Wednesday, March 28, 2018

From The Dispatch:
The kaiju battles themselves lack Del Toro’s colorful pop panache, but the film mostly suffers from plot holes big enough to drive a jaeger through. Much of the information gleaned by the characters comes from improbable sources that reek of a written-by-committee script (there are no less than four credited writers) that glosses over basic storytelling elements so the film can hurry up and get to the action.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Cinema Obscura is a new monthly feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover.

The Kazakh New Wave is perhaps one of the most unique and overlooked cinematic movements of the latter part of the 20th century. Emerging from the ashes of the failing Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, Kazakhstan proved to be fertile ground for young filmmakers exploring the complexities of newfound independence. These filmmakers openly challenged the establishment of Soviet thought and filmmaking standards that consisted mostly of historical epics that celebrated the communist ideal.

Yermek Shinarbayev's Revenge is perhaps the most well-regarded film to come from the Kazakh New Wave. Released in 1989, Revenge has all the trappings of a historical epic opening in ancient Korea in a royal court, where the King, after witnessing his young son run from a fight with another boy, decrees that the captain of his royal guard must toughen his son up into the greatest warrior in the land. If he fails, he will be executed as punishment. The boy does indeed grow up to be a formidable warrior, and befriends a young poet who becomes his one source of comfort and entertainment. Yet the king is unjust, and the poet requests to be released from his service, lest the the king's toxic sense of masculinity, fueled by his late father's insistence that he be the strongest in the land, stifle his creativity ability to see the beauty in the world.

Devastated, the young king sends the poet away, never to return to the palace. From there, the film shifts gears entirely, flashing forward to the early part of the 20th century. It is as if Shinarbayev is shrugging off the oppressive shackles of Soviet Russia and the cinematic form it forced upon Kazakh filmmakers, thumbing his nose at the stodgy historical epics of old and tossing traditional form out the window. These opening scenes are seemingly unconnected with what follows, but they're there for a reason. This is where Shinarbayev subtly sets up the film's theme of cyclical violence reverberating through time, as a father passes his own harmful ideas to his son, who in turn uses them to damage an entire nation.

The film's main story revolves around a young girl who is murdered by her drunken teacher. Her father, unable to exact revenge on his murder, takes a mute concubine at the behest of his barren wife to bear them a new son whose sole purpose in life will be to grow up to carry on his ailing father's quest to kill the man who murdered his sister. Revenge relays his story through a series of chapters, each chronicling new people he meets on his journey for retribution. Each segment takes the story in a new direction, making a relatively linear plot into something that feels completely removed from any typical sense of time and place. Cinematographer Sergei Kosmanev shot many of the scenes with a backlit glow that gives the film a dreamlike quality; we almost forget that we have moved into the 20th century and away from medieval Korea. Revenge seems to stand apart from time, achieving a kind of spiritual remove from the constraints of human consciousness and linear thought.

Shinarbayev has been criticized for this by some, and this dogged refusal to adhere to general rules of filmmaking is perhaps why the Kazakh New Wave never rose to prominence on the world stage. And yet the way in which Shinarbayev purposely chucked the Soviet rulebook out the window (a staid, non-revolutionary form that even the great Soviet cinema theorist Sergei Eisenstein was eventually forced into by Joseph Stalin) and started from scratch is invigorating, flying in the face of not only Soviet form but the very ideology of perpetual retribution that drove its government. Revenge is a film of textures and impressions, of images and feelings, suggesting the very idea of vengeance as a sickness that permeates the fabric of time and infects generation after generation. There is little violence in the film, but its effects are keenly felt, reverberating through the ages like a some sort of genetic disease.

The Kazakh New Wave was unfortunately short-lived, and Kazakhstan's tiny film industry currently only manages around 15 films a year. But Revenge is a gold-standard work that drew the attention of Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, debuting on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection last year. Long out-of-print and hard to find, the film has been given a new lease on life, and is ripe for rediscovery for cineastes all over the world. For Kazakhstan, it represents a rich artistic tradition far from the Borat caricature that it became known for in the last decade, one not afraid to ask probing questions for which there can be no answer. Shinarbayev's mesmerizing vision is as potent and as relevant as ever, across time and culture, as a painful warning of the generational effects of violence and resentment, an age-old human affliction that remains with us still today.

Revenge is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection, and is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Monday, March 26, 2018

At a time when viewers eagerly await the latest Machiavellian intrigue, backstabbing, and backroom drama of TV shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and The Crown, I'm a bit surprised that that some eager producer hasn't tried to mine James Goldman's play, The Lion in Winter into a series.

I'm glad they haven't, because Anthony Harvey's 1968 film adaptation remains a towering achievement, packing more delicious drama into two hours than an entire season of Game of Thrones. Peter O'Toole's aging medieval monarch, Henry II, is surrounded by so many conniving relatives that the story reaches almost Shakespearian heights, as the king's sons vie for their place as the heir to the kingdom, and his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn) pulls the strings from behind the scenes.

