Wednesday, January 30, 2019

This is a new feature here at From the Front Row, in which we take a look at a film that was released 100 years ago, examining what was going on in the world of cinema exactly a century ago.  This year we will periodically be exploring the films of 1919, starting with Irving Willat's shockingly savage Behind the Door.


"I told him...that if I ever caught him I'd skin him alive; but he died before I finished... Damn him!"


There are few films from the silent era as startling or as darkly gruesome as Irving Willat's Behind the Door, a WWI revenge thriller released only one year after the Great War ended. The film follows Oscar Krug (the extraordinary Hobart Bosworth), an American taxidermist who has the misfortune of having German heritage just as the USA declares war on Germany. Attacked by the neighbors he once called friends, Oscar volunteers for the military, and is made captain of a ship.

Distraught, his wife stows away on the ship in order to stay with him during the war. When his ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, the two are cast adrift in a lifeboat, only to be rescued by an enemy vessel. Rather than save them both, the U-Boat captain takes Oscar's wife, and casts him back out to sea to drown, sending Oscar on a bloody quest for revenge.

Despite the fact that some of the film remains lost, Behind the Door is a harrowing experience. It may tame by today's standards, but it's hard to deny the visceral impact of its horrific climax. Willat pulls no punches when it comes to the horror that awaits the U-Boat captain at Oscar's vengeful hands. The film was something of a sensation at the time, quickly gaining an infamous reputation for its grim subject matter.

Yet there is a tenderness underneath its bloody exterior. At its heart, Behind the Door is a love story, one that continues just as strongly after death. Willat stages action sequences with a true master's eye - the scene in which the townspeople attempt to kill Oscar for his German heritage is especially thrilling, illustrating the depth of the suspicion and bigotry that was directed at those of German descent (some things, it seems, never chance). The restoration on the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray is simply stunning, utilizing illustrated placeholders to take the place of the missing scenes, helping the story continue almost seamlessly. Behind the Door is a forgotten treasure, a haunting tale of love and vengeance that stands as one of the most gruesome and disturbing films of the silent era.

 GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Behind the Door is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

THE HAUNTED CASTLE.

Made almost exactly one year before his masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau's The Haunted Castle (1921) often seems like a trial run for the more famous (and clearly superior) film. If nothing else, it's a showcase for Murnau's mastery of light and shadow, but the film itself is an often unfocused murder mystery set in a gothic mansion that features neither hauntings nor castles.

Haunted, in this case, speaks to memories rather than ghosts, as the mysterious Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert) crashes a weekend hunting party one dark and stormy night, upsetting the guests over rumors that he murdered his own brother. But Count Oetsch isn't there to strike again, he's there to reveal the identity of the real murderer, and along with the long-awaited Baroness Safferstätt (Olga Tschechowa), he sets about clearing his name and revealing the dark secrets of the the castle's citizens.

Murnau is clearly a master craftsman, but The Haunted Castle is filled with portent and dread that never really add up to much, culminating in a final reveal that seems strangely anti-climactic. The film is only 81 minutes long, but it seems to drag on forever as it builds up to its climax, belaboring flashbacks and overwrought drama to mask the fact that it doesn't really have a particularly strong plot. It's certainly beautiful - Murnau crafts some of his most strikingly lovely shots here (a sepia-tinted flashback sequence is especially breathtaking), but the film's narrative is often left spinning its wheels.

There's no doubt that Murnau could conjure up an eerie, Gothic atmosphere like no other, but that's really all that The Haunted Castle as going for it, and all the ominous looks and heightened dramatics really add up to nothing by the end. Murnau would recycle much of the best bits of the film for Nosferatu a year later (specifically a vampiric dream sequence that comes out of nowhere), which makes The Haunted Castle something of an interesting curio for fans of German silent cinema.

The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) is essentially the B-side of Kino's new Blu-Ray release of The Haunted Castle, yet it's actually the stronger of the two films. Thematically, it makes a perfect pairing with The Haunted Castle - both films feature misunderstood aristocratic protagonists attempting to clear their name, outwitting the corrupt grifters and sycophants who seek to stab them in the back for their own advancement.

THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE.

Yet the 1924 film takes an entirely different approach to the material. Whereas The Haunted Castle is dark and portentous, Finances of the Grand Duke is light and comedic, taking a much less self-serious route to similar ends. Murnau was not a filmmaker known for making fluffy comedies, and there are certainly darker underpinnings to the story as the Duke's enemies attempt to have him assassinated (a plot line clearly inspired by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 10 years prior). Yet by shaking off the gloomy and sinister trappings of The Haunted Castle  Murnau actually delivers a much more focused and straightforward film.

Working from a screenplay by none other than Thea von Harbou (a frequent Fritz Lang collaborator who also wrote Metropolis, M, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, The Testament of Dr. MabuseDie Nibelungen, and Destiny), The Finances of the Grand Duke is a bit of a madcap caper in which a debt-ridden duke attempts to escape creditors and other vultures looking to tear his kingdom apart in order to marry the much wealthier princess of Russia, who is likewise surrounded by incompetents and corrupt bureaucrats. While "charming" is perhaps not the right word to use her, Murnau is clearly having fun with this, and it feels fresh and invigorated where The Haunted Castle felt bloated and heavy-handed. There are chases (both by sea and by car) mistaken identities, disguises, and kidnappings, piling on subplots without ever losing focus of its ultimate goal.

