P. Sniadecki & Joshua Bonnetta, USA)

Set in the mysterious and lonely Sonoran desert, J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta's El Mar La Mar, the latest documentary from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a bracing and immersive look at the unforgiving landscape over which Mexican immigrants must cross to reach the United States. Sniadecki and Bonnetta push the documentary form to its limits, creating a starkly beautiful and terrifying experience that brilliantly captures the dichotomy of the desert landscape - its lovely vistas juxtaposed against the lingering stench of death in their shadows. The images of lost shoes, discarded shirts, and perhaps most hauntingly, a single pair of glasses, persist in the mind; ghostly reminders of the human toll of the pursuit of a freedom so many of us take for granted. At once a meditation on mortality, a requiem for the lost, and a chilling tone poem, El Mar La Mar is a singular and terrifying evocation of shattered dreams and human longing that marks another breathtaking triumph for one of the most unique documentary projects in the world. No other film in 2019 felt more essential or more damning of our particular moment in time.


8 | ZAMA (Lucretia Martel, Argentina)

Ostensibly a film about the hell of middle management, Lucretia Martel's satirical 17th century drama examines the existential trials and tribulations of a mid-ranking Spanish official stationed on a remote island patiently awaiting a transfer to Buenos Aires that will never come. Trapped in a kind of purgatory of his own making, Don Diego de Zama languishes away in an increasingly disheveled wig, attempting to make sense of his mostly pointless colonial duties. He becomes a conduit for Martel's scathingly hilarious portrait of the folly of colonialism - featuring a never-ending parade of self-important white people in laughably impractical costumes in the sweltering heat, attempting to subjugate a culture they will never understand. Martel's brilliant use of sound suggests Zama's creeping madness and unravelling mental state, a sense of spiritual petrification from which there is no escape. It's as if the spirit of Luis Buñuel has settled upon the film, recalling the surrealist satire of films like The Exterminating Angel, where characters become trapped in existential webs they've spun for themselves, unable and unwilling to understand that they are the source of their own misery.


9 | IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Barry Jenkins, USA)

Somewhere amid the weeping strings and soaring saxophones of Nicholas Britell’s sublime score, Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk touches on some essential truth about what it feels like to fall in love. It’s as if the film is on the brink of tears it’s entire run time, its heart full with the beauty of life while at the same time mourning for the wholesale destruction of black lives at the altar of white supremacy. Adapted from the novel by the great James Baldwin, it is at once a devastating indictment of an America that refuses to acknowledge its roots in white privilege and the subjugation or black bodies, and a celebration of the tremulous and often breathtaking nature of love itself. Quite the achievement indeed, but Jenkins balances it so well, placing his characters in the center of the frame, eyes staring longingly into the camera as if they’re staring into our very souls. He places us in the film, creating an immersive and enrapturing experience akin to falling in love for the first time. A film of ebullient joy and exquisite sadness.



10 | SUPPORT THE GIRLS (Andrew Bujalski, USA)

“For mothers” reads the post-script of Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, a wise, wonderful, and altogether miraculous film about the long-suffering manager of a knock-off Hooters sports bar dealing with the seemingly never-ending crises of middle management. For Bujalski, whose trademark brand of improvisational realism first brought the term "mumblecore" into the popular lexicon, Support the Girls is perhaps his most formal work yet. But never once does he sacrifice verisimilitude for structural precision. Support the Girls is a warm, funny, sublimely entertaining film, anchored by a soulful performance by Regina Hall, whose smiling face barely hides the weariness underneath. It's one of the understated wonders of the year in film, a small-scale miracle that peels back the smiling, attractive facade of the American service industry and reveals the blood, sweat, and tears that keep the fantasy going.


