Saturday, November 24, 2018

During the early part of the 20th century, black travelers in the American south often travelled with a slim green volume called "The Negro Motorist Green-book," which detailed safe, black-friendly restaurants, hotels, and shops throughout the Jim Crow south. This important piece of African American history has of course been given the Hollywood treatment with a white man at the center of the story.

Like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, with feel-good racial politics straight out the 1980s, Peter Farrelly's Green Book tells the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a racist tough-guy who is hired to be the driver for black classical pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), providing security for the musician's dangerous tour through the deep south in 1962 while using the eponymous Green Book as his guide. Along the way the two form a fast friendship that would last a lifetime, as Lip learns to overcome his own prejudices once he sees the discrimination and outright hostility that Shirley faces at every turn.

On the surface it's a nice story about breaking down walls and washing away deep-seated prejudice. Where it falters is in the simplistic way it tackles these themes. Lip, a no-nonsense Italian from New York, is shocked that the effete and cultured Shirley has never had fried chicken or listened to Little Richard, and insists on feeding Shirley the food and playing him the music "his people." It's set up as a comedic moment, but there's something deeply cringe-worthy about a scene in which a white man essentially teaches a black man what it means to be black based on his own stereotypical assumptions. Lip eventually learns what it really means to be black in America as he witnesses more overt racism first-hand, but Green Book seems to traffic in the kind of feel-good idea that all racism is obvious and malicious, a common mis-conception that allows white people to pat themselves on the back for not being the kind of racist that would make a black person use an outhouse rather than allow them to use the bathroom in their home.

The reality, of course, is much more complex than that; racism is a much deeper issue than hating someone because of the color of their skin. Yet the touchy-feely theme at the heart of Green Book,  that we're all the same color beneath the skin, is the kind of saccharine, surface-level platitude that keeps us from confronting the systemic and often unseen heart of racism, and allows racists to continue to believe themselves to not be racist.

Thematic queasiness aside, Green Book is a slickly made and often affecting film, anchored by two magnificent performances by Ali and Mortensen. But for every moment of genuine emotion, the film comes screeching to a halt thanks to its strangely outdated and often quaint depiction on racism in America. The America of 1962 may have worn its racism more obviously on its sleeve, but just because we no longer have separate facilities for black people and white people doesn't mean that racism has been solved. It's easy to watch a film like Green Book and think "thank goodness things aren't like that anymore." But while things have certainly improved since the 60s, it's dangerous to believe that racism is a thing of the past. It hasn't disappeared, it has simply evolved.

Racism, if you will forgive the expression, is not a black and white issue, and simplistic crowd-pleasers like Green Book only serve to perpetuate that outdated notion. In a year that has given us such complex studies of race in America like Spike Lee's brash BlacKkKlansman, Barry Jenkins' heartbreaking If Beale Street Could Talk, and Travis Wilkerson's incendiary documentary, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?Green Book feels like a relic, offering a Band-Aid for a wound far too deep to be healed by such surface-level hokum. Its heart may be in the right place, but there's something almost naive, even reductive, in the way it takes a black man's story and puts a white man at its center, insisting that racism is a problem that only a white man with a black friend can solve.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

GREEN BOOK | Directed by Peter Farrelly | Stars Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

“For mothers” reads the post-script of Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls, a wise, wonderful, and altogether marvelous film about the long-suffering manager of a knock-off Hooters sports bar dealing with the seemingly never-ending crises of middle management. 

Stuck between an absentee owner who has no idea what actually goes on in his business, much less any real connection to his employees, and a working class staff unable to leave their daily problems at the door, Lisa (a luminous Regina Hall) displays both the patience of Job and the steely determination of a working class queen.

Kind, big-hearted almost to a fault, yet completely understanding of the world around her and her place in it, Lisa faces each of the day's problems with a smile, dealing with with everything from employee theft to owner incompetence, to a cable failure before a big fight, to unruly customers, all while trying to make the next week's schedule and host an off-the-books benefit car wash for one of the waitresses.

“All I wanted to do today was one good thing," she sighs at the end of yet another long day in which seemingly nothing went right. Yet it is her calm, nurturing presence that that keeps the ship from capsizing in the midst of myriad storms. Lisa may not be a mother, but as the film's dedication suggests, her penchant for barely holding it together for the sake of others while putting out fire after fire is a testament to the strength of mothers and working class women everywhere for whom just getting through the day is a daily struggle. Support the Girls exists at an intersection of race, gender, and class, each character working paycheck to paycheck in exhausting, thankless jobs that society at large would consider "unskilled" for minimum pay. Yet Bujalski displays a keen understanding that it is these very service industry workers who are perhaps the most overworked and underpaid. Lisa, so dedicated to her job that she stops to ask a customer how his meal was even after quitting, represents a thoroughly modern working woman who doesn't take shit off of anyone while trying to keep food on the table and the world around her from falling apart.

