Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Bing Liu's documentary, Minding the Gap, is something of a quiet wonder. What starts as a kind of document of adolescence centering on three teenage boys who spend carefree days skateboarding and being generally irresponsible, becomes a deeply moving exploration of adulthood as the boys navigate the realities of newfound grown-up responsibilities.

It is also a delicately layered study of poverty and the cyclical nature of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, whose effects reverberate through generations. It is a subject that Liu knows as well as anyone - as one of the three young men chronicled in the film, he grew up with an abusive step-father and a battered mother who looked the other way. His climactic confrontation with his estranged mother is a truly devastating piece of cinema, not because it generates emotional fireworks, but because it results in so little. Try as he might, Liu can't get his mother to reconcile the abuse they both experienced. "It's in the past." She says, as if to say "why does it matter now?" It's a haunting portrait of two wounded people trying to find absolution where there is none to be found.

The film also examines the lives of Liu's friends, Zack and Keire. Zack, a carefree skateboarder suddenly finds himself dealing with the responsibilities of parenthood with his girlfriend, Nina. As both try to hang on to their youth, it becomes clear that adulthood is rapping on their door far sooner than expected, and Zack begins to crumble in the face of his newfound parental duties, resorting to violence as the only way to deal with anger and frustration that he's ever known. Keire grew up black in a white town, fully aware of the unexamined privilege inherent to the lives of his white friends, despite their shared economic distress. He, too, is looking to escape from an abusive past, determined not to escape the anger issues of his youth so as to finally put an end to the cycle of violence in their crime-ridden little town.

Minding the Gap is clearly a very personal film for Liu. It is a pained and painful exorcism of a lifetime of demons, but it's also a film about hope in the face of despair. Here are three young men, each with the deck of life seemingly stacked against them, and either buckling under the pressure or fighting back against their circumstances. Liu takes GoPro footage of skateboarders and turns it into something resembling visual poetry, forming a kind of oasis in a troubled world, the boys' one escape from their turbulent reality.

It is a potent and vital distillation of modern masculinity and the crisis facing our young men for whom violence is the only reality they've ever known. Liu deftly examines the ripple effects and collateral damage not only from the point of view of the young men who were raised by abusive fathers, but on the women who also survived them, and now find themselves the target of their boyfriends' anger. While Liu's mother internalizes her pain, Nina tries to minimize the damage Zack has inflicted on her family, begging Liu not to confront him about it lest it make the situation worse. Liu makes no excuses for Zack's appalling behavior, but in Minding the Gap, almost everyone is a victim of their circumstances. But rather than wallowing in their misery, Liu looks for a way out. The result is a hugely powerful documentary that delves into the far reaching effects of systemic oppression and cyclical abuse. It's an astonishing filmmaking debut that could have only been made by someone who has lived it, lending it an impressive sense of authenticity and honesty that is hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MINDING THE GAP | Directed by Bing Liu | Not Rated | Now streaming exclusively on Hulu.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Franchise Friday is a new feature here at From the Front Row, that aims to take a look at an entire franchise, through all its ups and downs, and examines what makes it special. This week the focus is on Steven Spielberg's classic blockbuster, Jaws (1975), and the much-maligned series it spawned.

Roy Scheider in JAWS (1975).

The original Jaws is a perfect movie in nearly every way. Spielberg's narrative control, his visual storytelling, his sense of pacing - are all just incredible. He establishes character quickly without sacrificing integrity, giving us characters we're invested in and care about. Spielberg instinctively knows that what we don't see if often what scares us most, and his build-up to the eventual shark reveal is masterfully constructed. It's easy to see why Jaws pretty much invented the summer blockbuster as we know it today, smashing box office records and making an entire generation afraid to go in the ocean, much as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had done for showers 15 years prior.

Take, for instance, the scene on the beach, when young Alex Kittner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is killed by the shark. It's such a brilliant set-up - Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) suspects that a shark is stalking the waters off Amity Island, but driven by fear of closing the beach on the busiest week of the year, the mayor (Murray Hamilton) refuses to let him close the beaches. Brody is the only one on the beach who suspects anything is wrong. As the people go about their business on the beach, Spielberg slowly brings the camera in on Brody, using passers-by as excuses to cut closer and closer in on his face. It's so subtle, and so ingenious, and done completely without music to enhance the tension (something John Williams' immortal score does brilliantly elsewhere), before finally exploding into chaos when the shark attacks "the Kittner boy." Yet in the best Spielberg fashion, it's controlled chaos, each frame and each cut designed for maximum effect. It was an audacious project for the young filmmaker, but one that established him as the go-to guy for popcorn entertainment. It endures today as one of his finest works, a marvel of control, sustained tension, and narrative economy. There's not a wasted or gratuitous shot in the entire film. It remains classical Hollywood storytelling at its best.

After the runaway success of Jaws, a sequel was all but inevitable, despite the fact that almost everyone involved in the original thought a sequel was a terrible idea. That film, after all, basically invented the idea of the summer blockbuster, and Universal knew it had a winning formula. While Steven Spielberg declined to be involved, Roy Scheider, however, was contractually obligated to appear, and so it that a franchise was born. Luckily, composer John Williams, whose immortal two-note theme earned him a well-deserved Oscar, also agreed to return.

