Thursday, October 11, 2018

BlacKkKlansman / **** (2018)

Ron Stallworth never perceived himself as having a “white voice,” but something about its candid inflection transcended the stereotype of black men speaking in the “jive” style of the early 70s. Spike Lee emphasizes this with unassuming assurance in the early scenes of “BlacKkKlansman,” showing us a man who is anchored by no particular sense of manner or distinction; he is simply an everyman seeking a place in the world, without much regard to whether he might be crippled or undermined by his ethnic background. Others are consciously aware of his presence, primarily, by the conditioning of their upbringing, but that’s of little surprise; he may be one of the only African Americans in a backwards Colorado town to ever walk into a police headquarters seeking a career in law enforcement. Some will come to regard him favorably after his capabilities are made known, while others will use their ignorance to blind them to his accomplishments. And though the film will tell the story of a man whose skill allowed him to successfully infiltrate the top ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, this is primarily about how injustice rebounds like an unpredictable pendulum, especially when it is controlled by men living in arrogance of their own privilege.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The House with a Clock in Its Walls / *** (2018)

The young hero of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is one of the more unfortunate examples of the literary trap we now know as young adult pathos. He adopts a trend that can be described as such: if you’re a prepubescent eccentric who engages better with daydreams then actual people, it’s inevitable for the story to make you the victim of immense grief before dropping you into a life-threatening adventure. And in the tradition of the displaced orphans of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” poor Lewis Barnavelt arrives at the opening of the tale not eager or excited by what he is about to experience, but crippled by the horrific knowledge that his parents recently died and left him in the custody of a virtual stranger. How can he possible be roused to enthusiasm, then, by the strange and ambitious whimsy going about all around him? Are the likes of an eccentric uncle played by Jack Black and a female accomplice played by Cate Blanchet enough to undermine his sorrow? Or is the pain under the surface the sort that negates all the wonder and joy that ought to come with the discovery? A straight document of these events might contrast the of the scenario with the psychological disconnect of the characters, but what fun would that be when a world of magic possibilities is just waiting to be unleashed?

Monday, September 24, 2018

We Are Still Here / *** (2015)

Families trapped in the throes of grief have been lured in by more haunted houses than you can fathom, and in nearly all cases their tragedies supply an emotional shield that supernatural horrors mistakenly see as an exploitable weakness. Perhaps that’s because ghosts and demons just don’t understand how human nature works – that for every terrible event or shocking impulse, a person’s sense of fear is tightened by an exterior that hardens with time, allowing its wearer to face an abyss that couldn’t possibly match the pain they’ve experienced. There are some, however, who wear their suffering like an open wound, and certainly the evils of an alternate plane are eager to feast off whatever they can. Meanwhile, the dangerous entities that lurk in the house of “We Are Still Here” have a more sinister agenda: every 30 years they awaken from a slumber and devour the souls of any family living within its halls, as vengeance for a terrible act that was committed on them a century prior. Apparently, time does little to diminish grudges, especially when you’re in a dimension that ought to be free of earthly attachments or emotions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Unbroken: Path to Redemption / zero stars (2018)

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is a film that begins and ends with one fatal mistake: forgetting to tell its actors that they are accomplices in a cheap, patronizing melodrama. All the dramatic cues are there, and many of the faces convey an eagerness that is admirable, but every simpering scene of false sincerity moves to the rhythm of some shallow after-school special, where most of the conflict is resolved by broad strokes and nonsensical flash-forwards. For this, yet another aberration in a growing list of exercises by director Harold Cronk – and one that shamelessly follows a far better retelling of this story from only four years prior – the offense is greater: he takes a potentially meaningful discussion point about the traumatic aftermath of war veterans and reduces it to an arrogant demand for Christian unity. That some of it plays as convincing to these on-screen players indicates he has assembled a plausible ensemble to sell his message; that he doesn’t bother to supply them with a shred of intellectual context makes the film not only bad, but irresponsible and corrupt.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Meg / ** (2018)

