Friday, October 26, 2018

There's something to be said for a film that is able to take complex ideas like systemic racism and white privilege and presents them in a clear, straightforward, and emotionally honest way. George Tillman, Jr.'s The Hate U Give is one such film, a work that grapples with big ideas in easily digestible ways, resulting in a rousing, crowd-pleasing drama about what it's like to be black in America in 2018.

Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) stars as Starr Carter, a black teenager caught between two worlds - the world of her predominantly white, suburban private school, and the world of her hometown, a predominantly black area of town known for its high crime rate and drug abuse. Her parents sent her to the private school as a way to get her away from the influence of drug dealers in her local high school, but she finds herself denying her own identity, pretending to be more "white" in order to fit in.

But when she is the witness to the murder of another black teenager by a white police officer, she begins to seriously question her place in society. Will she speak up and tell the truth about her friend's murder? Or will she stay silent so as not to rock the boat, and be seen by her white friends as a radical from the ghetto?

Police shootings of unarmed black men have become a major cultural issue, especially in recent years. The Hate U Give examines their impact on all involved, how they reverberate through families and neighborhoods and feed into historic mistrust of the police in the black community. Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how it so succinctly articulates ideas of white privilege and racial identity. "I don't see color," Starr's boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), insists at one point. To which Starr replies, "If you don't see my blackness, then you don't see me."

The title comes from a song by Tupac Shakur in which the phrase Thug Life stands for "The Hate You Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody." The idea that the cycle of hate and violence will only continue as long as children are brought up in a world filled with both. While the breaking of that cycle in the film feels a bit too easy, the ideas leading up to that climax are powerfully articulated. Its illustration of racism, and how it often rears its ugly head in the most subtle of ways, is striking in its directness. The damage systemic, institutional racism, upheld by racist power structures and centuries of ingrained white supremacy, has become so normal that it's difficult for white people to recognize their own privilege.

The Hate U Give isn't trying to preach to white people (although it does have a tendency to overstate its themes out loud via voice-over), it's a vital and deeply felt expression of what it means to be black, and why racial identity is so important to historically marginalized groups. It's a topic few mainstream films ever touch, yet Tillman does so with humor and grace, and an unmistakable fire that is hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE HATE U GIVE | Directed by George Tillman, Jr. | Stars  Amandla Stenberg, Lamar Johnson, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Common, TJ Wright, Issa Rae, Algee Smith, K.J. Apa, Sabrina Carpenter | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

In celebration of the release of David Gordon Green's new Halloween sequel/reboot, and in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, From the Front Row takes a look at the 40-year history of the Halloween franchise with all its highs and lows along the way. 40 years. 11 films. Here we go.

At this point, John Carpenter's original Halloween has become so iconic, so endlessly imitated, that it's almost easy to forget just how effective, how perfect, a film it actually was. Despite eight sequels and two remakes, Halloween's luster remains undimmed after 40 years. If Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was the grandfather of the slasher genre, then Halloween is its father, spawning an entire sub-genre of horror where masked, knife-wielding killers stalk unsuspecting teenagers and dispatch them with merciless abandon.

Yet no one did it better than Halloween. Not Friday the 13th. Not A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not Scream. While it took inspiration from such films as Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (1971) and Charles B. Pierce's The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), Halloween laid the groundwork in popularizing the genre and has never been topped. It's often surprising to discover just how simple it was. Before all the subplots about Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) being serial killer Michael Myers' sister, before giving him a niece Michael spends three movies trying to kill in order to annihilate his entire family, before the clumsy attempts to connect him to a cult of druids and ancient pagan rituals, Michael Myers was simply known as The Shape, a masked killer stalking babysitters on Halloween night.

As The Shape, he materialized out of nowhere, calm, soulless, completely focused, a force of nature who could be anywhere at any time. He was the Boogeyman, he was, in many ways, fear itself. Carpenter gives us just enough back story to let the audience know who and what Michael is, but his motivations remain a mystery. He was, as Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance) opined, "purely and simply evil." That's the beauty of Halloween - it's a cat and mouse game, free of unnecessary myth-building or attempts to psychoanalyze the killer. It almost feels pure, a distillation of the eternal struggle between good and evil, shadow and light, perfectly represented by Carpenter's own iconic score, which turned what was once a standard drum rhythm into one of the most primally terrifying pieces of music ever composed; simple, repeating, building, unstopping, like the evil it represents  - Carpenter's music and the film it supports remain not just the gold standard for American horror, but one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.

Picking up right where the original Halloween (1978) left off, Halloween II (1981) promises "MORE of the night HE came home." Of course, more of the same is all it really gives us, just in higher doses. Michael Myers continues his Halloween night killing spree (this time with more blood), while Laurie Strode is taken to Haddonfield Hospital with Michael right on her trail. Why is Michael so obsessed with Laurie? It turns out she's his sister, and he's bent on finishing what he started as a child - killing off his entire family.

The revelation that Michael is actually Laurie's brother undercuts some of the randomness that made the original film so terrifying, but it begins a piece of Halloween mythology that lasted all the way through five more sequels and two remakes before being retconned in 2018's Halloween - that Michael's ultimate goal is to kill his entire family. It feels like an unnecessary bit of explanation but isn't really the biggest issue with Halloween II, given that it at least gives Michael some sort of motivation to continue through the sequels unlike so many other slasher franchises.

No, the biggest issue with Halloween II is that it's just kind of dull. It feels pedestrian and uninspired where Halloween felt fresh and terrifying. Everyone involved is just going through the motions, with the exception of Donald Pleasance, who starts to unveil the Captain Ahab-like obsessiveness in Dr. Loomis that will only ratchet up throughout the rest of the series. Halloween II continues the original film, but it doesn't have any of its intensity or verve. Even The Shape, once so purposeful and deliberate, feels slow and lumbering here. On the plus side, the empty hospital is an appropriately creepy location for Michael's final massacre, and his final confrontation with Laurie with his tears of blood in a silent room conjures up some strong images. And for sheer creepiness, it's hard to beat the image of Michael Myers stalking through the empty halls of a hospital at night. Halloween II is solid in fits and starts, but it never really distinguishes itself from the glut of substandard slashers that its predecessor helped spawn.

The odd-duck, the black sheep - Halloween III: Season of the Witch departed from the Michael Myers storyline, the first step in a planned Halloween anthology series telling spooky stories set around Halloween. It was Carpenter's original concept for the Halloween franchise - one not set around Michael Myers but around the holiday itself. It ultimately proved to be a failure, and the series returned to Myers for Halloween 4. Because of this, Halloween IIIgets something of a bad rap, but examined on its own merits, it's not a bad film at all.

