Friday, March 29, 2019

No other film in the 2018 Oscar race got a more raw deal than Damien Chazelle's First Man. One of the crowning achievements of the year in cinema was routinely ignored at every turn, only managing four (well deserved) technical nominations, and one win for Best Visual Effects. Yet no other film last year was so masterfully directed, so beautifully composed, or as deeply powerful as this. One day we will look back on this past Oscar season and scratch our heads as to why such a towering work was so inexplicably overlooked.

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

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

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

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

The Blu-Ray release magnificently preserves the grainy aesthetic of the earthbound scenes, making the stunning moon landing sequence stand out in its breathtaking clarity. The making-of featurettes offer a smorgasbord of behind-the-scenes tidbits that actually work to deepen ones appreciation of the craft that went into the making of the film. Perhaps most impressive, "Shooting for the Moon" details the process of shooting the claustrophobic outer-space scenes, and how the filmmakers built giant LED screens around motion-enabled cockpit sets, essentially building a theme park ride in which to shoot the actors in order to garner the most authentic performances possible. Those shots of the men looking out of their cockpits at the Earth and sky below weren't made possible with a green screen, they're brought to life through a new spin on the old technique of projections. Such completely immersive filmmaking is hard to find, and that sense of tangible reality created by Chazelle and his team of designers is keenly felt within the film. It's an achievement on a rare scale deserves to finally find its audience on home video.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIRST MAN | Directed by Damien Chazelle | Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Shea Whigham, Christopher Abbott, Brian d'Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Patrick Fugit | Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital platforms.

Special features include:

  • · Deleted Scenes
  • · Shooting for the Moon 
  • · Preparing to Launch 
  • · Giant Leap in One Small Step 
  • · Mission Gone Wrong
  • · Putting You In the Seat 
  • · Recreating the Moon Landing
  • · Shooting at NASA
  • · Astronaut Training 
  • · Feature Commentary with Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer and Editor Tom Cross

Thursday, March 28, 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.

The special features on the Blu-Ray, however, manage to capture a sense of wonder and nostalgia that the film itself is never quite able to. Seeing Dick Van Dyke return to the Cherry Tree Lane set, singing some of his signature tunes from the original Mary Poppins, is sure to be a delight for fans of the original film. Some perfunctory blooper reels and deleted scenes are fun, but the making-of doc (featuring Emily Blunt's first nervous attempt at flying) and Van Dyke's recollections are what really steal the show. If you, like me, found the film a bit underwhelming and less nostalgic than it perhaps wanted to be, the focus on Van Dyke in the supplements adds a sense of magic the film lacks when he isn't on screen.

GRADE - ★★½ (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 available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital platforms.

Special Features Include:
  • Bloopers
  • Blu-Ray Bonus Extras
  • Deleted scenes
  • Deleted song: The Anthropomorphic Zoo
  • Over an Hour of Bonus Including a Sing-Along Edition 
  • The practically perfect making of Mary Poppins Returns

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Purportedly the last film to feature his now iconic Madea character, Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral is the 11th film in which the filmmaker as appeared as the character, and you can practically feel the indifference dripping off this thing. Perry has often gotten flak from critics about his lack of directorial polish, but I've always found something fascinating and personal in his work. However, the overall quality of the work has been slipping of late, especially in the last few Madea films, that began coming off the rails with the release of Boo: A Madea Halloween.

Perry seems eager to put the character behind him, and A Madea Family Funeral reflects that general sense of ennui. There's nothing new here, and the same old jokes feel tired and listless. He doesn't even bother to give the film a proper ending, with Madea wandering off the porch in the middle of another argument and then cutting straight to the requisite blooper reel over the end credits.

The film combines the worst tendencies of the two Boo films and Perry's usual domestic drama aesthetic. While Boo and Boo 2 moved away from Perry's brand of wholesome comedy featuring Madea's wisecracking wisdom mixed with religious flavored domestic drama, A Madea Family Funeral at least attempts to put the more serious drama at the forefront. It's "better" than Boo 2 in that it has some semblance of a plot, but unfortunately long sequences of Perry riffing off himself as no less than 4 different characters, along with Aunt Bam (the delightful Cassi Davis) and the painfully unfunny Hattie (Patrice Lovely, who has inexplicably been given more and more to do since debuting in Boo, bog the film down. The central drama, in which a distant Madea relative dies while cheating on his wife, uncovering a wealth of infidelities within the family, is nothing new in Perry-world, and Madea doesn't really do much to fix any of it.

