Monday, January 29, 2018

Touko Laaksonen, also known as Tom of Finland, was a Finnish artist known for his erotic drawings of leather-clad muscle men that became a touchstone of gay culture in the 1970s and 80s.  Laaksonen's art, once considered subversive, is now a widely known symbol of gay sexuality, with the mustachioed, leather-clad Kake (Niklas Hogner) becoming one of its most recognizable figures.

Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) discovered his sexuality as a young man during WWII, when sex-starved young soldiers cruised the woods looking for sex with other men. Those days left a powerful impression on Laaksonen, but he was especially haunted by the cold, dead eyes of a young Russian soldier he killed, who visage came to play a powerful role in his art. Fascinated by the male form, Laaksonen began secretly drawing sexually explicit cartoons that soon got him in trouble with Finnish authorities of the time. Forced to hide his sexuality during the oppressive sexual climate of the 1950s, he lived a quiet life out of the spotlight, before his drawings took on cult status during the sexual revolution in America, turning him into the cult figure he is today.

Tom of Finland begins awash in muted colors and drab, conservative costumes. As the film progresses, the cinematography becomes brighter, the costumes more flamboyantly colored, representing Tom's journey out of the closet and into the public eye. There's a certain beauty to its symbolic flowering, as he and his lover, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) dream of a time when they can finally hold hands in public and be who they were meant to be. It's an inspiring story, and director Dome Karukoski tells it well, as Tom helped usher gay sexuality out of the closet and into the mainstream eye, celebrating the masculine power dynamics rather than burying them out of shame. But one can't help but feel that such a radical artist deserved something a little more, well, radical. Tom of Finland is the kind of respectable, Oscar-bait picture that is so common among biopics, shying away from the hardcore sexuality that so dominated Laaksonen's art.

I've been critical of those who suggested that Call Me By Your Name didn't feature enough sex or nudity, because I don't think that the story necessarily required it in order to have the emotional impact it did. But Laaksonen celebrated unbridled desire, revealing in oversized erect penises, rough anal sex, and practically gave birth to kink as we know it. For the film to gloss over that seems a disservice not only to Laaksonen's art, but to who he was as a person. It would be like erasing overweight women and giant breasts from a biopic of R. Crumb.

The film itself is perfectly respectful, even moving. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that it just doesn't really capture the subversive beauty of what Laaksonen did. It doesn't need more nudity for purposes of titillation (although titillation is part of the whole point of Laaksonen's art), but to capture the spirit of sexual openness that Tom of Finland championed and represented for so many. Instead, it's a mild mannered biopic rather than a true representation of the artist it depicts, venerating but ultimately neutering its delightfully rebellious subject.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TOM OF FINLAND | Directed by Dome Karukoski | Stars Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jakob Oftebro, Werner Daehn, Christian Sandström, Niklas Hogner, Jessica Grabowsky | Not Rated | On Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on Feb. 6.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Norman Jewison's sleek and stylish 1968 thriller, The Thomas Crown Affair, may not have necessarily been the career high point for anyone involved, and while some of its stylistic tics may not have aged particularly well over the years, it is not without its charms.

It's hard to go wrong with actors like Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway front and center. McQueen's titular businessman, Thomas Crown, is a smooth operator who grows bored with the honest riches of his work and decides to mastermind a bank heist. Dunaway's Vicky Anderson is the beautiful insurance investigator sent to crack the case. She's onto Crown almost right away, but can't help but be drawn to the mysterious and charming crown. She knows he did it. He knows she knows he did it. What ensues is a delightfully seductive game of cat-and-mouse, resulting in what is perhaps the sexiest game of chess ever played on the silver screen. McQueen and Dunaway move their pieces around the board, Dunaway slyly fingering the bishop while McQueen makes eyes at her from across the table.

It's moments like these that make The Thomas Crown Affair work. Jewison's direction is nothing if not stylish, utilizing split-screen to stage the opening heist in undeniably thrilling fashion. The rest of the film, however, is often hit-or-miss, it's weak plot glossed over by the presence of its attractive stars. It's got beautiful people behaving badly then falling in love, but it's also riddled with plot holes and shortcuts that keep it from living up to Jewison's bold craftsmanship.

Yet despite its weaknesses, it's hard to resist McQueen and Dunaway, who elevate the pulpy and somewhat thinly drawn material with their strong performances. The new 4K restoration showcased on the upcoming Kino Blu-Ray is dazzling, and gets more so as it goes on (the opening sequence still seems strangely faded). Its luster may have dimmed over the years, but one thing that remains immortal are McQueen and Dunaway, two of cinema's brightest stars making the most out of middling material, and The Thomas Crown Affair is made worthy almost by their presence alone. Jewison was no slouch, but he would go on to make much better films, less hampered by trendy stylistic affectations.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR | Directed by Norman Jewison | Stars Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burk,e Jack Weston, Biff McGuire | On Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics on February 13!

Friday, January 26, 2018

A dinosaur. A jungle. Ruthless poachers. Heroic natives. All the elements are there for a rip-roaring adventure in Bill L. Norton's 1985 yarn, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Unfortunately, it's one of those movies with a lot of heart which doesn't have the storytelling prowess to back it up.

Its biggest drawback is Baby, the young dinosaur discovered in the African jungles by British paleontologists. There were more believable animatronics in Disney World rides at the time, and the cartoonishly designed Baby is so awkward that it's hard to feel anything toward the character, who is so key to the emotion of the narrative. The film was inspired by the legend of the Mokele-Mbembe, a dinosaur-like creature said to inhabit the African jungles near the Congo River. Two teams of Paleontologists travel to Africa to prove his existence. One is lead by Susan Matthews-Loomis (Sean Young), who research was stolen by the villainous Dr. Eric Kiviat (Patrick McGoohan) who desperately wants to claim the discovery for himself.