As Henry II, O'Toole skulks the parapets of his lonely castle, dwarfed by the battlements and the drab vaulted ceilings, his crown and the demands of history weighing heavily upon his shoulders. His son, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), is Eleanor's favored, and believes he is entitled to his father's throne, while his brother John (Nigel Terry) is a simpleton favored by his father out of pity. The third brother, Geoffrey (John Castle) lacks personality and is little more than a pawn in his parents' machinations. Henry dreams of annulling his marriage to Eleanor to marry his consort, Alais (Jane Merrow), but knows Richard has always loved her. All the while, his children plot with Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) who is looking for his chance to strike at England and bring his old rival Henry down.

It is the stuff of high drama, and Harvey grounds it in a kind of gritty realism that sets it apart from many of the historical epics of its day. You can almost feel the chill of the drafty castle halls, its grounds overrun with dirt and grime, livestock and hay. The Lion in Winter never glamorizes medieval life - "It's 1183," Hepburn deadpans, "we're barbarians." There's an almost fourth-wall breaking slyness to Hepburn's character, who seemingly understands her place in the world around her through a historical context, and yet she plays it so brilliantly, she's a woman in total control of her fate who refuses to be a pawn in a man's game of thrones. Hepburn won an Oscar for her towering performance, trying with Barbara Streisand in a shocking and rare twist. The grand dame of cinema always chewed the scenery with such relish, and yet never was she as bold, tempestuous, and even sexy as she was here. She was Cersei Lannister before anyone ever knew who that was.

Despite rumors of behind-the-scenes tensions, O'Toole matches her moment for moment, although O'Toole would famously go Oscar-less until his death in 2013. Looking back on that cast, with O'Toole and Hepburn at the height of their respective careers, and Hopkins and Dalton just starting their's, is all the more impressive in hindsight. Goldman, adapting his own play, gives each such magnificent dialogue on which to feast, pulling the audience back and forth in a never-ending series of double-crosses and broken deals. The new Kino Blu-Ray has resurrected the film in glorious 4K, bringing the chilly castle halls and Hepburn's brightly colored dresses to breathtaking life. It's a treatment long overdue for one of Hollywood's great epics, a film often overlooked in favor of some of the era's flashier spectacles. Yet few have equaled The Lion in Winter for sheer emotional power, taking familial love and hate to operatic heights on the wings of Goldman's electrifying screenplay and John Barry's magisterial, Oscar-winnig score. Never has such intrigue felt so grounded or so painfully raw.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE LION IN WINTER | Directed by Anthony Harvey | Stars Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow | Not rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Joan of Arc was something of a passion project for its star, Ingrid Bergman. Bergman had been trying to get a big screen adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play, "Joan of Lorraine," in which she originated the role of Joan, off the ground for years. While RKO briefly considered filming it 15 years prior with Katherine Hepburn in the title role, a string of flops left Hepburn with a "box office poison" scarlet letter, and the project was shelved until Bergman convinced them to adapt Anderson's play.

Unfortunately by that time, the 33 year old Bergman was too old to play the 19 year old Joan of Arc, but that doesn't stop her from giving an impassioned, Oscar-nominated performance. It's astonishing to realize that Maria Falconetti was actually 36 when she tackled Joan of Arc in Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and yet there's a vulnerability in her immortal performance that belies her age. Lost in oversized armor, Bergman's performance often seems drowned out by the sheer size of the production. Director Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind) mounts an impressive spectacle, but it's hard not to compare the film to Dreyer's work, unfair a comparison as that may be. Fleming tips his hat to Dreyer in a climactic close-up of Bergman's tear-streaked face, but by pulling back and taking a bigger picture look at the life of Joan of Arc, Fleming sacrifices emotional heft for epic spectacle.

The siege of Orleans is an undeniably spectacular sequence, featuring a massive cast and recalling Fleming's sweeping work in Gone with the Wind's burning of Atlanta. And yet for all its pomp and circumstance, sumptuous costumes and lavish production design, Joan of Arc feels strangely flat. Bergman is far better during the trial sequences than she is in the battle scenes, but one never escapes the feeling that perhaps she was miscast (Jennifer Jones would have been fantastic in this role). She's just too regal, too much of a star to really sell the idea of a plainspoken, backwoods farm girl. She's certainly a better choice than Hepburn would have been, and she throws herself into Joan even if she never quite sells it.