11 | SHOPLIFTERS (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

What is family? There is seemingly no better filmmaker working today to answer that question that Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose family dramas have often been compared to those of the great Yasujiro Ozu. His Palme D'Or wining Shoplifters takes some of the director's favorite themes and looks at them from a new angle, through the eyes of an unconventional family who live off of stealing from others, whose penchant for taking what does not belong to them becomes ever more apparent as the film goes on. Family is what we make it, and in Shoplifters Hirokazu paints a heartbreaking portrait of a family like no other, built from scratch and forged by fire. It leaves an indelible impression, slowly building to an unforgettable emotional crescendo that is so expertly devised that we almost don't see it coming. Like Hirokazu's best work, it is quiet, hushed, and often unassuming, but lands with power of an earthquake.



12 | DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? (Travis Wilkerson, USA)

In 1946, Travis Wilkerson's great grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in his store and got away with it. It was a source of pride for SE Branch all his life - he had gunned down a black man in cold blood and walked away scot-free. Wilkerson, a radical political filmmaker and documentarian, delves into his family's dark past in his new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a chilling and courageous act of self-reflection that refuses any attempt to atone for the past, instead examining how he himself is complicit in a racist past.

This is a radical sledgehammer of a film, a ferocious work of avant-garde essay filmmaking that dares to hold a mirror up to a white audience and demand that we examine our own complicity in a racist society. How can we ever fix a system when the very idea of whiteness itself is the problem? Has the institution of whiteness so entrenched itself in American life that we can never actually move forward without starting over to fix the head start we've given ourselves? What Wilkerson has achieved here is truly stunning, a radical act of allyship in which a white filmmaker grapples with his own past, and his place in a world built by racist ancestors. It's a deep examination of privilege that refuses to let its audience off the hook.



13 | PROTOTYPE (Blake Williams, Canada)

A bold experimental work of avant-garde cinema in the tradition of the early silent surrealists and dadaists such as Luis Bunuel and Man Ray, Black Williams' PROTOTYPE is a mesmerizing, immersive experience unlike anything else. It feels like a journey into another realm of consciousness, exploring the boundaries of the cinematic medium and questioning what's possible. Williams throws the rulebook out the window and starts from scratch, creating a film that is at once a searing exploration of our own relationship to visual media and an audacious reinvention of the cinematic language. Just as Godard bid farewell to the old ways of artistic expression in Goodbye to Language, with its equally brash use of 3D, PROTOTYPE takes those ideas and transforms them once again into an electrifying, uncompromising redefinition of what it means to be a film.


14 | A BREAD FACTORY (Patrick Wang, USA)

There's never been a film (or series of films) quite like Patrick Wang's A Bread Factory. Essentially one film told in two parts, Part One: For the Sake of Gold, and Part Two: Walk with Me a While, A Bread Factory examines the plight of a small-town arts center about to be gentrified out of existence by a foreign conglomerate. A Bread Factory is a warm-hearted ode to local arts programs, how they serve not only as a place of belonging for everyone in the community, but as an outlet for people of all ages to explore themselves. Over the course of two films, Wang examines the Bread Factory's impact on its community, and the community's impact on the Bread Factory and its proprietors.

They're two lovely, altogether wonderful films that find a deep humanity in their subjects. And yet there's a kind of sadness that hangs over these films, a kind of mourning for the role of money in the arts, a necessary evil they both rely on and are torn down by. In the end, the quality of the work matters little in the face of public indifference or lack of funding, and that's the inherent tragedy at the core of both films. Passion can only go so far, but sometimes that passion is worth more than anything money can buy. In A Bread Factory that passion bleeds through every frame - it's an endlessly charming labor of love that firmly establishes Wang as one of the most unique and vital voices in American independent cinema.


15 | DEAD SOULS (Wang Bing, France)


The nearly 9-hour running time of Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Dead Souls, may be daunting, and will likely scare away many audience members before they ever walk in the door; but there are few cinematic experiences in 2018 as powerful or as essential as Wang's devastating examination of the Chinese re-education camps that were the result of Chairman Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the 1950s. This is a monumental work, recalling Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in its expansive dedication to documenting such large-scale human tragedy. Wang channels the voices of both the living and the dead into a stinging indictment of political oppression and human cruelty, crafting a trenchant and often painful portrait of a largely forgotten atrocity. Dead Souls is not a film for the faint of heart, but no other film this year felt more vital, immediate, or audacious, earning every minute of its gargantuan runtime with gripping, deeply compassionate efficiency.

