Monday, June 17, 2019

An entertainer rises from obscurity, bolstered by a fascinated media and a fawning public, to become formidable political demagogue who spouts hollow "man of the people" populism as a means to power.

Sound familiar? Cinephiles were quick to point out the eerie parallels between Andy Griffith's Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes from Elia Kazan's 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, and Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election. And while there are certainly some differences, it's hard to ignore the striking similarities. Here's populist sensation born out of near-constant, uncritical media attention, who becomes a monster; drunk on his own power and his ability to sway the public through plain-spoken faux-folksy pablum and preying on the insecurities and prejudices of a naive public.

It's part of what makes A Face in the Crowd such a ferociously prescient picture, as if Kazan somehow peered into the future and saw what was coming - a perfect storm of unchecked power and a complicit media. It recalls Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951) in its pitch black emulation of a future it couldn't possibly know, but presages anyway. Griffith, making his film debut here, is a wonder, making the most of his unique, down-home charm and giving it a sinister spin. We're a long way from the noble "sheriff without a gun" of The Andy Griffith Show. Kazan was known as an actor's director, and what he pulls out of Griffith is extraordinary - even reportedly going so far as to get Griffith drunk for his fiery final scene. Yet the film really belongs to Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries - the reporter turned lover turned unlikely hero who discovers, cultivates, then ultimately brings down "Lonesome" Rhodes. Her character arc, as she slowly begins to realize what she has unleashed upon the world, is a thing of great and terrible beauty - bringing into sharp relief the unique talent that Kazan had with actors.

A Face in the Crowd unfolds like a play - the screenplay by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) humming with a kind of rough-hewn power. It has never felt more relevant than it does today, and one almost wishes that some intrepid theater artist would adapt it for the stage to comment on our current times. Yet its new Blu-Ray treatment from The Criterion Collection brings it to life at a time when the world needs it the most. It's a haunting satire of America's fascination with celebrity and the power of the media to create uncontrollable sensations whose lust for fame and power become vicious cycles - fueled by media attention and the public's lust for a juicy story and a charismatic star. Here in 2019 we may be wondering where our Marcia Jeffries is to expose Trump's true nature to his supporters. But while the revelation of Rhodes' distain for them rubes who follow him is ultimately his undoing, one has to wonder if Kazan and Schulberg's dark vision wasn't too hopeful about human nature in the end. In 2019, we have to wonder if anything matters at all. The film's most nagging idea is that maybe A Face in the Crowd didn't take the satire far enough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A FACE IN THE CROWD | Directed by Elia Kazan | Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Anthony Franciosa | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features include:
  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan 
  • New interview with Andy Griffith biographer Evan Dalton Smith 
  • Facing the Past, a 2005 documentary featuring actors Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Anthony Franciosa; screenwriter Budd Schulberg; and film scholars Leo Braudy and Jeff Young Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic April Wolfe, excerpts from director Elia Kazan’s introduction to the film’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Irreverent, self-referential, and gleefully misanthropic, Jean-Luc Godard's 1983 film, First Name: Carmen, was released near the beginning of the legendary raconteur's return to feature filmmaking in the early 1980s. In the decade since his radical left-wing period with the Dziga Vertov group in the early 1970s, the filmmaker mostly concerned himself with documentaries and experimental short films before reuniting with long-time cinematographer Raoul Coutard (Breathless) and writer Anne-Marie Miéville for this loose adaptation of Bizet's opera - Carmen.

Once the French New Wave's most iconoclastic Enfant terrible, Godard reinvents Carmen as something of a domestic terrorist (whose political motivations are never fully revealed) who falls in love with a bank guard, who becomes something of a patsy-cum-parter in crime. Carmen invents a fake movie as a front for her organization, and approaches her doddering Uncle Jean (played Godard himself in full-on self-parody mode) about using his home as a location.

Jean, a "washed up" film director, gets dragged back into commercial filmmaking kicking and screaming, making no bones about his disdain for the whole enterprise. Godard pokes gentle fun at himself, rambling on about his Maoist days ("he's not in favor anymore") and shaking his fists at the "kids these days." But Godard is nothing if not self-aware, and he drops all pretense of being anyone else, as characters begin to call him "Mr. Godard" by the end of the film.

