Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Of all the Star Wars films of the Disney area, none has been plagued by such public behind-the-scenes problems as Solo: A Star Wars Story. The second standalone Star Wars adventure, following 2016's Rogue OneSolo was originally to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street). But after some creative differences with producer Kathleen Kennedy, the pair was fired despite having nearly completed filming. Kennedy brought on Ron Howard to complete the film, who re-worked and re-shot much of it to adjust the Lord and Miller's more improvisational, comedic tone.

Yet Howard is a capable professional, and having worked with both George Lucas and Harrison Ford on American Graffiti in 1973, was perhaps the filmmaker best suited to take on this project all along. He, along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and his son, Jonathan, return to the series' storied past to tell the tale of young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), making his way as an outlaw on his home planet of Corellia, and in the process push any thought of the production's troubled history out of mind.

After he is separated from his love, Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) during a failed escape attempt, he vows to return one day to rescue her. His plans get sidetracked when, after joining the Imperial Navy in order to become a pilot, he finds himself in the company of a band of outlaws led by Becket (Woody Harrelson), who recruits him and his newfound friend, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), to help him raid a fuel train before it can be stolen by a rival bandit known as Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). His partnership with Becket soon lands him in hot water with Becket's boss, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), who instructs him to pull off a nearly impossible heist on the mining planet of Kessel, or face the full fury of his intergalactic crime syndicate, Crimson Dawn.

Solo carefully charts the renowned rogue's back story, showing us how he meets his best friend, Chewbacca, how he was given his last name, how he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and how he made the infamous Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Much of this is fan service, of course, but what is so refreshing about Solo is that it isn't attempting to be a grandiose space opera in the typical Star Wars tradition. There's no mention of the Force, no lightsabers, no sense of mythical destiny, the fate of the galaxy is not at stake; rather Solo is an old-fashioned heist movie, a kind of western set in space (which is what the original Star Wars was meant to be).

It's a refreshingly small-scale film, or at least as small scale as a Star Wars film can be. Howard isn't so much interested in moving the pieces where they need to be for the next film (although the ending offers tantalizing possibilities for future sequels), he's more concerned with showing the audience a good time, and in that regard he delivers in spades. Ehrenreich can't quite fill Harrison Ford's shoes, but then again, who can? He does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of Han Solo as well as Ford's iconic performance, while Glover brings some entertaining new shades to Billy Dee Williams' suave swindler, Lando Calrissian (can we have a Lando movie next?).

Perhaps the film's greatest strength, however, is John Powell's score. Working from a jaunty new Han Solo theme by John Williams, Powell delivers thrilling musical accompaniment to Han's early adventures. Even though we mostly know the outcome here (we already know where Han ends up in a few years at the beginning of 1977's original Star Wars), but Howard and company manage to provide enough surprises to keep us on the edge of our seats (a World War I inspired battle sequence early in the film is especially ingenious). The film is set in a time where Imperial rule is pretty much accepted fact, and as such the film is mostly unconcerned with the greater goings on in the galaxy. There's something refreshing about a focused, small-scale adventure set in the Star Wars universe, and while Solo doesn't necessarily chart a bold new course for the franchise, it marks a welcome departure that is at once familiar and yet not quite like any Star Wars film we've seen before, taking it back to its Saturday matinee serial roots with a sense of breezy adventure and devil-may-care charm.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY | Directed by Ron Howard | Stars  Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, May 25, 2018

If the 2016 R-rated hit, Deadpool, poked a hole in superhero self-seriousness, its 2018 sequel, Deadpool 2, takes aim squarely at the superhero team-up films that have become so pervasive.  Just as crass and irreverent as ever, the new film puts Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) at odds with his old friends Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, both members of the X-Men, who prefer to do things by the book. They convince him to leave his outlaw ways behind and join the X-Men, and learn to work together with a team.