While Matthews-Loomis and her husband, George (William Katt) find Baby and his family first, Kiviat and his lackey, Nigel (Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes), aren't far behind, determined to capture a live dinosaur specimen to return to England. There's a conservationist streak running through Baby, as the heroes attempt to stop the Western powers from removing the endangered animals from their natural habitat. But the film itself is hampered by its languid pacing and primitive visual effects.

McGoohan (who would go on to be Braveheart's evil Edward the Longshanks 10 years later) is great fun as Dr. Kiviat, even if his ultra-serious performance feels like it belongs in a less campy film. He takes the whole thing so seriously that it's hard not to admire the steely resolve with which he greets the silly material. Young also makes for a strong lead, a female hero and scientist at a time when such things weren't commonplace in mainstream cinema (and let's face it, they're still not even in 2018). The new Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics looks as good as it possibly can given the film's somewhat low-rent visual quality, and Jerry Goldsmith, the king of writing great music for bad films, turns in a fantastic score. There may be some nostalgic charm to its Land of the Lost-esque tale of exotic adventure, but those that didn't grow up with it may find that nostalgia isn't enough to make this lost legend worth uncovering.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND | Directed by Bill L. Norton | Stars Sean Young, William Katt, Patrick McGoohan, Julian Fellowes | Rated PG | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics on Feb. 13, 2018.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Nicolai Fuglsig's 12 Strong tells the previously classified story of the first American military action in Afghanistan after 9/11. The mission took 12 men deep into Taliban-controlled territory to liberate a mountain stronghold with the help of the splintered Northern Alliance, made up of disparate Afghan militias who hated each other.

It was a volatile situation, and the soldiers who volunteered for the mission had to ride horses in order to navigate the tricky mountain terrain. It's a fantastic story, to be sure, modern warfare mixed with ancient tactics. Yet 12 Strong falters in its execution due its glacial pacing and bland sense of style that borrows from everything from Black Hawk Down to Saving Private Ryan to Gladiator.

The film's strongest asset is its cast. Lead by Chris Hemsworth, and featuring Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and Trevante Rhodes, the actors do their best with the limited material they are given to work with. Shannon and Peña are done no favors by their thinly written characters (especially Peña, who seems to be there only for wisecracks), but they throw themselves into the roles anyway. The screenplay by Ted Tally and Peter Craig is surprisingly weak (especially considering Tally penned the remarkable screenplay from The Silence of the Lambs), often resorting to awkward exposition in the form of two off-site commanders who attempt to provide context to the mission. We are also given a villain in the form of Taliban commander Razzam (Numan Acar), whose only purpose in the story is to stand around and look evil. We are introduced to him in a throwaway scene meant to illustrate the Taliban's cruelty, but he's such a non-entity in the story that it almost seems like an afterthought.

Yet by far the film's most egregious fault is in its portrayal of the war in Afghanistan as some sort of quick victory. The speed with which the horse soldiers conquer the city of Mazar-i-Sharif is hailed as a major victory for US forces. And while the speed of their achievement is certainly remarkable, it is not indicative of the war as a whole. The film conveniently ignores the fact that it dragged on for more than a decade after this, becoming America's longest military engagement in history. If one just watched this film and had no knowledge of the war in Afghanistan, they'd think America coasted to victory pretty quickly. It seems incredibly irresponsible to frame the war in such a way, without the context that it needs to be accurately portrayed.

Make no mistake, 12 Strong is pure propaganda, and not particularly good propaganda at that. It's not in the Alexander Nevsky vein (although one may find oneself longing for Sergei Eisenstein's mastery of pacing and emotion), instead it's a rote re-framing of a devastating military conflict that takes one very specific victory and makes it dishonestly representative of the war as a whole. Add to that its lazy copying of Steven Spielberg's 60 frames per second cinematography from Saving Private Ryan, and a scene where a character buries a piece of the World Trade Center in Afghanistan in a shameless ripoff of the ending of Gladiator (not to mention one painfully manipulative fake-out death), and you have a generic war movie without any real sense of history or personality of its own. It takes a strong story and neuters it with dull characters and tedious plotting that makes it feel longer than the war itself.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

12 STRONG | Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig | Stars Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, Geoff Stults, Thad Luckinbill | Rated R for war violence and language throughout | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

From The Dispatch:
“Phantom Thread” is a film of incredible sensual pleasures, sexy without being sexual, and kinky without being campy. Its deep dive into sadism and masochism as both sexual outlets and psychological states is nothing short of remarkable, treating them not as strange objects of sexual exoticism but as the inherent power negotiations and exchanges of love itself. Anderson is a master, and “Phantom Thread” is one of his most enrapturing achievements, an enthralling and deeply pleasurable treatise on sexual politics that is both richly thematic and beautifully realized.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, January 19, 2018

In 1977, a young boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley), still mourning the death of his mother (Michelle Williams), is struck deaf by a freak bolt of lightning while trying to unravel the mystery of his father's identity. Undeterred, but unable to hear, he sets off for New York City with the only clue he has, an inscribed bookmark found in a book in his mother's old room.

Meanwhile in 1927, a young deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) spends her days at the cinema, gazing at her heroine, silent film actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In the silent pictures, she needs no sound to understand the story and the emotions, and she loses herself there daily, until sound comes along to sweep away the world into which she can escape. So she too sets out to New York to find her long absent mother. Along the way, her story begins to intertwine with Bob's eventually converging in an unexpected.