The 1994 restoration on the new Blu-Ray edition leaves something to be desired - the film is in dire need of a clean-up, especially in comparison to the lovely (and more recent) restoration of The Haunted Castle. Yet the disc's sole special feature is a commentary track on The Finances of the Grand Duke and one can't help but wonder why this film didn't merit its own separate release, rather than as the bottom of a double bill of lesser Murnau works? Regardless, in an age of ephemeral digital media (RIP Filmstruck), physical media is more important than ever, and the chance to own these two oft-overlooked films should excite cinephiles and silent film fans everywhere. Even at his most minor, Murnau was a fascinating filmmaker whose ability to paint with light remains as striking as ever, and watching him attempt to satirize the privileged in Weimar-era Germany is a hard prospect to resist.

THE HAUNTED CASTLE - ★★ (out of four)
THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE - ★★★ (out of four)


Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on Feb. 12.

Monday, January 28, 2019

For this writer, the antics of Laurel and Hardy conjure up memories of Saturday mornings spent with my grandfather, watching the legendary comedy duo's short films on AMC (back when they actually broadcast real American Movie Classics). Every Laurel and Hardy fan has their own story to tell, of course, but for the generations who grew up with these two gentle comics since their first pairing at Hal Roach Studios in 1926, there was no one more reliably funny or more charmingly relatable.

There were more certainly more daring (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd) and more versatile (Charlie Chaplin) comedians working during the silent era, yet none were more instinctual or made the transition to sound more seamlessly than Laurel & Hardy. While Keaton's career all but ended with the advent of sound, and Chaplin continued making silent films well into the 1930s, Laurel & Hardy carved out a unique niche for themselves,  completely inseparable and reliant on each other, and possessed of a singular drive to entertain.

The film Stan & Ollie shows us a different side of the comedy team. By the time we meet Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), the glory days of the 1920s and 30s are behind them, and the two men are now coasting on the fumes of their celebrity. The year is 1953, and the two men are attempting to jump-start their stalled film careers by taking a live tour across the UK, performing some of their greatest hits to increasingly thin audiences. There's a certain warmth and familiarity that goes along with this sort of sentimentally tinged biopic, and yet director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid many pitfalls of the genre by reframing the narrative around a part of the subjects' lives that most aren't familiar with.

Stan & Ollie isn't an origin story or a glorified "making-of" film that chronicles how they made their most beloved films. Instead, it picks up in their twilight years, trying to recapture their former glory, while at the same time reopening old wounds from Hardy's perceived betrayal of his partnership with Laurel by taking a contractually obligated picture called Zenobia without him in 1939, alongside Harry Langdon. It was a wound that would never quite heal for Laurel, and it serves as the crux of the drama in Stan & Ollie.

There's a kind of elegiac charm here that is hard to resist, as two lions in winter set out to prove that they're still viable so they can make one last film that will never be. Coogan and Reilly are both excellent as the iconic duo, indelibly capturing their famous rapport with a beautiful mixture of imitation and homage. It captures the gentle spirit of Laurel and Hardy while taking a peek behind  the facade to explore both the tension and the true love and respect that made them who they were. Stan & Ollie is the kind of film that derives from a true passion for its subjects, borrowing snippets from some of their most famous films (fans will surely recognize callbacks to County Hospital and their Academy Award winning The Music Box) without feeling as though it's simply wallowing in nostalgia. It's a warm-hearted and loving ode to one of the greatest comedy teams of all time that manages not only to capture the spirit of its subjects - it reminds us why we fell in love with them in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


STAN & OLLIE | Directed by Jon S. Baird | Stars Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones | Rated PG for some language, and for smoking | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become something of a celebrity in recent years. Her reputation as the dissenter on a mostly conservative country has resulted in an almost superhero-like status on the left. She was the focus of not one but two different films in 2018, including the Oscar-nominated documentary, RBG, as well as the biopic On the Basis of Sex, a pleasant but not particularly challenging look at her younger days as a female lawyer in a male-dominated world.

The film centers around Ginsburg's landmark gender discrimination case before the U.S. Court of Appeals in which she argued that a tax law that excluded a single man from a caretaker credit for looking after his ailing mother was unconstitutional. The ruling helped strike down generations of discriminatory laws that targeted women; by putting a man at the center of the case, Ginsburg brilliantly played against popular prejudices of the day to illustrate the damage caused by laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.

Structurally, On the Basis of Sex is a fairly standard courtroom drama with a mid-range prestige drama veneer. Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer are in fine form as Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, but the film breaks no ground and never really pushes itself beyond its comforting, hagiographic roots. Ginsburg is, without a doubt, a figure to be celebrated, and her achievement is one that has impacted the lives of generations of women, paving the way for greater equality under the law in the decades since. By focusing on this pivotal event in Ginsburg's career, director Mimi Leder is able to explore a side of her that those who only see her as the elderly Supreme Court Justice never got to see - young, prim, reserved, yet possessed of a fiery appetite for justice.