Deadpool, of course, would rather chart his own path, and when the X-Men are called to save an angry young mutant calling himself Firefist (Julian Dennison) who has lost control of his powers, ends up on the wrong side of the law when he kills one of the aides from Firefist's oppressive, anti-mutant school. Jailed alongside the the young rebel, they soon come under attack by a time travelling mutant named Cable (Josh Brolin), who has come back in time to kill Firefist while he is young to prevent him from slaughtering his family in the future. In order to stop Cable, Deadpool must, of course, assemble a new team of misfits, for only together can they be strong enough to take on not only Cable, but the increasingly angry Firefist and his new friend, Juggernaut (Reynolds again).

Or at least, that's what the film wants you to believe anyway, as it takes down Deadpool's newfound teammates with gruesome glee, poking merciless fun at everything from Justice League to The Avengers to X-Men. Yet filmmaker David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) doesn't just coast on occasionally obnoxious, meta-textual humor that defined the original film. Sure, it doesn't take itself seriously, but it actually takes the time to give us characters worth caring about. It doesn't pay much attention to time or place, or even series continuity (when does this film take place?), details are clearly beside the point here. There are still plenty of fourth-wall breaking quips from the "merc with a mouth," but underneath it all is a surprising amount of heart.

Reynolds is as roguishly charming as ever, but the real scene-stealers here are Dennison and Brolin, who deftly blur the lines between hero and villain, testing our allegiances and finding humanity in their respective characters. There are no villains here, merely characters with opposing goals, and Deadpool uses that to its advantage, finding a surprising amount of hope in a dark and seemingly hopeless world.

The wildly vulgar humor won't be for everyone, but Leitch does a fantastic job of balancing the film's tongue comedy with some genuine character moments and tightly choreographed action. Its themes of trying to prevent a child from becoming a murderer seems a but misplaced when Deadpool himself kills so dispassionately (not to mention the fact that the man he wants so desperately to kill is his abuser, the school's fanatical headmaster), which seems to be the kind of inconsistency the filmmakers would just as soon sweep under the rug. But Leitch is a fine stylist, and he manages to take the snickering teen boy humor of the original film and give it some much needed focus, resulting in a film that is more emotionally satisfying and more cohesive than its predecessor.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DEADPOOL 2 | Directed by David Leitch | Stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, T.J. Miller, Karan Soni | Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Book Club is one of those movies that works a lot better on paper than it does in execution. Bringing together Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen as four best friends who decide to spice up their mostly non-existent sex lives by reading E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy, the film seems like a can't-miss proposition on merit of its cast alone. Unfortunately, it relies on them a bit too heavily, coasting by on their charisma and chemistry, but failing to deliver a particularly satisfying story.

It plays a lot of narrative connect-the-dots as it attempts to emulate other female-centric comedies such as Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated. Unfortunately, Book Club doesn't have a talent like Nancy Meyers behind it, and the result hackneyed screenplay that leans heavily on silliness, without doing its cast much justice. Keaton leads the pack as Diane, a Santa Monica widow whose overprotective children (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton) want her to move to Arizona to live with them. Fonda is a wealthy hotel magnate named Vivian who loves sex but refuses to commit, even at 70. Bergen is a reserved federal judge named Sharon who believes she well past her prime, and Steenburgen is a retiree who wants to reignite the passion with her husband (Craig T. Nelson).

They all meet monthly for a book club meeting, but when Vivian introduces the BDSM romance, "Fifty Shades of Grey," they all find themselves looking for ways to rekindle the fire in their love lives. It isn't long before Diane meets a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia), which puts her at odds between her own happiness, and the happiness of her overbearing daughters.

It's a charming premise, and the cast throw themselves into it gamely, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The jokes are often hit-or-miss, and many are buried by the awkward way in which first-time filmmaker Bill Holderman tries to shoe-horn them into the action. Add that to some uneven editing and questionable green-screen effects and you have a film with a great cast, a great premise, and absolutely no idea what to do with either. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than in the company of these four fine actresses, but they deserve better than this; all four now in their seventies but just as vital and vibrant as ever. There’s something to be said about a film that celebrates the sexuality of women of a certain age, but ultimately it feels more like a missed opportunity. Come for the effortless rapport of the stars, but don't expect the film to fully deliver on their promise.