Todd Haynes has always been an experimental filmmaker, willing to push the boundaries of the form to expand the narrative and its its thematic core. In his latest film, Wonderstruck, he does just that, but perhaps to lesser results than he's achieved in the past. It's a fascinating pastiche, utilizing silent film techniques in the scenes set in 1927, and capturing a distinctive 1970s flair with the help of his usual cinematographer, Ed Lachman, in the scenes set in later years. As the two stories mirror and converge, Affonso Gonçalves' sharp and perceptive editing beautifully and at times seamlessly, combines them into one story, united by blood and common experience, while Carter Burwell's lovely score pulls it all together.

As a technical achievement, Wonderstruck is consistently dazzling, but it's almost too dazzling. Haynes' craft here is so precious, so precise, that it holds the audience at a distance, in awe of his creative vision but left cold by its emotional center. The family connections between Ben and Rose, feels more inevitable than disarming, and the resulting reunion and never quite has the impact that it feels like it should. Haynes is a master craftsman, and there are parts of Wonderstruck that left me breathless, but I was surprised by how un-involving I found the narrative itself. Screenwriter Brian Selznick also penned the source material for Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which was perhaps a perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject; a breathtaking ode to film preservation that struck a chord with me. Wonderstruck, on the other hand, feels far more removed from its emotions, hampered by an uneven structure that fraught with awkward pacing.

"We're all in the gutter," Ben's mother tells him,  quoting Oscar Wilde, "but some of us are looking at the stars." Haynes shoots for the stars, all right, connecting non-hearing protagonists to a world of sound, and unleashing the wonders of a purely visual world. While it is certainly ambitious, and undeniably beautiful, its style often feels divorced from its narrative, losing itself stargazing when the story required something more personal;  a solid grounding in human emotions rather than cinematic trickery.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

WONDERSTRUCK | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Tom Noonan | Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking | Now available to stream online exclusively at

Monday, January 15, 2018

It is fitting that Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed Studio Ghibli's final film, When Marnie Was There, should also direct the inaugural feature of Studio Ponoc, the Japanese animation house that rose out of Ghibli's ashes. Mary and the Witch's Flower is an adaptation of Mary Stewart's "The Little Broomstick," about a young girl who discovers a magical flower in the forest that transports her into a world of witches and magic.

Once there, Mary (Ruby Barnhill) is taken to Endor College (which, sadly, has no Ewoks), a school for magic lead by Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who immediately recognize her as a prodigy due to her incredible magic powers. But when Mary reveals that the powers come from the magic flower, it becomes clear that her hosts are not as kindly as they appear, and that the magic flower is something truly dangerous that, in the wrong hands, could do great damage to the magical world.

Mary and the Witch's Flower plays like a kind of "Ghibli's greatest hits," borrowing elements from Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, and even Princess Mononoke, resulting in a film that never really establishes a personality of its own. On the one hand, it displays a disappointing lack of creativity for Studio Ponoc's debut feature. On the other hand, it shows they're playing it safe the first time out of the gate, sticking to tried and true story elements that have already been proven to work. That being said, it's an undeniably charming film, even if it's perhaps a bit overly familiar. It's a decently engaging adventure that hinges on the importance of embracing one's differences, and how the things we believe set us apart are often our greatest strengths.

It's unfortunate, then, that a film about embracing one's own unique qualities is so lacking in, well, uniqueness. It's a fine amalgamation of stronger films, but it's hard to escape the feeling that we've seen this all done before. Still, Takatsugu Muramatsu's score is gorgeous and bursting with energy, and the animation is often breathtaking. In the English dub, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent are clearly having a blast, and young Ruby Barnhill (The BFG) makes for a plucky heroine. It's a solid start for the fledging Studio Ponoc, and one can only hope that it leads to bigger and better things, opening doors to take greater chances in the future. It's an enjoyable film, to be sure, but it lacks that certain creative spark that made Ghibli films so special. Hopefully Ponoc learns from Ghibli rather than just rehashing their older films, and becomes a new creative force in Japanese animation, filling the giant shoes left empty by one of animation's most venerable institutions.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER | Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi | Stars Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Louis Ashbourne Serkis | Rated PG for some action and thematic elements | Opening in theaters nationwide on Jan. 18 for one night only via Fathom Events. Click here for ticket information.

It's hard to overstate the complexity of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention the Christians in the region, have been raging for almost all of recorded history, an issue further exacerbated in the 20th century as conflict over land rights and the lack of a Palestinian state lead to widespread violence. To detail all the intricacies of the conflict here would be a fool's errand, but Ziad Doueiri's The Insult brazenly attempts to boil centuries of history into one disagreement between two men, with decidedly weak results.

The Insult, which is Lebanon's official foreign language entry to the 2018 Oscar ceremony, is such a gross oversimplification of a complex and layered issue that it's almost offensive. Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is a Palestinian contractor who lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon. One day while attempting to fix a gutter belonging to Tony Hanna, a Lebanese Christian, Tony (Adel Karam) refuses the repair, smashing the new gutter with a hammer, spilling water all over Yasser. Yasser responds naturally, calling Tony a "fucking prick." Outraged, Tony demands an apology, and when Yasser refuses, takes his complaint to Yasser's employer. Yasser finally relents, but when he goes to apologize, Tony tells him that he wishes that Ariel Sharon had wiped out all the Palestinians. It is at that point that Yasser truly loses his temper, punching Tony in the gut and breaking two of his ribs.

