Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Given his reputation and long history of making controversial documentaries, it's probably safe to assume that most audience members have a pretty strong opinion about filmmaker Michael Moore before going into a theater to watch one of his films. And chances are most audience members heading into one are probably a member of the choir he's preaching to.

That's one of the problems with films like Fahrenheit 11/9, no matter how much righteous anger Moore is able to stir up for his cause, he's rarely, if ever, winning new recruits. That doesn't mean that Moore can't craft a persuasive argument. If Fahrenheit 11/9, a spiritual sequel to his Palme D'Or winning George W. Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, is any indication, his voice is just as clear and distinct as it's ever been. But in the social media era, is it as relevant?

The answer is yes and no. If anything, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a slickly effective and often emotionally gripping film that casts a withering eye on President Donald Trump and the America that he has crafted in his image. Moore's unique brand of agitprop is often more emotionally satisfying than it is intellectually stimulating, so stunts like using a fire hose to spray lead-poisoned Flint water into Michigan governor Rick Snyder's front yard often land hollow. Yet Moore is at his very best when examining the water crisis in his home town of Flint, Michigan. Rather than making it about himself, as is his tendency, Moore allows the current citizens of Flint to speak out against the poisoning of their children that has been met with indifference at best and intentional malice at worst from the highest levels of government.

The Flint sequence may seem like a detour in a film that is meant to take aim at Donald Trump, and yet Moore uses it as an example of America's increasing apathy toward communities of color and the rise of white nationalism. This is where Moore is most comfortable, advocating for marginalized communities and shining a light on overlooked problems. When he's lampooning Trump, the results are often amusing but they don't have the same bite. Trump is an easy figure to make fun of, but there's nothing here we haven't seen on late night talk shows before. When Moore is making parallels between the rise of Hitler and the election of Donald Trump, or accusing Obama of helping pave the way for Trump, or railing against the DNC for rigging the election against Bernie Sanders, it almost feels as if Moore is taking a "kitchen sink" approach to documentary filmmaking, throwing out everything he's got and seeing what sticks.

The Hitler parallels are appropriately chilling but lack the bite of the film's earlier examinations of specific issues. In one sequence following the student activists from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a businessman calls the police on the young protestors. When the 911 operator asks if they have weapons the man replies "Michael Moore is with them." That's where Fahrenheit 11/9 really succeeds, when Moore weaponizes his camera as a voice for the oppressed, whether it's in Flint or at teacher rallies in West Virginia or marches of young student activists protesting gun violence. Few filmmakers can channel righteous umbrage into effectively provocative cinema quite like Michael Moore, and yet few filmmakers have such a frustrating penchant for getting in the way of their own message.

The result is a film is frightening, disheartening, rousing, inspiring, and scattershot in equal measure. At a time when the likes of John Oliver (HBO), Samantha Bee (TBS), and Trevor Noah (Comedy Central) have taken up the mantle of liberal satire-cum-advocacy through their acclaimed television shows, Moore's jocular brand of propaganda feels a bit outdated. Why, for instance, did he wait to expose proof of a systematic cover-up of lead levels in children in Flint for the release of his film, rather than through the immediacy of a TV show? Still, while he may strictly be preaching to the anti-Trump choir, it's clear that he still has a fire in his belly for the unheard and the marginalized. Fahrenheit 11/9 may not succeed as an anti-Trump screed, but as a battering ram for justice it certainly hits home.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FAHRENHEIT 11/9 | Directed by Michael Moore | Rated R for language and some disturbing material/images | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The third in Flicker Alley's series of "Lost Film Noir Classics," each lovingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation, The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) is a thrilling discovery indeed. Directed by prolific "B-movie" director, Felix E. Feist, and produced by none other than Jack M. Warner as the result of a spat with with his father, famed Warner Brothers mogul, Jack L. Warner, The Man Who Cheated Himself was the very definition of a rush-job. 

Independently produced on a shoestring budget and only given five days to shoot on location in order to capture some of its most indelible San Francisco locales, the film nevertheless turned a small profit for Warner, although perhaps not as much as he was expecting. The casting of Lee J. Cobb, fresh from originating the roll of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway, was meant to give the movie a sheen of star-power and respectability that ultimately failed to catch on with audience. Broadway stars, it turned out, didn't have the same draw at the cinematic box office.

Nevertheless, Cobb brings a tremendous, world-weary sensibility to the role of Lt. Ed Cullen, a grizzled, experienced San Francisco detective who becomes an accessory to murder when the Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt), the  woman he had been seeing under her husband's nose, shoots the man in a fit of rage. Thinking he can frame the death as a robbery gone wrong, his situation becomes more complicated when his fresh-faced younger brother, Andy (John Dall) joins the force and refuses to accept the case at face value. The two brothers partner on the case, one desperately trying to solve it, the other continually trying to throw him off the scent, leading to a climactic showdown that is breathtaking in its quietly intense construction.

Feist directs the climax completely sans dialogue and music, the action scored only by the sounds of wind and echoing footsteps. It's chillingly effective, maximizing tension out of even the most mundane of elements. It's what really elevates The Man Who Cheated Himself over its B-movie roots. Wyatt is perhaps miscast as the femme fatale, unable to conjure the vampy menace that the role demands, and Dall's square performance is often flat, but becomes more interesting when one realizes he was actually a gay man trying his best to mask his sexuality with all-American masculinity in the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s.

It's Cobb that's really the standout here. He brings a kind of humanity to an ultimately stereotypical role. There's a certain sadness here that one imagines he brought to his portrayal of Willy Loman as well, and it anchors the film with a sense of tangible emotion. And when it hits that incredible climax, The Man Who Cheated Himself truly rises above the sum of its parts. Under Feist's watchful eye, the film takes the hard-boiled noir and turns it into visual poetry. Yet for years it has gone all but unnoticed, at least until the Film Noir Foundation helped resurrect it for a new Blu-Ray release by Flicker Alley. While the disc is light on special features, the transfer is impeccable, and the set includes a fascinating documentary about the making of the film that sheds light on its troubled production. Following their similarly excellent work on Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears, Flicker Alley have proven themselves more than capable stewards of obscure film noir classics that deserve a chance to be appreciated by new audiences.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF | Directed by Felix E. Feist | Stars Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard, Harlan Warde | Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Flicker Alley.

