Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Brad Pitt stars in AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Great filmmakers have often looked to the stars for inspiration. Despite the often unfairly low-rent reputation of the science fiction genre, it has historically provided boundless ideas for some of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Georges Méliès, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Wise, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Nolan, and Claire Denis have all made masterworks among the stars. The latest auteur to turn their eyes toward the heavens is James Gray, a filmmaker long worshipped by cinephiles but one who has never really caught on with the general public.

For him to step into such a large-scale studio film  is something of a surprise, but certainly not an unwelcome one. The resulting film, Ad Astra (To the Stars) is perhaps the finest film released by a major studio in wide release in recent memory, one of the last to be produced by 20th Century Fox before it was bought by Disney earlier this year. It's the kind of thoughtful adult drama the likes of which are rarely seen in multiplexes anymore, one that is really nothing like its action packed trailers, instead diving deep into the human psyche and the effects of generational trauma, pointing the action inward even as the camera points to the stars.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked by United States Airforce to travel to Mars to send a top secret communique to a remote vessel in orbit around Neptune. It is there that the Air Force believes that McBride's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary hero long thought lost during a top secret mission to search for alien life known as the "Lima Project," is actually behind a series of magnetic pulses coming from the outer reaches of the solar system that are threatening all life on Earth. Upon arrival on Mars, however, McBride starts to question the Air Force's official account of what happened to his father and to the Lima Project, and sets off on a mission of his own to track down the man who inspired him, yet abandoned him in pursuit of other life in the cosmos. Determined to learn the truth for himself, McBride may ultimately learn more than he ever bargained for.

In the most simplistic terms, Ad Astra feels like a Terrence Malick film with space pirates, a probing, philosophical film filled with lyrical musings about the nature of life, set against the epic backdrop of a world whose greed for natural resources has spilled over into outer space, as nations vie for supremacy not only on Earth, but on the moon as well. It is an adventure film but mainly in the sense that it’s about the mystery of exploration, but Gray’s aim is always much deeper than that.

A still from AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Gray paints on such a grand scale but the film never loses its intimate focus. That’s perhaps its greatest irony - Gray employs breathtaking cinematography and stunning special effects to tell a story that stands in stark contrast to its sweeping appointments. It is a deeply introspective film, the juxtaposition of its inner focus against a magnificent backdrop reinforced his central theme - even in the face of the loftiest of human achievement, nothing is more powerful or more important than human connection. What is the point of it all if we don't have love?

Yet, perhaps most fascinatingly, Ad Astra seems to be in direct conversation with Gray's previous film, The Lost City of Z. Both films are about adventurers, men who sought to go beyond the reaches of what conventional wisdom deemed possible. Yet The Lost City of Z was essentially built around the old axiom of “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” Ad Astra asks, “what if we land among the stars and there’s nothing there?” It’s a gripping rumination on passion, both artistic and scientific, as well as ambition at the expense of personal growth. In fact, Ad Astra is really like the mirror image of Lost City of Z  as if Gray is in dialogue with himself, arguing, reaching, searching, probing; wondering if perhaps the final frontier isn't in the stars, but in the depths of the human soul.

Its protagonist, like his father before him, is a man who put work above all, his singular drive to go higher, farther, and faster leading him to completely forsake his family. In the end it’s seemingly all for naught. What if we truly are alone in the universe? What if we spend our entire lives looking for something more, something greater than ourselves, and in the process miss, to paraphrase Dorothy Gale of Kansas, the beauty of what’s in our own back yard? Whether it’s over the rainbow or beyond the reaches of Neptune, Gray can’t help but remind us that nothing is so grand and mysterious and worth our time as love. Ad Astra is one of the best works of science fiction this century.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AD ASTRA | Directed by James Gray | Stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland | Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

NICOLE KIDMAN as Mrs. Barbour and ANSEL ELGORT as Theo Decker in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Amazon Studios’ drama, THE GOLDFINCH, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Macall Polay. © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

The Goldfinch is proof that no one should ever make year-in-advance Oscar predictions the day after the ceremony. 

It certainly looks good on paper. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tartt, directed by Brooklyn helmer John Crowley, and starring Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Paulson; The Goldfinch has a pedigree that seems to scream Oscar. And therein lies the problem; it's a prestige project with awards on its mind, but it's also a lumbering, self-serious drama that neither moves nor entertains, resulting in perhaps one of the most ill-conceived Oscar hopefuls in recent memory.

The film centers around the life of a young boy named Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley), whose mother is tragically killed in a museum bombing. Bounced around from family to family, Theo often feels like a boy without a home, that is until fate returns him to an antique store where he first went on a dying man's last wish. He grows up and becomes an antique dealer (now played by Ansel Elgort), yet is haunted by his past, and an impulsive act that lead him to steal a priceless painting called "The Goldfinch" from the museum in the wake of the bombing, a secret he has carried with him for decades that is about to lead him into a world of drugs and crime.

There's a lot going on in The Goldfinch  and Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan attempt to cram as much of Tartt's lengthy, nearly 1,000 page novel into two and a half hours as possible. Yet it all feels calculated and contrived in the extreme, its convoluted screenplay seemingly devoid of real human feeling or narrative coherence. There's not a true note in its entire bloated running time. Crowley fills the film with awkward pauses that, rather than enhancing the drama, merely throws off the pacing, making an interminably long film feel even longer. The performances are almost all stiff and unnatural, and since much of the narrative is built around preternaturally precocious children, the momentum stops cold, saddling the young actors with ponderous material that they are mostly unable to handle, making the film's myriad pauses between the dialogue seem all the more unnatural.

The film only manages some semblance of life with the arrival of Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, whose performance as a good-hearted Ukrainian delinquent gives Fegley a chance to loosen up and the audience a much-needed respite from the film's oppressive gloominess. Yet as the film continues on, it attempts to build an air of mystery around the Goldfinch painting not unlike that of Citizen Kane's Rosebud, yet the Goldfinch feels much more like a device than the metaphor it probably comes across as on the page. So much is built up around the painting, yet in the end it feels like much ado about nothing, a world of sadness and overwrought dramatics over something that ultimately matters very little. Audiences who have not read Tartt's novel may find themselves scratching their heads as the film lumbers toward a violent out of left field conclusion that rings completely false, never quite reaching the level of emotional depth for which it is clearly reaching. For all its grief and portent, The Goldfinch is a remarkably shallow film, one that never has the courage to address the issues of childhood trauma it raises, instead reaching for surface level platitudes centered around a poorly conceived macguffin. Not every great novel needs a big screen adaptation - because this  cold, tedious piece of Oscar bait seems like it probably should have stayed on the page.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE GOLDFINCH | Directed by John Crowley | Stars Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman | Rated R for drug use and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS
© 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

If the advertisements for Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers are any indication, then it's just another breezy September comedy featuring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Cardi B as criminal strippers who get into some wacky antics that will be forgotten as soon as the leaves turn. What the trailers did not lead us to expect, in their quest to distill the film to a few money shots to put butts in seats, was a surprisingly incisive critique of American capitalism and a scathing indictment of the careless wealthy hucksters who derailed our economy in 2008.