The conflict only escalates from there, heading to the courts, with both men refusing to back down out of pride. It is a conflict of words that escalated to violence, and the Palestinian and Christian communities in Beirut soon take sides in their own camps, entrenched in centuries of animosity. It isn't long before Tony is accused of Zionism, and tempers begin to flare, threating to engulf the city in violence over the pride of two men who refuse to see the other's point of view.

Like Paul Haggis' much maligned Oscar champion, CrashThe Insult attempts to put a Band-Aid on a deep wound, arriving at the most trite possible solutions for an issue steeped in history and violence. Doueiri is asking "Why can't we all just get along?" Which is a valid question, but The Insult's "kumbaya" mentality is just so painfully reductive that it almost seems like an insult to both sides in and of itself. Doueiri posits that both sides are, in fact, victims, and that they must meet in the middle to find common ground. In one of the film's most ridiculous moments, Tony begins to find that common ground when Yasser reveals that he prefers German made goods over Chinese goods, a position Tony had taken over auto parts earlier in the film. It's a scene that rivals Batman vs. Superman's now infamous "Martha moment" for its sheer absurdity.

It's hard to deny that its heart is in the right place. It begs for a deeper examination of the roots of the conflict, and for mutual understanding of the ways in which both sides have been victimized. Unfortunately, the film itself never manages the level of depth for which it advocates. Using these two men as symbols for their respective sides comes across as simplistic rather than layered, reducing the conflict to an inane spat giving neither side the dignity it deserves. This is especially true considering that Yasser is so clearly in the right in the context of the film, and yet both sides are made to look equally culpable in a mess that could have been easily avoided.

The Insult is slickly made, to be sure, but it lacks the depth to back up its ambition. It wants to boil down a thorny issue to its most essential parts, and in so doing does neither position justice. There's a great deal of drama and thematic meaning to be derived from this issue, but in its quest for easy answers, The Insult ends up insulting the intelligence of its audience rather than allowing us to draw conclusions on our own.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE INSULT | Directed by Ziad Doueiri | Stars Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Diamand Bou Abboud | Rated R for language and some violent images | In Arabic w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Woody Allen's Alice (1990) came after a string of more serious endeavors, September (1987), Another Woman (1988), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). While not an outright comedy, ALICE was a return to the warm, romantic nostalgia of films like The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987).

While many often point to Annie Hall and Manhattan as the high points of Allen's career (an opinion I won't dispute here), I would argue that he had no stronger creative period than the time between 1985 and 1989. The six films he directed in those five years are among the very best of his career, yet they're often the most overlooked. Allen seemed less interested in experimenting with form during that period (although Ingmar Bergman's influence still hangs heavy) and more interested in looking inward, churning out some of his most fascinating characters and resonant plot lines.

Alice marked the end of that remarkable run, returning to the magical realism of Purple Rose to tell the story of a wealthy woman named Alice (Mia Farrow) who becomes bored with her stagnant lifestyle. Surrounded by empty opulence and suffering from a bad back, she visits an acupuncturist in Chinatown named Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), who prescribes a treatment that soon has her conversing with the ghost of a former lover (Alec Baldwin), turning invisible to spy on her cheating husband (William Hurt) and her backstabbing friends, and embarking on a tentative affair with an acquaintance (Joe Mantegna).

The problem is, there's really nothing in Alice that Allen hadn't done before, with better results. Unhappy women, infidelity, imaginary romantic heroes, therapy; almost all of it had been touched on in the previous five years. Alice feels like a light-hearted amalgam of the films Allen made between 1985 and 1989. And yet, it isn't without its charms. Farrow is at her most Allen-esque here; so much so that you can almost hear him saying every word of her dialogue. The striking costume design, most notably Farrow's red hat (beautifully rendered on Twilight Time's new Blu-Ray), adds a remarkable sense of color to her drab surroundings. Clearly Alice was meant for something more than the hand she was dealt. It's interesting, then, that at the end of the film, when she finally breaks free of the confines of her previous life, her clothes are drab and her surroundings are colorful.

Allen's attention to these details is what keeps Alice afloat, along with Farrow's spirited performance. His ear for dialogue is strong as always, but the film still feels recycled. This is really the beginning of Allen's penchant for "playing the hits" rather than pushing himself and experimenting with style and form as he had in the 70s and 80s (his very next film, Shadows and Fog, attempted to return to his formal experimentation phase with decidedly lesser results).  Its slight sense of innocence is part of its charm, but the magical realism seems more contrived than it did in Purple Rose, allowing Allen to take narrative shortcuts rather than really examine his characters.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Special Features Include:
  • Isolated Music & Effects Track
  • Original Theatrical Trailer 
ALICE | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Mia Farrow, William Hurt, Joe Mantegna, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Keye Luke, Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd | Rated PG-13 | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

As we were leaving our screening of Proud Mary, my wife remarked to that "it seemed like the whole point of that movie was so Taraji P. Henson could shoot people to the tune of 'Proud Mary.' I liked it." And she's not wrong, everything about the film seems to be building to that moment, and when it comes, it's every bit as glorious as we've hoped it would be. The rest of the film certainly feels built out from there, but when the movie is this fun and well executed, its thinness of plot almost seems beside the point. And if Proud Mary is anything, it's certainly a lot of fun.

Henson stars as Mary, a hitwoman with a heart of gold, who takes an interest a young boy named Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) after being assigned to take out his father. The boy ends up becoming a drug runner for a rival syndicate, and when one of his deals goes wrong, Mary rescues him and takes him in. Seeing that the boy has been abused, she lets her temper get the better of her, taking out a rival drug lord and triggering an all-out war between two of Boston's most powerful crime operations, one of which is lead by the surrogate father (Danny Glover) who once adopted her off the streets just like she adopted Danny. Danny's presence further complicates matters, leading Mary to once again take matters into her own hands so she can at last retire in peace.

