Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cinema Obscura is a regular feature at From the Front Row, highlighting little-known films that I believe need a second look. The mission of Cinema Obscura is to bring attention to hidden gems and forgotten masterpieces from around the world that readers may not otherwise have had a chance to discover. 

I've found myself returning to this film often in the months since I first watched it, yet I haven't been able to bring myself to sit down and write about it. There's something so disturbingly relevant about Jan Němec's A Report on the Party and Guests (1966) that echoes through the decades and seems to eerily presage the global rise of rightwing nationalism and fascism across the globe in the last years of the 2010s.

Němec's film was originally banned in its native Czechoslovakia. The censors declared it "to have nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism." Perhaps they were right, A Report on the Party and Guests is not particularly socialist in nature, although in the United States in 2019 its themes certainly seem leftwing. But the heart of the film lies not in leftwing or rightwing politics but in a repudiation of totalitarianism of all stripes, be they communist or capitalist in nature. Here, Němec brutally lampoons human nature and our penchant for unquestioning compliance before authority, an unfortunate trait that gives would-be dictators carte-blanche to establish absolute power.

The film follows a group of friends out for a carefree afternoon in the country. But their idyllic picnic is soon interrupted by a marauding wedding party that orders them into non-existent corals and begins jovially issuing nonsensical orders. The guests all willfully comply with a sense of curious bemusement. Held captive in an invisible cage, they immediately adhere to the rules set forth by their captors, who have no weapons and no obvious sense of authority over them whatsoever. The only thing holding them captive is their own compliant mentality.

Despite the smiling faces of and apologetic attitude of those in charge of the wedding party, who insist that they only have the best interests of their guests at heart, the film becomes more and more sinister as the ill intentions of the captors becomes more and more apparent. No matter what they say, this is not some benevolent invitation to eat drink and be merry, it's an egregious abuse of power, power that they were never granted in the first place. And yet all the while, the guests smile and accept every apology and explanation for their hosts' bad behavior, never thinking that they may be frogs trapped in slowly boiling water.

This blind acquiescence before power is the dark heart of the film. Němec employs a gentle sense of surrealism that recalls Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962), as the demands made by the party's smiling hosts become more and more bizarre. It has the tone and the appearance of a comedy, a charming romp in the woods where the protagonists stumble across a party. And yet the film is almost unbearably unnerving, and it isn't long before it becomes profoundly uncomfortable, as we continually question why these people don't just say no - even when the consequences of doing so become clear, they still accept the apologies of the host for their bad behavior and carry on as if nothing happened. Why won't they just leave? We wonder.

But then we look at the world around us. Our leaders refuse to do anything about the dire warning of climate change. Our president is a proven racist, and criminal, and our media tries its best to normalize him, accepting his continued excuses and blatant lies as a new kind of reality. And suddenly what Němec is trying to say becomes painfully clear. We want to accept authority, be herded like sheep - it's comforting to believe the lies, to believe in the benevolence of those to whom we grant power over ourselves. Suddenly, the actions of the characters in A Report on the Party and Guests don't seem quite so bizarre. We always have the power to stop tyrants - they only have as much power as we let them have. And yet we carry on blindly, content with the status quo, unwilling to be the first one to rock the boat until we're too far in over our heads. It's a brilliant, chilling film, an incisive satire of humanity's relationship with authority that I'm sure ruffled a few feathers with the powers that be in Czechoslovakia at the time.

As a follow-up to his explosive Holocaust drama, Diamonds of the NightA Report on the Party and Guests showcases Němec at the height of his powers, a major player in world cinema on the vanguard of the Czech New Wave. Yet the film, along with Oratorio for Prague, his 1968 documentary chronicling the Prague Spring uprising, would make enough enemies for him that he wouldn't be allowed to make another film until after the fall of the Communist regime in 1990. It's hard to imagine the loss to cinema that this represents, but for a brief moment the Czech New Wave represented some of the most radical and vital cinema in the world, and nowhere is that verve and vigor more plainly apparent than in this film, a hidden gem that stands tall as one of the most razor sharp indictments of totalitarianism ever produced.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Sylvester Stallone stars as ’Rambo’ in RAMBO: LAST BLOOD. Photo by Yana Blajeva.

Despite the fact that John Rambo had already been given the nostalgic sequel treatment back in 2008 with Rambo, rumors persisted of a fifth entry in the series. Some of the more outlandish ones even featured Rambo tangling with a Bigfoot-like creature. Thankfully (or, perhaps, unfortunately) that version of Rambo V never came to pass, and it seems the success of Sylvester Stallone's Oscar nominated return to his iconic Rocky Balboa character in Creed and Creed II convinced him to pick up Rambo's serrated knife one last time.

The result is Rambo: Last Blood, which picks up about 10 years after Rambo's return home at the end of the last film. Rambo has taken to raising his niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) after the death of her mother. It seems as though the old soldier is at peace at last, that is until Gabrielle sneaks off to Mexico to track down her deadbeat father who abandoned her as a child. When Rambo heads down to retrieve her, he discovers that she has been kidnapped by sex traffickers and held captive by a ruthless cartel. What follows is what Quentin Tarantino might call a "roaring rampage of revenge," a brutal, bloody descent into darkness that pushes Rambo to the very edge.