Madea has been more of an agent of chaos than a source of wisdom in recent films, and that continues here, as she mostly sits on the sidelines and complains and does little to influence the plot around her. The appeal of the character has always been her no-nonsense (and often unorthodox) brand of tough love and wisdom, but it seems like Perry has run out of ideas for her, filling the film instead with tired (and vaguely homophobic) jokes that are all set-up and no payoff. While it's doubtful that this is his final film featuring the characters (she's far too popular to put to bed forever), A Madea Family Funeral shows that its definitely time to give her a nice, long rest.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

A MADEA FAMILY FUNERAL | Directed by Tyler Perry | Stars Tyler Perry, Patrice Lovely, Cassi Davis, Ciera Payton, KJ Smith, David Otunga, Quin Walters, Selena Anduze | Rated PG-13 for crude sexual content, language, and drug references throughout | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

After the success of 2017's Get Out (grossing over $176,000,000 domestically and garnering writer/director Jordan Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), anticipation for Peele's follow-up film was high. Sophomore features can be a difficult hurdles for filmmakers who achieve so much success right out of the gate, but Us deftly avoids the sophomore slump for Peele and showcases him as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

Us is arguably an even more complex film than Get Out  Much was made about the social themes that made Get Out so unforgettable, and Us continues Peele's exploration of societal ills as horror, but this time the conclusions he reaches are so cut-and-dried. Us is a much thornier film, one that grapples with difficult questions without coming to any definitive conclusions. While Get Out explored unexamined racism in white liberals ("I would have voted for Obama three times if I could have"), US has a much broader target. Here, the villains are quite literally us.

The film begins as a home invasion thriller (a la Funny Games and The Strangers), in which the Wilson family is terrorized by a family that looks exactly like them. They call themselves "the tethered," shadows of people from the world above who live underground, whose lives mirror those of their tethered counterparts, two bodies sharing one soul, inexorably linked but never co-existing. But the time has come for them to emerge from the shadows and take their place in the outside world, killing their tethered counterparts and ushering in a new era of humanity ruled by those forgotten by society.

Peele quickly expands the home invasion aesthetic into something much grander and broader in scope. It's not always easy to see what Peele is going for here - Us is an incredibly dense film, layering ideas and subtexts into a veritable feast that works as both a straight horror film and an acerbic commentary on reckoning with the sins of America's past. Here we have America's forgotten, all wearing red, rising up from underground to build a wall across the country. But it would be irresponsible to read the film as simply a critique on Trump-era policies. Us is also a film about confronting the past, and the monster within ourselves. America was a nation built on the backs of slave labor, and that original sin comes back to haunt the film's characters in often terrifying ways.

Us forces us to grapple with our own culpability in systems of oppression. What if, after all this time, the monster is really us? At what point do we have to acknowledge that we have benefitted from invisible privilege? It's a wholly fascinating work, a film that operates on so many levels simultaneously that it often feels like an astonishing high-wire act, built around a truly spectacular performance by Lupita N'yongo in a dual role. Few mainstream films ever deal with issues like this on such a deep level, but Jordan Peele is quickly establishing himself not as a great filmmaker, but a quintessential chronicler of our nation. He holds a mirror up to the audience, and what we see is far more terrifying than anything he could ever depict on screen.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

US | Directed by Jordan Peele | Stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker | Rated R for violence/terror, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Dog lovers rejoice, at long last here is a film about "man's best friend" that isn't the cinematic equivalent of syrupy ice cream sundae with plenty of sugar on top. Animals in film have become a sort of tool for easily manipulation and a shortcut to the tissue box, but Heddy Honigmann's documentary, Buddy, is none of those things, deftly avoiding overt sentimentalism in favor of a more direct exploration of the unique relationships humans have with our canine companions.

The dogs in question are service animals - each one devoted to its owner in its own way, and their owners depend on their faithful presence in every aspect of their lives. Whether their owners are blind, unable to walk, suffering from PTSD or severe autism, the dogs form unique bonds with their humans that goes far beyond typical human/pet relationships.