Based on a true story chronicled in journalist Jessica Pressler's article, “The Hustlers at Scores,”  Hustlers follows a group of high class strippers who, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, decide to get their money back by drugging promiscuous Wall Street bankers and draining their credit cards. Wu stars as Destiny, an impressionable young dancer who is taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), a kind of club den mother who can work a pole (and a hustle) like no one else. Struggling to put food on the table while also taking care of her elderly grandmother, Destiny finds herself with nothing in the wake of the financial crisis, but as the money dries up and she finds herself working dead-end jobs for creep bosses, she and Romona cook up a scheme that will get them back on top, and teach the pompous jerks who ruined them a lesson they won't soon forget.

Using handheld cameras and dazzling neon lights (and the year's most exuberant  soundtrack, featuring such diverse artists as Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Frankie Valli, and Usher), Scafaria directs with a disarming sense of lyricism, juxtaposing the sparking exuberance of the club with the more monochromatic drudgery of the outside world. She uses this tale of strippers enacting revenge as a kind of metaphor for the financial crisis at large, with the brazen Wall Street bankers as the corporate overlords tossing singles at those they deem inferior, forcing the rest of the world into a dance for their table scraps. Hustlers is as damning a critique of American capitalism as anything mainstream cinema has given us this decade, a film that takes the overly-precious exposition of films like The Big Short and turns it into a dazzlingly entertaining metaphorical attack on the consequences of greed and the exploitation of workers by self absorbed corporations. It's a world where have-nots only exist to prop up the haves, and Hustlers seeks to burn down the system in spectacular fashion.

While much of the conversation thus far has centered around JLo's comeback story (and she is as magnificent as you've heard), we've heard less about Wu, who is equally luminous here. Wu's innocence makes the perfect foil for Lopez's more jaded elder statesman, Jenny from the Block back in the saddle and suffering no fools. It's their relationship that forms the heart of Hustlers  and when Lopez sheds her tough exterior and showcases her vulnerability, the film seemingly takes on a new life. It's a barnburner performance in an uncompromising film, and Wu and Lopez headline a terrific women-led ensemble in a film about a group of exploited workers who've had enough and decide to hit the men who nearly destroyed our economy right where it hurts - in their wallets. It's one of this year's most delightful surprises.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HUSTLERS | Directed by Lorene Scafaria | Stars Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart Lizzo, Cardi B, Mercedes Ruehl, Trace Lysette | Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps the most famous film to emerge from Britain's legendary Ealing Studios during its post-war period, is a film so dark and devious that it's almost hard to believe that it was ever approved for an American release under the production code.

Of course, the American version of the film was given a slightly altered ending (available on the new Kino Blu-Ray) that removed any ambiguity in the fate of its antihero protagonist, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a fallen aristocrat whose mother was cut off from the family in order to deny him his rightful inheritance. After the death of his mother, and her subsequent banishment from the D'Ascoyne family cemetery, Louis toils away in middle class drudgery plotting his revenge, seeking a way to claim the Dukedom he believes was stolen from him.

His solution? Murder the entire D'Ascoyne family by any means necessary, and he begins to pick them off one by one in his quest to become the new Duke, only to find himself entangled in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the beautiful widow of one one his many victims, which could ultimately prove to be his undoing.

Hamer frames the film from Louis' point of view, who narrates the film as he's writing his memoirs while awaiting execution for a murder that he ironically did not actually commit. This creates something of a sympathetic, if unlikable, protagonist; a serial killer we ultimately find ourselves rooting for. Yet Kind Hearts and Coronets doesn't treat its antagonists, the D'Ascoyne family, as villains. Each one is marvelously played by the incomparable Alec Guinness (who seamlessly inhabits eight roles in all), and while some are utter cads, others such as the young D'Ascoyne cousin who is husband to Edith, and the doddering old priest, are actually decent people. That's where the film zeroes in on the gray areas of its pitch black heart. It is at once a satire of upper crust callousness and the deference shown to the aristocratic class by the proletariat (Louis is to be hanged with a velvet rather than a hemp rope, a fact that impresses the starstruck hangman). It's also an incisive condemnation of the kind of social climbing inherent in the British class system, in which Louis believes that his family connections entitle him to wealth and privilege not afforded to others with "lesser" names.

The title derives from the quotation by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Tis only noble to be good. Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith more than Norman blood." And yet you'll find no real nobility here, and the only real goodness is quickly destroyed in the names of imagined nobility, empty titles that signify nothing. Its as scathing a critique of the British upper classes as the cinema has ever given us, disguised as a light comedy with a charming exterior. Its droll narration often stands in stark contrast to the action on screen, giving us an experience that is as funny as it is deeply unnerving, a blazing indictment of unearned privilege that destroys anyone who dare step outside their station.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary by Film Historian Kat Ellinger 
  • Introduction by Filmmaker John Landis 
  • Those British Faces: Dennis Price – Featurette Interview with Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe
  • Alternate American Ending Theatrical Trailer

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS | Directed by Robert Hamer | Stars Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Bingham Bryant in a scene from Ricky D'Ambrose's "Notes on an Appearance."
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Ricky D'Ambrose's debut feature, Notes on an Appearance, calls to mind the cryptic, non-mystery aesthetic of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, the answers to our questions mattering less that than the journey that brought them to us. However, unlike Antonioni's film, I'm not completely convinced that there's really as much beneath the surface as the film lets on.

The mystery of Notes on an Appearance surrounds the disappearance of a young man named David (Bingham Bryant) amid a sudden interest in violent fascist ideology. As his friends attempt to track him down, they are left with only scraps of paper, notes, and calendar entries, accompanied by quotes from a fascist philosopher named Stephen Taubes (Stephen F. Cohen) whose death has created a resurgence in his own popularity. Where the young man went is ultimately beside the point as his friends begin to peel back the layers of a reprehensible ideology, and the search eventually begins to take a personal toll on them all.

