Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
Photo Credit: Andrew Cooper - © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, one usually has a certain set of expectations: there will be copious amounts of violence, creative (and constant) use of curse words, extensive references to older films, and lately, a new spin on familiar history.

His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, checks all those boxes, but for the first time since perhaps 1997's Jackie Brown, there's something much deeper and more melancholy at work here. Tracing the story of a former TV western star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood transports us back to the summer of 1969 in the city of dreams, where anything was a possible but change was inevitable.

Dalton's hit show, Bounty Law, has been cancelled, and he's kept his career spluttering along by taking on one-episode roles as the villain of the week in other TV shows. His agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), wants him to start taking roles in spaghetti westerns, but Dalton isn't ready to give up on Hollywood yet, even if Hollywood seems ready to give up on him. But as his star is descending, the star of young Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here depicted as an unknowable young ingenue full of untapped promise, is rising. Her story parallels Dalton's - she's got some major supporting roles in some new films, she's married to Roman Polanski, one of the hottest up-and-coming filmmakers in Hollywood, and she seems poised on the brink of stardom. It is against this milieu that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood paints an indelible portrait of a very specific time and place, putting us on an inevitable crash-course with the subsequent rise of Charles Manson and his cult, whose murderous rampage in 1969 marked the end of an era and the bright promise of the counterculture, putting a dark period at the end of a turbulent decade.

This being a Tarantino film, the fateful encounter between members of the Manson family and Sharon Tate doesn't materialize in the way we expect, allowing the filmmaker to create an alternate, more hopeful version of history. In this alternate timeline, it is old Hollywood that steps in to save the new, offering a fictional second chance to a promise cut short in its prime. Tarantino's films have always been vibrant pastiches of genres of a bygone era, but here his genre fetishism comes in service of a deeper purpose. This is nostalgia done right; “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a film filled with longing and regret, sadness and hope. It’s a requiem for a past that never was and a dream for a future that will never be. Here, Tarantino evokes the languid pacing of the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, using their tragic anti-hero archetypes in a way that's disarmingly heartwarming.

Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Photo Credit Andrew Cooper.  © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It's almost as if Tarantino is grappling with his own anxiety about pending irrelevance and ennui while honoring the great filmmakers of the past whose work has been so important to forming his own career. Tarantino famously proclaimed that he would retire after making 10 films, and for those keeping score at home, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his ninth (if you count the two volumes of Kill Bill as one film). The result is perhaps the most beautiful, wistful, and touching thing he has ever directed. The unexpected gravitas and lugubrious self-reflection is something quite new for the filmmaker, displaying a sense of mournful contemplation in a sanguine tribute to the heroes of his childhood.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily Tarantino's most deeply felt film to date. Beneath his instantly recognizable sense of dark humor, it's a pensive and haunted reverie of the fading shadows of old Hollywood, where dreams unfolded in larger than life images on a flickering screen, created by much smaller men and women who were more fragile and flawed than they ever let on.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD | Directed by Quentin Tarantino | Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning | Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, July 28, 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.

Special Features:

The extras on the Blu-Ray release tend to be the usual fawning featurettes with cast and crew offering generic platitudes about the experience - but a few unique shorts really set this disc apart. An amusing gag reel and a 90's flavored short centering around Captain Marvel's cat (or Flerken), Goose, is a must for fans of the film (and cats). Nothing really new here, but the extras on Captain Marvel add a bit more pizazz than the usual Blu-Ray bonus features.

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.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution in ALPHAVILLE.

Jean-Luc Godard once said "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." While Godard went through many phases of his career, few films represent the range of styles and ideas that the filmmaker could conjure form that idea than Alphaville (1965) and Détective (1985). Made two decades apart, the films showcase Godard at two very different points in his life - Alphaville arriving at the height of his New Wave popularity and Détective in his post-Dziga Vertov group return to narrative filmmaking.

Alphaville marks Godard's sole foray into the genre of science fiction, but in true Godard form, no real attempt is made to set the film anywhere other than in 1965 France. Set on a faraway planet that is controlled by a fascist computer called Alpha 60 who has banned all traces of human emotion, Alphaville was filmed in and around the most futuristic parts of Paris, giving its political allegories a frightening sense of immediacy.