It's clear that this was a passion project for Bergman, and the film would go on to be Fleming's final film as a director (he died six months after the film was released). It certainly looks wonderful, the new 2K restoration featured on the 70th anniversary edition Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics is something to behold. The film's matte paintings are especially impressive, giving the film a grand scope. Yet Joan of Arc stands irrevocably in the shadow of superior films, hitting the highlights of St. Joan's life without ever really digging deep into her motivations. It's a solid studio production from the golden age of the Hollywood studio era, but it never really finds Joan's emotional center, opting instead for empty spectacle that doesn't seem to understand her unique spiritual legacy.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

JOAN OF ARC | Directed by Victor Fleming | Stars Ingrid Bergman, José Ferrer, Francis L. Sullivan, J. Carrol Naish, Ward Bond, Shepperd Strudwick, Gene Lockhart | Not rated | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics on Mar. 27.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Based on the popular series of video games, the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) was about as entertaining as watching someone else play a video game. A cartoonish mix of Indiana Jones and The Mummy the film felt like an extended cut scene, its characters devoid of personalty and its action sequences lacking any real stakes.

The new reboot by Roar Uthaug (The Wave) seeks to rectify some of those issues, and it mostly succeeds on its own terms. It is a marked improvement on the early 2000s action hokum of the original film, focusing less on Croft (Alicia Vikander) as an object of gamer geek lust, and more as a human being in her own right. Vikander's Croft is strong yet vulnerable, a fallible heroine whose power comes from her will to survive and preserve her family, rather than through superhuman skills.

Once again, the plot borrows liberally from Indiana Jones, with much of the climax pulled straight out of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Croft's father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has disappeared, and left behind a mysterious trail of clues as to his whereabouts. Lara, unwilling to accept his death, decides to track him down, and uncovers an international plot to unearth the tomb of an ancient Japanese empress said to possess untold powers. By the time she arrives on the island, she finds she has been beaten by Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins), an agent for a clandestine organization that hopes to harvest whatever power lies in the empress' hidden tomb, and unwittingly brings him the final piece he needs to solve the puzzle of its whereabouts.

Tomb Raider is more grounded in reality than its predecessors, and while it still occasionally succumbs to the temptation to emulate some of Croft's high-flying video game stunts, it gives the film an added sense of danger and urgency. Croft isn't doing battle with supernatural creatures or giant robots, and the results are far more interesting as a result. It's the kind of blandly inoffensive action film that is watchable but not particularly memorable, and then has the gall to setup a character as a villain at the last minute whose true identity probably would have made the rest of the film much more interesting.

Still, Vikander is a fantastic as Croft, displaying far more personality than Jolie's aloof, one-dimensional take on the character. Uthaug's insistence on framing Croft as a person rather than a sex object, along with Vikander's spunky performance, makes her a more well-rounded creation, and it's easier to root for her as a result. Uthaug isn't reinventing the wheel here, but he directs with a strong eye for action, giving the action sequences weight and purpose within the framework of the plot, something the original film never even tried to do. It's refreshing to see a video game adaptation that isn't just trying to be a video game on the big screen.

Ultimately, I was more intrigued by the possibility of the sequel that the film's ending sets up than I was by the plot of this film. Tomb Raider  creates a solid base on which to build, but the prospect of a sequel lead by Kristen Scott Thomas is far more tantalizing than anything we see in this film.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TOMB RAIDER | Directed by Roar Uthaug | Stars Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Dominic West, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Nick Frost | Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Christian films can often be separated into two distinct categories. There are films that explore the essence of faith, and its effect on humanity - I'm thinking of films like Martin Scorsese's Silence and The Last Temptation of Christ, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch and Hors Satan, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, and Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men.

And then there are films with a clear agenda, seeking only to proselytize like feature length sermons that are already preaching to the converted - direct-to-video quality films like God's Not Dead, Son of God, and Do You Believe. Unfortunately, most recent Christian films fall into this latter category, seemingly unable to balance their story with a desire to evangelize and convert. While films in the former category are often filled with doubts, wonder at the mysteries of faith, and a sense of philosophical introspection, the latter paints an easily digestible picture of a black and white world where Christians are persecuted saints waging war against an obviously evil world filled with atheists, Muslims, liberals, and other Fox News boogeymen.

I Can Only Imagine mostly avoids many of the pitfalls of the latter category. While it certainly shares more in common with God's Not Dead than it does Silence, it eschews many of the former film's execrable pitfalls to frame its real-life tale of the biggest Christian radio hit of all time as a father and son tale of redemption and never giving up on one's dreams. It's cardinal sin, however, is that it's almost unbearably dull.

"I Can Only Imagine" was a monster hit for the Christian band MercyMe in 2001, rocketing the top of the charts, and crossing over to secular radio stations, eventually going on to be certified triple platinum. The film focuses on songwriter Bart Millard (J Michael Finley) and the relationship with his abusive father (Dennis Quaid) that inspired the popular song. Despite the fact that it's a true story, the plot is a familiar one, seemingly lifted from every musical biopic ever made, only minus the drug use, sex, and cursing. Millard's father tells him not to pursue his dreams, Millard does it anyway, and achieves astronomical success, before finally reconciling with the man who tried to hold him back.