Honorable Mentions:

  • FIRST REFORMED (Paul Schrader, USA)
  • THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK)
  • WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (Morgan Neville, USA)
  • BLACKKKLANSMAN (Spike Lee, USA)
  • BURNING (Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea)

Saturday, December 22, 2018


Now that The Day After has been released, Claire's Camera has something of a reputation as the lesser middle child of Hong Sangsoo's trilogy of films dealing with his much publicized affair with actress Kim Min-hee that began with 2017's On the Beach at Night Alone. Yet a second visit to Claire's Camera reveals something much deeper going on beneath its seemingly modest surface.

At only an hour long, Claire's Camera is surely the shortest of the three films, and on first glance it seems such a lightweight bonbon of a movie, a meandering seaside ramble about a jilted lover and a sunny stranger with a camera. And yet, the mystery grows with repeat viewings. Who is Claire (Isabelle Huppert) anyway? Why does she suddenly show up in the lives of Jeon Man-hee (Kim Min-Hee) and Director So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young)? Did Man-hee really have an affair with the filmmaker, as his wife and her employer insinuates when she fires Man-hee at the beginning of the film? Is it all a misunderstanding? Or is something else going on?

Hong never answers these questions. Director So and Man-hee are clearly cinematic avatars for Hong and Min-Hee, yet it's as if Hong is using Claire, the mysterious schoolteacher who arrives at the Cannes Film Festival with her camera in hand, to suggest that what is viewed through the lens of the press isn't exactly reality. Hong's films rarely adhere to typical boundaries of space and time, and Claire's Camera is no different, unfolding in a non-linear structure that leaves the audience somewhat disoriented. But that also seems to be the very point of what Hong is driving at here. The film feels light and carefree, so it's easy to mistake it as slight. Yet Hong isn't one to make something so transparently superficial.

The film is charmingly light, yet its effervescent exterior belies a sense of pain and melancholy beneath the surface. When you take someone's photograph, Claire explains, they become a different person. When viewed through the lens of tabloid cameras, is Hong's affair with Kim something completely different? Did the press get it all wrong? Are we, the public, somehow to blame for skewing the relationship? With the camera, we only get part of the story, a frozen moment in time isolated from its own reality. In Claire's Camera Hong deftly tries to right that wrong. Unlike On the Beach at Night Alone or even The Day AfterClaire's Camera is less apologia and more condemnation, a sly indictment of those who only see what is captured through a lens, delivered with smile and a knowing smirk.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


CLAIRE'S CAMERA | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Isabelle Huppert, Kim Min-hee, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young, Shahira Fahmy | Not Rated | In Korean w/English subtitlesNow available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Cinema Guild. 


Special Features:
  • Directors Dialogue with Hong Sangsoo at NYFF55 
  • Theatrical Trailer 
  • Booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Claire Denis 
  • Reversible Cover Art

Friday, December 21, 2018

At nearly 90 years old, Clint Eastwood is still going strong as a filmmaker, having directed 10 films in the last decade alone. However, The Mule marks his first outing in front of the camera since 2012's Trouble with the Curve, and the result is perhaps the Hollywood legend's most vivid and energetic film in 20 years. Everything about The Mule feels like a rejuvenated, invigorated filmmaker, directing with an energy that belies his years.

In fact, at 88 years old, Eastwood seems to be reflecting not only on his career, but on his entire life. If anything, The Mule  essentially a film about atonement and redemption, feels like a kind of apologia. It doesn't reach the lofty heights of 2008's Gran Torino, which found the filmmaker investigating and deconstructing his violent and often racist Dirty Harry persona, but there's a certain redemptive arc and sense of melancholy at work here that is hard to shake.

The Mule is also Eastwood's funniest film by a country mile. His character, Earl Stone, is something of a deadbeat father, a successful horticulturalist who spent more time with his flowers than with his family. He's also a bit of a racist - not in the virulent way of his character in Gran Torino  but in the casually ignorant way of so many people of a certain age who came up in a very different world. When his farm is suddenly foreclosed upon, he stumbles into drug running for a Mexican cartel to make some extra money, not quite realizing what he's doing until he's too far in to turn back.