The resulting film is better than it has any right to be. Director Jeannot Szwarc doesn't have Spielberg's storytelling elegance or sense of pacing, but by pretty much any measure Jaws 2 (1978) is a solid adventure yarn, in which the town of Amity is once again terrorized by a massive shark. This time, however, it isn't targeting swimmers at the beach, it's set its sights on a group of teens practicing for a sailboat race, a group that just so happens to include Chief Brody's two sons. The fact that the mayor and town council don't believe Brody's insistence that a shark is once again feeding off the waters of Amity Beach may seem like a retread of familiar territory, but it Szwarc and Scheider make it work by making Brody seem almost unhinged with PTSD in his obsessive pursuit of the shark. He comes off as a loon who sees sharks in every shadow on the water.

It's a smart twist for a film that otherwise doesn't stray too far from its predecessor's example. The shark is more brazen this time around, leaping out of the water, taking down helicopters, and sporting a distinctive burned face from an encounter with an exploding boat. It hints at the silliness that would later overtake the series, but Jaws 2 is one of those rare sequels to a classic film that actually holds its own, making Brody's quest more personal by placing his children in harm's way.

Giant sharks overtake Orlando's Sea World in the ill-advised third installment of the Jaws saga, which finds Chief Brody's sons, Mike (Dennis Quaid) and Sean (John Putch), working at the park when a small Great White accidentally swims into the lagoon, followed quickly by his much larger mother.

Marred by laughable 3-D effects, Jaws 3 (1983)is a difficult film to take seriously, especially considering that it really shouldn't be hard to not be in the water where a shark could eat you at Sea World. Director Joe Alves (who served as production designer on both Jaws and Jaws 2) tries to rectify that by trapping park guests in underwater tunnels under the lagoon, but nothing much ever really comes of that. Instead we have some silly romantic travails, shady corporate shenanigans (courtesy of Louis Gossett, Jr.'s unscrupulous park manager and Simon MacCorkindale as a seedy television producer), and some of the series' most ludicrous shark kills. One takes place with the camera filming from inside the shark, as a diver gets crushed to death inside the shark's mouth while trying to avoid its teeth.

The reliance on gimmicky 3-D effects clearly meant to pop out of the screen is distracting, but pretty typical of 3-D films of the era (see also 1982's Friday the 13th Part 3). The problem is, even if you take away the cheesy effects, you're still left with a film that just doesn't make much sense. The shark is easily the worst-looking one of the series, and most under-water shots of the sharks are just shots of actual sharks swimming around looking confused, intercut with people swimming in panic to create the illusion of a chase. The highlight, surprisingly enough, is the score by Alan Parker, which does a fantastic job of adapting John Williams' iconic theme, while forging his own path with a triumphant new fanfare that gives the film an optimistic sweep that it really doesn't deserve.

A shark leaps out of the water in JAWS: THE REVENGE.
"This time, it's personal!" Jaws: The Revenge (1987) certainly turned its tagline into a punchline with its ludicrous premise about a shark with a personal vendetta against the Brody family, but despite its poor reputation, it's not nearly as bad as it could be. It's certainly better than the execrable Jaws 3 (with better effects to boot), but where the fourth and final installment in the Jaws franchise falters is in its story.

I love the idea of Ellen Brody as Captain Ahab, consumed by hatred of sharks after the death of her son and three films worth of shark attacks involving her family. And Joseph Sargent hints at that somewhat in the film's finale, but the film never really goes that route, taking the scenario much too literally as another massive great white targets the Brody family, then follows them from New York to the Bahamas to try and finish them off. It's a deeply dumb idea, which is a  shame because the movie is actually not poorly made. In fact, the Christmas setting on Amity island makes it feel like a solidly nostalgic return to the setting of the original Jaws (there's even a cameo by Lee Fierro's Mrs. Kittner and Fritzi Jane Courtney's Mrs. Taft). But Brody's psychic connection to the shark and the shark's seemingly targeted vendetta is beyond silly, and therefore impossible to take seriously.

The film is wholly unnecessary, and adds nothing to the series (besides the surprising presence of Michael Caine), and instead pulls the shark into weirdly supernatural, slasher-movie territory that feels especially reductive given just how powerful and grounded the original Jaws was. It's a shame, because it truly feels like there could be something here. Lorraine Gary's grieving mother chasing down the shark that killed her son is a killer premise (what if there wasn't actually a massive shark this time?), but it is done in by a truly ridiculous execution that completely negates the mindless, indiscriminate killing that made the original shark so scary in the first place.

Series Ranking:
1. Jaws
2. Jaws 2
3. Jaws: The Revenge
4. Jaws 3

Wednesday, August 22, 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.

In 1975, the Philippines were in the throes of major political and social upheaval. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in the face of increasing opposition from activist groups (most notably the militant communist group, the New People's Army), declared martial law in 1972, tightening his grip on the nation beyond his constitutionally limited two terms in office.

It was that volatile climate that gave rise to Lino Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Light. At that point in his career, Brocka was mostly known for directing frothy melodramas that were popular in the Philippines at the time, having only begun wading into more serious filmmaking the previous year with the seminal Weighed But Found Wanting. Seeking to eschew the frothy pleasures of contemporary Filipino cinema and deal directly with dire political situation in the country. Unable to directly comment on the president's policies due to stringent censorship laws, Brocka instead chose to simply show life as he saw it, and allow the audience to fill in the gaps.

Based on the novel "In the Claws of Brightness" by Edgardo Reyes, Manila in the Claws of Light follows a young man named Julio (Bembol Roco), who travels from his tiny village to the city of Manila in search of his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel). Lured to the city with the promise of good work, Ligaya has instead been sold into sex slavery, and Julio is willing to do anything to get her back; going from low paying labor as a construction worker to gay sex work on the streets of Manila. Julio trades in his own dignity to find Ligaya, never losing hope over the course of nearly three years. But when he finally tracks he down, the reunion is not quite what he imagined.