Our hero is Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a hard boiled private eye played by an actor less known for his acting chops than for his grizzled countenance. The Virgil to his Dante is Natacha Van Braun (Anna Karina), a citizen of Alphaville who has never known love. Godard imagines Alpha 60 as a croaking, inquisitive, unfeeling machine that is equal parts Big Brother and Hal 9000 - all-seeing but not quite all-knowing.

Yet what makes Alphaville so special, and so thoroughly Godardian, is the unique way in which it blends the classical Hollywood genres that had so fascinated Godard as a young critic at Cahiers du Cinema. While it's billed as science fiction, it bears little visual resemblance to any sci-fi film ever made, more closely recalling film noir and detective films, with stone faced Lemmy Caution an unlikely observer of a world without love. The film's beating heart is Karina, a woman whose emotionless existence begins to open up to a world of unknown possibility. Karina would only make two more films with Godard (Pierrot le Fou and Made in U.S.A.) before her relationship with the filmmaker ended, and he began to descend into radical Maoist politics, but here the two seem in perfect sync, working on perhaps the final film not overshadowed by Godard's quickly radicalized worldview, taking elements of classic Hollywood and twisting them into a haunting foreshadowing of the Godard to come, one consumed with dismantling fascism through his art.

Détective is a different animal entirely, one often described as a detective film but one that bears no recognizable resemblance to the genre whose name it bears. Coming two decades after AlphavilleDétective is perhaps one Godard's most inscrutable films of the period. Set in a luxury hotel in France, the film centers around two house detectives (Laurent Terzieff and Jean-Pierre Léaud) who are investigating the mysterious death of a prince. A cast of disparate characters - a boxer, a mob boss, a husband and wife on the rocks, populate the hotel and exist on the periphery of the story, if you can call it that. Godard's films of the 80s and 90s mostly eschewed narrative in favor of a kind of puzzle aesthetic, existing squarely in world all their own.

It's somewhat ironic, then, that Détective was partly made as a way to raise money to make Hail Mary (1985), but producers who were looking for another genre deconstruction by Godard in the vein of his classics Breathless and Band of Outsiders would have been gravely disappointed by what the filmmaker delivered here. It presages Godard's fascination with video with its liberal use of closed-circuit TVs and videocassettes, an aesthetic that has informed the collage nature of his more recent work in his films such as Goodbye to Language (2014) and The Image Book (2019).

It's a technique that allows the audience to step into the role of detective through the constant surveillance under which the characters find themselves. But it lacks the sly elegance of his contemporary films from the period like First Name: Carmen (1983) or even the mysterious beauty of Helas por moi (1993). And yet Godard films are never anything less than fascinating, and the singular vision of societal rot in a building meant to represent the ultimate in glamour is not lost in the film's shifting perspectives. He may keep a dispassionate distance from the world he creates, but Godard is always probing, exploring, and interrogating the cinematic medium. Nowhere is the dichotomy between his approaches to similar ideas over the course of his career more sharp than in Alphaville and Détective. Both may have a girl and a gun, but the way they are deployed could not be more different - and yet one can't help but feel that this is the same Godard exploring and deconstruction genres, only refusing to repeat himself in his pursuit of pure cinema.

ALPHAVILLE - ★★★½ (out of four)
DÉTECTIVE - ★★½ (out of four)

Alphaville and Détective are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The trend of Disney remaking its animated classics shows no signs of slowing down as The Lion King stands poised to become one of 2019's biggest box office hits. While it would be a misnomer to refer to the new Lion King as a "live action" remake, the photo-realistic special effects create the illusion that we're watching real animals coming to life on screen to tell the familiar story.

The Lion King is a better film than Aladdin, this year's other live action remake, in that it is competently directed and reasonably well-designed, but it's plagued by such a mind-numbing sense of redundancy that one can't help but wonder - "what's the point?"

The original animated film holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who grew up in the 1990s, and it remains one of Disney's finest achievements of the era. The remake brings very little new to the table - adding a few lines of dialogue here, a reworked song there, but for the most part this new Lion King is content to be a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, hitting all the familiar notes fans of the original have come to expect but offering nothing new of any real note. The more realistic animation is certainly eye-popping, but the characters lose something in their transition to more life-like incarnations. They're less expressive and engaging as "real" animals; as such, the film lacks the emotional core that made the original so endearing.