A band of rich investors, marine biologists and deep-sea divers gather aboard an underwater laboratory in the middle of the pacific to plunder the secrets of the deep, and while searching through a new hidden habitat hidden they inadvertently unleash one of the murkiest special effect creatures seen this side of the Anaconda. Among them, a wisecracking daredevil who once assisted in an ill-fated rescue emerges as the lone force of reckoning who can challenge it in the open waters, where it threatens to destroy an entire eco-system (not to mention feast on the swimmers of public beaches). His sarcastic demeanor, of course, comes as a lighthearted contrast against the more sobering faces of the others, who regard their predicament like slabs of bait waiting for a noon feeding. And why wouldn’t they? The story will rarely provide them, after all, with a chance to flee the danger or head for land, because that would negate the opportunity for them to become casualties in the hungry jaws of a monster. Assemble any number of these clich├ęs together and you create the cheerful delusions of a modern creature feature; supply them further with a studio budget and familiar names, and you get something resembling “The Meg.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Greatest Showman / **1/2 (2017)

Hugh Jackman is one of the great gifts of the modern movie experience, and “The Greatest Showman” may very well be the fullest expression thus far of his impeccable performance talents. Here is a film tailor-made for those theatrical sensibilities, full of color and song, engaging his deep need to entertain an audience in nearly every frame he possesses the screen. While some of that can be sourced to the power of the visuals – which certainly provide their own sense of wonder – it’s hard to imagine any other person standing in this role, with this much pep, and this sense of dedication. Legend speaks of the men and women who would sacrifice their own security just for the sake of inspiring the gleeful response of a viewer, and Jackman proves, well above his peers, that he is the pilot of a destiny to forever marvel those who come to share his company. Who could ask for more in these generic times, when entertainment is decided less by individual vision and more by collaborative illusions?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Rock of Ages / * (2012)

Sometimes the great tradition of rock musicals comes down not to whether songs are staged with gusto, but whether they have been conducted with hands that understand the rebellious culture underlining them. Many of the key anthems of the 80s reflect a stranger possibility: they were written in that very narrow window of hair band trends, where the angry political motivations were temporarily subdued by sex, booze, and the harmless pomp of radio accessibility. No one complained all that much because a great spirit continued to move through the guitar riffs, and the bands were a testament to the versatile power of the genre. Those who were active listeners in those years, when the likes of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were at the height of their popularity, often recall them with fondness. But what would they think of the attitude now, so many years later, when films like “Rock of Ages” paint a much more simplistic portrait of the times? Would they be comfortable with the fact that a handful of well-known songs have essentially been grinded through a karaoke jukebox? Or that the attitudes behind them have been reduced to one-note farce? Or that people who were alive (and even active) in those years have allowed themselves to be associated with the vulgar thinning of the standard?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Blockers / **1/2 (2018)

There is a scene in “Blockers” I hardly expected to see in a comedy – even a deranged one – and with any luck there will never be an attempt to replicate it. The lead-up is innocent enough: a trio of parents have infiltrated a party on prom night hoping to stop their teenage daughters from having sex, and along the way are cornered by a cluster of drunk boys who demand proof they are not actually undercover cops. They bargain by committing themselves to a drinking contest. The contender will be one of the fathers, an overprotective hulk played by John Cena. Unfortunately, the challenge is aptly referred to as “butt chugging,” in which a funnel and a hose are hooked into a contestant’s rectal cavity, where the beer will absorb into the body faster. Cena’s discomfort is but a mere momentary distraction from how the remainder of the scene plays out, which moves against the trajectory of the conventional toilet humor. Who came up with it? Did they sense, well before execution, that this was an outlet for edgier comedy? One imagines early story conferences consisting of a cluster of people passing around a joint, searching for the most random ways possible to instigate a shocked laugh in the audience.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