Based on a true story, The Mule is an offbeat tragicomedy that features Eastwood running drugs in a truck while singing Frank Sinatra songs and letting whippersnapper drug dealers know that he's going to do it his way. Yet if you're expected Eastwood in his squinty, growly mode, you'll be sorely disappointed. Eastwood almost seems to be having fun here; he smiles, sings, and walks with as much of a skip in his step as it's possible for him to do. It's as if Eastwood, like Stone, has found a bit of late in life joy that has reawaken has passion for film. After the bland and joyless The 15:17 to ParisThe Mule is a marked improvement. Yet it fits right in with the themes of his late period work, from American Sniper to Sully, in which Eastwood investigates the lives of real Americans and their place in the American dream.

Whereas those films examined heroes - Chris Kyle, Sully Sullenburger, the soldiers who stopped a terror attack on a train to Paris, The Mule examines a different kind of hero, a WWII vet left behind by his country. For Earl Stone, the American dream failed him, as it did so many others. The farm that was supposed to sustain him until the end of his life is undercut by online retailers (the internet becoming his biggest nemesis throughout the film). Forced to turn to unconventional methods in order to survive (and to take care of the family he long neglected), Stone finds himself on the wrong end of the law. It's a kind of reverse take on Eastwood's 1993 film, A Perfect World, this time casting Eastwood as the outlaw finding redemption through his own illegal activities.

Yet this is as much an act of self-examination of anything. This is Eastwood grappling with his legacy as a masculine icon, wondering if he did right by his family while he was busy with other pursuits. A conservative libertarian by nature, Eastwood is often associated with Republican politics (thanks in part to his infamous conversation with an empty chair at the 2012 GOP convention), but although The Mule is very much a trip through America's struggling heartland, it's not a MAGA screed about the forgotten white man. This is something much more subtle and ultimately more tragic - it's about a country that no longer works for anyone; a place where tradition struggles to keep up with modernity, where race relations are lurching into an uncertain future (a clearly terrified Hispanic man informs police during a traffic stop that "statistically these are the 5 most dangerous minutes of my life"), and how our country so frequently fails on its promise of success - you can do everything right and still lose it all. Call it a deflation of the "bootstrap" myth. Hard work doesn't necessarily equal success.

Thematically, The Mule isn't far off from what Eastwood has been saying all along. He's made a career out of deconstructing American myth-making, and here he's not only subverting very idea of the American dream itself, but his own cinematic style. It's as if he's saying "don't count me out just yet." You can still teach an old dog new tricks, and in The Mule  Eastwood reminds us why he is still one of America's most vital filmmakers.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE MULE | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Stars Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Clifton Collins Jr., Dianne Wiest, Ignacio Serricchio, Alison Eastwood | Rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

If you've spent enough time reading From the Front Row, you know I'm a huge fan of film scores. As my favorite music genre, I listen to them often, and am always most eager to put together my list of the year's best scores. 2018 had an embarrassment of film score riches, from the avant-garde to classically orchestral to electronic soundscapes. Each one has dug deep in its own way, not only providing support for their films but crafting wholly original works of art all their own. These are the ten that have stuck with me the most.

1 | If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell) 


Nicholas Britell's sublime soundscapes for Barry Jenkins' Moonlight follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk are so warm, so romantic, and so deeply felt that one almost wants to wrap oneself up in them. They're the perfect support for Jenkins' swooning evocation of love, as if we the audience are somehow falling in love ourselves - with music, with cinema, with every breathtaking line of James Baldwin's prose. A score for the ages.






2 | First Man (Justin Hurtwitz)

A score that constantly zigs when we expect it to zag, Justin Hurwiz's haunting First Man looks inward even in the most epic of moments, then outward in its most intimate. It's a towering work that simultaneously manages to express Neil Armstrong's emotional distance from his mission while capturing the grandeur of space exploration.



