Friday, June 22, 2018

It should be clear by now that Jurassic Park is one of those films that will never be topped. Just as its sequel, The Lost World, was a disappointment following the success of the original, so too is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom a disappointment in the wake of 2015's Jurassic World.

Jurassic World did a terrific job of repackaging the magic of the original Jurassic Park, reworking its predecessor's plot while updating the franchise for the 21st century. It was itself a meta-commentary on franchise filmmaking, and demands from both studios and audiences for bigger, louder, faster entertainment. Fallen Kingdom is all of those things, but without the nostalgic soul and reverence for its roots that made Jurassic World so special.

Like The Lost WorldFallen Kingdom takes a darker turn, leaving the sense of wonder and awe behind in favor of something more akin to gothic horror. And like The Lost World, the characters of Fallen Kingdom return to the island on a rescue mission, this time in an attempt to save the dinosaurs from final extinction before an active volcano completely wipes out Isla Nublar. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now leading an activist group to protect the dinosaurs, recruits Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to return to the island in order to rescue his beloved velociraptor, Blue, so she can be relocated to another island that will act as a biological preserve where the animals can be isolated and protected.

Her billionaire benefactor, on the other hand, has other plans - scheming to bring the dinosaurs back to the mainland in order to harvest their DNA and sell them to the highest bidder. It falls to Claire and Owen to stop these greedy mercenaries before they unleash a breed of dinosaur into the wild, weaponized for rogue governments and terrorist organizations.

You have to give credit to director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) for trying something new here; the second half of Fallen Kingdom plays out like a classic Universal monster movie, spooky old mansion and all. The problem here is that the pacing is wildly uneven. Bayona runs the film full throttle from the very first scene and never lets up. As a result there is very little exposition or build-up of suspense. This not only creates fatigue in the audience, it opens up massive lapses in logic (the screenplay by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow also does it no favors). For instance, the series has already established that there is a second island that has been set aside as a biological preserve for these animals - why spend so much time trying to extract them from an island that is about to explode when there is another perfectly good island with dinosaurs on it that they can use? It sets the entire film up on a flimsy premise to begin with that crumbles like a house of cards when put in context with the rest of the series.

The film also weaponizes its nostalgia factor in ways that Jurassic World did not (or at least did more skillfully). How many times does the t-rex need to come to the rescue and strike its iconic pose? The t-rex no longer inspires any fear or awe, it's just a deus ex machina device for whenever the filmmakers paint themselves into a corner and feel like reminding us of better times and better films.

That's not to say that Fallen Kingdom doesn't have its share of spectacular set-pieces. The destruction of Isla Nublar is appropriately harrowing (but feels like a climax in the middle of the film), and the film's second half is a beautifully shot homage to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s and 40s. Michael Giacchino's thundering score also introduces a gothic choir into the proceedings to add to the horror elements. But it's all in service of an overstuffed, illogical narrative. Much was made about Fallen Kingdom featuring more dinosaurs than any other Jurassic Park film, but in this case more is not necessarily better. Jurassic Park used its dinos sparingly but effectively - here it just feels like they're throwing in everything but the kitchen sink to see what sticks. It may not be as goofy as the much maligned Jurassic Park III, but it's exactly the kind of soulless spectacle that Jurassic World satirized; big, loud, action-packed, but completely lacking in the heart that has made this series special.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM | Stars Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Isabella Sermon, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, BD Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril | Opens today, June 22, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Brandon De Wilde and Carol Lynley in Blue Denim (1959)

As filmmakers go, Philip Dunne is not exactly a household name, even among critics and cinephiles. He is mostly known as a screenwriter, having penned the screenplays for films like How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Robe. His directorial career is lesser known, and while he was a far more prolific writer than he was a director, he placed a unique stamp on the studio melodramas of the 1950s.

Twilight Time recently released two of his films on limited edition Blu-Ray - Hilda Crane (1956) and Blue Denim (1959). Both films are distinctly of their time, and yet somehow ahead of it. Hilda Crane is the story of a woman who returns to her hometown after two failed marriages to get a fresh start. The eponymous heroine (Jean Simmons) wants to "love like a man," playing the field without the need of being tied down. But the small minds that populate her small town won't hear of it, and when Hilda falls in love with two different men, a former flame (Guy Madison)  and a handsome French professor (Jean-Pierre Aumont), it creates a huge scandal and threatens to ruin her life completely.

Hilda Crane feels remarkably progressive at its heart. While it never really escapes its soap opera veneer (Dunne was no Douglas Sirk), the film's insistence that Hilda is doing nothing wrong seems somehow out of step with the mores of the era. The film was naturally advertised with an air of salaciousness, but it's not really - it's just a wildly over-the-top melodrama with a female protagonist who finds herself trapped in a world that expects different behavior from women than men.