"The Black Cauldron" Revisited


“Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil, that even the gods feared him.” The opening narration inaugurates the curse shrouding the fabled black cauldron, an object of such immense danger that its very mention instills dread in the hearts of commoners. Although centuries came and went while it lay dormant, obscured by the spells of defensive witches, a new enthusiasm has gripped the totalitarian forces of the Horned King, who pursues it with persistent determination. In his possession, the cauldron would unleash the frightening power of necromancy, allowing its possessor to raise an unstoppable army of dead soldiers, essentially making him immortal. And all of creation would succumb to this destructive curse, including those whose personalities necessitate the enthusiasm of the audience: a teenage adventurer who dreams of heroism, a clumsy bard, a distraught princess, a furry and inquisitive beast, a snarky sprite and an oracular pig, who also provides the key to discovering the whereabouts of the coveted relic.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

It Started With a Cauldron...

The imprint of “Cinemaphile” didn’t come to realization until 2004, but its function – and with it my identity as a web-based film writer – were founded six years prior, during the hot summer months of 1998. It was the morning of August 4 when I awoke to the arrival of a new VHS copy of Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” lying on my doorstep – a defiant and strange little discovery, like a rough gem refusing to remain hidden. Its release announced not only the recognition of a problematic production, but also the gradually emerging power of Internet campaigns; while access to the world wide web was still slowly catching on, a small petition gained enough momentum to earn the notice of Joe Hale, the film’s producer, and Roy Disney, then a key decision-maker in the studio’s home video market. A year’s worth of signatures and aggressive write-ins (mine among them) had scored a long-awaited victory in a time when the Mouse House was barely interested in reflecting on troubled times of the past. After “The Little Mermaid” reignited a key fire in the enthusiasm of moviegoers, their preceding endeavors had been cast in a shadow, with this release apparently being the most notorious stain on their reputation.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Father Figures / 1/2* (2017)

“Father Figures” creates a dubious curiosity for two brothers who dislike each other, involves them in a long and illogical search for answers, forces their interaction with an ensemble of talented actors caught in a heap of unfunny comic situations, and then has the nerve to lead everyone towards an ending of ponderous feel-good phoniness. Gaze at any two minutes of the film, furthermore, and you begin to sense an underlying disinterest from the actors, who have shown up to, I guess, read a few lines of dialogue and exchange semi-cohesive barbs while the writers try to figure out where the story might be going.  One wonders if the paychecks were worth it – whether the likes of Glenn Close, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons were comfortable, even with minimal screen time, running through these improbable scenarios with a straight face, all for the sake of securing a few extra pennies. But what of the audience who has shown up to see them? What is in it for a person who values their presence? This is the kind of movie that exists incidentally, as if concocted to only fill in empty screening rooms on light weekends, just so others might have a place to go in case the big release down the hall is already sold out.

Monday, July 16, 2018

House on the Edge of the Park / 1/2* (1980)

While most defiant ideas for films are usually seized by the underachievers, few directors ever openly admit to being conductors of substandard rip-offs. Part of me would challenge that possibility if I ever came face-to-face with Ruggero Deodato, who in 1980 made one of many “Last House on the Left” clones and, by all traditional measures, used the screen as an open admission of his failure to equal its painful austerity. Craven’s notorious debut was hardly an original commodity – famously, its premise was based off a folk legend first used by Ingmar Bergman – but it so thoroughly embodied the nerve and conviction of its creator that few who saw it found it unworthy of notice. It was a film that lived and breathed its soul-shattering horrors. A great number of would-be understudies justifiably saw it as one of the main precursors to the genre’s sharp transition from supernatural absurdity to real-life misery, and some like Deodato were compelled to replicate the measure in more direct homage. But his “House on the Edge of the Park” is not simply a paint-by-numbers exercise. That might have been a lesser offense. No, this is a movie so listless and deceptive that we don’t dare call it bad, lest that imply anyone watching cares enough to show a faint hint of loathing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Initiation / * (1984)

