Tuesday, February 26, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the culmination of a trilogy of films that began with 2010's How to Train Your Dragon and continued in 2014 with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a rare sequel that both depend and expanded upon the world established by the original. Collectively they make up some of the finest animated films of the last decade, not only providing great stories (based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell) but gorgeous animation and sweeping, Academy Award nominated music. Like most threequels, unfortunately, The Hidden World doesn't quite live up to the lofty promise of its predecessors, but that doesn't mean it’s completely without merit.

The film picks up a year after the last film, with Chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon, Toothless, leading the dragon riders of Berk to rescue dragons from captivity in order to create a utopia where humans and dragons co-exist side by side peacefully. But the arrival of an evil dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) soon forces the vikings to abandon Berk in search of the dragons' hidden home world, with a rare female night fury serving as bait for Toothless to lead them right into Grimmel's trap.

There's still plenty to admire here. The animation remains breathtaking, and John Powell's score rattles the theater walls with epic power. But the film just doesn't quite measure up to the previous entries in the series. It feels strangely rushed, as if the filmmakers are trying to hurry up and wrap things up The Hidden World lurches from one scene to another without taking the time to let the gravity of the previous scene settle in. It even combines and intercuts unrelated scenes that undercut the film's narrative drive. It's as if it doesn't want to grapple with the real thematic meat of the story.

These films have always succeeded most in mirroring Hiccup and Toothless' growth as leaders. The Hidden World finds them both grappling with their own abilities while also falling in love and discovering what it means to be a part of a family. Much of this is ultimately glossed over in the film's breakneck race to the finish line. The conclusion marks an emotionally tinged coda for the franchise that feels satisfying in context but doesn't quite seem to match the boldness that marked the previous films. Much like Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda trilogy, the third part is a marked step down from a towering middle film, yet Kung Fu Panda 3 actually managed to one-up The Hidden World in its ability to guide the series to a natural conclusion. The How to Train Your Dragon series is stronger overall, and The Hidden World stands on its own just fine, but in the context of the high bar set by the other films in the franchise, it leaves something to be desired.

The adventures of Hiccup and Toothless have given us a decade of cinematic magic and wonder. Even if their final film isn't their strongest moment, they're still a charming pair, and The Hidden World manages to take their characters in interesting directions without sacrificing the core of who they are. It's a moderately engaging tale of adventure and friendship filled with dazzling visuals and a glorious score, but this rushed conclusion to such an incredible franchise can't help but feel just the slightest bit disappointing.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD | Directed by Dean DeBlois | Voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington | Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Jim McKay's En El Séptimo Día (On the Seventh Day) is a film so naturalistic that it almost feels like a documentary - a vérité-style examination of the lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in in Brooklyn that looks as though could have been shot on the fly as it occurred.

McKay never attempts to lay any kind of false drama or contrived plot on the proceedings, stringing it all together with the loosest of storylines centering around a bicycle deliveryman named José (Fernando Cardona) who moonlights as his local soccer team's captain on Sunday afternoons, his one day off.  One day his boss informs him that their restaurant will be catering a large party that Sunday and that he needs "all hands on deck." José's lone day off is cancelled. That also happens to be the day of the local championship, and as the team's best player, they're likely to lose without José there to lead them to victory.

It's a simple plot, centering around an issue that may not sound like that big a deal. It's just a soccer game, right? En El Séptimo Día is a deeply political film, but it isn't making any grand pronouncements here. Instead, McKay aims for something much more understated. José's boss had promised to help him get his green card, yet works him six days a week, and then takes his one day off, forcing him to work despite something very important to José happening that day. It's very much a form of exploitation. These micro-aggressions and abuses make up daily life for these immigrants - working from day to day in fear of their boss' whims without any protections to keep them from being exploited.

The film deservedly won the John Cassavetes Award at this past weekend's Independent Spirit Awards and is more than worth seeking out. It manages to take a complicated and contentious issue and distills it to its most essential human elements.  This is no angry political screed, it's a quietly revolutionary act of protest. The immigrants at the center of En El Séptimo Día aren't afforded the basic decency of a day off, the needs of their employers superseding the lives of the workers. What it lacks in dramatic power it makes up for in its deep sense of empathy. McKay's natural style recalls neorealist vision of DeSica and the scrappy, DIY aesthetic of Sean Baker. Like those two filmmakers, McKay arrives at a deep political truth about those who live on society's margins.  If your livelihood depends on your employer, and their reach extends into your personal life, what else can they control? Exploitation exists in myriad forms, and En El Séptimo Día explores them with a clear-eyed grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


EN EL SÉPTIMO DÍA | Directed by Jim McKay | Stars, Fernando Cardona, Donal Brophy Gilberto Jimenez, Abel Perez, Genoel Ramírez | Not Rated | In Spanish & English w/English & Spanish subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cinema Guild.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short not only comprise the strongest of the short film categories, but one of the strongest categories of the entire ceremony. Tackling subjects from racism to fascism to immigration to the patriarchy to death itself, these five nominees are a hard hitting bunch that offer a wide variety of perspectives into the world in which we live.