It is telling, however, that the film's most emotional moment comes in the late-breaking appearance by the Justice herself. On the Basis of Sex is a mildly engaging, competently made film. But it's also not a particularly exciting one. Much like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation GameOn the Basis of Sex plays it completely straight. The results are pleasant but often uninspired, an enjoyable history lesson that is as noble in intention as it is ultimately forgettable.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


ON THE BASIS OF SEX | Directed by Mimi Leder | Stars  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root | Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content | Now playing in theaters nationwide

It has been 19 years since the release of M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000). As the follow-up to his breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, the film was greeted by some at the time as a disappointment. The mind-blowing twist at the end of Sixth Sense set a high bar of expectations, and it wasn't long before Shyamalan became pigeon-holed for making feature-length "Twilight Zone" episodes that featured a shocking turn of events at their climax. Audiences expected to be shocked every time, spending more time trying to guess the twist than engaging with the story Shyamalan was trying to tell.

Unbreakable's ending isn't so much a shocker as it is a complete reframing of the film we just watched. The now iconic twist at the end of The Sixth Sense served a similar purpose, but Unbreakable s is a much more subtle and yet seemingly inevitable turn of events. In the years since, the film has garnered quite a few fans, and in this critic's estimation, it is Shyamalan's finest work as a filmmaker to date. It's an elegantly crafted mystery that smartly deconstructs comic book mythology. So when the twist at the end of 2017's Split revealed that it was set in the same world as Unbreakable  anticipation for a long-promised Unbreakable sequel hit an all-time high.

Shyamalan has always said that he originally envisioned Unbreakable as the first part of a trilogy exploring superhero mythology. His latest film, Glass, is not exactly the film he promised all those years ago, but that's part of its appeal. The film picks up nearly 20 years after the events of the first film. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) now owns his own security business while moonlighting as "The Overseer," a cloaked vigilante who takes down petty criminals with the help of his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark).

Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), aka "The Horde," is still on the loose, and has kidnapped a new group of young women. When a failed confrontation ends with both Crumb and Dunn in a mental institution with Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) under the treatment of one Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson), the reality of their situation comes into question. Do they really possess superhuman abilities? It's point Mr. Glass is determined to prove to the world, and a dastardly plot to validate comic book mythology and reveal the superhumans to the world soon begins to take shape.

Much like Unbreakable Glass constantly subverts audience expectations, denying us the climactic showdown it promises. The film turns left every time we expect it to turn right. Shyamalan has many faults as a filmmaker; he often ignores critical details that get in the way of his narrative, his writing often has an awkward, expository cadence, and yet there are few filmmakers working today as consistently interesting. Glass is not a great film, but it is a fascinating one. It's a sequel to a 20 year old drama about real life super heroes that is actively deconstructing its own mythology even as it's building it. In that regard it's often like a dog chasing its own tail, yet it clearly follows a familiar superhero trajectory while similarly undercutting audience expectations.

Glass is not the elegantly crafted genre deconstruction that Unbreakable was. But you'll be hard pressed to find a mainstream filmmaker so boldly grappling with big ideas, even if his experiments don't always land. It's a messy, sometimes unwieldy film, yet one can't help but be enthralled by what Shyamalan is doing here. Just as composer West Dylan Thordson strips down James Newton Howard's original musical themes from Unbreakable, so too is Shyamalan stripping away the trappings of popular myth making to its barest essence, reframing the narrative and exploring the origins of superhumans through the lens of society's complicated reactions to the extraordinary. This is in no way the film we expected it to be - it seems strangely straightforward, anti-climactic, and meandering, and yet that seems like the most thematically appropriate way to honor the legacy of Unbreakable.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


GLASS  | Directed by M. Night Shyamalan | Stars James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard | Rated PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, January 18, 2019

THE KINGDOM OF FAIRIES (1903)

While most people associate the silent era with black and white films, a primitive version of color has existed almost from the very beginning of cinema. Georges Méliès was one of the first filmmakers to embrace its possibility, employing a host of artists to hand paint every frame of some of his films. 

It was an expensive, work-intensive process, but some of these original hand-tinted prints have survived, giving us a look into a unique and long dead process that helped bring black and white silent films to colorful life. It is fitting that Méliès was one of the pioneers of this process. The consummate movie magician, Méliès was always looking for new ways to delight and entertain his audiences, and the enchanting images he brought to life have never looked more lovely than they do here.  Through this new Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley, 14 of the filmmaker's works have been preserved in all their hand-painted glory, preserved forever in vibrant HD. The disc also includes narration tracks that mimic the printed descriptions sent to theaters to be read aloud along with the films, filling in backstory and dialogue where intertitles were not present. For the young and the young at heart, Méliès' magic remains undimmed by time. Now over 100 years old, these films are as charming and enchanting as they ever were, and through the preservation of these hand-tinted copies, the work, the love, and the artistry behind every frame can now be seen for what they are.