It's an undeniably inspiring tale, but the execution is about as cinematically uninteresting as they come, and there's not a moment here that filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin don't overplay for maximum tear-jerking effect. If the sniffling in the crowd at my screening was any indication, it's clearly working (the film has been a surprise box office success this weekend), but I found its well-intentioned wholesomeness to be generic and blandly conceived.

The fact that Finley plays Mallard as both an adult and a high schooler is also a grave misstep, even though the screenplay makes a weak attempt to poke fun at the situation by having a character joke that his beard "makes him look 35." Unfortunately, the joke doesn't make it any less awkward, and the film suffers as a result from having a character that's supposed to be a teenager look like Seth Rogen. The casting of country singer Trace Adkins as MercyMe's gruff manager, Brickell, proves to be its smartest move, and Adkins proves to be the film's biggest bright spot, injecting a sense of playful levity when things threaten to become too saccharine.

Thankfully, I Can Only Imagine doesn't feel like a Sunday school lesson, but it never manages to escape its sense of banal familiarity, playing the hits to a receptive crowd but never really bothering to dig beneath the surface of its narrative. It's a pretty but flat story with a greeting card ready message that's just not interesting enough to justify a feature length film.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

I CAN ONLY IMAGINE | Directed by The Erwin Brothers | Stars Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman, J Michael Finley, Brody Rose, Madeline Carroll, Gianna Simone, Kevin Downes | Rated PG for thematic elements including some violence | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

From The Dispatch:
This is a special film, a lovely and deeply human romance with a killer cast (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale, and Natasha Rothwell are especially good as the supporting adults) and a truly funny and engaging script by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, based on the novel "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" by Becky Albertalli. The film treats Simon's sexuality as no big deal, and yet Simon cannot bring himself to say the words "I'm gay," demonstrating how hard it can be even in a supposedly supportive environment. When those words finally do come, they land like a quiet bombshell, with Berlanti finding an understated beauty in Simon's simultaneous vulnerability and strength. It is a film that refuses to treat Simon any differently because of his sexuality - he's a kid with a crush, perfectly capturing the adorable awkwardness of high school romance.
Click here to read my full review.

Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The idea of "movie magic" has been around for so long that most of us can't remember a time before it existed. And yet there was once a time when movies simply observed every day life. When the Lumière Brothers screened La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon for the first time in 1895, it started a cultural revolution, giving birth to an art form that would dominate the 20th century.

One of the people watching the Lumière's films was Georges Méliès, a Parisian illusionist who immediately recognized the potential of this new medium. His films were originally an extension of his magic act, but after a camera malfunction stopped him in the middle of filming, and picked up again a few minutes later, he saw how the unintentional cut seemed to make the subjects disappear from the frame. Special effects were born, and Méliès became the godfather of movie magic.

Méliès built the first movie studio in his back yard, predating even Thomas Edison's legendary "Black Maria," crafting cinematic dreams from the comfort of his own home. Méliès was first and foremost an illusionist, and he brought that aesthetic to his films, revelling in the inherent magic of the medium, taking audiences to places they had never been, and showing them wonders he could never have created on the stage.

Perhaps his most famous film is 1902's A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans La Lune), a 15 minute sci-fi fantasy about a group of astronomers who launch themselves to the moon, where they encounter an insectoid race that tries to hold them captive. By 2018 standards it's charmingly quaint, but it's also cinema magic in its purest form. All its tricks were done in-camera, and Méliès made the most of the tools that he had. People appear and disappear in puffs of smoke. An umbrella planted in the ground sprouts into a mushroom. And the spacecraft crash lands into the eye of the Man in the Moon. It's a dazzling display of early cinema's most advanced technology, yet what makes it so endearing even today is its almost naive earnestness. Méliès wanted to wow his audiences, to show them something they had never seen before. He was a magician to the end, and A Trip to the Moon is not only one of the earliest special effects films, it's also one of the earliest narrative films, moving cinema away from the documentary-like "actualités" into a new medium for storytelling.

The film was released in both black and white and color versions, with a hand-painted print long thought lost to time. It was rediscovered in poor condition in 1993, and has only recently been restored with the latest 21st century technology. The result is something truly extraordinary, a look not only into early color processes, but into Méliès' original vision. The vibrant colors accentuate the depth and detail of his sets, bringing them to life in newfound glory. Méliès' framing was always chaotic, even though the convention of the time was to film the action with a static camera pointed at a stage, the actors were seemingly given no solid blocking, resulting in a disorganized mise-en-scene. And yet it's part of the unpolished charm of Méliès' magic; and the beautifully handcrafted color, painstakingly done frame by frame, illuminates the unkempt glory of the man's seemingly boundless imagination. You can feel his enthusiasm radiating from the screen, like a child who has discovered a new favorite toy.

