Friday, April 27, 2018

The Marvel crossover of Avengers: Infinity War is an event 10 years in the making, a massive culmination of a series of 19 films spanning the last decade. Beginning with 2008's IRON MAN, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has redefined genre filmmaking and sent rival studios scrambling to create their own shared universes, to little avail.

So to say that Infinity War is a big deal, especially for fans, is an understatement. The film marks the long-awaited arrival of the MCU's ultimate big bad, Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose appearance was first teased in the end credit stinger at the end of 2012's The Avengers. Thanos is every bit as formidable as the franchise has promised, killing off beloved characters and laying to waste entire planets in his quest to acquire the six Infinity Stones that have provided the backbone of many of the plot threads that have made up the MCU thus far. Once the six stones are brought together, it gives the holder the power to end life at will. Thanos, obsessed with balance, wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe in an attempt to stop inevitable overpopulation from bringing about the complete end of all life.

That's what makes Thanos such a great villain - his philosophy actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way, not unlike Black Panther's Killmonger from a mere two months ago. Thanos' goal isn't just to kill for the sake of killing, or power for the sake of power, it's rooted in a deep-seated desire for order and preservation (as he see it) of life. His relationship with his daughter, Gomora (Zoe Saldana) takes center stage here, his conflicted love for her, and her hatred for him, adding another dimension to his character.

Infinity War mostly manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), an overstuffed spectacle that remains a low-point in an otherwise mostly successful series. Directing team Joe and Anthony Russo, who provided one of the series highlights in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) as well as its sequel, Captain America: Civil War (2016), make an admirable effort to connect a massive cast of heroes in a cohesive and satisfying way, making sure each gets their moment to shine while serving a purpose in the greater narrative. They even allow for some nice character moments, especially with Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Thanos and Gomora, Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). The Russos faced a daunting task of mixing together so many iconic heroes and their distinctive styles, and the tonal shifts are handled with a surprising amount of grace, even as the film races on to its next battle.

The problem is that there's just so much going on, and so many plot threads being woven together, that it just doesn't have the time to have the same creative and stylistic verve that have distinguished Marvel's more recent films like Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018). The film moves at a breakneck pace, rushing from one apocalyptic set-piece after another, to the point that it becomes something of a test of patience in the final act. Characters travel long-distances instantaneously, arriving just where they need to be without much explanation, causing the film to lose all sense of time and place. After spending two hours at full throttle, the climax almost has nowhere to go. Instead, it builds to a surprisingly quiet denouement that allows the weight of what we've just seen to settle in, setting up the as-yet-untitled 2019 sequel that promises to wrap up all the loose ends.

Fans will no doubt be pleased by the epic spectacle, and as a culmination of a decade's worth of adventures it's an undeniably entertaining mash-up. But there's something much less satisfying about Infinity War's "more is more" aesthetic than the more personal brand of pop exuberance evident in some of the more recent individual Marvel outings. It's a fun but exhausting superhero extravaganza that pulls out all the stops in delivering the spectacular showdown fans have been waiting for, but the tantalizing potential for how Marvel might deal with the consequences of Thanos' apocalypse prove to be more interesting than the large-scale CGI destruction on display here.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR | Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo | Stars  Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Terry Notary, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Peter Dinklage | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Before she became known as Adolf Hitler's favored filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl began her career as an actress, making her screen debut in Arnold Fanck's 1926 silent drama, The Holy Mountain. While Fanck did not subscribe to the Nazi philosophy as wholeheartedly as Riefenstahl did, he did become a member of the party in 1940 under pressure (he initially resisted before Hitler came to power), making some cultural films for the Nazis before ending his career as a lumberjack after the war.

However, during the Weimar era, before Hitler's rise to power, Fanck made a series of films that established a popular German genre known as the "mountain film," beginning with The Holy Mountain. Fanck was an outdoor enthusiast and noted skier, and he brought a sense of awe and reverence for the Alps, going on to make several films set against a mountain backdrop, most notably The White Hell of Pitz Palau (1929) with G.W. Pabst. Fanck was notorious for his grueling shoots, with actors often suffering minor injuries in his push for authenticity by shooting on location in inhospitable terrain. While Pabst was seen as a moderating influence on Fanck, the results of Fanck's perfectionism are clear - The Holy Mountain is a breathtaking visual achievement. Fanck shoots the mountain like it's a character in the film, setting up a dazzling downhill ski race set piece that is made all the more thrilling by its authenticity (a fact the film explicitly highlights in the opening credits).

The plot isn't anything special - a ski racer love triangle with Riefenstahl at the center that never generates much heat. Riefenstahl turned out to be a much better filmmaker than she was an actress (which is a shame, considering how she chose to use that talent to advance the Nazis' racist ideology), and her histrionics in The Holy Mountain seem like a distraction from what is essentially a glorified nature film. One can't help but wonder, however, if Riefenstahl didn't learn some of her technique from Fanck, who employs a surprising amount of slow motion for the era, especially during Riefenstahl's flailing dance sequences. But where Riefenstahl was fascinated by the motion of the human body, Fanck was enthralled by the by the sweeping vistas of the Alps. The bodies are just decorations for the natural world, and Fanck's camera frames them against stunning mountain backdrops, even going so far as to follow them onto the mountain itself.

This all makes The Holy Mountain something of a strange animal. Its story is relatively weak, propped up by the sheer spectacle of Fanck's outdoor enthusiasm. And yet he conjures such an indelible atmosphere, accompanied by some truly impressive outdoor photography (made even more so in the new 2K restoration on the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray), that it is impossible to write the film off as just another silent melodrama. Fanck had a strong visual sense, one that would have a profound impact on Riefenstahl, who went on to become a more important figure in cinema history. But it all started here, both in terms of her career and in her style. Fanck kickstarted a genre and unwittingly helped give rise to a great and terrible talent, making The Holy Mountain a truly fascinating historical artifact indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE HOLY MOUNTAIN | Directed by Arnold Fanck | Stars Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen, Frida Richard | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The original Super Troopers, written and directed by comedy team Broken Lizard, didn't exactly light up the box office when it was released in 2002, but the film has amassed enough of a cult following on DVD in the 16 years since its release to warrant a belated sequel. As is common with comedy sequels, especially those that arrive so long after their popular predecessors, Super Troopers 2 doesn't quite have the same comic verve, spending its time either trying too hard to outdo the original, or "playing the hits" by referencing the jokes that everyone fell in love with the first time around.

Still, for fans of Super Troopers, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of these characters, who prove that there are still a couple of laughs to be had from this concept. This time around, the titular Vermont state troopers are called back into action after spending the last 15 years off the force for the events in the first film, to oversee the transition of a small tract of Canadian land that was found to actually be within America's original boundary markers. It isn't long before they're back up to their old shenanigans, as they face a town full of angry Canadians bitter about their newfound nationality, and a group of rival Mounties who aren't quite ready to give up power in their territory just yet. Those rivalries come to a head, however, when the troopers stumble upon a stash of drugs that leads them to an international smuggling operation that goes deeper than any of them expected.