For Bujalski, whose trademark brand of improvisational realism first brought the term "mumblecore" into the popular lexicon with films like Beeswax and Computer ChessSupport the Girls is perhaps his most formal work yet. But never once does he sacrifice verisimilitude for structural precision. Support the Girls is a warm, funny, sublimely entertaining film, anchored by a soulful performance by Regina Hall, whose smiling face barely hides the weariness underneath. She deserves all the awards buzz that she will never get for a film of this scale, but it's a performance for the ages that cannot be praised enough. It's one of the understated wonders of the year in film, a small-scale miracle that peels back the smiling, attractive facade of the American service industry and reveals the blood, sweat, and tears that keep the fantasy going.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SUPPORT THE GIRLS | Directed by Andrew Bujalski | Stars Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, James Le Gros, Shayna McHayle, Dylan Gelula, AJ Michalka | Rated R for language including sexual references, and brief nudity | Now playing in select theaters and on demand.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The second part in a planned five-film series of prequels to the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is very much a middle film. There are enough tidbits and engaging set-pieces here to keep Harry Potter fans entertained, but not really enough to sustain an entire film. In fact, Crimes of Grindelwald seems to exist only to set up the next film, tantalizing us with clues and snippets of information but never really fully existing on its own. It's a collection of references and foreshadowings rather than a fully formed film in its own right.

Picking up where 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left off, The Crimes of Grindelwald finds awkward hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) being sent on a mission by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to track down Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the deadly obscurus from the first film who is now being sought by the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) because of his immense power. As Grindelwald's influence over the wizarding world grows, the stage is set for the fabled first wizarding war, as Grindelwald seeks to subjugate muggles in order to bring the world's witches and wizards out of hiding and into the real world.

That's about where the clarity of the plot ends. The Crimes of Grindelwald is chock full of subplots and obscure bits of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world lore, but very little of it adds up to anything particularly satisfying. Grindelwald's Trump-ian rhetoric, demonizing those who are different in the name of some vague, wrong-headed idea of freedom gives the film some timely relevance, but it's all lost amid a flurry of exposition and arcane Potter mythology that feels as though Rowling is trying to cram as much backstory to the Harry Potter novels as possible without allowing the Fantastic Beasts series to live and breathe on its own.

That's not to say that there aren't some terrific set pieces here - a circus scene featuring the woman who will one day become Voldemort's pet snake, Nagini, is a visual wonder (but begs the question of why we needed a back story for Voldemort's snake), and Grindelwald's climactic rally offers a chilling look into how easily good people can become radicalized by seductive demagogues. Like its Academy Award winning predecessor, the film is gorgeously designed; featuring sumptuous costumes and lavish sets that immerse us into the wizarding world of 1920s Paris, and James Newton Howard's sweeping score is some of the composer's finest work in years.

The problem is that it's all in service of an inert narrative that ultimately leads nowhere, resulting in a film that is very much less than the sum of its parts. Not much actually happens in The Crimes of Grindelwald; much dialogue is spent on exposition (including several scenes and flashbacks dedicated to expounding on the Lestrange family tree), but the film doesn't actually have a story of its own. The climax is a bewildering CGI showdown, followed by still more exposition topped off by a last-minute twist that seems to be the only reason the film exists in the first place; yet still somehow adds nothing to the story we've just experienced. If the goal was to leave audiences wanting more, it succeeds. Unfortunately, we have to sit through an entire film to realize that we've just watched an extended teaser for yet another film that promises to answer all our questions at a later date. One has to admire the way Rowling has attempted to deliver a wizarding world for adults who grew up with Harry Potter, but this dark and joyless film is bound to leave audiences scratching their heads than experiencing any kind of wonder.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD | Directed by David Yates | Stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Johnny Depp, Zoë Kravitz | Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Much like his last two films, Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2011), both lyrical examinations of women attempting to cope with tragedy, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong's Burning is a kind of anti-mystery, a film where murder is the catalyst for a much larger exploration of Korean society.