That childlike wonder at the power of cinema is what makes A Trip to the Moon, and indeed all of Méliès' work, so very special. He opened up the magic of the movies, and invited us in to share in his dreams. Every cinematic storyteller since owes him a great debt of gratitude, and now thanks to the new Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley, his masterpiece looks better than ever. The colors seem to pop right off the screen, the fantastical images every bit as luminous and dynamic as they were in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The disc also includes two other moon-related Méliès shorts - The Astronomer's Dream (1898) and The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon (1907).  Neither stands up to the wonder of A Trip to the Moon, but both are fascinating in their own right. The Astronomer's Dream showcases some of Méliès' early visual effect experiments, while The Eclipse tells the strangely kinky story of the sun hooking up with the moon. Also included is the insightful 2011 documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage, which chronicles the life of Méliès and the making of A Trip to the Moon. It's a must-have for any true lover of cinema, a groundbreaking work of cinema magic in its purest form, one that still has the power to take our imaginations on a journey as only the movies can.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

A TRIP TO THE MOON | Directed by Georges Méliès | Stars Georges Méliès, Henri Delannoy, Bleuette Bernon | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The idea of privilege, or unearned social advantage based on circumstances outside one's control, has been at the forefront of the national discussion over the last few years, And yet somehow, the idea of class privilege as part of the intersectional puzzle of human identity often gets overlooked. Privilege, especially unexamined privilege, can be dangerous, and in his debut feature film, playwright Cory Finley explores the idea of class privilege as an agent of isolation that leads to a shocking lack of empathy.

Thoroughbreds explores the relationship between two former best friends who were driven apart by tragedy. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is a teenage girl who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after brutally slaughtering her own horse. In contrast, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to have the perfect life:  a beautiful home, good grades, and a prestigious internship. On the surface her life is idyllic, but underneath the reality is much different.

Amanda's mom pays Lily to spend time with her, which Lily does reluctantly. Amanda's lack of feelings makes her difficult to be around. She's abrupt, awkward, and often brutally honest. But Lily soon discovers that she enjoys being around someone without feelings, and it isn't long before she starts looking for an escape from her wealthy stepfather (, a grade-A asshole who has decided to ship Lily off to boarding school so she can experience the real world outside of her sheltered wealthy upbringing. So she and Amanda hatch a plan to kill him, with the help of a small time drug-dealer (Anton Yelchin, in what would tragically be his final performance).

Thoroughbreds makes it clear that Amanda suffers from an undiagnosed lack of empathy, but her clinical sociopathy is nothing compared to Lily's complete lack of human of feeling. Amanda has the excuse of being mentally ill, but it is Lily who is the true sociopath; cold, unfeeling, and completely disconnected from reality. The film makes us hate her stepfather (who is an undeniable brute), but it also recognizes that he may have a point - that Lily's lack of interaction with the real world has made her totally unable to deal with actual problems. Taylor-Joy, who after the incredible one-two punch of The Witch and Split has quickly become the new horror "it-girl," plays her with such fire that we almost forget we're watching a performance. It takes a truly skilled actor to have enough empathy to portray an otherwise likable character who so convincingly lacks that trait, and yet Taylor-Joy pulls it off admirably. She makes us feel for her, even as we are repulsed by her own privileged disconnect with humanity.

What makes Thoroughbreds so skillful is how it takes what is essentially a horror film and makes it feel like a teen drama. It never feels like a film with an agenda, yet it so indelibly creates an insular world where its decidedly white, wealthy characters seemingly have no concern or knowledge of the actual problems going on around them. Amanda is a wounded person, yet Lily begins to see her as a means to an end. The girl has known violence and has no feelings, why should she not help Lily make a drastic solution to a temporary, first world problem? While Erik Friedlander's chilling score sets us on edge, Finley sets the stage for a remarkable and deeply unnerving exploration of unexamined privilege that doesn't care who it takes down in order to achieve its ends. It's not a portrait of evil, it's a portrait of a world where a self-centered worldview completely wipes away empathy. In that way, it's a disturbing and powerful critique of Randian Objectivism, whose social Darwinism celebrated a culture of selfishness. It's an impressive debut for Finley, whose skills as a writer have helped him create a film that, much like its characters, is much more than it appears to be on the surface, making unchecked privilege the source of unspeakable inhumanity.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THOROUGHBREDS | Directed by Cory Finley | Stars Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Kaili Vernoff | Rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, and some drug content | Now playing in select cities nationwide.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Ten years have passed since the release of The Strangers, a tense, Hitchcockian home invasion horror film that turned random crime into the stuff of nightmares. It all felt frighteningly plausible, a couple terrorized by a trio of murderers whose only motivation was that "you were home."