The Pillar of Fire (1899)

A demon summons a vengeful spirit in this early Méliès short, starting off what will become a common theme in the filmmaker's work (see also The Infernal Cauldron). It's also part of a strange phenomenon in early cinema - films focused on women in long billowy robes flailing them around like wings. These were the subjects of many short films and actualitiés from the period, probably because they showcased the movement of the image which was still very new. Not much going on here really, but it demonstrates Méliès' budding artistry that was soon to take flight.

Joan of Arc (1900)

Ambitious, even by Méliès standards, Joan of Arc is an early retelling of the story of St. Joan that takes a brief look (although by 1900 standards, 10 minutes was quite long) at her life and untimely execution. Beautiful colors, but strangely stiff - Méliès is more comfortable with fantasy and fun, and the endless parade of extras (really just the same few people over and over) seems like a needless distraction to impress the audience. The lovely pastel quality to the hand-tinting is really what makes this one worthwhile. Otherwise it's an oddly listless and overly serious effort from Méliès that seems outside of his comfort zone.

A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

A 15 minute sci-fi fantasy about a group of astronomers who launch themselves to the moon, where they encounter an insectoid race that tries to hold them captive. By 2018 standards it's charmingly quaint, but it's also cinema magic in its purest form. All its tricks were done in-camera, and Méliès made the most of the tools that he had. People appear and disappear in puffs of smoke. An umbrella planted in the ground sprouts into a mushroom. And the spacecraft crash lands into the eye of the Man in the Moon. It's a dazzling display of early cinema's most advanced technology, yet what makes it so endearing even today is its almost naive earnestness. Méliès wanted to wow his audiences, to show them something they had never seen before. He was a magician to the end, and A Trip to the Moon is not only one of the earliest special effects films, it's also one of the earliest narrative films, moving cinema away from the documentary-like "actualités" into a new medium for storytelling.

The Kingdom of Fairies (1903)

Méliès' take on story of Sleeping Beauty, The Kingdom of Fairies, is perhaps one of his most beautiful and deeply magical films. The story is familiar, of course - a young princess is cursed by an evil witch because she was not invited to her birthday celebration. What follows, however, is not something you'll see in the Disney version of the oft-told tale. Méliès takes us on a journey through the sky, into the sea, and into the heart of mystical adventure as the prince chases after the young princess to rescue her from the witch.

It's a glorious tale, filled with a kind of epic sweep and grandeur that is rare for a film from 1903. The undersea sequences are especially impressive, as Méliès blends two different planes of action that includes real marine animals to create the illusion of actually being underwater.

Robinson Crusoe (1903)

Perhaps one of Méliès' weakest films, Robinson Crusoe takes the classic novel by Robert Lewis Stevenson and condenses it to its barest essence. Racist depictions of natives aside, the film is an attempt by Méliès to be more grounded that ultimately doesn't really work, despite a strong storm sequence. It flies through the events so quickly without inter titles or narration that it's difficult to keep up with, marking a rare failure in Méliès' ability to tell a story visually.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Released the year after Méliès' iconic Trip to the Moon, The Infernal Cauldron is a much shorter, but no less impressive, showcase for the filmmaker's prowess for cinema magic. Telling a complete story in just over a minute, The Infernal Cauldron follows the brief exploits of a gleeful demon, whose devilish exploits soon backfire on him as his victims take their revenge. Beautifully hand-tinted,  Méliès creates a lovely tableau and dazzles with some top notch visual effects to support the short narrative.

The Impossible Voyage (1904)

A spiritual follow-up to the superior A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage follows a group of explorers who board a train that takes them across the mountains, into space, and back into the ocean. Slower paced and not as wondrous as A Trip to the Moon  the film still features some impressive effects shots and hand coloring, but you can definitely feel Méliès playing the hits here. He even borrows the iconic man-in-the-moon shot from A Trip to the Moon, replacing it with a man in the sun. There's a been-there-done-that feel to the whole affair that makes The Impossible Voyage feel tired and listless, unusual for a Méliès film.

Rip's Dream (1905)

The hand coloring on Rip's Dream is surprisingly sloppy, as if it were colored in large blocks rather than any attempt to color actual individual elements of the frame. Still, Méliès is in top form here, relating the oft-told tale with his trademark visual wit and sense of wonder. His use of multiple planes and his exploration of the frame makes for some of his most visually striking moments - the scenes in the forest are especially stunning, as row after top of people descend the hill to search for Rip Van Winkle. The growing trees around his sleeping form add a sense of mystery and magic, creating a lovely atmosphere that make the film one of Méliès' most mystical and wondrous works.

THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906)

The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906)

Satan comes to Earth to steal some souls, and tricks an inventor into signing his away in Georges Méliès' delightful romp, The Merry Frolics of Satan. Satan then takes the inventor on a wild carriage ride through heaven, before cashing in his ill-gotten contract and taking him down to hell. It's a surprisingly dark storyline, but Méliès treats it with a light touch. The climactic carriage ride through the heavens, featuring swirling planets and shooting stars, is perhaps one of the filmmaker's most visually stunning sequences; allowing him, if only for a few moments, to break free of the tableau based static frame that was so common at the time, and give us the feeling of flight. It's an astonishing reminder of why Méliès remains one of cinema's most visionary magicians.