Unlike those previous films, however, the woman at the center of the story is not the protagonist, rather the almost abstract projection of male fantasy for the film's two male leads - Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) a smitten delivery boy with whom she grew up, and Ben (Steven Yeun), the enigmatic new boyfriend she picks up on a spontaneous trip to Africa.  Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) exists as a kind of blank slate on which the two men project their fantasies and ideals. For Jongsu, she is the "manic pixie dream-girl" he has been in love with his entire life, having grown up nearby idolizing her from afar. For Ben, she is a kind of toy, something to be picked up and thrown away on a whim. Jongsu is immediately suspicious of Ben's motives. Heartbroken by her seeming rejection of him after a mid-afternoon tryst before she jets off to Africa on a journey of self-exploration, Jongsu spends months visiting her apartment to feed her cat and masturbate on her bed, all the while constructing a vision of Haemi that doesn't really exist.

When Ben confides to Jongsu one night that he burns down greenhouses as a hobby (while Haemi dances naked in the sunset before them, a kind of embodiment of the fantasy the two men have constructed between them, sublimely and portentously scored to Miles Davis jazzy improvisations from Elevator to the Gallows), it isn't clear if he's speaking literally or metaphorically. This is where Lee starts building his expertly crafted mystery, because soon after Haemi disappears, and Jongsu seems to be the only one who notices or cares. Ben, intoning "you can make it disappear as if it never existed" with an almost detached nonchalance about his burned down greenhouses, seems the most likely suspect. But as Jongsu attempts to track her down, he uncovers a series of lies and deceptions that lead him to dubious conclusions, and leave the audience questioning whether Haemi existed in the first place, or if she was some sort of male fantasy, a ghost being chased by horny and entitled young men.

Ben is almost a caricature of the entitled rich, while Jongsu is a kind of shiftless man-child for whom women are more sexual objects than real people, fodder for masturbatory fantasies rather than actual relationships. Lee shoots the film mostly from Jongsu's point of view, placing us in the hands of an unreliable narrator we're not sure we can trust. Is Haemi dead? Is Ben a murderer? Or did Haemi  (or at least Jongsu's version of Haemi) ever exist at all? Burning is a hazy, haunted evocation of a trio of lost souls trying to navigate life, trying (and often failing) to craft identities for themselves when they don't really know who they are themselves. Haemi has fallen into a trap of credit card debt, a problem among many Korean women trying to "keep up with the Joneses," while Ben and Jongsu embody twin pillars of male entitlement and rage.

That male rage is what percolates so darkly at the heart of Burning. Every frame seems to vibrate with it, clouding not only the characters' judgment but the perception of the audience as well. It obscures everything, from character motives to the truth itself, leaving the audience to feel its way through the fog. It's a disorienting, bracing, wholly exhilarating experience, filled with an unnerving and often eerie sense of impending doom that can't be stopped. Lee purposefully leaves the audience questioning its own eyes, positioning the film squarely in a moral gray area that forces the audience to question and evaluate itself. At one point the film's working title was "Project Rage" (it's loosely based on the short story, "Barn Burning" by Haruki Murakami), and indeed every frame seems to be saturated with anger. Yet that anger is always bubbling beneath the surface, seething and churning in a dark maelstrom that only occasionally breaks the surface. That hidden nature of its anger makes the film all the more disturbing. In a world of mass shootings almost exclusively perpetrated by angry young men, it is the rage you cannot see that is the most frightening, and the hardest to combat until it comes bursting through when something finally snaps. In Lee's haunted world we know a snap is coming, and when it finally arrives we're left with a sense of disquiet. We either just witnessed a moment of justice, or an act of cold-blooded cruelty. But what is most disturbing is Burning's final and most troubling query - is there really a difference?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BURNING | Directed by Lee Chang-Dong | Stars Yoo Ah-in Steven Yeun Jun Jong-seo Kim Soo-kyung Choi Seung-ho | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Dorothy Dalton, Rudolph Valentino, and Walter Long in MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY (1922)

Famously cut down in his prime at the age of 31 in 1926, silent movie star Rudolph Valentino was at the time arguably the most famous face in Hollywood. Valentino may not enjoy the same reputation as contemporaries Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Mary Pickford today, but at the time of his death he was a major star whose beauty in films like The Sheik lit up screens and hearts in equal measure. 

Perhaps Valentino is less remembered today because of the quality of his films. While Chaplin and Keaton made their masterpieces, and Pickford displayed a remarkable eye for talent and quality projects, Valentino was not so lucky in that regard. Valentino's undeniable beauty and piercing eyes are what made him a star, while his films were the 1920s equivalent of modern day blockbusters. Audiences flocked to see Valentino, but his films were often forgettable melodramas that haven't endured in cinema history the way he has.