Proud Mary has its roots in the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s like Foxy Brown and Shaft. Director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) shoots with a no-frills, no-nonsense style, utilizing tremendous narrative economy to quickly establish time and location in order to move the plot along. At only 88 minutes, Proud Mary moves along at a breakneck clip, and it does so without belaboring the story with unnecessary exposition. Who is Mary? How did she end up killing people for a powerful drug lord? We get hints along the way, but ultimately it doesn't matter. All that matters is the story at hand, and Najafi isn't afraid to get his hands dirty to tell it.

Like its blaxploitation brethren, Proud Mary takes us into the grit and grime of the inner cities, out of which a powerful African American hero arises to exact justice on those who would keep them down (Quentin Tarantino paid similar homage to the genre in Jackie Brown). As such, the film also feels thoroughly modern, with Taraji P. Henson putting her own spin on the lone-wolf hero whose latest incarnations have been John Wick and Atomic Blonde. And boy does Henson nail it. Here is a proud black woman, kicking ass and taking names in Trump's America, and it is a thrilling thing to behold. Henson is a bonafide star, and Proud Mary is the vehicle she deserves.

Its Achilles heel is its weak script, which often gets bogged down in cliches, but Henson is just so good, and Najafi's direction so solid, that the film resonates in spite of its occasionally wooden dialogue. Together they deliver a truly thrilling action film that moves like lightning and never lets up. Najafi doesn't cut corners, instead he trims the fat, keeping the ball rolling without any unnecessary detours. And through it all, there is Henson; magnetic, assured, vulnerable, and truly, utterly in command of every moment. Henson's Mary is a hero I would follow anywhere. This is good, old-fashioned, no-bullshit action filmmaking, and Henson is its steely yet maternal heart. I loved every minute.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PROUD MARY | Directed by Babak Najafi | Stars Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Danny Glover, Billy Brown, Neal McDonough, Margaret Avery | Rated R for violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

No other filmmaker has quite captured the heroic middle class ethos of Liam Neeson quite like Jaume Collet-Serra. Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), and Run All Night (2015), has a keen understanding not just of Neeson the actor, but of Neeson the icon, and he deftly harnesses that image, weaponizing it into a symbol of working class angst raging against the machine.

Their latest collaboration, The Commuter, is nothing new. Neeson,  one time cop-turned-insurance salesman whose humdrum routine takes him on a commuter train into New York City every day. That is until he is laid off in typically soulless fashion; 60 years old and five years from retirement, he suddenly finds himself facing unemployment and unimaginable debt left over from the 2008 economic crisis. Unable to bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), he heads back to the train to take one last journey home. Things are looking pretty bleak, until he meets Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a mysterious woman who offers him $100,000 if he just does "one little thing:" find a fellow commuter on the train and tag them with GPS unit. He can walk away clean, $100,000 richer, never knowing what happens to them.

The offer is tempting for a man who just lost everything, and he begins to search for the mysterious passenger. But as he gets closer and closer to the truth, he begins to realize that he is in over his head, and that the people he is working for are willing to do anything to keep their secret, even if it means killing every single passenger on the train.

The Commuter is not great art; nor is it trying to be. It's a very familiar dish that Collet-Serra and Neeson have served up before. This time, however, everything is dialed up to an 11; almost as if it's a parody of late-period Neeson action films. Collet-Serra understands the inherent ridiculousness of the plot, and rather than try to pass it off as something it isn't, he embraces it with reckless abandon, throwing in gratuitous explosions, fist fights, outlandish stunts, and one truly outstanding single-take action sequence. Cinematographer Paul Cameron, who also shot Michael Mann's gorgeous Collateral and Tony Scott's Man on Fire, captures the sequence with such flair; tussling bodies breaking both the the visual plane and the confines of the passenger car, blows raining down like hailstones; it's easily the most dynamic and thrilling sequence to come from the Collet-Serra/Neeson collaboration thus far.

Neeson, whose craggy face is looking more lined than it has in the past, can still deliver a beating like no one else, growling about his family and taking on the bad guys with down-to-earth, everyman righteousness. This time, however, his struggle against a faceless entity reflects his own financial struggles. He's just a regular guy who has put in decades of work only to be screwed over by soulless corporate executives that he will never meet.

That's why I believe Neeson's films resonate with so strongly with audiences:  he represents a kind of "Average Joe" fighting against circumstances outside of his control, a struggle that is all-too-familiar to the ordinary, working class citizen. There's no one else who could make a line like "On behalf of the American middle class, go fuck yourself!" work better Neeson, but he speaks for the forgotten men and women of American better than Donald Trump ever will.

Neeson has said that this will likely be his final action movie. After all, he's 65 years old, and his exploits are becoming less and less believable with each passing film. But believability has never been the point of these movies. They have always been about the everyman triumphing against the greater forces that seek to control his life. There's something essential in that fantasy, I think, and a major part of why Neeson is the major star that he is. People come to see his "particular set of skills" in action, fighting for his family and for a chance to take control of his own life in a world run by bigwigs who could care less about the little guy. Neeson stands up for the little guy, and no other filmmaker gets that quite like Collet-Serra, who boldly embraces that working man fantasy with a sly wink. The Commuter is over-the-top, outlandish, and often downright silly. But it strikes a chord for anyone who's ever felt at the mercy of an unfeeling system. Liam Neeson is the hero we need, and I hope his collaboration with Collet-Serra continues for years to come.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE COMMUTER | Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra | Stars Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Killian Scott, Shazad Latif | Rated PG-13 for some intense action/violence, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein once wrote that if he could be granted one wish to have directed any film, he would have chosen John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Eisenstein considered the film a perfect marriage of form and content, where the montage, cinematography, music, and performance came together to create a stirring representation of its subject.

