Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For better or worse, here are my final predictions for this Sunday's 90th Academy Awards. Click here to read my full write-up in The Dispatch.

Best Picture

Prediction: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Preference: “Call Me By Your Name”

Best Director

Prediction: Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water”
Preference: Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”

Best Actor

Prediction: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Preference: Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name"

Best Actress

Prediction/Preference: Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Best Supporting Actor

Prediction: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Preference: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”

Best Supporting Actress

Prediction: Alison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Preference: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”

Best Adapted Screenplay

Prediction/Preference: James Ivory, “Call Me By Your Name”

Best Original Screenplay

Prediction: Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Preference: Greta Gerwig, “Lady Bird”

Best Original Score

Prediction: Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water”
Preference: Hans Zimmer, “Dunkirk”

Best Original Song

Prediction/Preference: “Remember Me” from “Coco”

Best Cinematography

Prediction: “The Shape of Water”
Preference: “Blade Runner 2049”

Best Production Design

Prediction: “The Shape of Water”
Preference: “Blade Runner 2049”

Best Costume Design

Prediction/Preference: “Phantom Thread”

Best Makeup & Hair

Prediction: “Darkest Hour”
Preference: “Wonder”

Best Film Editing

Prediction/Preference: “Dunkirk”

Best Sound Mixing

Prediction/Preference: “Dunkirk”

Best Sound Editing

Prediction/Preference: “Dunkirk”

Best Visual Effects

Prediction/Preference: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Best Animated Feature

Prediction/Preference: "Coco"

Best Foreign Language Film

Prediction: “A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
Preference: “Loveless” (Russia)

Best Documentary

Prediction: “Last Men in Aleppo”
Preference: “Faces Places”

Best Live Action Short

Prediction: “Watu Wote (All of Us)”
Preference: “DeKalb Elementary”

Best Animated Short

Prediction: “Dear Basketball”
Preference: “Lou”

Best Documentary Short

Prediction/Preference: “Edith+Eddie”

The 90th Annual Academy Awards will air this Sunday, March 4, on ABC. Check your local listings.

Family dysfunction and monstrous mothers have been with us almost since the beginning of the performing arts. From the original bad mama of Greek theatre, Medea, to her more modern counterparts like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, and Violet Weston in August: Osage County, the arts have been long obsessed with dealing with mommy issues.

Perhaps one of the most unfairly overlooked entries into this subgenre of cinematic drama is The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Paul Zindel, the film was directed by Paul Newman and starred his wife, Joanne Woodward and their daughter, Elinor (credited here as Nell Potts). Woodward is Beatrice Hunsdorfer, the indomitable mother figure of the story, who drowns her sorrows with alcohol and resorts to unusual means to try to provide for her children, Ruth (Roberta Wallach, daughter of Eli) and Matilda (Potts). Ruth, the oldest, is a typical teenager, content to laugh at all things serious and roll her eyes at her embarrassing mother, whom she resembles more than she is willing to admit. Matilda, however, is a precociously intelligent child, forsaking usual childhood activities for science projects on which she spends most of her time.

Her latest experiment is about the effects of radiation on marigolds, which either flourish or wilt under the extreme conditions, much like the children in the play, always under the extreme radiation of their volatile mother. Beatrice, who has long cultivated a reputation for eccentricity in their town, is constantly attempting self-reinvention, buying wigs and taking on new jobs, including taking in elderly patients into her home for extra cash. Yet she barely has time to take care of herself, let alone her children, let alone the elderly woman left in her charge. She spends her days insisting that one day she's going to clean house and give her children a better life, instead she ignores their most basic needs, as both of them are forced to forge ahead in life without her.

Newman and Woodward snapped up the rights to Zindel's play after seeing it on Broadway. Most of Newman's films as a director were family affairs (although this marks the only screen performance of his daughter, Elinor, who later went on to found Newman's Own), and the connection between the filmmaker and his cast makes the film's familial themes all the more profound. Zindel based the play on his own life, an in Newman's capable hands, the story unfolds with great narrative economy and unassuming staging. Newman wisely gets out of Woodward's way, who delivers a tour-de-force performance that remains one of the most fully realized and painfully destructive mothers in cinematic history. Yet Woodward never plays Beatrice as a monster. Her heart is in the right place, but she can't seem to get out of her own way. Beatrice is a woman ill-equipped to raise children, and her consistent failure as a mother begin to weight not only on her children, but on her as well.