In fact, the entire film lacks a certain elegance in its translation to photo-real animation. For all the epic vistas the film shows us, it's impossible not to recall its animated counterpart, and the way in which the colorful drawings of the original Lion King expressed the emotions and feelings of the narrative with such grace. This new Lion King is often thuddingly literal - simply tracking characters trotting through musical numbers rather than bursting into swirls of color and song. For a film full of such breathtakingly real images, the musical numbers are often flatly staged, the realism constantly undercutting the story's vibrant emotions and narrative drive.

Director Jon Favreau (who also directed Disney's excellent remake of The Jungle Book) wants to make sure we remember the original film, constantly tapping into fond memories and nostalgia for his audience's childhoods. But rather than recalling the things we love and pushing it into new, uncharted territory, he simply carbon copies what we've already seen. It reminded me of Gus Van Sant's ill-fated 1999 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - all the familiar ingredients are there, but the spirit and the heart that made the original great are completely missing. Taken on its own merits, it's completely fine - a mildly engaging adventure about a young lion discovering his destiny as the leader of his people with some amusing comic relief. But audiences would be better off watching the original animated film instead, a classic that will continue to endure long after this "live action" trend has faded from our collective memories.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE LION KING | Directed by Jon Favreau | Stars Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, John Kani, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner | Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The best of Disney's recent glut of live-action remakes of their animated classics have been the ones that haven't hewed so closely to the original films as to become almost shot-for-shot remakes. I'm thinking, of course, of Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and David Lowery's Pete's Dragon, both fantastic films in their own right that captured the spirit of the original while charting their own course.

Tim Burton may be responsible for one of the absolute worst Disney remakes, 2010's garish Alice in Wonderland, but he has more than redeemed himself with his new remake of Dumbo (1941), a delightful flight of fantasy that expands beyond the original film and becomes something wholly its own.

The film is squarely in Burton's comfort zone, there's a circus, unusual characters, and a protagonist who doesn't fit in with the world around him. Burton has always had an affinity for society's outcasts, from Vincent to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Frankenweenie, the loners and the unloved have always been the center of Burton's universe. So the story of a big-eared elephant who overcomes his differences by learning to fly seems a perfect vehicle for Burton, bringing in a certain sense of emotional grounding that has been missing from his more recent filmography.

The story is, by now, familiar. But Burton doesn't simply retell Dumbo with real actors. This time, Dumbo's circle is bought out by a sinister corporation who wants to exploit Dumbo for cash while laying off the rest of the circus performers. There's something deeply ironic about Disney releasing this film the very week that they laid off the entire staff of Fox 2000 after buying out 20th Century Fox, but Burton almost seems to be mischievously tweaking the very company he's working for. That's not to say that Disney released a film whose content they were unaware of, because naturally they're in full control of their own intellectual properties, but there's something almost subversive about the anti-corporate message at the heart of Dumbo. Call it hypocrisy on Disney's part, call it tone-deafness, call it what you will, but I applaud what Burton is doing here, tweaking the machine and thumbing his nose at the capitalist system from the inside.

Dumbo is Burton's best film in recent memory, at least since Sweeney Todd (2007), finding a sense of wonder and beauty in the trappings of a turn-of-the-century circus. It's all thoroughly modern, with an anti-captivity message and a noticeable lack of the racist crows from the original (the Jim Crow character was cringe-y even by the standards of 1941), but Burton finds an old-fashioned spirit of kindness and generosity in a film that could have easily been another product in Disney's live action assembly line. Come for the timeless story, stay for Danny DeVito as a two-bit huckster with a heart of gold and Michael Keaton's wonderfully bizarre performance as the villainous CEO. There's a glimmer of some old-school Burton lunacy here, and in Dumbo it actually feels like something akin to an emotional return to form. When Dumbo takes off on the wings of Danny Elfman's soaring score, you'll believe an elephant can fly.


Dumbo is one of those films that actually looks better in hindsight when seen through the lens of Disney's creatively bankrupt Aladdin remake. Tim Burton's whimsical re-imagining of Walt Disney's original film is just idiosyncratic enough to stand out against the bland retread that was Aladdin, offering gorgeous production design and a charmingly expanded story to distinguish itself from the pack. It's hard to get excited about Disney's returning to the well of millennial nostalgia as it remakes its back catalogue of animated features, but the remakes of its older films, like Cinderella, Pete's Dragon, and The Jungle Book have far and away been their strongest, and Dumbo takes its place in their company. The special features range from perfunctory making-of featurettes, a fun Disney Channel-esque look at the film's easter eggs, a blooper reel, and an illuminating look at the film's use of practical and stand-in effects as well as real circus performers to give credence to the world it creates.