It never really gets the chance to dealt with its themes on a deeper level, focusing instead on high drama and soapy histrionics. The same cannot be said, however, for Blue Denim. Starring Brandon De Wilde (Shane) and Carol Lynley (The Poseidon Adventure), as two teenagers in love (and in trouble), Blue Denim is a teen pregnancy drama that has all the trappings of an after-school special. And yet somehow, in 1959, Dunne avoided finger-wagging or moralizing. The film is based on a play by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble, and chronicles the young couple's terror and desperation when they realize what they have done, and what that means for the rest of their lives.

Unsure of what to do and unable to confess to their parents, they instead seek a back-alley abortion. While the word "abortion" is never uttered in the film, the idea feels somehow radical, even subversive. And while most characters in the film resist the idea ("it's nothing less than murder!" one of them shouts at one point), it is not the act of abortion itself that is seen as the problem as much as the danger of an underground procedure. Abortion was, after all, illegal in 1959, and the danger of one of these procedures hangs heavy over the film.

Dunne treats it all with a remarkable sensitivity, and while there are certainly melodramatic elements at work here, Blue Denim acknowledges its characters' humanity. Rather than scolding them for the choice to have premarital sex, it mourns the loss of their future due to their lack of education. Neither of them really know what they're doing, and in a moment of passion see their future go up in smoke, now faced with the reality of raising a family rather than pursuing an education and a career.

Of course, this being 1959, what is really being mourned here is the loss of De Wilde's future rather than Lynley's, but you have to admire Dunne's refusal to condemn his young characters' choices - in fact he even goes so far as to acknowledge Lynley's choice being the most important part of the whole thing, rather than what her parents or her boyfriend want. An early CinemaScope film, Dunne still tends to position the figures near the center of the frame, doing little with the added widescreen space. Yet it is in Blue Denim that Dunne's true directorial talent shines through. While he is most remembered as a great screenwriter, his tender, unassuming direction of Blue Denim shows that he was a filmmaker ahead of his time, slyly subverting the era's strict moral code through films that treated sensational subjects with grace and dignity, even if his reach often exceeded his grasp.

HILDA CRANE - ★★½ (out of four)
BLUE DENIM - ★★★ (out of four)

Hilda Crane and Blue Denim are both available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What to do with the troublesome legacy of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation?

It is by any measure a virulently racist film. It has always been an uncomfortable film to watch, but it has been made even more so in the Trump era, with its celebration of lynching and voter intimidation, and imagery of a heroic Ku Klux Klan riding in to save innocent white folk from savage black ruffians. Here, simmering white resentment for the glorious lost cause of the Confederacy takes center stage, bringing the current resurgence of white nationalism into sharper focus. It was a phenomenon in its time, but even then not without controversy. It was rightfully protested by the NAACP, a reaction that so blindsided Griffith that he made his next film, Intolerance, as a sort of defense. And yet, Griffith's complete surprise that anyone would have been offended by Birth of a Nation is telling. It is a film where black people are seen as inhuman monsters at worst, uppity social climbers who don’t know their place at best, with scheming mulattos and shiftless black soldiers bent on revenge against the white man being the norm. Griffith went to to qualify the content with an intertitle claiming that it “represents no race of today” as if that somehow excused its racism. It’s the same excuse used by racists today, who insist they don’t hate black people, they’re just stating “facts.”

Intolerance has taken Birth’s place on most Greatest Films of All Time lists, but it’s impossible to ignore that fact that Birth came first. Intolerance is an undeniably great film, but Birth of a Nation was the real groundbreaker, and we ignore that at our own peril. It’s certainly easier to point to Intolerance as the true masterwork, but doing so is almost a cop-out so as to avoid discussion of its infinitely more problematic and controversial predecessor. Yet Birth of a Nation is a film that deserves, no demands, to be acknowledged, if for no other reason than to come to terms with the racist history it represents.

Birth of a Nation is undoubtedly a great film. It is an artistic and technical triumph that created the template for almost every action film since, and its influence is still felt today. Its heart-pounding cross-cutting between three different locations and events for its astonishing climax was groundbreaking in its day, and manages to tell a streamlined story without confusing the audience by switching locations mid-scene. Just look at The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars for an example - their climaxes rely on techniques pioneered by Griffith over 100 years ago.

And yet, Griffith’s powerful artistry was in service of something truly vile, not unlike the powerful imagery of Leni Riefenstahl, who used her undeniable talent to further the Nazi cause. Not all art serves the common good. Great art can be, at its core, evil. Therein lies the problem with The Birth of a Nation. It is an artistically daring, beautifully crafted, evil film. So where does that leave us as a modern audience?