Friday, September 21, 2018

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.

In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors.

Ross lyrically traces not only the unique culture that has grown up in this area, he also examines the perceptions of African American life as seen through the lens of white America's depictions of them. The result is a film that recalls the raw power and verisimilitude of Charles Burnett's seminal classic of black cinema, Killer of Sheep, examining not only the results of a system that has kept this community impoverished, but the joys they have managed to find it spite of their situations. This isn't just a film about poverty, its not just a film about blackness and what that means in modern society. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a unique and undefinable thing, a kind of Walt Whitman-esque exploration of America's roots that reverberates through time, space, and culture. Notice how Ross balances the seemingly random scenes of Quincy and Daniel's everyday lives, with moments of observational beauty, whether it's a deer trying to cross the street, an approaching storm, or a country road at sunset.

The film is, above all, a meditation. There's something attractively ragged about its structure, interspersing major life milestones with life's little details often overlooked in cinema - whether it's a child playing on the floor for minutes on end, or simply friends hanging out in a yard after dropping by unexpectedly. Hale County has the ebbs and flows of life as it is lived by those unseen, but underneath it all is the pulsing lifeblood of something much bigger. Even in its small, unassuming scale, in feels somehow monumental, profound in a way that can't quite be put into words (not surprising considering that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is credited as an artistic advisor). Even though Ross never directly answers the questions of what it means to be an American, or what it means to be black in America, it almost seems as if the answers are buried here somewhere amidst the poetic mundanity of existence in this dusty southern town, once the home of poor sharecroppers, now the home of a poor black population surrounded by a white power structure that doesn't seem to understand it.

Yet Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn't here to provide answers. It's here to offer a glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING | Directed by RaMell Ross | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, September 18, 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.

It is, however, more entertaining on a revisit than it is upon first watch. There are still elements that don't work - the cloned human child feels like an unnecessary contrivance, and attempts to connect to the original film feel more clunky and out of place here than they did in Jurassic World. Overall, Jurassic World is the stronger film - it's more tightly constructed and purposeful. But Fallen Kingdom is perhaps the better directed of the two. J.A. Bayona has a strong visual sense, and he crafts some spectacular images here - it's difficult not to feel a lump in your throat at the sight of the brachiosaurus on the dock as the island explodes behind it; the first dinosaur we saw on Isla Nublar in 1993 becoming the last as the island meets its fiery end. The entire haunted house thriller in the gothic mansion finale has a raw power to it, so much so one almost wishes that the filmmakers had gone all in on that angle rather than making the first half of the film a cursory (and all-too-rushed) visit to the island.

Unfortunately, Bayona is saddled with a scattershot screenplay that he can only do so much with. The Malcom bookends feel more like lazy fan-service than solid plotting (but it's hard to say no to more Jeff Goldblum), and pretty much everything involving the villains feels oddly goofy. Come for the well-choreographed set-pieces, but don't expect them to be stitched together into a satisfying whole. And pick up the Blu-Ray for the nifty augmented reality Facebook Messenger feature that allows you to play with a digital Blue the baby raptor by bringing her to life from the comfort of your living room. It's one of the most creative and unique special features to come out of a home video release in quite some time, and is only available by purchasing the Blu-Ray. Jurassic Park fans won't want to miss a chance to share a picture of themselves playing with a baby raptor anywhere in the world.

GRADE - ★★½ (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 | Available today on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

On paper, there is arguably no more ideal filmmaker to take over the Predator franchise than Shane Black. Black, who had a supporting role in the original Predator (1987), has developed a career as a director of witty, often wickedly funny action films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, while also proving equally comfortable with big budget blockbusters like Iron Man 3.

With his connections to the series dating back to the original, Black seemed a natural choice to direct the fourth in the 30 year old franchise, and he does indeed take the series in a new direction from where it's gone previously. Unfortunately it may not be somewhere the franchise really needed to go. The Predator is far and away the funniest of the Predator films; Black's dark humor is on full display here. In fact, The Predator often feels more like an action/adventure film in the vein of The Mummy (the Brendan Fraser one, not the dour reboot with Tom Cruise), rather than the action/sci-fi/horror hybrid aesthetic of the first three films.

Like the original film, The Predator centers around a band of military commandos doing battle with the Predators, except this time rather than an elite squadron, they're a motley band of misfits who literally escaped from the military psych ward with the help of our hero, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a Marine sniper the military is trying to silence after he witnessed a Predator craft crash-landing to Earth. But this time, the humans aren't the targets - they're merely caught in the crossfire between Predators as one of them goes rogue to give the humans a secret weapon to fight back against Predator attempts to harvest their DNA in their quests to become the galaxy's ultimate killing machines.

It's an interesting concept, but the Predators always work best when we know the least about them, and attempts to deepen the mythology around them without answering too many questions has mostly been an asset to the series thus far. In The Predator, however, the Predators talk for the first time, and not just mimicking humans, they actually carry out conversations with people, a move which seems strangely unnecessary. The move away from the primal struggle for survival makes the Predators less imposing (not to mention the move away from practical effects to CGI), and the film's attempts to setup a sequel seem painfully contrived. This has never been a series with a strong, overarching vision or sense of mythology, and the attempt by the studio to try to make one now feels like a lame attempt at a cash grab.