Indeed, Ford employs a sparse, unassuming style in his tale of a young, plainspoken Illinois lawyer, never drawing attention itself, rather serving to focus on the man himself. Much like Lincoln, Ford's film plays its cards close to the vest, seemingly unadorned and modest, yet packing an immense intellect and sly emotional power.

Set years before the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, and long before he became president, Young Mr. Lincoln is a fictionalized account of a murder trial, with Henry Fonda's Lincoln as a kind of prototypical Atticus Finch, a quiet hero standing up for two young men unjustly accused of killing a man who attacked them. The film is primarily a courtroom drama, one in which Lincoln charms the room with slyly cutting remarks against his opponent. He's a tall, ungainly man, whose humble demeanor belies a razor sharp intellect whirring beneath the surface. Ford also tweaks the myth of "Honest Abe," showing Lincoln blithely cheating in a game of tug-of-war, in which he jumps in to help the underdog team by tying their rope to a wagon. Lincoln was a man of strong moral fiber, but he wasn't above resorting to less than scrupulous tactics as long as justice was done.

It would make a fascinating double feature with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, showcasing the man at the beginning and the end, Lincoln before the legend, and Lincoln after. Fonda's Lincoln has not yet become the historical figure we all know. He's real, down to earth, grounded in moral certitude, yet searching for the direction he will take. Ford hints at Lincoln's future, most explicitly in the portentous final shot of the future president walking into a storm. His camera admires him without exalting him, placing him alone, apart from his surroundings, even from lower angles so as to accentuate his height. Clearly this is a great man, but we don't know it yet, and neither does he. That's the beauty of Young Mr. Lincoln; it captures greatness in transition. And while the incident that gives the film its plot never actually happened, it exudes the essence of a man finding the compass that will guide him for the rest of his life.

As Eisenstein pointed out, Ford would go on to make grander, greater films. But none were quite so discreetly powerful as Young Mr. Lincoln. It's one of his most assured, accomplished works, an expertly crafted slice of Americana that portrays our nation, not necessarily as it is or was, but as it was always meant to be.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring film scholar Joseph McBride (Searching for John Ford: A Life) 
  • Omnibus: “John Ford,” part one: filmmaker Lindsay Anderson’s profile of the life and work of director John Ford before World War II 
  • Talk show appearance by actor Henry Fonda from 1975 Audio interviews from the seventies with Ford and Fonda, conducted by the director’s grandson Dan Ford 
  • Academy Award radio dramatization of the film 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an homage to Ford by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein 
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN | Directed by John Ford | Stars Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Arleen Whelan, Eddie Collins, Pauline Moore | Now available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

From The Dispatch:

“The Post” quietly lauds good old fashioned American values. It’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” for 2017, except this time, Mr. Smith is wearing a skirt and heels. It also gives us hope for the future; at a time when journalism is under constant attack, it reminds us of the power of the truth, and its calamitous effect on those in power who would attempt to keep it from the people. In that regard, “The Post” feels like the movie of the moment, taking a hard look at our own time through the lens of the past. It’s one of Spielberg’s most potent and pointed films in recent memory.

Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Having not seen the previous three Insidious films, I intentionally avoided watching them before seeing the franchise's fourth installment, Insidious: The Last Key, to see if it managed to hold up on its own. Surprisingly, the answer is yes, which is all the more shocking considering that the film was released in January, usually a dumping ground for substandard horror product that the studios would rather bury.

Set in 2010, just before the events of the first film, The Last Key focuses on Lin Shaye's paranormal investigator, Elise Rainier, previously a supporting character but now elevated to lead role. Rainier is called in to investigate yet another haunting, this time in her childhood house (she refuses to call it a home), where she first learned she had psychic abilities. Returning to the place where it all began forces her to confront her past, her abusive father's painful impact on her life, and the demon that has tormented her family for nearly 60 years.

The most striking thing about The Last Key is its use of silence. Director Adam Robitel, whose only previous directing credit is a little-seen found footage horror film from 2014 called The Taking of Deborah Logan, displays a keen understanding for what scares people. The film does rely on jump scares, as so many other modern horror films do, but they seem to flow naturally from the story. These aren't the usual fake-outs accompanied by stabs of music on the soundtrack. They almost always come out of complete silence at moments when they are least expected. The prevalence of silence, free of unnecessary sound design or electronic bass rumbling designed to create artificial suspense, gives the film a consistently unnerving atmosphere, so that when the scares do come, they feel earned, offering a much needed break in the tension. It's a bold move for a mainstream horror film, but it pays off.

Where the film falters, however, is in Leigh Whannell's screenplay, which relies far too heavily on awkward comic relief courtesy of Rainier's two bumbling assistants, Specks (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who spend much of the movie creepily leering at Ranier's young nieces. Those scenes stand in such stark contrast to the rest of the film, and that their gross advances ultimately pay off feels incongruous to the #MeToo consciousness of 2018.

When it's focused on the spooky stuff, however, the film mostly works. The prominent presence of locations and characters in the film's advertising that are nowhere to be found in the finished product betray heavy post-production tinkering, but one can't help but wonder if it isn't for the better. Robitel seems to understand that the scariest things are in our imaginations, and he lets the audience fill in the blanks ourselves for most of the running time, cleverly playing on childhood fears of dark rooms and things that go bump in the night. But by the time all the ghosts come out to play for the film's climax, it all feels like a bit of a letdown, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, before directly leading into the events of the original Insidious.