D'Ambrose's narrative economy is impressive, turning the milieu of its bustling NYC locations into lonely, alienating spaces - where the presence of millions of people doesn't negate the societal disconnect felt by so many. Each shot is tightly controlled and precisely composed, drained of all emotion and distilled to its most basic essence. What are the characters saying? What are they really trying to convey? D'Ambrose focuses not on the main action, but rather on objects in the periphery - cups of coffee (filled and unfilled), journal entries, photographs, answers hiding in plain sight but never fully acknowledged. Subtle shifts in surroundings signify greater paradigm changes in the world around them, inserted into the frame at regular rhythms designed to condition the audience then disrupt the familiar routines when they're gone.

It's this kind of attention to detail that makes Notes on an Appearance so fascinating, and yet it often feels more like an academic exercise than a fully formed cinematic experience. D'Ambrose is experimenting, pushing boundaries, exploring the cinematic space with a Bresson-like austerity and an ear for conversation and narrative construction that recalls Matías Piñeiro (Viola, Hermia & Helena). This is cinema stripped of all excesses, quiet, observant, and haunting. And yet it seems to speak more to its filmmaker's own innate potential than it does to its own merit. It feels like a practice run for something bigger, a 60 minute exercise in form and craft that's easier to respect than it is to like.

A scene from Ricky D'Ambrose's "Notes on an Appearance." Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

And yet, one can't help but be fascinated by what D'Ambrose is attempting here. It is what the filmmaker refers to as a "scrapbook movie" made up of scraps of paper, unfinished ideas, and impressions; "a clunky ensemble vehicle about a handful of young people collectively living out the consequences of a discredited worldview" to quote D'Ambrose's director's statement. There's just something about the entire affair that seems completely timely, even though it was eight years in the making, speaking to a kind of generation ennui felt at a time when violent ideologies are rearing their ugly heads. It's a perplexing time to be alive, and Notes on an Appearance captures that dazed and confused sense of discord and aimlessness that so indelibly describes life in 2018. And if it comes off as self-consciously controlled, it's only because it is an attempt to make sense of a world that does not and can not make sense, as if it was assembled from puzzle pieces that just don't quite fit. D'Ambrose is clearly a filmmaker to watch, whose ideas and musings, much like Bresson's, are inexorably tied to film form in such a way that finds emotional truth through stylistic distance. Consider this writer's interest piqued.

Special Features

The DVD release from Grasshopper Films not only includes a comprehensive dossier by D'Ambrose along with liner notes by critic Adrian Martin, filmmaker interviews by D'Ambrose featuring such luminaries and Chantal Akerman and Bruno Dumont, and three short films directed by D'Ambrose. There's something quite special about D'Ambrose's lovely, austere aesthetic, and the short films further illuminate its intricacies. It feels low-budget and sparse and yet there's something so deliberate dreamlike about it. In his 2013 short, Pilgrims, a young man watches a series of protests grow violent around his apartment while he is unable to leave and interact with them in any way, relying on TV and visitors including protestors, refugees, and religious leaders, to keep him updated. Haunting in the best sense of the word, and while Pilgrims may not exactly hit a home run, it's so endlessly engrossing you almost don't notice there's not a lot going on.

D'Ambrose's style becomes a bit suffocating in his second short, Six Cents in the Pocket (2015). In this short film about a young man whose house sitting is interrupted by a plane crash in Queens. Not as focused, perhaps, as his other short films, there's nevertheless a mostly satisfying sense of urban ennui that is hard to shake. D'Ambrose often conveys information through newspapers and letters rather than through action and dialogue, so the plane crash feels strangely abstract, but often hauntingly so - a tragedy that seemingly comes out of nowhere with little explanation or context, leaving us slightly cold but undeniably unsettled.

His strongest short, Spiral Jetty, follows a young man who is tasked with erasing the unsavory past of a recently deceased intellectual, whose ambitious daughter seeks to preserve his reputation. Sparse and always slightly sinister, D'Ambrose's observational control and sense of stillness keeps the audience on edge as his protagonist descends into a stifling moral abyss. Only 16 minutes long but packed with emotional and philosophical undercurrents, Spiral Jetty is one of the filmmaker's most incisive and formally audacious works. The DVD is worth it for the short films alone, but it offers a spotlight on the work of one of the most exciting new filmmakers out there, and Grasshopper has given him the showcase he deserves in this terrific release.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE | Directed by Ricky D'Ambrose | Stars Keith Poulson, Tallie Medel, Bingham Bryant, Madeleine James, Kathryn Danielle, A.S. Hamrah | Not rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, September 06, 2019

BILL SKARSGÅRD as Pennywise in New Line Cinema’s horror thriller "IT CHAPTER TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Brooke Palmer. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Picking up 27 years after the first It (2017), It: Chapter Two covers the second half of Steven King's massive novel, as the now adult members of the Losers Club return to Derry to put an end to the evil clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), once and for all.

It is, by its very nature, a very different film than It; whereas the previous film was often more of a coming-of-age film than a horror film, with its exploration of childhood fears and traumas, It: Chapter Two is more about dealing with those childhood traumas and reconciling with the events that scarred you in the past. The kids from the original film all return for flashbacks, but for the most part they are replaced by their adult counterparts, who are easily the strongest aspects of the film. It is absolutely believable that the children from the first film grew up to be these adults. The MVPs here are Bill Hader and James Ransone, who so thoroughly embody their characters that their relationship becomes the highlight of the film.

Unfortunately the film around them is a mess, a major step down from its predecessor in nearly every way. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film is far too long, and its epic runtime isn't earned by anything we see on screen. The first half sets the stage well, introducing the new versions of the now familiar characters and re-introducing us to the world of Derry, Maine. It manages to walk a delicate tight rope for a while between creating a sense of dread and warm childhood nostalgia, something the original film did very well. But Chapter Two goes off the rails in the second half, featuring a loud, garish extended climax that's so bathed in CGI effects that the it becomes numbing, an unpleasant visual assault rather than than a creepy funhouse. Nearly every appearance of Pennywise the clown is enhanced with computerized special effects to the point that he loses his eerie humanity, and Skarsgård's unnerving performance is bulldozed under layers of animation.