Newman was not a flashy director, and remains most well known for his acting. But there is an almost Cassavetes-like efficiency to his craft, displaying a rough-hewn emotional honesty that lingers through Woodward's balance of rage and vulnerability, and a sensitive screenplay by Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People). Long unavailable on home video, Twilight Time's new limited edition Blu-Ray brings the film back to life, capturing the beautiful drabness of the cinematography by Adam Holender (Midnight Cowboy). The rediscovery of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is long overdue, so that it can finally be recognized for the towering work that it is.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS | Directed by Paul Newman | Stars  Joanne Woodward, Roberta Wallach, Judith Lowry, Nell Potts, David Spielberg, Richard Venture, Carolyn Coates | Rated PG | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jeff VanderMeer's "Annihilation," the first book in his "Southern Reach Trilogy," is arguably one of the most profound works of literary science fiction of the last 20 years. It's a mesmerizing, almost abstract tale of five women who venture into a mysterious region known as Area X, which has become enveloped in a strange, shimmering barrier from which no one has returned.

Rather that creating a strict adaptation of VanderMeer's challenging novel, director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) instead uses it as a jumping-off point to create his own story with its own unique aims. There's plenty of overlap, but Garland isn't content with merely adapting the book, he wants to forge his own path.

In the film version of Annihilation, Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) went on a covert mission for the military and never returned. A year later, however, he comes back somehow...different. Upon further investigation, she discovers that he is the only person to have come back from the top secret Area X, an ever expanding barrier radiating from the site of a meteor crash. With her husband near death, Lena volunteers to join the latest team heading into "The Shimmer" to discover the truth about its origins. Along the way, they encounter strange hybrid creatures, and a creeping sense of madness. Something isn't quite right inside Area X, and soon they discover the dark truth about the previous expedition, and begin to consider that perhaps they are doomed to suffer the same grisly fate.

Annihilation asks a lot of questions, then doggedly refuses to answer any of them. There's something quite admirable about the way it builds its world of mystery, building toward a conclusion that neither resolves its story or offers any answers that may explain what we just saw. Garland expertly builds a sense of dread, setting the audience on edge in a strange and alien world without the comfort of a traditional narrative to hang onto. This is not an easy film, nor does it try to be. It uses a truly brilliant score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury that sounds like melody being refracted through a prism, much as the Shimmer refracts DNA in the film. It's at once beautiful and hostile, moving and terrifying, familiar and alienating, and it feels as if we're watching something on screen that we have truly never seen before.

Garland eschews some of the novel's more abstract elements, but fully embraces them by the film's climax, exploring concepts of human identity through Lena's own struggle to know who she really is. Annihilation takes its cues from Tarkovsky's sci-fi masterpiece, Stalker, and while it never operates on a level that high, its fascinating to see how Garland riffs on Tarkovsky in a more modern, minor key. Stalker was a film about a mysterious contained area as well, and Annihilation conjures some of the same feelings of dread. But Tarkovsky was asking big questions that Garland never really asks. Instead, he creates a beautifully crafted conundrum of a film filled with portent and wonder that isn't necessarily saying anything profound, but is nonetheless fascinating to contemplate.

Modern science-fiction is rarely brave enough to put so much of the work in the hands of its audience. Yet Annihilation acts as a kind of cinematic Rorschach blot, open to interpretation with many different equally intriguing possibilities to contemplate. What, exactly, happened in Area X? What is the shimmer, and what is the mysterious being they discover at its center? Garland never tells; rather than offer pat answers that would likely not be nearly as satisfying as what we conjure in our mind, he instead allows us to draw our own conclusions. It doesn't always work, but what makes Annihilation such a daring work is that it is a major studio release that doesn't feel like it needs to hold its audience's hand. Instead, it takes us into a whole new world and abandons us to our own devices, making for a cinematic experience that is as compelling as it is frustrating.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ANNIHILATION | Directed by Alex Garland | Stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong | Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Howard Hughes' western, The Outlaw, gained infamy for its graphic violence and liberal display of Jane Russell's cleavage. It may seem tame now, but in 1943, it certainly pushed the envelope for what could be shown on screen. Naturally, it was a smash hit, and Russell became a household name. But Hughes was never much of a filmmaker, he was a wealthy man with big ideas and expensive toys, but rarely did that translate into anything more than the man trying to one-up himself on screen.