The film may have ultimately made much less than Aladdin, and was met with critical indifference upon release, but Dumbo is absolutely worth a second look, with its old fashioned evocation of classic Hollywood, sumptuous Depression-era production design, and Burton's love of displaced and isolated heroes, it stands out amidst remakes that are content to coast on the laurels of their beloved inspirations.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DUMBO | Directed by Tim Burton | Stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Finley Hobbins, Nico Parker, Alan Arkin | Rated PG for peril/action, some thematic elements, and brief mild language | Now playing in theaters nationwide

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

It's almost incredible watching John Cameron Mitchell's scorching debut film, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in 2019. How could something that still feels so prescient, transgressive, and forward-thinking be nearly 20 years old? Even by modern standards, this modern classic of queer cinema feels at once subversive and progressive, offering a bold vision of gender fluidity and identity that paints a much more complex portrait of masculinity and femininity than we are often given on Twitter.

That's because Hedwig (Mitchell), the victim of a botched back-alley gender-reassignment surgery in East Germany (undergone at the behest of an American GI who discovers that he can only marry young Hansel and take him back to America if he's a woman), is neither full transgender or cisgender. True, she undergoes gender-reassignment, but since she didn't really want it, can she truly be called trans? Or is she in reality a cisgender gay man? Hedwig is unclassifiable, and that's what makes her so emblematic of the core of human sexuality - it's impossible to put Hedwig in a box.

That may be seen as a problematic liability in 2019, at a time when defining ourselves is an essential component for demanding recognition and rights. Hedwig defies classification, a bold, brassy example of gender fuckery that can't quite be defined. Yet Hedwig and the Angry Inch  a rock musical co-written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, seeks to break down those barriers and explore the spaces between classical definitions of male and female. If gender truly is a social construct, then Hedwig seeks to tear it all down, dismantling the very concept of gender into a bold new queer frontier where anyone can be whatever they want to be. The definition of Hedwig lies both in the eye of the beholder, belonging simultaneously to gay, trans, and genderqueer audiences as one of their own, but she also exists for those who aren't sure what they are or where they fit in. She defies even the classifications from within the queer community, making her perhaps one of the most uniquely queer figures in popular culture.

It began as on off-broadway underground musical in 1998 before getting the big screen treatment in 2001, and Mitchell deftly avoids many of the pitfalls that often befall stage musicals adapted to the screen. It's a flashback heavy film, using Hedwig's tour of a series of low-rent seafood joints in pursuit of her one-time lover turned teen idol rock star who absconded with all her songs as a device to explore her backstory. Yet the songs never feel like we're ponderously spinning our wheels in perpetual exposition, because the songs are her story, and not only are they explaining how we got here, they're laying out the film's gender fluid thesis.

This is a film about discovering oneself in the margins of society's rigid gender definitions - a theme it hits on in its poignant centerpiece number, "Origin of Love," early on, before exploring themes of alienation and heartbreak in ways that are both tender and deeply funny. It's camp, drag, and melodrama all rolled into a one, a genderqueer fantasia that brazenly breaks down the holy silos of the masculine and the feminine gender binary and revels in the ambiguity between. And while it remains an important component of the modern LGBT rights movement to be able to find a sense of belonging that can be named and defined, Hedwig and the Angry Inch bravely imagines a world where those barriers are broken and we are free to explore the in-betweenness of things, tapping into the inherent masculinity and femininity inside us all. That it can simultaneously tap into so many aspects of queerness makes it a work of art that is still to this day a film ahead of its time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH | Directed by John Cameron Mitchell | Stars John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Alberta Watson, Stephen Trask, Theodore Liscinski | Rated R for sexual content and language | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special Features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring Mitchell and DeMarco
  • New conversation among members of the cast and crew
  • New conversation between composer and lyricist Stephen Trask and rock critic David Fricke about the soundtrack
  • Documentary from 2003 tracing the development of the project 
  • Close look at the film’s Adam and Eve sequence
  • New programs exploring Hedwig's creation, look, and legacy through its memorabilia 
  • Deleted scenes with commentary by Mitchell and DeMarco
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, and (on the Blu-ray) portraits of Hedwig by photog­rapher Mick Rock, illustrations by animator Emily Hubley, and excerpts from two texts that inspired the film: Plato’s Symposium and The Gospel of Thomas

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Marvel is wasting no time moving its Cinematic Universe ahead in the wake of its monster hit, Avengers: Endgamewhich capped off a 22-film series before becoming the second highest grossing film of all time.

