Saturday, August 31, 2019

Avengers: Endgame marks the culmination of a series of 22 films that began back in 2008 with Iron Man. It represents perhaps one of the most impressive feats of franchise filmmaking in cinematic history. Whether that's an achievement of artistic or business acumen is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny that what Disney and Marvel have achieved here, guiding a single vision through dozens of interconnected films to tell one overarching story, dubbed "The Infinity Saga," is a truly staggering feat.

The series has had its ups and downs, of course, but what Marvel has done here is made all the more impressive when you look at how its legions of imitators have failed to even come close. Sony attempted a Spider-Man extended universe and fell on its face, eventually returning the character to Marvel, while DC's Justice League debacle tried to reverse engineer the Marvel formula and failed spectacularly. Credit must be given to producer Kevin Feige as much as anyone director, although filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) have been allowed to bring their own personalities into the mix to put their own personal stamp on their respective films.

For the final film in the Infinity Saga, Marvel pulled out all the stops, delivering a massive, three-hour tribute to their wildly popular cinematic universe. It's a film that's surprisingly light on its feet, more so than its somewhat unwieldy predecessor, Infinity War, in which supervillain Thanos wiped out half of all living creatures in the universe. When we reunite with the remaining heroes in Endgame, we are greeted with a demoralized band of Avengers who have all but given up hope. Thanos won, and the dead aren't coming back. Or are they?

Without divulging too much of the film's top-secret plot, Endgame drops us into a world decimated by tragedy, and to its credit, actually takes the time to grapple with the fallout from Infinity War and what that means for not only the Avengers, but for the world at large. Endgame never loses sight of the essential humanity at its core, and the stakes feel real and palpable. Death obviously means very little in comic book films, but filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo (who also helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Infinity War) never lose sight of the small stakes even in the face of epic, all-out war.


There's a bit of nostalgia at play here - the film plays like a kind of "greatest hits" compilation of the last 11 years of films, and yet it never seems to get too caught up in looking backward. It's a fitting tribute to a saga that has become beloved the world over, so it’s hard to blame them for wanting to celebrate the journey in the grandest form possible. It's absolutely "fan-service," but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. We've waited 11 years for this, and Endgame wants badly to give us the finale we've all wanted to see.

Of course, some heroes are lost along the way, some perhaps permanently (but in a world where anything is possible, hope springs eternal). Endgame plays a delicate balancing act between rip-roaring adventure and the gravity of the situation in which the heroes find themselves. It's remarkably swift for a film that's three hours long, hitting its emotional high notes with confidence without skimping on the character drama that has kept fans coming back for more over the course of 22 films. It may not deliver much in the way of true surprises (most fans figured out pretty much where this was going a long time ago), but the Russo brothers have delivered a satisfying conclusion that absolutely feels worthy of a decade of hype. That's a rare and special achievement, and while the Marvel Cinematic Universe will certainly continue beyond Endgame (Spider-Man: Far From Home is already scheduled for release this summer), let us take a moment to appreciate the incredible feat of storytelling that this film represents. Marvel has been building up to this for 11 years, weaving the story through 22 films, and capping it all off in epic fashion. There's a debate to be had about the homogeneity of product created by Disney's newfound stranglehold on the movie industry, but it's hard to deny that that the Infinity Saga has been an incredibly singular achievement, and Endgame is the finale it has always deserved.

Special Features


The Blu-Ray release features an entire second disc of extras that, while not exactly groundbreaking for this series, will likely be extremely satisfying for Marvel fans. Most of the featurettes are retrospective in nature, taking account of the series as a whole rather than focusing solely on Endgame. The best of these is "Remembering Stan Lee," a recap of Lee's cameos over the last 11 years, beautifully capturing the man's childlike delight at getting to be a part of a series of major films based on characters he created. Similar featurettes focus on the legacy of Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow, and well as the Russo Brothers' journey to crafting the finale of the Infinity Saga. While some more in-depth analysis of the creation of the film and the series as a whole would have been nice, or perhaps some more insight into Lee's history in a Marvel retrospective, one wonders if they're saving that for an inevitable box set of all the films later on down the road. The visual quality is, of course, stunning, with one disc devoted entirely to the three-hour film, bringing the highest grossing motion picture of all time home in a strongly appointed two-disc set.

GRADE – ★★★ (out of four)


AVENGERS: ENDGAME Directed by Joe Russo, Anthony Russo | Stars Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Brie Larson, Josh Brolin | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Left to Right: Michelle Williams as Isabel, Julianne Moore as Theresa Young.
Photo by Julio Macat. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

For a film with such a high pedigree, After the Wedding is a shockingly listless affair. Based on an Oscar nominated Danish film from acclaimed filmmaker Susanne Bier and starring Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, this 2019 Sundance Film Festival opening selection has fallen flat upon release, failing to make the critical splash I'm sure its filmmakers were hoping for. 