Like its predecessor, Super Troopers 2 is an exceedingly silly film, with the inept policemen at its center constantly finding new and spectacular ways to screw up. The antics wear a bit thin this time around, as the film tries to be bigger and better than the original (to no avail), and newcomers to the franchise may find themselves a bit confused by all the references to the original's jokes. But when it does stumble upon new moments of inspiration, it's actually a very funny film. Like a modern day "Keystone Cops," the Super Troopers take routine policing and turn it into one epic failure after another. And while some of the intentionally obnoxious humor overstays its welcome (the film relies too heavily on Kevin Heffernan's Farva, a perpetual "that guy"), it actually manages to make their ineptitude somewhat endearing.

Was Super Troopers 2 necessary? Not really, no. Fans will enjoy seeing the gang back together, but it hews to closely to the original film to justify the 16 year long wait for a sequel. It's disappointing to see a sequel to a film almost defined by its anarchic sense of humor that plays it so safe. It's not a bad film on its own, but one can't help but wish it had taken the time to distinguish itself rather than returning to the same well.  It's kind of like going to a high school reunion - you're still telling the same stories from decades ago since you no longer have a common frame of reference, and they're still amusing, but not quite as funny as they were when they were fresh. It's a hit-or-miss comedy that has enough solid laughs to justify itself, but after a 16 year long gap between films, it's not quite enough to make the wait seem worth it.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

SUPER TROOPERS 2 | Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar | Stars  Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske, Paul Soter, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Kimberly Howe, Lynda Carter, Marisa Coughlan, Rob Lowe, Brian Cox | Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug material and some graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Now in its 20th year, the RiverRun International Film Festival has been bringing quality foreign and independent films to the area for two full decades. I’ve been covering the festival for 10 of those years, and I can say without a doubt that they continue to outdo themselves, offering perhaps one of the most thrilling and diverse line-ups of films in their history. RiverRun offers something for everyone, but you can’t do much better than the five films featured here – representing some of my favorite highlights of this year’s festival.

“Angels Wear White” (Vivian Qu, China)

A giant statue of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch becomes a potent symbol of sexism and female objectification in Vivian Qu’s searing drama, Angels Wear White, her flowing skirt and exposed underwear suggesting the vulnerability felt by both its young female protagonists. The film centers around Mia (Qi Wen), a teenager working illegally at a hotel, and Wen (Meijun Zhou), a 12-year-old girl who is raped in one of the hotel rooms along with her best friend, by a powerful local commissioner.

Angels Wear White is a remarkably assured sophomore effort by Qu, who imbues her film with a sense of metaphorical weight without hammering on an obvious point. Anchored by two soulful performances by the young leads, the film attains a sense of quiet grace, buoyed by the dignity the young women are expected to show at all times, even in the darkest of circumstances. Qu bravely peels back the curtain of patriarchal abuses, robbing young women of their agency and dignity at every turn, and turns it into a poetic elegy for lost childhood and societal justice.

“The Desert Bride” (Cecilia Atán, Valeria Pivato, Argentina)

A woman who has just lost her longtime job as an in-home maid travels across the country to a new job faraway in Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato’s lovely Argentinian gem, The Desert Bride. Along the way, she accidentally leaves her purse in the trailer of a traveling salesman and sets out to track him down. The Desert Bride is a small, unassuming marvel, a beautifully understated work of disarming power. Atán and Pivato’s style isn’t flashy, but their lovely framing captures a sense of yearning and rekindled fire. Teresa never expected to take this journey, nor did she want it, but it becomes the detour that she needed. Here in the barren, windswept Argentinian desert, Teresa finds something she didn’t realize she was missing, something that goes much deeper than her lost bag. That’s the magic of The Desert Bride, the pocketbook is ultimately beside the point, it’s a Macguffin for a journey of the soul that is at once deeply moving and powerfully told.

"Dragonfly Eyes" (Xu Bing, China)

An intriguing experiment completely falls apart in Xu Bing's Dragonfly Eyes, a film completely comprised of security footage taken from around public surveillance cameras from all over China. In the opening titles of the film, Bing claims that he has always wanted to fashion a story from surveillance footage, but the story here is tenuous at best, focusing on a woman who moves out of a Buddhist monastery and into a world of unexpected intrigue.

Xu had the opportunity here to make a fascinating treatise on the modern human existence under a constant state of surveillance, but in reality Dragonfly Eyes is more of a half-baked idea than a film, one that never really congeals around a central theme. Its avant-garde elements add little to a film that is desperately in search of a story or an idea that it never finds. You have to give Xu credit for ambition, but there's just not really anything here, and his early use of a woman's drowning is in poor taste. The film jumps from location to location, loosely held together by grating electronic voiceover narration, completely missing an opportunity to use its CCTV conceit to say anything of interest about its own chosen found footage aesthetic. It's a missed opportunity on almost all levels, a gimmick that really should be an avant-garde piece of existentialism that instead never gets off the ground.

"Garden Party" (Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro, France)

I'm not sure I've ever seen an animated film as photorealistic as this. Whie it has no less than six credited directors, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, and Lucas Navarro, 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. A 2018 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short.

"Godard Mon Amour" (Michel Hazanavicius, France)

One of the most radical filmmakers of the 20th century gets a strangely conventional and inept biopic in the form of Michel Hazanavicius' Godard Mon Amour (formerly titled REDOUTABLE), a film that seems to both revere and loathe the legendary Nouvelle Vague pioneer without actually understanding him.

Hazanavicius has seemingly made an entire career out of emulating the styles of others, from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (easily his best film), to the Oscar-winning The Artist, Hazanavicius often falls into the trap of recreating outmoded styles without grounding them in their proper artistic context. In OSS 117 it didn't matter so much because the film was an outright lampoon. Yet The Artist, and perhaps even more egregiously in Godard Mon Amour, the filmmaker is simply playing the mimic. The black title cards with bold primary color writing, the non-diagetic sound, the droll, descriptive voice-overs, Hazavavicius deploys them liberally, but they serve no real purpose in the greater narrative. Godard stands naked pontificating on the  pointlessness of nudity in film. Garrel turns to the camera to sneer about actors saying any word you put in their mouths. Hazanavicius is using Godard's Brechtian techniques without any of the fire or zeal that made them work in the first place. Godard consistently used such dramatic irony, but never in quite such painfully obvious ways. 

"The Guardians" (Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran, USA)

Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran's lovely documentary chronicles the migration of monarch butterflies and the Mexican farmers who protect their habitat. The flight of the butterflies serve as a backdrop to examine the lives of villagers tasked with curbing the devastating effects of deforestation on the monarchs' habitat. The butterfly life cycle takes them from Canada to Mexico, while the local farmers spend their time planting new trees for them to come back to and protecting their forests from poachers.