The Witch (1906)

This 1906 short film finds Méliès experimenting, if only briefly, with close-ups, breaking the usual two-dimensional plane of very specific wide-shot aesthetic made necessary by the size of his studio. The Witch is bookended by these medium shots, setting the film apart from much of the filmmaker's other work. But what really distinguishes it is what happens between those two shots.

The Witch is one of Méliès' most completely bonkers works, following the misfortunes of a young man who stiffs a witch on payment her supernatural services and must suffer the consequences. Of course, the witch is vanquished in the end because she's a witch, despite the fact that the young man was clearly in the wrong, but Méliès throws everything he's got at this one. There are giant frogs and owls, fire-breathing dragons, flying witches, vengeful ghosts, and a flaming sword. It's pure Méliès magic, and perhaps one of his most dazzling achievements.

The Inventor Crazybrain and His Wonderful Airship (1906)

One of Méliès' most impressive qualities was his inherent ability to tell well-rounded and complete stories in such a short period of time. In The Inventor Crazybrain and His Wonderful Airship, Méliès takes us into the mind of a crackpot inventor whose dreams of a zeppelin crash lead him to scrap his plans for his latest invention.

One of the filmmaker's most beautifully hand-tinted works, Inventor Crazybrain also finds Méliès exploring new ways to escape the one-camera tableau structure that always confined him, restructuring sets around his subject to take us on a fantastic journey into a man's dreams. Yet perhaps what makes it so wonderful is the realization that it's not the inventors dreams being realized on-screen - they belong to Méliès himself.

The Diabolic Tenant (1909)

Méliès may be most famous for his grand sci-fi and fantasy work, yet the smaller scale shorts best showcase his wit and love of simple magic. The Diabolic Tenant finds a man renting a room with an unusual method for decorating. Paintings fly up on the wall, stationary objects move on their own, people appear and disappear - it's a short but sweet piece of early silent magic that returns Méliès to his roots, finding joy and wonder in the seemingly mundane objects of every day life.

Whimsical Illusions (1909)

Whimsical Illusions is exactly what its title suggests - this is Méliès at play, casting himself as a magician whose illusions gradually get grander and more complex. This one isn't so much trying to tell a story as it is trying to wow the audience, and it does so with aplomb. Méliès goes from simple card tricks to bringing mannequins to life.

The film is really a showcase for what a skilled editor and showman Méliès was. Whimsical Illusions looks like it was shot in one take, yet its magic was brought to life through a series of nearly imperceptible cuts (perhaps some of his finest work) that give this cinematic magic show its sense of realism and wonder.

Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color is now available on Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Flicker Alley.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

It's almost become cliché to compare the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda to those of the great Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu's family dramas have etched themselves into cinematic history, and any Japanese filmmaker since who has attempted to explore family dynamics has inevitably been compared to him, for better or worse.

It is a comparison most frequently drawn with Hirokazu because his films so often deal with the idea of family and the ties that bind Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son). In his latest film, the Palme D'Or winning Shoplifters, however, Hirokazu is investigating a very different kind of family, taking the Ozu framework of intergenerational conflict and turning it on its head. Here, Hirokazu is not only investigating what it means to be a family, he's exploring some very dark territory about poverty and finding connections where none exist.

The film centers on a poor family who make their living by shoplifting. Everyone gets involved, from the grandmother down to the youngest child, distracting store employees while others pick up the items they need. On their way home one day, they discover a little girl on the street, cold and hungry. After taking her home, they soon discover that her home life is abusive, and decide to keep her, bringing her into their own family and recruiting her as a shoplifter to save her from her real family. Things get complicated for them, however, when the police come looking for the little girl, threatening to dissolve everything they've worked so hard to build.

That's where Shoplifters becomes really interesting; as the film moves on, Hirokazu slowly begins to peel back the layers, revealing the truth about the nature of this family. Why, for instance, the oldest son seems to have such trouble calling his father "dad," or why the grandmother is such a cold and imperious matriarch. This family is not at all what it appears to be, and Hirokazu plays his cards close to the vest until just the right moment. It is an exploration not only of family, but of cyclical poverty and its devastating human toll. Like the best of Ozu, Shoplifters zeroes in on the friction and misunderstanding between generations, but there's something much darker and deeper going on here than just parents who are unable to communicate with their children. It navigates tricky emotional territory with Hirokazu's trademark grace and a deep and abiding sense of humanity.

Family is what we make it, and in Shoplifters Hirokazu paints a heartbreaking portrait of a family like no other, built from scratch and forged by fire. It leaves an indelible impression, slowly building to an unforgettable emotional crescendo that is so expertly devised that we almost don't see it coming. Like Hirokazu's best work, it is quiet, hushed, and often unassuming, but lands with power of an earthquake.