While his most famous roles were in The Sheik (1921), its sequel Son of the Sheik (1926), and Blood & Sand (1922), Valentino started playing smaller roles much earlier, working his way up through the ranks to starring roles. Flicker Alley has collected many of these films into their new two-volume Rudolph Valentino Collection, which is an invaluable chronicle of the rise of a superstar.

Volume 1 contains two longer films that were early starring vehicles for the young star - Eyes of Youth (1919) and Moran of the Lady Letty (1922). In Eyes of Youth, a woman faced with the choice between two men, one a wealth playboy, the other her true love, is given the opportunity to look into the future to see where her decisions will ultimately lead in this melodrama, featuring Valentino in a supporting role.

Eyes of Youth is very much the kind of overripe soap opera that was popular in its day, but it was also surprisingly progressive in its view of sexual politics and the way women's lives were affected by the decisions of powerful men. Valentino's role is brief, but his smolder is unmistakable, and director Albert Parker (best known for the silent Douglas Fairbanks adventure, The Black Pirate) has a strong visual sense, resulting in some lovely cinematography by Arthur Edeson (Casablanca, Frankenstein).

Released a year after the success of The Sheik, Moran of the Lady Letty finds Valentino in full-on star mode, sending him off on the high seas took off on the high seas as a wealthy heir who gets shanghaied by a band of smugglers, where he meets a beautiful sailor's daughter who has lost her ship. Some leaps in logic and time can be accounted for by missing pieces of the film, but Moran of the Lady Letty is a handsome production, beautifully restored for the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition. Valentino shines in one of his earliest leading roles, and the spirit of adventure on display here would serve him well later in his short career.

Volume 2 of the collection contains more supporting roles and bit parts showcasing Valentino's path to fame. He appears as a romantic interest in 1918's A Society Sensation, which was truncated to 2 reels from a longer version after he became a hot commodity a few years after its release. A wealthy young man falls in love with the daughter of a fisherman, who may or may not be a long-lost duchess in this 1918 short film. The longer version has been long since lost, and this shortened cut excises a lot of the plot development to focus on Valentino rather than Carmel Myers' lead.

The surviving cut isn't particularly good. Valentino is an attractive lead and its easy to see why he became a star, but A Society Sensation is a cheaply produced melodrama at heart, diced to pieces as a cheap cash-in on a newly bankable star making it little more than a charming curio at this point.

1919's Virtuous Sinners is an obscure film in which Valentino only had a small, supporting role. An abused housewife is cast out by her husband, only to fall in love a with a criminal who she comes to love and support after he robs a bank to pay for an injured child's medical bills. Valentino plays a member of the man's gang, but the film is something of a truncated trifle that falls into the all-too-common silent trap of sermonizing its message with blunt force.

Standing on the precipice of stardom, Valentino appeared in a rare villainous role in James Vincent's Stolen Moments (1920), a romantic drama about a young woman (Marguerite Namara) in the deep south caught between an upstanding young man (Albert L. Barrett) and a latin lothario (Valentino).

A mostly dull, listless melodrama, the film was reduced from 5 reels to 2 after Valentino became a mega-star in the wake of The Sheik to focus more on his sleazy character, resulting in a stilted work that puts unnecessary focus on a secondary character, neutering its narrative drive. The only surviving elements of the film showcase some sophisticated editing, but its overall structure is so off-kilter that it just doesn't work. Interesting only as a piece of the Valentino puzzle, showcasing an actor about to enter the stratosphere. Volume 2 of the collection also includes The Young Rajah, a "lost" Valentino film made on the heels of The Sheik, quickly capitalizing on the young superstar's new found "exotic" persona.

While none of them are great films, they nevertheless offer a window into one of Hollywood's most indelible and inscrutable stars, a towering figure in film history who nevertheless remains something of a mystery to many. Like an early James Dean, Valentino was gone way too soon, a star that shone brightly before being snuffed out just as quickly. In Flicker Alley's new MOD Blu-Ray Valentino shines once again, making it a must-have set for enthusiasts of silent film.

