Tuesday, April 13, 2021


CROSSFIRE
(Edward Dmytryk, 1947)


Antisemitism was not a topic often covered in Hollywood films in 1947. Even in the wake of WWII, the topic of racism was often treated in hushed tones and implications, such as in John Huston's 1942 film, In This Our Life, in which Bette Davis blames her own hit and run on a black man in order to escape justice, one of the earliest films to illustrate weaponized white privilege, albeit without ever mentioning the word "racism." Ten years earlier, Warner Brothers, wary of distribution in Hitler's Germany, stripped its Oscar winning Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola of any mention of antisemitism in the Dreyfuss Affair, reframing Alfred Dreyfuss as simply a fall guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than a man targeted for being Jewish.


Fast forward a decade to 1947, when Warner Bros. released Crossfire, a  film noir mystery about the murder of a young soldier who became the target of an intensely antisemitic officer. Adapted from the novel by Richard Brooks, Crossfire doesn't bury bigotry in the subtext, instead tackling it head-on and acknowledging the officer's hateful motives in no uncertain terms. It begins subtly, with Robert Young's hard boiled detective picking up on phrases such as "guys like that," and snide comments about the soldier's heritage as he searches for his murderer. Director Edward Dmytryk treats antisemitism not unlike the way Spielberg treats the shark in Jaws, an unseen threat circling the periphery of the film before its big reveal, and the impact feels like an earthquake. It's not a gimmick, it's an incisive portrait of how bigotry is treated with a wink and a smile by those in the know, how its ideology is assumed by those who subscribe to it, weaseling its way almost unnoticed into our most respected institutions. Like the best noirs, Crossfire makes great use of shadow (filming the opening murder entirely in silhouette to hide the killer's identity), and was ultimately rewarded with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Ryan), and Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame's sharp turn as a haunted bar girl. The film would ultimately lose Best Picture to Gentleman's Agreement, which also tackled antisemitism in a new, post-WWII awareness, but with a glossier Hollywood treatment than Dmytryk's gritty noir.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)



DAMN YANKEES (Stanley Donen, George Abbott, 1957)


Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and if Lola ordered a pristine new Blu-Ray transfer of her legendary musical, Damn Yankees, then this new release from Warner Archive is just what the doctor ordered. Directed by Staney Donen (Singin' in the Rain) and George Abbott (who helmed the original Broadway stage production), Damn Yankees tells the story of a middle aged real estate broker who makes a deal with the devil to become the world's greatest baseball player to help his beloved Washington Nationals to victory. The catch? He gets turned into his younger self and must leave his old life, and his beloved wife, behind. 


Faithfully adapted from the Broadway musical with much of its original cast intact (save for up and coming Warner star, Tab Hunter), including Gwen Verdon as Lola and Ray Walston as the devilish Mr. Applegate, Damn Yankees is classic Hollywood entertainment with a toe-tapping score and consistent amiability that makes it hard to resist. While the film's proscenium blocking keeps it from from reaching the heights of Donen's Singin' in the Rain, Bob Fosse's choreography is allowed to unfold organically with minimal directorial interference, making it a kind of Broadway artifact, translated nearly verbatim (minus a couple of songs reportedly out of Hunter's range) to the screen. Fosse himself even makes a rare appearance in the film's signature number, "Who's Got the Pain," alongside is muse and future wife, Verdon. The film's Technicolor cinematography really pops on Warner Archive's new Blu-Ray, and while the disc is pretty bare bones (with no special features), it's the best this film has ever looked, making it a must own for fans of Broadway musicals and classic Hollywood alike.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)



ISLE OF THE DEAD (Mark Robson, 1945)

Val Lewton is, perhaps, one of the greatest forces in horror cinema, yet he is rarely given his due. Acting as a producer on B pictures throughout the 1940s and 50s, Lewton was given a series of lurid titles and given free reign to crank out whatever product he could. The results were some of the most psychologically astute and beautifully filmed horror pictures of their time, from Cat People to I Walked with a Zombie to The Leopard Man, Lewton took material that should have been little more than quota quickies and turned them into eerie meditations on life and death. 


Some of his most indelible work was done with Boris Karloff, including The Body Snatcher (1945), Bedlam (1946), and 1945's Isle of the Dead, a supernatural horror film starring Karloff in which, true to Lewton form, the real horror isn't so supernatural after all. Karloff stars as General Pherides, a Greek military man who visits a lonely island to visit the grave of his late wife, only to find it overrun with a mysterious plague, which he attributes to the presence of a kind of vampire, and vows to track her down. What follows is a haunted and shockingly timely exploration of grief that becomes a terrifying descent into madness, grounded by a knockout performance by Karloff at its center, as a man coming unravelled by fear of his own making. It's a moody and riveting piece of psychological horror that has been lovingly restored to near pristine quality. It's a hidden gem from both the career of Karloff and Lewton that, in the age of COVID, stands ripe for rediscovery.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


Now available from Warner Archive!

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

GODZILLA battles KONG in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “GODZILLA VS. KONG,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures release.


It's somehow fitting that the film that resurrected the box office after a year of being decimated by COVID-19, was the fourth installment of a franchise that had seemingly been written off. Warner Bros. Monsterverse, which began in 2014 with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, eventually leading to Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The latter two were met with less enthusiastic reviews (although I remain a staunch defender of King of the Monsters) and ever decreasing box office returns, making Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong a likely culmination of Warner's attempt to take classic movie monsters like Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah into their own Marvel-style universe of clashing kaiju.


With the the vaccination rollout resulting in theaters reopening their doors, Godzilla vs. Kong had the fortune of being the first blockbuster release to open theatrically since the darkest days of the pandemic, revitalizing the box office in ways that Tenet couldn't quite manage last summer. And it's a good thing too because it's actually quite good, delivering every ounce of bonkers kaiju mayhem one could want in a film that its a giant lizard against a giant ape for a titanic battle royale in downtown Hong Kong. While some will dismiss it as silly, like Michael Dougherty's King of the Monsters before it, Godzilla vs. Kong actually seems to understand the DNA of Toho's Godzilla series. While the environmentalism at the heart of Toho's kaiju pictures, which were originally born out of the grief of the twin nuclear disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is less pronounced in their American counterparts, Godzilla vs. Kong's outrageous sci-fi plot and corporate villains driven by hubris and greed would feel comfortably at home in Toho's Heisei period of the late 80s and 90s.