Black Sheep

There's an essential truth at the heart of Black Sheep about what it's like to live as a black man in a white world, but the re-enactments all but destroy the film's power. It's almost not even a documentary, but a narrative film narrated by its subject, a black teenager who, in the face of racism and prejudice, attempts to assimilate to his surroundings by bleaching his skin and wearing blue contacts.

It's a heartbreaking look at the deeply personal toll of racism, privilege, and a society designed by and for white people. But its impact is blunted by its unnecessary re-enactment structure, which distracts from the power of its subject's words.

End Game

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's End Game explores end-of-life care through the eyes of several subjects facing death due to terminal illness.

Reminiscent of the 2013 nominee, JoannaEnd Game is a sensitive and yet surprisingly positive exploration of palliative care, following the doctors tasked with preparing the patient and the families, and the subjects who are facing the end of their lives. For such heavy subject matter, Epstein and Friedman display a light touch. Here, death is neither a tragedy nor a cause for celebration, it's merely a fact of life, and End Game treats its subjects with a clear-eyed dignity that is deeply powerful.


Lifeboat

Skye Fitzgerald's harrowing documentary short follows the efforts of a German non-profit dedicated to rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean as they struggle to make the perilous journey from Africa to Europe. More urgent and necessary than the similarly themed documentary feature, Fire at SeaLifeboat not only examines the rescue operations but the plight of those fleeing violence and persecution.

While there's no cure for xenophobia, Lifeboat expertly takes the right-wing talking points that refugees should stay behind and fix their own countries and chucks them right out the window. No one would brave conditions like this and risk their lives if it weren't the better alternative. It's a powerful examination of a growing humanitarian crisis that pulls no punches in depicting the human element that is so often lost in political rhetoric.


A Night at the Garden

This harrowing account of a Nazi rally disguised as a "pro-America rally" that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1939 reveals terrifying parallels between the Nazi ideology and the "America first" agenda of the Make America Great Again crowd. Standing in front of a fascistic painting of George Washington and flanked by swastikas, the speakers decry every form of diversity while extolling "white, Christian values" to a roaring crowd.

Then...the film just ends. It feels like a set up without a follow through, never really examining what brought the rally about nor its ramifications. A few brief clips, and it's all over. Those 7 minutes are truly frightening, but A Night at the Garden feels like a brief intro for a much longer and much more interesting film.

Period. End of Sentence.

Easily the most delightful of this year's crop of Oscar nominated documentary shorts, Period. End of Sentence. follows a group of young women in India working toward de-stigmatizing menstruation in a patriarchal society that refuses to even discuss it.

Seeing that many women go without pads, and the societal taboo surrounding tampons, these young women start a business to provide low cost pads to women, and open up a discussion around menstruation in an attempt to educate men for whom the subject remains both mysterious and embarrassing. A rousing piece of feminist activism, Period. End of Sentence. explores an oft-overlooked topic, still taboo even in the United States, in a way that is both educational and entertaining. A gem.

The Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short are now playing in select theaters and On Demand.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

With the influx of new Academy members and a preferential ballot system that asks voters to rank their choices rather than vote for their favorite outright, the Academy Awards have become increasingly difficult to predict in recent years. This makes the ceremony more exciting to watch, but something of a headache for Oscar prognosticators who pride themselves on “getting it right.”

Despite the fact that the Academy’s board and telecast producers have seemed hellbent on making every bad decision imaginable, before walking them back after immense public pressure (the Kevin Hart debacle, an Oscar for “best popular film,” only performing two of the five Best Original Song nominees, and presenting some awards during commercial breaks), this year’s Oscar ceremony is shaping up to be the most wide-open in recent memory.


Best Picture

Any one of these films could conceivably win, as there has been no clear frontrunner for this entire season. The Producers Guild went for Green Book, Screen Actors Guild for Black Panther, Directors Guild for Roma, Editors for The Favourite and Bohemian Rhapsody, and neither of the Writers Guild winners were nominated for Best Picture. So where does that leave us? BlacKkKlansman is the only film to have been nominated for all of the above, indicating wide industry support which could help it in a preferential ballot, and A Star is Born has likewise been present at nearly all of this year’s awards shows. This is truly anyone’s game for the first time in recent memory. My best guess? Roma takes home Best Picture, becoming the first foreign language film to ever win the award. It’s widely beloved within the industry and has the most nominations of any film this year (tied with “The Favourite”). But at this point, nothing would surprise me.