All the elements of a fall prestige picture are there - prime festival opening, star power, and acclaimed source material, and yet everything about After the Wedding feels bland and perfunctory, a remake of a foreign language film that never really justifies its own existence. Williams stars as Isabel, an American woman who manages an orphanage in India, who finds herself called to New York to advocate for sponsorship from a potential donor. The donor is Theresa (Moore), whose husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) is actually the father of Isabel's child, a child Isabel thought she gave up for adoption years ago. But Oscar kept the child, and now she's getting married just as Isabel arrives in America. Isabel is taken aback to be confronted with her long lost daughter, but things become more complicated as the reasons for Theresa's become clear, throwing the entire family into turmoil.

After the Wedding weaves a tangled web, but it never rises about the level of a glossy soap opera. It's handsome to look at, and Williams and Moore are in typically fine form, but this thing is a slog, a ponderous, self-important "prestige" drama whose overwrought histrionics never approach anything resembling actual human emotion. Director Bart Freundlich, whose previous credits include The Rebound and Catch that Kid, seems determined to transition to higher class dramas by milking every ounce of feeling out of the material that he can, and the result is often exhausting, a hopeless mishmash of art house clichés and prestige picture banality. 

It's a shame because the pedigree is certainly there, but the film seems designed from the ground up to be an awards contender, hopelessly wringing the life out of every story beat and emotional moment. Freundlich's penchant for cutting to sweeping drone shots belies the film's intimate nature, ultimately creating a film of strong ambitions but a weak emotional center. It never manages to stand out from the hundreds of films like it that have clogged film festivals and art houses this time of year for decades, and it is likely that it will be forgotten nearly as quickly as its predecessors, lost in the late summer "adult drama" doldrums that have become a sort of Bermuda Triangle for films of this earnest but tedious ilk.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


AFTER THE WEDDING | Directed by Bart Freundlich | Stars Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn | Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some strong language | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Samara Weaving in the film READY OR NOT. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
© 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The end of summer tends to be a bit of a box office doldrum. The blockbusters have all been released (and promptly forgotten), the kids have gone back to school, and Oscar season is still on the horizon. Movies released in late August and especially September are often slim pickings.

This year, interestingly enough, has been a bit different. After a summer filled with remakes and sequels, the end of August has provided us with a few wide release gems. The latest is Ready or Not, a horror comedy from Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are perhaps best known for directing 10/31/98, the final segment from the V/H/S anthology. The film centers around a young woman named Grace (Samara Weaving), who is marrying Alex Le Domas, the youngest son of a wealthy family who made their fortune through an expansive board game empire. The in-laws are eccentric to say the least, and invite Grace to participate in a wedding night ritual in which the newest member must play a game with the entire family. Little does she know that this game is a deadly version of hide and seek, in which she is to be hunted down like an animal and sacrificed to appease a deal with the devil that the family made long ago in order to amass their fortune.

A devious new twist on Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous GameReady or Not pits Grace against a kooky cast of characters armed with an eclectic set of weapons, from old-fashioned pistols, axes, and crossbows. But Grace is determined not to go quietly, and after the initial shock wears off, sets out to fight back in any way she can. It's a delightfully demented comic romp, short, sweet, and nasty - a gleeful fantasia of over-the-top gore and outlandish action that takes direct aim at the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. For most of the film, the only ones who suffer any consequences for the Le Domas' bloodthirsty ways are their employees, the working stiffs they pay to do their dirty work for them.  Their fortune is built on the backs those they've exploited, crafting a metaphorical (or maybe literal) deal with the devil in order to preserve their wealth and status.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are somewhat inexperienced painting on a canvas this large, and it shows occasionally in the film's sometimes stiff performances. But newcomer Weaving, who bears a striking resemblance to Margot Robie in both appearance and acting style, is a fiercely enjoyable lead, and the broad performances of the supporting cast add to the exaggerated absurdity of it all. The film almost recalls the Universal horror films of the 1930s, with its expansive gothic mansion setting and offbeat characters that come off as caricatures of old money vultures. It's something of a breath of fresh air after a summer that has mostly given us things we've already seen before. Ready or Not is a wild ride, a joyfully mean-spirited horror comedy that takes no prisoners and ends up delivering one of the most purely satisfying endings of the year.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


READY OR NOT | Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett Stars Samara Weaving, Andie MacDowell, Mark O'Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni | Rated R for violence, bloody images, language throughout, and some drug use | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox in Richard Linklater’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, an Annapurna Pictures release.