Still, there are some things to admire here, chief among them the central idea that the most desirable human trait that the Predators are seeking comes from Quinn's autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay). The Predators see his heightened sensibilities as an evolutionary advantage and seek to add it to their arsenal. It's a surprisingly forward-thinking idea (even if it isn't always handled with the most sensitivity). Otherwise the film is tonally scattershot. It's a vast improvement over the abysmal Predator 2, but it doesn't have the brutal efficiency of the original Predator or the mysterious beauty that really distinguished Nimród Antal's under-appreciated 2010 threequel, Predators.

While each entry in the series has felt mostly self-contained and unconnected to any of the others, The Predator finally starts to dig into the idea that the government is aware of their presence and is attempting to study them, but that really takes away from the mystique of these creatures. They're no longer terrifying hunters that hide in the shadows, they're CGI monsters that talk and have grand galactic plans to harvest humanity. The more we know about them, the less interesting they are, and The Predator never seems to quite figure out what it wants to be. It's perhaps Black's most tonally awkward film, in which for the first time he seemingly struggles to find the balance between action and comedy. It's too slick, too schematic, and bears the imprint of too much studio interference.  While it's certainly entertaining in the moment, one can't help but feel that there's a much better film in here somewhere. Black certainly seems to be having fun with this figure from his past, but it's just trying so hard to be fresh and different that it just doesn't seem to fit.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE PREDATOR | Directed by Shane Black | Stars Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey | Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Saturday, September 15, 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.

Gangster films, especially those starring James Cagney, were all the rage of pre-code Hollywood. Cagney was a star, and seeing his tough mug with its sadistically cocked eyebrow leering at his next victim has become such an iconic image that it's almost hard to imagine that any Depression-era gangsters existed that didn't look or sound like Cagney ever existed. He was THE gangster, from The Public Enemy (1931) to White Heat (1949), he managed to define an entire genre, even while proving himself equally adept at musicals like Footlight Parade (1933) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

But it was gangster pictures that made Cagney a star, captivating audiences as a smooth-talking wise guy in such films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, which inspired the now-classic Angels with Filhty Souls as seen in Home Alone) and The Roaring Twentie (1939). Right smack in the middle of this remarkable run was Picture Snatcher (1933), a kind of anti-gangster gangster picture that cast Cagney as a reformed gangster named Danny Kean trying to go straight by taking an "on the level" job as a reporter. It turns out that you can take the boy out of the mob, but you can take the mob out of the boy, as Danny uses his unscrupulous tactics for the benefit of aa scurrilous tabloid called the Graphic News, stealing exclusive, lurid photos whenever he can. It isn't long, however, before he falls in love with the daughter of the cop who once put him away, forcing him to find a way to balance his new life with his old, dishonest ways. But when he sneaks a camera into the execution of a woman in Sing Sing, he finds that he in order to go straight, he might just have to risk it all.

Directed by Lloyd Bacon Picture Snatcher is a disarmingly complex study of a man trying to use dishonesty to become an honest man, trying desperately to shed the ways of his past but being unable to escape the only world he's ever known. He's essentially traded his gun for a camera, becoming a lawless gangster for a new, technically legal industry. One almost can't help be reminded of Billy Wilder's scathing media satire, Ace in the Hole, in the way it explores the sensational lengths one reporter is willing to go in order to get the scoop of a lifetime. It's not as nuanced as Wilder's film of course; Cagney is Cagney, all rapid-fire dialogue and bemused smirks, and at 77 minutes it flies by at an almost breakneck pace.

Still, there's something deeper going on beneath the surface of this quickie gangster drama. Few other directors knew how to utilize Cagney's unique charm as well as Bacon, who also directed him to musical glory in Footlight Parade the same year. Cagney is both rogue and hero, repugnant and good-hearted, and Picture Snatcher uses that mischievous glint and volatile energy to pitch-perfect effect, giving us a character that we're able to root for while simultaneously being appalled by their actions. That's a major factor of Cagney's specific genius; but here, perhaps even more so than in his iconic role in The Public Enemy, Cagney gives us a portrait of a man whose willingness to operate outside of society's boundaries is precisely what makes him a good man - he will go to any lengths for the people he loves.

It's a rip-roaring, crackerjack, sort-of gangster picture in the best pre-code Warner Brothers tradition that has been long overlooked in favor of Cagney's more famous roles. Yet this one deserves to be mentioned alongside some of his most iconic classics, because Danny Kean is perhaps one of his most layered and indelible characters, and stands as a reminder of why Cagney remains one of the most popular and magnetic stars in Hollywood history.

Picture Snatcher is now streaming exclusively on FilmStruck.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Searching isn't the first movie to take place entirely on a computer screen (the 2014 horror film Unfriended has that dubious title), but it's easily the best film to have done so.

The film follows the frantic efforts of a father to track down his missing daughter using every online resource at his disposal. In the wake of his wife's tragic death, David Kim (John Cho) has felt a certain distance between himself and his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), but once she goes missing and he starts digging into her digital life, he begins to realize just how much they had drifted apart.

Margot's social media is filled with depressed cries for help, secret friendships, and outright lies, leading David to question whether he knew his daughter at all. Was Margot kidnapped, was she murdered, or was she a party to something sinister? As he and a sympathetic Detective Vick (Debra Messing) get deeper into the mystery, it soon becomes clear that this case is far more complex than he could have ever imagined.

Searching, much like this year's Bo Burnham's wonderful Eighth Grade, memorably explores the rich online life lead by teenagers, and it does so by fulling immersing us in their online world. The film takes place entirely on a computer screen - any dialogue is conveyed through iMessage, Facetime, or news clips on YouTube, cleverly assembling the story through disparate digital elements to bring together pieces of a fractured whole. We find clues on video livestreams and Instagram posts, and watch David through his webcam has he searches for files on his computer that may provide answers to Margot's whereabouts. It's engaging and suspenseful where Unfriended felt cheap and gimmicky, using its digital milieu as a means to look deeper into the human ability to create alternate personalities online, or to reveal their real ones to an unseen audience that is always watching and listening.