GRADE – ★★½ (out of four)

BOOK CLUB | Directed by Bill Holderman | Stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Alicia Silverstone | Rated PG-13 for sex-related material throughout, and for language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, May 17, 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. 

Including a film by a filmmaker as universally revered as Dziga Vertov in my Cinema Obscura series might raise a few eyebrows. While he is hardly a household name, Vertov is nevertheless regarded as one of the great filmmakers by cineastes and film historians, who consider his 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera, to be one of the greatest films ever made. On the other hand, Vertov is hardly a household name, and while most film historians tend to focus on Man with a Movie Camera, his later work is often just as fascinating from a historical point of view, if for somewhat different reasons.

By the time Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin in 1934, Stalin's regime was already cracking down on what they saw as "revolutionary" filmmaking. The Bolshevik revolution was over, and the Communist Soviet government was well established at that point. Stalin demanded that films be of a simple language, easily understood by the masses, and so Vertov's Kino-Eye theory was suddenly out of step with the very government it once helped prop up.

The idea of Kino-Eye was that film should eschew the romantic narratives of bourgeois filmmaking and embrace a sense of realism that was beneficial to the public. While Vertov's editing style was decidedly avant-garde, he flouted the idea of narrative cinema in favor of filming life as it happened, rather than try to stage it himself. These ideas would later be embraced by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin when they formed the short-lived Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 in an attempt to radicalize modern filmmaking for Marxist goals. But as Three Songs About Lenin shows, even Vertov was forced to abandon his own ideals as Stalin moved away from the founding principles of the very revolution he helped implement.

Vertov made Three Songs About Lenin to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's death, and peering through a modern lens, it almost resembles something one could imagine Fox News might make about Donald Trump. It is a shamelessly effusive hagiography of the Communist hero that makes him out to be more god than man, ironic given the atheistic bedrock of Soviet thought. It was also a deeply personal work for Vertov, who clearly venerated Lenin, but it's almost sad watching how the filmmaker's style was neutered by the government in order to make it more straightforward. In fact, its very core is a betrayal of Vertov's Kino-Eye principles. While much of the film is comprised of re-edited newsreel footage, much of it was staged for the sake of the film, a departure from the organic reality Vertov sought in his filmmaking.

The film is comprised of three segments, each featuring a folk song about Lenin from some far-flung corner of the USSR. It's interesting, now, watching a communist film decry Islam as a prison for women, and realize just how much the Soviet government shares with modern conservatives in the age of Trump. The first song is a celebration of a Muslim woman breaking free of her veil, its Islamaphobic undertones painting Muslims as barbaric and backwards, and the Soviets as benevolent liberators, a bit of agitprop self-aggrandizement that ultimately proved to be false.

And yet, even with its state-sanctioned roadblocks, there's something about Three Songs About Lenin that is hard to shake. Vertov was clearly a master of editing. Whereas his contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein, used montage as a storytelling tool, Vertov used it to illicit emotion. Much of the film was culled from newsreels, and Vertov managed to turn them into pure visual poetry. No one did propaganda films like the Soviets, and while government restrictions eventually tamped down the avant-garde elements that initially distinguished them, Vertov took the cards he was dealt and still managed to turn them into cinema magic. He conducts Three Songs like a symphony in three parts, eventually building to an ecstatic crescendo that admittedly veers into some pretty painful deification that seems even more cringe-worthy in retrospect, as the breathless pronouncements of the invincibility and permanence of Lenin's achievements now seem somewhat quaint.