The critical drubbing and box office failure of Richard Linklater's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is one of 2019's biggest cinematic mysteries. It is, perhaps, Linklater's most accessible film, often threatening to become his most overtly conventional, and yet there is something about it that is elusive and difficult to pin down, a kind of restless quality that makes it both deeply pleasurable and consistently engaging.

Of course, much of this could be attributed to the typically brilliant performance of Cate Blanchett in the lead role. Her Bernadette Fox is a thing of neurotic beauty, a close cousin of her Oscar winning performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and yet somehow fiercely its own unique animal. She gives the film a nervous, prickly energy as an anti-social architect whose perceived failures have put her in something akin to self-imposed reclusion, focusing on her family and refusing to design anything for nearly 20 years.

She gets into petty squabbles with her bourgeois neighbors, relies on online virtual assistance for most personal tasks, and does everything in her power to avoid human contact. All the while her family is preparing to go on a trip to Antarctica at the behest of their daughter, Bee (the preternaturally wise young actor Emma Nelson in her film debut), that Bernadette is desperately trying to get out of. Her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) becomes worried about her, seeing her emotional distance as signs of depression and her jar full of pills as a sign of suicidal thoughts. So he stages an intervention in an attempt to get her "help," causing her to run away in order to find herself again.

As it turns out, Bernadette is not depressed, nor is she suicidal. Their marriage was drifting, and the jar of pills was something of an art project. It is their lack of communication that is the issue, not  to mention the fact that Bernadette hasn't had a creative outlet it nearly two decades. While the characters are dangerously high concept for a Linklater film, who tends to ground his own characters in more solid emotional reality, Linklater handles them with great care, turning them into living, breathing human beings. Where'd You Go, Bernadette feels like an exaggerated form of reality deeply rooted in real human emotion, guided by a keen sense of what it feels like to be someone with a low tolerance for bullshit and a general aversion to societal interactions. I felt this film in my bones, and while it's broader than the usual Linklater, it still has that trademark raw emotional honesty that was so incisive in films like Boyhood and the Before Trilogy.

Linklater paints in bold strokes here, but what may appear to be a self-consciously quirky comedy populated with larger than life characters has much more going on beneath the surface than it's being given credit for. It's a nervy, restless film that never asks us to pity its protagonist, it asks us to understand her. Even as Linklater plays it safe through occasionally on-the-nose narration, every note of this thing rings true, often as painfully honest as it is achingly funny.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE | Directed by Richard Linklater | Stars Cate Blanchett, Emma Nelson, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Troian Bellisario | Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN

After many tries and many films, I've come to the conclusion that I just don't connect with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While I respect him as an artist and his technique is often impressive, they are, to borrow a line from Whiplash, not my tempo.

The BRD Trilogy (which stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the official name of West Germany after WWII), a series of films that came near the end of Fassbinder's short-lived but prolific career, represented his biggest financial success, with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) becoming his biggest worldwide box office hit, and Veronika Voss (1982) garnering the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This loosely connected triptych tackled Germany's much ballyhooed post-war "economic miracle" of the 1950s through the perspective of three women, with a decidedly critical eye.

Fassbinder makes films that are easy to respect but harder to love, consistently holding the audience at arm's length in favor of immaculately crafted, somewhat arch allegorical exercises that are extremely specific to their time and place. All three films in the BRD Trilogy certainly work as standalone melodramas, but their political underpinnings are somewhat muddled. Take The Marriage of Maria Braun for example - does the film have the same impact if you don't know that the parade of black and white negatives at the end of the film are German politicians whose legacy Fassbinder is actively questioning?

Yes and no. Of the three films in the trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun represents Fassbinder at his most fiery, carefully crafting the story of a woman whose marriage to a German officer only lasts a day before he goes missing in the war. After years of searching for him, she eventually gives him up for dead, and marries an American GI instead (who appears in all three films, really their only non-thematic connection), only for her husband to return and murder the American. Yet the men ultimately matter very little here - the film is about a woman surviving in a man's world, trying to carve out a place for herself in post-war Germany and put the past behind her. But the past has a way of catching up to you, as Maria Braun eventually learns the hard way. She is a woman in a man's world, and the men always seem to spell doom, their machinations and assumed societal positions always derailing Maria's best laid plans. Made in the style of a Hollywood melodrama but with a deeply cynical edge, The Marriage of Maria Braun takes no prisoners, yet it is very specifically of its time and place, a deep dive into West German politics that don't always translate beyond the culture that gave birth to it. It's the film's feminist edge that remains powerful, and it's easy to see why it became Fassbinder's biggest box office success.