Had Halloween II  not focused on the Michael Myers story, the idea of a Halloween anthology might have worked. But since one sequel had already featured Michael Myers, audiences were conditioned to expect more. Halloween III introduces us to Silver Shamrock, an evil novelty toy company bent on sacrificing millions of children on Halloween night through their booby trapped masks, ubiquitously advertised on TV stations everywhere in order to ensure as many children beg their parents for them as possible. It's a goofy premise, but its distinctly 80s mix of sci-fi and horror works surprisingly well meshing perfectly with the Halloween theme.

The film is supported by a pulsing score by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth that helps create its dread-soaked atmosphere, itself rooted in classic B-movie sci-fi horror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No one will ever mistake Halloween III for a great film, but it is a misunderstood one, a curious experiment in franchise filmmaking that was as bold as it was ultimately foolish. Taken apart from the Halloween franchise and evaluated as a stand-alone film, it's a solid piece of 80s horror, and a fascinating "what-if" that offers a window into an alternate universe where the series took a vastly different direction. It leaves one to wonder - which direction could have ultimately yielded greater results? With a brief look at the dearth of creativity apparent in some of the later Halloween sequels, it's a tantalizing question indeed.

Easily the strongest of the original Halloween sequels, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers sought to return the series to its roots after the box office failure of Halloween III. With Jamie Lee Curtis deciding not to return, producers decided to focus on her daughter, seven-year-old Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), now living with her adopted family after her mother was killed in a car accident years earlier (don't worry, this will all get ret-conned later).

Michael Myers is, of course, not dead - and his doctors have decided to transfer him to another facility on the night before Halloween (they never learn, do they?). When he learns that he has a niece, he kills the ambulance crew and makes a bee-line for Haddonfield, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The middle section is mostly standard slasher fare, but director Dwight H. Little infuses it with enough eerie autumnal atmosphere to elevate it above the pack. The evolution of Dr. Loomis into Captain Ahab chasing his great white whale (Michael Myers) is nearly complete here, and the pitch perfect ending (the strongest of any of the sequels) allows his quixotic journey to come full circle.

It's unfortunate that Halloween 5 chose to brush this film's ending under the rug, because it leaves so much room for a new direction for the franchise that the producers chose to completely ignore. Yet even though its promise goes unfulfilled in subsequent films, Halloween 4 feels like the most genuine successor to the original Halloween of any of the sequels. This thing just feels like Halloween, capturing the misty mornings and fading browns of late fall with a spooky air of a rural community on All Hallows Eve. Add to that a town in darkness, a wiped out police force, and a roving band of angry, gun-toting rednecks, and you have a film that provides some of the most fun of any slasher sequel to date.

If Halloween 4 was one of the best Halloween sequels, then Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, is one of the worst. The film began shooting without a complete script, and it shows. Picking up right where Halloween 4 left off,  Halloween 5 finds Michael crawling away from the mine explosion that was thought to have killed him in the previous film, and shacking up with an old man who nurses him back to health.

One year later, he awakes on the night before Halloween and heads back to Haddonfield to kill off his young niece, Jamie Lloyd, who has been in the hospital ever since attacking her mother on Halloween the year before. Rather than do anything interesting with Jamie's character after she seemingly became Michael's murderous successor in the fourth film,  Halloween 5 instead decides to quickly rehabilitate her and keep the franchise going in the same direction. Michael, now almost completely divorced from the faceless, anonymous boogeyman idea from the original  Halloween, is now hell-bent on wiping out his family. This time, however, instead of cutting down anyone who gets in his way, he goes on a mostly pointless killing spree, attacking a Halloween party of teenagers that has nothing to do with Jamie - in fact Jamie, sensing he's there through her newfound psychic link with Michael, comes to him instead.

The psychic link idea isn't the dumbest idea this franchise has ever had, but it's awfully close, and it borrows heavily from territory already covered at this point by the Friday the 13th series (it even apes one of Jason's more famous kills). Michael is also followed around by a mysterious "Man in Black," whose identity is never revealed, leaving that ultimately pointless loose end for the makers of the next film to deal with (which they did, poorly). What's frustrating about  Halloween 5 is that it's a successor to the film that kickstarted the slasher genre, still the best film that the genre has ever produced, and at this point in the series the filmmakers were leading from behind, copying from the copycats rather than blazing new trails.

Halloween 5 is a mess. It's clear that the filmmakers didn't know where this was headed, and the result is an aimless, muddled mess, filled with awkwardly placed comic relief and a sense that no one is really behind the wheel here.

It took six years for filmmakers to figure out what the hell to do with the mess that was Halloween 5, and the resulting film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers did nothing to clear things up, instead muddying the waters with bizarre subplots about druid cults and ancient runes. In the world of the sixth Halloween film, Michael is the victim of an ancient curse, dictating that he must kill every member of his family before he can be free to pass the curse onto another.

The mysterious Man in Black from Halloween 5 is revealed to be Dr. Wynn, under whose watch Michael escaped from the sanatorium in the original film, now played by Mitchell Ryan. It turns out that Wynn is the leader of this cult, for whom Michael is some sort of mystical guardian, and they have forced him to have a child with his niece, Jamie Lloyd (J.C. Brandy, stepping in for Danielle Harris). It's all very convoluted, and done no favors by having too many cooks in the kitchen - the writer, director, producers, and studio honchos all trying to exert influence over the troubled production.

The theatrical cut of the film was all but destroyed by reshoots that left so many loose ends hanging that the film just doesn't make any narrative sense. The producer's cut rectifies some of these issues, but the "Michael as mystical druid enforcer" angle is just so aggressively dumb (not to mention a betrayal of the integrity of the established character and series mythology). In some ways, it's actually a better directed film than its predecessor, which began filming without a completed script and mostly felt like a tired retread. The middle section of The Curse of Michael Myers actually feels somewhat spooky and cohesive (the death of Kim Darby's Debra Strode is especially terrifying), but it all goes off the rails in the ludicrous finale, which transfer's Wynn's "curse of thorn" to Dr. Loomis.

Michael Myers has always been somewhat supernatural, but by removing his humanity and turning to magic to explain his evil, The Curse of Michael Myers takes away what made him so scary in the first place, and replaces it with something that feels like goofy make-believe. It's just too strange, too outlandish, and too convoluted to be frightening, serving as a constant reminder of just how far away we are from the world created by John Carpenter in 1978.

Set and released 20 years after the original HalloweenHalloween H20 was, in many ways, the sequel that the original film needed and the fans had always wanted. The film allowed an adult Laurie Strode to confront her tragic past and finally put it behind her - at least until Dimension Films decided to trot Michael Myers out again for another substandard sequel in 2002.

Coming out two years after Wes Craven so indelibly deconstructed the slasher genre with ScreamHalloween H20 has a decidedly 90s aesthetic, but it allows the original slasher franchise to adapt, grow, and fit in comfortably with a more cynical, savvy audience that was hip to the genre's tricks. It's a film that is very much in tune with its own past. Director Steve Miner, who also helmed Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, understood the roots of the slasher genre and did a fine job adapting it for a 1990s audience, despite a few studio mandated setbacks, including switching the Michael Myers mask mid-production resulting in an inconsistent look for the iconic killer.