Much like last year's Kedi was for cat-lovers, Buddy will doubtlessly be beloved by dog-lovers everywhere. But it isn't as much about the dogs as it is about the people. Buddy is a disarmingly human story, as each human discovers something about themselves through their relationship with their dog. Honigmann patiently listens as her subjects recount tales of animals past, each one a singular presence in their life, bringing something new to the table before passing away and making way for a new service animal to come stand by their side. While some are just starting out with their first dog, some older subjects have had far more, and they wistfully reminisce about the cycle of life that has lead them to this moment.

Buddy is an uncommonly patient and observant film, teasing out deep and often profound truths as it examines the lives of its subjects and their relationships with the animals they love. Is it possible for a human to have an actual relationship with an animal? Can dogs truly feel love as we know it? Honigmann asks a lot of questions over the film's brief 86 minute runtime, but she leaves us with a kind of mysterious beauty. There is something very special about each and every one of these animals, something that can't quite be put into words. Yes, dog lovers, be prepared to shed a tear or two. But fear not, they won't necessarily be tears of sadness. This isn't your typical "child and their dog" story, it's something much deeper than that. It's a layered, joyous, and yet melancholic meditation on the nature of life, mortality, and companionship, and the results are something uncommonly beautiful.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BUDDY | Directed by Heddy Honigmann | Not RatedIn Dutch with English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The 1980s were something of a dry period for Walt Disney Studios. While films the The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company certainly have their fans, none of them really lit up the box office the way the studio had done in previous decades, and none had the enduring power of classics like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, etc. 

The arrival of The Little Mermaid in 1989 changed all that, and established a musical formula that the studio has been more or less following ever since. Featuring indelible songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who would again collaborate on later studio classics like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman's untimely death in 1991), The Little Mermaid liberally adapted Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale for a new generation, redefining the story and entering into the cultural lexicon in a way the studio hadn't seen for decades.  The story of a plucky young mermaid who dreams of breaking free of her oppressive environment and living on the surface as a human captured the hearts of millions, while songs like "Part of Your World," "Kiss the Girl," "Under the Sea," and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" have become instantly recognizable hits.

The film was responsible for what became known as the Disney Renaissance, which continued on throughout the 1990s, before the studio switched gears again in the 2000s, before returning to (and often subverting) its roots in The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen, and Moana. It has become the target of some criticism in recent years for its depiction of a woman who changes herself in order to attract and please a man, but upon revisiting the film I found that criticism to ultimately miss the point of what Ariel is trying to do. She wanted to be human all along, even before meeting Prince Eric (that's what the entire "Part of Your World" song is about), meeting the human prince just gives her an excuse to pursue and fulfill that dream. Although  watching it as an adult you also realize that Ariel's father, King Triton, was completely right in forbidding her from marrying a man she just met three days ago at age 16 - a trope that Frozen would go on to lampoon in its song, "Love is an Open Door."

Disney would go on to make better films. The Little Mermaid lacks the narrative sophistication Beauty and the Beast, the Shakespearean grandeur of The Lion King, and the sheer dark beauty of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but in its historical context, revitalizing the Disney brand at a time when it had severely stalled during the 1970s and 80s, The Little Mermaid is nothing short of astonishing. It brought Broadway quality music and smartly written lyrics that changed the way animated movies were made. It now occupies a very special place in the  pantheon as the film that gave birth to a new Disney era.

The new Blu-Ray release in Disney's Signature Collection series offers a few new additions from the last Diamond Edition release, chief among them "Alan Menken and the Leading Ladies," a trip down memory lane with Menken and some iconic Disney stars; Jodi Benson (Ariel from The Little Mermaid), Paige O'Hara (Belle from Beauty and the Beast), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas Singing Voice from Pocahontas), Lillias White (Calliope from Hercules) and Donna Murphy (Mother Gothel from Tangled), each getting to sing their signature tune with Menken on piano. It's a delight for Disney fans, who will also be pleased to see that the beautiful Blu-Ray transfer doesn't undo the craft of the original artists by painting over the original colors as some of their previous Blu-Ray releases have (looking at you, Cinderella). It's a film that belongs on every Disney lover's shelf, and this latest version from the fabled Disney vault is its best home video incarnation yet.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LITTLE MERMAID | Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker | Stars Jodi Benson, Samuel E. Wright, Pat Carroll, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Kenneth Mars, Budd Hackett, Jason Marin, Rene Auberjonois | Rated G | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Few politicians have attracted quite so much controversy in recent times as freshman Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant whose Muslim faith has made her a target for many on the right and even some on the left, her comments about money in politics and America's problematic relationship with the Israeli government making her a target for conservatives and liberals alike.