It's hard to believe that in 2021 we're watching the continuation of cinematic ideas first conceived in 1933 and 1954, but it's gratifying to see these two venerable creatures still bringing in crowds. Here you've got King Kong wielding a battle axe facing down Godzilla and his nuclear breath, drenched in neon light and accompanied by a wailing synthetic score by Tom Holkenborg, surrounded by a human plot that involves an evil multinational corporation and a hollow earth (one of the most stunningly realized sequences in a major Hollywood blockbuster in years); Godzilla vs. Kong is outrageous, over the top, and wholly spectacular. It delivers on its promise to provide bone-crushing kaiju action, while simultaneously delivering one of the most shamelessly dorky, unapologetically weird studio entertainments in recent memory. Everything about it is big, bold, and  completely un-subtle, world's away from Edwards' grounded, terrifying take in Godzilla. But this is exactly the same direction the Toho films go - a serious reboot followed by increasingly outrageous sequels, and Warner's Monsterverse is following that model to a T. What it lacks in Godzilla's sense of scale and King of the Monsters' epic grandiosity, it makes up for in sheer guts, going all-in on the sci-fi oddities to deliver something strangely beautiful and consistently thrilling. Wingard's downtown showdown would feel right at home in films like 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah or 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, and features the return of a classic Godzilla villain that really takes the film to the next level. The movies are back, and with the film's strong box office success, even with its day and date streaming premiere on HBO Max, it's likely we haven't seen the last of Godzilla and King Kong.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


GODZILLA VS. KONG | Directed by Adam Wingard | Stars Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir | Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of creature violence/destruction and brief language | Now playing in theaters nationwide and streaming on HBO Now.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A scene from MANDABI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

MANDABI
(Ousmane Sembène, 1968)

Notable for being the first film ever to be filmed in an African language, Ousmane Sembène's Mandabi (The Money Order) is part grim satire, part absurdist tragedy; a Sisyphean portrait of a poor man's struggle to exist in a world designed to benefit the wealthy and the elite. Centering around Ibrahima Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), an unemployed man whose nephew sends him a 25,000 franc money order from Paris to distribute amongst the family, the film not only examines the way in which money changes human behavior, it eviscerates the absurdity of the bureaucratic state. When Dieng's friends and neighbors learn of the money order, the immediately descend on him to ask for money, but he finds himself unable to cash the money order since he doesn't have ID, a record of his birth, or the ability to read the agreements in order to get those documents. By the time he's finished, he's all but spent the entire money order just to cash it, ending up worse off than he was at the beginning of the film when he thought fortune had at last smiled upon him. 


Sembène was an intensely political filmmaker, and while he pulled his focus away from French colonialism after his previous film, the pointedly anti-colonial Black Girl, to take aim at, as he put it in a 1969 interview, "the dictatorship of the bourgeoise over the people." In that regard, Mandabi is perhaps one of the greatest communist films of all time, disguising beneath its absurdist humor a sense of righteous fury at the government roadblocks seemingly set up specifically to keep the poor in their place. Indeed, the very existence of Mandabi is something of a protest. By shooting the film in Wolof, rather than the customary French, Sembène is declaring that this is a Senegalese film made by and for Senegalese people. And although funders demanded that Sembène put together a French language version simultaneously, it is the Wolof version that has endured, giving a voice to African cinema that had not previously been heard. Senegal has an especially rich cinematic tradition, giving rise to Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki), his niece, Mati Diop (Atlantics), Safi Faye (Kaddu Beykat), among many others. While the specter of French colonialism hangs over many of the nation's defining works, there is often a deeply humane political sensibility at play that speaks their filmmakers' leftist worldviews, tackling the universally corrupting influence of money whether it be the promises of riches or how they affect human behavior. One might mistake Mandabi for a religious parable centering around a modern day Job, but that's what makes Sembène's communist worldview so bracing - the tone may be bitter, but there's a deep and abiding humanity at its core that is at once universally appealing and difficult to forget.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


A scene from TOUKI BOUKI. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.


TOUKI BOUKI (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)


I was first introduced to Djibril Diop Mambéty's dazzling Touki Bouki (Journey of the Hyena) through the Criterion Collection's first box set from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. Watching Scorsese's introduction (once again included in this new standalone release), it's nearly impossible not to get caught up in his clear love and enthusiasm for this film, and it lives up to his effusive praise in every way. More abstract and perhaps more impressionistic than the socialist realism of the films of his contemporary, Ousmane Sembène, the films of Djibril Diop Mambéty have an almost otherworldly quality to them, fully part of the Senegalese landscape in which they take place, yet existing on a kind of dreamlike plane, alive with the sights and especially the sounds their characters encounter.


Like Sembène, however, Mambéty's films are also deeply political, often informed by the effects of French colonialism on his native Senegal. Touki Bouki follows the misadventures of a young couple who long to leave their impoverished existence in Senegal for the promise of a better life in France, a journey that is increasingly thwarted by seemingly cosmic circumstances. Their journey across Senegal on the back of a motorcycle mounted with cattle horns becomes a kind of modern day Odyssey, often accompanied by the cheery strains of Josephine Baker's "Paris, Paris," whose stark dichotomy with the events portrayed on screen strikes an absurdly comical commentary on the promise of riches that await them in France. Sound often played an key role in Mambéty's work, reportedly because his youthful trips to the cinema were made outside the gates where he could only hear the films, because he could not afford the cost of a ticket, and Touki Bouki s use of music is perhaps some of the most indelible in cinema history. It's so rich, so memorable, and so perfectly in tune with the film's thematic content - actively deepening the absurdity of the French promise in contrast with the poverty left behind by French influence in post-colonial Senegal. Mambéty made precious few films in his long career, directing only two features and five shorts between 1969 and 1999, but Touki Bouki remains his masterpiece - a mischievous yet haunted exploration of post-independence Senegal that deftly evokes the futility placing ones dreams in the the ideal of their formal colonizers. Where Sembène sought cold, hard truth, Mambéty sought emotional honesty, crafting a visceral experience striking visuals and daring aural soundscapes that sought to make sense of a world that no longer did.


GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)


MANDABI and TOUKI BOUKI are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021


THE PIRATE (Vincente Minelli, 1948)

Oft overlooked in the oeuvres of both Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate is perhaps one of the most unique musicals of its era. The film was  considered a major bomb at the time, losing over $2 million at the box office despite its bankable stars. And indeed, it features a considerably more convoluted plot than the average MGM musical extravaganza, switching back and forth between reality and fantasy with ease. Garland stars as Manuela, who is engaged to a wealth man she doesn't love, while fantasizing about marrying the pirate, Macoco. Kelly plays a traveling actor who fits the bill, and becomes Macoco's avatar in Garland's reveries, although the film purposefully doesn't do much to distinguish between what's real and what's not.


Perhaps that's why the film didn't go over well with audiences in 1948, because it's almost too smart for its own good. But its metatheatrical musical stylings border on the avant-garde under Minelli's nimble direction, and while the film certainly has some cringe-worthy sexual politics in hindsight, it's also a much better film than its reputation suggests - sending up swashbuckling epics with a wink and a splash of glorious Technicolor.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)



SHOW BOAT (George Sidney, 1951)


This colorful Golden Age musical hasn't aged particularly well, and not just because of its cringe-worthy racial stereotypes and idealistic view of the antebellum South. There are some glorious moments here, to be sure, William Warfield's stirring rendition of "Ol' Man River" chief among them, but the film is poorly plotted between its lavish musical numbers. It all but buries a plot about a black showgirl  (played by the very white Ava Gardner) passing for white in sundown towns along the river where her romance with a white man is criminalized, and its central romance between the captain's daughter and a swarthy river gambler never really takes off. 