GRADE – ★★★½ (out of four)


SHOPLIFTERS | Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda | Stars Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki | Rated R for some sexual content and nudity | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book is at once perfectly at home with his other late-period collage films such as Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, and yet completely unlike anything the 88-year-old Nouvelle Vague iconoclast has ever made. It's part of the filmmaker's quest to investigate and reinvent the cinematic language, a life-long passion for Godard at least since 1967's Weekend, in which he infamously declared the "end of cinema."

His last film, Goodbye to Language (2014), similarly tried to redefine the cinematic language, a brazen attempt to force viewers to reevaluate the very way we watch and engage with movies. There his medium was 3D, experimenting with the prevalent gimmick of the day to explore the multiple dimensions cinematic plane. In The Image Book  he moves in a different direction entirely. Now having re-written cinematic language, he seeks once again to make audiences redefine their preconceptions about the confines of the film frame and explore the dynamics of the moving images.

Through re-tooled images from cinema history (taken from such films as Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down) and an often shifting aspect ratio, Godard is quite literally making the audience look at these familiar images from alternate points of view. It's an effect created by the way Godard transfers films from VHS to his DV camcorder, as the camera attempts to adjust to the different aspect ratio, yet this digital "mistake" was purposefully left in.

In fact, The Image Book is filled with such "mistakes." From analog "snow" to layers of grain, to hyper-saturated color, choppy edits and fading sound, Godard has taken all the imperfections that come with both digital and analog technology and turned them into a kind of art of their own. Godard refers to film restorations as "botox," rejecting the cleaned up image for the grainy ravages of time. And indeed, these repurposed clips reflect their age - they are copies of copies of copies, fading and taking on new qualities with each new transfer. They have, in essence, become something new.


Yet perhaps Godard's boldest statement in The Image Book is his exploration of Middle Eastern cinema. The Image Book  somewhat controversially, incorporates ISIS propaganda videos - perhaps some of the most iconic images of evil of our time. Yet they are also some of the most iconic images to come out of the Muslim world in 21st century. This is how the west views the Middle East - these are the images that define Islam for many. It is with that in mind that Godard explores the films of the Middle East. We're no longer in the familiar territory of the western canon that Godard so deftly reconstructs in the film's first half. These are very much foreign images, even for many cinephiles. This being a late-period Godard film, don't come expecting any definitive philosophical statements (we're a long way from the pointed didacticism of his Marxist/Maoist period of the late 1960s and early 1970s), but one can't help but feel Godard asking us not only to reframe our point of view of the moving image, but of the Muslim world itself.

The value of these images, in fact the very nature of their beauty (or lack thereof) lies in our own perception of them. Godard gives us the tools to decode them, but intentionally leaves us without a guidebook. Through the various lenses he places in front of them, be they digital imperfections, analog glitches, or simply the fog of time, The Image Book asks us to look at the world around us in ways we've never before considered. It's all perhaps best summed up in its final moments, in which Godard, his voice raspy, his thoughts interrupted by fits of coughing, waxes philosophical about the the "necessary utopia" of cinema over scratchy, unrestored scenes from Max Ophül's Le plaisir, as if the same degradation of time devouring our cinematic history has finally caught up with the man himself. His compilation of scenes from his own work (Nortre musique, Forever Mozart) lends credence to the idea that Godard is not only putting the past behind him, he's reinventing it into something new, a vessel to recycle old ideas and carry them into the future as a new entity. It's an endlessly fascinating and somehow wistful work, a career summation by a legendary iconoclast who continues to reinvent himself well into his ninth decade of life, now looking back at a life's work and asking "what was it all for, and what can I do with it now?" The answer lies somewhere buried in the bleary fragments of images recorded from Godard's VHS player, a radical reinvention of cinematic language that will be studied and appreciated for decades to come.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE IMAGE BOOK | Directed by Jean-Luc Godard | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens January 25 in New York City. Additional cities to follow.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

There are few actors who have risen to ubiquity in recent times quite as quickly as Lucas Hedges. Hedges, who burst onto the scene in 2016's Manchester by the Sea (a performance for which he earned an Academy Award nomination), has had prominent roles in five films in the ensuing two years (two of which were Best Picture nominees), and three this year alone: Mid90s, Boy Erased, and Ben is Back.

Of the three films, Ben is Back is perhaps the most personal for the actor. Written and directed by his father, Peter Hedges, Ben is Back is a searing family drama about a young drug addict named Ben Burns (Hedges) trying to recover with the help of his tenacious mother (Julia Roberts). Hedges wrote the role specifically for his son, and the pair make a formidable team. The elder Hedges is an alumnus of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (his film debut, Pieces of April, was the first film I reviewed as a professional reviewer for the Teen Page in The Dispatch way back in 2004), and has made a career out of modestly scaled dramas with a strong emotional core. Even his Disney film, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, while not a major success for the studio, is a surprisingly intimate drama, wearing its sentimentality on its sleeve to great success.

Ben is Back is perhaps less sentimental than Hedges' more recent work, but no less effective. Ben's full history is never really known. We know he's a recovering addict, that his past is full of dark skeletons, and that his mother is the only person who has faith in him. When he shows up at their door just before Christmas, it threatens to put a rift in the family - but his mother refuses to turn him out. Even as his past begins to catch up with him, she resolves to stand by his side, even when Ben's old friends start getting frighteningly close to her family.