Even the presence of Howard Hawkes as co-director can't save Hughes from himself. The Outlaw is a tonal mess, retelling the oft-told tale of Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) as a buddy comedy gone wrong, with Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) as the go-between who falls out with Garrett over his newfound friendship with Billy. Things become further complicated by Rio McDonald (Russell), Holliday's go-to girl, who falls in love with Billy while he's convalescing from a gunshot wound in her home. Things get hot and heavy, and and the entire powder keg threatens to blow when Holliday discovers their secret affair. With Holliday, Garrett, and Billy on three sides, Rio finds herself caught in the middle between three of the Wild West's most legendary figures. But only one can come out alive, and only one can win the girl.

Hughes essentially takes the legend and has his own way with it, filling the film with gunfights and barely concealed innuendos that both outraged and titillated (no pun intended) audiences of the time. It's easy to see why Russell became a star, but The Outlaw is a surprisingly week film, leaning too hard on comedic banter between Garrett and Holliday to really be the epic, serious western it clearly wants to be. Holliday is an almost goofy figure, comically detached and aloof, while Garrett is a bumbling fool and Billy a handsome lothario. It's a strange mix that makes for a confused film.

There's one great sequence in which the heroes are chased across the desert by a band of indians. Hughes shoots the film with a terrific eye for scope (one can't help but feel the hand of Hawkes guiding him here), and the practical effects are impressive even by today's standards. When Holliday tries to intimidate Billy by shooting off part of his ear, it looks shockingly real.

Yet its technical prowess can't make up for its uneven direction and scattershot tone. The leads are all capable but none of them seem to be acting in the same movie, as if Hughes couldn't decide what movie he really wanted to make. The film hasn't been treated well by time. Besides the awkward performances, the film itself has worn down, and the new 2K restoration on the new Kino Blu-Ray can't really save its often faded images. It may have made Russell a major sex symbol, but its charms, much like its picture, has been dimmed by the ravages of time, its edge sanded down by shifting mores and the end of the Production Code.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE OUTLAW | Directed by Howard Hughes | Stars Jane Russell, Jack Buetel, Thomas Mitchell, Walter Huston | Available Feb. 27, 2018 on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Of all the short film categories, this year's crop of Best Documentary Short Subject nominees is by far the strongest.  They are by turns tragic and uplifting, each offering a unique insight into the best and worst of humanity. All five films are moving and personal tales of love, strength, and quiet heroism, each offering something unique to say about the world we live in. They provide hope, pain, and above all, a unique insight into their own particular corners of the world. All five of these films are not only worthy of their nominations, but would make worthy winners as well.

Edith+Eddie | Laura Checkoway | USA

Laura Checkoway's Edith+Eddie is a truly heartbreaking film about an elderly couple who are torn apart by a family feud that leaves them victims of a heartless system. 96-year-old Edith and 95-year-old Eddie meet while playing the lottery and get married soon after. But a rift in their family leads to Edith's power of attorney being given to a caseworker who has never met her, and believes Edith to be incapable of making her own decisions, robbing her of her agency and Eddie of his wife.

It's a wrenching portrait of a soulless system designed to protect people that ends up doing the exact opposite, ripping the couple apart and denying them the happiness that they so recently found. It's a devastating work, but one that begs for human compassion in the face of casual bureaucratic cruelty, where human beings become little more than statistics on a page. Edith and Eddie are two of the year's most indelible screen heroes, and Checkoway's camera is there for all of it, capturing every painful moment of their story, opening up myriad questions about justice in a system that refuses to acknowledge the basic humanity of the elderly. "You will remember this till the day you die!" Eddie shouts at the heartless guardian who takes Edith away from him. And we will.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 | Frank Stiefel | USA

The healing power of art is explored through the life of Mindy Alper, whose mental disorders, anxiety, and depression resulted from a lifetime of abuse. Through her work, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 paints a wrenching portrayal of mental illness, where art is born from unspeakable paint, offering a window into the singular mind of a broken woman who manages to find a kind of peace in the deeply personal nature of her art.