(L-r) ISAIAH MUSTAFA as Mike Hanlon, BILL HADER as Richie Tozier, JAMES McAVOY as Bill Denbrough, JESSICA CHASTAIN as Beverly Marsh and JAY RYAN as Ben Hascomb in New Line Cinema's horror thriller "IT CHAPTER TWO," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Brooke Palmer. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

King's source material is rich with ideas of grappling with childhood traumas, and director Andy Muschietti does try to extrapolate those themes here, but they get lost in the film's nearly incoherent second half, with its almost unbearable lighting and over-the-top action. Benjamin Wallfisch’s overbearing score is filled with stingers and soaring choirs that smother the action and telegraph the scares to the point that it almost becomes sonic wallpaper. It almost worked better as a coming of age film than it did a horror film, but It: Chapter Two lacks that element. It was about children overcoming obstacles and facing their fears, It: Chapter Two is about those children facing their traumas as adults, but this idea is seemingly lost in a messy, scattershot film that features a few great set pieces but never seems to come together as one whole. The pathos of childhood friends reuniting to face the shared pain of their past is quickly lost by a film that becomes all too infatuated with its monstrous embodiment of evil and his arsenal of red balloons and special effects, all of which quickly lose their power when so frequently pulled out into the daylight.

There are certainly things to like about It: Chapter Two -  it's uniformly well-cast and well-acted, and it integrates the scenes of the children with the scenes of the adults with a moving sense of weight and longing for lost childhood; but its out of control runtime needs a major trim to better focus it on the characters rather than its increasingly desperate attempts to scare a numb audience. True horror is often found in stillness, and Muschietti's ever roving camera tends to go for epic grandiosity when it should be more grounded. That's really its biggest problem - King created such indelible characters that the film unfortunately loses sight of, trying to paint on a sweeping canvas when it should have looked inward for the source of its pain and trauma. Pennywise as the specter of childhood trauma and the embodiment of fear is much more terrifying than as a giant, wisecracking CGI spider.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

IT: CHAPTER TWO | Directed by Andy Muschietti | Stars James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Teach Grant, Jess Weixler, Will Beinbrink, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer | Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material | Opens today, Sept. 6, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

What is there to say about Last Year at Marienbad that hasn't been said? Alain Resnais' fractured 1961 fabled has left critics and audiences scratching their heads for decades, and yet there is something inexorably fascinating about it that keeps drawing them back.

The film doggedly exists in a world that defies explanation - it's a bit of a cinematic Rorschach test, it is everything and nothing at once, a film either pregnant with meaning or no meaning at all, lost in its own singular haze. Trying to analyze it on a thematic level is something of a fool's errand, akin to attempting to ascribe logic to a film like Un Chien Andalou (1929), it will actively defy you at every turn. Instead, one must look at the craft to divine what Resnais is attempting to achieve here.

Set in a lavish chateau in the French countryside, Last Year at Marienbad centers around a never-named man and woman who are trying to negotiate whether or not they had a romantic rendezvous the previous year in Marienbad. The man insists that they have, the woman denies any memory of him. As he describes their encounters, we see the characters acting them out , while Resnais dives deep into a rabbit hole of memory and perception, building layers of action across time and space, until the present becomes completely obscured and the audience becomes lost in his characters haunted reveries.

“Time is unimportant," the man muses at one point, and indeed Resnais seems to reject all fidelity to time as we know it. It's as if he is connecting different conversations from different times and places, taking us inside characters' memories until they become utterly indistinguishable from their present reality. Yet the narrators are often unreliable, describing events that don't line up with the action we're watching on screen. Resnais obscures the truth at every turn until, like time, the truth becomes ultimately beside the point. It is a treatise on memory and longing, of ideas lost to the fog of time, shards of dreams scattered across a marble floor. Resnais would tackle time again several years later in Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1968), much as he did the mysteries of romantic connection in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) several years earlier. Yet Last Year at Marienbad plays like some sort of dreamlike union between the two, unconcerned with the feelings at its core and zeroing in on the singular obsession of discovering the truth from imperfect memories. The characters never get the real truth, and neither does the audience, the pleasure (or perhaps the madness) is in the pursuit.

The new 4K restoration on the Kino Blu-Ray is spectacular, the shimmering black and white images are pristinely rendered, giving the film a disarmingly modern appearance. I can't compare it with the original (now out-of-print) Criterion Blu-Ray, but I can't imagine any picture more remarkably clear. It's a breathtaking treatment of a Resnais' devious house of mirrors, a treatise on splintered memory that endures not just because of its beauty, but because of the haunting mystery at its center that still has no answer.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD | Directed by Alain Resnais | Stars  Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Soviet filmmaker Fridrikh Ermler is perhaps one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the USSR during the silent period. Not as well known in the West, perhaps, as Soviet luminaries like Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, Ermler is nevertheless one of the most unique figures in Soviet cinema.

While most of the films from that period are directly concerned with the Revolution and advancing the cause of Communism, Ermler's films took on a more subtle, but no less direct, approach to politics, acknowledging the inherent faults of the system while pushing for even greater reforms and modes of social justice. Ermler understood that the cause of Communism did not stop in 1917 nor did it stagnate with Lenin's death in 1924. Ermler was also uniquely positioned to embrace the Communist revolution because of its profound effect on his life. As a Jew, Ermler had been banned from living in Imperial Russia under the rule of the Czar - the October Revolution opened up a whole new world for him and his family, and his affection for its ideals are apparent in his 1929 film, Fragment of an Empire.

He was also a former spy who was rumored to have carried a gun everywhere he went, even going so far as to wave it in the faces of actors who weren't giving him the emotional honesty he demanded. These stories are all apocryphal, of course, some of them perhaps even embellished and perpetuated by Ermler himself, but regardless of his methods the quality of his work on the screen is undeniable. Fragment of an Empire centers around Filimonov (the extraordinary Fiodor Nikitin), a soldier suffering from amnesia who lost his memory during WWI and suddenly regains it after the Revolution, waking up in a country that has been profoundly changed. As Filimonov tries to make his way in this new Communist world, he can't quite seem to shake his old way of thinking, unable to grasp the freedom now afforded him, or the rights now available to laborers. Lost without masters to tell him what to do, and constantly in fear of repercussions for any little transgression, he finds himself in constant awe at the safety regulations and protections enjoyed by his fellow workers that would have been unthinkable under the Czar.