Do we relegate it to the dustbin of history, ignored and forgotten despite its undeniable historical significance? Or do we resurrect it so we can understand it for what it is? I think it belongs in a museum (figuratively speaking), much like the confederate monuments it now recalls, where it can be learned from in a proper academic setting. Its craft and artistry are impeccable, but it remains one of the most ideologically reprehensible films ever made. That complicated legacy makes The Birth of a Nation a difficult one to discuss, because it represents the dehumanization of an entire race. But to ignore it is to ignore the problematic roots of not only our cinematic history, but of America itself. It says a lot about where we come from, and how we got where we are today. To watch the film in 2018 is to be forced to grapple with our racist past, and the origins of an art form and a nation built on exploitation and subjugation of people of color. It is a legacy that must be acknowledged, for without an understanding of that history we can never truly atone and move forward. To forget is to ignore the pain and suffering of millions, and the roots of systemic racism that persists today.

But why release it on Blu-Ray now, at a time when such attitudes are returning to the mainstream? Is it not like unearthing and celebrating a Confederate monument? Yes and no. Given its proper context, The Birth of a Nation is a chilling reminder of the power of propaganda, and a warning of the dangers of festering white resentment. It explains so much about our current society, and perhaps unwittingly, offers a roadmap to combat it. To the privileged, equality can feel like oppression, and while Griffith may have felt quite differently, his film lays bare the ugliness of white nationalism even as it strives to do the opposite. It is a film of fearsome power, a work of art that is directly responsible for the resurgence of the KKK in its time. It is a film with blood on its hands, a work of great and terrible beauty that has never looked better than it does in this 100th anniversary restoration by Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow.

Tread lightly in revisiting this film. Twilight Time has done an exemplary job of placing the film in its proper historical context, and the disc is perhaps the finest the label has ever produced. Nevertheless, it conjures horrifying images that are especially difficult to stomach in the age of Trump. But we must understand its place in our history. We must study and appreciate its dark power. And we must not allow it to happen again.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE BIRTH OF A NATION | Directed by D.W. Griffith | Stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, Joseph Henabery | Now available on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Special features:
  • Disc 1: The Feature Film (191 Minutes) Restored by Patrick Stanbury With the Original Joseph Carl Briel Score, conducted by John Lanchbery in Both 5.1 and 2.0 Audio 
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Prologue 
  • D.W. Griffith in conversation with Walter Huston, star of his 1930 sound film Abraham Lincoln. 
  • 1930 Sound Reissue Intermission and Introduction to Act 2 
  • Huston recites sections from Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People. 
  • Disc 2: Outtakes and Original Camera Tests Stills and Collections Gallery 
  • Silent Feature: The Coward (1915 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Reginald Barker) Released nine months after The Birth of a Nation premiered, this Civil War drama concerns the weak-willed son (Charles Ray) of a Southern officer (Frank Keenan), forced to enlist at gunpoint, and coming to terms with cowardice. 
  • Silent Short: The Rose of Kentucky (1911 ~ Directed by D.W. Griffith) Three years before shooting on Birth began, Griffith made his only other film featuring the Klan, in this case labeled the Night Riders, and cast as the villains. 
  • Silent Short: Stolen Glory (1912 ~ Directed by Mack Sennett) Sennett, who had worked under Griffith at Biograph, had a great fondness for improvising comedy shorts around actual events, in this case a parade of the Grand Army of the Republic, the principal veterans organization for those who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. 
  • Silent Short: The Drummer of the 8th Original Edit, The Drummer of the 8th 2015 Re-Edit (1913 ~ Produced by Thomas H. Ince, Directed by Jay Hunt) Presented in two versions. The Re-Edit shifts the position of later, seemingly out-of-order sequences encountered in the Library of Congress original negative holdings. Both cuts use all existing footage. 
  • The Birth of a Nation Score Recording Sessions in 5.1 Audio 
  • D.W. Griffith on Lux Radio Theater with Cecil B. DeMille 
  • The Birth of a Nation: The Legacy Directed, Written and Edited by John McCarty 
  • The Clansman: From Stage to Screen Directed and Edited by Daniel Griffith 
  • Text Essay: We Can Never Censor the Past by Kevin Brownlow 
  • Text Essay The Birth of a Nation: The 2015 Restoration by Patrick Stanbury 
  • Text Essay Fighting Back: Responding to The Birth of a Nation by Ashley Clark

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The most striking thing about Michael Moore's 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, is how painfully relevant it still is. Despite having been made 16 years ago, it feels like it could have been released yesterday. Moore's incendiary examination of American gun culture feels as vital and in-tune with our society as ever. If anything, things have actually gotten worse in America, the 1999 Columbine massacre having been surpassed many times over as the deadliest school shooting in American history.