It's all beautifully filmed, but there's really not much here. At barely over an hour, the film is brief and filled with gorgeous nature shots, but surprisingly little conflict or information, even when one of the farmers is arrested for having a gun to protect his land from poachers. This is perhaps a very strong 30 minute documentary short, or a longer film that doesn't dive deep enough into its subject and its people. Still, it's a compulsively watchable film, albeit slight, film that's easy on the eyes that works as a celebratory nature doc showcasing some of the unseen wonders of the natural world.

"Heaven Without People" (Lucien Bourjeily, Lebanon)

Lucien Bourjeily's ferocious family drama takes place over the course of one Easter dinner for a family of Lebanese Christians. After $12,000 goes missing from the family matriarch's purse, the family's seemingly idyllic facade comes crashing down, as old wounds are re-opened and the layer of hypocrisy and resentment is peeled away.

Heaven Without People is a slow burn, keeping its focus tight, the camera never leaving the confines of the small apartment in which it takes place. It almost recalls Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, as the family members discuss politics and religion over lunch, exploring their identity as Christians in a majority-Muslim nation. The political differences begin to show, but the true depth of the family's hatred for each other doesn't begin to be revealed until accusations over the stole money begin to fly. Bourjeily expertly builds up the tension before releasing it in a truly explosive familial implosion that makes the drama of August: Osage County almost look like a polite disagreement. It feels as though we're somehow intruding, witnessing something we should not bear witness to, as the film peeks below the facade of a seemingly happy family and examines the house of cards barely holding it up. Then Bourjeily politely asks us to leave the family in peace, with the haunting implications of the film still hanging heavily in the air. This is potent, sharply observant stuff that pulls no punches in its depiction of a family at war with itself on multiple fronts - generationally and politically.

“The Judge” (Erika Cohn, USA)

Erika Cohn’s documentary, The Judge, introduces us to Kholoud Al-Faqih, who became the first ever female judge of an Islamic Shari’a court in Palestine. Shari’a law and women’s equality aren’t exactly two things western audiences would see as compatible, but Al-Faqih is looking to change that perception, bravely leading the charge for women’s rights in the Muslim world.

The Judge may take place in Palestine, but it’s an eye-opening portrait of rampant male privilege and the struggle for women simply to be heard. And Cohn does not let western audiences off the hook. Inequality between the sexes may be more obviously pronounced in the Arab world than in the west, but it is no more insidious. In a world of seemingly exaggerated, normalized sexism, Cohn finds a universal plight among women struggling against a system created by men for their own benefit.

“RBG” (Betsy West, Julie Cohen, USA)

Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary, RBG, examines the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in recent years has gained a rock star level reputation for her soft-spoken yet withering dissents that have earned her the nickname, “The Notorious R.B.G.” RBG will doubtlessly by a crowd-pleaser for the justice’s legions of fans, but it will also be an illuminating piece of history for those who only know her as the “great dissenter” liberal hero she’s become in the last decade.

It’s a big-hearted and wide-ranging biography of a truly special woman, at last placing her in her proper historical context as a woman who helped break down barriers, quietly shaping the world we live in today with little fanfare. West and Cohen have crafted an inspiring and often gripping look at the history of modern women’s rights through the lens of a humble and reserved woman whose unlikely rise to the highest court in the land mirrors her own ongoing quest for a world that’s more equitable and more just than the one she came into.

“The Workshop” (Laurent Cantet, France)

The topic of white radicalization and the rise of the far right has unfortunately become a major issue in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Europe has been suffering the consequences of white unease in the face of increased diversity and changing demographics for longer than America has, as previously majority white nations struggle with how to deal with an influx of immigrants and shifting viewpoints on civil rights.

It is into that witch’s brew of simmering white resentment that Laurent Cantet (“The Class”) dives in his latest film, The Workshop, a work so frighteningly timely that it’s easy to become lost in the details of the drama, trying to fit each piece into a contemporary political context. And yet Cantet manages to deliver a story that is as universal as it is specific, offering a chilling and ultimately hopeful portrait of a world looking for a common connection in all the wrong places, when the community and belonging they so desperately seek has been right in front of them the whole time.

"YouthMin: A Mockumentary" (Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino, USA)

An overeager youth pastor takes his youth group to a weekend Christian camp in Jeff Ryan and Arielle Cimino's lovingly silly YouthMin, a mockumentary that will be readily identifiable for anyone who was raised in a protestant church. YouthMin pokes gentle fun at the tropes and cliches of youth ministry camps, as the group navigates through their teenage years under the supervision of a dudebro counselor who just wants to be their best friend. Yet his competitive spirit and and rivalry with the group's new female youth minister threatens to completely derail the weekend, as his young charges each struggle with real issues of identity and sexual awakening that he is woefully unprepared to handle.

YouthMin is satirical without being mocking, clearly made by people who have experienced this world firsthand, and it really nails the self-seriousness, the stereotypes, and the painful attempts to be hip that one encounters at a Christian youth camp.  Whether they're playing "Bible Jeopardy" or "Battle of the Worship Bands," the fearless youth leader, David, turns everything into a competition with a rival youth group, completely missing the reason they're all there in the first place. Its silliness is at times a bit over the top, but there is an earnestness behind its goofiness that is surprisingly endearing.

The RiverRun International Film Festival runs from April 19-29 in Winston-Salem. For a complete line-up of films or to purchase tickets, visit

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Roy Ward Baker's Don't Bother to Knock marked the first starring role in a feature film for Marilyn Monroe, and while the 26-year-old sex symbol would go on to much higher profile films in much more iconic roles (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch), but her performance as a troubled babysitter in Don't Bother to Knock might be one of the finest performances the notoriously difficult star ever gave.

Stories of her on-set behavior have become legend - Monroe was often late to the set (or didn't show up at all), couldn't remember her lines, and insisted on having an acting coach with her at all times (an eccentricity memorably spotlighted in the 2011 film, My Week with Marilyn). And yet somehow it all worked - Monroe desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actress rather than just a sex symbol. And while history has remembered her more as the latter, it's always disarming to revisit to her film work to see just how good an actress she really was. Despite her difficult behavior, her process resulted in some fine performances, and in Don't Bother to Knock she digs down deep to create a character as vulnerable as she is terrifying, with a volatility that never dips into empty histrionics.

As Nell Forbes, a babysitter with a haunted past, Monroe embodies a woman slowly coming apart. Her eager uncle sets her up with a babysitting job in the hotel where he works, but she is less interested in spending time with the little girl than she is trying on her mother's clothes, jewelry, and expensive perfume. At first, she just seems like a shy young woman, but Baker gradually begins to reveal signs that not everything is as it seems - a glimpse of scars on her wrist, eating candy that she swore she didn't eat. After a man across the courtyard (Richard Widmark) catches a glimpse of her in the window, she begins a flirtation that becomes the catalyst for her breakdown, flashing back to a former lover who was killed during WWII. Her ensuing mental anguish will soon endanger her, her new lover, and the child as she flounders between fantasy and reality.