The good news is that one need have no prior connection to these characters to feel for them, and the fact that a major Hollywood franchise is putting a woman in her 70s front and center is pretty remarkable. Shaye makes for a compelling heroine, refusing to be a victim and taking charge where men frequently fail, and her grounded and performance gives the film an emotional center. The Last Key is as much about confronting inner demons as real ones, coming to terms with a painful past in order to create a better future. Unfortunately, the real demons turn out to be less interesting than the figurative ones, and as they take center stage in the film's third act it loses much of its steam. Here, evil feeds off hate and can only be defeated with love, which is a nice sentiment but one that doesn't quite get the spotlight it deserves, leading to an emotional coda that doesn't quite feel earned. Nevertheless, it's much than a January horror film really ought to be (especially as the fourth film in an eight year old franchise), which makes it something of a pleasant surprise. Robitel shows great promise as a filmmaker, and with a stronger script could potentially become a real force to be reckoned with.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY | Directed by Adam Robitel | Stars Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Tessa Ferrer | Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

A troupe of Polish actors get caught up in espionage and intrigue when the Nazis invade Poland in Ernst Lubitsch's delightful wartime screwball comedy, To Be or Not to Be. Perhaps not as pointed as it could be, given that it was released right after the US entered World War II, making its subject a difficult one for comedy, but Lubitsch's fabled magic touch is on full display here. The set-up and repeated punchlines of the recurring gags are all aces, and Lubitsch even manages to pull the heartstrings (a recurring motif involving Shakespeare's "if you prick us, do we not bleed" speech from The Merchant of Venice is especially poignant) while giving audiences permission to laugh during a very dark period in our history.

The idea of a Jewish filmmaker and crew lampooning the Nazis feels especially heroic and subversive for the time, using The Merchant of Venice as its rallying cry, but Lubitsch keeps the proceedings moving along with its rapid-fire sense of humor, and its healthy skewering of pomposity of all kinds, be it harmless (self-absorbed actors), or deadly (self-styled gods).

To Be or Not to Be is now streaming on Filmstruck.

Friday, January 05, 2018

From The Dispatch:
Cooper riffs on John Ford's The Searchers in a minor key, filling Hostiles with sweeping vistas that recall the grand Monument Valley locations that graced so many classic westerns. On the other hand, there is something colder here, a societal rot at its core, an idea that an America built on such violence cannot ever fully heal. Yet all is not without hope. The film ends on a beautifully understated question mark, a kind of inversion of The Searchers' iconic final shot in which John Wayne, no longer welcome in this brave new world, stands silhouetted by a dark door frame. Perhaps this truly is no country for old men, perhaps the old ways of thinking must die. What civilized world would have a place for a man like Blocker anyway?
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

By the time Otto Preminger's courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder has come to an end, the audience understands the verdict, but we're not quite sure we agree with it. That's the beauty of Preminger's fierce, uncompromising exploration of the American legal system, which presents two equally plausible scenarios for the crime in question, effectively turning the audience into the jury.

We root for Jimmy Stewart because, well he's Jimmy Stewart. We root against George C. Scott's belligerent prosecuting attorney because of the way he bullies the witnesses. Yet, the facts that he presents are nevertheless compelling. That's the brilliance of Anatomy of a Murder, it forces us to take into account things that we may not have otherwise considered. Are our perceptions of the case colored by how likable the attorneys are? Are we influenced, perhaps, by factors beyond the facts presented in the case? Preminger, who himself held a law degree, understood that a trial is merely theatre by another name, and the way in which cases are presented are often just as important as the facts themselves. When Stewart leads a witness to present opinions that the jury is then ordered not to take into account, his client asks him: "how can they disregard something they've already heard?" With a glint in his eye, Stewart deadpans: "They can't."

Preminger constantly holds his cards close to the chest, never letting on what actually happened, while bucking Production Code standards with frank discussions of rape, panties, and sperm. Instead, he lets the sparring attorneys pull the audiences this way and that, holding us in their thrall for nearly 3 hours right up until the very end. In fact, the actual verdict is almost treated as an afterthought. Ultimately, the verdict here doesn't matter. The decision reached by the jury makes sense; it fits the facts presented. Yet even in that moment of supposed clarity, the nagging thought remains - so does the alternative.

Now streaming on Filmstruck through Jan. 21, 2018!

From The Dispatch:
“All the Money in the World” isn’t just a great film, but Christopher Plummer, who replaced a disgraced Kevin Spacey at the 11th hour, turns in a tremendous performance, made all the more impressive by the fact that he had only mere days to create the character and film his scenes. Much of the talk surrounding the film will likely center on this, and rightfully so, because what Scott and Plummer have achieved here is nothing short of a minor miracle. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that not only is Plummer’s performance as J. Paul Getty a thing of dark beauty, “All the Money in the World” is also one of Scott’s strongest films in years.
Click here to read my full review.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is now playing in theaters everywhere!

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

If ever there was a role tailor made for Katherine Hepburn, it was Tracy Lord in George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story. An imperious socialite with glamor to spare, Lord is a sparkling, strong-willed creation that could only have flown from the mind of Hepburn. And indeed, she spent a great deal of time developing the character with playwright Philip Barry before originating the role on Broadway. Lord is her's through and through, the quintessential Hepburn character; wealthy, beautiful, sassy, and very much used to getting her way.