VERONIKA VOSS. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Less overtly political is the trilogy's second entry, Veronika Voss. Chronologically the film was released third (in a George Lucas-like move that doesn't really make sense), and was the last film Fassbinder fully completed before his death in 1982 at the age of 37. Inspired by the life of German actress Sybille Schmitz, who starred in such films as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr before going on to act in Nazi films like Titanic during WWII. Schmitz died in 1955 under mysterious circumstances, resulting in a murder trial of her doctor, Ursula Moritz. Renamed Veronika Voss for purposes of fictionalization, Schmitz's story is reimagined as a kind of German Sunset Boulevard, in which an aging film star is held hostage by an unscrupulous psychologist who bleeds her patients dry and keeps them sedated through unnecessary prescriptions.

Voss is shot in dazzling black and white, where the lights sparkle in the frame like the jewels that down Veronika's neck. It has the look and feel of an old Hollywood melodrama, something Fassbinder was clearly trying to emulate with each film of the BRD Trilogy. Here he explores themes of national amnesia, and Germany's eagerness to put its unpleasant past behind it without truly reckoning with it. Voss both represents Germany's glory days of the Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler, and of the darkness of the Third Reich, and how easily one slid into the other. Yet one thing that plagues Veronika Voss, and BRD 3 Lola as well, is in how it recalls previous films in a weaker form. It doesn't have the powerful moral outrage of Maria Braun to help it stick the landing, leaving a pretty but mostly empty aftertaste.

LOLA

That brings us to Lola (1981). Ostensibly an unauthorized (and therefore unofficial) remake of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) shot in the bright candy colors of a Jacques Demy musical, Lola is the story of a cabaret singer/prostitute who is pursued by two men, an unscrupulous businessman and a buttoned up bachelor who moves to town as the new building commissioner. The film comes to a much different, much less overtly tragic conclusion than von Sternberg's original, yet it manages to leave more unsettling question marks about the future, the apparently happy ending nagged by a sense of the continuation of the status quo. It's a deeply cynical film, disillusioned at the direction of Germany. I'll leave the details of the origins and ramifications of the "economic miracle" to historians more well versed in German politics than I, but Fassbinder's films display a profound sense of ennui about the corruption that continued to permeate every aspect of the culture, undercutting any real moral progress in a country still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Third Reich and WWII.

Yet Barbara Sukowaas' Lola is no Marlene Dietrich, nor for that matter is Armin Mueller-Stahl as powerful as Emil Jannings in his performance as the guileless von Bohm. The film is permeated by rapturous pastel colors, Von Bohm shaded in deep blue hues while Lola is coded in vibrant pinks, but despite its emulation of classical Hollywood Technicolor, Lola, much like the other films in the trilogy, is often insular and cold, holding the audience at arms length like some sort of exercise in cinematic academics than the political allegory dressed up as a lush Hollywood melodrama it tries to be. Fassbinder's political allusions are often too opaque for their own good, and Lola especially feels like an exercise more than a film in its own right.

Criterion's Blu-Ray treatment of the BRD Trilogy is nevertheless stunning. The transfers are uniformly glorious, but especially in the Trilogy's two most visually beautiful films, Veronika Voss and Lola. Each comes with extensive special features and a comprehensive booklet detailing the making of each film as well as a consideration of the trilogy as a whole from Kent Jones. The films are undeniably impressive achievements in their own right, but your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for Fassbinder's occasionally arch political experiments.

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN - ★★★½ (out of four)

VERONIKA VOSS -★★★ (out of four)

LOLA - ★★½ (out of four)


Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

I first discovered the films of Alice Guy-Blaché a few years ago while randomly searching for early silent short films on YouTube. I was struck not only by the fact that I had never heard of her before (despite having studied this era for years), but that her films displayed a preternatural narrative and formal sophistication that not even Meliés or the Lumières had achieved around the same time. In fact, Guy-Blaché was pushing forward cinema as a narrative medium in the 1800s decades before D.W. Griffith would be credited with pioneering some of the same techniques.

It appears I was not alone in my ignorance of Alice Guy-Blaché, the subject of Pamela B. Green's fascinating new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice-Guy Blaché. Not only was Guy-Blaché the first female filmmaker, she was one of cinema's earliest pioneers, starting out as a secretary for Gaumont before taking over production, eventually emigrating to America and founding her very own film studio. She directed her very first film, The Cabbage Fairy, in 1896, only a year after the iconic premiere of Louis and Auguste Lumière's Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. It was only through the diligent research of film historians that she recently received credit for that film, as well as hundreds of others in her long and productive filmography. Guy-Blaché's days as a studio mogul were also likewise credited to her husband, Herbert Blaché.