Don't Bother to Knock is a feverish, noir-like drama that speeds by at a brisk 76 minutes. Baker slowly ratchets up the suspense in almost imperceptible ways, so that the audience doesn't quite realize how badly things are going off the rails until the characters are in too deep to turn back. It also marked the film debut of 21-year-old Anne Bancroft, who plays a lounge singer previously involved with Widmark. Bancroft shares no screen time with Monroe until the very end of the film, but she radiates a gravity and wisdom far beyond her years, a maturity we would see again in her most iconic role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate 15 years later.

It may not have been particularly well received upon its release, and has been mostly forgotten in favor of Monroe's more high-profile roles, but Don't Bother to Knock remains a surprisingly potent and thrilling film, treating the mental illness of its central character with surprising grace, never blaming Nell for her own trauma. It takes what could have been a lurid plot (an older single man meets up with a young, naive babysitter in a hotel room) and turns it into a wickedly plotted thriller that remains an overlooked high point in Monroe's storied career.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK | Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Donna Corcoran, Jeanne Cagney, Lurene Tuttle | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

What to make of Sergei Parajanov's almost defiantly formless experimental film, The Color of Pomegranates? The film has been the subject of much controversy and academic debate since its release in 1969, after it was butchered by Soviet censors who found it "unintelligible to the masses," and therefore anti-Soviet. The film was intended to tell the life story of 18th century Armenian poet, Sayat-Nova (which was Parajanov's preferred title), but it was ultimately deemed to not have enough to do with him, and the title was changed to The Color of Pomegranates, which endures to this day.

It's true that the film is not a conventional biopic by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Parajanov takes us through a series of tableaux inspired by medieval Armenian art that plunges the audience inside the creative world of its subject. The Color of Pomegranates was never meant to be a literal interpretation of Sayat-Nova's life (he is shown here from childhood all the way to death as an old man, sometimes all at once), rather an impressionistic journey into his mind. The result is 79 of the most dazzling minutes in all of cinema, a dizzying collection of abstract images that bring the poet's words to life. It's a radical departure from the grim, realistic style favored by the Soviets at that time, so it's not difficult to see why it was such a shock to the cultural system.

It is because of its free-wheeling, narrative-free style that it is almost impossible to judge on its own. The film is like nothing else out there - recalling the work of the early surrealists in its dogged refusal to be interpreted literally, set in a medieval world that looks like something out of Pasolini's Trilogy of Life. And yet it is so vivid, so singularly beautiful, that it becomes a completely mesmerizing experience. What makes the film so extraordinary is that it is so open to interpretation. Parajanov breaks up the tableaux withs snippets of Sayat-Nova's poems, recreating the lyrical images in such a way that it allows the viewer to read them however they wish. Each tableau is a rich tapestry of breathtaking imagery and vivid color, from the deep red juice of pomegranates flowing through white muslin, to water cascading down walls and bursting forth from saturated books, to grape juice flowing over stone, Parajanov's keen visual sense is truly incredible.

All of this is beautifully captured by the new Criterion Blu-Ray, which reconstructs Parajanov's original cut from a restoration by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna. Don't come here looking for an explanation of the film's surreal, dreamlike world, come to lose yourself inside the mind of a poet, where suddenly every thought, every images, becomes a thing of profound and delicate beauty, opening one's eyes to a world of exquisite possibility. Rather than capture the life of a poet, it captures his soul - and that makes The Color of Pomegranates something altogether unique.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES | Directed by Sergei Parajanov | Stars Spartak Bagashvili, Sofiko Chiaureli, Medea Japaridze, Vilen Galustyan  Giorgi Gegechkori | In Armenian and Azerbaijani w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

It's kind of surprising that a story this wild isn't more well known, but thanks to Maclain and Chapman Way's documentary Wild Wild Country, the strange tale of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers is no longer forgotten history. The Rajneeshi cult, which established a town called Rajneeshpuram in rural Oregon, stacked local government elections to take over the tiny town of Antelope, and then attempted to do the same with the entire county, resulting in the largest mass poisoning in American history, bombings, attempted murder, and rampant marriage fraud, is a perfect example of how the truth can be stranger than fiction, and over the course of nearly 7 hours, the Ways slowly reveal the almost unfathomable extent of the Rajneeshis' influence and criminal activity.

Led by Bhagwan's fiercely loyal personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, the Rajneeshis went so far as to bus thousands of homeless people from across the country to Rajneeshpuram in order to rig local elections in their favor, tampering with local water supplies and restaurants to spread salmonella against townspeople they viewed as their enemies. Wild Wild Country examines this outlandish tale of intrigue and betrayal from all sides, featuring extensive interviews with Sheela, citizens of Antelope, members of the cult (many of whom still stand by their beliefs), and the law enforcement agents tasked with bringing the operation down. It is a truly fascinating story, revealing a rarely seen portrait of America that feels jarringly contemporary, pitting conservative rural Oregonians against a mysterious sex cult, both of whom see their struggle as one of self-preservation.

Wild Wild Country is an outrageous tale of religious intolerance, racism, media sensationalism, and over-the-top provocation that seems to eerily presage and parallel our own contemporary political landscape. The major problem is that the filmmakers tend to focus on the more sensational elements of the story, and mostly ignore what the Rajneeshis really believed. The fact that most of the adherents to Bhagwan's brand of eastern mysticism were white and middle class smacks of wrong-headed cultural fetishization, but we know little about what he really stood for. He remains an enigmatic figure at the center of a wider cultural struggle without much in the way of context, but it sure does make a fascinating story. It deftly explores the line between good and evil through the perspectives of those who lived it, many of whom are still firmly entrenched in their own belief that they were, in fact, completely without blame.

The result is a deeply uncomfortable portrait of a polarized America that is as timely as it is disturbing. If only it had found time over the course of its 400 minute run time to take a closer look at the cause of the Rajneeshi radicalism rather than just the results, Wild Wild Country could have been a truly great story of American unrest. Yet even without that added depth, it remains a compelling and often shocking exploration at the effects of human intolerance and the results of a tribal mentality, one not only displayed by the actual cult, but by those who sought to stamp them out before they even became dangerous. Who really created this monster? That is perhaps the most chilling question at the center of the film, that this bizarre story might in fact be holding a mirror up to America itself, and what we see is something deeply unnerving.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WILD WILD COUNTRY | Directed by Maclain Way, Chapman Way | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix

The story of how Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge while under the influence of alcohol in Chappaquiddick in 1969, killing campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne, was a political scandal that somehow managed to pass into history almost unnoticed. Kennedy survived, of course, going on to become one of the longest-serving and most widely respected Democratic senators in modern history, but he never quite fulfilled the political promise that he (and his family) hoped. John Curran's Chappaquiddick asks us to re-examine that history; not necessarily to re-examine Kennedy, but to take a closer look at how history is written, and how power and privilege create a different set of rules for those born into them.