The climax of the film is essentially a gory version of Home Alone, in which Rambo booby-traps his entire farm to block the cartel's eventual siege. It's every bit as violent and over-the-top as one would expect given how graphic the last film was, but director Adrian Grunberg (Get the Gringo) rushes through each kill so that none of the deaths really have time to land. None of them have weight, and we fly through the traps so quickly that the anticipation of each one seems all for naught. We're a long way from the original First Blood (1982), in which Rambo carefully stalked those who wished to do him harm; here they go out in a last minute barrage of carnage that lacks the visceral impact they were clearly intended to have.

Revisting First Blood in 2019 is an interesting experience, because it isn't the violent symphony of blood and guts that the later sequels became. In that film Rambo is a shell-shocked Vietnam vet who returns to a country that sent him to die in the jungles of a foreign nation for no reason, only to refuse to take care of him when they bring him back. He was abandoned by the very nation he served, and his enemies are the American authorities, policemen who set out to enact their own wrong-headed brand of justice on a long-haired hippie. It's an anti-establishment film, and Rambo features almost no trace of the Reagan-era machismo for which he would become a symbol in later films.

In Last Blood there is no redemption, no atonement, no self-reflection. Just cold, hard, bloody revenge. Stallone isn't patricularly interested in examining the legacy of the character and culture that made him popular. But really we’re all just here to see him blow bad guys up, which he does with gusto. Rambo is pure caricature at this point so the fact that it doesn’t return to the more thoughtful roots of the original doesn’t feel like a great loss. It delivers on its promise to see Stallone wreak bloody carnage. It is what it is and it’s perfectly enjoyable. The script is weak, and the supporting performances are all uniformly B-movie quality (with the exception of the great Adriana Barraza and Paz Vega), but when Stallone gets out that knife and does that scowl he does so well, this thing is actually pretty great. We all know why we're here, to watch Rambo kill some bad guys and exact bloody vengeance upon his enemies, and in that regard Rambo: Last Blood delivers. It's a loud, tasteless, and bloody good time that never feels like it's as good as it could be, but manages to be just as much fun and it should be.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD | Directed by Adrian Grunberg | Stars Sylvester Stallone, Paz Vega, Joaquín Cosio, Óscar Jaenada, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Yvette Monreal, Adriana Barraza | Rated R for strong graphic violence, grisly images, drug use and language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters everywhere.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

As someone who followed Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey series from the very beginning, I was tepidly optimistic about the idea of a feature film. After all, most of the characters had been giving satisfactory conclusions to their arcs, what more could a film have to add other than a nostalgic return to the titular country estate and a visit with old friends?

That is, of course, the point here, but that doesn't stop Fellowes from dipping back into the well of soap opera dramatics that served the series so well over the course of six seasons. Except this time he crams an entire season's worth of drama into two hours, making the plotting seem even more contrived than usual. The story this time centers around a royal visit to Downton Abbey by King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). As the arrival of the royals draws nigh, the aristocrats upstairs wrestle with a convoluted inheritance subplot from prim Lady-in-Waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who has named her servant as her heir rather than her closest relative, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), much to the chagrin of prickly family matriarch, Violet (Maggie Smith). Meanwhile, the servants downstairs are being trampled by the royal servants who seem determined to take over the house and leave the Downton staff with nothing to do. To counteract the chaos, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) asks retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to return to Downton and right the ship, spurning new butler, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier). Yet more sinister forces wait in the wings, as former Irish Republican Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is being tailed by a mysterious figure whose motives may be darker than they initially appear.

The show easily could have stretched these plots out for an entire season, but when crammed together into one film, the film feels overstuffed, never really having time to give any of the subplots adequate time to develop. The problem is such that a subplot involving a royal assassination plot is swept under the rug and barely mentioned again as if it never happened, and therein lies one of Downton Abbey s biggest issues - it's a film based on a TV series that is used to giving its stories time to develop. When reduced to the time constraints of a feature film, it feels so rushed that it doesn't even have time to give seemingly major plot points time to settle before lurching into the next one, and the inheritance subplot feels especially anemic given that the Crawleys have dealt with similar issues many times over the course of their six season run.

Downton Abbey is also a strangely conservative film. The series was clearly about a very strict social order, but it was also about how that order began to shift and change over time. The film, on the other hand, takes on an oddly monarchist tone ("God is a monarchist!" they exclaim when the weather improves just in time for the royal visit), insisting that its characters should accept their position and never hope for more than they are given by benevolent overlords in a deeply unfair system. This extends to abusive relationships, where the idea of “working it out” to protect the monarchy (something “bigger than themselves”) is treated as the highest virtue. We’re far from the biting satirical wit of Fellowes’ brilliant Gosford Park screenplay, which took the excesses of the upper classes to task while dismantling their reliance on the working classes to stay afloat. Here he posits that the highest honor the working class can achieve is to lick the boot that’s standing on their neck.

In the end, Fellowes seems more concerned with the fan service of giving each character another happy ending than continuing any of the overarching themes and ideas that permeated the series. Its nice to be back at Downton, but it really feels like more of the same with a few more glamour shots of the castle and soaring renditions of John Lunn's now iconic theme music. The characters are treated as unseemly caricatures, reducing many of our favorites to goofy comic relief and undermining any semblance of growth they may have had during the series. It's an occasionally pleasant time passer, but more often that not it feels as if Fellowes should have left well enough alone. Downton no longer feels like a window into a bygone world from which we've progressed, but a regressive longing for a simpler time when people knew their place and never asked for more.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

DOWNTON ABBEY | Directed by Michael Engler | Stars Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Phyllis Logan, Penelope Wilton, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Raquel Cassidy, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones | Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters everywhere.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Revisiting Disney's original animated Aladdin after having so recently seen their ill-conceived but undeniably popular live action remake, makes the excellence of the first film stand out and the miscalculation of the new one seem all the more egregious.