Prediction: Roma
Preference: The Favourite


Best Director

Alfonso Cuarón seems like a more solid winner here for “Roma” than he is for Best Picture, but his win at the DGA cemented him as the frontrunner. He’s won recently (for “Gravity”), but as a jack of all trades who also wrote, shot, edited, and produced his own film, his achievement perhaps has the highest degree of difficulty, which should help him win over voters. But don’t count out Spike Lee, at long last nominated after decades in the business (and having been famously overlooked in 1989 for “Do the Right Thing”). A win for him would be a historic moment, making him the first black Best Director winner. Can voters resist the chance to make history with a pointedly anti-Trump film?

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Preference: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman


Best Actor

What once looked like a lock for Christian Bale has become Rami Malek’s award to lose. His performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody has become one of the most lauded performances of the year. He’s easily the strongest aspect of his film (which is arguably the worst film to receive a Best Picture nomination in at least 20 years), so this could be the Academy’s chance to laud a film they clearly loved.

Prediction: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate


Best Actress


Glenn Close has been racking up awards all season for her performance in The Wife. She’s a beloved industry vet who is seen as “overdue,” so her victory here is likely, especially since A Star is Born hasn’t performed as well as expected. Lady Gaga could still pull off an upset, same for Olivia Colman in The Favourite, a film they clearly really like. But this is Close’s to lose.

Prediction: Glenn Close, The Wife

Preference: Lady Gaga, A Star is Born


Best Supporting Actor


Green Book’s Mahershala Ali is the only actor this season to have made a clean sweep of the precursors, which makes his victory here all by assured. But he just won this award two years ago for Moonlight, and he’s really a lead in Green Book, could Oscar voters be looking for some fresh blood? No one has campaigned harder this year than Richard E. Grant. His humble presence and clear sense of excitement and gratitude could lead him to an upset (plus it’s a true supporting performance), but the safe bet is on Ali.

Prediction: Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Preference: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Best Supporting Actress

The winner of the SAG award, Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, isn’t nominated for an Oscar, leaving this category wide-open. The likely winner is Regina King from If Beale Street Could Talk, but the film didn’t get as much support across other categories as expected, making her a vulnerable frontrunner. The ladies of The Favourite likely cancel each other out, leaving Amy Adams as a potential spoiler. Still, King’s performance is undeniably great. If the Academy didn’t even nominate Adams for her stunning work in Arrival, awarding her for playing Lynne Cheney in Vice seems like an insult.

Prediction/Preference: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Original Screenplay

Prediction: Green Book 

Preference: The Favourite


Best Adapted Screenplay

Prediction: BlacKkKlansman

Preference: If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Foreign Language Film

Prediction: Roma (Mexico)
Preference: Shoplifters (Japan)


Best Animated Feature

Prediction: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Preference: Isle of Dogs


Best Documentary Feature

Prediction: Free Solo

Preference: Hale County This Morning, This Evening


Best Original Score

Prediction/Preference: If Beale Street Could Talk


Best Original Song

Prediction/Preference: “Shallow” from A Star is Born


Best Cinematography

Prediction/Preference: Roma


Best Costume Design

Prediction/Preference: The Favourite


Best Production Design

Prediction: The Favourite

Preference: First Man


Best Film Editing

Prediction: Vice

Preference: The Favourite


Best Sound Mixing

Prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: First Man


Best Sound Editing

Prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody

Preference: First Man


Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Vice

Preference: Border


Best Visual Effects

Prediction/Preference: First Man


Best Live Action Short

Prediction: Marguerite

Preference: Mother


Best Documetary Short

Prediction/Preference: Period. End of Sentence.


Best Animated Short

Prediction/Preference: Bao

Saturday, February 16, 2019

At last shaking off the burden of his infamous affair with actress Kim Min-hee, whose repercussions haunted his last three films - On the Beach at Night Alone (2017), Claire's Camera (2018), and The Day After (2018), Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo has returned to some of the pre-occupations that often informed his earlier work in his latest film, Hotel by the River.


Filled with longing and regret, Hotel by the River is the story of a group of quintessential Hong protagonists, separated by emotional distance they are unable to bridge despite their best efforts. It recalls the snowy wistfulness of The Day He Arrives (2012), centering around five lonely people who converge on the eponymous hotel to find their own definition of peace and healing.