Through Jason Clarke's uncanny embodiment of Kennedy, Chappaquiddick becomes a character study of a weak and broken man simply trying to live in the shadow of his more successful brothers. When his car goes off the road and into a pond, rather than try to save Kopechne (Kate Mara), Kennedy wanders off in a daze, more concerned with how this will affect him politically than for the life slowly fading away, still trapped in the car. It was later revealed that Kopechne was still alive for quite some time after the accident, and had suffocated trying to keep her head above water rather than drowned. But Kennedy set right to work trying to cover it all up with the reluctant help of his cousin, Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) and US attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), not reporting the accident until the next morning when Kopechne was already dead.

It isn't long before the Kennedy family goes into damage control mode, even going so far as to bring in former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) to guide the coverup. All the while Ted seems to be floundering, making a series of terrible decisions in his desperation to live up to the family name. Chappaquiddick works best when its examining the outrageous benefits of Kennedy's privilege, blowing the lid off the way politicians are able to manipulate media narratives to their own benefit (Kennedy had the good fortune to get into trouble when the moon landing was dominating headlines). As a character study it falters somewhat, saddling Kennedy with some crippling daddy issues but not going much deeper than that.

Still, Clarke's performance is strong, saddled with layers of pain and regret, and the script by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan mines some fascinating political drama out of the story. It may not provide much insight into Kennedy's lack of action, but it does provide a darkly funny and often chilling look at the effects of unchecked privilege and the manipulation of the media for political gain. Whether or not it was right for the voters of Massachusetts to overlook this event and continue to elect Senator Kennedy (who by all accounts went on to become an effective and well-respected representative for his constituents, earning the nickname "lion of the Senate") is left up to the audience, but one can't help but see modern parallels in the way politicians, regardless of party affiliation, continue to spin stories in the national media for their own benefit. Meanwhile, Americans slowly drown while their representatives squabble amongst themselves, trying to figure out how to turn their death into a political victory.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHAPPAQUIDDICK | Directed by John Curran | Stars Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, John Fiore, Taylor Nichols, Lexie Roth | Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong language, and historical smoking | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Spanish government official awaits a transfer in a Kafka-esque purgatory in rural Argentina in Lucrecia Martel's dazzlingly surreal Zama, a period drama that takes a withering look at contradictions of identity born of colonialism. Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) spends his days wandering around the rural Argentinian coastal town after requesting a transfer from from the territorial governor to the town of Lerma. Desperate to leave the uncivilized wilderness behind, Zama finds himself surrounded by similarly displaced Europeans who insist on adhering to old traditions - wearing fine clothing and impractical wigs, all languishing in the South American heat.

Yet Zama is not a European. He was born in Argentina to European parents, but has never actually been to his home continent. As one fellow Spaniard remarks, "“Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.” This ignites in Zama a deep crisis of identity. Is he European? Is he South American? How long must he stay in Hell's waiting room before he is finally free to be himself?

The problem is he has no idea who he is. Martel creates a haunting portrait of colonial ennui in which the colonists find themselves in an existential crisis of their own design. They enslave and subjugate the natives, but for what purpose? So they can rot in an early grave far from home, lost amid unfamiliar locations and traditions, dreaming of returning to the land of their birth? Martel traps her characters within the very frame itself, often framing Zama in medium close-up, as if he is too big to fit in the shot. By the time Martel frees him from his cinematic cage, it may be too late for him to save himself. And so he remains trapped in a world that seems strangely off-kilter, where characters repeat lines of dialogue for no reason (and don't appear to realize they have done so), and Zama seems to be the only one who notices. It's as if the spirit of Luis Buñuel has settled upon the film, recalling the surrealist satire of films like The Exterminating Angel, where characters become trapped in existential webs they've spun for themselves.

And yet what Martel has achieved here feels so singular. Zama is a dizzyingly original creation all its own, created through Martel's own lyrical screenplay (adapted from the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto) and her clever use of non-diegetic sound, which almost imperceptibly enhances the film's diegetic sound design to suggest a sense of creeping madness and displacement. Zama knows he does not belong here, yet doesn't even know enough about himself to articulate why. By the time tensions with natives come to a head, the whole colony is in a state of mental and emotional disarray, as Zama finds himself on a quixotic quest to track down a murderer that has already been executed (or has he?).

It is that sense of hazy confusion and collective societal amnesia that defines Zama. Martel tackles the inherent contradictions of colonialism and its destructive history by subtly tweaking its practitioners with sly humor and a devastating satirical eye. What, in the end, was the purpose of it all? The characters ponder that very question themselves, as Martel parses through the violent human subjugation and the arrogance of the "white man's burden" that defined European conquest, in the process delivering a towering work of magical realism that takes a hard look at our present through the lens of our past.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ZAMA | Directed by Lucretia Martel | Stars Daniel Giménez Cacho, Matheus Nachtergaele, Lola Dueñas, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Veronese | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

One of the most radical filmmakers of the 20th century gets a strangely conventional and inept biopic in the form of Michel Hazanavicius' Godard Mon Amour (formerly titled Redoutable), a film that seems to both revere and loathe the legendary Nouvelle Vague pioneer without actually understanding him.

Godard is on record as calling this film "a stupid, stupid idea," a pull-quote that the marketing team has seized on for the film's American posters. It's the kind of tactic that Godard would have loved once upon a time, but watching Godard Mon Amour, one is inclined to agree with him, and I was left baffled about who the film is for or why it was made.

The film is based on actress Anne Wiazemsky's autobiography, focusing on her romantic relationship with Godard that began during the filming of La Chinoise (1967). This was around the time when Godard was eschewing what he saw as the bourgeois affectations of mainstream cinema in favor of a more revolutionary style to support his Marxist-Leninist politics. Eventually, Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) and Godard (Louis Garrel) get married, and as the renowned firebrand's discontent with life and cinema (two things that are inexorably linked) continues to grow, his determination to upend the old order begins to put a strain on their relationship. Hazanavicius' Godard is a revolutionary coming to terms with the fact that he is now the old guard, desperately trying to hang on to his relevance but facing a movement that no longer has any use for him.

Or at least that's soul of Garrel's remarkable, eerily spot-on performance. The film itself, however, never allows itself to explore those avenues, instead treating Godard as a goofy, almost Chaplin-eque figure, the Little Tramp playing at Maoism, a wannabe revolutionary out of step with his own time who can't seem to keep his iconic dark glasses from breaking. By the time Godard forms the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin, the film has turned into an all-too-common melodrama (which Godard would certainly dismiss as bourgeois nonsense), with Wiazemsky, a great artist in her own right, playing the utterly cliched long-suffering wife to the difficult genius (a sexist trope brilliantly flipped on its head by Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread).