Aladdin has long felt like something of a neglected stepchild amongst the Disney Renaissance films of the 1990s, sandwiched between Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, it never seems to have claimed the same nostalgic embrace from my generation that those films have.  This despite the fact that it contains some of Disney's most memorable songs (which Disney continues to capitalize on at its theme parks) and one iconic performance by the legendary Robin Williams.

Williams is the heart and soul of Aladdin  of course, and his presence was sorely missed in the 2019 remake, although it had much larger problems than that. It's incredible just how much of his performance was improvised, with the filmmakers setting up a microphone in front of him and letting him riff. The rest of the story, about a young street rat who discovers a genie in a lamp and wishes to become a prince in order to woo the princess, is suitably filled with magic and wonder, and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) is one of Disney's most indelible villains, a devious vizier willing to do anything to usurp power in the fictional middle eastern kingdom of Agrabah.

The film marked the final collaboration between composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who passed away before the film was completed. And yet "A Whole New World" and "Friend Like Me" have entered the classic Disney playbook and become mainstays in the popular lexicon, cementing the film's place as one of Disney's best animated films. It is, mostly thanks to Williams (along with Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar's feathered sidekick, Iago), easily their funniest; Williams' never-ending stream of impersonations and wacky characters are so consistently hilarious that the audience barely has time to breathe between belly laughs. And yet, Menken and Ashman imbue the story with a sweeping sense of timeless romance and magic. There's a real sense of wonder in mystical conjurings of Aladdin, something the rote retelling in the remake sorely lacks. There remains a lot to like here, and the new Signature Collection Blu-Ray presentation arrives just in time to overshadow the simultaneous home-video release of its remake. Do yourself a favor - pick up the original instead. It's even better than you remember.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ALADDIN | Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker | Stars Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried | Rated G | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios.

Brad Pitt stars in AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Great filmmakers have often looked to the stars for inspiration. Despite the often unfairly low-rent reputation of the science fiction genre, it has historically provided boundless ideas for some of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Georges Méliès, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Wise, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Nolan, and Claire Denis have all made masterworks among the stars. The latest auteur to turn their eyes toward the heavens is James Gray, a filmmaker long worshipped by cinephiles but one who has never really caught on with the general public.

For him to step into such a large-scale studio film  is something of a surprise, but certainly not an unwelcome one. The resulting film, Ad Astra (To the Stars) is perhaps the finest film released by a major studio in wide release in recent memory, one of the last to be produced by 20th Century Fox before it was bought by Disney earlier this year. It's the kind of thoughtful adult drama the likes of which are rarely seen in multiplexes anymore, one that is really nothing like its action packed trailers, instead diving deep into the human psyche and the effects of generational trauma, pointing the action inward even as the camera points to the stars.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked by United States Airforce to travel to Mars to send a top secret communique to a remote vessel in orbit around Neptune. It is there that the Air Force believes that McBride's father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a legendary hero long thought lost during a top secret mission to search for alien life known as the "Lima Project," is actually behind a series of magnetic pulses coming from the outer reaches of the solar system that are threatening all life on Earth. Upon arrival on Mars, however, McBride starts to question the Air Force's official account of what happened to his father and to the Lima Project, and sets off on a mission of his own to track down the man who inspired him, yet abandoned him in pursuit of other life in the cosmos. Determined to learn the truth for himself, McBride may ultimately learn more than he ever bargained for.

In the most simplistic terms, Ad Astra feels like a Terrence Malick film with space pirates, a probing, philosophical film filled with lyrical musings about the nature of life, set against the epic backdrop of a world whose greed for natural resources has spilled over into outer space, as nations vie for supremacy not only on Earth, but on the moon as well. It is an adventure film but mainly in the sense that it’s about the mystery of exploration, but Gray’s aim is always much deeper than that.

A still from AD ASTRA. Photo by Francois Duhamel.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Gray paints on such a grand scale but the film never loses its intimate focus. That’s perhaps its greatest irony - Gray employs breathtaking cinematography and stunning special effects to tell a story that stands in stark contrast to its sweeping appointments. It is a deeply introspective film, the juxtaposition of its inner focus against a magnificent backdrop reinforced his central theme - even in the face of the loftiest of human achievement, nothing is more powerful or more important than human connection. What is the point of it all if we don't have love?

Yet, perhaps most fascinatingly, Ad Astra seems to be in direct conversation with Gray's previous film, The Lost City of Z. Both films are about adventurers, men who sought to go beyond the reaches of what conventional wisdom deemed possible. Yet The Lost City of Z was essentially built around the old axiom of “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” Ad Astra asks, “what if we land among the stars and there’s nothing there?” It’s a gripping rumination on passion, both artistic and scientific, as well as ambition at the expense of personal growth. In fact, Ad Astra is really like the mirror image of Lost City of Z  as if Gray is in dialogue with himself, arguing, reaching, searching, probing; wondering if perhaps the final frontier isn't in the stars, but in the depths of the human soul.