On one side we have an aging poet (Joo-Bong Ki) who has summed his two sons (Hae-hyo Kwon and Joon-Sang Yoo) to inform them that he believes he is dying. On the other side, a young woman (Kim Min-hee) who has been betrayed by the man she loves, and has retreated to the hotel with her friend (Seon-mi Song) to recover. Their stories are separate, yet inexorably intertwined, bound by their mutual quest for closure and redemption. And yet, like many Hong protagonists, they remain steadfastly apart, so close to a real connection and yet unable to reach out and make it.

That's the beauty and the inherent tragedy of Hotel by the River a film that is easily Hong's most overtly emotional in years. His characters are broken, lost in their own private reveries of art, loneliness, and fantasy. Hong often explores the inner lives of artists. The denizens of the hotel by the river are poets and filmmakers, those who express their feelings in tangible ways yet are unable to articulate them outside of those bounds. That's what makes them so fascinating - they're walking contradictions, bound by one mode of expression that they can never translate into real life. The poet has no evidence that he is dying, yet he feels it. His sons want closure after a lifetime with an emotionally distant father. The young woman searches for reasons for the betrayal of her former lover. The answers they seek never arrive, yet they all come tantalizingly close to a kind of peace.

On the surface, Hong's films often seem aimless and meandering. And while Hotel by the River is perhaps his most accessible film in recent memory, it still retains his trademark unassuming self-reflexivity, the characters seemingly trapped in a self-imposed purgatory for which they hold the keys to escape, yet never quite figure out how to use them. They may seem talky and disengaged, but that's how Hong gets at the basic truth of their experiences, eschewing the trappings of melodrama for a kind of languid naturalism. One always feels that Hong's films are an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise his own demons, to explore his own feelings and shortcomings both as an artist and a human being, using his characters as avatars for his own insecurities.

There is a poignant sense of remorse that permeates the film that is both tangible and intoxicating, and one comes away with the feeling that we're all just snowflakes in a snowstorm, colliding with each other briefly as we're tossed in the wind, searching for somewhere to land. In Hong's haunted meditation, there is no pretense of having all the answers, and that's what makes it so special. He's out here trying to figure himself out just like everyone else. Like his very best films, Hotel by the River seems like a circuitous trifle on the surface, but within its modestly composed black and white frames lies a profoundly open-ended exploration of the very faults, foibles, dreams, and contradictions that make us human.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HOTEL BY THE RIVER | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Ki Joo-bong, Kim Min-hee, Song Seon-mi, Kwon Hae-hyo, Yu Jun-sang | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Usually one of the most consistently strong categories at the Oscars, this year's crop of animated shorts is a decidedly mixed bag - the only real stand-out being Pixar's Bao. Still, there's enough here to be of interest, with an eclectic lineup that finds both joy and sadness in the experiences of childhood and in the act of growing up.


Animal Behaviour


A support group for animals quickly devolves into chaos as the anthropomorphized creatures share their own unique relationship problems. Each problem stems from the animal's own background (the leech is co-dependent, the praying mantis murders her mates), but Animal Behavior is an oddly joyless and ultimately aimless experience.

It's a mostly unpleasant film that never seems to come to a point, shaking things up with the arrival of a moody gorilla, but it's never particularly funny or especially insightful. Easily the weakest of the 2019 Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film.

Bao


An absolute delight. Domee Shi's simple, affecting metaphor for motherhood in which a Chinese mother fears an empty nest after raising an anthropomorphic dumpling is as beautiful and touching as anything Pixar has ever produced. All children grow up eventually, and Bao poignantly chronicles a mother's desire to shield her child from a world that comes crashing unceremoniously through their door anyway. No other film in this category displays such insightful depth or a navigate a metaphor this tricky with such grace.

Late Afternoon


An old woman looks back on a full life, lost in a foggy reverie that blurs fantasy and reality. Would make a charming double feature with the Best Live Action Short nominee, MARGUIRITE, both depicting elderly protagonists reflecting on the past, but the conclusion of LATE AFTERNOON isn't as satisfying.

The way it handles the idea of memory, and the way it crosses over into the woman's present-day life, is lovely and poignant. It's slight, but beautifully animated and realized.

One Small Step


A young girl dreams of becoming an astronaut in this lovely Chinese animated short that explores the wondrous world of a child's imagination before connecting it to real world achievement to make those dreams a reality.

Supported by her father who is with her every step of the way (even after passing away), the young girl shoots for the moon in the most moving way possible. It falters a bit in the middle, throwing off its own pacing by shifting its structure, a move that undercuts its emotional momentum, but it still lands with a satisfying and heart-wrenching confidence. ONE SMALL STEP has heart to spare, but it never feels cloying or saccharine. Instead, it explores childhood dreams and familial love in a powerfully understated way, and ends with a lovely grace note connecting the girl's childhood play with her father that is sure to tug on the heartstrings.