Her drawings and sculptures are works of great compassion and tenderness, providing a way of communication with the world that she can't quite bring herself to express in words. Alper is a fascinating figure, often incapable of understanding social conventions or motivations, but her work belies a disarming awareness of human emotion. Calling a film "life-affirming" has become something of a cliche, but this one truly is. Art can heal, but it can also communicate that which cannot be said.  Rarely has that been so beautifully and memorably articulated than here.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Heroin(e) | Elaine McMillion Sheldon | USA

Elaine McMillion Sheldon's Heroin(e) follows three women on the forefront of the fight against heroin addiction in Huntington, West Virginia, which has one of the highest overdose rates in the United States. One, a firefighter leading the charge to modernize the city's overdose response capabilities, the second a compassionate citizen who ministers to prostitutes, and the third a kind but firm judge who oversees a drug court rehab program. All three are swimming against the tide of the ever-rising overdose rates, but each making a dent in their own way, touching hopelessly addicted drug users and turning lives around one at a time.

Heroin(e) is a genuinely touching film, quietly celebrating three unsung heroes, each determined to do their part to solve a major problem in their town. Fred Rogers once said “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” In Heroin(e), Sheldon has found three helpers, three unassuming yet extraordinary women who are perfect examples of the old adage that not all heroes wear capes.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Knife Skills | Thomas Lennon | USA

Every year thousands of inmates are released into society to rebuild broken lives, almost always without any kind of safety net. Edwin's Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio seeks to change that, hiring recently released inmates into its culinary training program and employing them as chefs, waiters, and hosts. They, they not only learn the art of fine French cuisine, but life skills to get them back on their feet.

Knife Skills is a powerful and uplifting look at life after prison, and the importance of rehabilitation and second chances. Brandon Edwin Chrostowski, the founder of Edwin's, himself a man with a haunted past, has created a kind of haven for the troubled and the lost, helping them build a brighter future by believing in them when society has left them behind. In a year filled with bleak documentaries about the darkest of humanity, Knife Skills has the power to rekindle hope for the future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Traffic Stop | Kate Davis | USA

In 2015, elementary school teacher Breaion King was pulled over for speeding in Austin, Texas. The seemingly routine encounter soon turned violent as the officer yanks her out of her car and throws her to the ground, arresting her for resisting an arrest that wasn't even happening when he assaulted her.

Traffic Stop juxtaposes the assault with scenes from King's daily life, demonstrating the normal positivity of her personality. This allows the filmmakers to show just what a disruption of her life the event really was. While she didn't end up dead like many people of color who have been in similar situations, the film paints a grim portrait of how an event like this can happen to anyone, especially people of color. It's a harrowing work, one that paints a grim portrait of casual racism and unnecessary police violence, and how a single encounter can reverberate through a person's entire life.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now playing in select theaters. Traffic Stop is available to stream on HBO, and Heroin(e) is available to stream on Netflix. For a list of theaters, visit

Saturday, February 24, 2018

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. The Sensory Ethnography Lab is responsible for some of the most powerful experimental documentaries of the last decade, releasing films like Sweetgrass, Leviathan, and Manakamana that boldly push the boundaries of the medium. El Mar La Mar is no different, eschewing talking heads and traditional interviews to weave an impressionistic vision of the desert through its local folklore and harrowing tales of human suffering.

Discarded clothes and other personal items, faded and overgrown with plant life, dot the landscape and serve as grim reminders of the men and women who have attempted to make the perilous journey, many of whom never made it to their destination. Here, the Sonoran Desert is like a graveyard of the American dream, home to the bodies of untold numbers who set out across it in search of a better life. Sniadecki and Bonnetta's camera lingers over these objects, the 16mm images like ghosts reaching through the screen. The voices of locals tell their stories, eerie legends of 15 foot tall monsters said to roam the desert, wrenching tales of the dead and dying, of the nonchalance of border patrol agents, of the goodness of strangers who leave water in stations across the sand.