Now, barely two months later, Marvel is beginning the next phase of the MCU with Spider-Man: Far From Home  With the biggest threat of the first 22 films now defeated and behind them, the Avengers must now reckon with a changed world, and no one has borne the brunt harder than Peter Parker (Tom Holland). Parker is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), while the world around him struggles to get back to normal after the millions of people who had been wiped out by Thanos' infamous "snap" suddenly re-appear five years later.

Hoping to settle back into his life as a high-schooler, Parker looks forward to a school trip to Europe, where he plans a romantic rendezvous with MJ (Zendaya). His plans are put on hold, however, by the arrival of a new threat - a group of ancient titans known as the Elementals, and the only person who can stop them is a hero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who claims to be from another universe. Soon, a darker plot is uncovered, and Parker will be forced to choose between living an uneventful life as a normal teenager and stepping up and fulfilling his destiny by following in the footsteps of his hero, Tony Stark.

Far From Home manages to grapple with the aftermath of Endgame while still maintaining the light touch that distinguished Spider-Man's previous solo MCU outing in Homecoming (2017). It doesn't exactly chart a bold new course for the series as the beginning of the new phase, rather it serves as a kind of palate cleanser to bridge the gap between the Infinity Saga and whatever is to come. Yet it's also grappling with more interesting ideas than the average MCU film, pitting Spider-Man against a villain who can seemingly manipulate reality to the point that no one, not even the audience, can trust their own eyes because our very perception of the narrative is being carefully controlled. In our era of fake news and Russian troll farms that churn out falsified information for the gullible masses, how can the truth ever muscle its way through to the light of day?

The film doesn't answer these questions, setting up a potentially major plot thread moving forward in the next phase of the Marvel saga. But it is impressive how director Jon Watts manages to balance these weighty themes with the seemingly inconsequential (but extremely funny) day-to-day struggles of adolescence, as the teenage protagonists navigate romantic travails and the simple awkwardness of growing up. The Spider-Man films have become some of the most nimble and entertaining of the MCU films thus far, so it’s no wonder that Marvel seems to be placing their bets on the character as the new standard-bearer moving forward. Holland is a terrific Spider-Man, his youthful energy giving the character a sense of innocence he's never quite achieved in other iterations. He is matched moment for moment by Gyllenhaal, whose Mysterio is one of the MCU's most clever creations (even if his expository dialogue can come off as a bit stiff).

As the third MCU film to be released in 2019 (after Captain Marvel and Endgame), Far From Home had the unenviable task of following up the film that was essentially the series' first major denouement, but rather than try to outdo the epic Endgame it attempts to reset the series with more minor stakes, yet those stakes represent a potentially deeper existential threat than Thanos ever posed. Rather than wiping out half of all life in the universe, this villain seeks to wipe out truth itself. And in 2019, there's nothing more terrifying, or more relevant, than that.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME | Directed by Jon Watts | Stars Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon | Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, July 05, 2019

The idea of the "meet cute," in which two strangers have an awkward romantic meeting, is a trope almost as old as the movies themselves. Romantic comedies are so chock-full of them that their presence almost pulls the audience out of the film because the scenario is just too outlandish to be believed.

In his dazzling new romance, Asako I & II, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) takes those tropes and turns them on their head, subverting the very idea of the "meet cute" and investigating the root of love and why we develop feelings for each other in the first place. Its an ambitious subject, to be sure, but one handled with such understated grace that it transcends mere navel-gazing and emerges as something tremulous and haunting, a deeply felt treatise on romantic desire and the nature of love itself.

Asako (Erika Karata) is a college student who meets and falls in love with a mysterious drifter named Baku (Masahiro Higashide). Baku's friends warn Asako that he is notorious for disappearing without warning, but he promises that he will always come back to her. Then one day he leaves home, never to return. Years later, Asako meets a businessman named Ryohei (Higashide again) while working in Tokyo, and is instantly struck by his similarity to Baku. She is immediately drawn to him, and Ryohei is quickly taken with her odd sense of familiarity and strong attraction to him. Soon, Asako must confront the true reasons for her attraction to Ryohei, and when Baku re-enters her life, now a famous actor beloved by young women throughout Japan, it threatens to upend the life she thought she knew.