In my review of Unfriended, I compared the experience to watching someone else play video games over their shoulder. One never feels like that while watching Searching. The audience is fully immersed in this experience, invited to participate with David as both our avatar and our guide. We are both audience and participant, active and a passive metaphor for Margot's anonymous audience. Do we pay attention to what is clearly a cry for help? Do we check on our friends who withdraw from real life into an online escape?

Searching both implicates us and engages us in her father's search, and the results are wholly engrossing and even moving. It takes the digital world where so much of us spend so much of our daily lives and brings it to to cinematic in unexpected and thrilling ways. It's one of the year's most satisfying surprises; at a time when true-crime TV shows and podcasts are surging in popularity, Searching feels like an old-fashioned whodunit in a thoroughly modern setting, charting a bold new cinematic course into the digital world with a keen sense of tension and empathy. Who knew a computer screen could make for such enthralling viewing?

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SEARCHING | Directed by Aneesh Chaganty | Stars John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

John McTiernan's original Predator (1987) remains perhaps one of the most balls-to-the-wall action films of all time. Near constant action, yet McTiernan still makes time to create indelible characters and an even more memorable villain. Consider, for a moment, Jesse Ventura's Cooper. Ventura was never known as a great actor, and he receives minimal screen time before being dispatched by the Predator, but his gruff dismissal when told he is bleeding ("I ain't got time to bleed" he growls) says all we need to know about him.

Then there's the creature itself, one of Stan Winston's most incredible creations, a monster to go toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator-in-the-jungle, Dutch. It all revolves around such a simple conceit - a group of commandos, tricked into doing CIA dirty work in jungles of Central America, suddenly find themselves being hunted by an unseen creature. McTiernan smartly creates tension, even amidst near wall-to-wall gunfire, by withholding the creature until near the end of the film. Yet there is never a true moment of reveal, rather he teases bits and pieces of the creature before finally stripping away the camouflage for good. It's an effective tactic that makes the Predator one of cinema's most terrifying villains. And by the end of the film we still don't know what it is or where its from.

Later sequels would, of course, attempt to broaden the mythology surrounding the predators and their culture, including two cross-overs with the Alien franchise. But like the original Alien, the less we know about these creatures the better. Predator doesn't quite have the eerie, primal sense of horror that made Alien so frightening, but it makes up for that in sheer brutality, beating the audience into submissive by force, making it perhaps one of the most energetic and intense action films of the 1980s.

As aggressively ugly in spirit as it is visually, Predator 2 (1990) seemingly took everything good about the original Predator and chucked it out the window. Awkward and clunky where Predator was fleet-footed and efficient, Predator 2 brings the action from the jungles of the Amazon to the concrete jungles of Los Angeles. This time the Predator is tangling with a hard-nosed cop (Danny Glover) with a disregard for the rules, who finds himself in the middle of a gang war that has become the Predator's new playground.

Setting aside for a moment the shockingly racist depictions of the two gangs and their Jamaican voodoo rituals (which are pretty bad even by 1990 standards), Predator 2 is a major step down from the original in nearly every way. Predator is a near-perfect action film, pitting a para-military group against an unseen hunter from another world. This time, however, we know the villain and we know what's going on, even though the characters do not. The film chooses yet again to treat the Predator as a mystery, which makes little narrative sense. It also undoes the brilliance of Stan Winston's original creature with some bad early 90s visual effects that aren't just bad because of their primitive nature, they're bad because they're mostly unnecessary.

Predator kept its cards close to the vest, even while providing near constant action. Predator 2 is a grimy, lurid romp in the colorless muck of Los Angeles that not only makes poor use of the city's locations, it also loses a lot of its narrative thrust by trying to paste the original's narrative structure on a film where it doesn't really fit; often trying to shock the audience rather than thrill it. Save for a bit of fan-service the sets up the mostly ill-advised Alien vs. Predator series, it adds nothing to the franchise and feels like a cheap knock-off of its own predecessor.

That being said, AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) is much better than its reputation suggests. It's been retconned into oblivion, of course, by Ridley Scott's Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but that almost elevates it. By not having the burden of explaining the origins of the xenomorphs, or being a legitimate prequel to the events of AlienAlien vs. Predator is free to just be the fun B-movie it was always meant to be.

The idea that Predators have been keeping xenomorphs in a giant, Antarctic pyramid in order to hunt them in a coming of age ritual is admittedly silly, but AVP's unabashed ridiculousness is somewhat preferable to the ponderous pseudo-philosophizing of Scott's recent efforts. Paul W.S. Anderson's direction is refreshingly un-pretentious, crafting solid action sequences and even a sense of awe at times. Whereas Prometheus and Alien: Covenant shroud their mysteries in obfuscating vagaries, AVP's  sense of mystery is still tinged with wonder. Scott's films are certainly more beautiful to look at, grander in scale and thematic scope, but in their attempts to ask BIG QUESTIONS, often get tripped up by their overly convoluted plots, coming  across as more obtuse than profound.

The Alien films have always tackled ideas of sexual unease, rape, and motherhood, but it has historically done so it subtle, sub-textual ways, which Ridley Scott has attempted to turn into text, with mixed results. AVP doesn't have time for that sort of thing, and while that sets it on a lower plane than the Alien anthology (as well as the original Predator), it's still a hell of a good time. Its characters don't feel expendable, its action is taut and engaging, and its effects are surprisingly strong (oh how I miss practical xenomorphs). There's just something thrilling on a primal level about seeing these tow legendary screen monsters go head-to-head. And even at its most over-the-top (our heroine's climactic team-up with the Predator), it's still just so deliriously entertaining that it can't be dismissed.