Set in a rural prep-school, Halloween H20 has spooky atmosphere a-plenty. But its highlight remains the 20-years-in-the-making showdown between Laurie Strode and her brother, Michael Myers. It's a film as much about confronting childhood trauma as it is about a knife-wielding killer. Laurie can only run from her past for so long before it catches up with her, affecting not only her own well-being but that of her family as well. It's a almost shame that this is being ret-conned by David Gordon Green's new Halloween, because even though it feels dates with its 90s teen movie tropes and icons, it has a real sense of gravity, weight, and sense of history that was often missing from the other Halloween sequels. This one got it what made the original film so special, and it reckons with history in a way that remains a series highlight, even if it's no longer official canon.

By 2002, the slasher genre had basically become a parody of itself. Scream had upended the genre's tropes in such a way that it was difficult to take them seriously, especially when the film in question was taking them very seriously. Into that world stepped Halloween: Resurrection, the final entry in the mainline Halloween series before Rob Zombie's 2007 remake.

Released three years after The Blair Witch Project, and at the height of reality TV popularity (Survivor and Big Brother were major hits), Halloween: Resurrection attempted to piggyback onto this new found footage trend by focusing on a group of teens who spend the night in the Myers house for a company called Dangertainment, who equips them all with bodycams to broadcast their adventure on the internet.

Putting aside for a moment its now badly dated depiction of early 2000s internet technology, Halloween: Resurrection was a blatant attempt to make the aging slasher series appeal to the youth market of 2002. The results, featuring a host of bland young actors and a karate-kicking Busta Rhymes, are awkward at best, laughable at worst. Director Rick Rosenthal, who also helmed Halloween II (making him the only director to tackle multiple Halloween sequels), gives Resurrection a more cohesive storyline than Halloween 5 and 6, but the story is just so dumb that it hardly matters.

There seems to be a good idea buried here somewhere, examining the idea of becoming so desensitized by violence and reality TV that we can no longer distinguish between them and real life horror, but Resurrection never allows itself to go there, aiming for cheap thrills over everything else. And that's not to mention the truly, mind-numbingly awful way it wraps up Laurie Strode's storyline, unceremoniously killing her off in the opening scene. Thankfully, David Gordon Green rectified that injustice in his new Halloween (2018), but this bottom of the barrel sequel feels like a cheap knock-off of the original, ending the series with a pathetic whimper rather than the bang it deserved.

On the surface, Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) remake seems ill-advised from the start - a film that ostensibly attempts to explain the origins of Michael Myers, a character made frightening by being a the blank face of pure, inescapable evil. Surprisingly, it works for the most part, excelling in the first half when it focuses on young Myers (Daeg Faerch), a child with such cold, terrifying eyes that he was seemingly born to play the young version of one of cinema's most iconic serial killers.

The lurid, trashy milieu stands in stark contrast to the suburban setting of the original Halloween, showing Michael's troubled upbringing and his special relationship with his baby sister, Boo. There are moments that are perhaps some of the most disturbing of the entire franchise - young Michael beating a bully to death, murdering a nurse in the hospital while his mother looks on. But when the film reaches the part of the story already covered by John Carpenter, it falters somewhat - Zombie's brutal style standing in stark (and inferior) contrast to Carpenter's more understated suspense building. Rob Zombie's Michael Myers is a force of nature, an unstoppable battering ram who breaks through doors, walls, and anything that gets between him and his intended victim. Yet at a time when most horror remakes seemed aimed at a teen market, Zombie's vision was decidedly more hardcore and uncompromising.

Once Michael gets going he's like an out of control locomotive, essentially a child in a man's body pitching a temper tantrum. Born of abuse and hate, Michael has no clear outlet other than violence, and he exacts it on everyone he meets. Yet in recapping Carpenter's original Zombie feels somehow constrained, and the ideas he begins to explore here are much better articulated, and much more original, in his superior sequel Halloween II (2009).

Perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Halloween of them all, Rob Zombie's Halloween II boldly dances to the beat of its own drummer. Rather than follow the plot of the original Halloween II, which picked up on the same night as the first film (a fact that Zombie acknowledges in an extended dream sequence at the beginning), this Halloween II fast forwards to two years after the Halloween night massacre survived by Laurie Strode.

Michael Myers is presumed dead, although his body is missing. Dr. Loomis has let fame go to his head, and is on a nationwide book tour making money off his involvement in the murders. And Laurie has moved in with Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter, Annie (Danielle Harris), as she attempts to recover from the trauma of that night. Her recovery is not going well; she is plagued by nightmares and begs her therapist for drugs. All the while Michael is slowly making his way home to finish the job he started two year prior, haunted by images of his deceased mother, and dreams of reuniting his family in the afterlife.

Halloween II is essentially an exploration of the aftermath of tragedy. Zombie deftly juxtaposes Laurie's journey of recovery with Michael's own deteriorating mental state. What's so great about Zombies films is that Michael is so clearly human, a living, breathing person who's as much a product of trauma as his sister. Zombie alludes to Paul Wegener's 1920 German Expressionist classic, The Golem: How He Came Into the World, casting Michael as a kind of misunderstood monster, born of pain and suffering, cursed with this affliction by the very family he seeks to reunite in death. Here, Michael and Laurie are vastly different (or are they?) twin products of abuse and violence, as much about what’s going on inside them as it is what’s happening around them. There are no easy answers here, no happy endings, no bright lights at the end of the tunnel - just broken humanity and the carnage left in its wake. It's almost shocking that a major studio released a film this abstract, savage, and surrealistic in wide release. It’s better than any of the original Halloween sequels, a brilliantly surreal nightmare journey into the heart of darkness that is not only a great Halloween film, but a great film period.

To read my review of David Gordon Green's Halloween, click here.

Series ranking:

1. HALLOWEEN (1978)
2. HALLOWEEN (2018)
3. HALLOWEEN II (2009)
5. HALLOWEEN H2O (1998)
7. HALLOWEEN II (1981)
8. HALLOWEEN (2007)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Walther Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) was something of a reaction to the heavily stylized German Expressionist movement that was such a major influence on German cinema in the 1920s. Carl Mayer (The Last Laugh), drawing inspiration from the Kammerspiel movement, which took a more naturalistic look at lower-middle class German life, conceived a "melody of pictures" that would pay tribute to the daily life in the city.

While the Kammerspiel movement was short-lived, its adherents included the likes of F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst. Mayer's vision was something else entirely, a kind of documentary that would strive for the ultimate in realism - portraying real life in Weimar-era Berlin. These "city symphonies" were not a new concept (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta predates it by about six years), but Berlin: Symphony of a Great City  actually predates, and in many ways presages, Dziga Vertov's seminal avant-garde documentary, Man with a Movie Camera (1929, also available from Flicker Alley).