So why was Guy-Blaché seemingly lost to history? And why were so many of her films credited to other filmmakers? Be Natural investigates her incredible life and career, throwing back the curtain on one of cinema's greatest and most overlooked pioneers. The film takes its name from the filmmaker's motto - "Be Natural," a reminder for actors that once prominently graced the walls of her studio, Solax, which ran in New York from 1910-1914. That in itself is a remarkable thing - a filmmaker in the early 1900s telling actors to be natural, when the acting styles of the time were so presentational. So what happened? Was she forgotten simply because she was a woman? Were other film professionals at the turn of the 20th century intimidated by her prowess? Did film historians simply not take her seriously? Green incisively examines all the factors that lead to Guy-Blaché's seeming erasure for the history books, interviewing popular filmmakers and historians alike to uncover her story. But the most indelible anecdotes come from archival footage of Guy-Blaché herself, fondly recounting her days as a filmmaker. This was not a woman who put it all behind her went quietly into that good night, this was a woman who was forgotten by history.

Through lack of film preservation and the advent of sound, so many early silent films were lost, and along with them, the rich history that gave birth to them. But Be Natural seeks not only to resurrect that history, but to rectify a great injustice, placing Guy-Blaché in the pantheon of cinema pioneers where she belongs. There is a certain playfulness to her films that sets them apart from single shot actualitiés that were so common at the time. Her films had spirit and wit. Her film, The Consequences of Feminism (1906), boldly satirized gender roles at a time when such things were often expected to be accepted without question. She was one of the first to use hand-tinted color, and was an early proponent of Gaumont's Chronophone sync-sound system. To see this lion of cinema tell her story in her own words after nearly a century of silence is truly stunning stuff, and Green tells the story with equal parts awe and righteous indignation, framing it as a historical mystery she and her team must solve. It's a vital, deeply moving documentary that at long last acknowledges Guy-Blaché's invaluable gift to cinema, insuring that this long-forgotten pioneer will finally be given her due.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ | Directed by Pamela B. Green | Narrated by Jodie Foster | Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

The premise of Good Boys is essentially built around one joke - three 6th grade boys are invited to a "kissing party" and keep finding themselves in raunchy adult situations that they don't understand. It's basically Superbad in middle school, with our young heroes desperately trying to learn how to kiss with the belief that this party will dictate the direction of the rest of their lives. Along the way they encounter drugs, sex toys, and bullies in an ever-increasing series of outlandish situations that will put their friendship to the test.

It's a tricky line to walk, throwing so much decidedly R-rated material into a film starring 12 year olds ("we're not kids, we're tweens!" they often remind us), yet director Gene Stupnitsky handles it with surprising care. Their innocence and obliviousness to what's actually going on around them is the film's key joke, and while it threatens to wear somewhat thin by the end, Stupnitsky has the wherewithal to transform the film into something a little more heartfelt.

That it never overstays its welcome is a testament to the three young leads; Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon. They carry the film with a certain sense of naiveté, as if they're not in on any of the jokes and the film is just happening around them. They cuss with wild abandon, encounter drugs and sex toys, and find themselves in outlandish situations that children should never be in. Yet throughout all Good Boys remains disarmingly sweet, never letting its raunchy humor drown out the sense of coming-of-age nostalgia that permeates its core. Beneath the R-rated humor, it's a film about the ephemeral nature of childhood friendships, how the things that hold us together when we're children aren't necessarily the things that hold us together when we're adults. It may have a juvenile sense of humor, but like Superbad before it, it manages to use that humor in service of a more human element.

While Good Boys doesn't exactly feel like a comedy classic in the making the way Superbad did, it's got a lot of heart and plenty of laughs thanks to the talent of its young cast. It has one central joke, but it executes it well, bringing its grown up audience in on the joke with a wink and a smile. It's the kind of film whose humor is instantly relatable for adults, reminding us all of our childhood desire to grow up too quickly, while mining great humor out of how young and dumb we all really were.

Good Boys puts a new twist on the familiar trappings of the teen sex comedy, and while much of it feels awfully familiar, Tremblay, Williams, and Noon carry the film with great conviction, breathing new life into a venerable genre that hasn't quite run out of gas just yet.

GRADE – ★★★(out of four)


GOOD BOYS | Directed by Gene Stupnitsky | Stars Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Will Forte, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Retta | Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout - all involving tweens | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Kitchen, Andrea Berloff's directorial debut, a comic book adaptation about three women who take over the Irish mob in Hells Kitchen after their husbands are sent to jail, is a bit of a mess. 

Its sense of pacing is all over the place, its script is sometimes painfully on the nose, and its third-act twist is quickly swept under the rug and has little impact on the plot. And yet there's something about this scrappy little film that entertains in spite of its shortcomings. Perhaps its the standout performances of its leads, especially funny-women Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish turning in strong dramatic work. Perhaps its the evocative milieu of 1970s New York. Or perhaps it's the unapologetic sense of "give no fucks" feminism that boldly announces itself and doesn't need to bend over backwards to be liked.