Hazanavicius has seemingly made an entire career out of emulating the styles of others, from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (easily his best film), to the Oscar-winning The Artist, Hazanavicius often falls into the trap of recreating outmoded styles without grounding them in their proper artistic context. In OSS 117 it didn't matter so much because the film was an outright lampoon. Yet The Artist, and perhaps even more egregiously in Godard Mon Amour, the filmmaker is simply playing the mimic. The black title cards with bold primary color writing, the non-diagetic sound, the droll, descriptive voice-overs, Hazavavicius deploys them liberally, but they serve no real purpose in the greater narrative. Godard stands naked pontificating on the  pointlessness of nudity in film. Garrel turns to the camera to sneer about actors saying any word you put in their mouths. Hazanavicius is using Godard's Brechtian techniques without any of the fire or zeal that made them work in the first place. Godard consistently used such dramatic irony, but never in quite such painfully obvious ways.

Certainly the Godard of this period is not exempt from criticism. The Dziga Vertov Group era is when Godard finally disappeared fully up his own ass, and his misogyny and anti-semitism has been well-documented. But the irreverence of Godard Mon Amour treats him as more of an effete bumbling pseudo-intellectual who doesn't understand the very revolution he's trying to lead. If the film begins with an appealing sense of self-awareness, it soon devolves into self-parody, and eventually into irreverent pablum. It not only does Godard a great disservice, but also doesn't seem to know who its audience is. Fans of Godard will surely hate it, and beyond cinephile crowds he's not exactly a household name. It's a strange and seemingly pointless exercise in self congratulation that turns the romantic travails of two legendary cinema artists into cheap tabloid fodder. The irascible Godard would not be pleased, and in this case, he would be absolutely right.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

GODARD MON AMOUR | Directed by Michel Hazanavicius | Stars  Louis Garrel, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Grégory Gadebois, Tanya Lopert, Micha Lescot, Louise Legendre | Not Rated | In French with English Subtitles | Opens Friday, April 20, in select theaters.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cinema Obscura is a 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 and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

Watching Hải Ninh's 1975 Vietnam war film, The Little Girl of Hanoi, from an American perspective is a somewhat unique and often disquieting experience. Right off the bat, we know that this is not the typical American Vietnam War film, as the opening titles read - "Honoring the heroes of Hanoi who defeated the American imperialist B-52 bombing raid on the capital during 12 historical days and nights, from December 18-25, 1972."

Many American films took a decidedly anti-war perspective in regards to Vietnam, especially those of Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone, whose films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July deflated the myth of American exceptionalism, while exploring the disillusion created by the war from a decidedly American perspective. Yet rarely have American audiences had the opportunity to consider the war from the Vietnamese perspective, especially the perspective of the North Vietnamese, who were the very "enemy" we were fighting against.

In The Little Girl of Hanoi, when you hear the words "the enemy," they're talking about Americans. There's something particularly disquieting about realizing the planes the North Vietnamese soldiers are heroically defending their homes from are in fact filled with American soldiers whose families back home would never see them again. But then that begs the question, why do we not feel the same pain for the Vietnamese soldiers when watching American films about the war? It hurts to see the deaths of American GIs cheered as a victory, especially considering that most didn't want to be there in the first place. But one can't help but stop and think that this is how the people of Vietnam must have felt too, as entires families were slaughtered wholesale during American bombing campaigns.

Those bombing campaigns serve as a chilling backdrop for Hải Ninh's film, a haunting tale of a young girl named Ha Ngoc (Lan Huong Nguyen) who is wandering the Vietnamese countryside looking for her father after her mother and sister were killed in the bombing of Hanoi. She is picked up by a kindhearted artilleryman (Thé Anh) who vows to help her find her father, and along the way her heartbreaking story unfolds in flashback. The film is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood in its portrait of childhood innocence destroyed by war. Ha Ngoc wanders through bombed out homes and schools, her happy memories of life before the way unfolding as flashbacks within flashbacks. It's a vision of Vietnam rarely seen in America, of the human toll of the American war effort and its effects not just on the North Vietnamese army, but on the civilians whose lives were forever changed by a full-scale war happening in their own backyard.

The wounds of the Vietnam war were still fresh in 1975 (America withdrew in April of that same year), and it should come as no surprise that the film was never released in American cinemas. We were still several years away from the American cinematic re-consideration of Vietnam, with The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) showcasing a more grim portrait of the war than had John Wayne's jingoistic propaganda film, The Green Berets (1968), earlier on in the conflict.

Make no mistake, The Little Girl of Hanoi is propaganda in its own right, but there's something much more subtle and lyrical about it than even the Soviets, whose style clearly influenced Hải Ninh, were ever able to achieve. At its heart, the film is a deeply humanistic and universal tale of suffering. Hải Ninh frames faces like Carl Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc, his camera lingering on Lan Huong Nguyen's tear-streaked visage as she gives one of the most remarkable child performances ever captured on film. By focusing on faces, he creates a link between character and audience; their suffering becomes our suffering, and through their anguished eyes we begin to see ourselves, understanding the depth of their confusion and pain.

No matter one's opinion of the Vietnam War (although at this point, I don't know how anyone can think of it as a positive), it's almost impossible not to understand the deep sense of suffering at its core. And even though America is clearly considered the enemy here (which from this perspective, is fair enough), it is a film of deep empathy. It is a tragedy on a staggering scale, of loss of human life for a reason that no one in the film seems to understand. It is a tale of the  human cost of American hubris, that offers a fascinating peek behind "enemy lines" from a perspective rarely seen. We might live in a society that still demonizes Jane Fonda as "Hanoi Jane" for visiting North Vietnamese troops during the war, but one can't help but feel that opening our collective eyes to films like The Little Girl of Hanoi might help people understand that there were needless losses on both sides of a terrible conflict that America should never have been a part of in the first place.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Phantom Thread is one of those films whose riches are best revealed over multiple viewings. On my first viewing, I was enraptured by director Paul Thomas Anderson's style, and by what is reportedly Daniel Day Lewis' final performance. Upon second viewing, I realized just how funny this film really is.  Once you know where everything is going, the threads of Anderson's gorgeous tapestry begin to reveal themselves. This is not the veneration of a "difficult genius" as some have accused it, it is a lampoon of those figures.

As Reynolds Woodcock, a temperamental English fashion designer, Day-Lewis has never been funnier. He's a domineering man who likes everything just so, a creature of habit and routine who flies into fits of rage whenever anything is out of place. On the surface, his relationship with his girlfriend, Alma (the luminous Vicky Krieps), a waitress he meets on a weekend in the country, seems emotionally abusive. He is prone to fits of anger, hurls insults when he is disturbed, and finds himself annoyed by even the most innocuous of sounds. Yet underneath the bluster is a little boy who just needs to be cared for, as evidenced by the unusual and vaguely kinky arrangement the two come to in the end involving poison mushrooms. That has been a point of contention for some, that the film is somehow an apologia for toxic masculinity. I think it's actually the opposite. Woodcock is a laughable figure, a petulant and immature child; Alma doesn't so much tame him as she does control him. She refuses to be bullied, and takes matters into her own hands to quell his childish outbursts. She's the one with the real power here, taking the great man down a peg an slyly deflating Reynolds' preening machismo.