The film has drawn some criticism over the years for its anti-Chinese sentiments. Ligaya's captor is Chinese, and the Chinatown area of Manila is seen as a place where wealthy Chinese exploit Filipino citizens for their own gain. Yet in order to understand Brocka's point of view, one must look at the the current political climate in the Philippines. At the time, China was very much a major influence on island nation, funding Communist insurgents through Mao Zedong's People's War Doctrine, an act that was often seen as an attempt to prod Marcos into cracking down even further on his citizens in an effort to spark a revolution. This did not happen, resulting in simmering tensions with the Chinese until the non-violent People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos in 1986 and lead to the institution of a new Democratic government.

In that regard, Manila in the Claws of Light is very much reflective of the society that gave birth to it, even if it comes off as a bit skewed today. On the other hand, it is surprisingly progressive in its depiction of homosexuality. While Julio sees the work as degrading, it isn't because of their homosexual nature as much as the act of selling his body in pursuit of the woman he loves. The scenes are handled with sexual frankness but also a surprising amount of dignity considering the time. Most of his fellow prostitutes are actually straight men looking to make a quick buck off gay men in a nation that has historically had more liberal attitudes toward gender and sexuality.

Revolutionaries are only seen in passing in the film, but Brocka makes sure their presence is felt. Manila in the Claws of Light is a film of simmering tensions and human desperation, depicting the dire situation amongst the country's poor, who are constantly at the mercy of those above them in the social chain. Brocka wasn't so much interested in style as he was in his film's thematic content, resulting in a pared-down, Neorealist approach, paring down any trace of cinematic glamorization in favor of a gritty, almost documentary-like aesthetic. Yet what is so remarkable about Brocka is how he manages to find beauty in even the most hopeless situations. His use of flashbacks as Julio looks back on his time with Ligaya offer brief respites from the often often unrelenting ugliness of the poverty on display, standing in bright contrast to the muted colors of Manila.

Brocka sought to give us something that feels real, and his evocation of Manila in 1975 through the eyes of the nation's poorest remains potent, even vital, some 43 years later. His ability to navigate the country's censorship laws under a dictator while still exposing his fellow countrymen's dire situation is remarkable. The film is a touchstone in Filipino cinema, at long last resurrected and given a proper home video release by the Criterion Collection that dives deeper into the societal milieu in which it was made. It is a potent and provocative examination of poverty's ravaging mental and physical toll not just on people, but on a city and a society that continues to favor elites at the expense of the poor. It's a message that unfortunately remains relevant, giving the film a haunting sense of timelessness that is hard to shake.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

In the last 25 years before the release of Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians, there had been only two major Hollywood productions starring an entirely Asian cast - The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). That the film has been such a major player at the box office is a testament to audiences' hunger for diverse stories, but it also doesn't hurt that the film is one of the best romantic comedies Hollywood has produced in as many years.

Beyond the cast, there is very little groundbreaking about Crazy Rich Asians, but its so well made and beautifully directed that it's easy to forgive its comfortably formulaic plot. Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU from a working class Chinese immigrant family, who meets and falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), the wealthy heir to his Chinese expatriate family's real estate fortune based out of Singapore. The problem is, Nick never told Rachel that he's rich, so when he flies her to Singapore to meet his family, Henry Golding), she ends up with extreme case of culture shock.

Imperious Young family matriarch, Eleanor (the regal Michelle Yeoh) is immediately suspicious of Rachel's American background, believing it to be too focused on pursuing one's own dreams rather than putting family first. While Eleanor works to prove to Nick's family that she is truly the one for him, she also faces opposition from family acquaintances, jealous of her access to Nick, who want to bully her out of the picture and claim Nick for themselves.

Through it all, of course, Nick remains steadfast in his love for Rachel, and the ending of the film is never really in doubt. But it's all handled with such grace by Chu that's almost impossible not to get swept up in the story. Crazy Rich Asians is a gorgeously designed feast for the senses, filled with decadent costumes, lavish sets, and some well-timed comic relief courtesy of Ocean's 8 breakout star, Awkwafina, as Rachel's wise-cracking best friend, Peik Lin Goh. It's a film with big laughs and an even bigger heart, an old-fashioned love story in the tradition the romances of Old Hollywood. Chu's direction recalls the gentle humor and romantic charm of the great Ernst Lubitsch (whose 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner, was remade as You've Got Mail in 1998), especially in the final reveal at the film's deliriously romantic climax.

Crazy Rich Asians certainly checks a lot of familiar boxes along the way, but it tells its story with a genuine warmth and conviction that elevates it above typical genre fare. It's also the second romantic comedy this year (the other being the heartwarming gay teen romance, Love, Simon) to demonstrate that diverse audiences need diverse films, and that seemingly tired genre tropes can be given new life if the characters are worth caring about. Even though we all know where it's heading, the journey is one worth taking thanks to an engaging cast and a sensitive screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim that chucks the cliched Hollywood exoticism that so often surrounds Asian characters and delivers something unlike anything mainstream American cinema has ever produced.

GRADE | ★★★ (out of four)

CRAZY RICH ASIANS | Directed by Jon M. Chu | Stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Gemma Chan, Sonoya Mizuno | Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Before garnering widespread critical acclaim and two Academy Award nominations for his films Leviathan (2014) and Loveless (2017), Andrey Zvyagintsev burst onto the international scene in 2003 with The Return, a grim drama about two young boys who reunite with their long-lost father after 12 years.