The Kitchen is about three women, all essentially victims of the same patriarchal system, reclaiming their agency and taking over the family business to make it run better than ever, naysayers be damned. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) believes that her husband is a good family man and will support her once he gets out of jail. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) is sick of taking orders from her husband (James Badge Dale) and is ready to escape from under the oppressive thumb of family matriarch, Helen (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is a battered housewife looking to put victimhood behind her with hitman, Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson). Their ascendence rubs some in the mob the wrong way, however, who become determined to put a stop to their rise at all costs.

While the screenplay has a tendency to underline its "you go girl" sentiments a little too obviously, its hard not to enjoy watching these three women knock a bunch of hard-bitten New York mobsters down a peg or two. It's not as elegantly crafted as the similarly themed Widows, but it's got spirit and guts, and that takes it a long way, even when its plotting becomes sloppy. One can't help but hope that the film's failure at the box office and its overall lack of critical favor doesn't spell doom for Berloff's fledgling career, which is unfortunately too often the case even for women who are successful at the box office. There's just an agreeable verve to her direction, even if she has a tendency to paint with much too broad a brush, overstating her themes even when the action often speaks for itself.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE KITCHEN | Directed by Andrea Berloff | Stars Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domnhall Gleason, James Badge Dale, Margo Martindale | Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

In the late 1920s, Universal was known more as a scrappy B-movie studio rather than a major Hollywood player. 

In order to bolster its reputation, studio head Carl Laemmle ordered the production of what became known as "jewels," prestige productions designed to compete with major players like MGM and Paramount who had their own theater chains. Laemmle pulled out all the stops for the jewels, providing massive budgets that would prove to the world that Universal wasn't just a producer of cheap westerns aimed at small town audiences. Two such jewels were The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and "super-jewel" The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), were monster successes, buoyed by the star power of Lon Chaney and Laemmle's determination to spare no expense.

Laemmle was not only a shrewd producer, he also had a sharp eye for talent, and imported many great filmmakers from Europe to come from America and work for Universal. One of the greatest (and most unheralded) was Paul Leni, whose biggest success in Germany, Waxworks (1923), had displayed a keen eye for horror. When Laemmle wanted to make another film that could compete with the success of Phantom of the Opera he turned to Leni, and returned once more to a story of disfigurement with an adaptation of Victory Hugo's The Man Who Laughs (1928).

With Chaney now under contract at MGM, Leni turned to Conrad Veidt, who had also starred in Waxworks but was perhaps best known as the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Veidt was no stranger to playing grotesque characters, and The Man Who Laughs is a tale of ghastly disfigurement that features a dark and tragic heart. Veidt stars. as Gwynplaine, a circus performer whose face was cut into a ghoulish grin by transient bandits when he was only a child. Now relegated to a side-show carnival act, Gwynplaine falls in love with Dea (Mary Philbin), a blind girl who is also a member of the circus and does not know he is disfigured. But when one stop in a particular small town runs them afoul of the mad doctor who carved the grin into his face, the circus runs afoul of a vengeful vizier to Queen Anne, and the truth about Gwynplaine's past is revealed - he is the heir to the titles and fortune of his wealthy father who was executed for treason by King James, and in order to retain them he must join the House of Lords and marry Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) or face the wrath of the queen.

Leni brought a German Expressionist sensibility to the production, with its elongated shadows and off-kilter sets, quite remarkable for a Hollywood production. Veidt's eerily grinning visage would go on to provide inspiration for the character of the Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker, yet the character of Gwynplaine, like Quasimodo before him, is not a villainous one. Veidt is the beating heart of The Man Who Laughs, anchoring its grotesqueries in a sense of tragedy and pathos. The film has been given a stunning 4K restoration as part of Universal's ongoing effort to preserve its extensive back catalogue, and as a result the Blu-Ray transfer by Flicker Alley is nearly pristine, featuring an image free from the dirt and damage that often marks films from this era.


Less well preserved is Leni's final film, The Last Warning (1929). It's clear from the more damaged negative that Universal considers The Man Who Laughs the more important film, or perhaps it was just in better shape to begin with. But while The Man Who Laughs is clearly an influential work, I'll go to bat for The Last Warning as the better film.

A prototypical haunted house mystery, The Last Warning centers around a murder in a Broadway theater in front of a packed house. Years later, a producer gathers the cast and crew together to recreate the circumstances of the murder for a live audience, but the dead man's ghost seems determined that the show must not go on.