But he also encounters petty bureaucrats and anti-democratic ideals, or as he calls them - "sad fragments of an empire," the last vestiges of a now outdated way of life. For Ermler, the Revolution wasn't the end, it was the beginning; a work in progress toward a better future. History now tells us what the Soviet Union would become - a repressive, murderous regime far removed from its original ideals. And while it wasn't quite there yet in 1929, Ermler wasn't afraid to call out its imperfections. While Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov were busy crafting ecstatic Communist propaganda, Ermler took a more thoughtful approach. Rather than end the film on a moment of triumph, he has Filimonov break the fourth wall and deliver his final line directly to the audience - "we have so much more work to do, comrades!" It's as much a call to action as it is admonishment of a system that is still leaving its workers behind. They had come a long way, but they weren't to their destination yet.

It's a remarkable message for a Soviet film in 1929. Fragment of an Empire is as bold and uncompromising as its director, and its central performance by Nikitin (a noted method actor who spent time with real amnesia patients to prepare for his role) is a truly exceptional work, some of the best acting of the silent era. The scene in which Filimonov arrives in St. Petersburg (by then renamed Leningrad), and seeing all the new freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, women dressing how they pleased, workers no longer slaves to their masters, happiness written across all their faces, is a moment of tremendous and subtle beauty, the slow awakening dawning on Nikitin's face showcasing a lifetime's worth of fear and confusion suddenly melting away into a kind of bewildered joy. It stands in stark contrast to the films of Eisenstein, whose quick edits created a kind of rapturous ecstasy; instead Ermler looks inward, allowing his actors to achieve similar ends through their performances. His use of Soviet Montage has a more impressionistic feel - suggesting the inner feelings of his characters rather than commenting on the rhythms and emotions of the events they're depicting. Long under-appreciated by Western audiences and film scholars, Fragment of an Empire has been given a glorious Blu-Ray treatment by Flicker Alley, complete and fully restored (with its infamous, long-censored image of Christ on a cross wearing a gas mask intact) ripe for rediscovery and the canonization it has always deserved.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE | Directed by Fridrikh Ermler | Stars Fyodor Nikitin, Lyudmila Semyonova, Valeri Solovtsov | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Though not a horror film in the strictest definition of the term, you're likely to find no more horrific cinematic experience this year than Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale.

A revenge thriller in the tradition of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, as well as exploitation classics like I Spit on Your Grave, and The Last House on the LeftThe Nightingale takes place in Australia in 1825, where a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is working off her debt to society under the watchful eye of ambitious British officer, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Stuck in a rural provincial outpost with a crew of barely competent misfits, Hawkins dreams of a promotion in a city up north, while Clare dreams of being given her long-promised release papers so she can move away and start a new life with her husband and newborn baby. But after a savage act of violence changes everything, Clare finds herself chasing Hawkins through the Australian outback, with only an aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) for a guide.

The Nightingale is, by design, a difficult film to watch. Its brutal sexual violence and unrelenting bleakness will likely be hard to stomach for many viewers, as well its should. Yet none if it is without purpose, because the heart of Kent's film is one of relentless rage, a roiling, seething cry of anger at a nation built on deep-seated racism and misogyny. Even our protagonist, a victim of near-constant sexist violence, refers to her black guide as "boy," echoing the racist language of the film's white villains. As the film wears on, she begins to realize the true depth of the racist violence waged against his people, a cruel erasure and genocide wrought upon a stolen land, and the truth becomes painfully clear - they're both in the same boat, victims of systemic oppression at the hands of white men.

Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Kent, whose previous film, The Babadook, handled similarly thorny emotional territory with aplomb, probes the depths of patriarchal colonialism and the bloody birth of Australia (and western civilization) as we know it. Her film may be set in Australia, but the thematic core is universal - colonialism was built on the backs of black bodies, that whiteness is inherently built up by the subjugation of women and minorities, and propped up on an ideology centered around patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. The Nightingale isn't here to comfort us about this fact. It's here to confront us, to hold up a mirror to our own complicity in a system born from such hateful violence. Colonialism is, in essence, the rape of the natural world, and that is why the film's shocking scenes of rape and violence are so essential yet so difficult to stomach.

Every act of violence in the film lands like a sucker punch because they feel so real and honest. Kent doesn't shy away from our barbarous past, and refuses to let the audience off the hook, with her harsh close-ups and boxy cinematography that seems to trap its characters from all sides. She doesn't blink, and neither should we. Yet what makes the film so effective is that Kent understands that while violence may be the only language colonialists truly understand, humiliation and emasculation is the true fear of the petulant man-children who propagate it. It's their ultimate Achilles heel, even if violence ultimately becomes necessary to completely eradicating it. The Nightingale is a work of austere beauty, a ferocious tale of revenge and national turmoil, taking a story of limited scope and turning into a sweeping indictment of the very civilization in which we live.  It's an uncompromising howl of righteous fury anchored by a haunting performance by Franciosi, whose grim determination comes to represent the plight of all oppressed peoples who have at long last had enough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE NIGHTINGALE | Directed by Jennifer Kent | Stars Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Ewen Leslie, Harry Greenwood, Baykali Ganambarr | Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Avengers: Endgame marks the culmination of a series of 22 films that began back in 2008 with Iron Man. It represents perhaps one of the most impressive feats of franchise filmmaking in cinematic history. Whether that's an achievement of artistic or business acumen is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny that what Disney and Marvel have achieved here, guiding a single vision through dozens of interconnected films to tell one overarching story, dubbed "The Infinity Saga," is a truly staggering feat.

The series has had its ups and downs, of course, but what Marvel has done here is made all the more impressive when you look at how its legions of imitators have failed to even come close. Sony attempted a Spider-Man extended universe and fell on its face, eventually returning the character to Marvel, while DC's Justice League debacle tried to reverse engineer the Marvel formula and failed spectacularly. Credit must be given to producer Kevin Feige as much as anyone director, although filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) have been allowed to bring their own personalities into the mix to put their own personal stamp on their respective films.

For the final film in the Infinity Saga, Marvel pulled out all the stops, delivering a massive, three-hour tribute to their wildly popular cinematic universe. It's a film that's surprisingly light on its feet, more so than its somewhat unwieldy predecessor, Infinity War, in which supervillain Thanos wiped out half of all living creatures in the universe. When we reunite with the remaining heroes in Endgame, we are greeted with a demoralized band of Avengers who have all but given up hope. Thanos won, and the dead aren't coming back. Or are they?

Without divulging too much of the film's top-secret plot, Endgame drops us into a world decimated by tragedy, and to its credit, actually takes the time to grapple with the fallout from Infinity War and what that means for not only the Avengers, but for the world at large. Endgame never loses sight of the essential humanity at its core, and the stakes feel real and palpable. Death obviously means very little in comic book films, but filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who also helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Infinity War) never lose sight of the small stakes even in the face of epic, all-out war.