But who is she, really? Norah Shapiro's documentary, Time for Ilhan was made before Omar was elected to the United States Congress in 2018, but offers a portrait of a woman fighting for justice against a system seemingly stacked against her. Centering around her 2016 run for the Minnesota State House, Time for Ilhan offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the inner workings of Omar's journey toward becoming the first legislator of Somali descent in American history. While her district had a very large population of Somali refugees (a point Donald Trump used as a weapon in his 2016 campaign for President), Omar still faced a fierce primary campaign against 44-year incumbent, Phyllis Kahn, as well as pushback from a party that was unsure of what to do with her.

It's a bit of foreshadowing to the Democratic pushback against Omar's criticisms of Israel just this year. But through grassroots organizing and a focus on ideas rather than experience and longevity, Omar eventually broke through for a resounding victory. Director Norah Shapiro also spends some time with Kahn, who begins the film with a somewhat arrogant sense of entitlement, pooh-poohing Omar's chances and endorsements, before becoming a more contrite and humble figure after Omar's victory.

While Time for Ilhan never really goes beyond surface-level inquiries into the candidate's ideas and motivations, it does take the time to investigate some of the conspiracy theories and fake scandals that continue to plague her.  As the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress (along with Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib), much of the resistance to Omar has been deeply rooted in Islamophobia (see recent remarks by Fox News host Jeanine Pirro about Omar's hijab being unconstitutional). These are clearly very personal and hurtful criticisms for Omar, and she shuts down production of the documentary for several weeks when a particularly nasty rumor about committing immigration fraud by marrying her brother takes route in right-wing circles (an accusation that still floats around in conservative fake news memes to this day). And yet despite the pushback, Omar always comes back stronger than ever, even more determined to fight for the things she believes in.

Time for Ilhan is not a great documentary, but there's something deeply inspiring about Omar that Shapiro manages to capture. It's a feel-good hagiography to be sure, but it also offers a more personal look at who Omar really is, free of the noise of cable news punditry and partisan fear-mongering. She has seen the effects of injustice firsthand, and seeks to fight it wherever it takes root, a fight that has lead her to the halls of the United States Congress as part of a new generation of progressive lawmakers looking to shape a more just and equitable nation for all. Personally, I can't wait to see where it takes her next.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TIME FOR ILHAN | Directed by Norah Shapiro | Not Rated | Now available on DVD and VOD.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Watching Christian Petzold's Transit is, by design, a bit of a bewildering experience. The film throws us in the middle of France during the Nazi occupation, focusing on a German expatriate caught in the middle and trying desperately to get out of the country. But something is off, while the language of the film is absolutely steeped in the verbiage of World War II, the setting is quite modern. Where are we? When are we? Petzold deliberately plays it coy, and the results are as obfuscating as they are mesmerizing.

The title, Transit, works on several levels, as both literal descriptor and ironic subversion. The film's protagonist, Georg (Franz Rogowski), seeks transit papers in order to flee the fascist advance. And yet he, like so many others in his position, find themselves stuck in transit, unable to go anywhere. Like some sort of Kafka-esque Casablanca, Georg is trapped in Marseilles behind enemy lines, forced to stagnate in an ever-increasing sense of ennui. There is no real transit in “Transit.” No one goes anywhere.

Along the way, however, Georg assumes the identity of a well-known author who dies while fleeing the Nazis, in hopes that it will expedite his approval for transit papers. Instead, he finds himself playing a role, and eventually meeting and falling in love with the man's wife, hopelessly waiting for him to return home so they can flee together. It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and hesitation that Petzold sets Transit, a film as much about the existential terror of fascism as it is about the slowly encroaching nature of its dehumanizing philosophy.