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City rushes us into the heart of Germany's capital on a train, its rhythmic editing suggesting not only the speed of the locomotive, but the fast-paced heartbeat of the city itself. Ruttmann focuses mainly on the city's industrial elements rather than its people, emphasizing technical progress and economic might over personal storytelling. But there's something so joyous, so rapturous, so glowing about its celebration of national achievement (one can't help but be reminded of the ecstatic milk separator sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's Old and New). It provides a fascinating glimpse into life in Weimar-era Germany, one made even more poignant and chilling by the knowledge of what happened after. The subsequent rise of Hitler and the downfall of liberal democracy in Germany casts a haunting pall over Ruttmann's film in retrospect. The Germany we see here is progressive, forward thinking, a shining beacon for industrial and cultural innovation. It would not last.

Despite Mayer's vision of a naturalistic tour through Berlin, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City  is anything but naturalistic in construction - its Soviet-style editing giving the film a more expressionistic feel. Yet rather than be confined to the studio, Ruttmann was set free to explore the world around him. It's a film teeming with life, brimming with the energy of a boisterous and vibrant metropolis. It remains a hugely influential documentary work, one that found dramatic drive through image and montage rather than through talking heads or narration. This is pure cinema, a work of visual rapture that often feels like stepping into a time machine, inviting us into a world long since past. It remains one of the most essential, evocative, and beautifully effective documentaries ever made. While not a regular release from Flicker Alley, this manufactured-on-demand Blu-Ray is a must-have for fans of silent film - what it lacks in special features it makes up for in image quality - the 2K restoration brilliantly capturing its dynamic immediacy.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY | Directed by Walther Ruttmann | Not Rated | Now available on MOD Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

While the western is often regarded as one of the most essentially American of film genres, with its visions of lone gunslingers in white hats riding across the vast expanses of the American west, it often borrowed liberally from other genres (especially Japanese samurai films). No genre without its own influences, and the western is no different.

In German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach's Western, the genre is present if not overtly, at least in spirit, repurposing its vision of colonization and racial conflict into modern-day Bulgaria. It's a testament to the pliability of the genre's tropes, as well as the universal sensibility of any genre, that it fits so well here, in this story of German construction workers who have been tasked with building a dam near a rural Bulgarian community on the Greek border.

These would-be colonizers are at once invigorated and empowerd by the rural landscape. Seemingly free from the confines of society as they know it, they soon run afoul of the locals when project foreman, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) gets a little too friendly with a woman attempting to swim in a river near their campsite. Stoic silent-type, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), becomes fascinated by the local people. A German veteran of the French Foreign Legion, Meinhard is seemingly a man without a country; a wanderer looking for a place to belong. He is treated with a mix of suspicion and fascination by the Bulgarians, some of whom haven't quite forgotten the scourge of the Nazis from World War II.

The simmering tensions between the German construction workers and the Bulgarians soon threatens to boil over, born of historic mistrust and colonial arrogance. Yet Grisebach flips the genre's formula on its head, never allowing the promised showdown to come to pass. Colonialism in Western is a much more subtle, long-term evil than something so easily settled by a gunfight at the OK Corral.  Her slow-burn direction creates a world where hostility always bubbles just beneath the surface, a kind of cultural alienation belied by the sweeping mountain vistas that pepper the film's landscape like John Ford's beloved Monument Valley locales. Meinhard Neumann's craggy face becomes the perfect, impassive canvas for Grisebach's study of masculinity and its effects on the landscape - brooding, emotionless, a passive observer of a changing world.

Western is a quietly austere inversion of the mythology of the American west that examines its basis in colonialism and cultural annihilation that takes great pleasure in subverting western tropes. It feels organic and lived-in, observational and astute, the kind of slow-burn film that takes some time to settle into, but rewards its viewers' patience in spades. Yet perhaps its most lingering and disquieting idea is that perhaps the western, with its mythical visions of cowboys taming a wild land, wasn't quite as noble and benign as once we imagined; built instead on the celebration of cultural destruction and genocide, transcending cultures and continents, whose effects linger with us still today.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WESTERN | Directed by Valeska Grisebach | Stars  Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifo | Not rated | In German and Bulgarian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Monday, October 22, 2018

It has been 40 years since John Carpenter's original Halloween made the slasher a film a genre all its own, spinning off eight sequels and two remakes, not to mention countless, equally prolific imitators like Friday the 13th.

While Halloween is arguably the best of the slasher genre, its sequels have always lead from behind, allowing its imitators to innovate while Halloween struggled to keep up with the rest of the slasher landscape. Yet one thing that has always separated it from the rest of the pack is the presence of a clear protagonist - Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). While Some of the later sequels abandoned her altogether, her presence was always keenly felt, giving her a daughter who carried the fourth, fifth, and sixth entries, before returning to Laurie for the 20th anniversary film, Halloween H20, in 1998.

Halloween H20 ignored all the sequels except for the original Halloween and its sequel, Halloween II, which took place on the same night as the first film, picking up the moment its predecessor left off. Once again ignoring all previous sequels, David Gordon Greene's Halloween takes the series back to its roots, in the process also throwing out Halloween II as if it never existed. In ret-conning Halloween II, Greene erases the series' most enduring plotline - that Laurie was actually the sister of serial killer Michael Myers, whose guiding motivation was to wipe out his entire family.

That one change brilliantly allows the entire franchise to reset, returning Myers to his most simple and terrifying form - a faceless serial killer who murders without reason or remorse. He is evil incarnate, with no real motivation or guiding philosophy - the kind of evil it is impossible to understand or fight. The resulting film allows the now 60 year old Laurie to confront her traumatizing past once and for all, and the man who changed her life forever 40 years ago.

Halloween is a horror movie for the MeToo era, a brutal reckoning with the legacy of trauma and the collateral damage it inflicts on three generations of women, in the form of Laurie's daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), and her granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak). Karen's childhood was also dictated by Laurie's childhood trauma, and when Myers (Nick Castle, who also played the role in the original Halloween), the lines of his mask now reflecting Laurie's own careworn visage, escapes from the asylum that has held him for the last four decades, his ensuing murderous rampage demonstrates that personal trauma has a way of affecting everyone, not just the person to whom it originally happened.

This time Laurie is ready to confront her past head-on, setting the stage for an epic showdown 40 years in the making. It's a near-perfect blend of nostalgia and innovation, updating the concept for the modern era while hewing close to what made the original film so great in the first place. Green's direction is crisp and straightforward, not unlike Carpenter's no-frills thrills from the original film, and the screenplay he co-wrote with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley imbues the concept with not only a sense of humor, but a kind of dramatic weight not often felt in films of this nature. Green deftly switches Laurie and Michael's roles, allowing Laurie to at long last turn the tables and exact her revenge in spectacular fashion on the man whose abuse overshadowed her entire life. And Carpenter returns to provide the score once again - co-written by Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, Carpenter's music takes his iconic theme and turns it into a kind of requiem for a life interrupted, inescapably colliding with the ghosts of the past.