Zvyagintsev has come to be known for his quiet, chilly style, so it's interesting to go back and how his style was almost fully developed right out of the gate. The Return is indeed a cold, austere film in the vein of Andrey Tarkovsky, filled with long pregnant pauses and sparse dialogue. But beneath the films bleak exterior lies a strong emotional core. What begins as a heartwarming reunion between two children and their long-absent father becomes a nightmare as the boys realize that their father isn't the man they always dreamed he would be.

The three embark on a fishing expedition, but the father is a hard man, who pushes his sons to their limit, assigning them seemingly arbitrary punishments and shaming them for the slightest sign of weakness. The eldest son seeks to please his father in any way he can, while the youngest rebels against his father's strict ways, becoming increasingly volatile as the trip wears on. It isn't long before the volatile new relationship comes to a head, with Zvyagintsev almost imperceptibly ratcheting up the tension like a slow-boiling pot of water.

The Return deftly explores the dynamic between father and son and its roots in masculine rage. While the youngest boy bristles at being mistreated by the stranger, the oldest desperately seeks his father's approval. It's a haunting twist on the parable of the Prodigal Son, reimagined as a family tragedy. Zvyagintsev's camera focuses on the most interesting things, often lingering on a shot long after the characters have left the frame. It is this observational style that gives it its emotional heft; by holding the shot just a little longer than what feels comfortable, he allows the weight of what just transpired to linger in the air.

The result is something wholly devastating, a wrenching tale of the age-old conflict between fathers and sons, seeking his approval while struggling to exert yourself as your own man. It's a film about the effects of toxic masculinity on masculinity itself long before that term was even in widespread use. Zvyagintsev memorably examines the effects of the father's misplaced love, his abusive hardness rooted in his desire to make his sons better men, on their mental and emotional wellbeing, creating a cycle of violence that leads to tragedy. It's a film that heralded the arrival of a major voice in contemporary filmmaking, one who continues to examine modern Russian society in increasingly complex and fascinating ways.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE RETURN | Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev | Stars Vladimir Garin, Konstantin Lavronenko, Nataliya Vdovina, Vanya Dobronravov | Not Rated | In Russian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The story of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman is so outlandish that it can only be a true story, or as the the opening titles promise, "some fo’ real shit."

In the 1970s, a black undercover detective by the name of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who was the first African American to serve on the Colorado Springs Police Force, successfully infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, even going so far as befriend the organization's Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who was in the process of trying to clean up the group's image in order to make his racist rhetoric more palatable to mainstream society.

While Stallworth cultivated his relationship with the Klan over the phone, he is represented in person by his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who had never had to reckon with his own Jewish identity until confronted with the klansmen's unmitigated hate for Jews. Together, they uncover a terrorist plot that threatens the local black community, as a local student advocate group's vocal opposition to white supremacist policies makes them a target for the KKK.

Stallworth went on to write a book about his experiences, which has now been adapted into a ferocious new film by Spike Lee that feels very much like the movie of our moment. BlacKkKlansman is a film steeped in the righteous anger of a man who can't believe that we're still having to fight the same battles in 2018 as we did in the 1970s and beyond. Lee's use of footage from films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) remind us just how deeply engrained racism and the romanticization of the mythic "lost cause" of the Confederacy are in our culture, dismantling the idea of a post-racial society with a blunt force instrument.

BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle film, but Lee has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. It is clear that he has neither the time nor the inclination to tiptoe around the issue at hand. This an angry film, a bold work of cinematic sturm und drang that feels like a howl of fury into a raging maelstrom. Lee draws direct parallels to Duke's campaign for a more respectable, less overtly racist KKK to the rise of Donald Trump and the resurgence of white nationalism since the 2016 election, an idea scoffed at by characters in the film that has since become all too real.

This is a radical, impassioned, brilliant work that is as much as essential portrait of our time as it is an historical document. Lee blends action, comedy, drama, and documentary styles into a wildly entertaining and deeply disturbing treatise on America's racist history and our current political climate, borne of a refusal to confront and deal with our own racist past. It is Lee's most crucial statement as an artist, as if it is seemingly the culmination of a life's work of exploring black identity in America. It has the markings of a new American classic, a vibrant and vital portrait of American hate. Rarely has a film been so painful, so raw, and yet so full of life. BlacKkKlansman is unmistakably the work of a major filmmaker working at the peak of his talents, a haunting and harrowing letter to a racist nation that lands with all the devastating power of a nuclear bomb.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

BLACKKKLANSMAN | Directed by Spike Lee | Stars  John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jasper Pääkkönen, Paul Walter Hauser, Ryan Eggold, Ashlie Atkinson, Harry Belafonte, Alec Baldwin | Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Contrary to what its title (and plot synopsis) might lead one to believe, Mark Rydell's Cinderella Liberty is not a Cinderella story.  The central character may resemble the "whore with a heart of gold" cliché, you'll find no redemption rags-to-riches stories here.

The title in fact refers to a specific type of military leave, granted to John Baggs Jr. (James Caan), a Navy seaman on shore leave suffering from a minor health issue and a giant paperwork mishap that causes him to miss his next deployment. Only allowed out of the hospital until midnight, he meets a beautiful barroom hustler named Maggie (Marsha Mason) for what he thinks will be a one-night stand. But when he finds that she has a young son at home with a head full of rotten teeth and a severe case of anger management issues, he takes a deeper interest in Maggie's life. He decides to take the boy under his wing, taking responsibility for his and Maggie's wellbeing, in hopes to one rescue her from her life of prostitution, and boy from his beer-swilling, tobacco-chewing lack of parental guidance.