Petzold is no stranger to films about loneliness and fascism, having tackled similar ideas in Jerichow (2009), Barbara (2012), and Phoenix (2015). Yet Transit is perhaps is most enigmatic and even opaque work. The audience often feels as lost as his characters, trapped in an existential nightmare from which there is seemingly no escape Each person they meet is in a similar position - looking for a plane to America, a boat to Mexico (another sly modern irony, refugees seeking, and failing to procure, entry into Mexico), anything to get away, as the reality of the fascist occupation becomes more and more normalized. Petzold's characters are often trapped in a kind of purgatory of their own making - here it is thrust upon them by outside forces they cannot control, a fact of life they must eventually learn to accept.

By taking its source, Anna Seghers' 1944 novel of the same name, and updating the setting without updating the language or thematic ideas, Transit creates a timeless portrait of fascism's encroaching insidiousness, the way it worms itself into society and becomes quickly normalized and accepted, beating its subjects into a kind of world-weary limbo, where all sense of time and place, right and wrong become chillingly relative. Perhaps what is most unsettling about the way in which Petzold transplants the language of fascist occupation from 1940 to modern day is just how natural it seems. You may find yourself wondering "wait, what year is it?" as you struggle to find your bearings early on, but once one settles into the film's unique rhythms, it soon becomes clear that we're all lost in time. History repeats itself. Fascism once again rears its ugly head. Whether watching a film or watching the nightly news, Transit's haunting lack of specific time and its eerie recalling of earlier atrocities seems all too real. "What year is it?" indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TRANSIT | Directed by Christian Petzold | Stars Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese | Not Rated | In German and French with English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, March 11, 2019

At the end of last year's Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) managed to send out a mysterious distress signal just before disappearing when Thanos wiped out half the life in the universe. The signal was to Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who now has the distinction of becoming the first woman to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's an important milestone for sure, and Larson more than rises to the occasion. The film around her, on the other hand, is more or less standard Marvel fare - not bad by any means, but it doesn't really bring anything new to the table either. Unlike the other solo hero films in Marvel's "Phase 3," Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and especially Black PantherCaptain Marvel mostly sticks to the established Marvel formula, resulting a middle-of-the-pack film that never really asserts a personality of its own.

That's not to say that Captain Marvel isn't a lot of fun - because it certainly is. Set in the 1990s, the film introduces Danvers as a Kree warrior who discovers that her roots actually lie on Earth, where she travels to help prevent an evil race of shapeshifters known as Skrulls from tracking down a light speed engine developed by her former mentor, Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Upon arrival, she meets Shield Agent Nick Fury, some 25 years younger than when we last saw him in Infinity War, young, fresh-faced, and totally oblivious to the extraterrestrial threats that will soon face the planet on a regular basis.

Captain Marvel is essentially a buddy cop film, with Larson and Jackson playing off each other to great effect. The de-aging special effects on Jackson are truly incredible, allowing Jackson to believably play a much younger version of his character, even younger than when we first met him more than a decade ago at the end of 2008's Iron Man. But the heart of the film are the more intimate character moments shared by the film's women. Larson's rapport with Lashana Lynch as her best friend, Maria, and with Bening's benevolent scientist, make for some moments of disarming beauty. It's rare to see a superhero film take the time to allow the characters (and the plot) to breathe, but it between its exposition-heavy dialogue scenes about intergalactic wars, Captain Marvel manages to take a moment to examine not just who its protagonist is, but who she is as a woman, and how she relates to the woman around her.

That's what makes Captain Marvel strong. Here is a character that has spent her entire life being trained to control her emotions, only to discover who true power when she unlearns society's mandates. It's inspiring to see a woman take center stage, giving young girls everywhere a chance to see themselves represented as a powerful heroine on screen. While the film itself may not be the best or most original film in the Marvel oeuvre, it will certainly be something quite special for many. Yet one can't quite help but feel that something this groundbreaking should have felt a bit more fresh and adventurous than it ultimately does, as it spends more time setting the stage for the next Avengers film and establishing its place in the MCU than it does asserting its own personality.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

CAPTAIN MARVEL | Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck | Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

This 1929 German adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's oft-told Sherlock Holmes mystery was the last of the silent Sherlocks, completed just as sound was taking over cinema and silent projects were being shelved or forgotten, seemingly lost in the dustbin of history.