Rather than his trademark jump-cuts, Godard works toward a similar effect with sounds, blending diagetic and non-diagetic music to contrast against the action, often dropping it in and out seemingly at random. First Name: Carmen is Godard at his most playful, tweaking the system that has called him back in and poking holes in society's sacred cows (he even critiques Shakespeare). This is absolutely the Godard we all know and love to hate; arrogant, defiant, and yet unendingly fascinating. First Name: Carmen is at once the kind of Hollywood gangster picture Godard used to worship, but also a deconstruction and dismantling of the same. He ends with the coda: "In memoriam small movies." Much as he did in Weekend (1967), Godard is railing against the very idea of cinema and its place in our world. What exactly he's trying to convey is anyone's guess, because at its core First Name: Carmen is a really just a bit of trolling. But nobody does it like Godard, perhaps the greatest troll in cinema history - and he's certainly in rare form here.

Godard tackled the Greek myth of Alcmene and Amphitryon for this 1993 meditation on the nature of the divine. Wracked by a troubled production, in which star Gerard Depardieu stormed off set never to return (and never to be replaced), Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe is Me) is at once one of Godard's most deeply felt and most obfuscating works.

The filmmaker himself would later become one of the film's chief detractors, writing it off as a failure despite widespread acclaim in France  (Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the best films of 1993). It's certainly a muddled work, as Godard restructured much of it after Depardieu left the project. Hélas pour moi centers around a man named Simon (Depardieu) who is possessed by the spirit of God so that God may experience and examine human life through his marriage with Rachel (Johanna ter Steege). In order to fill the gaps left by his falling out with Depardieu, Godard frames this drama in flashback, as a book published named Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) investigates reports of God's arrival on Earth.

It's a wildly experimental work, to be sure, marked by some of the most gorgeous imagery Godard ever produced (courtesy of cinematographer Caroline Champetier). And yet, its ideas are so scattershot that they never reach the level of spiritual focus achieved by Bresson, who was a clear influence here. Godard is probing and exploring, but his musings are too opaque to be fully engaging. His usual experimentations with non-diagetic sound design that was so integral to this period of his career seems somewhat subdued, still very much present but of less thematic import. The film seems somewhat lost, at once a criticism of humanity from the point of view of God (one of Godard's most vain provocations) and an existential treatise on cinema and international politics, informed by the global conflicts happening in the early 1990s. It's undeniably fascinating work, but as was Godard's wont, especially during this period, his attempts to radically reinvent the cinematic language don't always jell with the ideas he's attempting to interrogate.

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

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

Through re-tooled images from cinema history (taken from such films as Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down) and an often shifting aspect ratio, Godard is quite literally making the audience look at these familiar images from alternate points of view. He even goes so far as to repurpose images from his own films, (including bits of Hélas pour moi) in what could be seen as either an act of supreme ego or self-interrogation. It's an effect created by the way Godard transfers films from VHS to his DV camcorder, as the camera attempts to adjust to the different aspect ratio, yet this digital "mistake" was purposefully left in.

The value of these images, in fact the very nature of their beauty (or lack thereof) lies in our own perception of them. Godard gives us the tools to decode them, but intentionally leaves us without a guidebook. Through the various lenses he places in front of them, be they digital imperfections, analog glitches, or simply the fog of time, The Image Book asks us to look at the world around us in ways we've never before considered. It's an endlessly fascinating and somehow wistful work, a career summation by a legendary iconoclast who continues to reinvent himself well into his ninth decade of life, now looking back at a life's work and asking "what was it all for?" The answer lies somewhere buried in the bleary fragments of images recorded from Godard's VHS player, a radical reinvention of cinematic language that will be studied and appreciated for decades to come.


The Image Book is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. First Name: Carmen and Hélas pour moi will be released on June 18.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Sophie Turner stars as Jean Grey in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

19 years ago, the cinematic superhero craze got its kick-off in the form of Bryan Singer's X-Men, spawning a series of imitators as rival studios rushed to capitalize on its success with superhero franchises of their own. Looking back on it now, the original X-Men is a surprisingly character driven, mid-budget film whose sequel, X2: X-Men United remains perhaps the high point in 21st century superhero filmmaking.

The X-Men series went on to spawn 10 films, including a spin-off trilogy featuring Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, making it the longest running superhero series outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that hasn't been subjected to some sort of hard reboot. That's all likely to change now after the release of Dark Phoenix - whose release arrives mere months after the complete acquisition of its parent studio, 20th Century Fox, by the Walt Disney Company.

Disney, of course, owns the MCU, and since the X-Men originated in Marvel Comics, it's all but likely that their current incarnation will be wiped clean to make way for a new iteration to join the world of the Avengers. It's something of an inauspicious end for the series. While fans have long clamored for an X-Men/Avengers mashup, its a shame to see the venerable series come to such a weak conclusion, its glory days long since past, unceremoniously dumped into theaters by Disney who's clearly in a hurry to move on.