A group of fresh-faced 20-somethings assemble in the halls of a sorority house to pledge their loyalties during hell week. One of them, seen in the early scenes waking from a violent nightmare, is to be the primary target of a series of impending pranks; being beautiful and wealthy are traits easily exploited by the more vain and narcissistic, especially while she seems oblivious to them. Dialogue is formal but laced with underlying resentment, as if more than mere looks and prestige divide the cliques. But these are not motions to imply more secrets between them – only gestures used by novice actors who have yet to formulate a plausible manner in front of the camera. In a way they acquire that behavior both from inexperience and from the misguided endeavors of their director, who was on his first (and last) film assignment here in the months preceding “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which was credited with adding a potent psychology to the tired dead teenager formula. His “The Initiation,” which survives in the periphery of an inexplicable cult status, is one of the last genre excursions preceding that transition, and certainly one of the dumbest: every single scene exists not to stimulate the excitement of the audience, but to suggest a sense of laughable frustration on part of individuals who have no clue as to what they are doing.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Maniac / zero stars (1980)

Quiet and eccentric Frank Zito has serious issues. Rarely occupied by conventional social interactions and often lost in the labyrinth of a self-imposed solitude, he has taken up precarious hobbies as a way of passing the hours – among them, decorating female mannequins throughout his apartment while carrying on one-sided conversations, as if they were verbal punching backs for his paralyzing insecurity. Unfortunately, one key attribute between them bypasses the notion of a foreboding gesture: they all carry the scalps of deceased women he has killed over the recent weeks, with their head of hair acting as a leftover trinket of the crimes. Who these victims are is not as thorough a detail for the audience as much as the anatomy of their demises, and in an early scene on a beach the camera spies one such victim (nameless, no less) having her throat cut so that she can bleed out on the sand. Most films would use this kind of display as a precursor to the psychological study, particularly if it involves an engaging pattern. But the obscene and detestable “Maniac” has only one focus: to fill scene after scene with relentless bloodshed while robbing us of a genuine dramatic context.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom / ** (2018)

Maybe it’s apropos that a fifth blockbuster about genetically engineered dinosaurs begins and ends with words from Ian Malcolm, the man whose theories have underlined the obligatory fallout of this exhausting excursion. Seen in a senate hearing about whether the U.S. government should intervene in the protection of gigantic creatures at the sight of a now-defunct theme park, he signals an ominous warning that most recognize as authentic: if you save beings that exist in violation of the natural order, you may be risking your own. All signs point to a wrap-up of that possibility as the site of Isla Nublar faces a new threat: the island’s long-dormant volcano has come back to life and will likely render the surviving species extinct, effectively undoing the experiment of scientists playing god. Alas, a movement of fierce protectors has risen in the political fringes, seeking a way to rescue the dinosaurs before such a fate is a reality. That prospect inspires the agenda of a billionaire closely linked to the park’s resources, who calls upon characters from the previous film to go in and relocate a dozen species to a nearby sanctuary island… without knowing that they intend to sell them to foreign harvesters on the black market.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hereditary / **** (2018)

The most unsettling element in “Hereditary” is rooted not in specifics or reveals, but in a deliberate evasion of answers. This is a film so audaciously assured that the audience is rarely given the chance to clutch the source of the horror, as if to assume details can be distorted by a deceitful vantage point. In a way that makes the primary observation just as maddening as it is unsettling – and after a monumental promotional engine pointed to grandiose comparisons with “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” most viewers targeted it with a frustrated dismissal rather than shared accolades. But for Ari Aster, who makes his directorial debut with a script he also penned, it represents a bold and striking departure from the populist convention of horror films, where great inspirations are usually filtered down by derivative ideals. Containing almost no jump scares or slick camera edits, the movie throbs with a relentless underlying terror that is frequently mystifying, sometimes aggravating, and almost always poised to keep the mind engaged in disquieting wonder. If the most elusive quality of a genre picture is how fears manifest in the uncertain, Aster finds them lodged the membrane of a greater psychological riddle.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Scream 2 / ***1/2 (1997)