Fox clearly wanted to make up for the disappointing PG-13 rating that accompanied 2004's Alien vs. Predator when they greenlit this poorly conceived sequel. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) certainly brings the gore this time around, but that's about it. The idea of aliens running amok in a small town on Earth is certainly an intriguing one, but AVPR does everything it can to screw the concept up.

While the AVP films are no longer considered canon, it's still a bit of a stretch to think that these creatures were running around on Earth in 2004, when the original Alien doesn't take place until 2122. But where the first AVP had fun with its ridiculousness, AVPR is needlessly mean-spirited and nonsensical. It replaces the careworn freight crew of Alien and the military grunts of Aliens and Predator with annoying modern teenagers and their pointless small-town drama, so when they start to drop like flies, the audience hardly cares. In fact, the entire film is so poorly lit that we can barely see what's going on in the first place. AVPR has some of the most god-awful lighting ever seen in a major motion picture. On the other hand, keeping everything under-lit hides how shoddy everything in this movie looks. The only thing that really stands out here is Brian Tyler's bombastic score, which is far better than the film deserves. It then "solves" the problems it sets up by having the army drop a nuclear bomb on a small town, killing everyone in it.

The Brothers Strauss, making their feature film debut here, could have done something interesting with this story. Instead, they tried way too hard to make the film "cool" rather than entertaining, and the result is a complete mess, featuring incoherently edited action sequences and poorly written characters. Paul W.S. Anderson knows how to make trash fun, and the original AVP is a blast. Unfortunately, AVPR steps into every pitfall that Anderson so deftly avoided. It's no wonder, then, that both films have been rejected as official franchise canon. Because, in this case at least, it's better off forgotten.

Finally, 2010's Predators arrived as a belated sequel after two attempts to make Alien vs. Predator happen, an experiment in fan service that didn't quite land the way the studio probably hoped. Predators was something of a correction for the franchise, a direct sequel to the original series that has little connection to either Predator or Predator 2 (save for a passing mention of the events of Predator), that still manages to feel more in line with what the first film was all about.

The film is once again set in a jungle, but this time there's a twist - the jungle is on an alien planet that serves as a kind of game preserve for the Predators. Eight strangers are dropped into the middle of the forest - mercenaries, gang members, murderers, each an example of the worst of their respective societies, each hand picked to be a formidable adversary in a ritualistic hunt. By introducing a new, larger breed of Predator, and a new planet (that is not the Predators' home), Predators manages to deepen the mythology behind the monsters without answering too many questions, leaving enough mystery behind them to show that they can still be frightening, formidable opponents.

Director Nimród Antal doesn't get nearly enough credit for how beautiful this film is. The samurai sword fight between a Predator and a Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien) feels like something out of a King Hu film, both thrillingly choreographed and lyrically shot. If more of the film had sustained that level of heightened lyricism it might have been something truly special. Even so, it's still a solid sequel, more than making up for the drab grunginess and casual racism of Predator 2. It brings the series back to the basics of the hunt, while turning in something that's almost more of a suspense thriller than an action film - revealing the Predators early on but still keeping them in the background, using their presence wisely and effectively for creating maximum tension. Antal has a keen understanding of what makes the Predators frightening, and he leaves enough mystery surrounding their origins and enough question marks at the end of the film to keep the audience wanting more. It's an under-appreciated entry in a series whose high points have unfortunately been few and far between.

Series Ranking:

1. Predator

2. AVP: Alien vs. Predator

3. Predators

4. Predator 2

5. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Monday, September 10, 2018

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is the kind of film that defies all description in words, in much the same way that it transcends cinematic form and language.

Malick has never been a formalist, especially in his post-Thin Red Line period that followed his 20-year self-imposed hiatus. Yet The Tree of Life is perhaps the purest reflection of Malick's style, an experimental evocation of the filmmaker's id that seems to be the culmination of his ideas both past and future, a perfect focal-point vortex of his career as an artist. Indeed, The Tree of Life not only seemed to presage the films he would make in the years after its release, it also seems to be the film that each of those look back to for inspiration, extrapolating on its themes and concepts .

It's a dense work from which to borrow, filled with Malick's trademark poetic proclivities but also daring to answer some of humanity's most profound existential questions. It is as if as if Malick captured the entirety of human experience in the course of one film, exploring the search for God, mortality, familial relationships, and the profound effect parents can have on their children. When presented with the chance to create an extended cut of the film for the new Criterion Blu-Ray, Malick instead created an entirely new cut of the film, not only adding 50 minutes of previously unreleased footage, but also restructuring and removing footage that was present in the theatrical cut to create an entirely new cinematic experience.

The extended cut of The Tree of Life is neither better or worse than the original theatrical cut, which remains Malick's preferred version of the film, it's simply different, if perhaps even more abstract and avant-garde. It spends more time with young Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken) as he navigates growing up in suburban Texas in the 1950s, as well as haunted sojourns into the past of his older counterpart (Sean Penn). It as an added meditative quality that, while not necessarily deeper, allows the audience more time in which to get to know the family at the film's center, and the children caught between the titanic gravitational pulls of their parents - domineering father (Brad Pitt) and doting mother (Jessica Chastain). The film presents the two parents as representations of the way of Nature (giving into our domineering natural instincts) and the way of Grace (that of Christ-like patience and compassion).

While Mrs. O'Brien recalls the nuns of her childhood telling her that one must choose the way of Nature or the way of Grace, Malick purposefully reframes the two as not mutually exclusive. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien may be two polar extremes, their children caught in the middle struggling to find their own path; but neither are held up as the ideal, rather the ideal exists in the balance between them. That is perhaps why Malick frames the familial drama in such cosmic terms, taking us back to the beginning of time, all the way to the end of all things. Humans are so very, very small in the grand scheme of life, time, and the universe, and yet so inexorably tied to its ebbs and flows. Malick places the protagonists square in the middle of a cosmic exploration of time, in which they are both an inevitable extension of eons of evolution, an infinitesimal sidebar in a much grander scheme. Watching The Tree of Life almost feels as if we're in the presence of something holy; a hushed, whispered conversation with an unseen deity. "Lord, where were you?" Mrs. O'Brien whispers into the ether. "Did you know? Who are we to you?" Then the film responds - everywhere, in all things, at all times, from the very beginning, and that spark of the divine that gave birth to galaxies is even in the inauspicious backyard in a Texas suburb.