We never really got to know the couple at the center of the film, which worked in the film's favor, allowing the audience to easily project itself into the film. For the belated sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, not only does the film spend more time getting to know the characters (both a blessing and a curse), it also is a complete stylistic 180 from its predecessor. Whereas The Strangers was a quiet, slow-building thriller, Prey at Night is a garish 1980s throwback, complete with neon colors and a pulsing soundtrack replete with ubiquitous 80s pop (not to mention a John Carpenter-esque score by Adrian Johnston).

The masked killers themselves, so chillingly human before, now possess borderline superhuman abilities not unlike Jason Voorhees, which keeps with the 80s theme but makes them far less scary. Their random targets this time is a family on their way to take their troubled teenaged daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school. They stop overnight at a trailer park and campground run by a relative, only to find themselves running for their lives.

You have to give Prey at Night credit for at least trying not to rehash the original, charting its own course with its own unique tone. Yet despite its aesthetic departures, it's just not particularly interesting. Its surface level attempts at character development actually make the film less scary. Conventional wisdom tells us that getting to know the characters will actually make us feel for them though, but the emotional connections it creates actively take away from the original's harrowing anonymity.  The same goes for the villains, which seem to be everywhere all the time. Prey at Night explores their vulnerabilities, allowing our heroes the chance to fight back against their random sadism, but in so doing ask for a suspension of disbelief that wasn't necessary in The Strangers.

That's not to say that The Strangers was a great film, but there was something quietly effective, and hauntingly real, about its eerily unexplained sense of random violence without explanation. Prey at Night doesn't try to rationalize it, but it does try to ratchet up the stakes, and the result is a significantly diminished return. Not even its climactic homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can elevate it over typical slasher fare, and its final attempt at a twist ending makes even less sense than the original's misguided jump-scare stinger.

80s nostalgia is all the rage right now, and director Johannes Roberts certainly tries to elevate the material (the soundtrack is probably its strongest asset), but it doesn't make a lot of sense for a film set in modern day, and never quite escapes the feeling that we've seen all this before. This is one horror franchise that would have been best left as a one-off, its killers unexplained, its outcome uncertain, its masked murderers forever anonymous. Instead, Prey at Night tries to expand the mythology of characters that were best left alone.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT | Directed by Johannes Roberts | Stars Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Martin Henderson, Lewis Pullman, Emma Bellomy, Leah Roberts, Lea Enslin | Rated R for horror violence and terror throughout, and for language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives is not an easy film to watch. It was the final of Allen's 13 collaborations with Mia Farrow, and their relationship dissolved before filming was complete. Watching the film with knowledge of the scandal that drove them apart makes the film all the more difficult. It's a powder keg of emotions, one of Allen's most raw and angry films, brimming with bitterness and acrimony that seems to radiate right off the screen.

While Farrow's character was not based on her (Allen originally intended her for Judy Davis' part), one can't help but feel as if both Allen and Farrow used the film as an outlet for their own pain. As we know now, there was never any real catharsis for either of them, and as such, Husbands and Wives feels like an exposed nerve. The film centers around two middle aged couples, both longtime friends. When Jack (Sidney Pollack) and Sally (Davis) casually announce their separation, it throws Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) into a tailspin, popping the bubble of Judy's seemingly idyllic existence and forcing her to examine her own marriage.

As Gabe and Judy begin to see other people, causing additional friction and jealousy between them, Judy also becomes an object of the affections of  a handsome co-worker (Liam Neeson) she set up with Sally, while Gabe, a college professor, becomes infatuated with one of his students (Juliette Lewis). The ensuing entanglements, arguments, and spousal manipulation results all four of them trying to tear each other down, unable to see the damage they're doing right before their eyes.

Allen directs the film almost like a documentary, employing Nouvelle Vague style jump cuts, hand held cinematography, and narration from the characters and their never seen therapist (played by costume designer Jeffrey Kurland). It's one of Allen's most formally daring works, and it perfectly conveys the anger and confusion at the root of the film. It eventually loses its way somewhat, lost in a torrent of boiling resentment from which it never quite recovers, but what a fascinating and compelling work it is, like a car crash from which you can't look away.

The next year Allen would cleanse his palate (and his soul) with one his finest films, the lighthearted Hitchcock riff, Manhattan Murder Mystery. But here we are given a shockingly frank look at the dissolution of not just a romantic relationship, but of an artistic partnership. While the film isn't necessarily autobiographical in anyway, it's impossible not to feel both Allen and Farrow pouring their rage into their work. If it's not a reflection of their actual relationship, it's at least a reflection of their feelings about it. As such, Husbands and Wives is a film that is impossible to separate from their own story, and it never escapes the feeling that we're eavesdropping on something we shouldn't see, being played out for all the world.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HUSBANDS AND WIVES | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Lysette Anthony, Cristi Conaway, Timothy Jerome, Ron Rifkin, Blythe Danner | Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality | Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Friday, March 09, 2018

From The Dispatch:

A Wrinkle in Time is magic. Pure, unadulterated magic. It's the kind of film that shines a light into the darkness, that is more than the sum of its parts, that represents a giant leap forward not only for women and girls of color, but for anyone who has ever felt left out by society, who don't quite fit into the world they're given. It is a breathtaking, beautifully crafted mess that celebrates the very idea of being a beautifully crafted mess, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and those for whom society has little expectation can rise to greatness. It's a film that's not just dancing to the beat of a different drummer, it's making up its own music as it goes along.
Click here to read my full review.