The Rudolph Valentino Collection Volumes 1 and 2 are now available from Flicker Alley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Features:

The special features on the new Blu-Ray disc are mostly perfunctory - short behind-the-scenes featurettes that featuring cast and crew gushing about the production but offering little insight into the process. One featurette in particular shows great promise - "Pooh And Walt Become Friends," which chronicles how Walt Disney discovered and optioned A.A. Milne's original Winnie the Pooh books through his daughter, but its brevity leaves one wishing it were longer and more in-depth. More intriguing for grown-up viewers, perhaps, is the brief but emotional look at voice actor Jim Cummings reuniting with Winnie the Pooh in "Pooh Finds His Voice," and a featurette chronicling the process in which the stuffed characters were brought to life through a mix of practical and digital effects. While the featurettes are geared more for children (even though the film is really aimed at adult fans of Pooh and Friends), they offer some tantalizing, if all-too-brief tidbits that could have benefitted from a little more insight. Still, this is one Disney fans will want in their collection to revisit again and again, like a warm and familiar blanket on a cold winter's night.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN Directed by Marc Forster | Stars Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael, Sophie Okonedo, Toby Jones | Rated PG for some action | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A cinematic event 40 years in the making, The Other Side of the Wind is the long-lost final film by legendary filmmaker Orson Welles. Having spent nearly two decades in Europe, Welles returned to the United States in 1970 to begin production on a project that would not be completed in his lifetime. He spent most of the 1970s working on The Other Side of the Wind, completing principal photography in 1976 and editing it into the 1980s. Welles died in 1985, leaving the film unfinished, seemingly destined for the dustbin of history.

That is until the rights were acquired by Netflix, with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich (who also starred in the film) finishing what Welles started, making its triumphant screen debut at long last in 2018, premiering at the Venice Film Festival before being released on Netflix's streaming platform.  It may seem something of an inauspicious end for the fabled final film of the man who directed Citizen Kane, yet the very existence of the film is something of a miracle. Here we are in 2018 watching a brand new Orson Welles film, and the results are nothing short of electrifying.

Mirroring Welles' own experiences in faux-documentary style, The Other Side of the Wind is the chronicle of renowned filmmaker Jake Hannaford (played by similarly renowned filmmaker John Huston) who returns to the United States from European exile in order to make what would become his final film. Welles follows Hannaford on the final day of his life, examining the troubled production of his film, The Other Side of the Wind, an experimental piece filled with gratuitous sex and nudity  meant to attract investors to help him complete it. This film-within-a-film becomes the crux of Welles' blistering critique of Hollywood and the industry that had spurned him. Hannaford travels from screening room to screening room, followed by sycophants, journalists, and hangers-on, each time met with screening difficulties that shut the film down. Eventually there is no audience left at all, and Hannaford is left to die alone, his film all but forgotten.

It's an eerie mirroring of Welles' own experience in making the film, although he vehemently denied such parallels, claiming instead that Hannaford was based on novelist Ernest Hemmingway, along with other storied "macho" filmmakers such as John Ford, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman. Regardless of its inspirations, The Other Side of the Wind is a thorny, troubled, angry, work of radical cinema the likes of which are rarely seen. It is at once a work of painful self-reflection and bold defiance, a giant middle finger to an industry that had turned its back on Welles. This is Welles both gazing at himself as at outsider and looking deep within himself as a filmmaker in twilight - a lion in winter and one-time wunderkind who made what many consider the greatest film of all time at the age of 24, and spent the rest of his career refusing to be but into a box.

“Every man contains within himself the whole condition of humanity," whispers one woman about Hannaford at one point, a line that seemingly lays bare Welles' almost limitless ambition in his twilight years. Here, a man who started his career making avant-garde silent shorts and radio dramas creates one of the most brazenly modern films of his career, a work of experimental cinema that takes stock of the industry as Welles saw it - from the New Hollywood Cinema of Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, to the European art house cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (mercilessly lampooned in Hannaford's film-within-a-film). This is cinema as voyeurism, for both the filmmaker and the audience. Is cinema a means to an end or simply an end? A journey or a destination? A penetrative act or a reflective act? Here, Welles dismantles the male gaze, the camera as a phallus, positioning cinema as an act of rape that destroys that which it seeks to exalt. It is a daring, reckless, uncompromising film that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to take its place in the pantheon of great things - the final film of an American master who, 33 years after his death, has shown the world that he is just as vital and brilliant as ever. The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND | Directed by Orson Welles | Stars John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, Susan Strasberg, Joseph McBride, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

It can be tough to be a Tyler Perry apologist in the face of films like Nobody's Fool. To be fair, nothing about Nobody's Fool feels like a Perry film - it feels like a substandard director-for-hire project that somehow ended up with Perry behind the camera. That's not the case here, unfortunately, Nobody's Fool is Perry's through and through; but it is completely devoid of the personality and charm that are often present even in Perry's most pedestrian works.