The opening scene of “Scream 2” contains a dialogue on horror films as a device of exploitation on minorities – particularly for African Americans, who are routinely the first to die at the end of a knife-wielding madman. That the comment is delivered by a character played by Jada Pinkett is not ironic; because the movie knows it must play by similar rules, however self-aware, her observation will serve as prophecy as she and her boyfriend are murdered by a masked maniac at a local screening on the night of her proclamation. No, the true irony is found above them: the film they have shown up to see is a Hollywood retelling of the Woodsboro murders from the year prior, which have been sensationalized into a cheap slasher knock-off at the expense of the survivors. This reality is expressed with a striking clarity during the close of the opening scenes, in which Pinkett’s character is stabbed with incessant conviction by a hooded figure just as the audience behind her engages in uproarious cheers at the murder going on in the light of the projector. Only when she walks up towards the screen and lets out one last horrific scream do they realize a fatal tragedy has transpired among the crowded seats of the screening room: their embrace of the violence has inherently created a perfect storm for their ambivalence to a literal manifestation of it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Annihilation / **** (2018)

The fundamental component of any descent into the unknown is an unresolved emotional wound lurking beneath the exterior, consistently haunting the main character as they confront dangers in the present. A riveting acid test frequently rises in this duality: without the ability to reach closure with the past, how does one find the courage to confront something sinister staring back at them? It is a measure of psychology scurrying deeply through a great number of modern thrillers that puts heightened emphasis on the stakes of the survivors, and somehow as they attempt to outwit devilish creatures, ambiguous aliens or supernatural terrors we become facets of their struggle, right down to the obligatory climactic moment when they have no choice but to relive the old pain just as mortality seems within reach. Think of the grief of losing a daughter and how it propels the heroine of “The Descent,” for instance, who is forced to relive memories of her child’s final birthday as monsters in a dark cave close in towards her location: is it the idea of the creatures that is disturbing, or that a universe who spawns them is unwilling to spare a woman who is already barely functioning?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Bridge" by Bernhard Wicki

The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern. In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"Nashville" by Robert Altman

To ponder Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is not merely to examine a profoundly important movie, but to deal with the very birth of a filmic ideal: the thorough gestation of a concept that rings with persistence even in these times of redundant outlooks and simplified meanings. Some have referred to it as the first fully improvised screen endeavor of its kind, but that only trivializes the point; born from a 140-page screen treatment – and one that was famously dismissed by studio heads as an inconsequential exercise – the endeavor reflected the resonant artistic yearning that followed its filmmaker through much of his early career, where narratives became increasingly secondary to behavior and atmosphere. At the threshold of those desires, under the firm hand of his own control, his most famous film found a footing and, in the process, transformed the very cinema that was already knee-deep in irreverence and counterculture. A first-time observer might absorb the images and see only a snapshot of a series of lives as they descend on a single event, but those who contemplate underlying ramifications will recognize almost oracular insights: the threat of political populism, the deceptive lure of entertainment and even the indifference of casual onlookers. No other picture of its kind so accurately predicted the social transitions of the modern age, or did so with such casual assurance.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Ascent" by Larisa Shepitko

The gifted Larisa Shepitko was 39 years old, four films into her career and on the verge of more when “The Ascent” first emerged as a blip on the radar, placing her among the most promising new commodities of 1970s Russian cinema. Patterned in the tradition of a persistent arsenal of anti-war hits about the Nazi occupation, hers was an adjunct that also drew upon more precarious sources – particularly the legend of Jesus Christ, who like the hero of her story became a willing sacrifice as penance for the sins of others.  Was there a thread running parallel between both that she felt mirrored the context of the war? Perhaps a reasoning, or a justification, for the history we know was to follow? Her protagonist, the stone-eyed Sotnikov, is not exactly a warm and embracing personality, and early on he is handicapped by ailments – and then a gunshot wound – that keep him from more profound gestures. But even as the prey in a doomed hunt he materializes, unbroken in his humanity, as a willing casualty in the jaws of fate, even though the key figures among him seem all too eager to use his martyrdom as their own safeguard.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Vertigo / **** (1958)