Its protagonist, like his father before him, is a man who put work above all, his singular drive to go higher, farther, and faster leading him to completely forsake his family. In the end it’s seemingly all for naught. What if we truly are alone in the universe? What if we spend our entire lives looking for something more, something greater than ourselves, and in the process miss, to paraphrase Dorothy Gale of Kansas, the beauty of what’s in our own back yard? Whether it’s over the rainbow or beyond the reaches of Neptune, Gray can’t help but remind us that nothing is so grand and mysterious and worth our time as love. Ad Astra is one of the best works of science fiction this century.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AD ASTRA | Directed by James Gray | Stars Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland | Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language | Opens Friday, Sept. 20, in theaters nationwide.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

NICOLE KIDMAN as Mrs. Barbour and ANSEL ELGORT as Theo Decker in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Amazon Studios’ drama, THE GOLDFINCH, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Macall Polay. © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

The Goldfinch is proof that no one should ever make year-in-advance Oscar predictions the day after the ceremony. 

It certainly looks good on paper. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Donna Tartt, directed by Brooklyn helmer John Crowley, and starring Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Paulson; The Goldfinch has a pedigree that seems to scream Oscar. And therein lies the problem; it's a prestige project with awards on its mind, but it's also a lumbering, self-serious drama that neither moves nor entertains, resulting in perhaps one of the most ill-conceived Oscar hopefuls in recent memory.

The film centers around the life of a young boy named Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley), whose mother is tragically killed in a museum bombing. Bounced around from family to family, Theo often feels like a boy without a home, that is until fate returns him to an antique store where he first went on a dying man's last wish. He grows up and becomes an antique dealer (now played by Ansel Elgort), yet is haunted by his past, and an impulsive act that lead him to steal a priceless painting called "The Goldfinch" from the museum in the wake of the bombing, a secret he has carried with him for decades that is about to lead him into a world of drugs and crime.

There's a lot going on in The Goldfinch  and Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan attempt to cram as much of Tartt's lengthy, nearly 1,000 page novel into two and a half hours as possible. Yet it all feels calculated and contrived in the extreme, its convoluted screenplay seemingly devoid of real human feeling or narrative coherence. There's not a true note in its entire bloated running time. Crowley fills the film with awkward pauses that, rather than enhancing the drama, merely throws off the pacing, making an interminably long film feel even longer. The performances are almost all stiff and unnatural, and since much of the narrative is built around preternaturally precocious children, the momentum stops cold, saddling the young actors with ponderous material that they are mostly unable to handle, making the film's myriad pauses between the dialogue seem all the more unnatural.

The film only manages some semblance of life with the arrival of Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, whose performance as a good-hearted Ukrainian delinquent gives Fegley a chance to loosen up and the audience a much-needed respite from the film's oppressive gloominess. Yet as the film continues on, it attempts to build an air of mystery around the Goldfinch painting not unlike that of Citizen Kane's Rosebud, yet the Goldfinch feels much more like a device than the metaphor it probably comes across as on the page. So much is built up around the painting, yet in the end it feels like much ado about nothing, a world of sadness and overwrought dramatics over something that ultimately matters very little. Audiences who have not read Tartt's novel may find themselves scratching their heads as the film lumbers toward a violent out of left field conclusion that rings completely false, never quite reaching the level of emotional depth for which it is clearly reaching. For all its grief and portent, The Goldfinch is a remarkably shallow film, one that never has the courage to address the issues of childhood trauma it raises, instead reaching for surface level platitudes centered around a poorly conceived macguffin. Not every great novel needs a big screen adaptation - because this  cold, tedious piece of Oscar bait seems like it probably should have stayed on the page.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE GOLDFINCH | Directed by John Crowley | Stars Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman | Rated R for drug use and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in HUSTLERS
© 2019 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

If the advertisements for Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers are any indication, then it's just another breezy September comedy featuring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Cardi B as criminal strippers who get into some wacky antics that will be forgotten as soon as the leaves turn. What the trailers did not lead us to expect, in their quest to distill the film to a few money shots to put butts in seats, was a surprisingly incisive critique of American capitalism and a scathing indictment of the careless wealthy hucksters who derailed our economy in 2008.

Based on a true story chronicled in journalist Jessica Pressler's article, “The Hustlers at Scores,”  Hustlers follows a group of high class strippers who, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, decide to get their money back by drugging promiscuous Wall Street bankers and draining their credit cards. Wu stars as Destiny, an impressionable young dancer who is taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), a kind of club den mother who can work a pole (and a hustle) like no one else. Struggling to put food on the table while also taking care of her elderly grandmother, Destiny finds herself with nothing in the wake of the financial crisis, but as the money dries up and she finds herself working dead-end jobs for creep bosses, she and Romona cook up a scheme that will get them back on top, and teach the pompous jerks who ruined them a lesson they won't soon forget.

Using handheld cameras and dazzling neon lights (and the year's most exuberant  soundtrack, featuring such diverse artists as Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Frankie Valli, and Usher), Scafaria directs with a disarming sense of lyricism, juxtaposing the sparking exuberance of the club with the more monochromatic drudgery of the outside world. She uses this tale of strippers enacting revenge as a kind of metaphor for the financial crisis at large, with the brazen Wall Street bankers as the corporate overlords tossing singles at those they deem inferior, forcing the rest of the world into a dance for their table scraps. Hustlers is as damning a critique of American capitalism as anything mainstream cinema has given us this decade, a film that takes the overly-precious exposition of films like The Big Short and turns it into a dazzlingly entertaining metaphorical attack on the consequences of greed and the exploitation of workers by self absorbed corporations. It's a world where have-nots only exist to prop up the haves, and Hustlers seeks to burn down the system in spectacular fashion.