So it is perhaps with this in mind that the Criterion Collection is releasing the film on Blu-Ray for the first time. While those who find Moore's brand of agitprop to be distasteful are unlikely to feel any differently now, watching the film in 2018 is like getting hit by a lightning bolt. Moore occasionally overplays his hand (his ambush interview with Dick Clark adds little to the film), Moore has never felt as focused or as curious as he is in Bowling for Columbine. What sets this film apart from his other films, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Where to Invade Next, is the fact that Moore isn't necessarily advocating for specific legislative action. He's simply asking a question - why do Americans murder each other with guns at a rate astronomically higher than the rest of the developed world?

Is it our violent history? Surely the English and the Germans have equally violent pasts.  Is it the amount of violent video games and movies we consume? These entertainments are widely consumed in the rest of the world. Do we just have more guns? Canada is a nation of hunters and gun ownership is widespread. So what is it about America that leads to such a wildly disproportionate amount of gun murders? Moore never comes to a conclusion, but what conclusion is there to come to? So he turns his lens toward America's fetishistic love affair with guns, the seemingly unrestrained ease of access, and the NRA's rabid obsession with resisting all forms of gun control in the name of freedom at the expense of children's lives.

The villain here is the late Charlton Heston, former president of the NRA, whose rallying cry of "from my cold, dead hands" echoes through the film as the NRA descends on cities still grieving recent gun tragedies. Moore, a lifelong NRA member and avid hunter, never advocates for the abolition of the Second Amendment or for banning guns, but posits that much of America's obsession with guns can be traced back through our racist past and fear of the "other." His climactic showdown with Heston is appropriately awkward and difficult to watch, but it's also illustrative of a difficult conversation that we as a society still refuse to have.

Bowling for Columbine is not a film that necessarily benefits from a Blu-Ray upgrade. Moore's guerilla-style filmmaking doesn't lend itself to the highest quality footage in the first place. But the film has never felt more essential and necessary than it does now. What sets Moore apart from other political filmmakers (like, say, Dinesh D'Souza) is his grasp of the cinematic language and his inquisitive mind, always searching, always seeking. And whether or not he ultimately arrives at satisfactory answers is left to the viewer. He selectively edits and chooses the facts that most support his case (the sequence interviewing Canadians about American gun violence is most indicative of this unfortunate habit), but even when he wades into the weeds to prove a point, he never loses sight of the bigger picture.

At a time when children continue to die at the hands of firearms in ever greater numbers, Bowling for Columbine remains a key exploration of America's gun culture. That it is still so relevant is a tragedy in and of itself, but it has also never felt more important. This new Blu-Ray edition from Criterion is a welcome a return for a film that deserves a new day in the sun, so that hopefully in the near future it will at last feel hopelessly out of date.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE | Directed by Michael Moore | Rated R for some violent images and language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features Include:
  • New high-definition digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Michael Moore Makes a Movie, a new documentary featuring Moore, chief archivist Carl Deal, supervising producer Tia Lessin, and field producer Meghan O'Hara 
  • Programs covering Moore's return to Colorado in 2002, his 2003 Oscar win, and three film-festival Q&As with Moore 
  • Excerpt from a 2002 episode of The Charlie Rose Show featuring Moore 
  • Corporate Cops, a segment from Moore's 2000 television series The Awful Truth II 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Eric Hynes

Friday, June 15, 2018

It's been 14 years since The Incredibles first introduced us to the Parr family, a family of superheroes living in a world where "supers" have been made illegal. Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the original film left off, with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) doing battle against the Underminer, a nefarious villain bent on robbing the city's banks from underground. Unfortunately, the heroes do almost as much damage as the villain in their attempt to stop him, turning public opinion against the very idea of superheroes, and once again forcing them underground.

They are soon approached by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), two millionaires with a soft spot for superheroes, who want to start a PR blitz to change the hearts and minds of the world and get superheroes legalized again. There's only one catch; to start out they only want the least destructive member of the Parr family - Elastigirl. So while Mr. Incredible stays home to raise the kids, Elastigirl heads off to fight crime, but it isn't long before a new threat rears its ugly head, one that wants to humiliate all superheroes on a world stage, and take them down once and for all.

A lot has changed about the moviegoing landscape since the Incredibles were last on the screen. Superhero movies now litter the multiplex, and the idea of a crime fighting family no longer feels like a novelty. But trust Disney and Pixar to show that the genre still has something to say, because Incredibles 2 an endless delight. While it sacrifices some of the thematic resonance of the original for more slam-bang action sequences, Incredibles 2 still manages to explore ideas of gender inequality, fragile masculinity, and familial relations within the context of an animated kids movie.  The villain, Screenslaver, uses screens to turn his victims into mindless zombies, demonizing an entire group of people (in this case, superheroes) in order to persuade politicians to legislate bigotry.