Despite the fact that both Baku and Ryohei are played by the same actor, there are no fantasy or science fiction elements present in Asako I & II  Instead, it is imbued with a kind of magical realism that forces the audience to question the characters' circumstances. Hamaguchi grounds his film firmly in reality, yet we can't quite help but wonder (much like Asako) if the man who calls himself Ryohei isn't actually Baku after all. That makes the film something of a romantic mystery, yet the biggest question at the heart of the film isn't about Ryohei's identity - it's about why Asako loves him. Does she really love him, or does she love him because he reminds her so much of Baku? Why are we drawn to someone in the first place - is it really them we love, or the idea of a lost love; a great what-if from the past that was never fulfilled.

There's no tidy answer here, although Hamaguchi does offer a glimmer of hope at the end. What's so remarkable about Asako I & II is how delicately it weaves its tale of romantic confusion. It's a masterfully crafted work of romantic introspection that probes deep without feeling ponderous; Hamaguchi's light touch asking difficult questions and arriving at something at once hopeful and haunting.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ASAKO I & II | Directed by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi | Stars Masahiro Higashide, Erika Karata, Kôji Seto, Rio Yamashita | Not Rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Routine car trouble becomes a life-long obsession for three film students  working on a project who get more than they bargained for when a benevolent stranger offers them assistance out of the blue. The encounter is marked by a poetic monologue by the helpful stranger (Michael "Clip" Payne) that seems to unlock the mysteries of life for novelist, Allison (Emily Davis).

His words continue to haunt her until one day she discovers them in a book - the words that gave her such comfort, it turns out, were not the man's own, but rather a quote from a novelist. Allison feels shaken and betrayed, while her boyfriend, an obnoxious cinematographer with delusions of grandeur (Eamon Monaghan), seems mostly un-phased. The event sparks a kind of existential crisis for the couple, who begin questioning their own reality. What is real? Has their whole life been a lie? What can be trusted? A seemingly benign act of appropriation sends them spinning out of control, lost in a world where nothing is what it seems.

Then comes the hat trick - everything about The Plagiarists is borrowed from other works. Every line of dialogue belongs to another literary work. This revelation sends the audience reeling in such a way that we too begin questioning our own reality. Director Peter Parlow interrogates the very nature of modern reality in an era dominated by fake news and untrustworthy sources, undermining our own expectations and throwing a philosophical curve-ball that forces us to reevaluate everything we've just watched.

The rudimentary low-budget aesthetic of The Plagiarists is occasionally off-putting (it was filmed on vintage TV news cameras), the performances amateurish, often ringing false. But it's all part of Parlow's disarming parlor trick, sending up the tropes of DIY independent filmmaking while asking the question - is anything original anymore? Are our own thoughts compromised by the ideas of others? Where do our ideas end and others' begin? Parlow borrows from other sources in ways that seem so natural, and yet there's always something slightly off about the whole thing that we can never quite put our finger on. When we can no longer trust our own eyes and ears, what can we trust? Running a scant 76 minutes, The Plagiarists is a work of experimental beauty, asking big questions while slyly subverting audience expectations, leaving us just as bewildered, fascinated, and unnerved as its protagonists. It's a clever, boldly realized, and incisive debut for Parlow.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PLAGIARISTS | Directed by Peter Parlow | Stars Michael "Clip" Payne, Emily Davis, Lucy Kaminsky, Eamon Monaghan | Not Rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

The original Toy Story trilogy represents not only one of Disney/Pixar's finest achievements, it's also one of the most perfectly crafted cinematic trilogies ever made. The arc from the first film to the last is so beautifully executed that it seems only natural that the prospect of a Toy Story 4 was initially met with some skepticism.

On the one hand, the resulting film isn't bad; Pixar rarely makes films that are outright poor, but despite some cute moments and an appealing cast of new and familiar characters, it never quite shakes the feeling of being wholly unnecessary. At the end of Toy Story 3  a grown up Andy left his beloved toys with a young girl named Bonnie before heading off to college, leaving a generation of filmgoers in tears, bidding farewell to an era and the childhoods of many who grew up with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Toy Story 4 picks up where that film left off, with the toys adjusting to their new lives in Bonnie's bedroom.