Things don't quite go the way she expects, however. On the eve of her wedding to George Kittredge (John Howard), her ex-husband, Dexter (Cary Grant), is sent by "Spy" magazine to cover the "wedding of the century," along with unscrupulous photographers, Macaulay (James Stewart) and Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey).  Dexter has a plan to win Tracy back, but his plans go hilariously awry when too many glasses of champagne lead Tracy and Macaulay down the primrose path of love. Caught between three men, Tracy must decide if she wants to be loved as an object to be admired, a goddess on a pedestal, or simply as herself, apart from the facade she so carefully built up.

The Philadelphia Story is a constant delight, a witty and mannered screwball comedy taken from a sharp script by Donald Ogden Stewart. Hepburn fought hard for this film, and it shows. While I've always preferred Howard Hawks' more energetic Bringing Up Baby (1938) the film was a flop upon its release, and The Philadelphia Story was the vehicle designed to return Hepburn's star power to its former glory. The gamble worked, and she was no longer considered box office poison after its success.

Of course, what really sells it are the performances. While Grant had top billing (a concession by Hepburn that helped convince him to take the role), he cedes the spotlight to Hepburn and Stewart, slyly stepping back with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye. Stewart won his only Oscar for his work as Macaulay Conner, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with a healthy distrust of the upper class. His drunken scene with Hepburn is the film's comic highlight, and it simply glistens with understated wit and innuendo. Cukor was a master when it came to upper crust wordplay (see also Dinner at Eight), and what makes his pictures truly sing is how he subverts upper class societal conventions without making them a target for ridicule. It's a delicate balancing act, but he pulls it off beautifully. The result is one of cinema's most dazzling comedies, a whirlwind of breathless wordplay and effortlessly beguiling performances whose charms haven't faded in the nearly 80 years since its original release. It has also never looked more beautiful than it does on Criterion's new Blu-Ray, where its crisp black and white cinematography really pops. It's a sharp transfer that never loses its filmic luster, making it the best presentation the film has seen to date.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY | Directed by George Cukor | Stars Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, Mary Nash, John Halliday ,Roland Young, John Howard | Not rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The North Carolina Film Critics Association, an organization I have been a member of for several years, revealed its 2017 award winners today, with Jordan Peele's Get Outtaking home awards for Best Narrative Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Click here to see the full list of nominees.

Get Out




Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)

War for the Planet of the Apes

Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)


Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)


Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water)

Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)


Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist)
Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game)

This award recognizes a film, artists, or performer with a special connection to North Carolina. In 2017, the Tar Heel Award was dedicated to long time North Carolina film critic Ken Hanke.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (the studio drama was filmed in part in North Carolina).

Monday, January 01, 2018

The racial politics of Sayonara, which were quite progressive in 1957, may not have aged particularly well by 2017 standards (hello yellow-face Ricardo Montalban), but it's hard to deny that its heart was in the right place. In fact, its tale of interracial romance still feels a bit revolutionary. While such things are more commonplace now, if the past year has taught us anything it's that we haven't come nearly as far as we thought.

Marlon Brando stars as Major Lloyd Gruver, a southern-fried career Air Force officer who decides to take some leave time from flying combat mission in the Korean War in Kobe, Japan. There, he discovers that one of his men, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons, in his Oscar-winning film debut), is planning on marrying a Japanese woman named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki, also taking home an Academy Award) that he met while stationed there. Gruver objects to the union, and American military policy at the time discouraged such unions without outright forbidding them, although American GIs were not allowed to bring their Japanese wives back to the States with them.

Despite his objections, Kelly convinces Gruver to be his best man, and the more time he spends around the couple, the more he begins to understand how their intense love trumped the social mores of the time. He begins to realize that his own relationship with his girlfriend, Eileen (Patricia Owens), feels less like passion and more like obligation to duty. Gruver, the son of a four-star general who has always stuck to the rules, soon finds himself in love with Hana-Ogi (the magisterial Miiko Taka), a Japanese Matsubayashi performer who is forbidden from consorting with men. Together, the two face prejudice on both sides, from an American military rife with racial prejudice, and a strict Japanese culture that still does not trust the Americans in the aftermath of WWII.

Sayonara was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (winning four, for Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, and Sound), and remains a sumptuous Hollywood production of the highest order. Brando is fantastic, as always, changing his character from James Michener's novel to be southern, strengthening the message about racial equality because a southern man saw the error of his ways. It's a surprisingly respectful depiction of Japanese culture (Montalban's yellow-face performance aside), treating its characters with dignity and its subject matter with the seriousness it deserves.

Yet It never comes off like a preachy "issue movie." Brando's intensity betrays the vulnerability of a man whose entire social order comes crashing down in the name of love. He and Taka create a memorable pair of star crossed lovers, and Buttons was never better than he was here; quiet, unassuming, yet steely, determined to marry the woman he loves no matter the cost. Beautifully shot in striking Technicolor by Ellsworth Fredericks (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who memorably captures the haunting grandeur of post-war Japan, Sayonara is a sweeping Hollywood epic whose focus remains disarmingly intimate. The world may have moved on from its more simple take on race relations, but it's still startling relevant today. This is Golden Age studio filmmaking at its best, featuring memorable characters, grand scale set design, and lush cinematography, but it's all in service of a strong and resonant story, made even more so by a cast of world class actors on the top of their game. It's an overlooked gem from the era that's ripe for rediscovery.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SAYONARA | Directed by Joshua Logan | Stars Marlon Brando, Miyoshi Umeki, Red Buttons, Ricardo Montalban, Miiko Taka, Martha Scott, James Garner, Kent Smith | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time