Despite that fact, Three Songs About Lenin is often overlooked in favor of Vertov's more famous works. Man with a Movie Camera remains the ultimate representation of his Kino-Eye aesthetic, a pure union of captured image, found footage, and montage. But it is worth exploring the rest of his filmography. In his quest to find truth through cinema, Vertov often found the exact opposite, and is therefore a fascinating study in propaganda and where cinematic observation becomes manipulation through use of editing, cinematography, and music choices. Like the regime that gave birth to it, the film has been all but lost to history, forgotten and hacked to pieces in the years since its release. The most complete version, reconstructed from both the sound and silent versions, is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jacques Demy only made one English language film - 1969's Model Shop. Inspired by a trip to Los Angeles with his wife, Agnès Varda, Demy set out to make a film about the city, capturing its rhythms and textures, through the many drives he made through its streets.

It turned out to be a creatively rich vacation for both filmmakers, inspiring Varda to make Black Panthers, Uncle Yanco, and Lions Love (...and Lies). While Varda was more fascinated by the people of Los Angeles, Demy fell in love with the city itself, and created a kind of travelogue about a struggling architect trying to discover where he fits into the world. Like Demy himself, our sanguine hero, George (Gary Lockwood), is something of a stranger in a strange land, an artist without an outlet, a man who wants to create works of art, but remains unemployed because he doesn't want to waste his talents designing gas stations.

He finds his inspiration in a seedy photography studio where men are invited to take pictures of scantily clad models - $12 for 15 minutes, camera and film included. It is there where George meets Lola (Anouk Aimée, reprising her role from Demy's 1961 film, Lola), a model trying to make ends meet so she can return to France to see her son. George becomes increasingly infatuated with her, leaving behind his frustrated girlfriend to pay visits to Lola's studio. When George receives his draft notice summoning him to Vietnam, he decides to make one last ditch effort to win Lola's affections, even if both of them are headed to opposite ends of the world.

Model Shop is a film of maybes and what ifs, as much about "the one that got away" as it is about finding a connection, no matter how brief, in a world of uncertainty. Demy eschews his typically vibrant color schemes here, employing them only within the confines of the photography studio (a fantasy world that represents a kind of escape), instead creating a kind of drab realism to accompany the drudgery of George's daily life. And yet despite the fact that George lives next to an oil refinery, Demy clearly loves the world he's plunging us into. There's a sense of Vietnam-era ennui at work here, a kind of innocence lost in a teeming, once vibrant city. George is a creative stifled by a world that simply wants him to conform and punch the clock (self-reliance, boot-straps, and all that), and the call of the Army makes his mortality come into sharp focus.

There's an almost neo-realist vibe to Model Shop, something that is very different from Demy's typical filmmaking vocabulary. And yet is always vibrantly alive, capturing the indelible rhythm and hues of the streets of LA with as much loving detail as anything in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Here, Demy shows that he doesn't need cotton-candy colors to create something memorable, here all he needs are the streets themselves, and the appealingly inscrutable face of Gary Lockwood, on which to paint something beautiful. It's a haunting and often deeply reflective meditation on the American dream that is as timely now as ever.

GRADE -  ★★★½ (out of four)

MODEL SHOP | Directed by Jacques Demy | Stars Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée, Alexandra Hay, Carol Cole | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

I've been putting off writing about Chloé Zhao's The Rider. Not because I didn't have anything to say about it, but because the more I reflected on it, the more I realized I perhaps had too much to say. By the time the credits rolled, I had so many thoughts and feelings swimming around in my head, that the task of filtering through them all and organizing them into some coherent form seemed like a Sisyphean task; no sooner than one thought congealed, then another idea appeared like a film critic game of whack-a-mole.

Such is the wonder and beauty of Zhao's sophomore feature (after her 2015 debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me), a rough-hewn elegy for the American west and the archetypal masculine mystique of the cowboy. At a time when toxic masculinity and its devastating effects dominate the news, Zhao, who was born in China before immigrating to the United States to study political science at Mount Holyoke College, has crafted something deeply special a film that offers more insight into wounded masculinity than just about anything else in recent memory. Forget "Hillbilly Elegy," The Rider is the profound exploration of rural ennui we need.