El Mar La Mar (which translates to The Sea, The Sea...) plays out like a horror film, its grainy cinematography hauntingly capturing the sun slowly disappearing behind the mountains, while bats swirl around in caves and flashlights play over the dry desert underbrush. Sniadecki and Bonnetta, working as a two-man team, conjure an atmosphere of loneliness and desolation. We truly feel the isolation of the desert, its craggy peaks and endless horizon beyond a sea of sand becoming a metaphor for the hardships of achieving the promise of freedom on the other side.

The film's greatest tragedy is that we know what awaits them across that desert - more economic hardship, prejudice, abuse, mistrust, a growing xenophobia that punishes those seeking the American dream, much like our own Anglo-American ancestors did so many years ago. Sniadecki and Bonnetta don't say that in so many words, but its truth hangs heavy over the film. You can almost hear the jeering chants of "build the wall" echoing in the distance. Yet for all the rhetoric we hear about illegal immigration, we rarely hear about the plight these immigrants face, and the dangers they are willing to tackle in order to have a fighting chance at a better life.

El Mar La Mar seeks to recreate that experience, and the results are something truly harrowing. 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.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

EL MAR LA MAR | Directed by J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta | Not Rated | Now playing at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Mainstream comedies have become so homogenous and self-referential that it's increasingly rare to see one that so gleefully charts its own path as John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein's Game Night. Daley and Goldstein, whose only previous feature credit is 2015's National Lampoon reboot, Vacation, take an outlandish premise and turn it into comedy gold simply by playing it straight.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) love games. Their competitive spirit leads them to meet and fall in love at a trivia competition at a local bar, and the two eventually get married and begin hosting weekly game nights at their home with their friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen). Their idyllic weekly meetings are interrupted, however, by the arrival of Max's overachieving brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who invites everyone over to his place for a game night to end all game nights.

Upon arrival, they discover that he has arranged a fake kidnapping from a novelty party company called Murder We Wrote, in which one of the partygoers will be kidnapped, and clues left behind for the others to solve. The winner takes home Brooks' flashy new car, which just happens to be the car that Max has always dreamed of. Having always lived in his brother's shadow, Max is determined to win the car and finally show Brooks up. But when Brooks is kidnapped by actual kidnappers, the night suddenly goes from carefree game night to deadly race for survival. The only problem is that none of the players realize it's no longer a game, and continue to play as if it's all in fun.

Game Night succeeds because it treats everything happening around its characters seriously, right down to the brooding score by Cliff Martinez (Drive, The Neon Demon). The stakes are high, the situation is dire, but the comedy comes from the characters having no idea that any of it is real. It plays like an actual crime thriller populated by happy-go-lucky amateurs, leading to a series of twists and turns that are by turns predictable and completely surprising. It's refreshing to see a film, especially a comedy, that manages to keep the audience guessing. And while not every joke lands, the film is held together by a thoroughly gung-ho cast that manages to create indelible characters out of even the most generic of roles. The leads all nail their fish-out-of-water roles with just the right amount of amused detachment from the proceedings, keeping things light even when the film takes dark turns, so that the central joke never wears out its welcome.

Part mob thriller, part gross-out comedy, Game Night manages to deliver heart-pounding action and big laughs in almost equal measure. There's even a single-take action sequence at the film's climax that stands toe-to-toe with anything in John Wick and Atomic Blonde. It's a giddy genre pastiche with a deliciously dark sense of humor that feels both fresh and spontaneous without a need for any self-congratulatory irony, which by any measure is an unfortunately rare quality in any genre these days.  That makes Game Night something of an unusual commodity, and while it may not be destined to become a comedy classic, it has energy and verve to spare, operating with a sense of comic anarchy that is hard to resist.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GAME NIGHT | Directed by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein | Stars Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemons, Jeffrey Wright, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan, Danny Huston, Michael C. Hall | Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence | Opens today, Feb. 23, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

As a general rule, I've never really warmed to rotoscope animation. This technique of transposing animated figures over actual, filmed people has a somewhat distancing, disorienting effect, as in the drug-induced haze of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. And yet, though I understand its purpose in certain applications, it's never been a style that I've particularly enjoyed watching.