It piles on the Technicolor spectacle, with each number feeling like a finale (at least until the actual, rather anti-climactic ending), making for an experience that feels bloated and over-stuffed, full of flash and visual pizazz but lacking any real stakes or sense of emotion. The same cannot be said, however, of the new Warner Archive Blu-Ray release, which is an absolutely stunning improvement over the old DVD release which came from a faded, damaged print. The new Blu-Ray is absolutely pristine, showcasing the dynamic colors present in Sidney's dazzling Golden Age musical. The film itself is still not great, but the gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer is enough to recommend taking a trip on this old show boat - it's a feast for the eyes and ears if nothing else.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)



A TALE OF TWO CITIES (Jack Conway, 1935)


The Academy loved Charles Dickens adaptations during this time, nominating A Tale of Two Cities for two Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing, just a year after showering love on David Copperfield. And while Jack Conway's A Tale of Two Cities remains, perhaps, the most well regarded (along with 1938's A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen), it has an air of stuffiness so common in studio prestige pics. It's certainly a sumptuous production - Conway pulled out all the stops in his big budget recreation of the storming of the Bastille for his French Revolution drama, but the human drama feels staid and somewhat inert. 


It's a spectacle at heart, about French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), who renounces his rank and heads to England to study, where he falls in love with Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) who is also being courted by Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman). When Darnay is imprisoned by revolutionaries upon his return to France, Carton devises a plan to rescue him, even if it means going to the guillotine in his stead. Produced by David O. Selznick, A Tale of Two Cities is a grand melodrama, filled with big emotions and stirring set pieces, but it's also incredibly dry, which holds it back from standing alongside many other classic Hollywood spectacles of the day. The Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Archive is crisp and beautifully rendered (the storming of the Bastille remains an all time great set piece), but the film itself feels terribly dated.


GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


Now available from Warner Archive!

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

THE FALLOUT (Megan Park, USA)


It's become almost cliche to refer to films about mass shootings as "timely," but with new ones happening in America seemingly every week (a routine we're sadly settling back into after a COVID-induced break in the violence), it seems these films will somehow always feel ripped from the headlines. To its credit, Megan Park's The Fallout is one of the few films I've seen about the aftermath of a traumatic event that really deals with the fact that people grieve in different ways - and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Exploring the ways in which a teenage girl's life changes in the aftermath of a school shooting, The Fallout is naturally a tough watch - in equal turns raw, warm, bittersweet, and even funny. It really nails the rollercoaster emotions in the aftermath of tragedy - the PTSD, the sadness, the anger, and the ever-present nagging fear, Park navigates them  all with great wisdom and grace. 


Jenna Ortega gives an incredible performance in the lead role - her character constantly trying to hide her grief beneath humor and ironic detachment, but the pain shows through the cracks, and it's a marvel to behold. What really struck me, though, is that the scattershot ways she tries to cope with the trauma - drugs, sex, humor, lethargy - are never judged. While others channel their grief into activism and judge her for not following that path, the film allows her space to grieve in her own way. It also acknowledges the lingering affects of trauma - hidden but always present, always ready to re-emerge through unexpected triggers. It's teen drama sheen belie a disarming emotional complexity. There have now been two mass shootings in America in the span of a few days since I saw this film, and I've returned to it several times in my mind - especially its haunting denouement that derails a seemingly happy ending with the idea that this is a problem that will continue in perpetuity, the wounds never fully healed. Never has a film so indelibly captured the  sheer primal terror of a school shooting, coupled with such a realistically uneven path of grief for its young protagonists. It lets kids be kids - volatile, irreverent,  finding love and even humor in the midst of the fallout - but it's that razor sharp exploration of the fickle messiness of trauma, told with such heart, that really makes the film standout. It will be a tough watch for many, and there will doubtless be more shootings before the film is finally released, but it's an essential, cathartic watch nevertheless.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


HERE BEFORE (Stacy Gregg, Ireland)


Andrea Riseborough delivers a stellar performance in the otherwise middling sort-of supernatural thriller, Here Before, that casts Riseborough as a grieving mother who comes to suspect that her next door neighbor's daughter is actually her own deceased child who passed away in a car accident years before. As she sinks deeper into paranoia, tensions rise at home with her exasperated husband and her terrified son, and as she grows ever closer to the little girl, her relationship with her neighbors begins to deteriorate, revealing damaging secrets that threaten to destroy them all.


The film is a little too clever for its own good, so the twists it telegraphs never quite land, but it's an eerie mood piece with a firecracker performance by Riseborough at the center. Riseborough is truly best in show here, and while Here Before goes through the routines of turning a mother's grief into horror, Riseborough's powder keg of suppressed anguish is something to behold. The film's screenplay cuts too many corners and hinges on too many contrivances, but under Stacey Gregg's elegant direction it manages to sustain itself through its melancholic atmosphere and Riseborough's wrenching performance.


GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)


THE SPINE OF NIGHT (Philip Gelatt, Morgan Galen King, USA)


The Spine of Night is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films, a go-for-broke animated fantasy epic that swings for the fences with its bold ambition. It's also one of the biggest WTF films in years, featuring graphic, over-the-top violence, and explicit, almost constant nudity, coupled with an incredibly dense, time jumping plot about a primal world where rival clans vie for the power contained in a mysterious flower, The Spine of Night is, to put it mildly...a lot.


It's certainly a wild ride, often playing like an epic conceived by a bunch of high schoolers who were stoned out of their minds and were like "you know what would be EPIC!?" And, frankly, it kind of is in a weird way. The mythology is convoluted as hell but the craft is incredible. The rotoscoped, hand drawn animation is awesome to behold. There's just such a singularity of vision here that it's impossible to ignore, even though I'm not sure that makes it "good." It's certainly unique and deeply earnest - featuring sometimes sincere and sometimes oddball turns by Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, and Patton Oswalt. The Spine of Night is almost like a teen boy's ultra violent fever dream come to life on a grand scale. It's beautiful, edgy, incomprehensible, and mesmerizing all at once - a singular achievement, if an oppressive one, consumed by the vastness of its vision but so full of complex lore than it will likely lose all but the most die-hard fantasy fans. Is it worth the journey? Absolutely. But beware, it's a test of endurance destined to be one of those "I was there moments," for better or for worse.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)



SWAN SONG (Todd Stephens, USA)


Based on a true story, Todd Stephens' Swan Song is a warm, big-hearted paean to gay elders and pioneers that casts Udo Kier as a flamboyant hairdresser who escapes from his nursing home for one final job - styling his one time favorite client for her funeral. Like a queer version of The Straight Story (ironic, I know), Kier wanders a landscape filled with ghosts - memories of the partner he lost to AIDS, ramshackle gay bars on the verge of gentrification, reliving his traumas and his glory days as the "Liberace of Sandusky" Ohio.