Of course, in the venerable slasher tradition, Halloween leaves the door open for yet another sequel. But here it feels earned, even inevitable - even after Laurie finally puts the trauma of the past behind her, it never really goes away, always waiting just around the corner to rear its ugly head. It's a new Halloween for a new time, a thrilling and emotionally satisfying return to Haddonfield, Illinois that is at long last the sequel that Laurie Strode, and Jamie Lee Curtis, deserved all along.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HALLOWEEN | Directed by David Gordon Green | Stars  Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patto,n Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss | Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

When one thinks about the greatest Italian directors, one often thinks of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti. And yet, of all those filmmakers, Visconti's films remain the least seen and revered in the United States.

Visconti may not have been as prolific as some of his fellow Italians in the cinematic pantheon, and yet his triumphs are among some of the finest films of the period. His most well-known film, The Leopard (1963), his multigenerational family epic, is Italy's answer to Gone with the Wind, a sumptuous and sprawling film that unfolds like a great novel. His 1960 film, Rocco and His Brothers, however, is a different beast altogether. No less grand in emotional scope, but more intimate in focus, Rocco and His Brothers is more reminiscent of the Italian Neorealist movement, of which his contemporary, De Sica, had been at the forefront.

De Sica had moved on to more colorful entertainments like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964) at this point in his career, but the spirit of Neorealism is alive and well in Rocco, bridging the gap between the melodramas that were popular in the 1960s and the gritty naturalism that had preceded them.

Set against a changing social milieu, the film centers around one Italian family moving from their rural home to the big city of Milan, where cultural mores clash with a quickly evolving society. Two brothers become involved with the same woman, and Rocco, the film's de facto guide, finds his moral compass hopelessly broken as he becomes tasked with keeping his family from falling apart.

His inability to budge and adapt eventually leads to the complete dissolution and destruction of the family in an almost operatic allegorical display of familial rot, where Italian society's stifling religious conservatism lead to a strict moral code from which there was seemingly no escape. Yet Visconti never allows his film to descend into histrionics, instead keeping the focus personal in order to heighten its sense of tragedy. Even at nearly three hours long, Rocco and His Brothers is a fleet-footed, intensely realized work, given new life through a pristine 4K transfer now available on Blu-Ray from Milestone Films.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS | Directed by Luchino Visconti | Stars Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, Renato Salvatori, Katina Paxinou, Spiros Focás, Rocco Vidolazzi, Claudia Cardinale | In Italian w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Milestone Films.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If you've ever spent any time in or around a nursing home, then you're familiar with the air of stagnation that seems to hang over them, as if they are somehow frozen in time, their residents simply existing in a kind of aimless quiescence.

Shevaun Mizrahi's quietly haunting debut documentary, Distant Constellation, both pierces through that illusion and examines its stark realities. Cinema often treats the elderly as sources of kindly wisdom or as adorable curiosities (see the admittedly heartwarming 2007 documentary, Young @ Heart), rarely treating them as fully formed human beings. By setting her film in a nursing home, Mizrahi seemingly sets herself up for a similar scenario - a filmmaker examining the lives of the elderly that is all take and no give, gleaning their wisdom and experience without acknowledging that even by simply observing that she has become a part of their lives.

Distant Constellation shatters that barrier between filmmaker and subject in devastating ways. It's an often overlooked aspect of documentary filmmaking - how does one observe another human being without inherently becoming part of the story themselves? It's impossible, really, but most filmmakers never really allow themselves to go there; the film isn't really about them after all (Judy Irving's 2003 doc, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, is a notable exception - at the film's heartwarming conclusion she announces that she is marrying her eccentric subject, Mark Bittner). There is a moment late in the film in which one of the subjects, a well-read pianist named Roger with a sly penchant for discussing sexual topics, proposes marriage to Mizrahi on camera during an interview, and in that heartbreaking moment the immediacy of what she is doing comes into sharp focus.

For most of the film, Mizrahi allows the residents to speak for themselves, going about their daily routines in an attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy. There's Osep, a once famous Turkish photographer, now trying to keep his art alive from the confines of his room. There's Selma, a centenarian survivor the Armenian genocide, whose vivid memories of its horrors are chilling reminders of human cruelty in a new time of racial intolerance and the demonization of "the other." There's Serkis and Izzet, who enjoy taking the facility's elevator for rides so they can get a bit of peace and quiet to share gossip. But it's that moment with Roger that really sticks in the memory, opening up a whole new facet of the film - here Mizrahi goes from casual observer to active participant, essentially dissolving the wall not only between filmmaker and subject, but between the subject and the audience as well, leaving us to wonder how we affect them by our observation.

Life goes on inside the Turkish nursing facility - residents seemingly trapped in time, all the while the world outside moves on without them, represented by the construction of a nearby skyscraper, dutifully trudging on through the snow as the knowledge and experience of those inside the nursing home fade away into the past. Mizrahi preserves those memories and experiences in Distant Constellation, brilliantly encapsulating the inevitable progression of time and the changes it brings - a world no longer recognized by those who have been in it the longest. You'll find no blind nostalgia here, though. Mizrahi seeks to parse and analyze the experiences of our elders, musing not only about what wisdom they can impart on us, but also what we as a society, and as observers, can do for them? Do we simply let them waste away, forgotten and alone, as time marches on?

That is the poignant core of Mizrahi's altogether extraordinary film, a keenly observed fantasia on the nature of time and memory. Her artful compositions are often breathtaking (she was a photographer before turning to film), finding small moments of beauty and even playfulness where society often sees only petrification and death. "Time waits for no man," goes the old adage, and while that may be true - here, at least for a moment, it stands still long enough to catch its breath. In these all-too-brief 82 minutes, it imparts the wisdom of a lifetime, and discovers new, unexpected insights for an unknown but inevitable future.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DISTANT CONSTELLATION | Directed by Shevaun Mizrahi | Not Rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters from Grasshopper Film.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Drew Goddard's sophomore feature film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is as much an amalgam of the film noir genre as his previous feature, The Cabin in the Woods, was of horror films. While not as pointedly referential as The Cabin in the WoodsBad Times at the El Royale is very much a modern film noir in the grand tradition of old Hollywood, bringing old tropes and cliches into a new, stylishly appointed package.

Set in a once glamorous hotel on the border between California and Nevada, Bad Times at the El Royale finds a cast of disparate characters, each with their own secrets, converging in a perfect storm of bad decisions and illegal activity. There's a priest (Jeff Bridges) whose motives may not be as pure as they appear; a singer (Cynthia Erivo) whose experiences lead her not to trust anyone; an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who's deep undercover; and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) with a very complicated past.