In Tehran Taboo, the first feature film by animator Ali Soozandeh, I didn't feel the disconnect between image and theme that I have so often detected in rotoscoped films. In fact, it seems to be an integral part of the film's thematic core. The film is a collection of interconnecting stories set in the Iranian capital of Tehran, each representing the sexual hypocrisy of the repressive nation's patriarchal, theocratic society. A prostitute pleasures a man in a car who soon becomes enraged when he sees his daughter holding hands with a man in public. A young man desperately tries to procure a procedure to restore the hymen of a one night stand so she can still be a virgin for her violent fiancé.  A woman whose husband is in prison cannot get a job without her husband's written permission. Another woman is threatened with execution for having a secret abortion. And yet men can procure sex whenever they want, while punishing women for the same thing. 

The characters may be fictional, but the rotoscoping seems as if it is somehow protecting the innocent, hiding the identities of the people it  represents under an animated veneer. Its subjects are trapped in a an animated nightmare that vaguely resembles reality, yet feels somehow off, as if it is always one step removed from the real world. It is a world controlled by archaic sexual mores dictated by a patriarchal regime that dehumanizes women. In this world, women are mere objects, paintings to be kept and hung upon a wall. The film’s style reflects that distance between physical human reality and Iranian society’s strange objectification of femininity as something both deeply desirable and yet untouchable, a commodity to be owned, bought, or sold by men.

Soozandeh makes striking use of the color red as a kind of scarlet letter for the women trapped by the libidos of men, who wag their finger with one hand and force women to pleasure them with the other. Tehran Taboo has no patience with this kind of patriarchal hypocrisy, and turns a withering eye on those who would impose their restrictive religious convictions on others when they cannot follow them themselves. These double standards resonate beyond Iranian society, and the resulting film is somehow both rebellious and heartfelt, angry and mournful at the same time. It brazenly deconstructs the patriarchy while offering a forceful condemnation of sexual duplicity.

And lest we arrogantly assume this is only an Iranian or Islamic problem, Tehran Taboo reminds us that it is not, it's a universal abuse of privilege that must be snuffed out. In a world where women often pay for the mistakes of men who are unable to obey their own oppressive rules, no one can be truly free, subjugated under an impossible standard that both idealizes and robs women of their agency. And as observed through the eyes of the mute young son of a prostitute, the cycle seems doomed to continue, normalized through the "will of God." Under Soozandeh's knowing and fiery direction, Tehran Taboo becomes an intriguing and often exhilarating work, challenging social conventions and acknowledging their often devastating human toll.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TEHRAN TABOO | Directed by Ali Soozandeh | Stars Arash Marandi, Alireza Bayram, Siir Eloglu, Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, Klaus Ofczarek, Morteza Tavakoli | Not Rated | In Persian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

From The Dispatch:
Coogler has redefined the superhero genre into something both relevant and moving, refusing to shy away from African ancestry and tradition, imagining a world where African progress wasn’t stunted by colonial interference. Black Panther isn’t just fighting to save the world, or his home, he’s fighting for the right of his people to exist in a world that might not want to accept them. He’s a thoroughly modern hero, and in 2018 he has never felt more necessary. Representation matters, and “Black Panther” has given us a hero of color who has quickly established himself as one for the ages. It’s the most vibrant, exuberant and purely exhilarating Marvel film yet.
Click here to read my full review.

Black Panther is now playin in theaters nationwide!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In a world dominated by computer generated animation, the claymation artistry of Britain's Aardman studios feels like a vestige of a bygone era. Carefully constructed with clay figures, Aardman's films are filled with old fashioned ingenuity and hangdog charm. Early Man, their latest film from director Nick Park (Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), fits comfortably into their filmography, but it also feels a bit like Aardman on autopilot. The ingredients are there, but they don't always seem to add up.

The film takes us back in time to the stone age, where our hero, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), lives with his tribe in an idyllic valley. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the arrival of Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), the governor of a bronze age civilization who wants to mine the valley for its ore. So Dug challenges the bronze age football team to a match to save their valley. If the cavemen win, they get to return to their valley. If they lose, they will be slaves in the bronze age mine for the rest of their lives. There's only one problem, none of the cavemen have ever played football (or as we call it in America - soccer). So they enlist the help of Goona (Maisie Williams), a bronze age girl who dreams of playing football on the big pitch in a time when women aren't allowed.