Weekends


Perhaps the most abstract of this year's nominees for Best Animated Short, WEEKENDS follows the misadventures of a young boy being shuffled back and forth between his divorced parents, and the rich fantasy life he creates for himself in order to cope.

Great concept, but the execution is hit-or-miss, seemingly meandering in its attempt to illustrate the crushing sameness of the young boy's routines. But it gets at some essential truths of his experience, lost in a world without something to hold on to, all he has that's a constant is his beloved rocking horse. But some haunting imagery and an intriguing idea don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole.

The 2019 Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short are now playing in select theaters nationwide. On Demand today, Feb. 15.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


In the 1950s nudity was still banned in American films by the Production Code. Exploitation filmmakers, however, discovered a loophole - nudity was permissible if it was a non-sexual depiction of a nudist lifestyle. 

Nudist camp films had been around since the 1930s, when documentaries about nudists drew audiences of curiosity seekers, but in the late 50s these evolved into "nudie cuties," as Russ Meyer debuted The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959, taking these films toward something akin to softcore pornography.

Enter Doris Wishman, a New York City filmmaker who took up directing after the death of her husband. After a 1957 New York court ruling allowed for the depiction of nudity on screen as long as it was in a nudist context, Wishman made Hideout in the Sun (1958). This was followed quickly by 1961's Nude on the Moon, a bizarre low-budget sci-fi film in which a crew of astronauts land on the moon only to discover a matriarchal race of nudists populating its sun-dappled landscape. Nude on the Moon was recently the subject of a Wishman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, featuring filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh, author of the 1995 zine, The Films of Doris Wishman. Now reprinted by the Light Industry for the first time in nearly 25 years, Ahwesh's loving tribute to Wishman's scrappy, do-it-yourself spirit.

In fact, there's something charmingly rough around the edges about Ahwesh's zine. Clearly a product of 1990s underground fan culture, it's a collection photocopied posters, typed out transcripts of interviews, and cut out images pasted into collages. The Films of Doris Wishman is a clear labor of love, beginning with a transcript of an extended video interview with Wishman in the Florida sex shop where she worked in Florida at the time. Wishman is a real character, gleefully selling dildos at 70 years old while reminiscing about the days making exploitation films and dealing with unscrupulous distributors. She makes no bones about the fact that she was in it for the money, but she was good at what she did, and she knows it.

A still from NUDE ON THE MOON.

There's an almost dreamlike quality to Nude on the Moon. Shot on a shoestring budget in Florida, the film imagines a tropical paradise on the moon populated by topless telepaths lead by a queen who is curious about the strange newcomers. Actress Marietta stars in a dual role as the Moon Queen and a mousy secretary who pines for brilliant scientist Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown), who it turn falls in love with the Moon Queen, only to realize he's been in love with his secretary all along.

What makes Wishman's films so fascinating is that on the surface they appear to be all about male wish fulfillment; two men make a spaceship, fly to the moon, and discover a bunch of naked women. But there's something else going on here, perhaps due to Wishman's female perspective in a genre usually dominated by the male gaze. The topless women in Nude on the Moon aren't ogled the way one might expect in a film of this nature. They simply...are. Their nudity is just a fact of life, neither sexualized now commented upon. In some ways, Wishman was to nudity in film what Herschell Gordon Lewis was to gore, an exploitation pioneer who knew how to turn a quick buck. One would be hard-pressed to call the films "good" - Wishman was clearly working quickly and on a limited budget with the goal of titillating audiences. But like the Agnés Varda of softcore porn, Doris Wishman is a charming and fascinating figure whose eccentric talent has been lovingly remembered in Ahwesh's engaging fan zine. Anyone even remotely interested in the history of exploitation cinema would do well to pick it up.

The Films of Doris Wishman is now available from Light Industry. Check out Light Industry at Metrograph: Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn's The Deadman + Doris Wishman's Bad Girls Go to Hell on March 16.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a film so bizarrely conceived and rendered that it almost takes on a kind of unintentional avant-garde quality, completely disregarding any sense of narrative cohesion or recognizable form. This would almost be admirable if it weren't so aggressively dull - another overproduced CGI behemoth in Disney's modern live action catalogue that is gorgeously designed but devoid of any real heart.

One must give credit to directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston for going for broke here, because unlike the mostly wooden Beauty and the Beast live action remake, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is genuinely trying to create something fantastic and new. The world it conjures resembles Narnia on hallucinogenic mushrooms, taking its protagonist through a closet and into a world dividing into four kingdoms; three living in harmony while the fourth stands in rebellion under the rule of the evil Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).