Richard Oswald's Der Hund von Baskerville did gangbuster business in its native Europe, but was never released in America, and thus was never able to really secure an American audience. The film was long thought lost, only for a near-complete 35mm nitrate print to be discovered in Poland in 2009. Missing footage was supplied by a 9.5mm print from a private collector that had been released for the home market in the 1930s (yes, those did exist back then), but the film remains incomplete - relying on publicity stills and intertitles derived from the original German censor records to present the most complete version possible in this new Blu-Ray release from Flicker Alley that at last presents the film to a worldwide audience for the first time.

And what a discovery it is. For a tale that has been told on film and television countless times, Der Hund von Baskerville feels startlingly fresh. Its style rooted is in German Expressionism, the film is a moody thriller filled with deep shadows, off-kilter camera angles, and imposing, gothic sets. Figures creep up eerie staircases, their shadows thrown up against the wall like Nosferatu, and the mist-shrouded moor where the titular hound claims its victims is appropriately chilling. In short, this is one of the finest adaptations of the story ever produced for film. Doyle purists may balk at some of the film's liberties with the original story, but Oswald's haunting take on the material gives it an appropriately mysterious sheen. Carlyle Blackwell's Holmes is dashing and mysterious, while George Seroff's Watson has a few amusing moments of comic relief as the old Baskerville mansion creaks in the night.

The 1914 version of Der Hund von Baskerville, also included on the new Blu-Ray as a special feature, is a different animal from the 1929 version altogether. Scripted by Oswald, but directed by Rudolf Meinert, the film uses Doyle's original story merely as a jumping off point for a tale all its own. Not as eerie or well designed as its 1929 remake, this film is nonetheless notable for the creativity of the liberties it takes with the source material.

There's no real mystery to be solved here; the villain is revealed before Sherlock Holmes even appears in the film. In fact, the villain actually disguises himself as Holmes, and attempts to blow up Baskerville Hall when the real Holmes finally arrives. This version of Holmes is something like a precursor to James Bond, cool under pressure with an affinity for gadgets and disguises (he even disguises himself as a suit of armor at one point to catch the villain). What it lacks in style it more than makes up for in sheer zaniness, throwing the text out the window in favor of a wildly inventive spy caper.

The disc also includes some fascinating behind-the-scenes materials, including a look at Doyle's sometimes strained relationship with the Holmes character, and an examination of the work that went into restoring the long lost 1929 film version. It's a discovery not only for fans of Sherlock Holmes, but for aficiandos of silent cinema as well.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Gaspar Noé is not exactly a filmmaker known for subtlety. His films are often as much assaults on the senses as they are on good taste. His latest cinematic provocation, Climax, arrived at last year's Cannes Film Festival with the requisite controversy - its posters goading Noé's detractors by exclaiming "you despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax."

Yet despite Noé's gleeful trolling of his critics, Climax has become one of the most acclaimed films of his career, winning the Directors' Fortnight Prize at Cannes while enjoying generally favorable reviews across the board. And it's easy to see why - Climax is one of the most unique and exhilarating cinematic experiences to grace the screen in some time. The film opens on one of the most dizzying, rapturous dance sequences ever put on film (shot in one stunning take), and descends into utter madness as a group of French dancers gathers in a remote gym for a night of rehearsal and partying, only to discover that their sangria is laced with LSD.

The film is a triumph of directorial verve and vision, a raucous descent into Hell with Noé as our jubilantly mad Virgil, set to the pulsing beat of electronic club music. It's a truly sensory experience, but when the LSD starts kicking in, it's a ride like no other. Climax quickly becomes hazy and hallucinatory, even orgiastic in its depiction of human depravity laid bare. Here, the drugs reveal the truth, stripping its characters down to their primal essence. Is this who we really are, Noé wonders? Once the inhibitions are gone and the semblances of polite society ripped away, what is left? The film is at once horrific and beautiful, frightening and exuberant, a visceral landmine in which death is an almost orgasmic experience, achieving another plane of existence that skirts the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

In that regard, Climax is the perfect movie for the world in which we live. Common morality and human decency take a backseat to something much more brutal and primal, a world run by pure id. Yet this is no empty provocation, it’s an exploration of the darkest recesses of the human mind, a window into what we're capable of at our very cores. There's a kind of trance-like quality to the film, and once we're under Noé's spell, there's no turning back. It's at once a slow-burn unravelling and a turbulent, unhinged party that goes quickly off the rails. That Noé manages to balance those two aesthetics is remarkable in and of itself, but to also create something that is as moving as it is horrifying. Climax is often shockingly brutal, but it manages to make us feel the pain of its characters, and to sympathize with their plight. They never asked for this, and the results are often terrifying.