While much of the conversation thus far has centered around JLo's comeback story (and she is as magnificent as you've heard), we've heard less about Wu, who is equally luminous here. Wu's innocence makes the perfect foil for Lopez's more jaded elder statesman, Jenny from the Block back in the saddle and suffering no fools. It's their relationship that forms the heart of Hustlers  and when Lopez sheds her tough exterior and showcases her vulnerability, the film seemingly takes on a new life. It's a barnburner performance in an uncompromising film, and Wu and Lopez headline a terrific women-led ensemble in a film about a group of exploited workers who've had enough and decide to hit the men who nearly destroyed our economy right where it hurts - in their wallets. It's one of this year's most delightful surprises.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HUSTLERS | Directed by Lorene Scafaria | Stars Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart Lizzo, Cardi B, Mercedes Ruehl, Trace Lysette | Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity | Now playing in theaters nationwide.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps the most famous film to emerge from Britain's legendary Ealing Studios during its post-war period, is a film so dark and devious that it's almost hard to believe that it was ever approved for an American release under the production code.

Of course, the American version of the film was given a slightly altered ending (available on the new Kino Blu-Ray) that removed any ambiguity in the fate of its antihero protagonist, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), a fallen aristocrat whose mother was cut off from the family in order to deny him his rightful inheritance. After the death of his mother, and her subsequent banishment from the D'Ascoyne family cemetery, Louis toils away in middle class drudgery plotting his revenge, seeking a way to claim the Dukedom he believes was stolen from him.

His solution? Murder the entire D'Ascoyne family by any means necessary, and he begins to pick them off one by one in his quest to become the new Duke, only to find himself entangled in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart, Sibella (Joan Greenwood), and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the beautiful widow of one one his many victims, which could ultimately prove to be his undoing.

Hamer frames the film from Louis' point of view, who narrates the film as he's writing his memoirs while awaiting execution for a murder that he ironically did not actually commit. This creates something of a sympathetic, if unlikable, protagonist; a serial killer we ultimately find ourselves rooting for. Yet Kind Hearts and Coronets doesn't treat its antagonists, the D'Ascoyne family, as villains. Each one is marvelously played by the incomparable Alec Guinness (who seamlessly inhabits eight roles in all), and while some are utter cads, others such as the young D'Ascoyne cousin who is husband to Edith, and the doddering old priest, are actually decent people. That's where the film zeroes in on the gray areas of its pitch black heart. It is at once a satire of upper crust callousness and the deference shown to the aristocratic class by the proletariat (Louis is to be hanged with a velvet rather than a hemp rope, a fact that impresses the starstruck hangman). It's also an incisive condemnation of the kind of social climbing inherent in the British class system, in which Louis believes that his family connections entitle him to wealth and privilege not afforded to others with "lesser" names.

The title derives from the quotation by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Tis only noble to be good. Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith more than Norman blood." And yet you'll find no real nobility here, and the only real goodness is quickly destroyed in the names of imagined nobility, empty titles that signify nothing. Its as scathing a critique of the British upper classes as the cinema has ever given us, disguised as a light comedy with a charming exterior. Its droll narration often stands in stark contrast to the action on screen, giving us an experience that is as funny as it is deeply unnerving, a blazing indictment of unearned privilege that destroys anyone who dare step outside their station.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary by Film Historian Kat Ellinger 
  • Introduction by Filmmaker John Landis 
  • Those British Faces: Dennis Price – Featurette Interview with Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe
  • Alternate American Ending Theatrical Trailer

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS | Directed by Robert Hamer | Stars Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Bingham Bryant in a scene from Ricky D'Ambrose's "Notes on an Appearance."
Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Ricky D'Ambrose's debut feature, Notes on an Appearance, calls to mind the cryptic, non-mystery aesthetic of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, the answers to our questions mattering less that than the journey that brought them to us. However, unlike Antonioni's film, I'm not completely convinced that there's really as much beneath the surface as the film lets on.

The mystery of Notes on an Appearance surrounds the disappearance of a young man named David (Bingham Bryant) amid a sudden interest in violent fascist ideology. As his friends attempt to track him down, they are left with only scraps of paper, notes, and calendar entries, accompanied by quotes from a fascist philosopher named Stephen Taubes (Stephen F. Cohen) whose death has created a resurgence in his own popularity. Where the young man went is ultimately beside the point as his friends begin to peel back the layers of a reprehensible ideology, and the search eventually begins to take a personal toll on them all.

D'Ambrose's narrative economy is impressive, turning the milieu of its bustling NYC locations into lonely, alienating spaces - where the presence of millions of people doesn't negate the societal disconnect felt by so many. Each shot is tightly controlled and precisely composed, drained of all emotion and distilled to its most basic essence. What are the characters saying? What are they really trying to convey? D'Ambrose focuses not on the main action, but rather on objects in the periphery - cups of coffee (filled and unfilled), journal entries, photographs, answers hiding in plain sight but never fully acknowledged. Subtle shifts in surroundings signify greater paradigm changes in the world around them, inserted into the frame at regular rhythms designed to condition the audience then disrupt the familiar routines when they're gone.

It's this kind of attention to detail that makes Notes on an Appearance so fascinating, and yet it often feels more like an academic exercise than a fully formed cinematic experience. D'Ambrose is experimenting, pushing boundaries, exploring the cinematic space with a Bresson-like austerity and an ear for conversation and narrative construction that recalls Matías Piñeiro (Viola, Hermia & Helena). This is cinema stripped of all excesses, quiet, observant, and haunting. And yet it seems to speak more to its filmmaker's own innate potential than it does to its own merit. It feels like a practice run for something bigger, a 60 minute exercise in form and craft that's easier to respect than it is to like.