Yes, the Incredibles have entered the Trump era. Whereas the first film dealt with the idea that if everyone is special then no one is, Incredibles 2 turns its eye on the irrational fear of the other. While its message gets a bit muddled in its attempt to be too many things at once. The idea of being a slave to our devices is a potent one, but that's not the villain's ultimate goal. Ultimately, it has too much going on to give any of its themes more than passing lip service, hewing close to the studio's established formula in its character beats and plot twists. Yet in true Pixar fashion, it manages to deliver a good time anyway, making it a cut above other Pixar sequels like Monsters University and Cars 2 and (and maybe just a step below Finding Dory).

Rather than trying to lampoon the recent superhero glut, director Brad Bird chooses instead to do many of them one better - adding in an element of heart and familiarity in regard to the realities of life. The best parts of both Incredibles films remains their attempts to be extraordinary people in an ordinary world, and that's where Incredibles 2 really soars. It is film about finding what makes you unique in a world of incredible people, and for all its flash and pizazz, it's the heart that lies at its center that makes it worth returning to this well after 14 years.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

INCREDIBLES 2 | Directed by Brad Bird | Stars  Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr, Isabella Rossellini | Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language | Opens today, June 15, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

It has been 42 years since Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader introduced us to Travis Bickle, the eponymous taxi driver of Taxi Driver, who befriended an under age prostitute (Jodie Foster) and set out to clean up his crime-ridden streets. Bickle has since passed into the cultural canon, thanks in part to Robert DeNiro's iconic performance. And while Schrader's new film, First Reformed, doesn't have any moments to equal Bickle's legendary "you talkin' to me?" monologue, much of that same rage toward rampant injustice shines through.

This time, our protagonist isn't a taxi driver, but the pastor of a small parish in upstate New York that is nicknamed "the souvenir shop." First Reformed is a historic landmark preserved by a local mega-church that has become something of a living relic, a curiosity where tourists can purchase t-shirts or hats. The church, much like the corporate entity of which it is an arm, no longer bears much resemblance to an actual house of worship.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) dutifully goes through the motions each Sunday, offering his brief homily to an ever diminishing congregation. He wants little to do with the megachurch that sponsors him, but would rather shrug off any real pastoral duties to someone else. He drowns his frustrations with alcohol as he embarks on a year-long journey of recording all his thoughts in a journal that he intends to burn when it is complete.

Then one day he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young woman whose husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) has just been released from a Canadian prison after being arrested during an environmental protest. Mary is worried about Michael's emotional state, and asks Toller to counsel him. Through their chats, Toller discovers a troubled young man who believes that it is a sin to bring a child into a broken world, where climate change will leave an uninhabitable planet behind for the next generation, and he wants his wife to have an abortion. It isn't long before Toller and Mary discover the true extent of Michael's radicalism, but rather than be repulsed by the violence Michael wishes to enact in order to save the planet, Toller becomes enthralled by it.

Disenchanted by the world around him, and exasperated by the commoditization of the gospel on display through his megachurch parent and its corporate sponsor, Toller embarks on a journey of faith of his own, as he questions not only his role as a steward of God's creation, but as an agent of God in a world where faith is just another product of capitalism and a tool of cynical politicians who put money and power over the God they claim to serve.

First Reformed is an angry howl of grief at a world gone mad. Schrader has given us a modern, more subtle incarnation of Travis Bickle through which to explore faith and the church's role in an increasingly convoluted world. What is the purpose of a church that chooses to look the other way as God's creation is destroyed? What happens to a church that exists simply to placate its followers rather than to teach hard truths? Is it moral to bring a child into a broken world? Schrader offers no answers, in fact you can feel him grappling with those questions in nearly every frame.

Schrader directs with a kind of hushed reverence that recalls the work of Bresson and Dreyer (Dreyer's Ordet springs most readily to mind), yet with a kind of apocalyptic fatalism that recalls Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. The film is shot in a boxy 1.33:1 frame that gives its characters nowhere to hide, starkly exposed to a world that is no longer comforting or familiar, the old megachurch platitudes (recalling the insular, self-absorbed teachings of Joel Osteen) no longer holding any value when there is so much suffering beyond the church walls.