The plot itself isn't particularly remarkable - a star rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) takes a fall and finds himself unable to get back into the ring. With his livelihood shattered, so too is his identity, and he finds himself taking up odd jobs and working minimum wage jobs in grocery stores to make ends meet until he heals. But when he learns that he may never be able to ride again, he soon faces an existential crisis that will either lead him down a path of despair, or toward a whole new life.

We've seen films like this before, a star athlete gets struck down in their prime and must learn to reinvent themselves. But rarely do these films have such a quiet authenticity as The Rider. There's a heartfelt honesty at the core of Zhao's film, and it starts with the cast, each playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Brady, his father Wayne, and his sister Lilly, are the heart and soul of the film, and it is their careworn realness that makes the film so unique. Zhao's first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, was made after living amongst the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Zhao followed a similar process for The Rider, resulting in a film that seems to live and breathe its subject.

Zhao deftly explores the wounds to Brady's masculinity after his injury, and how that feeling of helplessness ties into his own lack of direction and inability to cope with losing the core of his identity. This isn't one of those breathless, post-Trump "plight of the forgotten man" screeds, in Zhao's capable hands this is about what that very mentality has made us lose. Through Jandreau's achingly authentic performance and some truly breathtaking cinematography by Joshua James Richards (God's Own Country), The Rider paints a heartbreaking portrait of a generation of young men searching for their identity, set against the backdrop of the fading American West. It's a delicate and tremulous thing, at once confident and gentle, lyrically composed yet as stoic as the American masculine ideal it so carefully deconstructs. This is a major film by a major filmmaker, a stirring and compelling search for the idea of the American man at a time when toxic masculinity has brought us so much ill through its anger and fragility. Zhao seeks to find another path forward through the myths of our past, pining not for an America that once was, but for an America that still could be.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE RIDER | Directed by Chloé Zhao | Stars Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Cat Clifford | Rated R for language and drug use | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Hong Sangsoo's The Day After is the third film in what has become an unofficial trilogy dealing with the filmmaker's much publicized 2015 extramarital affair with actress Kim Min-hee, following On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) and Claire's Camera (2018). Of the three, The Day After stands out the most because it is something of a return to form for Hong, embracing the elliptical narratives and unconventional sense of time that have often distinguished his previous films, but also because it is less an apologia for his infidelity and more of an exploration of the collateral damage surrounding the affair.

The Day After centers around Kim Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo), a publisher who has just ended a long-time affair with an employee. He hires a young woman named Song Areum (Kim Min-hee) to replace her, and on her first day she becomes the victim of mistaken identity as his wife at long last learns of the affair, and shows up at the office to confront the other woman.

Hong's use of fractured time creates an air of confusion that leads to Areum being mistaken for Bongwan's mistress, but it also allows the audience to observe the true ramifications of Areum's infidelity, as it not only affects the three people directly involved, but those around them as well. Of the three films, The Day After is the one in which Hong seems to take the most responsibility for his actions, and even though Bongwan serves as a sort of stand-in for Hong himself, his character isn't so much the focus of the film as it is the emotional fallout from his actions.

Hong continues to use Kim Min-hee herself in each of these films, and yet here, by casting her as the woman unfairly punished for another's actions, he seems to absolve her of her sins. Of the three films, On the Beach at Night Alone feels like the most personal and most accomplished, the work of two artists laying their souls bare, while Claire's Camera is the most carefree and self-effacing; but there's something deeply painful lurking beneath the surface of The Day After that is hard to shake. It is arguably the most damning of the three films, as if Hong is taking sole responsibility for his actions and acknowledging the ripple effect of the pain he caused. It is a film filled with sadness and regret - if On the Beach at Night Alone reflected on how everything went wrong, and Claire's Camera explored the absurdities of the public reaction, then The Day After finally lays all of Hong's cards on the table in a final mea culpa.