Ben may be the focus of the film, but ultimately the emotional center is his mother. Roberts delivers one of her finest performances yet as Holly Burns, a ferocious mama bear who exudes a kind of stalwart resolve through her vulnerability. Roberts manages to seem both strong and fragile, a mother out of her depth still determined to do anything she can to save her son from the nightmare of addiction. Hedges is equally strong - an air of hopelessness radiates off him, a desire to get clean coupled with an innate need to pursue his next fix. That's perhaps the strongest aspect of Ben is Back  it's an ultimately uplifting story about how far a mother will go to save her son, but even though it ends with a glimmer of hope, there's still the nagging sense that this is far from over, and that the cycle is only beginning again.

Peter Hedges' understated style keeps the film from slipping into melodrama. Roberts and Hedges' performances are so natural and lived in, the screenplay so unassuming, that it invites us into its world and takes us along for the ride. It doesn't have anything new or particularly profound to say about addiction, but its illustration of its cyclical and sometimes inescapable nature is gracefully rendered, exploring how society tacitly enables destructive behavior in the name of trying to discourage it. Ben is Back examines drug addiction's human toll without coming across as sanctimonious or sensationalized - it's simply a story of two people trying to fight an inner young man's seemingly invincible inner demons.

Come for the performances, but stay for the sensitive rendering of the struggle of drug addiction. It's not always an easy film to watch, but Hedges deftly finds the humanity and ultimately the silver-lining created by unconditional love. It appears in every gesture of Roberts fully realized and deeply grounded performance, a marvel of restrained emotion that provides Ben is Back with a wrenching and poignant backbone that is hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


BEN IS BACK | Directed by Peter Hedges | Stars Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, Rachel Bay Jones, David Zaldivar | Rated R for language throughout and some drug use | Now playing in select cities

Monday, January 07, 2019

It's been over 50 years since we last saw Mary Poppins on screen in 1964. Perhaps one of Walt Disney's most beloved classics, Mary Poppins has entered into the popular lexicon in a way few films ever have. With Disney's current penchant for raiding its own back catalogue for sequels and remakes, it was perhaps inevitable that they should eventually return to Poppins, despite the fact that original star Julie Andrews is now too old to reprise the ageless role in a direct sequel.

So the studio turned to Emily Blunt, who capably (but not completely) fills Andrews' prim shoes as the titular magical nanny. Set some thirty years after the original film, Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns finds Mary returning to the London home of the Banks family, where widower Michael (Ben Whishaw) now lives with his three children, and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer). A series of bad financial decisions has put the Banks family on the brink of losing their home, and unless they can locate their father's bank shares by the end of the week, they'll lose the Banks house.

Naturally, Mary Poppins comes to the rescue, along with lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), leading the family through a fun-filled romp that teaches them all to let go and recapture their childhood. The film follows a very similar trajectory as its predecessor, very carefully replicating original musical numbers with new songs that are far less memorable. "Can You Imagine That" is the new "A Spoonful of Sugar," "The Royal Doulton Music Hall" replaces "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" stands in for "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Turning Turtle" is another silly supporting character sidebar much like "I Love to Laugh," and "Nowhere to Go But Up" is the modern answer to "Let's Go Fly a Kite." Yet for the most part, it all feels like reheated left-overs, never able to recapture the original film's simple magic. It hews so closely to the plot and structure of the original film that it is never able to establish any sort of personality of its own, or really any reason for existing in the first place.

No other studio is quite so adept at weaponizing nostalgia as Disney. But the formula is starting to feel tired. Mary Poppins Returns follows very similar thematic territory to the studio's other belated 2018 sequel, Christopher Robin, yet that film managed to handle ideas of recapturing childhood with greater care. By contrast, Mary Poppins Returns feels overstuffed, brimming with elaborate musical numbers and grand production design, but never really goes anywhere. Even the appearances of Dick Van Dyke (reprising his role of the bank manager from the original film) and Angela Lansbury in the film's final 20 minutes can make up for the lackluster quality of the preceding two hours.

Van Dyke and Lansbury are naturally the highlights of the film (sending the film off in a wistful sense of whimsy it had been sorely lacking up to that point), and the film does manage to pick up steam after its climax (which makes the mistake of arriving the obvious solution to the problem at hand after quite a bit of superfluous suspense), but the whole affair is so listless that its manufactured joy never feels genuine or particularly magical, bludgeoning the audience into submission with its nostalgic cheerfulness rather than with the graceful touch that made Christopher Robin so endearing. Moments of inspiration (the lovely animated sequence mid-way through, Meryl Streep's wacky cameo, David Warner as an ancient Admiral Boom) are then drowned by director Rob Marshall's busy and overstuffed musical numbers that have the spirit but none of the wonder of the original Mary Poppins. It's a film that's been focus-grouped within an inch of its life, immaculately designed to follow its formula to the letter without offering any surprises or any real warm and fuzzy recollections of its predecessor, unless it's to wonder why you're not just watching the original film instead.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


MARY POPPINS RETURNS | Directed by Rob Marshall | Stars Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Karen Dotrice, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, David Warner | Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Anna Zamecka's Communion is a verité-style documentary that follows a Polish family as they prepare for their autistic 13-year-old son's church confirmation. The title serves a dual purpose, literally referring to young Nikodem's Holy Communion, but also ironically to the communal relations of the family in question, which is falling apart before our eyes.