Opens today, March 9, in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

After his much publicized affair with actress Kim Min-Hee during the filming of 2015's Right Now, Wrong Then, Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo has seemingly focused his career on exorcising the demons that resulted from the scandal and his subsequent divorce from his wife of 30 years. 

It began with 2017's On the Beach at Night Alone, a gloriously meta film that starred Kim herself as an actress dealing with the fallout from an affair with a famous film director. A third film in the unofficial trilogy, The Day After, has yet to be released in the United States, but for now we have Claire's Camera, a lighthearted confection shot during the Cannes Film Festival that feels less like a dramatic apologia and more like a situational meta-comedy. Tonally, it couldn't be further away from On the Beach at Night Alone, focusing on a producer's assistant named Manhee (Kim again) who is fired by her employer for reasons her employer refuses to share.

It is soon revealed that Manhee had a brief, drunken tryst with the producer's longtime partner, a filmmaker humorously named So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young). The entire thing is captured by Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a teach from France who is also an amateur poet and photographer. She unknowingly inserts herself into this love triangle, befriending both So and Manhee, insisting that photography can change their lives forever.

As in On the Beach at Night Alone, it's difficult to tell where reality ends and the film begins. Here, Hong seems to suggest that in filming his own romantic travails, he is both helping himself heal and taking a toll on his subjects, in this case, Kim. And yet, Claire's Camera feels like such a lighthearted confection, with a clever, meta-textual sense of humor (a poster for Hong's 2016 film, Yourself and Yours, hangs in Manhee's office, Huppert comments that this is her "first time in Cannes"). Hong seems to be both winking at the audience and implicating us in his own relationship drama, which was the subject of much tabloid gossip in South Korea. By filming this, how is he changing who he and Kim really are? Or is he trying to course correct the paparazzi coverage of his affair with Kim?

Either way, Claire's Camera is a fascinating work, a fish-out-of-water comedy that finds gentle humor in misunderstandings and barriers of language amidst a much more painful and personal story. It may be a minor companion piece to On the Beach at Night Alone, serving as a lighthearted respite between that film and The Day After; yet under its beautifully photographed surface is a layer of pain that doesn't go unnoticed by Claire, and the film ends on an ambiguous note as the group prepares to leave Cannes, where most Hong films have made their debut. They're leaving the film festival behind, but what are they going back to? It's a reprieve from reality that may be short-lived, and Hong knows it. Claire's Camera is a lovely thing indeed, perhaps the filmmaker's loosest and most formally relaxed film since In Another Country. It represents Hong's continuing quest to not only move past his indiscretions, but to understand them on a deeper level. “The only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly," Claire observes at one point. In Claire's Camera, Hong is able to explore the humorous absurdities of his situation from a new angle, with the camera as an almost impartial mediary barrier, but one can't escape the feeling that it's never far away from the still raw nerve just beneath the surface.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CLAIRE'S CAMERA | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Isabelle Huppert, Kim Min-hee, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young, Shahira Fahmy | Not Rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, March 9, at the Film Society of the Lincoln Center in NYC, and in select cities on March 23.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Death Wish is a film that feels almost defiantly out of step with the times. A remake of the 1974 Michael Winner film starring Charles Bronson, which itself was based on a novel by Brian Garfield, Death Wish feels like an NRA wet dream, where a good (white) guy with a gun exacts vigilante justice on the violent streets of Chicago.

Director Eli Roth (Hostel) had the good sense to make the film's main villains white, but there's still something unsavory about the idea of a white savior with a gun brutally mowing down minorities in the streets. Sure, the film positions Bruce Willis' Paul Kersey as a kind of hero, a mild-mannered surgeon pushed to the edge by the death of his wife at the hands of a criminal gang. Faced with police inaction and a feeling of helplessness, he turns to murder as an avenging angel known only as the "Grim Reaper." Roth tries to throw in some lip service to moral ambiguity, as journalists and radio personalities debate whether or not what he is doing is right, but these people are almost portrayed as buffoons. Who would dare question the righteousness of Bruce Willis seeking justice for his family?

Therein lies the biggest problem with Death Wish - there is no real moral ambiguity here. The people he kills are all "bad guys," and Willis never has to come to terms with what he's doing. No remorse, no questioning, just cold-blooded murder. In this "good guy with a gun" fantasy, only the evil are hurt, and the righteous escape unscathed. There are saintly heroes and dastardly villains and nothing in between. When Willis, a surgeon who has never before handled a gun, starts shooting indiscriminately, he miraculously never hits any innocent bystanders, and always hits the evildoers standing close by.