3 | Black Panther (Ludwing Göransson)

Perhaps the year's most iconic film music, Ludwig Görransson's Black Panther combines African rhythm and percussion power anthems in the grand Hollywood tradition, resulting in a wholly unique superhero sound. As Marvel continues to diversify and expand its musical footprint from its more generic early days, Black Panther stands tall as their finest score yet.


4 | At Eternity's Gate (Tatiana Lisovkaia)

Evoking the quiet beauty of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, Tatiana Lisovkaia's gentle score takes us inside Van Gogh's mind as he stands enraptured by the beauty all around him. Introspective yet consistently breathtaking, Lisovkaia creates a portrait of an artist



5 | Mandy (Jóhann Jóhannsson)

For his final work, Johann Jóhannsson dove headfirst into the 1980s punk rock world of Panos Cosmatos' Mandy, delivering otherworldly soundscapes grounded with a surprisingly emotional center. It's what Jóhannsson was best at - and Mandy is a reminder that he was a tremendous talent taken from us far too soon.





6 | Suspiria (Thom Yorke)

As terrifying as it is beautiful, Thom Yorke's eerie musical accompaniment to Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake is mysterious, disorienting, and often enrapturing - as devilishly beautiful as the film itself.



7 | Papillon (David Buckley)

It's difficult to follow in the footsteps of Jerry Goldsmith, but David Buckley's Papillon doesn't attempt to, instead going in a completely different direction for this remake of Franklin Schaffner's classic film. The glorious choral work on display here is nothing short of stunning, elevating an otherwise mediocre film into the stratosphere with its heavenly musical support.





8 | Annihilation (Ben Salisbury Geoff Barrow) 

Like a journey into another world, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's earthy electronic accompaniment to Alex Garland's Annihilation is at once alien and human, distancing yet familiar.



9 | You Were Never Really Here (Jonny Greenwood)

Jonny Greenwood has quickly established himself as one of the most unique and talented composers working today, from There Will Be Blood to Phantom Thread, Greenwood continues to impress and delight with his stirringly off-kilter sensibilities. For Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here, he takes us into the heart of darkness, evoking the rapidly deteriorating mental state of Joaquin Phoenix's beleaguered hit-man.




10 | Collette (Thomas Adès)

Colette may not have ended up making much of an awards season splash despite its early push from Bleeker Street, but its luscious score by Thomas Adès should absolutely be getting more notice. While it uses several classical pieces, Adès' score sounds like a classical work all its own, buoying this period drama with a lush and sophisticated soundscape.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Vox Lux (Scott Walker)
  • Halloween (John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel A. Davies)
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story (John Powell)
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (James Newton Howard)
  • Mid90s (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
  • Capernaum (Khaled Mouzanar)
  • Mary, Queen of Scots (Max Richter)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Carter Burwell)
  • Adrift (Hauschka)
  • Leave No Trace (Dickon Hinchliffe)
  • Vice (Nicholas Britell)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


The truth may be stranger than fiction in Donald Trump's America, but in our era of fake news and Russian troll farms, the truth was in greater demand than ever. Thankfully, documentary filmmakers rose to the occasion in 2018, exploring the truth on scales both macro and micro. This year gave us documentaries that were howls of outrage, celebrations of kindness in a bitter world, powerful indictments of racism and white privilege, meditations on the mortality and nature of evil, examinations of delusions of grandeur, personal tales of artistic expression, investigations of everyday life in America, and sweeping portraits of political oppression and hatred. Documentarians seemingly left no stone unturned this year, crafting some of the finest documentaries of the decade in the span of a single year. In fact, this year's docs were so good one could make a perfectly respectable Top 10 Films of the Year list that only included documentaries. These 10 films represent some of the finest filmmaking 2018 had to offer, seeking truth in a year when the line between fact and fiction was more blurred than ever.