A scene from Ricky D'Ambrose's "Notes on an Appearance." Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

And yet, one can't help but be fascinated by what D'Ambrose is attempting here. It is what the filmmaker refers to as a "scrapbook movie" made up of scraps of paper, unfinished ideas, and impressions; "a clunky ensemble vehicle about a handful of young people collectively living out the consequences of a discredited worldview" to quote D'Ambrose's director's statement. There's just something about the entire affair that seems completely timely, even though it was eight years in the making, speaking to a kind of generation ennui felt at a time when violent ideologies are rearing their ugly heads. It's a perplexing time to be alive, and Notes on an Appearance captures that dazed and confused sense of discord and aimlessness that so indelibly describes life in 2018. And if it comes off as self-consciously controlled, it's only because it is an attempt to make sense of a world that does not and can not make sense, as if it was assembled from puzzle pieces that just don't quite fit. D'Ambrose is clearly a filmmaker to watch, whose ideas and musings, much like Bresson's, are inexorably tied to film form in such a way that finds emotional truth through stylistic distance. Consider this writer's interest piqued.

Special Features

The DVD release from Grasshopper Films not only includes a comprehensive dossier by D'Ambrose along with liner notes by critic Adrian Martin, filmmaker interviews by D'Ambrose featuring such luminaries and Chantal Akerman and Bruno Dumont, and three short films directed by D'Ambrose. There's something quite special about D'Ambrose's lovely, austere aesthetic, and the short films further illuminate its intricacies. It feels low-budget and sparse and yet there's something so deliberate dreamlike about it. In his 2013 short, Pilgrims, a young man watches a series of protests grow violent around his apartment while he is unable to leave and interact with them in any way, relying on TV and visitors including protestors, refugees, and religious leaders, to keep him updated. Haunting in the best sense of the word, and while Pilgrims may not exactly hit a home run, it's so endlessly engrossing you almost don't notice there's not a lot going on.

D'Ambrose's style becomes a bit suffocating in his second short, Six Cents in the Pocket (2015). In this short film about a young man whose house sitting is interrupted by a plane crash in Queens. Not as focused, perhaps, as his other short films, there's nevertheless a mostly satisfying sense of urban ennui that is hard to shake. D'Ambrose often conveys information through newspapers and letters rather than through action and dialogue, so the plane crash feels strangely abstract, but often hauntingly so - a tragedy that seemingly comes out of nowhere with little explanation or context, leaving us slightly cold but undeniably unsettled.

His strongest short, Spiral Jetty, follows a young man who is tasked with erasing the unsavory past of a recently deceased intellectual, whose ambitious daughter seeks to preserve his reputation. Sparse and always slightly sinister, D'Ambrose's observational control and sense of stillness keeps the audience on edge as his protagonist descends into a stifling moral abyss. Only 16 minutes long but packed with emotional and philosophical undercurrents, Spiral Jetty is one of the filmmaker's most incisive and formally audacious works. The DVD is worth it for the short films alone, but it offers a spotlight on the work of one of the most exciting new filmmakers out there, and Grasshopper has given him the showcase he deserves in this terrific release.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE | Directed by Ricky D'Ambrose | Stars Keith Poulson, Tallie Medel, Bingham Bryant, Madeleine James, Kathryn Danielle, A.S. Hamrah | Not rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, September 06, 2019

BILL SKARSGÅRD as Pennywise in New Line Cinema’s horror thriller "IT CHAPTER TWO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Brooke Palmer. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

Picking up 27 years after the first It (2017), It: Chapter Two covers the second half of Steven King's massive novel, as the now adult members of the Losers Club return to Derry to put an end to the evil clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), once and for all.

It is, by its very nature, a very different film than It; whereas the previous film was often more of a coming-of-age film than a horror film, with its exploration of childhood fears and traumas, It: Chapter Two is more about dealing with those childhood traumas and reconciling with the events that scarred you in the past. The kids from the original film all return for flashbacks, but for the most part they are replaced by their adult counterparts, who are easily the strongest aspects of the film. It is absolutely believable that the children from the first film grew up to be these adults. The MVPs here are Bill Hader and James Ransone, who so thoroughly embody their characters that their relationship becomes the highlight of the film.

Unfortunately the film around them is a mess, a major step down from its predecessor in nearly every way. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film is far too long, and its epic runtime isn't earned by anything we see on screen. The first half sets the stage well, introducing the new versions of the now familiar characters and re-introducing us to the world of Derry, Maine. It manages to walk a delicate tight rope for a while between creating a sense of dread and warm childhood nostalgia, something the original film did very well. But Chapter Two goes off the rails in the second half, featuring a loud, garish extended climax that's so bathed in CGI effects that the it becomes numbing, an unpleasant visual assault rather than than a creepy funhouse. Nearly every appearance of Pennywise the clown is enhanced with computerized special effects to the point that he loses his eerie humanity, and Skarsgård's unnerving performance is bulldozed under layers of animation.