Hong's affair has proven to be creatively fertile ground for the filmmaker, but one can't help but hope that he leaves it behind after this. Three films, examining the event from multiples angles, has given the filmmaker a chance to exorcise his own demons and to explore the causes and effects of infidelity not just from his own perspective, but from Kim's as well, who has been a willing and able creative parter through it all. Seen as three parts of one whole, these films represent one of the most remarkable and personal works by any filmmaker in recent memory, taken individually, they are extraordinary reflections of their creator who is working through his own issues through his chosen creative medium, and the results are a kind of filmed therapy that offers a  unique window into the soul of an artist.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DAY AFTER | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Sae-byuk, Cho Yun-hee | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, May 11, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The third and final film in the Fifty Shades trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed is the first film in the franchise to finally embrace its own inherent ridiculousness. Whereas Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker often took themselves painfully serious, Fifty Shades Freed takes the series in some wild new directions, moving away from the romantic tension between Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and into action/thriller territory as Grey's past begins to catch up to him.

The film picks up on some threads that were first hinted at in its otherwise uneventful predecessor, Fifty Shades Darker, with a stalker who seems to have a grudge against the Grey family. It turns out that Ana's former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), was once in foster care with Christian, long before he became the lecherous editor who tried to rape Ana in the previous film. Now he's out for revenge against Christian for being adopted and having a great life that he feels should have been his, and against Ana for taking his job. It's a hilariously thin motivation, almost completely lacking in anything resembling logic, especially considering the ludicrous lengths he goes to in order to take down the Greys, but this isn't exactly a franchise known for its depth.

The problem has always been the source material, and while Sam Taylor-Johnson's original film tried to bring some class to the cringeworthy prose of its source novel, these movies have all been hobbled from the outset by substandard material. And despite their kinky reputation and gratuitous sex scenes, they're actually a remarkably conservative depiction of family relationships. The Fifty Shades series is a bourgeois, suburban take on sexual fetishes and BDSM that thinks it's being a lot edgier than it actually is. Which is part of what makes it so fascinating - it thinks it's being bold and sexual but it's actually about as vanilla as it can get, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Fifty Shades Freed, which ties down our kinky heroes in a bland, traditional relationship with the occasional spanking thrown in.

And yet, you have to hand it to director James Foley for going full-on pulp fiction camp in the finale of a series that never seemed to be aware of how ridiculous it was. With its kidnappings, extortions, and attempted murders, Fifty Shades Freed is just as silly as it needs to be - a quality that sets it apart from its predecessors. These movies were never going to be great art, but there's something delightfully entertaining about the way in which it finally stops trying to be taken seriously. Here, Fifty Shades becomes the over-the-top soap opera it always should have been. Ana and Christian's relationship still isn't particularly interesting, and it still treats sexual kink with all the depth of a snickering middle-schooler who just discovered the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, but at least this one bothers to be fun, which is more than can be said for its predecessors, as evidenced by the finale montage that desperately tries to make the adventures of the previous films look interesting. The new Blu-Ray release adds little insight into the film itself, featuring a few perfunctory behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as an unrated cut of the film with 5 minutes of new footage not included in the theatrical release.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

FIFTY SHADES FREED | Directed by James Foley | Stars Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Arielle Kebbel, Brant Daugherty, Fay Masterson, Max Martini | Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD May 8.