Using Tchaikovsky's immortal ballet as a starting point, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms goes off the rails pretty quickly, delving into some overly complicated mythology in which our heroine, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), discovers a world created by her late mother as a child in her godfather's attic. Left by the wayside as her mother grew up, the world has fallen into neglect while awaiting her return. With the help of a stalwart nutcracker soldier (Jayden Fowora-Knight), Clara sets out to restore order to the realm.

At its core, The Nutcracker is a pretty standard issue fantasy epic in which a "chosen one" appears to save the fantasy world from some sort of catastrophe. It is anchored by two of the most lifeless lead performances to ever headline such a big budget film, with Mackenzie Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight unable to conjure any charisma or chemistry that could possibly make us care about their characters. The MVP here is Keira Knightley, whose bubbly and unhinged take on the Sugarplum Fairy is the kind of "shoot for the moon" performance that is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Knightley, with her squeaky voice and cotton candy hair, makes the film her own, completely giving herself over to the ridiculousness surrounding her and fully embodying its off-kilter weirdness. The always reliable composer, James Newton Howard, also comes through with a lovely score that makes great use of Tchaikovsky's iconic music.

The rest of the film, however, is a mess. It's certainly unlike any major blockbuster in recent memory, with its Rat King made up of teeming throngs of swarming rats, to poor Richard E. Grant's icicle hair, to the underused Helen Mirren's exiled villain who lives in a world of cracked dolls and creepy clowns, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms almost seems to be channeling Disney's darker days of the 1980s, when oddball films like Return to Oz were the order of the day. Unfortunately, it's a sumptuously designed visual feast that has no real personality or soul of its own. It looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, and the ballet sequence is appropriately stunning. If only the rest of the film had put forth as much effort as Knightley at the team of designers.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS | Directed by Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston | Stars Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Jayden Fowora-Knight | Rated PG for some mild peril | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


For many, silent films often seem like relics, ancient remnants of times gone by that hold little relevance to the world we live in today. As a student of cinema who loves the silent period, I've always found them fascinating, and yet there is something almost alien about them, a window into a bygone world that feel somehow removed what what is familiar to modern audiences.

It is in that spirit that Peter Jackson approached his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, the film was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Using original footage shot by war photographers on the front, Jackson set out to examine life in the infamous WWI trenches. Yet rather than simply show us the silent black and white footage we've all seen before, Jackson instead digitized, cleaned up, and colorized the footage so that it looks like it was shot yesterday.

Normally this kind of tampering would raise hackles of the cinema purist in me. Visions of badly colorized TV shows and movies that permeated the airwaves in the 80's and 90's come quickly to mind, completely destroying the artists' original intent, steamrolling their carefully crafted black and white images. But, as Jackson explains, this is something different. The black and white war footage isn't because of artistic choice, it was because of necessity. The war photographer did the best they could with what they had, but what Jackson has done is let us see the war as it really was.

Truth be told, the colorization isn't the most impressive part of They Shall Not Grow Old  It could have easily kept the black and white of the original footage and simply been restored to new glory by Jackson's technicians. The way they took old, almost unusable footage that was either under or overexposed and made it crystal clear for the first time in a century is jaw-dropping. The color still has that sort of sickly, faded quality that has always plagued colorized black and white footage, and yet one almost forgets they're watching something that's 100 years old. It's as if Jackson has reached through time and offered us a glimpse into the past. Never has the first world war felt so immediate. As an artistic statement it exists in a gray area, but as a historical artifact it is a meticulously researched and invaluable resource.

What Jackson has done to this footage is stunning. Not only will it help preserve the memory of the men who fought and died in WWI, but it's also an impressive feat of film preservation. While the black and white version would have perhaps been preferable, but They Shall Not Grow Old works miracles with the raw footage of the war that has gone unseen for decades. It's a unique cinematic experience that offers a rare glimpse into a nearly forgotten war that has never felt as tangible as it does here, and the results are often as chilling as they are haunting.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD | Directed by Peter Jackson | Rated R for disturbing war images | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Unless you’re a professional Oscar watcher or a film critic, chances are the categories most likely to leave you scratching your head are the three short film categories – Best Live Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary Short. Thankfully, these films are no longer as obscure and inaccessible as they once were and are now available in select theaters through Oscar night. Like always, this year’s nominees for Best Live Action short are a mixed bag, but often showcase fantastic up-and-coming talent at the start of fruitful careers.


Detainment

In 1993, toddler James Bulger was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two ten-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Vincent Lambe's short film, Detainment, takes the transcripts from the police interviews to piece together a harrowing reenactment of the boys' questioning and the events leading up to their crime.