There's so much going on in First Reformed that it's almost impossible to fully absorb in one sitting.  Its musings on faith, sin, violence, capitalism, politics, morality, and the intersection of all of those things make for meaty drama. Schrader expertly builds layer after layer, building to an explosive climax that zigs exactly when we expect it to zag. That's part of what makes the film so special - every time we think we know where it's going, Schrader takes is somewhere else. It's a raw, ragged, angry work, born out a deep sense of exasperation and hopelessness in the face of rampant indifference to a world in pain. It is as if Schrader is exorcising his own demons here, working through his thoughts and feelings on the state of our world, using Reverend Toller as a vessel through which to peer into the void and ponder what it's all about in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIRST REFORMED | Directed by Paul Schrader | Stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill | Rated R for some disturbing violent images | Now playing in select theaters.

Movie stars behave badly and look great doing it in Gary Ross' Ocean's 8, a spinoff of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven trilogy, which was itself a remake of Lewis Milestone's 1960 original starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

This time, however, the thieves are all women, lead by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney). Upon her release from jail after being setup by former lover, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), Ocean immediately sets about assembling a crack team to pull off a massive jewelry heist at the annual MET gala. The plan - to lift a priceless diamond neckless off the neck of movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) and replace it with a fake before anyone notices what happened.

Her team consists of her best friend and master criminal, Lou (Cate Blanchett), a washed up fashion designer looking for a big break (Helena Bonham Carter), a security camera expert (Sarah Paulson), a top-notch hacker (Rihanna), a jeweler (Mindy Kaling), and a pickpocket (Awkwafina). By the end, not only will they all be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and have gotten revenge on the man who betrayed Ocean and locked her away.

Ocean's 8 is a breezy caper filled with all the elements we've come to expect from the Ocean's films, we get to watch beautiful people make off with millions and look great doing it. It's undeniably fun, and the cast is more than game, but there is almost no conflict in the film at all. The whole thing goes off without a hitch, everything goes according to plan, the film never even hints at any kind of possible trouble. This breezy nonchalance worked for Ocean's Eleven, in part because of Soderbergh's effortless sense of style. Ross can't quite pull off that same sense of carefree charm, but he is aided by a terrific cast that pulls the film along.

Like a glass of cheap champagne, Ocean's 8 is the kind of film that is enjoyable in the moment, but whose pleasures fade quickly. The cast is fun to watch (Awkwafina is a special delight all her own), but without any conflict the movie simply glides by without leaving much of an impression. In Ocean's Eleven, the heist was almost beside the point, taking a backseat to the sparkling character drama in the foreground. Here, Ross belabors the whys and wherefores but never really gives the audience a reason to care, leading to a fun, frothy, and ultimately forgettable heist movie.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

OCEAN'S 8 | Directed by Gary Ross | Stars Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Armitage, James Corden, Dakota Fanning, Elliott Gould | Rated PG-13 for language, drug use, and some suggestive content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ari Aster's Hereditary belongs in a rarified pantheon of great modern horror films. It is a genre undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years, with filmmakers exploring the emotional depths of the genre beyond what you might find in your typical multiplex slasher film. The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, Get Out, Raw, It Comes at Night, The Invitation, and Let the Right One In are among some of the films in this new wave of modern horror, many of which explore the emotional undercurrents of their subjects, using horror as a tool to examine other psychological traumas.

In the case of Hereditary, that trauma is grief. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is mourning the death of her mother, a domineering woman with whom she was estranged for many years. After moving in with the Grahams, Annie's mother quickly became unusually close with her daughter, Charlie (newcomer Milly Shapiro, whose face is perhaps one of the most unique and expressive in modern cinema). Charlie takes her grandmother's death especially hard, and soon begins exhibiting some distressing behavior, as if she is somehow still connected to her grandmother's spirit. When yet another tragedy strikes the Graham family, they are all forced to confront their pasts, and the inner demons passed from one generation to another.

Make no mistake, Hereditary is an unabashed horror film, an unnerving slow burn that builds to a feverish crescendo that feels like an act of actual evil. But at its core it is a study of shared grief. Every frame of the film seems saturated with a kind of inner pain and turmoil, each character trying to escape the grip of an abusive past that they can never quite shake. In the end, this lack of love, this selfish lack of empathy, leads to unimaginable tragedy, a cycle of generational resentment that ends up bringing down an entire family.

This is most embodied by Toni Collette's force-of-nature performance. Every breath, every moment, whether said or unsaid, is a barely repressed howl of anguish - the cry of a woman at the end of her rope, crumbling under the pressures of her role as a wife and a mother. It's a glorious thing to behold. Her performance, much like the film itself, serves as an extended metaphor for the effects of depression, leading not only the characters to question their own sense of reality, but the audience as well. Aster wisely chooses not to connect every dot, strange events have no explanation, and don't need one. He constantly sews seeds of doubt in our minds as the line between reality and fantasy become inexorably blurred. Characters say things they don't mean (or do they) make irrational decisions, and ultimately find themselves drowning in a mess of their own making, directed by forces beyond their control.