Billed as a star-vehicle for Tiffany Haddish, a hot-commodity following her star-making performance in Girls' TripNobody's Fool instead wastes Haddish in a supporting role and turns the focus on her sister, Danica (Tika Sumpter), an uptight marketing executive who is dating a man she has never met. After Danica picks her foul-mouthed, over-sexed sister, Tanya (Haddish), up from jail, Tanya immediately sets out to find out the real identity of Danica's mysterious boyfriend to find out if Danica is in fact being "catfished." All the while, her perfect man may be staring her in the face, a handsome barista named Frank (Omari Hardwick) who greets her with coffee and a rose every morning and his coffee shop.

The problem here is that it doesn't seem like Perry can make up is mind as to what he wants Nobody's Fool to be. The catfishing plot-line is quickly dropped, segueing into a romantic comedy in which the stuck-up Danica can't get over her hang-ups about Frank's criminal past. Then, just when it appears to be coming to a close, it hits us with a totally unnecessary third act twist that not only derails the plot, it destroys any remaining sympathy we may have had for Danica. It's a clear attempt by Perry to subvert romantic comedy tropes in which a man gets to make mistake after mistake, only to be forgiven and taken back by the woman. But Danica is just too flawed and too arrogant to root for. She's the kind of character that would normally be a villain in Perry's films, yet here she is as a romantic lead that's impossible to root for or care about.

The film is saved from complete oblivion by Haddish, but Perry's improvisational directorial style doesn't do her a lot of favors, giving her ample room to play, but her anarchic presence is often more than the film can handle. It's also got quite a bit more language and graphic sex than the typical Perry joint, which isn't in and of itself a problem, but it feels incongruous with Perry's style. It's as if he's trying to break out of the faith-based comedy mold that made him famous into something more edgy (see also his other 2018 film, Acrimony, where it felt more natural), but it just doesn't fit the film, coming across as a naked attempt to be more mainstream rather than serve the film. It may not feature some of the same instances of sloppy directing present in his last two films, Acrimony and Boo 2, but it's much more of a narrative mess - devoid of Perry's usual affable charm or melodramatic flair; and no amount of Haddish's spirited comedic patter can save it from itself.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

NOBODY'S FOOL | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Whoopi Goldberg, Missi Pyle, Amber Riley, Chris Rock | Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, and for drug material | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, November 09, 2018

There's never been a film (or series of films) quite like Patrick Wang's A Bread Factory. Essentially one film told in two parts, Part One: For the Sake of Gold, and Part Two: Walk with Me a While, A Bread Factory examines the plight of a small-town arts center about to be gentrified out of existence by a foreign conglomerate.

Wang, who first appeared on the American independent film scene in 2011 with the remarkable drama, In the Family, has a style like no other, a kind of point-and-shoot aesthetic that nevertheless feels staunchly formal. His actors occupy spaces that at once feel tightly controlled and yet assembled on the fly, creating something that feels wholly organic yet incredibly specific. In For the Sake of Gold, Wang introduces us to Dorthea (Tyne Daly) and Greta (Elisabeth Henry-Macari), longtime parters and proprietors of a community arts center in Checkford, finding artistic truth in charmingly DIY productions. The Bread Factory, long a space for personal exploration and community engagement, is deep in rehearsals for a performance of Euripides' Hecuba, when a couple of performance artists from China bring a major conglomerate onto the block, vying for the same arts council funding as The Bread Factory. Facing the end of their life's work, Dorthea and Greta rally a cast of oddball characters, including a local journalist and her plucky intern, in order to convince the local council to save their funding and stop the government corruption seeking the use the newcomers for personal gain.

In Walk with Me a While, Wang changes the ballgame, examining the aftermath of the events of the first film and how they affect the community. Strange tourists begin to descend on Checkford, and it becomes clear that the foreign conglomerate's showy, impersonal brand of art may be changing the little town forever. Walk with Me a While is a more melancholic film than its predecessor, but both films are filled with a quiet sense of hope. What sets Part 2 apart is how Wang deftly melds genres together, introducing musical sequences to differentiate the tourists from the citizens of Checkford. It's a bracing stylistic experiment that beautifully examines life in a changing world. Of the two films, it is perhaps the strongest. Yet taken together as two parts of one whole, these films are a celebration of not just the arts, but of small town arts programs.

Wang shoots in long static takes, often in medium close-up, capturing his actors' performances in totality. It's like a high wire act without an act, the lack of cuts putting emphasis on the performers and what they’re saying rather than directorial style. By filming entire performances, including the climactic performance of Hecuba at the end of Walk with Me a While, Wang immerses us deeply into the world of these characters, allowing us to live alongside them for a while. By splitting the story into two films, Wang takes us beyond the plot and into these characters' lives. Yet it's more than just a four-hour film split in two, the cut feels natural. Both films feel like complete entities that are nevertheless inexorably a part of the same whole.