This pipe dream isn't just ridiculous, it's dangerous. Is this the kind of 2nd amendment utopia envisioned by the NRA? Where random people walk around with guns and shoot the bad guys who "have it coming" with no due process? This isn't a utopia, it's a fascist hellscape, a masturbatory act of firearm fetishism that paints a grim picture of a world overrun with crime that can only be rescued by a white savior with a gun.

The original Death Wish at least attempted to posit its thesis in a frame of moral ambiguity, standing alongside Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and John Wayne's Brannigan as urban westerns in need of a lone gunslinger. But in Roth's anachronistic 2018 version, the only people who can protect us are armed vigilantes unencumbered by due process of law. It feels like the wrong movie in the wrong time, a wrote and needless remake where even its star seems bored, sleepwalking from one gleeful act of brutality to another.  It begs the question - why on earth did anyone think we needed this right now, a Trumpian 2nd amendment manifesto in a time when the tide is finally beginning to turn against the NRA and its cronies? Rarely has a film felt so wrongheaded, and so artistically inept.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

DEATH WISH | Directed by Eli Roth | Stars Bruce Willis, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dean Norris, Elisabeth Shue, Jack Kesy, Beau Knapp, Kirby Bliss Blanton,Mike Epps, Len Cariou | Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, March 02, 2018

From The Dispatch:
It’s an exploitation film that thinks it’s a social commentary, but doesn’t have the guts to just be one or the other. In its milquetoast attempt to be both, “Red Sparrow” not only does a disservice to its actors, but to its very thematic identity, using its female characters as pawns in a male fantasy where powerful, independent women exist only to titillate and fulfill male desire.
Click here to read my full review.

RED SPARROW | Directed by Francis Lawrence | Stars  Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joely Richardson, Mary-Louise Parker, Charlotte Rampling, Douglas Hodge | Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity | Opens today, March 2, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Following a bitter divorce from Mia Farrow, Woody Allen made a celebrated return to comedy in 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery, an almost 180 degree turn from his previous film, 1992's acidic Husbands and Wives, which ended up being the final film in his 10-year collaboration with Farrow. His relationship with Farrow resulted in 13 films between 1982 and 1992, a period of time that is arguably one of the richest of his long career.

Now without his muse, he turned to one of his oldest friends and collaborators, Diane Keaton, to step into Farrow's role reuniting with her Annie Hall director and co-star, as well as co-writer Marshall Brickman. The result is one of Allen's most purely enjoyable films, a playful riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window about a pair of New Yorkers who begin to suspect that their elderly neighbor is a murderer.

Keaton and Allen star as middle-aged Manhattanites, Carol and Larry Tipton, who one day after meeting them for the first time, discover their their elderly next door neighbor, Mrs. House (Lynn Cohen) died suddenly of a heart attack. When her husband, Paul (Jerry Adler), doesn't seem to be that upset, Carol becomes suspicious, and begins to snoop around his apartment for evidence to support her theory. Larry is mortified, but their recently divorced friend, Ted (Alan Alda), who has always had a bit of a crush on Carol, is intrigued, and begins to help in her investigation. Even one of Larry's literary clients, the brilliant and sensuous Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), joins in on the fun, much to Carol's chagrin. They soon find themselves in over their heads, but they have a blast solving the mystery anyway.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of those "you're never too old to have fun" films, where four people who thought adventure had passed them by get the chance to have some unexpected excitement in their lives. Many of Allen's films during the previous decades were inspired by the work of other artists (Bergman, Checkhov, Cassavetes, German Expressionists), and while his cribbing of Rear Window is obvious, Allen makes it more his own, toying with a few Hitchcockian techniques (the bravura final sequence in a room full of mirrors is expertly executed), but this is an Allen comedy through-and-through. His characters sit around tables and rattle through neurotic dialogue that flies so freely it almost seems improvised, if it weren't for that particular Allen timbre that makes his dialogue sing.

Allen seems strangely refreshed here, and everyone involved is clearly having a blast. It feels like a palate cleanser for his acerbic divorce with Farrow, and as such is probably one of the most creatively successful films of his career, right up there with Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo in terms of sheer entertainment value. The new Blu-Ray from Twilight Time is disarmingly beautiful. It may not be the most visually striking film of Allen's career, but the new Blu-Ray is crystal clear, offering true, inky blacks free of the usual excessive grain and damage one would expect of a film from this era. It's a lovely presentation of a charming film, a continually effervescent delight that showcases Allen at his most carefree and fun.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Jerry Adler, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Joy Behar, Lynn Cohen, Melanie Norris, Zach Braff | Rated PG | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.