Mason went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for raw performance as Maggie (John Williams' folksy score was likewise nominated for an Oscar that year), but the real heart and soul of the picture is Baggs' relationship with young Doug (Kirk Calloway). Much is made of Doug's mixed race in the film, as if that somehow made Maggie's sexual escapades more egregious. Thankfully, Rydell avoids the implicit racism of the screenplay's attitude toward Doug by completely un-senimentalizing the character. Doug will indeed face a harder life in the 70s due to his mixed race and social standing, and Rydell treats the character with empathy rather than judgement, even when he seems to do the opposite with Maggie's character.

Maggie is not, as stated earlier, a whore with a heart of gold, and despite John's best efforts to change her, she may be too far gone in a lifestyle of self-absorption born of poverty and desperation. The proceedings are given a kind of gritty, grounded look by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), who brings the streets of Seattle to dreary, seedy life. There's nothing glamorized or romanticized about Cinderella Liberty. It is awash in shades of gray and brown and set amidst a series of dirty bars, adult book stores, and porn theaters that make up its characters' daily reality. Adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who also gave us another film about Naval leave the same year - Hal Ashby's masterpiece, The Last Detail), Cinderella Liberty feels grounded and lived in, but its characters often feel inconsistent. Traits are picked up then dropped, decisions are made seemingly at random, and grudges are quickly reversed. If this is to reflect the often messy nature of human interaction, it only works to a certain degree, instead coming across as narrative shorthand rather than believable characterization.

It's this scattershot attention to plotting that really holds the film back. Cinderella Liberty is filled with lovely moments that never quite add up a one satisfying whole. And its overly sentimental ending undoes the harsh realities that it dwelled in previously. Its three central performances, especially that of a beautifully understated James Caan, hold the film together nicely, but it never really comes together in a way that takes it to the next level.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

CINDERELLA LIBERTY | Directed by Mark Rydell | Stars James Caan, Marsha Mason, Kirk Calloway, Eli Wallach, Burt Young | Rated R | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time

Monday, August 13, 2018

Ever since Steven Spielberg's Jaws made audiences afraid to go in the water back in 1975, Hollywood has been trying to recapture the shark attack magic with little success. There's something primal and terrifying about the idea of real life flesh eating monsters swimming in the vast, unknown expanses of our oceans, mindlessly eating whatever unsuspecting victim may wander into its hunting grounds. Sharks are eating machines, incapable of feeling or remorse, intent on one thing - to feed itself and make more sharks.

This has led them to become one of Hollywood's favorite boogeymen, leading to such films as Deep Blue Sea, Shark Night, The Shallows, 47 Meters Down. None of them, however, have managed to conjure that same sense of deep-seated terror (the closest was 2003's low-budget thriller, Open Water), so the recent trend has been to plant tongue firmly in cheek, as evidenced by the success of the ubiquitous (and purposefully goofy) Sharknado franchise on the SyFy network. It is into that self-aware atmosphere that Jon Turteltaub's The Meg arrives. Turteltaub, perhaps best known for his work on the National Treasure films (not to mention Disney's Cool Runnings), is no stranger to self-mocking adventure films, and on paper The Meg looks like another over-the-top summer popcorn film with nothing but some cheesy thrills on its mind.

Unfortunately, the film is plagued by a truly awful, paint-by-numbers script that is credited to no less than 4 screenwriters who seem to have written it by committee. The Meg is filled with groan-worthy dialogue and paper-thin characters built on flimsy exposition and lame one-liners (none of which have the climactic punch of Chief Brody's "smile you son of a -" from Jaws). Not even the presence of action movie stalwart Jason Statham as a deep-sea rescuer facing down a giant, prehistoric shark known as a megalodon can save the film from its pacing issues and uninteresting characters.

Statham growls and glowers his way through some of the film's most painfully contrived dialogue for over an hour before the massive shark ever reaches the shore, doing battle with the creature on the high seas in a similar showdown to the final half of Jaws. The problem is the 113 minute film actually feels much longer, and spends way too much time trying to get to know the shark-bait characters before they're inevitably eaten by the film's antagonist. But instead of giving us characters worth caring about, The Meg paints them in the broadest possible terms, peddling in cliches and eccentricities rather than anything resembling actual feeling.

It's painful watching the cast wade through such murky dialogue and awkward exposition for a film that's little more than a big budget B-movie  that doesn't even have the "so-bad-it's-good" entertainment value of the Sharknado films. It's neither silly enough to work as a comedy nor serious enough to be really suspenseful, instead it is made up of pieces of much better films that it hurls into the water like so much chum, hoping unsuspecting audiences will take a bite.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE MEG | Directed by Jon Turteltaub | Stars Jason Statham, Ruby Rose, Jessica McNamee, Robert Taylor, Rainn Wilson, Li Bingbing, Cliff Curtis, Masi Oka, Page Kennedy, Winston Chao | Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

There is perhaps no more awkward time in a person's life than middle school. Whether you were a popular kid, an outcast, a nerd, a jock, or any manner of middle school stereotypes, awkwardness is just part of the package of the early teen years. As such, Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade will likely hit painfully close to home for many.