And what a beautiful whole it is. A Bread Factory is a warm-hearted ode to local arts programs, how they serve not only as a place of belonging for everyone in the community, but as an outlet for people of all ages to explore themselves. Over the course of two films, Wang examines the Bread Factory's impact on its community, and the community's impact on the Bread Factory and its proprietors. They're two lovely, altogether wonderful films that find a deep humanity in their subjects, demonstrating a clear affection for its idiosyncratic characters and the niche they've carved out for themselves in Checkford. And yet there's a kind of sadness that hangs over these films, a kind of mourning for the role of money in the arts, a necessary evil they both rely on and are torn down by. In the end, the quality of the work matters little in the face of public indifference or lack of funding, and that's the inherent tragedy at the core of both films.  Passion can only go so far, but sometimes that passion is worth more than anything money can buy. In A Bread Factory that passion bleeds through every frame - it's an endlessly charming labor of love that firmly establishes Wang as one of the most unique and vital voices in American independent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A BREAD FACTORY PART ONE: FOR THE SAKE OF GOLD | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Glynnis O'Connor, Philip Kerr, Jeanine Garofalo | Not Rated

A BREAD FACTORY PART TWO: WALK WITH ME A WHILE | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Tyne Daly, Elisabeth Henry-Macari, James Masters, Nana Visitor, Brian Murray, Zachary Sayle, Jessica Pimentel | Not Rated

Both films are now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Perhaps America's foremost living documentarian, Frederick Wiseman's expansive documentaries have covered everything from prisons to the Paris Opera Ballet to the New York Public Library to the halls of Berkeley University to French cabaret clubs. Each one an incisively observational slice of life, chronicling the minutiae of life in their respective milieus. 

In his latest film, Monrovia, Indiana, Wiseman turns his camera on the goings on in a small mid-western town in America's heartland. Here, Wiseman invites us to sit in on town council meetings, observe farm life, attend a Masonic lodge ceremony, and even bear witness to a funeral. Wiseman's films always unfold as if we're watching life as it is lived in real time, dipping in and out of daily activities like a dispassionate observer quietly going door to door. Monrovia, Indiana is no different, but at a comparatively svelte 143 minutes, it feels quite brief by Wiseman's standards.

It also seems to be purposely avoiding the elephant in the room - and that's Donald Trump. This is deep in the heart of Trump country, something that Wiseman vaguely alludes to in shots of bumper stickers for sale at a street vendor showcasing slogans supporting God, guns, and America, love it or leave it. Yet, as his way, Wiseman never comments on the violent undercurrent of some of these messages, and they never come up again. There's something to be said for a film in our increasingly partisan times that simply observes, showcasing flyover country life for Wiseman's more coastal audiences. That is, after all, Wiseman's style - observe but don't comment. He simply shows what he sees. But here he almost seems to be actively avoiding the subject.

Perhaps the overwhelmingly white population of Monrovia, Indiana doesn't have politics on the mind as much at the moment because Trump's policies aren't affecting them negatively. Perhaps Wiseman chose to avoid it altogether. But it does seem like an odd choice to briefly acknowledge the virulent undercurrents running beneath the otherwise pleasant town meetings and friendly socializing only to never mention it again. It's a strange misstep in an otherwise stellar film, one of Wiseman's most purely emotional works. It makes riveting cinema out of a vote to appropriate funds for a bench in front of the local library, and a a town hall debate about a fire hydrant. These sorts of seemingly mundane business are Wiseman's forte, and his ability to find beauty and wonder in the moments of life that would end up on the cutting room floor of most documentaries is what makes him such a special filmmaker.

But perhaps the most masterful touch of Monrovia, Indiana is Wiseman's decision to end the film with a funeral. The final 30 minutes of the film is spent in the company of a woman we likely never met, and yet by the time the film is over we felt as though we knew her. We mourn with her family, their tears become our tears. She could have been anyone, but for a moment her funeral becomes a projection on which the audience projects its own losses. She's our grandmother, our aunt, our sister, our mother. In fact, it's almost as if Wiseman is mourning the very way of small town life chronicled here. As the small towns of America's past fade away, little pockets like Monrovia still cling to their memories, seemingly untouched by time.