The Blu-Ray thankfully preserves the grainy textures of Anderson's cinematography. This is one of the most tactile films I've ever seen, you can almost feel the fabric of Mark Bridges' sumptuous Oscar winning costumes between your fingers. Every thread of it is woven so carefully, so purposefully; Phantom Thread is an intoxicating brew of sensual pleasures. Day-Lewis is reliably brilliant, but it's Krieps and Lesley Manville as Reynolds' sister Cyril who really own this movie, outmaneuvering and shutting down Reynolds' ridiculousness at every turn. He's a petty tyrant, but Alma and Cyril not only know how to hold their own, they're the real brains of the operation.

The special features on the Blu-Ray offer little insight into the film, but why should it? The film stands as its own haunting enigma, both romantic, disturbing, and deeply funny. The special features offer brief glimpses into Anderson's process (a reel of camera tests featuring commentary by the filmmaker is especially fascinating), and a mock fashion documentary about the House of Woodcock that feels like a newsreel straight out of the 1950s. The real star here, of course, is the film, which remains one of the high points of cinema in recent memory. It's a luscious, bewitching concoction that's as rich as Reynolds' cream and as potent as Alma's poisoned mushrooms; in short - it's a brilliant and scintillating feast that will likely be long remembered.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

PHANTOM THREAD | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville | Rated R for language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Pictures.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The title of Blockers should really be Cock Blockers. Its marketing campaign has cheekily alluded to this, usually setting a rooster on top of the title in all of its advertising materials. But this R-rated tale of parents attempting to cock block their teenage daughters makes up for the PG-rated title in other ways. Blockers is American Pie for the #MeToo era, a film as much about sexual agency as it is about sex, tracking the efforts of three teenage girls who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

In American Pie, the horny high schoolers discovered that there's more to relationships than sex, whereas the lesson learned by the girls of Blockers is less about avoiding sex and more about choosing when they do it on their own terms. Their parents, however, aren't so keen on this idea, and when one of their daughters leaves their computer open, and iMessages start popping up with information about their agreement to lose their virginity at prom, the parents spring into action, crashing the prom in order to stop the kids from going through with it.

Hilarity, of course, ensues, as the decidedly uncool parents attempt to blend in with the partying high-schoolers, and valuable lessons are learned all around. Yet this female-led raunch-fest has a heart and a sense of purpose that is rare in these sort of teen sex comedies. In the end some of the teens decide to go ahead and lose their virginities, some choose to wait for another time, and some decide the time is right to come out of the closet, but the point is that it's their choice, and their parents learn the hard way that their children have grown up and are at last ready to leave the nest and make their own choices.

Lest you think Blockers is trying to wag its finger at us, it's a truly funny comedy that has plenty of R-rated laughs. Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz are terrific leads, playing the parents as sincerely concerned about their children rather than controlling helicopter parents. Director Kay Cannon, a writer making her directorial debut after penning all three Pitch Perfect films, balances the sexual humor with a sense of actual wit and humanity. This isn't Oscar Wilde, but there's a layer of sensitivity beneath its bawdy exterior that makes it surprisingly endearing.

Maybe it's a sign that I'm becoming an old fuddy-duddy, but I couldn't help but sympathize with the parents' desire to protect their children (the parties they attend are filled with hard drugs and alcohol), but in the end its message of body autonomy is both positive and well executed. It represents a natural progression of a genre that has long been trapped in regressive ideas of sexuality (especially female sexuality), and treats its characters not like objects, but like fully developed human beings. And that in itself makes Blockers something of an anomaly that deserves to be celebrated.

GRADE  - ★★★ (out of four)

BLOCKERS | Directed by Kay Cannon | Stars Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, John Cena, Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon, Graham Phillips | Rated R for crude and sexual content, and language throughout, drug content, teen partying, and some graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Erika Cohn's documentary, The Judge, introduces us to Kholoud Al-Faqih, who became the first ever female judge of an Islamic Shari'a court in Palestine. Shari'a law and women's equality aren't exactly two things western audiences would see as compatible, but Al-Faqih is looking to change that perception, bravely leading the charge for women's rights in the Muslim world.

Naturally, Al-Faqih is met with a lot of resistance, even from those who support her, which makes The Judge an often fascinating exploration of the tensions between tradition, religion, and the law. Female subjugation, Al-Faqih argues, isn't based on the Qu'ran, but on ancient patriarchal tradition, and hopes to upend centuries of inequality simply by being good at her job. Her presence on the court also helps ensure that a justice system by and for men understands where women are coming from, rather than simply protecting the interests of men.

That's what makes Al-Faqih so special, she isn't just there to make history or to be the first, she's there to provide a balancing viewpoint in an otherwise male-dominated system. In a world where men are allowed multiple wives as a way to prevent infidelity (a luxury that women are not afforded) Al-Faqih becomes a voice for those who have been without one since the time of Muhommad. At first, The Judge examines her normal caseload, which is often filled with family disputes, but soon becomes a riveting look at the backlash she faces when the men who originally advocated for her lose their power.

The men in the film seem surprised that Al-Faqih would have a problem with the lack of female judges. "Women have equality," they claim, "and we have no quotas for judges. What's the problem if all the judges are male if they see women as equal?" The Judge is a quiet but firm rebuke to those outmoded ideas, as Cohn explores the importance of female perspective when male privilege prevents them from seeing or understanding the obstacles women face, calling on all men to wake up and do better.

The Judge may take place in Palestine, but it's an eye-opening portrait of rampant male privilege and the struggle for women simply to be heard. It's also a deeply unnerving study of internalized sexism, as even some of the very women Al-Faqih seeks to help think that women are just too emotional to be judges. Yet Cohn does not let western audiences off the hook. Inequality may be more obviously pronounced in the Arab world than in the west, but it is no more insidious. In a world of seemingly exaggerated, normalized sexism, Cohn finds a universal plight among women struggling against a system created by men for their own benefit. It would be a mistake for American viewers to write this off as an exotic problem in a far away land, it's happening right in our own backyard. The Judge is a bracing study of a fearless pioneer whose quest for justice reverberates far beyond Palestine and into a world that is still woefully skewed in the favor of men.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE JUDGE | Directed by Erika Cohn | Not Rated | In Arabic w/English subtitles | Opens April 13 in New York City, additional cities to follow.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The topic of white radicalization and the rise of the far right has unfortunately become a major issue in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Europe has been suffering the consequences of white unease in the face of increased diversity and changing demographics for longer than America has, as previously majority white nations struggle with how to deal with an influx of immigrants and shifting viewpoints on civil rights.