Everything about Dark Phoenix feels phoned-in, even defeated, as if the filmmakers somehow knew the end was near. First-time director Simon Kinberg (long-time producer of the series) seems completely lost, tasked with crafting an epic ending to a series that no one, not even the actors involved, seems to care about anymore. The actors are all on auto-pilot (the usually terrific Jennifer Lawrence seems especially over it), to the point that most of them feel like they're just fulfilling terms of a contract rather than giving it their all. Meanwhile, Kinberg seems determined to take the franchise in a darker, grittier direction, even going so far as to hire composer Hans Zimmer to craft a muscular score similar to his work on Man of Steel, sounding nothing like anything previously heard in the X-Men universe.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Raven/Mystique in Twentieth Century Fox’s DARK PHOENIX.
Photo Credit: Doane Gregory.

The Dark Phoenix Saga was previously tackled by the series in the much maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, in which psychic heroine Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is saddled with unlimited power she's unable to control. Rather than improve the story, Dark Phoenix seems to have learned nothing, taking the worst elements of The Last Stand and doubling down on them, resulting in a film that's neither different enough to be worth the trouble nor bold enough to truly stand out on its own. This could be because Kinberg wrote the screenplay for both films, and he hews close to previously covered territory here.

Yet the weak script is only part of the film's troubles, which relies on obvious themes ("my emotions make me strong") rather than dealing with the true issue at the heart of the film - the fact that burying Grey's trauma rather than dealing with it head-on are what caused her problems in the first place. Turner does her best with the subpar material, but the film completely wastes Jessica Chastain as the emotionless alien villain, Vuk, and the characters are so poorly drawn that their motivations (and subsequent reversals) often make little sense. Gone is the social commentary that once set this franchise apart, not to mention its inherent optimism about the future and its place for those who are different. In its place is a strange sort of anonymity, just another self-serious superhero dirge that doesn't know how to have fun. Dark Phoenix represents the dying throes of a once illustrious comic book franchise making one last half-hearted gasp before being obliterated by the Disney juggernaut.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DARK PHOENIX | Directed by Simon Kinberg | Stars  Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

The prospect of another musical biopic of a popular rock musician following so closely on the heels of the aggressively bland Bohemian Rhapsody may seem like a hard pill to swallow, especially considering that director Dexter Fletcher was the filmmaker who stepped in at the last minute to finish Rhapsody after Bryan Singer went AWOL. 

But Fletcher seems determined not to make the same mistakes twice, turning his Elton John biopic, Rocketman, into the film Bohemian Rhapsody could and should have been. Whereas Bohemian Rhapsody, with its troubled production and too many cooks in the kitchen, often felt like a rote connect-the-dots between Queen's creates hits, Rocketman instead allows the songs to flow naturally from the story. Fletcher isn't trying to show us the inspiration for each of John's hit songs, eschewing Bohemian Rhapsody s thudding literalism for a kind of musical fantasia, the songs belting out like Broadway numbers to accompany the major events in the singer's life.

From partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), to his infamous drug addiction, to his romantic relationship with manager John Reid (Richard Madden), Rocketman traces the life of Elton John (Taron Edgerton) in a way that is familiar to the musical biopic genre. However, Fletcher reinvigorates the formula by infusing the film with a bracing shot of John's colorful personality, taking the audience inside his mind for a peek into his creative process. These aren't necessarily events as they actually happened, but Fletcher captures the exhilarating spirit of those events, levitating the characters (and the audience) into a kind of phantasmagorical cinematic ecstasy.

Rocketman also refuses to treat John's sexuality as a liability (the way that Bohemian Rhapsody did with Freddie Mercury). Elton is an unabashedly queer figure, and Fletcher doesn't shy away from this, leaning into the singer's campy personality and yearning for true love from another man (which he eventually finds as the film reminds us in its requisite coda). John is memorably embodied by Taron Edgerton, who impressively enough actually does his own singing, emulating the him with striking soul and wit.

While the film strikes many familiar notes for anyone who has ever seen a movie about a rock star, Fletcher manages to reinvent those cliches by untethering Rocketman from the confines of reality. Instead, he turns the film into a joyous celebration of a legendary entertainer, a warts-and-all emulation of who Elton John is, saving it from being yet another standard issue biopic and embruing it with a heart and soul all its own.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ROCKETMAN | Directed by Dexter Fletcher | Stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Gemma Jones, Steven Mackintosh | Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Having now seen Khalik Allah's altogether extraordinary film, Black Mother, twice now; I can confidently say that it has left me at a complete loss for words.