Thankfully for those of my generation, having attended middle school in the late 90s, smart phones weren't around to record our awkwardness and preserve it for posterity. That isn't a luxury anymore, and Eighth Grade immerses us into the life of 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an eighth grader on the cusp of high school, whose buoyant YouTube channel showcases a confident and exuberant personality that is merely a mask for the shy and insecure girl she is in reality.

She watches makeup tutorials to present a picture-perfect version of herself online, in reality she is frumpy and gawky, all slumped shoulders and uncovered acne. She is every bit the typical teenager, constantly embarrassed by her loving but chronically uncool dad (Josh Hamilton), while suffering from raging hormones and a changing body that is growing far too fast for her mind to keep up. And even though she longs to be popular, she can't quite get passed her own awkwardness to approach the cool girls in school, even after being invited to a pool party at the house of the eighth grade's resident "mean girl," who just got voted "best eyes" in the school, but you'd never know it since she never looks up from her phone.

It is here where Kayla first encounters Aiden (Luke Prael), school hunk and male winner of the "Best Eyes" class superlative award, and Gabe (Jake Ryan), her male equal in awkwardness. While Kayla spends time trying to get Aiden's attention (who, rumor has it, only dates girls who send nude pics), hang out with older kids, and convince the world that she's "cool," she soon begins to realize that the world doesn't end in eighth grade,

Writer/director Burnham expertly handles thorny issues of sexuality, self-worth, and staying true to yourself even when you don't yet know who that is. What makes Eighth Grade so extraordinary is just how authentic it feels. It doesn't feel like a movie made by adults trying to understand "kids these days," nor does it feel like an after school special trying to mine soapy melodrama from issues kids face every day. Thanks to Burnham's compassionate and deeply human screenplay, along with the marvelously lived in performance of young Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade is a fly-on-the-wall look at life as lived by actual 13-year-olds that is at once hilarious, cringe-inducing, and achingly empathetic.

Burnham so perfectly nails the agonizing beauty of growing up that the film is often difficult to watch, but it's never less than a rewarding experience. It is an impressive and assured directorial debut that not only makes us thankful that middle school is firmly in the rearview mirror, but finds a powerful truth in the human experience of crafting one's identity in a digital world - even when social media pressures us into a new kind of "keeping up with the joneses" at younger and younger ages, kindness is still the coolest character trait of all.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

EIGHTH GRADE | Directed by Bo Burnham | Stars Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson, Jake Ryan, Daniel Zolghadri, Fred Hechinger, Imani Lewis, Luke Prael | Rated R for language and some sexual material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have always been strangely overlooked in the United States. If it weren't for Martin Scorsese's championing of films like The Red Shoes, it's unlikely they would be as well known as they are, but since they are British films rather than Hollywood productions, you don't often hear them mentioned alongside contemporary Hollywood hits like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz

Yet Powell and Pressburger, collectively known as The Archers, were making films that were every bit the equal of those Hollywood classics, infusing classical storytelling techniques with wartime angst and lush Technicolor cinematography. A Matter of Life and Death was made in 1946, just after the end of WWII and at the heigh of the Archer's creative run that also included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

After the wartime, morale-boosting successes of Colonel BlimpA Canterbury Tale, and I Know Where I'm Going, The British Ministry of Information approached Powell and Pressburger, requesting they make a film that celebrated the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. The result was A Matter of Life and Death (also known as Stairway to Heaven for its American release), a film designed to improve relations with the US during the postwar period. At its core is a love story between a Peter (David Niven), a British pilot who has been shot down over enemy territory, and June (Kim Hunter), an American dispatcher who hears his final words over the radio.

Peter, however, does not die; instead he miraculously lands in the ocean and washes up on the British shores. Once home, he seeks June out, and the two fall madly in love, sharing a deep connection borne from Peter's near-death experience. There is only one problem - he actually was supposed to die that night, but due to a Heavenly error, he was accidentally left on Earth. When his "conductor" (Marius Goring) returns for his soul, Peter refuses, saying that while he was ready to die during the war, circumstances have changed due to his newfound relationship with June, and he wishes to remain alive. He files an appeal with the Heavenly court in order to grant himself an extension to continue his newfound love with June with a new lease on life.

Powell and Pressburger never explicitly tell us whether the climactic trial is real or a product of Peter's mind resulting from a traumatic brain injury following his near-death experience. While the word is never said out loud, his symptoms are that of epilepsy, leaving room for doubt as to the veracity of what we're seeing on screen. That's part of the magic of A Matter of Life and Death, no matter what you choose to believe, it's still a beautiful tale of the perseverance of love in the face of death. The Archers chose to shoot Heaven in stark black and white, while the scenes on earth are in glorious Technicolor. Powell later explained this was to subvert audience expectations, but it also gives Peter and June something beautiful enough that they would want to resist Heaven to stay behind.

And what breathtaking Technicolor it is. This film marked legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff's first solo effort, and he masterfully transitions between the color and black & white sequences using some truly jaw-dropping fades that would be difficult to pull off now without the aid of computer effects. The film even makes tongue-in-cheek mention of it, as the angelic Conductor 71 laments that "one is starved for Technicolor up there." And it's easy to see why - every shot of this thing is a marvel, achieving such a vibrant depth of color that it almost makes modern cinema seem drab in comparison. Cardiff's mastery was apparent right out of the gate, and the range of color in the new 4K restoration on the Criterion Blu-Ray is simply breathtaking.