1 | El Mar La Mar // J.P. Sniadecki & Joshua Bonnetta, USA

Set in the mysterious and lonely Sonoran desert, J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta's El Mar La Mar, the latest documentary from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a bracing and immersive look at the unforgiving landscape over which Mexican immigrants must cross to reach the United States. Sniadecki and Bonnetta push the documentary form to its limits, creating a starkly beautiful and terrifying experience that brilliantly captures the dichotomy of the desert landscape - its lovely vistas juxtaposed against the lingering stench of death in their shadows. The images of lost shoes, discarded shirts, and perhaps most hauntingly, a single pair of glasses, persist in the mind; ghostly reminders of the human toll of the pursuit of a freedom so many of us take for granted. At once a meditation on mortality, a requiem for the lost, and a chilling tone poem, El Mar La Mar is a singular and terrifying evocation of shattered dreams and human longing that marks another breathtaking triumph for one of the most unique documentary projects in the world. No other film in 2019 felt more essential or more damning of our particular moment in time.


2 | Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? // Travis Wilkerson, USA

In 1946, Travis Wilkerson's great grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in his store and got away with it. It was a source of pride for SE Branch all his life - he had gunned down a black man in cold blood and walked away scot-free. Wilkerson, a radical political filmmaker and documentarian, delves into his family's dark past in his new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a chilling and courageous act of self-reflection that refuses any attempt to atone for the past, instead examining how he himself is complicit in a racist past.

This is a radical sledgehammer of a film, a ferocious work of avant-garde essay filmmaking that dares to hold a mirror up to a white audience and demand that we examine our own complicity in a racist society. How can we ever fix a system when the very idea of whiteness itself is the problem? Has the institution of whiteness so entrenched itself in American life that we can never actually move forward without starting over to fix the head start we've given ourselves? What Wilkerson has achieved here is truly stunning, a radical act of allyship in which a white filmmaker grapples with his own past, and his place in a world built by racist ancestors. It's a deep examination of privilege that refuses to let its audience off the hook. In a land built on the backs of slaves, we're all guilty.



3 | Won't You Be My Neighbor? // Morgan Neville, USA

Won't You Be My Neighbor? feels like much needed antidote to our uncivil times. This isn't a film just about being nice, it's a film about love, and the true value of showing love even to those we don't believe deserve it. While I'm under no illusions that this film will somehow fix all that ails us, one can't help but feel that if more people went to see this film, we'd all look at the world a little differently. This is a truly moving film, a work of profound beauty that exalts the best in all of us by examining the life of a man who truly embodied the best of what humanity could be. At a time where hate and animus are rampant, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a tender reminder of just how lucky we are to have had a neighbor like Mr. Rogers.


4 | Dead Souls // Wang Bing, France

The nearly 9-hour running time of Wang Bing's monumental documentary, Dead Souls, may be daunting, and will likely scare away many audience members before they ever walk in the door; but there are few cinematic experiences in 2018 as powerful or as essential as Wang's devastating examination of the Chinese re-education camps that were the result of Chairman Mao Zedong's cultural revolution in the 1950s.

This is a towering work, recalling Claude Lanzmann's Shoah in its expansive dedication to documenting such large-scale human tragedy. Wang channels the voices of both the living and the dead into a stinging indictment of political oppression and human cruelty, crafting a trenchant and often painful portrait of a largely forgotten atrocity. Even at 9 hours long, we feel as though we have only scratched the surface, and Wang leaves us with the chilling impression that the darkest secrets remain buried under the sands of the Gobi. Dead Souls is not a film for the faint of heart, but no other film this year felt more vital, immediate, or audacious, earning every minute of its gargantuan runtime with gripping, deeply compassionate efficiency.


5 | Hale County This Morning, This Evening // RaMell Ross, USA

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.

In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors. It's offers glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.


6 | Distant Constellation // Shevaun Mizrahi, Turkey

Set inside a Turkish nursing facility where elderly residents are seemingly trapped in time, Shevaun Mizrahi's Distant Constellation poignantly watches world outside move on without them, represented by the construction of a nearby skyscraper, dutifully trudging on through the snow as the knowledge and experience of those inside the nursing home fade away into the past. Mizrahi preserves those memories and experiences in Distant Constellation, brilliantly encapsulating the inevitable progression of time and the changes it brings - a world no longer recognized by those who have been in it the longest. You'll find no blind nostalgia here, though. Mizrahi seeks to parse and analyze the experiences of our elders, musing not only about what wisdom they can impart on us, but also what we as a society, and as observers, can do for them? Do we simply let them waste away, forgotten and alone, as time marches on?