  • An Intimate Conversation with EL James and Eric Johnson – A casual conversation between EL and Eric discussing the film, favorite moments, themes, etc.
  • Music Videos
    • "For You (Fifty Shades Freed)" - Liam Payne & Rita Ora
    • "Capital Letters" - Hailee Steinfeld & BloodPop®
    • "Heaven" - Julia Michaels
  • Deleted Scene
  • The Final Climax – Fans can follow not only Ana and Christian, but also both new and familiar characters behind-the-scenes throughout their journey of Fifty Shades Freed
    • The Wedding: Take a closer look at the beautiful wedding scene with the production and costume designers – from the breathtaking venue, gorgeous gown and the custom-designed floral arrangements
    • Honeymoon: Travel along with the newlyweds and soak up the sun in the gorgeous French Riviera. Discover the challenge production faced with accessing locations, and the search for the perfect honeymoon yacht
    • Mr. & Mrs. Grey: After the wedding and the honeymoon, what is it really like to be married? Find out how life in the penthouse changes once Ana moves in
    • Ana Takes Charge: Director James Foley and Costume Designer Shay Cunliffe explore Ana’s transformation and growth into a powerful businesswoman
    • Ana & Mr. Hyde: Go behind the scenes and find out the secrets about what makes Jake Hyde tick
    • Aspen in Whistler: Take a look at how the filmmakers and set decorator used Whistler, Vancouver as a stand-in for snowy Aspen, and discover the famous musician whose home was transformed into Christian’s mansion
    • Ana's Revelation: Ana and Christian face their biggest challenge yet. Author EL James takes us through the choice that Ana must make and how the couple’s power dynamic shifts
    • Resolution: The final showdown between Ana and Jack brings the two face-to-face and Ana will do whatever it takes to protect Christian, his family, and her future
    • The Meaning of Freed: The cast and filmmakers share what being FREED really means for both Ana and Christian
    • Christian & Ana By Jamie & Dakota – Revisit the previous films and learn how both Ana and Christian have changed… and how both actors have lived through the experience

Saturday, May 05, 2018

A struggling mom gets an unexpected helping hand in Jason Reitman's wise and altogether wonderful Tully. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Tully stars Charlize Theron as Marlo, a mother of three who is overwhelmed by her maternal responsibilities, barely keeping up with feeding and taking care of her kids' special needs, not to mention their issues at school, while her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), can barely be bothered to do their schoolwork with them at night before disappearing upstairs to play video games. Marlo is at her wits' end, when her brother, a man she had written off as pretentiously bourgeois, hires a night nanny for her birthday.

Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a young woman who can seemingly do everything. Like a modern day Mary Poppins, Tully swoops in to take care of not only Marlo's newest baby, but Marlo herself, allowing her to finally get some much needed rest. But that's not all Tully does, she also manages to reawaken Marlo's lust for life, her love for her family, and perhaps most importantly, her love for herself.

Using a kind of magical realism, Reitman takes a hilarious and often moving peek behind the curtain of motherhood, chronicling the every day struggle to keep all the plates spinning and all the balls in the air. Tully finds a distinctive beauty in the mundaneness of parenthood, when all the parenting advice, trendy techniques, and conventional wisdom fail and life throws constant, unexpected curveballs, that is where the true beauty of having a family often lies.

Yet Tully isn't so much about a woman learning to appreciate her family, it's about a woman learning to appreciate herself, and discovering that she had the strength to overcome life's challenges hidden within herself all along. It's also about the importance of self-care - Marlo sacrifices so much for her family that she often forgets to take care of herself, and the entire family unit suffers as a result. Much has been said about the third act twist, but rather than finding it cheap as some have, I found it quietly magical, a perfect cap for the film's thematic heart.

Theron is a marvel, as always, turning in a weary, un-self conscious performance as a woman at the end of her rope rediscovering the strength within herself. Her path of discovery anchors the film as a celebration of motherhood in all its messy glory. It's the kind of film that sneaks up on you, a drama disguised as a comedy that packs a powerful emotional wallop, and you may find yourself wanting to call your own mother afterward to thank her (or perhaps apologize). It's easily Reitman's best work since Thank You for Smoking, and features Cody's most mature and insightful writing yet. It treats the very idea of motherhood with a rare sense of dignity and humanity that never slips into schmaltz or patronization - this is just lovely, honest filmmaking; a special work whose memory will linger long after the credits have rolled.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TULLY | Directed by Jason Reitman | Stars Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Colleen Wheeler, Elaine Tan | Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Betsy West and Julie Cohen's new documentary, RBG, begins with a litany of conservative commentators hurling insults at Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, calling her "a witch," "a monster," "an evildoer," "wicked," "anti-American," "an absolute disgrace to the supreme court," and even "a zombie."