Yet what makes A Matter of Life and Death so resonant now is that trial sequence, in which an American prosecutor (Raymond Massey), still upset about being shot down by a British soldier during the American Revolution, spars with Peter's defense attorney (Roger Livesey) over Peter's fate on Earth. This is where the special relationship comes into sharp focus, as the prosecutor seeks to dismiss the British character, and the defense seeks to strengthen its bond with the Americans. It is here that, when confronted with a jury made up of representatives from British colonies, that the defense demand a jury of Americans. When they arrive, each and every one is an immigrant - black, Asian, Native American, Italian, Indian, representing an American melting pot in a way that is surprisingly diverse for 1946, but is especially moving today. Powell and Pressburger had a special affinity for America, and their tribute to its ideals in A Matter of Life and Death mark some of their most deeply meaningful work.

Whether it is a supernatural romance, or a metaphor for a man clinging to life after a traumatic injury, A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable, magical realist fable, one in which the "love at first sight" catalyst never feels hokey or contrived. The films of The Archers often feel like the Golden Age of Hollywood at its peak, yet somehow better, more connected with their characters, and more emotionally grounded. Powell and Pressburger created magic with shadows and light, and in A Matter of Life and Death, they created a love story for the ages, that not only reinforced the strength of the special relationship between England and America, but in the American ideal itself. It may be a cliché to say at this point, but they really don't make them like this anymore.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH | Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | Stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack 
  • Interview from 2008 with filmmaker Martin Scorsese 
  • Audio commentary from 2009 featuring film scholar Ian Christie 
  • New interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, director Michael Powell’s widow 
  • New short documentary on the film’s special effects featuring film historian Craig Barron and visual-effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw 
  • The Colour Merchant, a 1998 short film featuring cinematographer Jack Cardiff 
  • The South Bank Show: “Michael Powell,” a 1986 television program featuring Powell 
  • Restoration demonstration 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Despite having earned widespread acclaim for films such as Nobody Knows and Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1995 debut feature film, Maborosi, has seemingly been forgotten by western audiences. After winning the coveted Palme d’Or just this year for his latest film, Shoplifters, Maborosi has come back into focus thanks to a beautiful new Blu-Ray edition from Milestone Films.

While family dramas like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son have established Kore-eda as seemingly the heir apparent to Yasijiro Ozu, Maborosi is something of a different animal. There are flashes of Ozu's thematic interests here, but Kore-eda has something else in mind. Following a young woman mourning the sudden death of her husband, Maborosi is more of a mournful mood piece than a family drama. Quiet and hushed, more is said between lines of dialogue than is ever actually spoken aloud. Haunted not just by the death of her husband, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is also plagued by memories of the death of her grandmother, who wandered off from home to die when Yumiko was very young.

Her husband's sudden departure by apparent suicide brings that tragedy back into sharp focus, leaving Yumiko to piece her life back together by retreating to the coast with her young son. Much of the drama is internalized, and Kore-eda allows the silences and spaces between words to carry much of the weight. His static mise en scène and sense of hushed introspection recalls Hou Hsiao-Hsien moreso than Ozu. Although Kore-eda's style continued to evolve, there's something remarkably powerful and assured about Maborosi. It explores ideas of shared pain and cyclical grief, as Yumiko's past becomes a fresh source of pain through her tragedies in the present.

"It's harder to say goodbye if we keep postponing it." Yumiko laments at one point. Her inability to let go of the past leaves her unable to deal with the problems of the present. Kore-eda's camera deftly captures that sense of isolation and loneliness through precise framing and stark lighting contrasts, casting Yumiko as a woman in the shadows, surrounded by light she can never quite reach.

Maborosi is a film of feelings and textures that establishes character without the need for traditional plot structures. Kore-eda masterfully builds dramatic tension through glances and silences to suggest his lead character's inner turmoil, leading to a film that beautifully embodies the soul crushing nature of grief. It's a noteworthy debut for a significant filmmaker, who continues to grow and redefine himself as an artist with a singular yet versatile voice.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MABOROSI | Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda | Stars Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naito, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe, Midori Kiuchi | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Milestone Films

Special features include:
  • Commentary by Linda Ehrlich, independent film scholar and Associate Professor Emerita from Case Western Reserve University with special thanks to Yuki Togawa Gergotz. 
  • Birthplace, a video documentary with actress Makiko Esumi.
  • New English subtitles by Linda Hoaglund with Judith Aley, and the assistance of Linda Ehrlich. 

Friday, August 03, 2018

Nostalgia is the focus of Disney's new live action Christopher Robin, which imagines the titular character's drab adulthood after leaving behind the Hundred Acre Wood and his beloved friends, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, and Owl. 

Taking its cues from Steven Spielberg's HookChristopher Robin finds Robin (Ewan McGregor) toiling away as a middle manager for a luggage company in the days after World War I, his life now devoid of the magic and wonder it once held for him as a child. When his boss forces him to forgo a vacation with his wife and daughter in order to come up with a plan to save the struggling company, Robin begins to despair. That  is until Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) shows up to ask Robin to return with him to the Hundred Acre Wood to help find his missing pals. Resistant at first, Robin soon finds himself on a glorious adventure back to his childhood, reuniting him with his friends and reminding him what life is all about in the first place.

As Christopher Robin whisks its hero back to his childhood, so too does it transport the audience to a simpler time. Fans of Winnie the Pooh will find quite a bit to love here, from Cummings' lovely performance as Pooh, a role he's been playing in animated Disney films for decades, to Brad Garrett's wonderfully droll Eeyore. The score by Geoff Zanelli and Jon Brion pays loving homage to the classic original songs by the Sherman Brothers from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Richard M. Sherman also penned 3 new songs for the film), setting the film firmly in the world audiences have grown to know and love for generations.