Aster, with the help of cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Grace Yun make the Graham's house feel like one of the dollhouses Annie spends so much of her time making, the characters merely dolls being moved around by a mysterious hand. It's an ingenious visual metaphor, as if we the audience are somehow peering through an idyllic facade to the unspoken pain beneath. Even in its most mundane moments, Hereditary seems somehow infected by an unseen and unspoken evil. Like depression, it worms its way under the skin almost unnoticed, until it has its hooks buried deep inside. This is a truly great work of horror, an explosive and terrifying tale of shared and inherited trauma that is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply disturbing.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HEREDITARY | Directed by Ari Aster | Stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd | Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, language, drug use and brief graphic nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Go to any community theater production of one of Anton Chekhov's plays, and you're likely to find a well-intentioned, faithfully dramatic interpretation of Chekhov's words, but you're not as likely to find his often sly sense of humor shining through the text.

Chekhov's sense of humor is at the forefront of Michael Mayer's new cinematic adaptation of The Seagull. It is especially apparent in Annette Bening's boozy, megalomaniacal performance as Irina Arkadina, Chekov's supreme monster mother, full-time family matriarch and part-time self-absorbed actress.  Her lover, renowned playwright Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), joins her family for a weekend retreat, where he develops feelings for Nina (Saorise Ronan), the winsome love of Irina's son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose head remains firmly planted in the clouds, where his ambitions often supersede his talent. Also along for the ride is Masha (Elisabeth Moss), a depressive family friend with long-held feelings for Konstantin that he does not return.

There's enough romantic drama here to full a Shakespearean comedy - everyone is in love with someone who is in love with someone else. Yet despite its comic trappings and often biting wit, The Seagull is, at its heart, a tragedy. Konstantin's all-consuming love for Nina fuels his work, even as she becomes Trigorin's latest muse, leaving Irina embittered and angry. The rage boiling at the center of The Seagull comes from Chekhov himself, who wrote the play as a kind of meta-theatrical critique of the pretensions he saw in artistic society. Theatre was changing around him, and Chekhov's text is filled with commentary on the push and pull between new kinds of theatre (like his own) and the old guard (represented by the stodgy Trigorin).

Much of that is lost, unfortunately, in the play's translation to the screen. Mayer plays it mostly straight, setting the film in the late 1800s when the play was written, but the whole affair seems to lack the thematic density that is so important to what Checkhov wrote. The humor is there, the production is sumptuously designed, the cast is stacked with top-notch talent. Yet it is as if the very translation of the film has left something behind on the stage. As such, The Seagull feels like a film without a foundation, the actors working on characters that don't have the building blocks they require. Only Bening is really able to take her character to the next level, embodying the aging Irina, who must watch as she is overtaken in nearly every way by the young ingenue, Nina, in much the same was as she was in her Oscar nominated role in Being Julia.

The Seagull is often regarded as the first of Chekhov's four major plays. It is a theatrical touchstone in more ways than one - Constatnin Stanislavky worked with Chekhov and used it to help develop his groundbreaking acting techniques, and influential acting teacher Uta Hagen made her stage debut in the play when she was only 18. And yet this film version feels somehow staid and safe, robbed of its natural theatrically and trapped by the confines of its own frame. It's a fine production, easy to watch and well-performed, but outside of its natural habitat it just never has the chance to soar.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE SEAGULL | Directed by Michael Mayer | Stars Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elisabeth Moss, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler, Michael Zegen, Billy Howle, Brian Dennehy | Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements, a scene of violence, drug use, and partial nudity | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

You're lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a drifting derelict boat. There's no land for thousands of miles. Your food is running low, your radio is broken, and you have no way to call for help. This is no Hollywood fantasy, this is exactly what happened to Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp on a voyage from Tahiti to California in 1983, after their boat was seriously damaged by Hurricane Raymond.

It's a compelling tale of survival against impossible odds, but you wouldn't know that necessarily from watching Baltasar Kormákur's new film, Adrift, which seems intent on undercutting any natural tension its story might have. Shailene Woodley stars as Oldham, a young woman in her early twenties intent on escaping from her home in San Diego and traveling the world. While in Tahiti, she meets Sharp (Sam Clafin), an English sailor who wants to do exactly that by circumnavigating the globe in a yacht he built himself while working at a shipyard in South Africa. The two quickly fall in love and decide to help out a friend by sailing their boat back to California, but soon have their fateful encounter with a powerful hurricane that will leave them drifting in the middle of the ocean with little hope of survival.