There's a bit of nostalgia at play here - the film plays like a kind of "greatest hits" compilation of the last 11 years of films, and yet it never seems to get too caught up in looking backward. It's a fitting tribute to a saga that has become beloved the world over, so it’s hard to blame them for wanting to celebrate the journey in the grandest form possible. It's absolutely "fan-service," but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. We've waited 11 years for this, and Endgame wants badly to give us the finale we've all wanted to see.

Of course, some heroes are lost along the way, some perhaps permanently (but in a world where anything is possible, hope springs eternal). Endgame plays a delicate balancing act between rip-roaring adventure and the gravity of the situation in which the heroes find themselves. It's remarkably swift for a film that's three hours long, hitting its emotional high notes with confidence without skimping on the character drama that has kept fans coming back for more over the course of 22 films. It may not deliver much in the way of true surprises (most fans figured out pretty much where this was going a long time ago), but the Russo brothers have delivered a satisfying conclusion that absolutely feels worthy of a decade of hype. That's a rare and special achievement, and while the Marvel Cinematic Universe will certainly continue beyond Endgame (Spider-Man: Far From Home is already scheduled for release this summer), let us take a moment to appreciate the incredible feat of storytelling that this film represents. Marvel has been building up to this for 11 years, weaving the story through 22 films, and capping it all off in epic fashion. There's a debate to be had about the homogeneity of product created by Disney's newfound stranglehold on the movie industry, but it's hard to deny that that the Infinity Saga has been an incredibly singular achievement, and Endgame is the finale it has always deserved.

Special Features

The Blu-Ray release features an entire second disc of extras that, while not exactly groundbreaking for this series, will likely be extremely satisfying for Marvel fans. Most of the featurettes are retrospective in nature, taking account of the series as a whole rather than focusing solely on Endgame. The best of these is "Remembering Stan Lee," a recap of Lee's cameos over the last 11 years, beautifully capturing the man's childlike delight at getting to be a part of a series of major films based on characters he created. Similar featurettes focus on the legacy of Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow, and well as the Russo Brothers' journey to crafting the finale of the Infinity Saga. While some more in-depth analysis of the creation of the film and the series as a whole would have been nice, or perhaps some more insight into Lee's history in a Marvel retrospective, one wonders if they're saving that for an inevitable box set of all the films later on down the road. The visual quality is, of course, stunning, with one disc devoted entirely to the three-hour film, bringing the highest grossing motion picture of all time home in a strongly appointed two-disc set.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)

AVENGERS: ENDGAME Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo | Stars Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Brie Larson, Josh Brolin | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Left to Right: Michelle Williams as Isabel, Julianne Moore as Theresa Young.
Photo by Julio Macat. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

For a film with such a high pedigree, After the Wedding is a shockingly listless affair. Based on an Oscar nominated Danish film from acclaimed filmmaker Susanne Bier and starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, this 2019 Sundance Film Festival opening selection has fallen flat upon release, failing to make the critical splash I'm sure its filmmakers were hoping for. 

All the elements of a fall prestige picture are there - prime festival opening, star power, and acclaimed source material, and yet everything about After the Wedding feels bland and perfunctory, a remake of a foreign language film that never really justifies its own existence. Williams stars as Isabel, an American woman who manages an orphanage in India, who finds herself called to New York to advocate for sponsorship from a potential donor. The donor is Theresa (Moore), whose husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) is actually the father of Isabel's child, a child Isabel thought she gave up for adoption years ago. But Oscar kept the child, and now she's getting married just as Isabel arrives in America. Isabel is taken aback to be confronted with her long lost daughter, but things become more complicated as the reasons for Theresa's become clear, throwing the entire family into turmoil.

After the Wedding weaves a tangled web, but it never rises about the level of a glossy soap opera. It's handsome to look at, and Williams and Moore are in typically fine form, but this thing is a slog, a ponderous, self-important "prestige" drama whose overwrought histrionics never approach anything resembling actual human emotion. Director Bart Freundlich, whose previous credits include The Rebound and Catch that Kid, seems determined to transition to higher class dramas by milking every ounce of feeling out of the material that he can, and the result is often exhausting, a hopeless mishmash of art house clichés and prestige picture banality. 

It's a shame because the pedigree is certainly there, but the film seems designed from the ground up to be an awards contender, hopelessly wringing the life out of every story beat and emotional moment. Freundlich's penchant for cutting to sweeping drone shots belies the film's intimate nature, ultimately creating a film of strong ambitions but a weak emotional center. It never manages to stand out from the hundreds of films like it that have clogged film festivals and art houses this time of year for decades, and it is likely that it will be forgotten nearly as quickly as its predecessors, lost in the late summer "adult drama" doldrums that have become a sort of Bermuda Triangle for films of this earnest but tedious ilk.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

AFTER THE WEDDING | Directed by Bart Freundlich | Stars Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn | Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some strong language | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Samara Weaving in the film READY OR NOT. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
© 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The end of summer tends to be a bit of a box office doldrum. The blockbusters have all been released (and promptly forgotten), the kids have gone back to school, and Oscar season is still on the horizon. Movies released in late August and especially September are often slim pickings.

This year, interestingly enough, has been a bit different. After a summer filled with remakes and sequels, the end of August has provided us with a few wide release gems. The latest is Ready or Not, a horror comedy from Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are perhaps best known for directing 10/31/98, the final segment from the V/H/S anthology. The film centers around a young woman named Grace (Samara Weaving), who is marrying Alex Le Domas, the youngest son of a wealthy family who made their fortune through an expansive board game empire. The in-laws are eccentric to say the least, and invite Grace to participate in a wedding night ritual in which the newest member must play a game with the entire family. Little does she know that this game is a deadly version of hide and seek, in which she is to be hunted down like an animal and sacrificed to appease a deal with the devil that the family made long ago in order to amass their fortune.