It is into that witch's brew of simmering white resentment that Laurent Cantet (The Class) dives in his latest film, The Workshop. Here, a group of young people from varying backgrounds come together for a writing workshop with a famous author in La Ciotat, a former bustling port town in southern France. The author, Olivia (Marina Foïs), attempts to find common ground between her students by having them put their creatives minds together to create a unique work of art - the only stipulation is that it must take place in their hometown of La Ciotat. While most agree that the story must be a murder muster set in the shipyards, where aging dock workers are struggling with the loss of their union and their way of life, white local Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) is resistant. Why, he asks, should he care about a struggle with which he has no relation?

The writing sessions soon become fraught with tension and racial provocation, with Antoine demeaning the perspectives of others and hurling accusations at Muslim students of supporting terrorist acts. Soon, his anger threatens to boil over as he becomes strangely fixated on Olivia, harboring a love/hate relationship with her and her ideas that he can never quite articulate, and it isn't long before his confusion and suppressed rage becomes violent.

It's all a very tricky line for Cantet to walk, to explore the origins of white resentment without sympathizing with his protagonist. Like Olivia, Cantet seeks to understand without condoning, to probe without justifying. The takeaway here is that the kids are not all right. We may be in the midst of an inspiring student-led revolution against gun violence in the United States, but Cantet warns of a future divorced from our past. In the case of the French characters in The Workshop, angry young men with no real sense of history or belonging react violently to a changing world. They become radicalized by right-wing ideology that gives them a sense of community and purpose, the rigidity and order of fascism providing their lives with structure, uniting around the common enemy of multiculturalism.

It's fertile ground for cinematic drama, and the workshop scenes are indeed riveting, the ideas flying fast and furious, the resentments unearthed over French colonialism like a scab ripped of a raw wound. To his credit, Cantet does not attempt to solve the problem in the span of two hours, leaving us with more questions than he does answers. Antoine's surly sense of self-confidence belies a deep seated insecurity, and Cantet manages to empathize with his lack of direction in life without justifying his racism or xenophobia, nor does he ignore the perspectives of the black and Arab people in the group (or even the more progressive white kids). The film provides a fascinating microcosm of French society, uncovering old wounds and exploring the possibility of a more enlightened future.

All this makes one wish that Cantet had come at this from a more distinct point of view. The Workshop tends to treat its audience like dispassionate observers rather than participants in an ongoing dialogue, and its ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, a kind of ambiguous question mark that feels like unsatisfying resolution to Antoine's arc that solves his sense of powerlessness a bit too easily.  Cantet uses video games to suggest a kind of distance between what kids see online and the real world, a violent fantasy with no consequences. Antoine plays video games but mostly rambles around in their worlds, much like he does in real life, aimlessly searching for a goal, a purpose which he may never find. It's as if Antoine is merely an observer of his own life, allowing right-wing viral videos to stoke his feelings of loneliness and angst. Perhaps that is what Cantet is getting at here, his roving camera like an impartial 3rd party observing the often electrifying workshop sessions.

There are just so many ideas at play here, many that connect and some that don't, but you have to admire the way in which Cantet works through so many issues on so many different levels. Even when the film's allegiances remain frustratingly opaque, one can't help but be enraptured by the dexterity of the dialogue and the metaphorical structure of the craft. It's the kind of film that continues to grow in retrospect, its shifting points of view revealing previously unseen layers and thematic depth. The Workshop is so frighteningly timely that it's easy to become lost in the details of the drama, trying to fit each piece into a contemporary political context. And yet Cantet manages to deliver a story that is as universal as it is specific, offering a chilling and ultimately hopeful portrait of a world looking for a common connection in all the wrong places, when the community and belonging they so desperately seek has been right in front of them the whole time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WORKSHOP | Directed by Laurent Cantet | Stars Marina Foïs, Matthieu Lucci, Warda Rammach, Florian Beaujean, Julien Souve, Olivier Thouret, Issam Talbi | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

John Krasinski's A Quiet Place features what is arguably one of the most ingenious horror movie premises to come along in years. Set in a post-apocalyptic near future, humans are hunted by blind creatures that hunt using their extremely acute hearing. If you make a sound, you die.

It is into the world that the film drops us, with only the faintest hints at the disaster that created it. This is the daily reality for its characters now, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. That is perhaps Krasinski's greatest achievement here, bringing the idea of imagination back to mainstream cinema and using it so very, very well. We never do really get a good look at the creatures in full; Krasinski reveals them slowly, filming them in quick flashes or in pieces. First we just see a spindly arm, then a mouth, rarely the entire thing all at once. Krasinski understands that what we don't see, or in some cases hear, is far more frightening, and his use of sound as a dramatic device is brilliantly realized.

Krasinski himself stars as Lee Abbott, alongside his real-life spouse Emily Blunt as Lee's wife, Evelyn. Lee and Evelyn are two parents struggling to raise a family in a newly sound-free world. Their daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is deaf, which in this world is both a blessing and a curse. The family all speaks sign language (which comprises much of the film's dialogue), but Regan cannot hear if a sound has attracted the monsters, so Lee spends his days trying to perfect her hearing aids. Evelyn is also pregnant, and as the baby's due date draws near so too does the threat that the creatures may hear her, and soon the entire family is running for their lives as the mysterious monsters converge on their farm. If they can stay silent they will live, but make one sound, and they will all die.

A Quiet Place feels a bit like a modern Hitchcock, with Krasinski building tension through sound (or lack thereof). Much of the film is totally silent, the dialogue spoken in sign language, the only sound coming from the rustling of trees and grass, or Marco Beltrami's hushed score. This creates an almost unbearable sense of dread, keeping us on the edge of our seat waiting for the next burst of sound. By its very nature the film is rife with jump scares, but they're judiciously used and perfectly in tune with the story.

The film that it reminded me most of, however, is M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. The mysterious creatures, the farm setting, the creature's ultimate weakness, hews very close to the plot of Shyamalan's 2002 hit. The very premise sounds like the kind of thing that would spring from Shyamalan's imagination. And yet Krasinksi actually does Shyamalan one better. Whereas parts of Signs felt like a gimmick, A Quiet Place uses its high concept premise to the fullest. Its scares never feel cheap, its emotion never feels unearned. It's a remarkable achievement, both conceptually and artistically, a tightly controlled thrill ride that expertly builds tension in a dazzling highwire act of suspense. Krasinski uses classical Hollywood techniques to craft something that feels thrillingly unique, a bold formal experiment that pays off in spades.  Once this thing gets its hooks in you it doesn't let go, and Krasinski has now firmly established himself as an exciting new filmmaker to watch.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A QUIET PLACE | Directed by John Krasinski | Stars  Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Cade Woodward | Rated PG-13 for terror and some bloody images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.