The film features a powerhouse performance by Kier, along with a strong supporting turn by Jennifer Coolidge as a one time rival, and pitch perfect needle drops of Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" and RuPaul's "Sissy that Walk." Swan Song is a gloriously, unashamedly queer film, a hilarious and bittersweet ode to gay pioneers who came before, and the modern queer landscape they helped create. It's a rare thing to see a film deal so directly with gay elders, and when they do, it tends to look at them when they were young. But Stephens gives this elderly diva the send off he deserves; a film filled with joy, heart, and hope, that finds life where there was once only despair. Swan Song is one of this year's best films to date, and the queer crowd pleaser we deserve.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021


THE END OF US (Henry Loevner, Steven Kanter, USA)

The lockdown romantic comedy you didn't know you needed and definitely didn't ask for is better than it has any right to be. Starting out in March 2020, Nick (Ben Coleman) and Leah (Alison G. Vingiano) are coming to the end of a four year relationship, until the COVID lockdown scuttles Nick's plans to move out and forces the two to become roommates on the outs. Their relationship is tenuous at best for a few weeks, but they soon find a way to rekindle their friendship and make the most of things - that is until Leah starts Zoom dating which causes Nick to realize that he still has feelings for her, setting up yet another make or break conflict within the confines of their quarantine.


If that description made you roll your eyes, you're definitely not alone. The End of Us definitely feels "too soon" but benefits from the freshness of the memories of the early days of COVID. We're essentially locked down with the characters so they're thankfully not insufferable. Some real human moments here courtesy of a likable and capable cast that finds plenty of honest moments from all-too-familiar COVID angst. It's a unique breakup comedy whose beats mostly feel truthful and earned, never feeling forced or overly cutesy in its application of recent history, and ultimately leading to an unexpectedly wise exploration of relationships, and how even failed romances can help us grow as human beings. It's a laid back and agreeable romantic comedy that, like its characters, manages to make the best out of a terrible situation. One only hopes this doesn't become a trend.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)





GAIA (Jaco Bouwer, South Africa)

Mother Earth takes her revenge in this South African body horror film that plays out like The Happening by way of The Descent. Two park rangers head into a primordial forest planning to study the trees, and instead find a father and son living in a kind of primitive, post-apocalyptic state. At first they appear to be doomsday preppers living off the grid and away from the prying eyes of modern technology, but it soon becomes apparent that their elaborate traps are not meant for the rangers, and that a darker, more ancient evil lurks within the forest, one that is preparing to assert itself on a much larger scale and is merely waiting on the right vessel to carry it out into the world. 


Featuring grotesque creature design that feels like something out of Hannibal, Gaia is a psychedelic eco-horror fantasia that works its way under your skin and stays there. It's a kind of environmental morality play writ larger, in which earth is essentially taking its revenge on humanity, but it keeps its focus small scale and intimate, mixing pagan and Biblical lore into something deeply unsettling. It often feels like the film Annihilation wanted to be but never quite was, an often abstract but less thematically nebulous film that seems to tremble with both awe and horror at the awesome power of nature, at once ancient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. Gaia is an unnerving yet beautifully filmed descent into madness, signaling director Jaco Bouwer is a thrilling new voice in modern horror, having crafted one of the most unique horror films to come along in quite some time. It's a primal and terrifying work of art.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)




POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA (Wes Hurley, USA)

Based on director Wes Hurley's own experiences growing up gay in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union, Potato Dreams of America is a beguilingly idiosyncratic queer coming-of-age tale that may be a little rough around the edges, but it's so full of heart that it's difficult to resist. From his days as a young lad in Russia where he was bullied at school for being different, to his flight to America after his mother signs up to be a mail order bride, landing them in a conservative American home that's as oppressive as anything he experienced behind the Iron Curtain, Potato longed for a place where he could simply be himself. He finds religion as a young boy, and conjures up an effeminate Jesus as an imaginary best friend, and watches American movies every night, viewing America as a land of happy endings (and attractive men). 


While his dreams of a better life in America don't exactly come true the way he imagined as a young, film-obsessed gay boy in Russia, but he finds acceptance in unusual and unexpected places. Troublingly, it begins with an anti-communist bent that feels a bit misplaced, but rhymes well with the eventual anti-gay sentiment he encounters in America. Just as Russia's problem wasn't communism itself, neither are the problems he encounters with Christianity representative of the entire faith - and his new puritanical step-father has one of the most satisfying arcs for a bigoted character I've seen in a while, even if the change seems a bit abrupt, and the meta ending mirrors Almodovar's Pain and Glory without the dramatic heft, but the film is such a singular and unusual vision that its odd pacing and oddball energy quickly become positives rather than negatives, as if Hurley simply decided to toss out the classical Hollywood rulebook and make a film that was true to him (the transition from the characters' lack of Russian accents in Russia to their conspicuous Russian accents in America, for example, is jarring - but makes thematic sense as it highlights their cultural alienation). It's just so full of joy - the joy of self-discovery, the joy of filmmaking, the joy of queerness itself, that it deftly overcomes its occasional tonal bumps to provide a warm and lasting impression. Potato Dreams of America is an utter delight.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)



SEE YOU THEN (Mari Walker, USA)

Two exes agree to meet after nearly 13 years apart in an attempt to smooth over the past. Only one of them has since come out as transgender, a wrinkle that suddenly puts their incompatibility into sharper focus. Such is the premise of Mari Walker's See You Then, a haunting trans spin on Richard Linklater's BEFORE films, featuring the guileless sense of possibility of Before Sunrise coupled with the world weary sense of unexamined pain of Before Midnight


What begins as an evening of warm reminiscence and understanding about why their relationship abruptly ended ultimately devolves into the two women peeling a scab off an old wound, as Walker beautifully explores femininity, trans womanhood, and motherhood through the eyes of her two broken characters - cisgender artist Naomi (Lynn Chen) living a life that transgender Kris (Pooya Mohseni) longs for, without appreciating it or understanding the unique hurdles Kris must face to get there. By its very nature, the film is talky and often meandering, but the emotional impact it builds to is shattering. Chen is remarkable (didn't realize how much I'd missed her since Saving Face almost 17 years ago) and relative newcomer Mohseni brings a quiet dignity to the film. See You Then deals with a lot in a short time frame, but it makes the most of it of its brief running time. The years of regret and loss shared by these two women is palpable, no longer romantically compatible but inexorably linked by their pasts, they offer a deep emotional well for Walker to explore what it means to be a trans woman in America, and how even the most routine relationships can have lasting effects. It's a lovely and perceptive debut film for Walker.