That is the poignant core of Mizrahi's altogether extraordinary film, a keenly observed fantasia on the nature of time and memory. Her artful compositions are often breathtaking (she was a photographer before turning to film), finding small moments of beauty and even playfulness where society often sees only petrification and death. "Time waits for no man," goes the old adage, and while that may be true - here, at least for a moment, it stands still long enough to catch its breath. In these all-too-brief 82 minutes, it imparts the wisdom of a lifetime, and discovers new, unexpected insights for an unknown but inevitable future.


7 | Shirkers // Sandi Tan, USA

In 1992, a group of teenage cinephiles in Singapore set out to make a film of their own. That film, Shirkers, was written by aspiring filmmaker and critic, Sandi Tan, whose friendship with a mysterious, married, middle aged American ex-pat named Georges would have a profound and lasting impact on her life. A film professor full of tall-tales and dubious motives, Georges absconds with the completed footage, leaving Shirkers as one of Singapore's great cinematic mysteries, a film that wasn't that rocked the island nation's almost non-existent film industry. Twenty years later, the film resurfaces, leading Tan on a quest to understand not only Georges' motives for stealing such a large part of her life, but also the film's impact on its cast and crew.

Tan's love of cinema is present in every frame, recalling everything from the French New Wave to Steven Soderbergh. But at its heart, Shirkers feels like a radical act of self love, a cathartic exorcism of childhood demons that is at once joyful, haunted, and revelatory. What began as a charmingly DIY coming-of-age tale takes on a new sheen when viewed through a critical lens of the circumstances under which it was made. Shirkers was no longer a fiction film, it was the story of a young woman discovering her own identity, and through this documentary, reclaiming her agency from the predator who tried to steal it from her.


8 | Caniba // Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, France

Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was arrested after killing and eating a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevel in 1981, was released after from prison being declared legally insane, and went on to become something of a minor celebrity in Japan. Caniba, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) is perhaps one of the most disturbing films ever made, a dark and haunting plunge into the mind of a monster, inviting the audience into a truly unnerving world that feels like we're staring into the deepest pits of Hell.

The camera remains tightly on Sagawa's face for much of the film. Partially paralyzed by a stroke, his skin is taut, his face expressionless, his nose upturned, like some kind of demonic inversion of Renee Falconetti's Joan of Arc. And yet, there's something disturbingly human about him. Sagawa is almost painfully human in Caniba, untouchable and foreign and yet strangely recognizable, a man with insatiable desires of the flesh that have nevertheless broken one of society's deepest taboos. He speaks not only his crime, but of his own desire to be consumed by the woman he killed. He covets pain, pure blinding brilliant intense pain, both as retribution and as part of a deep-seated sexual desire that he can't explain. Aesthetically, Caniba is a terrifying journey into the underworld, a film that worms its way under the skin and unnerves through its chillingly dispassionate observation of one of the deepest human perversions. But underneath its horrifying surface is something even more disquieting, the nagging feeling that this example of the most monstrous of human evil isn't that much different from us after all.


9 | Infinite Football // Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania

In his latest film, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury.

Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.


10 | Minding the Gap // Bing Liu, USA

Bing Liu's film is something of a quiet wonder. What begins as a kind of document of adolescence centering on three teenage boys who spend carefree days skateboarding and being generally irresponsible, becomes a deeply moving exploration of adulthood as the boys navigate the realities of newfound grown-up responsibilities. It is also a delicately layered study of poverty and the cyclical nature of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, whose effects reverberate through generations. Minding the Gap is a potent and vital distillation of modern masculinity and the crisis facing our young men for whom violence is the only reality they've ever known.