Each one of their pasts will catch up with them on their night in the El Royale, and Goddard (who also wrote the screenplay) juggles it all with a sharp sense of visual wit and narrative flair. While the film feels a bit bloated at 142 minutes, the characters he creates are so memorable and the milieu so compelling that it's hard not to become invested in the story. The real strength here is Goddard's screenplay - while it may leave a lot of loose threads, it's so well-written that it almost feels like it would make a better play than a film. These characters and their outlandish situations are almost begging for the stage treatment. Whether they're looking for money, sex, absolution, or simply to be left alone, their bad decisions all have consequences that finally get the best of them in one way or another.

If at times it feels a bit like Tarantino-lite (there are shades of The Hateful Eight here), it's because Goddard borrows from many of the same references. Tarantino, of course, bases most of his films on his own cinematic favorites, and Goddard is no different, taking everything from film noir to Agatha Christie to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and turning it into a neon-lit mystery that feels thoroughly modern.

Goddard's storytelling sensibilities are top notch, even when the film begins to feel too long; his instinct for just how much information to reveal (and how much to keep in the dark) is remarkably sharp, and the result is an engaging thriller whose characters make the overlong film worth the ride.  Add to that some evocative cinematography by the great Seamus McGarvey and a disarmingly emotional score by Michael Giacchino, and you have a winning formula that overcomes most of its faults to provide a compelling and thoroughly entertaining yarn.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE | Directed by Drew Goddard | Stars Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan | Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, October 15, 2018

In 2013, two filmmakers redefined the documentary form and pushed the boundaries of the cinematic medium. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Leviathan boldly saw beyond the confines of the frame, freeing itself from the cinematic space in breathtaking ways. It was the best film of 2013, and remains the finest documentary of the century.

How can one possible follow up such a film? For Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, who had looked so brashly outward in Leviathan, the answer was by turning the camera around and looking inward. Their chosen subject - Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was arrested after killing and eating a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevel in 1991. Sagawa was released after being declared legally insane, and went on to become something of a minor celebrity, even going so far as to draw a manga about his crime, reveling in every gruesome detail of the murder and its aftermath. The resulting film is Caniba, perhaps one of the most disturbing films ever made, a dark and haunting plunge into the mind of a monster, inviting the audience into a truly unnerving world that feels like we're staring into the deepest pits of Hell.

The camera remains tightly on Sagawa's face for much of the film. Partially paralyzed by a stroke, his skin is taut, his face expressionless, his nose upturned, like some kind of demonic inversion of Renee Falconetti's Joan of Arc. And yet, there's something disturbingly human about him. Sagawa almost painfully human in Caniba, untouchable and foreign and yet strangely recognizable, a man with insatiable desires of the flesh that have nevertheless broken one of society's deepest taboos. He speaks not only his crime, but of his own desire to be consumed by the woman he killed. He covets pain, pure blinding brilliant intense pain, both as retribution and as part of a deep-seated sexual desire that he can't explain.

Where did it come from? Is it something intrinsically wrong with him? Is it natural? Was it nature, or nurture? The question comes into sharper focus through Sagawa's brother and caretaker, Jun Sagawa, who as it turns out share's his brother's masochistic desires, minus his sadism. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor watch as Jun wraps himself up in barb wire and repeatedly stabs himself in the arm in an act of sexual ecstacy. The two men couldn't be further apart - Jun never tipped took the step into harming others as his brother did. So why is watching him burn himself to achieve orgasm so horrifying? Who is he hurting other than himself? Is he really any different than his more infamous brother?

Caniba never answers these questions, resulting in a work that feels as morally dubious as it is enthralling. Who was the woman that Sagawa killed? Why are both of these men, who knew nothing of each other's fetishes, both so driven by such extreme sexual depravity? Paravel and Castaing-Taylor choose not to go there, for them, staring into the darkness of the human soul is enough. One could question the moral responsibility of the filmmakers to question or challenge Sagawa, but I would argue that they don't need to. Aesthetically, Caniba is a terrifying journey into the underworld, a film that worms its way under the skin and unnerves through its chillingly dispassionate observation of one of the deepest human perversions. But underneath its horrifying surface is something even more disquieting, the nagging feeling that this example of the most monstrous of human evil isn't that much different from us after all.  To risk delving into pop culture cliche, Caniba does an even better job than Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight of illustrating just how thin the line between civilization and madness really is. As Heath Ledger's Joker famously intoned, "Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!"

A troubling thought, indeed; one that reinforces Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's mastery of their craft. Here, they take a monster and show us the human underneath. Rather than sensationalizing their gruesome subject, they use it to hold a mirror up to the audience, and the disarming act of introspection should make us all a little nauseous.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CANIBA | Directed by Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, Oct. 19, at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

It's interesting that Blake Williams' Letterboxd account lists Godard's Goodbye to Language and Lynch's Inland Empire among his favorite films, because his new experimental film, PROTOTYPE, owes much to their particular aesthetic, both Godard's revolutionary use of 3D and Lynch's nightmarish sound design.

Yet Williams isn't simply emulating his heroes here. PROTOTYPE is almost dadaist in its sense of avant-garde experimentalism, a proud work of surrealist cinema in the tradition of Man Ray (Return to Reason), Germaine Dulac (The Seashell and the Clergyman), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Hollis Frampton (Zorns Lemma), and Stan Brakhage (Window Water Baby Moving). Williams feels like both their successor and their peer, standing proudly among the avant-garde artists of old while boldly forging his own path into a brave new world of cinema.

Of course, dadaists like Ray and Dulac eschewed all explanation of deeper meaning in their work, which in their intentionally obfuscating refusal to adhere to anything resembling storytelling or artistic norms, often ended up being pure cinema rather than anti-cinema, as was their intention. I'm not sure that's what Williams is really going for here, but his stark, often non-sensical imagery seems rooted in that tradition.

Using the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 as a jumping-off point, PROTOTYPE creates an alternate world viewed through a series of television screens that envisions its aftermath and legacy. But as Williams takes us into the dark heart of the storm, we soon get the feeling that we aren't watching people through a screen, but that we are the ones being watched instead; the screens offering figures from the past a window into our world rather than the other way around. It's a brilliant, haunting effect, repurposing old footage in ways that feel thrillingly new.

There is no single, clear explanation for PROTOTYPE, nor should there be, It's a mesmerizing, immersive experience unlike anything else. It feels like a journey into another realm of consciousness, exploring the boundaries of the cinematic medium and questioning what's possible, a visual and aural fantasia that feels like a kind of analog nightmare made up of abstract images and roaring sound effects. Williams throws the rulebook out the window and starts from scratch, creating a film that is at once a searing exploration of our own relationship to visual media and an audacious reinvention of the cinematic language. Just as Godard bid farewell to the old ways of artistic expression in Goodbye to Language, with its equally brash use of 3D, PROTOTYPE takes those ideas and transforms them once again into an electrifying, uncompromising redefinition of what it means to be a film.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PROTOTYPE | Directed by Blake Williams | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

It's probably safe to assume that most Americans are familiar with Neil Armstrong and his legendary, history-making walk on the moon in 1969. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" has entered the cultural lexicon like few other phrases before or since. What's not as well known is how Armstrong came to that moment, becoming the first man to walk on the moon after overcoming great personal and professional adversity.