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)




TRADE CENTER (Adam Baran, USA)

The tragedy of 9/11 has never really been examined through such a uniquely queer lens as it is in Adam Baran's documentary short, Trade Center, a haunting reverie on New York's hidden gay past as told by the men who once frequented the popular cruising spots that dotted the old World Trade Center campus. Trade Center paints an utterly enrapturing queer portrait of old New York now lost to time, forever changed by the surveillance state and the newly sanitized modern architecture of the Freedom Tower that now stands in place of the fallen Twin Towers. There's something wistful and bittersweet about the tales of anonymous sex that once took place in the bathrooms and secluded stairwells of the Trade Center, examining a once thriving underground queer culture that only exists in memory, wiped away by George Bush and Rudy Giuliani in the name of fighting terrorism and "cleaning up" the city. It may only be 9 minutes long - but it carries with a lifetime of memories - Trade Center is powerful, essential viewing.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


The SXSW Film Festival continues through March 18, 2021.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Oliver Hardy and Mae Hotely in 1915's LUCKY STRIKE

Some of my fondest memories of my grandfather involve watching Laurel & Hardy shorts on his couch on Saturday mornings. Other kids looked forward to Saturday morning cartoons, but I looked forward to Saturday morning Laurel & Hardy on AMC, back when AMC stood for (and actually meant) American Movie Classics. When I wasn't with my grandparents on Saturdays, he would tape them for me to watch later, and I still have VHS copies of these old AMC programs with some of Laurel & Hardy's most iconic films - the Oscar-winning The Music Box, Block-Heads, Berth-Marks, Men-o-WarCounty Hospital - I loved watching the two legendary comedians get themselves into another nice mess, and then try (usually unsuccessfully) to get out of it again. Whether they were trying to sneak away from their wives to go to the lodge, or trying to convince a vengeful husband that they weren't actually flirting with their wives, or trying to fix something around the house only to make the problem ten times worse, Laurel & Hardy created templates that would be followed by filmmakers, comedians, and sitcom writers for decades to come. 

Yet one rarely thinks of Laurel without Hardy, or Hardy without Laurel. It's always "Laurel and Hardy," and never just Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. However, the two actors weren't always a comic duo. Both men cut their teeth on silent films, before eventually being teamed up by Hal Roach just before the dawn of the sound era, resulting in some two decades of classic comedy. The films the two men made separately are not nearly as well known as the films they made together, and many of those early solo shorts have been long unavailable. But now thanks to the remarkable new Blu-Ray collection from Flicker Alley, fans and newcomers alike can discover the origins of Laurel and Hardy through their solo works dating all the way back to 1914.

The two disc set devotes an entire disc to each actor, showcasing their growth as individual performers from supporting players to solo artists, tracing them from their somewhat inauspicious beginnings all the way through 1926, one year prior to the official beginning of their partnership with 1927's Duck Soup (the pair had previously appeared in films together, but never as a comedy duo). The earliest film included in the set is 1914's Mother's Baby Boy, which stars Babe Hardy (as he was billed early in his career) as a spoiled mama's boy who enlists the help of his family to deal with some rather persistent bullies who interrupt his fumbling attempts at courting. Many of Hardy's early films involve mistaken identities and lower class characters who fall in love before striking it rich - bringing other suitors to their door before ultimately deciding to stick with the ones who loved them when they were poor (The Servant Girl's LegacyLucky Strike). While Hardy hadn't yet developed the fussy pomposity that would define his Laurel and Hardy persona, these earlier films often came with much happier endings than the fates that befell his characters in later years. 


Stan Laurel in 1923's WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD

Laurel's disc begins with 1918's Bears and Bad Men, in which Stan plays a bit part as a village idiot. This straight-faced, dim-witted persona carries through many of his films, on into the Laurel and Hardy era, but it's fascinating to watch that develop as producers pushed him as a kind of Buster Keaton knock-off. While Laurel's solo films don't quite have the same visionary comedic prowess that Keaton was working with at the time, sharp-eyed Laurel and Hardy fans will notice the seeds of ideas that would later be explored in some of the duo's classic comedies taking root here. Pay attention to Stan's workplace hijinx in 1922's The Egg, and how they presage the sawmill antics of 1933's L & H classic, Busy Bodies. Laurel was often considered the creative brains behind the operation, while Hardy was more of an affable actor-for-hire, which is perhaps why Laurel's films feel more like a staging ground for better things down the road. 


Yet neither Laurel or Hardy would find the success on their own that they would ultimately find together, and there often seems to be something missing from this collection of curios, and that's each other. Laurel needed Hardy as much as Hardy needed Laurel, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when watching them perform solo. These aren't bad films by any stretch of the imagination, but they lack the spark that the two found when working as a team. Flicker Alley's beautifully restored Blu-Ray set is a must-have for fans of Laurel and Hardy, if for know other reason than to discover why they worked so well together by understanding what they lacked apart. Laurel and Hardy films have a special kind of magic, that rare spark of two performers who each brought to the table something the other lacked, and managed to achieve greatness together. Laurel and Hardy were lighting in a bottle, and here we get to see their humble beginnings in one fantastic package. 


Laurel Or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is now available from Flicker Alley!

Thursday, March 11, 2021


Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China during WWII, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is based on the 1979 novel of espionage and romance by Eileen Chang. Coming on the heels of Lee's Oscar success Brokeback MountainLust, Caution marked a return to his home country of Taiwan for the filmmaker, but this time the response was much more muted than the major accolades that were showered upon his previous Taiwanese film, the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


The film was ultimately disqualified by the Oscars from contending as Taiwan's official submission to the Best International Film category for not being "sufficiently Taiwanese," and failed to garner any other Oscar nominations outside of that category. Maybe it was the more restrictive NC-17 rating and its graphic sex scenes that kept it from gaining traction with the Academy, but revisiting it now nearly 14 years after its original release, it's clear that the film was robbed. There are so many artists who worked on Lust, Caution that were working at the very top of their game; from Rodrigo Prieto's rich cinematography, to the impeccable costume design by Lai Pan, to Alexandre Desplat's haunting score (perhaps his finest work to date) the film is a constant feast for the senses.


Yet it's the work of the principal cast that give the film its heart. Tang Wei (who beautifully navigates er character's journey from guilelessness to world-weariness) stars as Wong Chia Chi, a university student whose theatre troupe hatches a plot to assassinate local police chief, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Using Wong as bait in an extended undercover operation, her job is to seduce the married man and lure him into a trap. After their initial plot in Hong Kong fails and the students disperse, Wong Chia Chi encounters Mr. Yee once again in Shanghai. Enlisted by the resistance for a much more sophisticated undercover operation, Wong finds herself drawn into an intense affair with Mr. Yee, one that ranges from rape to unbridled passion, and the two begin to meet for regular rendezvous . Mr. Yee's caution soon gives way to lust, threatening to evolve their relationship in to something much deeper, putting the entire operation in jeopardy.


The sex scenes in Lust, Caution are often as sensual as they are disturbing, with Wong's relationship with Mr. Yee walking a tightrope between manipulation and genuine affection. But therein lies the underlying critique of fascism, as Wong's flirtation with authoritarianism in the form of Mr. Yee, a man both terrifying and alluring, ultimately leads to ruin. It's a delicate dance, and Lee navigates it beautifully, never blaming Wong for her choices as Mr. Yee has an undeniable appeal. Lee has consistently demonstrated a certain talent for exploring human relationships, and Lust, Caution is perhaps one of his thorniest, most complex works, the central relationship feeling at once exploitative and yet undeniably sexy, real and yet rife with unspoken danger. At last getting its rightful due with the gorgeous new Kino Lorber Blu-Ray, Lust, Caution is a film that feels ripe for re-discovery. In a world where fascism is once again appealing to so many, there are disturbing lessons to be learned here among the film's sensuous pleasures. It emerges now as one of the most accomplished, and consistently overlooked, films of Lee's illustrious career.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


LUST, CAUTION | Directed by Ang Lee | Stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang | Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality | Available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber on March 30!