(L-r) ISAIAH MUSTAFA as Mike Hanlon, BILL HADER as Richie Tozier, JAMES McAVOY as Bill Denbrough, JESSICA CHASTAIN as Beverly Marsh and JAY RYAN as Ben Hascomb in New Line Cinema's horror thriller "IT CHAPTER TWO," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Brooke Palmer. © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

King's source material is rich with ideas of grappling with childhood traumas, and director Andy Muschietti does try to extrapolate those themes here, but they get lost in the film's nearly incoherent second half, with its almost unbearable lighting and over-the-top action. Benjamin Wallfisch’s overbearing score is filled with stingers and soaring choirs that smother the action and telegraph the scares to the point that it almost becomes sonic wallpaper. It almost worked better as a coming of age film than it did a horror film, but It: Chapter Two lacks that element. It was about children overcoming obstacles and facing their fears, It: Chapter Two is about those children facing their traumas as adults, but this idea is seemingly lost in a messy, scattershot film that features a few great set pieces but never seems to come together as one whole. The pathos of childhood friends reuniting to face the shared pain of their past is quickly lost by a film that becomes all too infatuated with its monstrous embodiment of evil and his arsenal of red balloons and special effects, all of which quickly lose their power when so frequently pulled out into the daylight.

There are certainly things to like about It: Chapter Two -  it's uniformly well-cast and well-acted, and it integrates the scenes of the children with the scenes of the adults with a moving sense of weight and longing for lost childhood; but its out of control runtime needs a major trim to better focus it on the characters rather than its increasingly desperate attempts to scare a numb audience. True horror is often found in stillness, and Muschietti's ever roving camera tends to go for epic grandiosity when it should be more grounded. That's really its biggest problem - King created such indelible characters that the film unfortunately loses sight of, trying to paint on a sweeping canvas when it should have looked inward for the source of its pain and trauma. Pennywise as the specter of childhood trauma and the embodiment of fear is much more terrifying than as a giant, wisecracking CGI spider.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

IT: CHAPTER TWO | Directed by Andy Muschietti | Stars James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Teach Grant, Jess Weixler, Will Beinbrink, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer | Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material | Opens today, Sept. 6, in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

What is there to say about Last Year at Marienbad that hasn't been said? Alain Resnais' fractured 1961 fabled has left critics and audiences scratching their heads for decades, and yet there is something inexorably fascinating about it that keeps drawing them back.

The film doggedly exists in a world that defies explanation - it's a bit of a cinematic Rorschach test, it is everything and nothing at once, a film either pregnant with meaning or no meaning at all, lost in its own singular haze. Trying to analyze it on a thematic level is something of a fool's errand, akin to attempting to ascribe logic to a film like Un Chien Andalou (1929), it will actively defy you at every turn. Instead, one must look at the craft to divine what Resnais is attempting to achieve here.

Set in a lavish chateau in the French countryside, Last Year at Marienbad centers around a never-named man and woman who are trying to negotiate whether or not they had a romantic rendezvous the previous year in Marienbad. The man insists that they have, the woman denies any memory of him. As he describes their encounters, we see the characters acting them out , while Resnais dives deep into a rabbit hole of memory and perception, building layers of action across time and space, until the present becomes completely obscured and the audience becomes lost in his characters haunted reveries.

“Time is unimportant," the man muses at one point, and indeed Resnais seems to reject all fidelity to time as we know it. It's as if he is connecting different conversations from different times and places, taking us inside characters' memories until they become utterly indistinguishable from their present reality. Yet the narrators are often unreliable, describing events that don't line up with the action we're watching on screen. Resnais obscures the truth at every turn until, like time, the truth becomes ultimately beside the point. It is a treatise on memory and longing, of ideas lost to the fog of time, shards of dreams scattered across a marble floor. Resnais would tackle time again several years later in Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1968), much as he did the mysteries of romantic connection in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) several years earlier. Yet Last Year at Marienbad plays like some sort of dreamlike union between the two, unconcerned with the feelings at its core and zeroing in on the singular obsession of discovering the truth from imperfect memories. The characters never get the real truth, and neither does the audience, the pleasure (or perhaps the madness) is in the pursuit.

The new 4K restoration on the Kino Blu-Ray is spectacular, the shimmering black and white images are pristinely rendered, giving the film a disarmingly modern appearance. I can't compare it with the original (now out-of-print) Criterion Blu-Ray, but I can't imagine any picture more remarkably clear. It's a breathtaking treatment of a Resnais' devious house of mirrors, a treatise on splintered memory that endures not just because of its beauty, but because of the haunting mystery at its center that still has no answer.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD | Directed by Alain Resnais | Stars  Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Soviet filmmaker Fridrikh Ermler is perhaps one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from the USSR during the silent period. Not as well known in the West, perhaps, as Soviet luminaries like Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, Ermler is nevertheless one of the most unique figures in Soviet cinema.

While most of the films from that period are directly concerned with the Revolution and advancing the cause of Communism, Ermler's films took on a more subtle, but no less direct, approach to politics, acknowledging the inherent faults of the system while pushing for even greater reforms and modes of social justice. Ermler understood that the cause of Communism did not stop in 1917 nor did it stagnate with Lenin's death in 1924. Ermler was also uniquely positioned to embrace the Communist revolution because of its profound effect on his life. As a Jew, Ermler had been banned from living in Imperial Russia under the rule of the Czar - the October Revolution opened up a whole new world for him and his family, and his affection for its ideals are apparent in his 1929 film, Fragment of an Empire.

He was also a former spy who was rumored to have carried a gun everywhere he went, even going so far as to wave it in the faces of actors who weren't giving him the emotional honesty he demanded. These stories are all apocryphal, of course, some of them perhaps even embellished and perpetuated by Ermler himself, but regardless of his methods the quality of his work on the screen is undeniable. Fragment of an Empire centers around Filimonov (the extraordinary Fiodor Nikitin), a soldier suffering from amnesia who lost his memory during WWI and suddenly regains it after the Revolution, waking up in a country that has been profoundly changed. As Filimonov tries to make his way in this new Communist world, he can't quite seem to shake his old way of thinking, unable to grasp the freedom now afforded him, or the rights now available to laborers. Lost without masters to tell him what to do, and constantly in fear of repercussions for any little transgression, he finds himself in constant awe at the safety regulations and protections enjoyed by his fellow workers that would have been unthinkable under the Czar.