It's a rare thing to be left speechless by a film. Even more so for someone who writes about film for a living; yet Black Mother is the kind of film that defies description, a work of such radical beauty that it nearly reshapes the entire cinematic experience in its own image. Part documentary, part travelogue, part poem, Black Mother is a deeply personal tribute to Jamaica (the ancestral home of Allah's mother) and to the black experience, specifically the black women who actually birthed a nation.

Allah examines the effects of religion on the tiny island nation, both as a symptom of colonialism and a reaction to it, as Christianity and Rastafarianism blend together into something beautiful and unique. Allah, a renowned photographer, captures snippets of island life and blends them together into a singularly breathtaking. There are films that move you, there are films that shake you, and then there's Black Mother - a transcendental meditation on life, love, and black identity that takes the mundane and makes it feel miraculous.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

BLACK MOTHER | Directed by Khalik Allah | Not ratedNow playing in select theaters.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is perhaps the first American kaiju film (a genre term meaning "strange creature" in Japanese) that really understands the genre's aesthetics. The Japanese have been making movies about giant monsters fighting each other for over half a century, and American filmmakers have long tried to emulate them, but the results have historically been mixed. Whether they're recutting the Japanese films for American audiences or remaking them outright, Hollywood has never quite managed to capture the sheer sense of lunacy that make these films so entertaining.

The 1956 American recut of the original 1954 GodzillaGodzilla, King of the Monsters, remains one of the most egregious and laughable examples of cultural appropriation in cinema history, completely obliterating the original film's elegiac beauty and nuclear allegories, instead turning it into the badly dubbed joke that has informed many Americans' perception of the genre to this day. Thankfully, the original Japanese versions of the Godzilla films (there are 29 in all) have become more widely available in recent years, revealing a wealth of monster-on-monster action to American audiences for the first time so they can finally be seen as they were intended.

Now we come to 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters  the sequel to Gareth Edward's American Godzilla reboot from 2014, which pits the giant lizard against his greatest foe from the original films - King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon from outer space. Along for the ride are the fire fearsome flying "fire demon" Rodan and the luminous Mothra, all staples of Toho Studios' original kaiju lineup. Much has been made about the film's over-reliance on the human drama revolving around a broken family and a nefarious plot by eco-terrorists to unleash monsters upon the world to restore "natural balance." Yet it is this outlandish plot that surrounds the kaiju action that makes it feel the most like its Japanese counterparts. It combines the ridiculous human plots and rear-loaded structure of the Shōwa-era films (1954-1975), combined with the darker tone and more epic sense of action of the Heisei-era films (1984-1995).

King Ghidorah first appeared in 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (the Shōwa era's fifth film), and would go on to terrorize Godzilla in numerous other films throughout the series. Ghidorah was the first film in which Godzilla appeared as a heroic character, teaming up with Mothra and Rodan to save the earth from this extra-terrestrial foe. Godzilla: King of the Monsters shares a lot of DNA with this film, which featured a plot about foreign assassins trying to kill a queen, who loses her memory and returns as a Venusian to warn earth of its impending doom. The Shōwa plots got increasingly convoluted as they went along, but they were so much fun, and that is exactly what director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat) delivers here.

The plot is full of wild twists and outrageous conspiracies, and it’s often drunk on its own lunacy (they go to Atlantis!), and while it may be as well-directed as 2014's Godzilla (which felt like a war movie with giant monsters), it captures the Toho spirit more than any other American iteration of this character. Composer Bear McCreary even brings back Akira Ifukube's immortal "Godzilla Theme" and Yūji Koseki's "Mothra's Song" to represent their respective characters. The film balances its convoluted plot with some truly breathtaking imagery and bone-crushing kaiju battles that actually take into account the brutal real-world consequences of urban smackdowns between giant monsters. While Dougherty sometimes loses sight of the finer points of the story he's telling (he kills a major character off-screen in such a confusing manner that he has to show their face on a screen with the word "deceased" next to it in the very next scene), story was never really the reason people came to kaiju films. These are films about giant monsters battling to the death, and on that front Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers in spades.

Godzilla (2014) may be the more elegant film, more organic and grounded, but Dougherty's fantastical, no-holds-barred take is the kind of epic monster showdown that fans of the original Godzilla films have longed for. Its titanic, elemental battle sequences truly feel like an apocalyptic clash of ancient gods, taking us all to monster movie heaven.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS | Directed by Michael Dougherty | Stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Zhang Ziyi, O'Shea Jackson Jr. | Rated PG-13 for sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.