Thursday, March 04, 2021


While there's an argument to be made that Airport and its imitators like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are the templates of the modern disaster film, you'd have to go all the way back to 1936 with W.S. Van Dyke's lavish MGM disaster spectacle, San Francisco to see the formula's cinematic origins. Setting a love story in front of the impending San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the film was such a runaway success that 20th Century Fox nearly lifted the storyline wholesale for In Old Chicago the very next ear, with both films getting nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.


In all, San Francisco was nominated for six Oscars; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Original Story, Best Assistant Director, and won the Oscar for Best Sound Recording. It's certainly a handsome production, with the dashing Clark Gable in the leading role as Blackie Norton, an unscrupulous nightclub owner vying for the affections of singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) with a rival theatre producer. Tracy co-stars as Father Mullin, an old friend of Blackie's who is perhaps the only person who sees the good in him. The great San Francisco earthquake ultimately tears them apart and forces them together, but it doesn't happen until the last 15 minutes or so of the nearly two hour film, which means much of the runtime is spent with these characters' petty dramas, which would become the hallmark of so many disaster films that are long on build up and light on payoff. Thankfully, the earthquake and resulting fire are impressive achievements, even if the denouement feels rushed and overly saccharine, with lots of hymn-singing and a last minute religious conversion for the atheistic Blackie. It's the kind of tacked on bit of self-importance that often characterized lavish studio pictures of the early Production Code period, and it feels like the writers simply didn't know how to end the film and chose to do it as quickly as possible.


San Francisco feels like something of a relic now.  Gable's character is such an abusive cad (an element that received some pushback from the screenwriters after seeing how Van Dyke was directing the film) that it's difficult to become invested in the love story, and Gable reportedly hated his leading lady so much that he would often eat garlic before having to kiss her on camera, which explains their overall lack of chemistry. Gable was a born movie star, but it's pretty clear none of the actors were particularly invested (Gable is said to have only done the film because he was in debt to Louis B. Mayer after the studio head paid off one of his many mistresses). It's really only of interest now due to its influence on the disaster genre, combining turgid melodrama with the grand backdrop of a natural disaster. Mark this one as "for Oscar completists only."


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


SAN FRANCISCO | Directed by W.S. Van Dyke | Stars Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Rosamund Pike as Marla. Courtesy of Netflix.

There has been a lot of debate amongst film critics lately about the difference between depiction and endorsement, and where the line is drawn between glorifying evil characters and condemning them. Thanks to moral outrage from pearl clutching prudes aghast at the amorality of Hollywood, the Production Code once dictated that all characters who did bad deeds get their comeuppance in the end, and no film could portray bad people in such a way that could potentially make them look good. That's how gangster movies like 1933's The Public Enemy fell out of style. And even though the charismatic but brutal James Cagney got what was coming to him in the end, the film was barred from be re-released after the Production Code was enforced, and the heyday of the gangster picture was replaced with films that focused on cops and "G-Men" whose job was to catch the baddies those pre-code films had turned into heroes.


It's something we still wrestle with today - are movies merely morality plays in disguise? Or should films be allowed to put amoral people im the spotlight? It's a gray area, of course, and one that J Blakeson's I Care a Lot explores gleefully. But this is a reminder that just because someone is the protagonist of a piece does not make them the "good guy," and that depicting their evil doesn't mean that the film is endorsing their actions. In I Care a Lot, Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson (a role for which she recently won a surprise Golden Globe for Best Actress)  who makes a living by railroading unsuspecting senior citizens and having herself appointed as their legal guardian, dumping them in nursing homes while she liquidates their estates for her own gain. She messes with the wrong person, however, when she Jennifer Peterson (Diane Wiest), who is not the sweet old lady she appears to be, and finds herself the target of Peterson's mob boss son, Roman (Peter Dinklage). Not intending to be beaten at her own game, Marla goes toe to toe with Roman, resulting in a truly wild battle of wits and ruthless cunning that threatens to destroy them both and everything they love. 


Sometimes "deliciously evil" is just what we need out of a movie, and that is exactly what I Care a Lot delivers - a nasty shot in the arm of bad people doing bad things to each other that is enormously satisfying, where people whose success depends on the misfortune of others ultimately find their own undoing. Pike has created such an indelible, fully realized character, and Wiest does so much with her limited screen time that it reminds us of what a creative force she truly is. There's a certain amoral vim and verve to the proceedings that is at once horrifying and thrilling, allowing us to revel in the characters' evil while also recoiling from their monstrous deeds. I Care a Lot exists in a fascinating moral gray area that pulls no punches. Clearly we're not supposed to "like" these characters, but it's an undeniably fun ride watching what level of cruelty the characters escalate to next. Movies are not necessarily meant to reflect our morality back to us, sometimes they allow us to enter the world of wholly immoral characters and engage with them on their own terms. That's what makes I Care a Lot such a wildly entertaining film, because we're not really rooting for anyone, we can really focus on the journey. With a vivid color palate, Pike's ice cold demeanor, Wiest's mischievous twinkle, and Dinklage's unbridled rage, the audience is transported into a world where terrible people are terrible to each other, trapped in the zero sum game of human exploitation, where the only winners are those who decide to take the ride with them. This is one hell of a movie. 


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


I CARE A LOT | Directed by J Blakeson | Stars Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest | Rated R for language throughout and some violence | Now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Monday, March 01, 2021


Disney's latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, somehow feels like both a fresh new direction for the Mouse House, and a nostalgic throwback to their more action-oriented output from the early 2000s like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. And not just because composer James Newton Howard has returned to provide the score - the
re's something decidedly more grown-up feeling about Raya that targets a slightly older demographic than Disney's animated musicals.


The story centers around a young woman in a mythical kingdom of Kumandra that has been torn apart by warring factions vying for control over a magical stone once created by a race of dragons to protect the world from an evil force known as the Druun, that turns every living thing it encounters into stone. Tasked with protecting the stone along with her father, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is betrayed by a newfound friend, leading to the warring kingdoms breaking the stone and dividing it amongst themselves, destroying the barrier that kept the Druun at bay and unleashing them upon the world and turning her father to stone. Determined to set things right, Raya now wonders the wastelands of Kumandra searching for the various pieces of the stone to put them together and reunite her kingdom. Along the way she encounters Sisu (Awkwafina), the last surviving dragon whose goofiness is only matched by her incredible magic powers, who accompanies Raya on her journey.


While the animation is often jaw-dropping, there's a lot going on in Raya and the Last Dragon, often to its own detriment. The film spends a lot of time laboriously explaining its mythology and the world in which it is set, resulting in an often convoluted plot that is leaden with expository dialogue. The cast is terrific, with Tran and Awkwafina providing equal amounts of humor and pathos that make their characters easy to root for and give the film its heart. And the action, courtesy of directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), is often quite thrilling. But the narrative is so overstuffed that none these moments land with the gravity that they should. The way Hal and López Estrada combine animation styles offers a glimpse into what the film could have been, but these moments are too few and far between to have any real impact. It also delves into some timely but extremely bland themes of unity, in which the only way for the evil to be defeated is if rivals put aside their differences and trust one another, even if they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy multiple times. It makes sense for a Disney movie, but there's something frustratingly centrist about its messaging. And while it may sound aspirational coming from a children's fantasy, arriving at time when people are extremely divided along political and ideological lines on existential issues, to say that the only way to survive is to trust this person who has tried to kill you and destroy everything you've worked for multiple times seems to veer into some uneasy "both sides" territory.