But he also encounters petty bureaucrats and anti-democratic ideals, or as he calls them - "sad fragments of an empire," the last vestiges of a now outdated way of life. For Ermler, the Revolution wasn't the end, it was the beginning; a work in progress toward a better future. History now tells us what the Soviet Union would become - a repressive, murderous regime far removed from its original ideals. And while it wasn't quite there yet in 1929, Ermler wasn't afraid to call out its imperfections. While Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov were busy crafting ecstatic Communist propaganda, Ermler took a more thoughtful approach. Rather than end the film on a moment of triumph, he has Filimonov break the fourth wall and deliver his final line directly to the audience - "we have so much more work to do, comrades!" It's as much a call to action as it is admonishment of a system that is still leaving its workers behind. They had come a long way, but they weren't to their destination yet.

It's a remarkable message for a Soviet film in 1929. Fragment of an Empire is as bold and uncompromising as its director, and its central performance by Nikitin (a noted method actor who spent time with real amnesia patients to prepare for his role) is a truly exceptional work, some of the best acting of the silent era. The scene in which Filimonov arrives in St. Petersburg (by then renamed Leningrad), and seeing all the new freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, women dressing how they pleased, workers no longer slaves to their masters, happiness written across all their faces, is a moment of tremendous and subtle beauty, the slow awakening dawning on Nikitin's face showcasing a lifetime's worth of fear and confusion suddenly melting away into a kind of bewildered joy. It stands in stark contrast to the films of Eisenstein, whose quick edits created a kind of rapturous ecstasy; instead Ermler looks inward, allowing his actors to achieve similar ends through their performances. His use of Soviet Montage has a more impressionistic feel - suggesting the inner feelings of his characters rather than commenting on the rhythms and emotions of the events they're depicting. Long under-appreciated by Western audiences and film scholars, Fragment of an Empire has been given a glorious Blu-Ray treatment by Flicker Alley, complete and fully restored (with its infamous, long-censored image of Christ on a cross wearing a gas mask intact) ripe for rediscovery and the canonization it has always deserved.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE | Directed by Fridrikh Ermler | Stars Fyodor Nikitin, Lyudmila Semyonova, Valeri Solovtsov | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Though not a horror film in the strictest definition of the term, you're likely to find no more horrific cinematic experience this year than Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale.

A revenge thriller in the tradition of Bergman's The Virgin Spring, as well as exploitation classics like I Spit on Your Grave, and The Last House on the LeftThe Nightingale takes place in Australia in 1825, where a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is working off her debt to society under the watchful eye of ambitious British officer, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Stuck in a rural provincial outpost with a crew of barely competent misfits, Hawkins dreams of a promotion in a city up north, while Clare dreams of being given her long-promised release papers so she can move away and start a new life with her husband and newborn baby. But after a savage act of violence changes everything, Clare finds herself chasing Hawkins through the Australian outback, with only an aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) for a guide.

The Nightingale is, by design, a difficult film to watch. Its brutal sexual violence and unrelenting bleakness will likely be hard to stomach for many viewers, as well its should. Yet none if it is without purpose, because the heart of Kent's film is one of relentless rage, a roiling, seething cry of anger at a nation built on deep-seated racism and misogyny. Even our protagonist, a victim of near-constant sexist violence, refers to her black guide as "boy," echoing the racist language of the film's white villains. As the film wears on, she begins to realize the true depth of the racist violence waged against his people, a cruel erasure and genocide wrought upon a stolen land, and the truth becomes painfully clear - they're both in the same boat, victims of systemic oppression at the hands of white men.

Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Kent, whose previous film, The Babadook, handled similarly thorny emotional territory with aplomb, probes the depths of patriarchal colonialism and the bloody birth of Australia (and western civilization) as we know it. Her film may be set in Australia, but the thematic core is universal - colonialism was built on the backs of black bodies, that whiteness is inherently built up by the subjugation of women and minorities, and propped up on an ideology centered around patriarchy, misogyny, and racism. The Nightingale isn't here to comfort us about this fact. It's here to confront us, to hold up a mirror to our own complicity in a system born from such hateful violence. Colonialism is, in essence, the rape of the natural world, and that is why the film's shocking scenes of rape and violence are so essential yet so difficult to stomach.

Every act of violence in the film lands like a sucker punch because they feel so real and honest. Kent doesn't shy away from our barbarous past, and refuses to let the audience off the hook, with her harsh close-ups and boxy cinematography that seems to trap its characters from all sides. She doesn't blink, and neither should we. Yet what makes the film so effective is that Kent understands that while violence may be the only language colonialists truly understand, humiliation and emasculation is the true fear of the petulant man-children who propagate it. It's their ultimate Achilles heel, even if violence ultimately becomes necessary to completely eradicating it. The Nightingale is a work of austere beauty, a ferocious tale of revenge and national turmoil, taking a story of limited scope and turning into a sweeping indictment of the very civilization in which we live.  It's an uncompromising howl of righteous fury anchored by a haunting performance by Franciosi, whose grim determination comes to represent the plight of all oppressed peoples who have at long last had enough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE NIGHTINGALE | Directed by Jennifer Kent | Stars Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Ewen Leslie, Harry Greenwood, Baykali Ganambarr | Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality | Now playing in select cities.