And yet time marches on - it's the quaint contradiction inherent in Monrovia, Indiana. It feels like a film that would have felt much more impactful 2-3 years ago, but now it seems to stand as a stark reminder of what happens when isolated white communities ignore the world around them, and the noise of the Trump era howling around it can't be drowned out. It makes for a fascinating companion piece with Wiseman's 2015 film, In Jackson Heights, which chronicled a much more diverse, but no less engaged, neighborhood in Queens, New York - a kind of "two Americas" portrait that says as much about where we are today as any pundit on a 24 hour news network or a breathless 2 AM tweet storm from the White House. Wiseman is a peerless filmmaker, and Monrovia, Indiana is a testament to his talent as a quiet observer. Perhaps what he's really doing here is simply cutting through all that noise and listening to the people on the other side. In 2018, we could all use a little bit more of drowning out the noise and simply listening. Monrovia, Indiana may not be "America," but it's certainly a part of a greater community, and a brilliant tapestry of work that Wiseman has been weaving for decades.

GRADE - ★★★½(out of four)

MONROVIA, INDIANA | Directed by Frederick Wiseman | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, November 05, 2018

There is something uniquely droll about the humor of contemporary Romanian cinema that is often so dry that it's almost imperceptible. Take, for instance, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a film ostensibly about an old man dying from neglect by the Romanian healthcare system, being touted as "The most acclaimed comedy of the year" in all of its promotional materials. And yet, despite its tragic underpinnings, Mr. Lazarescu was funny simply because it was so absurd. It was a comedy of errors disguised as a tragedy, a darkly hilarious examination of a grim reality meant to help its audience "laugh to keep from crying."

Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) is similarly droll, if more overtly funny, taking aim at small town silliness regarding a point of local pride - a revolution that may or may not have happened in their little town years earlier. It has been over a decade since the so-called Romanian New Wave began, with filmmakers like Porumboiu, Puiu, and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) bursting onto the international scene with their austere social consciences and sparse style. While each filmmaker has their own unique style and thematic interests, Porumboiu has carved out a unique niche for himself as a kind of satirical cultural critic, examining bureaucratic nonsense in a way that demonstrates both a love for society's oddballs, and a penchant for taking a pin to the balloon of self-importance.

In his latest film, a documentary called Infinite Football, Porumboiu introduces us to Laurențiu Ginghină, a local bureaucrat who, after a childhood soccer injury left him with a severely broken leg, set out to revolutionize the game by creating new rules designed to prevent situations like the one that caused his injury. Ginghină proposes redesigning the field into an octagonal shape to prevent players from getting stuck in corners, dividing teams up into sub-teams each with specific rules, and eliminating off-sides rules by keeping all but a select few players on their own respective sides of the field so that they don't over-exert themselves by running up and down the entire length of the field for the whole game.

Ginghină is so singularly convinced that his rule changes will revolutionize the sport that he envisions himself as a kind of superhero posing as a mild-mannered pencil-pusher by day and acting as a savior of football by night. For his part, Porumboiu mostly steps back and allows Ginghină to explain his system, and then explain it again, constantly revising and and updating his plan when it proved impractical in real life until it becomes so complicated he can barely explain it to anyone. There are very few cuts in the scant 70 minute run time of Infinite Football. Porumboiu is content to point his camera, sit back, and let Ginghină fashion his own rope by which to hang himself.

And yet there is something endearing, and even a little sad, about Ginghină's obsession. Porumboiu essentially lets him explain himself for 70 minutes, and his case is certainly convincing because he himself is so sure of what he's doing, but one can't quite escape the feeling that this quixotic quest to change the way the world plays soccer is something of a fool's errand. At what point does confidence become delusion? Or is soccer, in this instance, just a metaphor for something more?

That's the real question at the heart of Porumboiu's drolly funny and strangely melancholy film. Is Ginghină a genius? Crazy? A pitiable figure? In a nation still coming to terms with its own past, is football a kind of flawed national institution that needs immediate reform, or a venerable body that is perfect the way it is?  Porumboiu doesn't answer those questions, instead positing that perhaps the thing that he loves (be it football or Romania itself) is fundamentally flawed and the ridiculous solutions to fix it are only making it worse. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the game of football (and by extension, Romania itself) is that bureaucracy is pinpointing all the wrong flaws while actual problems go over looked, then proposing all the wrong solutions to fix what isn't broken.

As for Ginghină, his crusade may not have brought him fame or glory, in fact it's brought him little more than indifference at every turn, as the problems he perceives (born mostly out of childhood trauma) are not seen as actual issues by anyone else. And yet it just might have given him personal fulfillment in the form of a life's work, even it if means nothing to anyone but him. Who then, Porumboiu asks, are we to judge?

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

INFINITE FOOTBALL | Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu | Not Rated | In Romanian w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, 11/9, in select theaters.