There's a strong story here, unfortunately Kormákur saddles the film with a flashback structure that does the narrative no favors. Adrift continually cuts back and forth between Tami and Richard's early relationship, and their plight on the open ocean in the aftermath of the storm. This positions the hurricane at the end of the film rather than the beginning, causing the film to skip a second storm entirely ("it was just a squall!" Tami dismisses, in an attempt to explain why the film cuts away from it so suddenly) in its build-up to the storm we all know is coming. Every time the film starts to create any dramatic tension, it cuts away in another flashback, ultimately using its climactic storm as an extended flashback that adds little to what we've already seen. It also suffers from some weak characterization, using Tami's vegetarian diet as an awkward plot point when she refuses to go fishing even when it becomes apparent that they may soon starve to death.

The film eventually hits us with a groan-worthy and painfully obvious twist that has been apparent since the opening shot of the film, treating the reveal like an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy reversal when it's really just an awkward plot device meant to create a story where there wasn't really one before. What's sad is that what actually happened is far more interesting than fake-out invented by screenwriters Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and David Branson Smith, and could have resulted in something closer to J.C. Chandor's similarly themed and infinitely superior All is Lost.

On the plus side, Adrift boasts some top-notch cinematography by Robert Richardson, who often shoots at water level as if the audience is right there in the ocean with them. At times it even recalls Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's brilliant 2013 avant-garde documentary, Leviathan, in the way Richardson allows the camera break free from the established confines of the frame. While it isn't as radical as Leviathan's unique spatial sensibilities, it's a strong element in a film with few other high points. The piano-driven score by Academy Award nominated composer Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) is also quite lovely.

In the end, however, its all in service of a film that is fundamentally flawed from the ground up. The entire thing is based on a deeply dishonest premise. Had it been edited in a more linear fashion it might have preserved some of the story's inherent suspense, but the last-minute twist really undermines the credibility of the whole affair. There's a good movie in this story somewhere, but Adrift just isn't able to do it justice.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

ADRIFT | Directed by Baltasar Kormákur | Stars Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin | Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window has the distinction of being one of the films that inspired the critics of the French New Wave to coin the term "film noir." Lang had always made expressive use of light and shadow in his films, dating back to the German Expressionist influences seen in films like Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, and M. Yet here, the shadowy domestic drama (the stark contrast beautifully preserved on the new Kino Blu-Ray), the femme fatale, the murderous intrigue (and the fedoras), all make their appearance in what would become the hallmarks of the American noir as we know it today.

Of course, film noir's roots are in the German Expressionist tradition championed by filmmakers like Lang, who eventually emigrated to America, bringing the style with them. Released in 1944, The Woman in the Window is one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon, and while Lang certainly made stronger films during this period (1945's Scarlet Street, also starring Edward G. Robinson, arguably being his finest American picture), it's hard to deny the historical importance of The Woman in the Window.

Robinson is wonderfully cast against type as Richard Wanley, a mild-manner professor who takes a shine to a lovely woman in a painting on the street near his usual evening haunt. One night, while admiring the painting after a nightcap with his friends, he meets the painting's subject, the beautiful and mysterious Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), and returns with her to her home. It isn't long, of course, before they are interrupted by a jealous lover, and Wanley, a criminal justice professor, kills the man in self-defense. Rather than call the police and risk his marriage, Wanley decided to dispose of the body himself (after all, who would ever know he was in any way connected to either of these people).

Naturally, things do not go according to plan. And it isn't long before Wanley's good friend, the District Attorney, is assigned to track down the killer, putting the professor uncomfortably close to the case. Lang directs with an almost Hitchcockian sense of suspense, laying in a wry sense of humor as Wanley is forced to take part in his own investigation. But as the circle closes in, Lang expertly ratchets up the tension, especially in the thrilling cover-up sequence, which displays particularly Hitchcockian influences as it chronicles Wanley's missteps, both known and unbeknownst to our protagonist.

It also borrows, somewhat coincidentally, from Josef von Sternberg's 1930 masterwork, The Blue Angel (also available from Kino Lorber).  Von Sternberg was a contemporary of Lang's who was known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, and Blue Angel, which he made in both German and English language versions at the same time, told the story of a straight-laced professor whose infatuation with a lounge singer becomes his undoing. The Woman in the Window follows a similar idea to a different conclusion, and features a last-minute dramatic twist that undermines much of the dramatic tension that it has so painstakingly built (one can't help but wonder if the decidedly bleak first ending ran afoul of the Production Code).

Yet even with its cop-out ending, The Woman in the Window remains a potent piece of work. It showcases Lang potently adapting his style for American audiences, and in the process helping to develop one of America's most indelible contributions to cinema history. But like many American achievements, it was based on foreign styles, built by immigrants, adapted from something which had come before - a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for American history in general.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW | Directed by Fritz Lang | Stars  Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Dan Duryea, Thomas E. Jackson | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics on June 19.