It's a rather conventional story by Aardman standards, albeit set in an unconventional location. Park has some fun with the prehistoric setting (although I'm sure the blatant and often amusing historical inaccuracies would make Neil Degrasse Tyson apoplectic), creating a unique and fully realized world. The humor is more hit or miss here, mixing Aardman's trademark dry wit with more lowbrow slapstick humor that doesn't always work. It's a charmer, to be sure, but it doesn't seem to have the spark of other Aardman features like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep.

It's hard to resist their particular style. The visuals are impressive and the writing is often strong, occasionally hitting us with so many puns and subtle jokes at once that it's almost impossible to catch them all. It's a shame, then, that the rest of the film feels so conventional, relying on a more broad sense of humor that too often lacks Aardman's trademark visual drollery. Call it an Aardman-brand TV dinner - it gets the job done and entertains you at the time, but unlike many of their previous adventures, you may find that it doesn't stick with you in quite the same way. Early Man lacks the strong characters that have made the studio's work so indelible, leaving the audience hungry for something more substantial. It's refreshingly tactile, but ultimately comes up short when compared to the usually high Aardman standard.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

EARLY MAN | Directed by Nick Park | Stars Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Selina Griffiths | Rated PG for rude humor and some action | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ildikó Enyedi's On Body and Soul is a film as obfuscating as it is enrapturing, purposely holding its audience at arm's length while thrusting us into a world of at times profound lyricism and haunting quietude. The film centers around two co-workers at a slaughterhouse; Endre (Morcsányi Géza), an irritable, no-nonsense financial manager with few friends, and Mária (Alexandra Borbély) a socially awkward temp whose overly developed memory leads her to be painfully exact in her work.

Both are lonely souls, not really relating to anyone around them. Mária finds herself an object of ridicule at work, displaying an almost autistic inability to understand social cues and distaste for human contact, while the prickly Endre prefers to stay in his office, isolated from the rest of the business. At night, both go home alone and dream of a snowy forest where they appear as a deer foraging for food in the quiet wood. They soon discover that they are sharing the same dream, and what began as a seemingly random occurrence soon becomes a much deeper human connection. Each night, they meet each other as deer in those woods, sharing a connection they could never share during the day.

Things become complicated, however, when they try to carry their relationship over into their waking hours, as their own inherent awkwardness threatens to get in their way. And yet, each night, they are called back into their forest haven, where words and social conventions don't matter, giving them the chance to create something beyond their own abilities.

It's a beautiful idea, watching two people's social awkwardness fall away when the need for language and social convention falls away. As two deer in a snowy wood, Endre and Mária forge a connection beyond their own ability to articulate. Yet, by its very nature, the film is distancing because its characters are distancing. Its dream sequences feel nearly transcendent, taking the film beyond language and existing on a wholly different plane. The awkwardness of their waking relationship, however, remains very purposely frustrating. On the other hand, Géza and Borbély handle their characters well. It's refreshing to see such broken and imperfect characters take center stage in a love story like this. Both live on society's margins, neither is classically "beautiful," and yet in their dreams none of that matters.

What's so special about On Body and Soul is that these two introverted characters are never going to be very articulate. By its very nature there can never be any great verbal introspection or profound statements of love. And yet, the silence says more than any monologue ever could. It is occasionally alienating, even off-putting, but what these two souls find beyond their own bodies is something deeply beautiful indeed. Enyedi has crafted an unusual love story that's not quite like anything else I've ever seen, an unspoken cry of loneliness that displays a deep understanding for those who don't quite fit in, who can't quite express their emotions, and finds a haunting and lyrical way to transcend those hangups and find a connection beyond human understanding.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ON BODY AND SOUL | Directed by Ildikó Enyedi | Stars  Alexandra Borbély, Morcsányi Géza, Réka Tenki, Ervin Nagy | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Tradition and modernity clash in John Trengove's The Wound, a film set in South Africa's Xhosa community during an annual rite of passage in which the young men of the village are circumcised during an eight day ritual. The film centers around Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caretaker tasked with helping, and who happens to be in love with one of the other caretakers.