But the prospect of Bonnie similarly growing up is looming large, and Woody (Tom Hanks), now often relegated to the closet while Bonnie plays with other toys, feels a special need to take care of her much as he did Andy. When Bonnie makes a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) out of a spork during arts and crafts time at school, Woody takes him under his wing despite his vehement protests that he is not a toy, but little more than a piece of trash. When the pair become separated from Bonnie's family during a road trip, Woody must do everything in his power to rescue the beloved Forky and return him safely to Bonnie, reuniting with old friends and making quirky new ones along the way.

The idea of a homemade toy finding a home among Bonnie's "real" toys is an appealing one, but it's a conflict that is resolved all-too-quickly in favor of the film's action/adventure plot. The film's villain, a creepy antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody's voice box, is perhaps one of Pixar's most intriguing antagonists. Rather that follow their usual formula of revealing a seemingly benign character to be evil, Toy Story 4 takes the opposite approach with Gabby Gabby, giving her a poignant twist that subverts what Pixar has conditioned audiences to expect.

Nevertheless, there's a strange sense of "been there, done that" to the whole thing. Toy Story 4 is moderately engaging, and it's always nice to spend time with these characters, but it mostly feels like an afterthought to the original trilogy, attempting to take the story in new directions that it didn't really need to go. The existential drama of toys trying to find their purpose and their place has given the series some truly gut-wrenching emotional moments, but nothing in Toy Story 4 reaches the level of Toy Story 3 s crushing denouement. It feels as though we've already said goodbye to these characters, so saying goodbye again doesn't have quite the same impact as it may have otherwise. It's as if we just said a tearful goodbye to a relative and watched them drive off into the sunset, only to return to dash back into the house really quick because they forgot their phone. It's nice to see them again, and we all had a good laugh, but the previous goodbye was much more emotionally satisfying.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TOY STORY 4 | Directed by Josh Cooley | Stars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Blake Clark, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Keanu Reeves, Patricia Arquette, Jordan Peele, Timothy Dalton, Keegan-Michael Key, Kristen Schaal, Laurie Metcalf, Bonnie Hunt, Lori Alan, Jeff Garlin, Tony Hale, Estelle Harris, Bud Luckey, Jeff Pidgeon, Christina Hendricks, Ally Maki, Don Rickles, Bill Hader, June Squibb | Rated G | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what does it mean to be black in America? These are questions that artists have long grappled with in a wide array of mediums, searching for that unknowable, elusive answer to who we really are.In his debut film, RaMell Ross boldly grapples with those questions in the most unassuming way imaginable, by simply documenting life as he knows it.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a narratively shapeless yet wholly purposeful evocation of time and place as seen through Ross' camera, capturing five years in the lives of his friends, Quincy and Daniel. In the course of a mere 76 minutes, Ross takes us on a journey through five years worth of pain and triumph, births and deaths, good times and bad, capturing an indelible snapshot of the impoverished, forgotten backwater of Hale County, Alabama, where its mostly black population still lives in the very shadows of the cotton fields once worked by their enslaved ancestors.

Ross lyrically traces not only the unique culture that has grown up in this area, he also examines the perceptions of African American life as seen through the lens of white America's depictions of them. The result is a film that recalls the raw power and verisimilitude of Charles Burnett's seminal classic of black cinema, Killer of Sheep, examining not only the results of a system that has kept this community impoverished, but the joys they have managed to find it spite of their situations. This isn't just a film about poverty, its not just a film about blackness and what that means in modern society. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a unique and undefinable thing, a kind of Walt Whitman-esque exploration of America's roots that reverberates through time, space, and culture. Notice how Ross balances the seemingly random scenes of Quincy and Daniel's everyday lives, with moments of observational beauty, whether it's a deer trying to cross the street, an approaching storm, or a country road at sunset.