Liu deftly examines the ripple effects and collateral damage not only from the point of view of the young men who were raised by abusive fathers, but on the women who also survived them, and now find themselves the target of their boyfriends' anger. The result is a hugely powerful documentary that delves into the far reaching effects of systemic oppression and cyclical abuse. It's an astonishing filmmaking debut that could have only been made by someone who has lived it, lending it an impressive sense of authenticity and honesty that is hard to shake.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release.
© Annapurna Pictures, LLC.

If you've spent much of the last two years looking around and thinking "where are we going and why are we in this hand basket," then you're not alone. With democratic norms being chucked out the window on almost a daily basis, it's easy to become disillusioned about the state of our political system. But how did we arrive at this moment? Did Donald Trump arrive out of nowhere, or is he the product of system that has been laying the groundwork for someone like him for decades?

That's essentially what director Adam McKay (The Big Short) is trying to investigate in Vice, a biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) on its surface, and a stinging satire of our current political situation underneath. At a time when President Trump is seemingly wiping away every political norm with a constant stream of racism and unchecked corruption, it's easy to look back at the George W. Bush Administration of something akin to nostalgia. Iraq may have been a major blunder, but at least he wasn't calling the press the "enemy of the people" and locking immigrant children in cages, right?

Vice is not about George W. Bush (although he does make a few appearances courtesy of Sam Rockwell), it's about the man behind the curtain. Cheney was perhaps the most powerful VP in history - exercising great executive power and overseeing many operations in the White House without presidential oversight. Vice explores how he got to that point, from his days as a congressional page to Donald Rumseld (Steve Carell) to his days as Secretary of Defense during George H.W. Bush's Administration, all the up to his tenure as Bush 43's Vice President. McKay mixes it all into a non-linear narrative structure that casts Cheney as a kind of Machiavellian villain, always in the shadows, pulling strings behind the scenes but never calling much attention to himself.

The film deploys a mix of styles to explore Cheney's roots and motivations - from Shakespearian tragedy to melodrama to satirical comedy, some landing their punches but most falling flat. The biggest problem with Vice is its eclectic mix of styles doesn't mesh particularly well, the non-linear structure also undercutting any dramatic tension or depth, hampered by a painful framing device featuring an Iraq War vet that comes across as a shameless bit of audience manipulation. The film's scattershot nature doesn't allow us to get to know Cheney in the least. This is part of the point, of course, Cheney's lack of transparency is notorious, and one of the film's major focuses, but the film really fails in its attempts to connect Cheney's machinations to our current political climate.

Amy Adams (left) as Lynne Cheney and Christian Bale (right) as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Matt Kennedy 2018 © Annapurna Pictures

Vice touches on theories of executive privilege and the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine that paved the way for unchecked presidential power and the rise of Fox News, but Cheney remains just as enigmatic at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, a "ghost" as the film suggests who basically ran the country for eight years while W's good-natured bumbling masked the sinister imperial ideas roiling behind the scenes. The real standout here is Bale's uncanny performance as Cheney, signature sneer and all, a constantly inscrutable manipulator who played his cards close to the vest. Amy Adams also makes a fine showing as Lynne Cheney by way of Lady Macbeth, and Nicholas Britell's soaring score plays every moment, no matter how ludicrous, as an over-the-top melodrama.

Yet for every satiric touch that hits the mark, many more never even come close. Vice is a mess, an unfocused and unwieldy portrait of Vice President Cheney that never manages to mount more than a surface-level inquiry of his motives and their repercussions. McKay attempts to implicate the audience for allowing Cheney the destructive power he ultimately wielded, but it's an implication that comes out of nowhere. It's as if McKay is throwing everything at us hoping that something sticks. Clearly the target audience is in on the joke here, but the film often feels smug and cynical rather than illuminating or insightful. It is, as Shakespeare would say, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," an occasionally amusing but ultimately hollow exploration of recent history that fails to bring anything new or particularly interesting to the table.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


VICE | Directed by Adam McKay | Stars  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Jesse Plemons, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Shea Whigham, Eddie Marsan, Bill Pullman | Rated R for language and some violent images | Opens in theaters nationwide on Dec. 25.