First Man is that story. Fresh off the success of La La Land (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director), Damien Chazelle chose a remarkably ambitious project for his follow-up film, his first not centered on jazz music. Reuniting with his La La Land star, Ryan Gosling, as Armstrong, Chazelle takes an uncommonly personal look into the life of an American hero. Gosling plays Armstrong with a kind of understated grace, a man not seeking glory or attention but in some ways an escape from the grief over losing a child.

Chazelle traces Armstrong's journey to the moon from the earliest training missions all the way to his iconic moonwalk, immersing us not only in the world of NASA in the 1960s, but in Armstrong's relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), who is much more than just a character who holds down the home front and looks concerned. As accidents claim the lives of fellow astronauts, the Armstrongs struggle to come to terms with the thought that Neil might not survive his Icarus-like quest. For all the film's majesty and wonder, these scenes are what really make the film so special. Screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) gives the film a backbone grounded in real human emotion, while Chazelle frames all the space scenes from Armstrong's point of view. As a result, First Man is an often dirty, extremely tactile film, eschewing the clean brightness so often associated with movies about space and replacing it with a grungy sense of lived-in realism.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren's grainy camerawork, with its verité-style handheld aesthetic, keeps the action focused on the interiors, favoring close-up shots within the spacecraft cockpits over sweeping shots of celestial grandiosity, its inky shadows and rich blue textures resembling contemporary films from the 1960s. The result is a wholly immersive cinematic experience, using stellar sound design and a beautifully understated score by Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz to envelop the audience in the Gemini and Apollo missions. By resisting the urge to overemphasize the scale of NASA's, and by extension Armstrong's, achievements, Chazelle and his crew have crafted a film that is both grounded and deeply engaging. It's an incredible achievement on a technical level, but even more impressive is its focus on the emotional backbone that made it all possible.

First Man never loses sight of the human cost of exploration and national achievement, wondering aloud if the destination is ultimately worth its staggering toll. What was it all for? Exploration for the sake of exploration? A symbolic victory against an enemy? Human folly? Or was it about something much more, something perhaps more profound than anyone ever imagined? Chazelle takes an epic tale and brings it down to earth, making the monumental personal and the historic immediate. Rarely are films of this scale so deeply intimate and yet so grandly realized. First Man inspires awe not just through the scope of its story but because of its depth of feeling. It's a visceral, mesmerizing experience that does great justice to the event, and to the man, that inspired it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIRST MAN | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Shea Whigham, Christopher Abbott, Brian d'Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Patrick Fugit | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language | Opens Friday, 10/12, in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

In 1946, Travis Wilkerson's great grandfather murdered a black man named Bill Spann in his store and got away with it. It was a source of pride for SE Branch all his life - he had gunned down a black man in cold blood and walked away scot-free. Wilkerson, a radical political filmmaker and documentarian, delves into his family's dark past in his new film, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, a chilling and courageous act of self-reflection that refuses any attempt to atone for the past, instead examining how he himself is complicit in a racist past.

Wilkerson's film is neither apologia nor explanation, instead it takes both a macro and micro look race in America, and how whiteness has systemically denied the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to people of color since America's inception. But Wilkerson does not come to make peace, he comes with a sword. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an impassioned polemic that seeks to destroy whiteness at its very core, to dismantle racist power structures and undo decades of systemic oppression. Wilkerson juxtaposes the story of his great-grandfather's crime with other tales of black people being cut down by whites who faced no consequences, (SAY THEIR NAMES he admonishes), as well as scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, dismissing it as a liberal fantasy where a noble white man stands up for what's right.

Who is the real Atticus Finch? Wilkerson asks. Can any such person exist? The answer, Wilkerson posits, is no. We are all complicit in racist oppression. While he seeks to apologize to the Spann family for a tragedy that he can never undo, Wilkerson explores how he benefitted from his grandfather's crime. Here is a white man, the great-grandson of a racist murderer, making a film about a black man cut down in his prime. Wilkerson now has opportunities that man, and by extension his family, will never be afforded, all because of racism. It's a powerful indictment of an irreparably broken system, one that Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? insists must be rebuilt from the ground up.

This is a radical sledgehammer of a film, a ferocious work of avant-garde essay filmmaking that dares to hold a mirror up to a white audience and demand that we examine our own complicity in a racist society. How can we ever fix a system when the very idea of whiteness itself is the problem? Has the institution of whiteness so entrenched itself in American life that we can never actually move forward without starting over to fix the head start we've given ourselves? What Wilkerson has achieved here is truly stunning, a revolutionary act of allyship in which a white filmmaker grapples with his own past, and his place in a world built by racist ancestors. It's a deep examination of privilege that refuses to let its audience off the hook. This is not an easy film to watch - it is designed to make its audience uncomfortable. But it also feels wholly necessary to achieve its ends. "I never owned a slave" the argument often goes, "why should I have to pay for my racist ancestors?" Wilkerson puts that idea to bed quickly. In a land built on the backs of slaves, we're all guilty.

Did you wonder who fired the gun? It was us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? | Directed by Travis Wilkerson | Not Rated | Now available on DVD and iTunes from Grasshopper Film.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Gothic mansions, stormy nights, darkly lit hallways, and elongated shadows populate Robert Siodmak's 1946 chiller, The Spiral Staircase, a haunted house tale where the ghosts are all too human. Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, a mute caretaker for the elderly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance), whose spooky old mansion hides a multitude of dark secrets, and was once the location of a grisly murder.

The past soon comes back to haunt them all as the killer has seemingly struck again, strangling a handicapped young woman at a nearby hotel. As family and guests take shelter in the mansion during a raging storm, it soon becomes clear that the killer is among them, and that he has his sights set on Helen in a ghoulish quest to rid the world of perceived imperfections. Helen, unable to speak due to a recent trauma, is left to her own devices to uncover the murderer before she too falls victim to his maniacal ideology.

Released just one year after the end of WWII, The Spiral Staircase gives its serial killer villain a motivation resembling that of the Nazi dream of racial and physical purity by having him prey only on those with  physical handicaps. In a world that had just confronted real evil, nothing supernatural could possibly be as frightening as the horrors of the Holocaust. Siodmak understands this, and the idea that the killer could be anyone, even a friend, takes center stage. The world knew that monsters were real in 1946, and that seemingly normal people could harbor evil ideologies in their hearts without anyone ever knowing it. It's something that makes The Spiral Staircase feel frighteningly timely in 2018; a woman robbed of her voice by past trauma being pursued by a well-respected white man whose hateful worldview drives him to lord his power over society's disadvantaged, seeking to rid the world of those he deems lesser.