A devious new twist on Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous GameReady or Not pits Grace against a kooky cast of characters armed with an eclectic set of weapons, from old-fashioned pistols, axes, and crossbows. But Grace is determined not to go quietly, and after the initial shock wears off, sets out to fight back in any way she can. It's a delightfully demented comic romp, short, sweet, and nasty - a gleeful fantasia of over-the-top gore and outlandish action that takes direct aim at the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. For most of the film, the only ones who suffer any consequences for the Le Domas' bloodthirsty ways are their employees, the working stiffs they pay to do their dirty work for them.  Their fortune is built on the backs those they've exploited, crafting a metaphorical (or maybe literal) deal with the devil in order to preserve their wealth and status.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are somewhat inexperienced painting on a canvas this large, and it shows occasionally in the film's sometimes stiff performances. But newcomer Weaving, who bears a striking resemblance to Margot Robie in both appearance and acting style, is a fiercely enjoyable lead, and the broad performances of the supporting cast add to the exaggerated absurdity of it all. The film almost recalls the Universal horror films of the 1930s, with its expansive gothic mansion setting and offbeat characters that come off as caricatures of old money vultures. It's something of a breath of fresh air after a summer that has mostly given us things we've already seen before. Ready or Not is a wild ride, a joyfully mean-spirited horror comedy that takes no prisoners and ends up delivering one of the most purely satisfying endings of the year.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

READY OR NOT | Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett Stars Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O'Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni | Rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, an Annapurna Pictures release.

The critical drubbing and box office failure of Richard Linklater's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is one of 2019's biggest cinematic mysteries. It is, perhaps, Linklater's most accessible film, often threatening to become his most overtly conventional, and yet there is something about it that is elusive and difficult to pin down, a kind of restless quality that makes it both deeply pleasurable and consistently engaging.

Of course, much of this could be attributed to the typically brilliant performance of Cate Blanchett in the lead role. Her Bernadette Fox is a thing of neurotic beauty, a close cousin of her Oscar winning performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and yet somehow fiercely its own unique animal. She gives the film a nervous, prickly energy as an anti-social architect whose perceived failures have put her in something akin to self-imposed reclusion, focusing on her family and refusing to design anything for nearly 20 years.

She gets into petty squabbles with her bourgeois neighbors, relies on online virtual assistance for most personal tasks, and does everything in her power to avoid human contact. All the while her family is preparing to go on a trip to Antarctica at the behest of their daughter, Bee (the preternaturally wise young actor Emma Nelson in her film debut), that Bernadette is desperately trying to get out of. Her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) becomes worried about her, seeing her emotional distance as signs of depression and her jar full of pills as a sign of suicidal thoughts. So he stages an intervention in an attempt to get her "help," causing her to run away in order to find herself again.

As it turns out, Bernadette is not depressed, nor is she suicidal. Their marriage was drifting, and the jar of pills was something of an art project. It is their lack of communication that is the issue, not  to mention the fact that Bernadette hasn't had a creative outlet it nearly two decades. While the characters are dangerously high concept for a Linklater film, who tends to ground his own characters in more solid emotional reality, Linklater handles them with great care, turning them into living, breathing human beings. Where'd You Go, Bernadette feels like an exaggerated form of reality deeply rooted in real human emotion, guided by a keen sense of what it feels like to be someone with a low tolerance for bullshit and a general aversion to societal interactions. I felt this film in my bones, and while it's broader than the usual Linklater, it still has that trademark raw emotional honesty that was so incisive in films like Boyhood and the Before Trilogy.

Linklater paints in bold strokes here, but what may appear to be a self-consciously quirky comedy populated with larger than life characters has much more going on beneath the surface than it's being given credit for. It's a nervy, restless film that never asks us to pity its protagonist, it asks us to understand her. Even as Linklater plays it safe through occasionally on-the-nose narration, every note of this thing rings true, often as painfully honest as it is achingly funny.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE | Directed by Richard Linklater | Stars Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Troian Bellisario | Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 22, 2019


After many tries and many films, I've come to the conclusion that I just don't connect with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While I respect him as an artist and his technique is often impressive, they are, to borrow a line from Whiplash, not my tempo.

The BRD Trilogy (which stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany after WWII), a series of films that came near the end of Fassbinder's short-lived but prolific career, represented his biggest financial success, with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) becoming his biggest worldwide box office hit, and Veronika Voss (1982) garnering the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This loosely connected triptych tackled Germany's much ballyhooed post-war "economic miracle" of the 1950s through the perspective of three women, with a decidedly critical eye.

Fassbinder makes films that are easy to respect but harder to love, consistently holding the audience at arm's length in favor of immaculately crafted, somewhat arch allegorical exercises that are extremely specific to their time and place. All three films in the BRD Trilogy certainly work as standalone melodramas, but their political underpinnings are somewhat muddled. Take The Marriage of Maria Braun for example - does the film have the same impact if you don't know that the parade of black and white negatives at the end of the film are German politicians whose legacy Fassbinder is actively questioning?

Yes and no. Of the three films in the trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun represents Fassbinder at his most fiery, carefully crafting the story of a woman whose marriage to a German officer only lasts a day before he goes missing in the war. After years of searching for him, she eventually gives him up for dead, and marries an American GI instead (who appears in all three films, really their only non-thematic connection), only for her husband to return and murder the American. Yet the men ultimately matter very little here - the film is about a woman surviving in a man's world, trying to carve out a place for herself in post-war Germany and put the past behind her. But the past has a way of catching up to you, as Maria Braun eventually learns the hard way. She is a woman in a man's world, and the men always seem to spell doom, their machinations and assumed societal positions always derailing Maria's best laid plans. Made in the style of a Hollywood melodrama but with a deeply cynical edge, The Marriage of Maria Braun takes no prisoners, yet it is very specifically of its time and place, a deep dive into West German politics that don't always translate beyond the culture that gave birth to it. It's the film's feminist edge that remains powerful, and it's easy to see why it became Fassbinder's biggest box office success.

VERONIKA VOSS. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Less overtly political is the trilogy's second entry, Veronika Voss. Chronologically the film was released third (in a George Lucas-like move that doesn't really make sense), and was the last film Fassbinder fully completed before his death in 1982 at the age of 37. Inspired by the life of German actress Sybille Schmitz, who starred in such films as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr before going on to act in Nazi films like Titanic during WWII. Schmitz died in 1955 under mysterious circumstances, resulting in a murder trial of her doctor, Ursula Moritz. Renamed Veronika Voss for purposes of fictionalization, Schmitz's story is reimagined as a kind of German Sunset Boulevard, in which an aging film star is held hostage by an unscrupulous psychologist who bleeds her patients dry and keeps them sedated through unnecessary prescriptions.