As her parents fight and begin divorce proceedings, 14-year-old Ola Kaczanowska essentially becomes the family's primary caretaker, helping prepare Nikodem for his communion while trying to hold her own life together while everything else is seemingly falling apart. Zamecka's camera follows the Kaczanowski through their crumbling lives up to Nikodem's communion in what becomes an almost unbearable of assault of miserablism without any apparent form or function.

The problem is that Communion has very little to say and offers no point of view. The slice-of-life aesthetic that worked so well in other verité-style docs like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Distant Constellation, and Quest becomes something of a liability here. It feels as if we're intruding on someone's personal life, and that Zamecka is filming things we were never meant to see. Communion is a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if we're watching the disillusion of a family in real time. It offers no POV, no hope, no real insight into society or family dynamics. It simply...exists.

That's what sets Communion apart from its verité brethren; whereas the aforementioned films explore specific milieus and how they are affected (or ignored) by the world around them, Communion wallows in the misery of its subjects for no other purpose than to watch the family melt down. It's a work of painful voyeurism, never questioning or investigating to source of its subjects' strife, content to merely observe with a dispassionate eye. One can't help but wonder why Zamecka doesn't dig deeper into what's going on here. Ola tries to take responsibility for her brother, but the pressure is often too much. We watch her cry and scream in frustration, but to what end? What purpose does all this serve? The film offers nothing in return for its crushing nihilism, no insight, no deeper emotional core, just the utter helplessness of watching a family destroy itself from within, as if we're watching the home movies that never make it to social media. There's something to say somewhere in this unfocused collection of moments, in which a child much take responsibility for her own family, unfortunately Communion never seems to find it.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)


COMMUNION | Directed by Anna Zamecka | Not rated | In Polish w/English subtitles | Opens today, Jan. 4, in select cities.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Perhaps the best thing DC currently has going for it is the lower expectations one has going into their films than one of Marvel's. While Marvel's consistently high standards continue to yield strong results, DC's mixed track record when it comes to their films, not to mention their backwards approach to creating a cinematic universe, has resulted in some decidedly underwhelming films.

While Man of Steel and Wonder Woman were both strong films, DC's attempts at world-building in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League, and Suicide ranged from mediocre to painful, leaving the future of the series in doubt. While DC hasn't learned from all of its mistakes, they have shown a penchant for recruiting top-notch talent behind the camera, hiring Patty Jenkins (Monster) to helm Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, Ava Duvernay (Selma) to adapt New Gods, and  James Wan (The Conjuring) to tackle their latest big screen extravaganza, Aquaman.

Aquaman is perhaps one of the comic giant's more obscure superheroes, but in casting the ever-popular Jason Momoa, fresh of his stint as Khal Drogo in HBO's Game of Thrones, DC scored a coup that has pushed the character to new heights of popularity. Momoa is indeed charismatic as the reluctant underwater king, who must return to Atlantis to claim the throne from his evil half-brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson). It's a narrative that borrows heavily from everything from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," to Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, to Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon 2, peddling a tired story of reclaiming a throne in a mythical kingdom that has been done so many times at this point that's it's hard to tell what is being stolen from anymore.

The film's lack of originality is hampered by a tired screenplay that claims no less that 5 credited writers, and it definitely has that "written by committee" feel, cribbing liberally from other superhero origin films while bringing very little new to the table. Aquaman attempts to stuff so much backstory and ham-fisted mythology into its inflated runtime (2 hours and 23 minutes!) that it would be possible to excise at least 30 minutes from the film without taking anything essential away from the overall plot.

To his credit, Wan seems to understand the inherent goofiness of the entire premise (the film's villain, Black Manta, looks like a rejected Power Rangers villain), and directs the hell out of it. His fluid sense of storytelling keeps the flashbacks and digressions from becoming too unwieldy, and he stuffs the frame with so much business that it's almost shocking that the film doesn't buckle under the weight. As a result, the action sequences are just so gleefully bonkers that one can't help but get swept up in it, the film's climax becoming a vibrantly unhinged set piece that goes for broke and actually out-Bays Michael Bay, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink while maintaining focus on what's most important in the frame.

Wan does his best with the cards he was dealt. Aquaman is a fairly standard superhero yarn Wan uses as a playground. He's clearly having a blast, and his sense of fun is infectious, even if underneath the flashy action sequences the film itself is incredibly rote. Yet it's hard to say no to a film with a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, and Julie Andrews as a massive sea monster. It may be all flash and no substance, but it's some pretty damn impressive flash.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


AQUAMAN | Directed by James Wan | Stars  Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman,  Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Randall Park, Djimon Hounsou, Leigh Whannell, Julie Andrews, John Rhys-Davies | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.