Much of it unfolds like shards of memory, resurrected through firing synapses and random impressions - a life, indeed the whole of eternity, flashing before our eyes. The Tree of Life is the kind of film that has the power to make you look at the world with new eyes, almost akin to a 3-hour conversation with God. It is a film of monumental beauty and quiet, intense power; at once cosmic and intimate, massive in scale and deeply personal in scope. That this singular achievement is a masterpiece in both forms, theatrical and extended, is a testament to Malick's genius. The stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who, shockingly, has won three Oscars, but none for the five films he has shot for Malick) seems to throw the language of film form out the window, constantly in flux, never landing on a single solitary image. It captures moments of profound beauty almost by accident, as if in passing. It's somehow fitting, that a film about the fleeting and sometimes messy nature of life refuses to frame it in ways that can be contained in a box. Every image seems to burst forth from the frame, continuing beyond it into infinity, much like the film itself.

The Tree of Life ends with an actual "amen," as a Berlioz requiem closes out the film's Heavenly coda that marks the closest a film has come to a religious experience since Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of arc. Indeed, it is like a prayer on film, a hushed, whispered conversation with an unseen deity, marveling at the untold mysteries of the universe with open eyes and a full heart. If ever a contemporary film was worthy of a Criterion edition (featuring a stunning new 4K transfer), it's this one. So few films deserve immediate induction into the cinematic canon, but so few films ever reach such lofty heights. It's a modern masterpiece, a work of almost miraculous power, that demands to be experienced, reflected on, and felt in deep in the soul where few films ever reach.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE TREE OF LIFE | Directed by Terrence Malick | Stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Finnegan Williams, Michael Koeth, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw | Rated PG-13 for some thematic material | On Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on Tuesday, September 11.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised and approved by director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack 
  • New extended version of the film featuring an additional fifty minutes of footage 
  • Exploring “The Tree of Life,” a 2011 documentary featuring collaborators and admirers of Malick’s, including filmmakers David Fincher and Christopher Nolan 
  • New interviews with actor Jessica Chastain and senior visual-effects supervisor Dan Glass 
  • New video essay by critic Benjamin B about the film’s cinematography and style, featuring audio interviews with Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk, and other crew members 
  • New interview with critic Alex Ross about Malick’s use of classical music 
  • Video essay from 2011 by critic Matt Zoller Seitz and editor Serena Bramble 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Kent Jones and (Blu-ray only) a 2011 piece on the film by critic Roger Ebert

Friday, September 07, 2018

John Cassavetes is best known for small-budgeted, intimately-scaled independent films, not for mainstream gangster pictures. But in 1980, Cassavetes needed funding for his next project, Love Streams (1984), so he wrote the script for the film that would eventually become Gloria, a piece he considered to be pure pulp trash, as a quick moneymaker to raise some money for the movie he really wanted to make.

But as fate would have it, not only would Cassavetes' wife, Gena Rowlands, end up in the title role after Barbra Streisand turned it down, Cassavetes himself would end up in the director's chair, now fully responsible for a project he had no faith in. To him, it was the very definition of Hollywood prostitution, slumming it with cheap crime picture for the masses in order to make the art he really wanted to make.

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." Thanks to Gloria, Cassavetes made both great art and great trash, turning in a film that would prove to be his most mainstream work and is biggest box office success, going to to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for Rowlands. It was as if Cassavetes couldn't help but make a great movie, taking the pulpy script and spinning it into cinematic gold.

Much of the credit must be given to Rowlands, whose eponymous Gloria Swenson (after Gloria Swanson) is a streetwise assassin who could give Dirty Harry a run for his money ("Come on, come on, I’d love it — don’t hang back!" she taunts as she brandishes her gun at a gang of thugs). Except she isn't trying to clean up the streets or solve a crime, she's simply trying to protect a little boy. As a former mobster herself, Gloria is recruited by friends to take care of their son, knowing that the mob is about to come calling. With the boy, Phil (the adorably precocious John Adames) and his father's little black book in tow, she goes on the run, shooting down anyone who gets in their way. Gloria, we discover, hates children. Phil isn't too fond of her either, and can't quite understand why she won't just take him home.  But by the time their journey, the two have become the only family each other has, and Gloria will do anything, even lay down her own life, to keep him safe.

It's a story filled with cliché, and Cassavetes knew it. But he handled it with such sincerity and grace that it's almost impossible to believe that he had no real affection for it. Cassavetes' trademark focus on character takes center stage. We spend very little time with the mobster villains, instead focusing on Gloria's budding relationship with her young charge, charting the boy's growth from loud-mouth punk kid who believes he is a grown man to vulnerable child who knows he needs a guardian to keep him safe. Gloria takes a typical potboiler plot and turns it into something with gravity and weight, Gloria and Phil's journey becoming a kind of gritty fairy tale about unlikely friendship and creating families where none exist. There are times it almost feels operatic, with Gloria cast as an avenging angel with all the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Cassavetes may have thought Gloria was nothing more than commercial trash, but what he did instead was take trash and turn it into art, with Rowlands turning in one of her very best performances, every bit as tough and formidable as anything Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or Charles Bronson ever did. Not only did it go on to fund Cassavetes' passion project, Love Streams (once again starring Rowlands), it also gave us a heroine for the ages, at long last resurrected on Twilight Time's stunning new Blu-Ray.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

GLORIA | Directed by John Cassavetes | Stars Gena Rowlands, Julie Carmen, John Adames, Buck Henry | Now available on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

There is a moment about two thirds of the way Björn Runge's The Wife in which Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) watches from the audience as her husband, Joe (Jonathan Pryce) receives the Nobel Prize for literature, an award that by all rights belongs to her. The camera holds focus on Close's face for a short time, registering the conflict roiling beneath the surface as she tries to hold it together for appearance's sake, but then quickly cuts back to a wide shot of the ceremony, pulling back as the crowd erupts in applause, the moment taken from Close to focus on the man receiving the award for her work.