Leni once again makes great use of light and shadow, but it's the way he moves his camera that reveals his unheralded mastery of the medium. In one especially stunning shot, a man walks all the way across the room right up to the camera, which then focuses in on the flower he’s carrying in his hand. In another just after the murder, the director orders the curtain to come down, and the camera ducks under the falling curtain to follow him out into the audience. Leni is clearly having fun here, and it's a tragic loss to cinema that his talent was cut short at the age of 44 the same year that The Last Warning was released.

There's just something about its unpretentious spookiness and its self-aware sense of humor that is tremendously satisfying, showcasing Leni as a master showman. He even manages to outdo fellow German F.W. Murnau, whose similarly themed The Haunted Castle (1921) was nearly done-in by its dreary self-seriousness. While much of the attention would be placed on The Man Who Laughs, this is the true jewel in Leni's crown, a deliriously entertaining mystery filled with eerie shadows, kooky characters, and outlandish twists that always land through Leni's sharp balance between humor and horror. The Last Warning is one of the last great Hollywood films of the silent era and stands ripe for rediscovery.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS - ★★★½ (out of four)
THE LAST WARNING - ★★★★ (out of four)


The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Austin Zajur in SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, courtesy of CBS Films and Lionsgate.

For those of us who grew up with Alvin Schwartz's series of books, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," the eerily simple campfire stories and Stephen Gammell's haunting, spidery illustrations were the stuff of nightmares. They were scarier than "Goosebumps" and featured a collection of urban legends and folk tales that, no matter how silly at their core, seemed frighteningly plausible. 

The prospect of translating those stories to film seemed like a dubious venture - after all it was the ethereal scrawl of Gammell's illustrations that made the stories so singularly terrifying. Yet director André Øvredal, working from an original story by producer Guillermo Del Toro, achieves something quite remarkable - a film that not only pays chilling homage to the indelible imagery of its source material, while charting a new course uniquely its own.

Rather than directly adapt the stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark takes a page from the Goosebumps films and folds them into a separate narrative altogether, sprinkling some of its most famous tales into a story designed to bring them all together. Set in the late 1960s, the film centers around a group of teenagers who accidentally summon a vengeful spirit from a local haunted house around which ghost stories have swirled for decades. The legend says that the ghost of a young woman named Sarah Bellows would whisper scary stories to children through the walls of the house, but anyone who heard them would soon disappear. When the teens discover Sarah's book of scary stories in the house's gloomy basement, they soon discover that the legend is true, and the stories in the book are coming to life, leaving them on a race against time to find a way to stop the horrifying monsters that spring from its pages and put Sarah Bellows to rest once and for all.

The creatures are memorably rendered, often through practical effects, retaining their grotesque visages and never overplayed to the point that their lose their effectiveness. But what makes Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark so fascinating is that it parallels its tales of terror with an actual American horror story - the Vietnam war and the election of Richard Nixon. Nixon's election casts a dark shadow over the film like a real-life boogeyman, and the film boldly shifts the thematic focus of the film away from the fictional monsters that go bump in the night and toward to real villain - capitalism. Sarah Bellows, it turns out, was a victim of her wealthy family's plot to cover up the fact that their paper mill was poisoning the town's water supply with mercury, killing countless children and giving birth to the dark rumors that surrounded their family for generations. In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark these stories have real power, to hurt or to heal, and the only way to heal the trauma of the past as a nation is to confront it head-on and tell the truth about the sins of our ancestors. In order to save ourselves and write a new story, we have to acknowledge the darkness in our history, whether it be the destructive greed of capitalism or the evil specter of racism.

It's a deeply powerful theme for a film about walking scarecrows and corpses searching for their missing toes, but not only does Øvredal capture the primal spookiness of the books, with their campfire-ready things that go bump in the night, he also taps into the raw nerve of our own national conversation, and its insistence on venerating the past while ignoring its darker, more inconvenient elements. It knows that history is the scariest story of all, and it boldly places the ball in the audience's court to go out and write a new one. Øvredal turns the film's creepy funhouse aesthetic into a surprisingly adept commentary on our national obsession with clinging to false narratives about our past, choosing not to comfort us with nostalgic memories of days gone by, but to throw back the curtain on their most terrifying monsters.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK | Directed by André Øvredal | Stars Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur | Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references | Opens today, Aug. 9, in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

In 1989, 24-year-old Tracy Edwards set out on a boat called the Maiden to become the first all-woman crew to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World Race. While she was met with much resistance and skepticism, the Maiden not only went on to finish the race against seemingly all odds, but to out-perform the expectations of everyone, including its crew.