So many essays have been penned about Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” generally considered to be his greatest film, that a barrier occurs in any attempt to say something fresh or stirring about the material on screen. Most conversations tend to begin with the parallels of his life and that of his hero – how a methodical conductor of creative impulses sought so earnestly to achieve a perfect technical modulation from behind the camera that he manifestly wrote his obsessive qualities into the visuals, giving it the dual function of an off-the-record autobiography. But then there is the more secondary consideration of the premise, involving a retired detective who is assigned to follow and protect a beautiful woman before ultimately falling in love with her on the eve of her demise. If less is said about how Jimmy Stewart’s persona endures the curse of his director’s paralyzing vulnerabilities, it is because his predicament was ultimately overpowered by the shadow of its author. The Hitchcock identity carried so much gravity, such dominating influence, that it is entirely possible to see his films for their exhibition of talent and not necessarily for their narrative points. How many still remember “Psycho,” for instance, as being about a man who murders strangers while posing as his deceased mother? Today, is it not more about how a composer of macabre visual symphonies shamelessly inspires hysterics in a subservient audience?

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Images / ***1/2 (1972)

While the seed of Robert Altman’s “3 Women” is said to be contained in “Persona,” the key bridge between them may be “Images,” a daring film he made in 1972 during the pinnacle of his first (and some say greatest) commercial peak. Like those films, it was an experiment that embodied the bold risk of an emerging method of cinema, where a garden of new filmmakers was being driven by themes more than characters or story – and though Altman was still refining his own voice, it presented the sort of audacious challenges that horrified those resting comfortably in convention. Yet today it rarely comes up in a discussion about his most prominent work, other than a vague reference to the confusion it first caused in the film festival circuit; initially, no one could decipher the intricate meanings between the overlapping narrative arcs, and many gave up in frustration too early to realize their concealed resonance. Was it simply ahead of its time? Or did “3 Women” cast a shadow impossible to move out of? Some, fortunately, have kept the material active in discussion despite a trend to elevate the more populist achievements of his early days, and thanks to internet theories and a new digital restoration it can finally be seen with the tool of modern hindsight, where its power becomes obvious.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Last Days / ***1/2 (2005)

Three movies in Gus Van Sant’s filmography make up what is commonly referred to as his “death trilogy,” and like similar multi-picture endeavors by Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier they are linked less by story or characters and more by deep thematic echoes. But to describe the material in them as being just about “death” would be to simplify the nature at which they originate; while death itself awaits many of the important players, it is the journey towards it that stirs uncomfortably in the mind of their curious author. Consider the long and arduous walk towards nothing in “Gerry,” or the almost haunting silence preceding the chaos of the final hour of “Elephant.” Van Sant’s theory is not that some are meant to die young or tragically, but that they often do so because of a decay in stability brought on by lifelong alienations – many of them either self-imposed or clandestine. In these worlds, taking one final breath well before the mortal clock has wound down may just be a release from a routine that has already killed their goal to persevere.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Quiet Place / ***1/2 (2018)

In many respects “A Quiet Place” is pitched as a silent film, without verbal cues or explanations underscoring the plot’s core function. Immediately that prospect will conjure up a befuddling uncertainty in the audience: how are they to establish a setting, who the players may be and what’s occurring to them? What is the context? Are mere physical observations enough? Any number of sensationalist outings would freely risk continuity without a well-modulated visual device, but to see it done here is to discover a filmmaker who has studied, mastered and executed the great doctrines of Hitchcock and Kubrick, whose own stories were usually incidental to the orchestration of a mood. What he accomplishes here, in a horror film set somewhere in the modern world, is astounding: a survival study that says little but observes, impeccably, as a family braves the unknown in a place that has been (apparently) wiped out by bloodthirsty monsters. And when two verbal exchanges do occur on screen, the words have no importance; they are gestures to supply the characters with a reminder of their hard push for endurance, and why they refuse to surrender to a fate that has isolated them in the cold clutch of despair.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Witches of Eastwick / *** (1987)