Much like the characters in the film, the scene robs Close of an important moment. One wishes that Runge had taken some inspiration from Jonathan Glazer's Birth in that moment, and allowed the camera to stay on her face, taking in every moment of rage and heartbreak bursting forth from beneath her stoic countenance. This is scene is about her character, and even if it was a thematic choice, it seems counterintuitive to the film's dramatic arc.

Close is, of course, extraordinary as Joan, the long-suffering wife of a "literary genius" who in fact has served as little more than her copy editor for decades, taking all the credit for her work out of perceived necessity in a male-dominated world where men pat each other on the backs for mediocrity but consistently fail to recognize female genius. For years she has lived quietly out of the spotlight, content with her place in the shadows, until her arrival in Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony. There, everything begins to unravel, as decades' worth of resentment comes bubbling to the surface. And yet, even in a film called The Wife, Pryce's character seems to take center stage. If Runge is attempting some sort of meta-textual commentary here, it comes off as a grave dramatic misstep, consistently pulling focus away from Close's simmering performance when the film should really be about her point of view.

Instead we are treated to tales of Joe's infidelities and their unbelievably whiny man-child of a son's petulant insistence on being recognized for his writing talent, even when it becomes clear that his mother is the true literary genius of the family. It then seems to absolve Joe's sins in the final act without ever really dealing with them in a satisfying way. The ending feels like a bit of a cop-out, avoiding the film's thorniest themes when it seems to have nowhere else to go.

And yet through it all, Close holds her head high and delivers one of her most indelible performances. The film around her may be a tepid melodrama that doesn't seem to know what to do with its subject (or with her as an actress), but Close is extraordinary - restrained when she needs to be and fiery at just the right moments. Just give her a damn Oscar already. She has proven her mettle over and over again, and in The Wife she is a marvel of barely contained heartache and rage. How ironic would it be for her to lose yet again for a film in which she plays a woman who has never been given her due? Close certainly deserves better than this, but the film is worth seeing for her alone. She's a force of nature in a film that seems content to be a meek whisper in the presence of giants.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE WIFE | Directed by Björn Runge | Stars  Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, Max Irons, Annie Starke, Harry Lloyd, Elizabeth McGovern | Rated R for language and some sexual content | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The concept of cultural assimilation versus cultural purity is something that has come into sharp focus in Donald Trump’s America, where a melting-pot society founded by immigrants and colonizers has become increasingly agitated by the mere hint of multiculturalism or diversity. 

Such as it ever was, one only has to go back to Ellis Island and the distrust and vilification of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants to see that fear of “outsiders” is as engrained in American culture as apple pie and racism. On the flip side of such right-wing xenophobia are questions of maintaining one’s own cultural identity, what the right dismissively refers to as “identity politics.” It’s the kind of subtle, self-congratulatory racism that allows people to make such ridiculous claims as “I don’t see color,” while expecting immigrants and minorities to adopt American (read: white) culture. The underlying message - you can join the club and be one of us, as long as you act like us. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, because no matter how white Americans claim to not see color, they certainly do when minorities have the gall to stand up for their civil rights; while totally “not racist” white people wring their hands about how they’re just “not protesting the right way,” safe in their beliefs that racism somehow ended with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency (although they’re still not 100% sure he was American to begin with). White America loves to pretend to extend the opportunity to join the club, but membership almost always comes with a caveat.

Consider, then, that perhaps this is not a uniquely American problem, nor is it one that just materialized out of thin air in the 20th or 21st centuries. Humans are tribal by nature, clinging to arbitrary signifiers of identity through nationalism and religion that are naturally exclusive, content to take refuge in the safety of sameness rather than embracing the things that make us different. There is certainly comfort in homogeneity, but our strange desire for seeking out the things that make us the same rather than celebrating our differences speak to humanity’s deep seated desire for the familiar. We still don’t quite trust things that are different.

That age old conflict stands front and center in German filmmaker E.A. DuPont’s 1923 silent film, The Ancient Law (Das alte Gesetz). At the time of its release, Jewish immigrants were pouring into Germany from Eastern Europe in the days after World War I, leading to racial tension and providing a convenient target for political posturing that blamed these outsiders for all the country’s ills (sound familiar?). Immigrants were struggling with how to maintain their traditions while navigating life in a new land that expected nothing less than assimilation. As we know now, these tensions borne of anti-semitic sentiment eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi party and the Holocaust, but at least for a while in Weimar-era Germany, filmmakers were genuinely trying to grapple with the question of cultural assimilation in complex and thoughtful ways. On one side you had films like Paul Wegener's The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), a German Expressionist horror film in which a 16th century rabbi creates a monster in order to protect his people. It was a film that suggested, perhaps inadvertently, that Jews must preserve their "otherness" through violent means if necessary.

Then there were films like The Ancient Law, which genuinely grappled with the question from the Jewish point of view. The film centers around a young lad named Baruch (the soulful Ernst Deutsch), the son of a local rabbi, who dreams of becoming an actor. His father, naturally, forbids it, citing the ancient laws that preserve their way of life. Undeterred, Baruch runs away to Vienna where he joins an acting troupe, eventually catching the eye of a wealthy baroness. At first he is teased for his Jewish heritage, his sidelocks becoming a particular point of ridicule, and in a particularly dramatic moment, he cuts them off. Yet the sidelocks are more than just a visual symbol of his heritage, they represent something deeper about who he is and where he comes from, as outside pressure forces him to sacrifice his identity in order to be accepted by the world at large.