What follows is an intricate and intimate exploration of masculinity as seen through a coming of age ritual meant to signal the beginning of manhood. The very idea of manhood is called into question, as both caretakers and initiates call into question the masculinity of those they suspect of homosexuality, while displaying a weak and toxic version of what it means to be a man.  Comes out and states its own theme in the end, which undercuts its power somewhat, musing aloud about a phallocentric culture ultimately placing too much emphasis on the penis and shallow notions of ritualistic masculinity, but what leads up to it is stirring and often quite powerful.

The titular wound is more than just a scar on the penis, but something much deeper in the soul. It's a fascinating world through which to examine the deep fragility of masculinity, and it does so with great emotional economy thanks to a strong central performance Touré, who imbues his character with a lifetime of regret.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE WOUND | Directed by John Trengove | Stars Nakhane Touré, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni, Gamelihle Bovana | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The five nominees for Best Animated Short Film this year could not be more different. There's a tale of sports heroism, a twisted fairy tale, a photorealistic design showcase set around a mob hit, a poetic ode to a deceased father, and of course, a Pixar tear-jerker. Five films, five disparate points of view, and five accomplished visions; some abstract, some experimenting with light and form, and some just great stories. Here are the five nominees for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film:

Dear Basketball | Glen Keane | USA

Kobe Bryant may be a better basketball player than he is a poet, but there's something very moving about his deeply personal ode to the sport that became his life in Glen Keane's DEAR BASKETBALL. Featuring Bryant himself reading his short poem, set to a triumphant score by none other than the legendary John Williams, Dear Basketball recounts young Kobe's wide-eyed childhood, obsessing over his favorite sport, and dreaming of one day growing up to be a professional basketball player. A dream which, as we all know, he grew up to achieve. Even if you're not a big sports fan (I, for one, am not), it's hard not to feel a lump in one's throat witnessing the childlike glee with which Bryant talks about his love for basketball, a sport that has given him so much. It unfolds like a love poem, an ecstatic celebration of a dream fulfilled.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Garden Party | Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro | France

I'm not sure I've ever seen an animated film as photorealistic as this. While it has no less than six credited directors, Garden Party doesn't really tell a story so much as showcase their incredible animation skills. Set in a house overrun with frogs and toads, the film follows their misadventures - looking for love, pigging out on leftovers - in their newfound home.

The film tells us little about why the house is abandoned, although it drops a few clues along the way (bullet holes in the glass, a phone off the hook, a surprise in the pool) that suggest a mob hit. But what makes it so wonderful is its stunning animation. It builds to an unexpected end, but the buildup is wonderfully disarming. It is a showcase of jaw-dropping animation that shows great promise for everyone involved.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Lou | Dave Mullins | USA

Items in a playground lost and found bin become sentient in Pixar's latest animated short, Lou, attached in theaters to Cars 3. The living items band together to stop a bully from stealing from other children on the playground. As as with most Pixar shorts, the film packs a lot of emotion into a short time frame, and while it isn't necessarily the emotional sucker punch that some of their finest shorts are, it's still a charming, anti-bullying PSA that manages to hit that sweet spot right between sweetness and sentimentality. It's the most emotionally incisive of the nominees, and the likely winner.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Negative Space | Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata | France

Based on a poem by Ron Koertge, Negative Space follows a young man mourning the death of his father, a man who always away on business, remembering him through the meticulous way he used to pack his suitcase.

There's something particularly haunting and lonely about this idea, brought full circle in the film's elegiac coda. It all feels a bit incomplete, never quite matching the abstract thoughts with particularly interesting imagery. But the final moment really hits home. A lovely but somewhat empty rumination.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Revolting Rhymes | Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer | UK

The uncle of the Big Bad Wolves from the stories of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood reveals his tragic story to a woman in a diner, recounting a friendship between Snow White and Little Red, and a lifelong quest for revenge.

Based on a story by Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes is the latest animated short from the Oscar nominated filmmakers behind The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It's a delightfully twisted take on the classic fairy tales, underscoring their inherent violence and the untold ramifications of their plots. Captures Dahl's singularly wicked charm with a wink and a nod to the darkness that permeates our most beloved stories.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

For a list of theaters showing this year's Oscar nominated short films, check out