The film is, above all, a meditation. There's something attractively ragged about its structure, interspersing major life milestones with life's little details often overlooked in cinema - whether it's a child playing on the floor for minutes on end, or simply friends hanging out in a yard after dropping by unexpectedly. Hale County has the ebbs and flows of life as it is lived by those unseen, but underneath it all is the pulsing lifeblood of something much bigger. Even in its small, unassuming scale, in feels somehow monumental, profound in a way that can't quite be put into words (not surprising considering that Apichatpong Weerasethakul is credited as an artistic advisor). Even though Ross never directly answers the questions of what it means to be an American, or what it means to be black in America, it almost seems as if the answers are buried here somewhere amidst the poetic mundanity of existence in this dusty southern town, once the home of poor sharecroppers, now the home of a poor black population surrounded by a white power structure that doesn't seem to understand it.

Yet Hale County This Morning, This Evening isn't here to provide answers. It's here to offer a glimpse into something wholly beautiful and elusive, as if it somehow contains the spark of life itself. It's a singular work of avant-garde grandeur; a quiet work of ethnographic observation that feels cut from the fabric of time, proving an essential and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be black, to be American, and ultimately to be human.

The Blu-Ray disc is surprisingly light on extras, especially considering this is Cinema Guild's first Academy Award nominee, but it lovingly captures the film's scrappy beauty, and features an insightful essay by Patricia J. Williams.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING | Directed by RaMell Ross | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Cinema Guild.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Midsommar, the sophomore feature film from Ari Aster (Hereditary), is the a kind of waking nightmare that reaches down into the darkest corners of the human soul where few horror films ever dare to go. A brilliantly disturbing distillation of grief, Midsommar takes Hereditary's haunting exploration of generational trauma to the next level, investigating themes of broken humans grappling with immense tragedy and the sometimes deeply painful path to healing and catharsis.

The film centers around a young couple named Dani (Florence Pugh) and  Christian (Jack Reynor) who are seemingly on the rocks. Christian is becoming tired of Dani's clingy nature, and Dani desperately needs his emotional support. Christian's desire to break up with her is put on hold when a family tragedy forces him to step up and be a supportive boyfriend to Dani, putting further, unseen stress on their relationship, and Dani soon finds herself on a vacation to Sweden with Christian and his friends to which she had not been previously invited.

The goal is to study a reclusive pagan commune in the Swedish wilderness that is celebrating their Midsommar festival. But what begins as a hallucinogenic drug-fueled holiday in paradise soon turns dark as the cult's strange customs take increasingly disturbing turns. Friendships are strained, relationships are tested, and eventually the true nature of the commune's interest in the group becomes fatally clear.

Aster has already proven himself adept at getting under audience's skins, but Midsommar feels like it's operating on another level entirely because it all takes place in broad daylight. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski oversaturates every frame with glaring white light, so much so that one almost has to squint while watching the film. The constant, overbearing daylight sets the audience on edge immediately, and Aster subtly manipulates the frame to suggest his characters' deteriorating mental state in ways that are disorienting and disquieting. He makes us question our own eyes in ways that feel quietly revolutionary, and as the inherent absurdity of the situations reach a fever pitch, it's hard to know whether to laugh or be terrified.

Midsommar often walks a fine line between horror and comedy, and Aster manages to illicit laughter while creating a deep-seated sense of unease. What really sells this dichotomy is the cast - especially Florence Pugh, who delivers a performance for the ages as a woman grappling with unimaginable grief who's desperately seeking catharsis. While Reynor may seem out of his depth next to Pugh, his performance is deceptively strong, playing an affable doofus whose maturity level is clearly not ready for a committed relationship. The pair are well matched, and Reynor's intentional lack of depth makes Pugh's arc all the more powerful.

Aster has been quoted as saying that he conceived the film after a break-up, and the film is indeed filled with a haunting sense of regret and longing. But it's also a ferocious and angry work that has no qualms with burning down the past and rebuilding oneself from its ashes. That's what makes the film so raw and cathartic, its keen understanding of millennial dating and relationships makes the decisions of the characters make sense even in the most absurd circumstances. That is perhaps Midsommar's most unnerving aspect - even amid such over-the-top horror, it remains grounded in real human emotion, making the dark choices its characters are forced to make feel all the more real. Like The Last Jedi before it, Midsommar seeks to kill the past and watch it burn - and we are left to wonder if we should be trying to put out the fire, or furiously giving it fuel.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MIDSOMMAR | Directed by Ari Aster | Stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harmer, Anna Åström | Rated R for disturbing ritualistic violence and grisly images, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language | Opens Wednesday, July 3, in theaters nationwide.