Much of the film is shot in long, unblinking takes, the camera movements replacing editing by being untethered to one specific plane. Noé's camera moves throughout the party like an unseen observer, roving the halls, and even moving up to the ceiling for a bird's eye view so that the audience is at once a dispassionate voyeur and an active participant. There's simply no other film like it in recent memory. It's thrilling, ghastly, tragic, and beautiful, a riotous and sensual visual and aural assault that simply must be seen to be believed. One can't help but feel that this is Noé leaving it all on the dance floor, and the results are truly incredible.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CLIMAX | Directed by Gaspar Noé | Stars Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Claude Gajan, Maude Giselle, Palmer Taylor, Kastle Thea, Carla Schøtt, Sharleen Temple | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Outside of the Toy Story franchise, Disney's sequels to its own animated films have historically been something of a mixed bag. Often going direct-to-video, they tend to be designed to make a quick buck off licensing and merchandise rather than adding anything to the story the original set out to tell.

That is thankfully not the case with Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph, in which the titular video game villain (John C. Reilly) finds redemption and friendship after becoming tired of his destructive programming. Now, he and his best friend, the glitchy racer Princess Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), spend their evenings goofing off in other video games until the sun comes up, before heading off to their own respective games. But Vanellope wants to break out of their monotonous routine, while Ralph only wants what's familiar and comfortable. When Ralph's efforts to shake things up for Vanellope ends up wrecking her game, the pair find themselves journeying to the internet in order to find a crucial part that could save Sugar Rush. Once inside the internet, Vanellope discovers the vast world outside her backyard, and begins to yearn for new surroundings, even if that means leaving Ralph behind.

We've all had friends we've outgrown to some degree, whether we moved away from them or their goals and dreams just didn't align with our own. It's a bittersweet part of life that Ralph Breaks the Internet embraces with disarming emotional acuity. Ralph and Vanellope are friends traveling in different directions - one wanting familiarity and routine, the other longing for adventure and the unknown. As a result, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a film about moving on and letting go, and reconciling and embracing our loved ones unique ambitions, even if they diverge wildly from our own.

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston skillfully navigate these tricky emotional waters, acknowledging the wistful and sometimes painful beauty of friendship, and it does so with great humor and heart. The film is wonderfully self-referential, creating a dazzling and witty personification of the internet and internet culture that pokes gentle fun at Disney's brand synergy while satirizing everything from social media to online click-bait. The much ballyhooed cameos by the Disney princesses (many voiced by the original actors) offer several comedic highlights, and showcase an unusual willingness for Disney to make fun of itself.

Ralph Breaks the Internet marks a giant leap forward for Disney animation, stepping out of the shadow of Pixar and asserting that even without their partner studio Disney animation is perfectly capable of producing smart, original, and emotionally grounded films apart from their trademark fairy tale/princess musicals. It not only manages to expand the world of the original, but deepen its emotional resonance as well - the mark of a truly successful sequel.

The disc's bonus features include the requisite making-of docs, but these behind-the-scenes looks are anything but perfunctory. The interviews with directors Moore and Johnston and other animators at Disney Animation in "How We Broke the Internet" provides some fascinating insight into how the film came to be, not only exploring the film's myriad easter eggs, but also the origins of its thematic content. The amount of work that went into building the film's internet environments is impressive,  and the complexity behind the film's climactic showdown with "Ralph-zilla," a surprisingly metaphoric battle against Ralph's own inner demons, is jaw-dropping. These aren't the kind of special features that simply give lip-service to how great the film is, they actually bring a deeper appreciation of the film. While it would have been great to have seen more about the original princess voices getting back together, this Blu-Ray release's features manage to enhance the film rather than simply selling it. And the extended reel of BuzzzTube cat videos is almost worth the price of the disc alone.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET | Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston | Stars  John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Phil Johnston, Paige O'Hara, Irene Bedard, Mandy Moore, Auli'i Cravalho, Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Kelly Macdonald, Anika Noni Rose, Linda Larkin, Jodi Benson, Ming-Na Wen, Alfred Molina | Rated PG for some action and rude humor | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital.