On the other hand, the screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder plays it just a little too safe, never acknowledging what the original film seemed to make quite clear - that Pooh and the gang are stuffed animals that only come to life in Christopher Robin's imagination. In doing so, it seems to miss a perfect opportunity to explore Robin's relationship to his childhood, and reawakening the fantasy and wonder that stems from the imagination. Instead, it goes for a rather familiar plot line that borrows liberally from Hook and even Disney's own Mary Poppins (which is about to get its own belated sequel in the form of Mary Poppins Returns this December).

Still, the screenplay features many charming moments, sensitively directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland), a filmmaker who is no stranger to the nostalgic weepie. It is somehow fitting, given that the original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was an episodic adventure that featured no overarching plot (it was mostly stitched together from previously released short films). Perry, McCarthy, and Schroeder allow the relationship between Pooh and Christopher Robin to take center stage, and Cummings gamely steals the show as the ever-hungry "silly old bear." His scenes with Christopher Robin, especially in their escapades through London, are the beating heart of the film, both warmly funny and disarmingly moving.

There's something hauntingly elegiac about Christopher Robin, almost if it is somehow as much about putting aside childish things as it is about recapturing one's childhood. In the end, it's really about finding a balance between the two, but there are moments, especially in the first half of the film, that feel almost transcendent in their gossamer beauty. It may not reach the heights of the other cute stuffed bear that came out this year (Paddington 2), but its warmhearted embrace of its classic characters and their importance in the lives of so many elevates it above last year's Goodbye, Christopher Robin, which offered a much darker take on the story of the real-life Christopher Robin. Time spent in the company of Pooh is never wasted, and Christopher Robin isn't perfect, it is nevertheless a welcome and beguiling return to the world of the Hundred Acre Wood.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN | Directed by Marc Forster | Stars Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones | Rated PG for some action | Opens today, 8/3, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

American audiences are probably most familiar with the China's wuxia genre through Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which sparked something of a modern revival for the genre in the early 2000s, leading to such films as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower.

Wuxia, which translates to "martial heroes," is in no way a new genre, dating back over 2,000 years as both oral tradition and literature. It continued well into the 20th century as a popular cinematic medium in China, but the genre really came into its own in the 1960s under the direction of legendary filmmaker, King Hu, who pioneered the idea of action choreography. Hu not only refined the ancient tales through cinematic craft, he also changed the way action films were made - his action sequences were more disciplined, more tightly crafted than much of what had come before, grounding the violence in real-world consequences. Dragon Inn was his first film after moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan, and it breathed new life into the wuxia genre in ways that are still influencing filmmakers today, from Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou to Tsai Ming-Liang (who paid tribute to the film in his elegiac masterpiece, Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed liberally from it in both Kill Bill - Vol. 1 and The Hateful Eight.

Dragon Inn's influence over The Hateful Eight is especially interesting, considering how much it shares in common with the western genre of its time. Yet, unlike the Japanese samurai films from which westerns were borrowing around the time for their lone gunslinger myths (and vice versa), Hu crafted a film for which there is no leading role, and the heroes only achieve their goals by working together. The film is set mostly in the eponymous inn, where disparate ruffians, soldiers, and mercenaries converge to intercept a family of prisoners being transported to their exile after the death of their father, a decorated general, at the hands of a ruthless eunuch who usurped power in the region.

Hu provides enough back story in the film's prologue to fill an entire other film, chronicling the rise of the eunuchs and the splintering of the army into warring factions. It's a lot of information to absorb, but the film quickly establishes that this is all secondary to the interpersonal conflict that unfolds within the confines of the inn. While the eunuch, Tsao (Pai Ying), sends his soldiers to murder the children of General Yao to quell any potential uprising, several groups of lone freedom fighters also appear at the inn in order to protect them. The brilliance of Dragon Inn is that none of them know who each other is, and friend and foe alike are pitted against each other from the moment they walk in the door.

Before they engage in psychical violence, however, they must first engage in a battle of wits, subtly testing each other to see on what side their allegiance lies. Hu builds most of the film's suspense out of these encounters, as the characters attempt to root each other out through wordplay, charm, intimidation, and even poisoning, showing the audience his hand but never allowing the characters to know what is really going on. It's a very Hitchcockian technique, and by the time the film erupts into violence in its third act, Hu has so thoroughly wound up the tension that the entire films seems to be balancing on a knife's edge. Hu makes the transition by bursting out of the drab confines of the inn into the the colorful landscapes that surround it, the film's color scheme suddenly reflecting its own kinetic energy.

As the film wears on, Dragon Inn becomes more impressionistic, almost abstract, in the way that it not only depicts the final showdown between the heroes and the villainous eunuch, but in how it expresses the inner turmoil of the characters. It's a sight to behold, tightly choreographed and beautifully shot, establishing Hu as a true master of the cinematic language. If the film is unfamiliar to western audiences, surely that is because it has been widely unavailable on home video until the release of the new Criterion Blu-Ray that, while relatively light on special features, features a truly stunning 4K digital restoration. It is a bold step into the 21st century for a wuxia classic whose influence continues to be keenly felt in modern cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack 
  • New interview with actor Shangkuan Ling-fung 
  • Interview from 2016 with actor Shih Chun 
  • New scene analysis by author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix 
  • Newsreel footage of the film’s 1967 premiere in Taipei, Taiwan 
  • Trailer 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Andrew Chan