 There has been some controversy over the film due to Lambe's never having sought the permission of Bulger's family to make the film, but that doesn't negate the fact that the performances by the two young leads are some of the most stunning child acting ever captured on film. Ely Solan (Jon) brilliantly captures the desperation of a child caught doing something he knows he's wrong, wildly flailing for sympathy as he tries to cast blame on his partner in crime. Leon Hughes (Robert), on the other hand, channels a chilling detachment for all sense of basic morality. Each is manipulative and sociopathic in his own way, and the young actors are uniformly incredible. There is a discussion to be had about whether or not the film is exploiting a family's tragedy, but Lambe displays a powerful sense of mood as he navigates tricky thematic waters. One almost wishes he had more time to explore the "why" rather than just the "what," but Detainment's occasionally uneven balancing act between haunting and macabre will be a tough pill to swallow for many.

Fauve

Two young boys head out to an old rock quarry, goading each other to increasingly dangerous feats of childhood daring. Their carefree reverie is suddenly shattered when the game becomes all-too-real, leaving one of them desperately seeking help in a lonely and desolate hellscape.

Filmmaker Jérémy Comte creates a powerful sense of isolation that adds to the film's tension, and the central performances by the two boys are full of young, unbridled adolescent swagger and machismo cut short by the crushing arrival of reality. But the finale is much too on-the-nose, undercutting the otherwise strongly realized portrait of innocence lost.

Madre

Perhaps my favorite of the 2019 nominees for Best Live Action Short, Rodrigo Sorogoyen's Madre, a harrowing, 18-minute exercise in gradually escalating suspense that frays the nerves without ever showing the event around which it centers.

 A mother receives a phone call from her young son, who has been left alone by his father on a beach in another country. While she is on the phone, the boy informs her that a strange man is watching him. What follows is nearly 20 minutes of sheer terror as the mother tries to direct her son to safety from hundreds of miles away, completely helpless and only able to listen to her son's terror on the other end of the phone. Its end credit song choice is jarring considering what we've just witnessed, but Madre is an exceedingly effective genre exercise that proves that less is often much, much more.

Marguerite

An elderly woman and her home care nurse form an unusual and beautiful friendship after the revelation that the nurse is a lesbian reawakens an old, unrequited love from the old woman's past.

Marguerite plays with the audience pre-conceived notions about age and attraction. When the nurse reveals that she was talking with a girlfriend on the phone rather than a boyfriend, we expect the old woman to react negatively. Instead, something wholly unexpected happens, revealing a lifetime of longing and regret born from being unable to be who she was always meant to be. It's a lovely and beguiling short - easily the most emotionally affecting of the Best Live Action Short nominees which makes it a likely winner. It handles its subject with great care and a deep sense of humanity, striking its notes with lyricism and grace.

Skin

Easily the strangest of this year's Best Live Action Short nominees, Skin, which is already being developed into a feature film, attempts to examine cycles of prejudice imparted on the next generation through the lens of two warring gangs, one white, one black, whose escalating reprisals leave their children scarred. While its heart is in the right place, its strange exoticism surrounding the black gang members feels exploitative and even a bit animalistic.

By casting the white boy and his racist family at the center of the narrative, director Guy Nattiv inadvertently seems to be confirming their prejudices, especially when the most brutal act of revenge comes from the black gang against the white protagonists. It seems to revel in its lurid violence, becoming strangely fetishistic in a misguided attempt to illustrate the futility and pointlessness of racism. Instead, it engages in a bizarre "both sides" argument that ultimately doesn't hold water.


The 2019 Best Live Action Short nominees are now playing in select theaters. On Demand Feb. 19.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The unique empathy and humanity of the films of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country) has quickly distinguished the pair as two of the most deeply insightful filmmakers working today. Like Frederick Wiseman but with a sense of brevity, Palmieri and Mosher examine the intricacies of small town life with the eye of an ethnographer, exploring the inherent contradictions and inescapable bonds that make America what it is.

So here in 2019, at a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, a film like The Gospel of Eureka seems like a balm for the soul. Set in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the film explores the peaceful but tenuous co-existence between a moderately famous passion play and a gospel-themed drag show. In the process, Palmieri and Mosher reframe Christian iconography and ideology through a queer point of view, as the town goes through a brief time of upheaval over a "trans bathroom bill."

Eureka was briefly the home of infamous anti-gay crusader, Anita Bryant, who tried to stage a comeback in the form of a Christian-themed show which proved to be an epic flop. From there, the town played host to notorious anti-Semite leader of the Christian Nationalist Party, Gerald L.K. Smith, who founded "The Great Passion Play" in 1968. To say that the town has had a rocky relationship with the LGBT community would be an understatement, which makes it the perfect place for a film like The Gospel of Eureka  Here, in this former hotbed of homophobia deep in the Bible Belt, gay culture has found a foothold. The filmmakers juxtapose the nightly pageantry of the drag bar with the Great Passion Play, which takes on its own air of camp with its over-the-top spectacle and copious amounts of male nudity.