Special Features:
Blu-ray & Digital:
• How We Broke the Internet
• Surfing for Easter Eggs
• The Music of Ralph Breaks the Internet
• Deleted Scenes
• BuzzzTube Cats
• Music Videos - “Zero” by Imagine Dragons and “In This Place” by Julia Michaels.

 Digital Exclusive: 

• Baby Drivers – Slaughter Racing School

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven isn't just a remarkable film because of how convincingly it emulates the cinematic language of a filmmaker (the great Douglas Sirk) whose peak came nearly half a century before it was released, but because of how Haynes so accurately uses that language to tell a more modern story that Sirk himself could have never told.

As a result, Far From Heaven feels like the Sirk film that Sirk never made, a long lost work from a Hollywood master who not only elevated the art form, but utilized the platform to advocate for social justice through the guise of overwrought soap operas. One does not have to look far to see the influence of Sirk's particular brand of melodrama in modern film, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's German classic, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul to Guillermo Del Toro's recent Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, the immaculate style and bold color palate that distinguished Sirk's films have inspired filmmakers for decades. Yet no one quite so brazenly attempted to pay homage to him as Haynes, who took the basic elements of Sirk's 1955 film, All that Heaven Allows  and reworked it into a searing, thoroughly modern treatise on race, sexuality, and the lies we tell ourselves in a society that only values conformity.

In All that Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman stars as a middle aged widow whose affair with her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), creating a scandal amongst her children and the town as a whole. In Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore is Cathy Whitaker, a picture perfect 1950s housewife whose husband, Frank, is a successful business executive (together they make up "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech" 1957). But underneath the seemingly perfect facade, trouble is brewing. Frank, it turns out, is gay, and despite his best efforts to "cure" himself, he can't overcome his own desires. Cathy turns her gardener, a black man named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), for comfort, immediately scandalizing the town and turning Frank against her.

Hayes is clearly dealing with issues here that Sirk could have never directly addressed, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is exactly how Sirk would have handled them. Far From Heaven is perhaps one of the most remarkable tributes by one filmmaker by another ever made. From the sumptuous costume design by Sandy Powell to Ed Lachmann's breathtaking Technicolor cinematography with its vibrant fall colors and striking blue tones (gorgeously rendered on the new Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber), to the luscious score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird), Far From Heaven is awash in stunning period detail in both style and substance. Its characters are all trapped, by their sexuality, their race, their gender, by the very artifice of the extravagant sets that surround them, unable to communicate with each other or express how they truly feel. As a result, the most profound moments are often found in what the characters can't bring themselves to actually say, the words left unspoken leaving the most lasting emotional impact.

That's what makes Julianne Moore's Oscar-nominated performance so incredible (although she ended up losing the award to her co-star from The Hours, Nicole Kidman), she walks a fine line between emulating the acting style of 1950s melodramas and allowing moments of real emotion to shine through the cracks in the facade. Those moments when the real Cathy is allowed to appear are utterly devastating, and they say a lot about not only the world in which the characters lived, but the world we live in today. The elements of acting are essentially on display, but the way in which Moore uses those obvious, more presentational modes of expression becomes a kind of performance with a performance. It's a truly impressive thing to watch - it's one of the great acting achievements of the 21st century.

It's easy to look at a film that deals with ideas of homophobia and racism in the 1950s and think of these things as issues of another time (hi, Green Book), and yet despite its period trappings, Far From Heaven never feels anything less that contemporary. This isn't just about characters from the 1950s, it's about characters trapped by circumstance, by an intolerant society, by keeping up with appearances, spending a lifetime performing for others rather than living for one's self. Those performances make up the core of Haynes' film, a work filled with self-conscious artifice that uses its own artificiality to explore some essential truths. Never has such fakery felt so painfully, or so beautifully, honest.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

FAR FROM HEAVEN | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Celia Weston, June Squibb | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language | Available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on March 16, 2019.