On the other hand, Raya and the Last Dragon will be accompanied both in theaters and on Disney+ by the animated short, Us Again, which manages to pack more emotional resonance into 6 minutes than Raya manages with 100. Centering around an elderly couple rekindling their love of dancing with the help of some magical rain that transforms them into their younger selves, Us Again plays out like the epilogue that Carl and Ellie from Up never got. It's a tearjerker about reclaiming life and rekindling passions in the  tradition of the best Disney shorts, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see it show up in the Best Animated Short category at next year's Academy Awards. Raya will also likely be a Best Animated Feature player, and it's certainly not the worst film to come out of Disney Animation. But it almost feels like too much of a good thing, a fascinating concept with some strong vocal talent in dire need of streamlining and script editing. And it's especially good to see Tran getting a starring role to show off her talents after getting shafted by Disney in The Rise of Skywalker thanks to racist backlash against her character in The Last Jedi. Young audiences will likely be dazzled by the often jaw-dropping animated action on display, but its overly-complicated world building doesn't give it a firm enough foundation to rise above the much stronger players in Disney's recent canon. 


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)


RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON | Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada | Stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk | Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements | Opens in theaters and exclusively on Disney+ on March 5

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Earwig from EARWIG AND THE WITCH. Courtesy of GKIDS.

EARWIG AND THE WITCH
(Goro Miyazaki, HBO Max)

Studio Ghibli's first computer animated film, Earwig and the Witch, arrives courtesy of none other than Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary anime filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki. By all reports, the younger Miyazaki's embracing of CGI over traditional hand-drawn animation, a major departure for Ghibli, was something of an intentional repudiation of his father's style, even inspiring the elder Miyazaki to come out of retirement to make a new film. But if Earwig and the Witch is any indication, he has nothing to worry about, because it's easily one of the worst films in Ghibli's storied history.


Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones (whose novel, "Howl's Moving Castle," once inspired one of the elder Miyazaki's films), Earwig and the Witch finds a young girl plucked from an orphanage to become a witch's apprentice, only to discover her own magical history. It's an intriguing enough premise, but the film spends so much time in the witch's lab that the movie spins its wheels for its entire second act. The animation itself is deeply unattractive, as if Miyazaki simply tried to copy the traditional 2-D hand drawn style into 3-D, and the result is blocky and bland and best, wholly off-putting at worst. Without the heart and soul that defined his father's films, the younger Miyazaki is left with an empty product that has all the ingredients of a successful Ghibli film with seemingly no idea how to put them together.


GRADE - ★½ (out of four)


DENZEL WASHINGTON as Joe “Deke” Deacon and JARED LETO as Albert Sparma and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ psychological thriller “THE LITTLE THINGS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

THE LITTLE THINGS (John Lee Hancock, HBO Max)

John Lee Hancock's serial killer drama, The Little Things , was written in the 1990s, and it shows in all the worst ways. It owes a lot to The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps the decade's quintessential serial killer text, but lacks that film's elegance and psychological depth. Denzel Washington stars as a former detective turned beat cop who is haunted by an unsolved murder from his past. But a new string of killings brings back painful memories as he begins to sense a connection, and his obsession threatens to spill over to the new detective (Rami Malek) who sets his sights on a new suspect (Jared Leto), and seeks to take him down at all costs.


Washington is solid in a world-weary performance, while Leto is Leto and Malek is entirely miscast as a hard-boiled detective with rage issues. The whole thing has the sheen of a prestige drama (the cast, the cinematography, the Thomas Newman score), but it can never escape its potboiler roots. AAnd by the time it throws in the twist ending with its thematic undercurrents of police misconduct making them their own worst enemies, (a refreshing but awkwardly executed idea) it's difficult to muster up the energy to care about any of it. Leto has gotten a lot of the flak for this film (probably because his performance has somehow been elevated to an awards contender due to the skewed eligibility calendar this year), but it's Malek who sticks out the most. He's all wrong for the character, his bouts of rage coming off more like childish hissy fits, but he's so over-the-top at the end that the film loses what little credibility it had left.


GRADE - ★½ (out of four)


MALCOLM & MARIE (L-R): ZENDAYA as MARIE, JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON as MALCOLM. NETFLIX © 2021

MALCOLM & MARIE (Sam Levinson, Netflix)

Made during COVID-19 lockdowns, Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie has all the makings of a directorial vanity project, following a young filmmaker named Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), as they emotionally brutalize each other after returning home from a film premiere in which Malcolm heavily borrowed from Marie's life. 


Aesthetically, it's beautiful. Shot in grainy black and white, Malcolm & Marie often feels like a much deeper film than it really is. Washington and Zendaya are aces, but the fine performances can't mask the fact this doesn't really have much to say. The actors are trapped in an insular, often self-indulgent conceit that plays like a college theater acting exercise, filled with lots of yelling and high emotions that feel fabricated and, yes, inauthentic. The much-ballyhooed anti-critic rant that caused so many waves on Film Twitter isn't as bad as reported, since as Washington's character is very clearly written as a self-absorbed blowhard, but the musings on what it means to be a black filmmaker and dismissal of the concept of the male gaze seem misplaced coming from a white male writer. Levinson is doing his best Cassavetes impersonation here, but the characters' self-sabotaging conflict goes from 0-60 back to 0-60 again so frequently that there's no arc. There are striking moments here but they're hampered by the erratic rhythms. The emotional whiplash completely undercuts the drama and never really allows us to settle into the characters or their relationships. In short, it feels rushed - often betraying its own quarantine roots as the first draft of a concept in desperate need of some revision and finesse.


GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh, Courtesy of A24

Lee Isaac Chung is one of those under-the-radar filmmakers who has yet to be receive the recognition he deserves. His debut film, Munyurangabo (2009), was one of the best films of the 2000s, but received little attention, so it is gratifying to see his latest film, Minari, receive widespread praise from critics and even a great deal of awards buzz to go along with it, so far racking up nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. 


Minari is certainly the most mainstream film Chung has directed, but that's a testament to the universally recognizable story that it tells. Focusing on a family of Korean immigrants who move to Arkansas establish their own farm and make their own way in the world, the film turns Chung's own childhood experiences into a uniquely American tale of hardship and personal triumph that is the very picture of the ideal of the "American dream." Steven Yeun stars as Jacob, the pater familias who is plucking away at someone else's chicken farm, dreaming of running his own some day, so he purchases a piece of land in the middle of nowhere with a ramshackle mobile home, and uproots his family to make the dream a reality. His wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri) is unhappy with the move and misses their own home, and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his little sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) are bored, which gets David into trouble. 