Afterward, the film never really returns to this conservative backlash (except for one brief clip of President Trump whining about Ginsburg criticizing him), instead spending the next hour-and-a-half making them look foolish simply by demonstrating Ginsburg's character. Using her 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing as a framing device, RBG charts Ginsburg's career from her childhood, to Harvard Law School, to her tenure as a law professor, all the way to the United States Supreme Court and her current status as a political rock star often referred to as the "Notorious R.B.G."

Ginsburg is a soft-spoken, unassuming figure, yet deeply committed to the cause of equality under the law. Her diminutive figure belies a tenacity and strength that has made her a fierce advocate for women and minorities well into her 80s. While her "notorious" reputation has mostly been a product of her status as a vocal dissenter on a conservative leaning Supreme Court, RBG examines her life and career as a lawyer during a time when women were looked down upon for pursuing a career in the male-dominated field of law. She argued in front of the Supreme Court six times (winning five cases) in the name of women's rights, and married a fellow law student who was never intimated by her greater reputation.

The film is a loving and at times glowing tribute to a great woman, but never tips into hagiography. Through her own words and the words of those who worked with (and at times against) her, RBG paints an indelible portrait of a woman dedicated to public service who worked to befriend those across the aisle so as to be a more persuasive voice for those with whom she disagreed. Despite their fundamental disagreement about the very nature of the Constitution, Ginsburg became close friends with conservative firebrand, Antonin Scalia, a rare showing of non-partisan camaraderie in an increasingly polarized world.

RBG will doubtlessly be 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 a 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.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

RBG | Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen | Not Rated | Opens Friday, May 4, in select cities.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

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. In the capable hands of actress Paulina García, who brought such life to Sebastián Lelio's Gloria (2013), Teresa's quiet desperation becomes the stuff of great cinema. It's such a pleasure to watch her relationship with the salesman, El Gringo (Claudio Rissi) grow. Her panic soon fades into begrudging contentment, traveling across the desert with El Gringo, the faint smile on her face suggesting a woman of a certain age feeling beautiful and desirable once again.

There's a certain wonder in her performance that is truly disarming - here is a woman who thought she was past her prime, always putting the needs of others first, who suddenly finds herself the object of desire for a man for the first time in years. It's an alien feeling that comes across as both joy and confusion, and watching the emotional rollercoaster play out on García's face is something special indeed, especially as she realizes that she does not necessarily need that validation to feel beautiful in her own right.

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. The desert, often thought of as a barren wasteland, may seem like the location of a dark night of the soul for Teresa, but it becomes a fertile place of self discovery, its stark dangers and loneliness flowering into a rebirth for a woman who thought her life was over.

That's the magic of The Desert Bride, the pocketbook is ultimately beside the point, it's a Macguffin for spiritual and emotional journey that is at once deeply moving and powerfully told. Atán and Pivato take a story of endings and spin it into a story of beginnings. What begins as a drab earth tone palate turns to a film bursting with color as Teresa once again begins to bloom in the harsh landscape. Enough pressure eventually turns sand into diamonds, to paraphrase an old saying, and Atán and Pivato memorably evoke that idea here through García's wondrous performance; a hushed and restrained portrait of grief and confusion that finds, if only for a moment, a respite for a weary and lonely heart who discovers that it's never too late to start over.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DESERT BRIDE | Directed by Cecilia Atán, Valeria Pivato | Stars Paulina García, Claudio Rissi | Not Rated | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Friday, May 4, in select cities.