Ultimately, The Ancient Law is about finding a happy medium, as Baruch's dying father eventually accepts his son's new life outside the shtetl, and Baruch finds away to hang onto his Jewish identity while pursuing a career as an actor abroad. If this ending seems a bit too tidy, it's because DuPont had a very clear message he was trying to convey to audiences of the time. Even though set in the 1860s, in yet another time of Jewish persecution in Europe, DuPont was speaking directly to an audience of European Jews and Gentles alike in 1924. He was trying to make abundantly clear that one did not have to sacrifice their culture in order to assimilate into a new one, while at the same time attempting to assuage xenophobic fears regarding judenfrage (the Jewish question).

History tells us that it didn't work, but one has to admire what DuPont attempted to do here. He was a filmmaker with a striking visual sense (see the gorgeous German Expressionist inspired sets of his 1925 circus melodrama, Varieté), and his gritty recreation of a 19th century Jewish shtetl and the sumptuous palaces and theaters of Vienna are remarkable in their detail and authenticity. He also managed to make a film about a specific place and time with a very specific audience in mind that is also reads like a disarmingly contemporary exploration of the eternal clash between tradition and modernity, and how to navigate the co-mingling of the two when the strongest adherents on both sides so distrust the other. Notice the inherent tragedy of Baruch's romance with the baroness when both realize that their interracial love must remain unrequited because of the standards of the day. DuPont kept them cleverly separated within the frame to suggest an invisible wall keeping them apart. While the two never kiss on screen (and Baruch eventually finds love with a nice Jewish girl in the shtetl), it is made clear that the decision to separate is not their own, but out of yet another ancient law - that of bigotry.

The film only existed in truncated form for many years before being reassembled in the correct order with the proper inter-titles and color tinting thanks to a recently discovered censor's certificate. The resulting restoration, brought to life on the new Blu-Ray release from Flicker Alley, is an impressive resurrection of a forgotten masterwork. Flicker Alley is generous as usual with the special features, among them an insightful essay by film historian Cynthia Walk that offers a fascinating examination of the historical context of the film. Yet what distinguishes The Ancient Law, which at nearly 100 years old may seem to some an ancient relic all its own, is how contemporary its themes are; not just because they deal with the idea of tradition vs. modernity, but because of its almost depressingly timeless exploration of bigotry and xenophobia. Set in a world where immigrants and refugees are mistrusted and vilified, blamed for societal problems far beyond their control, The Ancient Law is a dire warning that past is very often prologue. Knowing what happened next is a chilling reminder that the dire consequences of hate and bigotry are never as far away as we may believe.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE ANCIENT LAW | Directed by E.A. DuPont | Stars Ernst Deutsch, Henny Porten, Ruth Weyher, Hermann Vallentin, Werner Krauss, Margarete Schlegel | Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Flicker Alley.

Monday, September 03, 2018

A young boy discovers a mysterious alien weapon in an abandoned factory in Kin, the debut feature from sibling directing team, Jonathan and Josh Baker. Yet despite this science fiction hook (upon which the films marketing leaned heavily), the film is more of a family drama than a sci-fi adventure, using its sci-fi elements sparingly as support for its story and its characters rather than the other way around.

The boy at the film's center is Eli Solinski (a promising Myles Truitt), adopted son of strict, no-nonsense construction worker, Hal (Dennis Quaid, in his second grumpy dad role of 2018 following I Can Only Imagine). Hal's biological son, Jimmy (Jack Reynor) has just been released from prison, and is already in trouble with a local gang lead by Taylor Balik (James Franco), who threaten to kill their family unless Jimmy coughs up $60,000 for protection while behind bars. On the run from both the gang and two mysterious figures searching for Eli's unusual space weapon, Eli and Jimmy meet Milly (Zoë Kravitz), your typical hooker with a heart of gold, and mend broken family connections to form new and inseparable bonds.

Kin feels like something out of the 1980s - kid finds an alien weapon and goes on the run with his brother, blasting his way out of tough situations while being pursued by ruthless gang members and masked aliens. But the Baker brothers keep the sci-fi elements subtle in favor of a kind of gritty realism that positions the characters front and center. It's a slow-burn, to be sure, keeping the weapon's true power hidden for a good part of the film, only pulling it out when the pacing starts to lag. But there's something agreeably old fashioned about the way the Bakers choose to deliberately build their story and their characters without leaning too heavily on the fantasy elements of the alien Macguffin that gets the story rolling.

It's a throwback with a contemporary twist, a film with a modern look (shot in drab shades of gray interspersed with dazzling pops of color) featuring old school storytelling sensibilities. It doesn't always work, and the film's momentum occasionally suffers from its slow pacing, but the Bakers have an undeniably sharp visual sense, crafting some spectacular shots by contrasting neon lights against an otherwise monochrome color palate. Kin also gets great mileage out of the natural charisma of its young star, Myles Truitt, as a black boy raised in a white world who begins to discover his heritage and identity in surprising and symbolic ways.

While the film's conclusion feels a bit contrived and ultimately unsatisfying, the lead-up to the climax feels like a prelude to something much bigger and better for Jonathan and Josh Baker. Kin is clearly the work of talented filmmakers with unique sensibilities, but it ultimately paints itself into a dramatic corner from which it never quite figures a way out. Yet the seeds of something special are evident in every frame. The Bakers are promising talents worth keeping an eye on, and Kin is a solid stepping stone hopefully paving the way to bigger and better things.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

KIN | Directed by Jonathan Baker, Josh Baker | Stars Myles Truitt, Jack Reynor, Zoë Kravitz, Dennis Quaid, James Franco, Carrie Coon,  Jonathan Cherry | Rated PG-13 for gun violence and intense action, suggestive material, language, thematic elements and drinking | Now playing in theaters everywhere.