But David also has a series of health problems, leading the family to invite grandmother Soonja (regular Hong Sangsoo collaborator Youn Yuh-jung) to move from Korea to come help raise the family. While Jacob takes on the Sisyphean task of turning his barren land into the farm of his dreams (with the aid of Will Patton's holy roller neighbor) causing rifts in his marriage, David butts heads with Soonja, whose old style of parenting soon reveals a deep and unexpected connection between American David and his more traditional Korean grandmother.


Minari is a film about family connections, and Chung weaves them slowly, almost effortlessly, over the course of the film, creating a seemingly organic narrative whose emotional undercurrents hit unexpectedly. It's languidly paced, and almost defiantly plotless, but that's precisely what makes it so special. Chung has crafted a deeply personal ode to his family and his roots, and in the process delivered a film about the immigrant experience that feels profoundly universal. Buoyed by Emile Mosseri's delicate score (who is quickly becoming one of the most interesting up and coming film composers after his stellar work on 2019's The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Minari sometimes feels like the hazy recollections of a dream, made up of memories of childhood floating back in a kind of nostalgic reverie. Yet Chung doesn't shy away from the challenges and hardships of the American immigrant experience, and that makes the small victories feel all the more profound. While this may not be representative of the experience of all immigrants, Chung finds common ground in the bonds of family and uses it as a window into collective hopes and dreams. It's the kind of film whose emotional power only grows in retrospect, its most indelible moments springing from the seemingly mundane moments of life that you didn't realize were so important until they were in the past. That is the unique and subtle power of Minari, an altogether lovely film whose grace notes linger in the air long after the music has stopped playing.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


MINARI | Directed by Lee Isaac Chung | Stars Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho | Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and a rude gesture | Now playing in select theaters.

ARRELL BRITT-GIBSON as Bobby Rush, DANIEL KALUUYA as Chairman Fred Hampton and ASHTON SANDERS as Jimmy Palmer in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

One of the most high profile casualties of the Civil Rights movement, Black Panther and radical socialist Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) was assassinated in 1969 in a raid conducted by the FBI and Chicago PD. His death remains a touchstone for the black liberation movement, and yet another in a litany of examples of police conspiring and using violence against black people. Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah  chronicles Hampton's rise and fall through the eyes of Bill O'Neill (Lakeith Stanfield), a petty criminal turned FBI informant who helped infiltrate the Black Panthers in order to keep himself out of jail for Grand Theft Auto. The film is simultaneously about Hampton's rise as a major force in black America, and the emotional and psychological toll on O'Neill by selling his soul to the police, becoming the Judas to Hampton's black messiah.


King, who previously only had one feature film credit to his name (2013's little-seen Newlyweeds), directs with the kind of verve that occasionally recalls early Spike Lee. Judas and the Black Messiah is raw, energetic; a ferocious howl of rage, filled with the fire of revolution and the pain of betrayal, and progress undercut by weaponized whiteness. It's rare for a major studio film to deal so frankly with radical socialism, especially in such a positive light, that one almost wishes King had delved deeper into what Hampton was fighting for on a more macro scale. It's thrilling to see the Black Panther party portrayed as the leftist organization that it truly was, focusing on mutual aid and creating a better world for black people, rather than the violent, terrorist organization it was made out to be by the American government. 


Naturally, past is present, to paraphrase an old saying, and like many historical dramas, it positions its story as a commentary on current events, specifically the ongoing struggle for black liberation through the Black Lives Matter movement, and the film makes clear that the police are the militarized guardians of the status quo, dividing and conquering rather than serving and protecting. Kaluuya is as incredible as you've likely heard, but Stanfield is quietly heartbreaking as a man who sold his soul and gained nothing. The toll of upholding white supremacy hangs like a heavy weight on his shoulders, and it shows constantly behind his eyes.


Yet the film falls victim to an issue that plagued the similarly themed The Trial of the Chicago 7 in that it takes a radical subject and places it within the confines of a typical Hollywood narrative. While Judas and the Black Messiah is certainly a stronger film than Aaron Sorkin's Oscar hopeful, it's difficult not to wish this was bolder and more uncompromising. It's certainly bruising, and brimming with a righteous fury, but that fury has nowhere to go within the confines of its classical Hollywood formalism. You can feel it wanting to break free, to scream at the heavens and unleash its howl of anger at the injustice on display, but it seems to hold back and pull its punches; confined, like O'Neill, by a mold placed upon it by the establishment. But despite the dichotomy between form and content, it's difficult to shake the story the film tells, and the conviction with which it is told. Rather than simply recounting a historical event in a Hollywood vacuum, it offers a tantalizing (if imperfect) window into what the path forward from our current injustices might actually look like. 


GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH | Stars Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith | Rated R for violence and pervasive language | Now playing in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

Monday, February 01, 2021


The harrowing border crossing from Mexico into the United States has been the subject of much debate for years, a controversy escalated by Donald Trump's "build the wall" campaign platform during the 2016 election and beyond. Yet for all the talk radio bloviating and xenophobic panics about "migrant caravans" that have highlighted the issue from the American side, we in the States rarely get to see things from the Mexican point of view. 


Enter Fernanda Valadez's savage Identifying Features, a gut-wrenching examination of the dangers of illegal border crossings that's framed almost as a horror movie. The film traces the journey of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a woman searching desperately for her teenage son who attempted to make the crossing into the US with a friend to find work, only to vanish along the way. Working with the police becomes a nightmare - so many are lost along the crossing, leaving only small items behind, lost to hunger, bandits, or murderous gangs, that local authorities are left with few clues and even fewer resources to track down the leads. So Magdalena takes it upon herself to find her beloved Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela); her journey will lead her into the heart of darkness, accompanied by a young migrant worker named Miguel (David Illescas), searching  for his mother after being deported from the US. They become something akin to surrogate family for each other on their journey, but the answers they find may ultimately be more terrifying than the pain of not knowing the fates of their loved ones.


The picture Identifying Features paints is almost unrelentingly bleak, but it's nothing if not consistently compelling. Valadez's border is a vast, unknowable wasteland, where the risk of a crossing isn't worth the "reward" to be found on the other side. Valadez offers no solutions or musings on the politics of immigration, and instead focused on the tragedy of those lost in an attempt to find a better life, chasing a promise of prosperity that ultimately turns out to be in vain. Its austerity achieves almost abstract levels, with Valadez finding a kind of grim beauty in the barren landscape that recalls Alejandro Landes' Monos. Magdalena remains something of a blank slate throughout the film, but this allows the audience to place itself in her situation, and she becomes a kind of avatar for the viewer, guiding us into hell without ever bringing us back. The film's "twist" doesn't quite land with the impact that it should because it all happens so quickly, but it nevertheless leaves us shaken in its terrifying suddenness. There's an air of hopelessness to the entire affair, its characters trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and despair. If it sounds like a downer, that's because it is. But there's a fearsome power to Valadez's artistry that is hard to shake. It's a holy terror of a film, a raw, fiery modern "Heart of Darkness" that is an unforgettable exploration of what is being fled, and the cruel joke of what is being run towards.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


IDENTIFYING FEATURES | Directed by Fernanda Valadez | Stars Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in virtual cinemas nationwide.