Voss is shot in dazzling black and white, where the lights sparkle in the frame like the jewels that down Veronika's neck. It has the look and feel of an old Hollywood melodrama, something Fassbinder was clearly trying to emulate with each film of the BRD Trilogy. Here he explores themes of national amnesia, and Germany's eagerness to put its unpleasant past behind it without truly reckoning with it. Voss both represents Germany's glory days of the Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler, and of the darkness of the Third Reich, and how easily one slid into the other. Yet one thing that plagues Veronika Voss, and BRD 3 Lola as well, is in how it recalls previous films in a weaker form. It doesn't have the powerful moral outrage of Maria Braun to help it stick the landing, leaving a pretty but mostly empty aftertaste.


That brings us to Lola (1981). Ostensibly an unauthorized (and therefore unofficial) remake of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) shot in the bright candy colors of a Jacques Demy musical, Lola is the story of a cabaret singer/prostitute who is pursued by two men, an unscrupulous businessman and a buttoned up bachelor who moves to town as the new building commissioner. The film comes to a much different, much less overtly tragic conclusion than von Sternberg's original, yet it manages to leave more unsettling question marks about the future, the apparently happy ending nagged by a sense of the continuation of the status quo. It's a deeply cynical film, disillusioned at the direction of Germany. I'll leave the details of the origins and ramifications of the "economic miracle" to historians more well versed in German politics than I, but Fassbinder's films display a profound sense of ennui about the corruption that continued to permeate every aspect of the culture, undercutting any real moral progress in a country still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Third Reich and WWII.

Yet Barbara Sukowaas' Lola is no Marlene Dietrich, nor for that matter is Armin Mueller-Stahl as powerful as Emil Jannings in his performance as the guileless von Bohm. The film is permeated by rapturous pastel colors, Von Bohm shaded in deep blue hues while Lola is coded in vibrant pinks, but despite its emulation of classical Hollywood Technicolor, Lola, much like the other films in the trilogy, is often insular and cold, holding the audience at arms length like some sort of exercise in cinematic academics than the political allegory dressed up as a lush Hollywood melodrama it tries to be. Fassbinder's political allusions are often too opaque for their own good, and Lola especially feels like an exercise more than a film in its own right.

Criterion's Blu-Ray treatment of the BRD Trilogy is nevertheless stunning. The transfers are uniformly glorious, but especially in the Trilogy's two most visually beautiful films, Veronika Voss and Lola. Each comes with extensive special features and a comprehensive booklet detailing the making of each film as well as a consideration of the trilogy as a whole from Kent Jones. The films are undeniably impressive achievements in their own right, but your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for Fassbinder's occasionally arch political experiments.

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN - ★★★½ (out of four)

VERONIKA VOSS -★★★ (out of four)

LOLA - ★★½ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

I first discovered the films of Alice Guy-Blaché a few years ago while randomly searching for early silent short films on YouTube. I was struck not only by the fact that I had never heard of her before (despite having studied this era for years), but that her films displayed a preternatural narrative and formal sophistication that not even Meliés or the Lumières had achieved around the same time. In fact, Guy-Blaché was pushing forward cinema as a narrative medium in the 1800s decades before D.W. Griffith would be credited with pioneering some of the same techniques.

It appears I was not alone in my ignorance of Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of Pamela B. Green's fascinating new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice-Guy Blaché. Not only was Guy-Blaché the first female filmmaker, she was one of cinema's earliest pioneers, starting out as a secretary for Gaumont before taking over production, eventually emigrating to America and founding her very own film studio. She directed her very first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, only a year after the iconic premiere of Louis and Auguste Lumière's Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. It was only through the diligent research of film historians that she recently received credit for that film, as well as hundreds of others in her long and productive filmography. Guy-Blaché's days as a studio mogul were also likewise credited to her husband, Herbert Blaché.

So why was Guy-Blaché seemingly lost to history? And why were so many of her films credited to other filmmakers? Be Natural investigates her incredible life and career, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. That in itself is a remarkable thing - a filmmaker in the early 1900s telling actors to be natural, when the acting styles of the time were so presentational. So what happened? Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books, interviewing popular filmmakers and historians alike to uncover her story. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history.

Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. Her film, The Consequences of Feminism (1906), boldly satirized gender roles at a time when such things were often expected to be accepted without question. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ | Directed by Pamela B. Green | Narrated by Jodie Foster | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

The premise of Good Boys is essentially built around one joke - three 6th grade boys are invited to a "kissing party" and keep finding themselves in raunchy adult situations that they don't understand. It's basically Superbad in middle school, with our young heroes desperately trying to learn how to kiss with the belief that this party will dictate the direction of the rest of their lives. Along the way they encounter drugs, sex toys, and bullies in an ever-increasing series of outlandish situations that will put their friendship to the test.

It's a tricky line to walk, throwing so much decidedly R-rated material into a film starring 12 year olds ("we're not kids, we're tweens!" they often remind us), yet director Gene Stupnitsky handles it with surprising care. Their innocence and obliviousness to what's actually going on around them is the film's key joke, and while it threatens to wear somewhat thin by the end, Stupnitsky has the wherewithal to transform the film into something a little more heartfelt.

That it never overstays its welcome is a testament to the three young leads; Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon. They carry the film with a certain sense of naiveté, as if they're not in on any of the jokes and the film is just happening around them. They cuss with wild abandon, encounter drugs and sex toys, and find themselves in outlandish situations that children should never be in. Yet throughout all Good Boys remains disarmingly sweet, never letting its raunchy humor drown out the sense of coming-of-age nostalgia that permeates its core. Beneath the R-rated humor, it's a film about the ephemeral nature of childhood friendships, how the things that hold us together when we're children aren't necessarily the things that hold us together when we're adults. It may have a juvenile sense of humor, but like Superbad before it, it manages to use that humor in service of a more human element.

While Good Boys doesn't exactly feel like a comedy classic in the making the way Superbad did, it's got a lot of heart and plenty of laughs thanks to the talent of its young cast. It has one central joke, but it executes it well, bringing its grown up audience in on the joke with a wink and a smile. It's the kind of film whose humor is instantly relatable for adults, reminding us all of our childhood desire to grow up too quickly, while mining great humor out of how young and dumb we all really were.

Good Boys puts a new twist on the familiar trappings of the teen sex comedy, and while much of it feels awfully familiar, Tremblay, Williams, and Noon carry the film with great conviction, breathing new life into a venerable genre that hasn't quite run out of gas just yet.

GRADE – ★★★(out of four)

GOOD BOYS | Directed by Gene Stupnitsky | Stars Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Will Forte, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Retta | Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout - all involving tweens | Now playing in theaters nationwide.