In fact, one could argue that "The Great Passion Play" is a form of Christian drag - the entire thing is lip-synced to a pre-recorded vocal track, not unlike the musical numbers performed by drag queens in the bar. It's a fascinating dichotomy, and yet Palmieri and Mosher find commonalities between the two worlds. The drag bar is owned by a gay couple who are devout Christians. One of the "Passion Play's" biggest fans is a transgender woman. The owner of a local Christian book store speaks fondly of his gay father. The Gospel of Eureka seeks out and  explores the places where Christianty and queer culture meet, and discovers that the gulf is not as wide as we might think.


Even as locals fight over a new civil rights frontier in the form of discriminatory transgender bathroom bills, the filmmakers discover commonalities where there appear to be none. In Eureka it's not Christians vs. the LGBT community, because there is so much overlap. Eureka becomes a kind of microcosm for America itself, a place where Christianity and queerness not only coexist, but compliment each other. As narrated by the wonderful Justin Vivian Bond, The Gospel of Eureka is neither preachy or didactic, instead it eschews hatred and bigotry by investigating overlooked commonalities, rather its the queer subtexts of the gospels and Christian pageantry or the deep and abiding faith of those in the LGBT community.

Much like human sexuality, faith transcends boundaries, refutes hatred, and ultimately finds a place of belonging in the most unlikely of places. At a time when our country feels more divided than ever, films like The Gospel of Eureka feel all the more essential. Its sense of empathy feels almost defiantly out of step with the world at large, and yet it manages to touch on some deep and essential truths. It is a celebration of queerness, of faith, and of the deep and abiding ties that bind. If a place like Eureka can find such a balance, then there's hope for the rest of us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE GOSPEL OF EUREKA | Directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher | Stars Justin Vivian Bond | Not Rated | Opens Friday, Feb. 8, in NYC.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Nicole Kidman stars as a washed up, alcoholic cop in this hard-boiled modern film noir from director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation). It's a familiar story - a grizzled cop seeks revenge against the one that got away, a villain from their past who has haunted them ever since. It's a role that has been inhabited by the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney; anti-heroes who operate outside the law to bring about their own brand of justice.

Destroyer flips the script, casting a woman as the cop who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Erin Bell (Kidman) is a former undercover agent for the LAPD whose parter, Chris (Sebastian Stan), was killed by a bank robber named Silas (Toby Kebbell), with whom the pair were embedded. After a murder with a familiar calling card hints to Erin that Silas has returned, she sets out to find him and kill him by any means necessary, even if that means operating as an outlaw herself. All the while she's struggling to keep her own family together, as her rebellious teenage daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) looks for ways to distance herself from her self-destructive mother through a series of cries for help.

The film is at once a police procedural and an existential drama exploring the unravelling of a woman who has experienced incredible trauma. Unfortunately it isn't particularly interesting in either facet, relying mainly on Kidman's impressive performance and a third act twist that completely reframes the narrative but doesn't really change much about the character or her methods. Destroyer is certainly handsomely crafted, featuring some bleakly lovely cinematography by Julie Kirkwood and an evocative score by Theodore Shapiro, but the film never escapes the feeling that we've seen all this before in TV shows like True Detective, Hannibal, and even Law & Order.

Kidman's performance certainly elevates the material, as does its gender-swapped take on an old formula, but there's little to distinguish its bland narrative despite Kusama's attempts to provide a fresh perspective. Bell is an impressively fallible character, but one never quite escapes the feeling that we've seen all this done better before. It feels more like an attempt to secure Kidman an Oscar nomination (which never materialized) than a film in its own right. She's certainly terrific in the role, but it's ultimately a film about a performance that is riddled with clichés and undercooked drama.

For all its grim, portentous atmosphere, it never achieves the level of self-reflection or genre deconstructionism that it seems to be reaching for. Kidman certainly gives it her all, but the character never really breaks out of the age-old cinematic identifiers of trauma; alcoholism and broken family life. It's a kind of narrative shorthand that often passes for character development, but is more often than not a crutch to mask a lack of depth. In the case of Destroyer, it starts as a clever twist on the classic film noir, but never manages to distinguish itself from the very tropes of the genre it's seeking to subvert.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


DESTROYER | Directed by Karyn Kusama | Stars Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Toby Kebbell, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss | Rated R for language throughout, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use | Now playing in select cities.