This isn't an attempt to lay a modern political worldview on a 70-year-old film, this was very much something being dealt with in society in 1946 as well. The world had stood up to the Nazis and won, and in so doing had learned something very important about the dark side of humanity. Its feminist backbone stands in stark relief when viewed through a modern lens, but the villain is very much the product of a time where innocence had just been shattered and we realized that extreme, prejudicial ideologies were lurking in the hearts of men.

The Spiral Staircase is a spooky, atmospheric film with the heart of a ghost story. But there's nothing supernatural about it. Its horror stems from a very real evil that continues to haunt us today. The new Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics beautifully restores its inky black shadows from a stunning 4K scan, giving the film new life at a time where it has suddenly become more relevant than ever. Audiences in 1946 had faced this horror head on, and The Spiral Staircase stands as a stark warning to anyone who may have to face it again.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE | Directed by Robert Siodmak | Stars Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Gordon Oliver, Elsa Lanchester | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Friday, October 05, 2018

Comic book fans have been itching for a decent big screen incarnation of popular anti-hero, Venom, ever since before the ill-advised Spider-Man 3 failed to do the character justice back in 2007. The idea of a morally ambiguous "hero" who essentially has multiple personalities (in the form of an alien "symbiote" inhabiting his body) is undeniably appealing.

It has been 11 years since the character was last seen on screen, and Venom billed itself as the film fans have been waiting for. Starring Tom Hardy as the titular anti-hero, Venom attempts a fresh take on the character that only works thanks to Hardy's delightfully off-kilter performance, while the film around him flounders in tonal confusion.

R-rated superhero movies have proven their viability with Deadpool and Logan, and if ever a superhero movie needed to be rated R it's Venom. Venom snacks on bad guy's heads, discusses eating their eyes, lungs, and brains, and generally wreaks bloody havoc on anyone who stands in his way. The problem is almost all of this happens off-screen. Venom is a bloodless PG-13 spectacle that is so clearly pulling its punches that it's hard to take it seriously, as it aims right down the non-offensive middle in an attempt to broaden its mainstream appeal. The result is a weak, toothless affair that ends up pleasing no one in its attempt to please everyone.

The humor is awkwardly placed, the action scenes are frenetically cut in order to edit around the carnage, and in the middle of it all Tom Hardy is having a blast a mild-mannered reporter Eddie Brock and his destructive alter-ego. Hardy's performance demonstrates what the film could have been with a better script and more cohesive direction, the odd blend of lame humor and dark, vengeful action never really allowing the film to have a personality of its own.

Venom is clearly Sony's attempt to do a film similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while Venom is indeed a Marvel Comics character, Sony's endeavor to emulate Disney's successful Marvel formula feels strangely dated, feeling more like the glut of cartoonish, blue-tinted superhero movies like Daredevil and Fantastic Four that littered the multiplexes in the early 2000s. It's a grave miscalculation for a character as dark as Venom. And while the character design is far superior to the 2007 take on the character, nothing in Venom is as interesting as anything Sam Raimi attempted in the original Spider-Man trilogy.

It's a surprisingly generic, listless film (even down to the strangely anonymous score by Ludwig Göransson, fresh off the success of the vastly superior Black Panther earlier this year), filled with poorly rendered CGI effects and painfully tin-eared dialogue that doesn't do its cast any favors. Hardy is enough to give one hope for future films (despite a mid-credits stinger featuring Woody Harrelson in a ghastly wig), but unless Sony truly embraces the darkness of a potential face-off between Venom and his serial killer arch-nemesis, Carnage, then this franchise is already dead on arrival.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

VENOM | Directed by Ruben Fleischer | Stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language | Opens today, 10/5, in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

An old woman dreams of going home in Peter Masterson's tenderhearted cinematic adaptation of Horton Foote's play, The Trip to Bountiful. Foote, who received an Oscar nomination for adapting his own play, also wrote the screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Tender Mercies, writes with a kind of sun-drenched nostalgia that looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, even at its darkest, and that positive spirit permeates The Trip to Bountiful at every turn.

The film is anchored by an Oscar-winning performance by Geraldine Page as Mrs. Watts, the elderly hymn-singing protagonist who lives with her work-obsessed son, Ludie (John Heard) and his self-absorbed wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn). Stuck with Jessie Mae's nagging and insistence that she sit around the house all day and do nothing (and never, ever, sing hymns), Mrs. Watts longs to escape and return to her hometown of Bountiful, a tiny farm community all but forgotten by the rest of the world. Squirreling away her pension checks (which Jessie Mae demands be turned over as rent), Mrs. Watts saves up her money and waits patiently for her chance to run away. And when that moment finally comes, she jumps on a bus and skips town, heading toward Bountiful with a heart full of hope.

Along the way, however, she discovers that no one remembers Bountiful. No trains go there, no one even knows it exists. But it exists in her heart just as strongly as it did when she lived there. Determined to get to Bountiful at all costs, she strikes up friendships with fellow travelers that carry her ever closer to her destination, finally finding a kind of personal freedom she had forgotten was possible.

The Trip to Bountiful is a lovely, nostalgic film about going home - even if the home you remember no longer exists. Home, in this case, is more of an idea than an actual place, Bountiful having long ago faded from reality to memory. Foote hammers that point home perhaps a bit too strongly, tending toward holding the audience's hand through its ideas rather than conveying them naturally. But Page is so good as Mrs. Watts that it's hard not to become invested in her single-minded journey. Accompanied by a score made up mostly of old hymns (most notably "Softly & Tenderly"), The Trip to Bountiful invites viewers to come home, whatever that word may mean for them.

Masterson's relaxed direction makes for pleasant viewing, even as it skews toward over-emphasizing its themes, a weakness carried over from Foote's screenplay. Jessie Mae's character is just so cartoonishly awful that it's hard to take her motivations, and therefore the crux of the plot, seriously. Thankfully, Page's performance is so strong that it grounds the film when it threatens to disappear into its own nostalgic haze. She's so real that one almost wants to reach into the film and give her a hug, despite the ridiculousness of the mostly over-the-top histrionics of Jessie Mae's overbearing villain.

The new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics has cleaned up the film significantly, and its warmly filtered cinematography is lovely in high definition. Sure, it looks as if its lost in a hazy dream, a hallmark of films of this nature from the era (see Driving Miss Daisy, The Whales of August, and The Man in the Moon), but it's hard to resist Page's stalwart Mrs. Watts and her determination to return to the place of her childhood. It's a theme that feels perfectly modern, and yet rather than weaponizing its nostalgia the way so many modern films do, The Trip to Bountiful acknowledges that home may not be exactly the way we remember it. We may not be able to physically go home, but its effects last a lifetime, even if we can never quite recapture them in quite the same way. At a time when it's easy to become lost in nostalgia for a better time, it's a sobering, if ultimately uplifting, lesson to learn.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL | Directed by Peter Masterson | Stars Geraldine Page, John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Richard Bradford, Rebecca De Mornay | Rated PG | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.