On the surface, Alex Holmes' Maiden may seem like your prototypical "overcoming adversity" sports documentary, but in Holmes' capable hands it manages to probe more deeply beneath the surface and achieve something more emotionally satisfying. It is a film as much about the triumph of the human spirit as it is about political awakening. Edwards starts out the journey refusing to call herself a feminist, but by journey's end she has come to realize the very intentional roadblocks that have been put in her place simply because she and her crew are women. Sponsors refuse to be associated with them, male racers don't respect them, and reporters are more interested in asking them about who's fighting with who and how they put on makeup on the boat than about their strategies and techniques, questions that are usually reserved for the men.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Maiden is a white-knuckle ride, keeping its audience on the edge of their seats right up through the finish line. Those who already know the outcome may have a different experience with it, but ultimately Holmes seems less concerned with whether or not they won than he is with what they ultimately achieved. The crew of the Maiden not only proved that women were just as capable as men in the sport of sailing, their story captured the imaginations of the entire world, inspiring millions with their remarkable perseverance. Not even expected to finish the first leg of the race, the crew of the Maiden defied expectations and became one of the great underdog stories in sports history.

It's an inspiring tale, to be sure. But without its strong emotional core it would likely be just another sports documentary. The recollections of these women lend it a deeply personal feel, opening up about the hardships and the vindication that their achievement represented. This is not just another “talking head” retrospective, it puts us right on the boat with the crew, allowing us to share in their triumphs and their pain, creating a warts-and-all look at the race from their unique point of view.

In the end, however, victory is beside the point. Like Rocky, sometimes just finishing the race is an achievement unto itself. Yet what the crew of the Maiden did was prove to themselves and to the world that women would not and could not be ignored, and Holmes gives their story a lovely tribute in this rousing and heartwarming documentary.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


MAIDEN | Directed by Alex Holmes | Rated PG for language, thematic elements, some suggestive content and brief smoking images | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, August 05, 2019

A scene from Robert Greene's "Bisbee '17."
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

On July 12, 1917, a group of over 1,200 copper miners comprised mainly of Mexican migrants were forcibly deported on trains and left to die in the middle of the desert outside of Bisbee, Arizona. The event, which became known as the Bisbee Deportation, has largely been forgotten by history, a fragment of the region's fraught past many would rather leave forgotten.

The deportation was the result of a general strike imposed by the miners' union and encouraged by the Industrial Workers of the World, a "radical" group of labor organizers with known Communist sympathies. They saw the labor dispute in the Copper Queen Mines in Bisbee as a way to disrupt the American war efforts during World War I, and stepped in on the workers' behalf. Rather than negotiate with the workers, the town, essentially under the control of corporate interests, rounded up the miners, tried them in kangaroo courts, and illegally deported them, an act of attempted genocide that went unanswered and un-prosecuted.

It's a tragedy that still hangs over the town of Bisbee like a dark cloud, and every year the town gathers together to commemorate the event, many locals claiming ancestry on both sides of the conflict. Robert Greene's haunting documentary, Bisbee '17, chronicles the town's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the deportation. As the town gathers to recreate the event, Greene also stages his own recreation of the event, allowing members of the town to reckon with the demons of their past and comes to terms with the crimes committed by their ancestors in their name.

Bisbee '17 is a fierce and timely work, haunted by the sins of America's past that echo the atrocities of its present. Greene interviews many town residents who continue to stand by the actions taken by their ancestors, offering up half-baked excuses about "fighting Communism" and "standing up for America," when the mine that gave their town life now sets abandoned, all but destroying Bisbee and leaving its citizens mostly destitute. One has to wonder what capitalism has brought them but pain, even as they hope for the mining company to return and save them while they rail against the evils of communism from the dusty streets of a ghost town ravaged by corporate greed. And yet, much like Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, the townspeople soon find themselves in an unexpected position as they recreate the infamous deportation and watch it unfold with their own eyes. Seeing the events through new eyes may not change how they feel, but one can feel a subtle shift in the town of Bisbee, a growing unease with their past that reflects the growing unrest of America at large, a country wrestling with its sins yet seemingly unable to acknowledge its faults, content in its own unearned sense of exceptionalism.

Yet the film's emotional core is Fernando Serrano, a young gay hispanic man whose embodiment of the plight of his ancestors may just be his political awakening, reframing his perspective of his own place in the world. As the white people around him continue to make excuses for the actions of their ancestors ("it was a different time," "they did what they had to do") Serrano begins to realize that his friends and neighbors may not really be on his side. It's a stunning and heartbreaking blend of performance and reality that blurs the line not only between actor and role but between the past and the present, creating a unshakable link from our present climate to the atrocities of our past that we have yet to atone for. One can't help but wonder as Bisbee '17 reflects on the actions of the citizens of Bisbee in 1917 how history will one day judge the America of 2019.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


BISBEE '17 | Directed by Robert Greene | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Grasshopper Film.