The solution to enduring the absurdity that is “The Witches of Eastwick” involves distancing yourself from any measure of logic. Here is a movie that invites an explosion of disbelief, assembled from pieces of a reality that looks as if it might have been plausible in the early stages. But to gaze at the screen any longer than a moment’s notice is to find the New England locales, the happy faces and the passive daily routines to be the cloak surrounding a supernatural fantasy – and a ludicrous one at that. In a way, George Miller depends on our trust in his ability to shed a light of purpose; after “Mad Max” made him a cool commodity in the eyes of nerd culture, it became obvious that he could make a long and successful career out of playing against convention. And somehow he manages to sustain that prospect even here, in a film that audaciously asks us to believe characters played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer can not only dream up the same ideal love interest, but that each of them would be ok sharing him at a mansion just outside of town with little sense of jealousy or insecurity.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

My Friend Dahmer / ***1/2 (2017)

I was a prepubescent teenage boy when the media first sounded the alarm against Jeffrey Dahmer, the mysterious serial killer from Milwaukee that stalked his community with almost silent precision. Ingrained by news headlines and evening bulletins as the Midwest cannibal, here was a shy, young and handsome man keeping horrendous secrets: over the course of his life he had murdered 17 young men – most of them gay – and then decimated their remains like an overzealous butcher. Many of those victims were never found, while others were discovered in mere pieces: a carved-out torso, several skulls and various other parts decorated the interiors of his apartment, where they served the purpose of feeding or arousing him. The concept of mass murder had hardly been a new commodity to contemplate in the public eye, but rarely had one’s methods so deeply penetrated the membrane of the mainstream, or done so with such austere consequences. Just as local towns in the Midwest heralded the aftermath with newfound caution, so was the gay community confronted by the great demon of negative stereotypes; it was as if Dahmer risked becoming a symbol against the lifestyle, a microcosm for disparaging perceptions running deeply through the moral majority.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Geostorm / 1/2* (2017)

An imaginary yarn about an angry mother nature seeking vengeance against filmmakers who exploit her dangers frequently enters my head. The story would center on the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, two of the most consistent offenders, who see the big budgets of the Hollywood machine as the means to destroy Earth in increasingly violent ways. The elements, sensing this viscous cycle of the blockbuster scene, would take revenge against the industry by unleashing a plethora of deadly disasters on their hills – tidal waves, tornados, flash floods, perhaps even earthquakes. The possibility of irony would be lost on them, no doubt, because directors of these pictures are rarely self-aware. But oh what a pointed irony it would inspire, to see audiences rally against this boring formula and find, underneath the muck and wreckage of an elaborately demolished landscape, a mirror to be held up to their dimwitted deeds. Added relevance would come because of a narrowing capacity of brain cells needed to get through each new venture. At one time it was possible to be amused – however superficially – by a “Dante’s Peak” or “Deep Impact”; now, thanks to the avid energies of visual effects artists paired with the comatose intentions of newer filmmakers, it’s ok to simply show up half-conscious.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Demon House / ** (2018)

“Demon House” is a well-made film study about little of consequence, fashioned from a scorching creative eagerness that seems held back unnecessarily by a fear of visual or thematic excess. Given the familiar groundwork of the premise, that’s hardly a surprise; when it comes to any number of stories about evil forces haunting the living – however true or fictional they claim to be – a great risk persists in exploiting their suffering for the benefit of shocking an audience. But anyone going into Zak Bagans’ endeavor may yearn for the possibility of a happy medium: something between a balance of jolts intercut with perceptive discussions about what may be causing the quiet chaos in these lives. For a good while things gradually move towards that direction, as Bagans, an apparently skilled investigator, involves former eyewitnesses in a descent into the mysteries of a Midwest house filled with supernatural energies. But by the end we are no closer to understanding – or caring about – the source of these evils or the suffering they inflict on others. If a conventional horror film shows people slowly unravelling by the strange events going on in their homes, here is one that settles on raising an eyebrow or two before droppings its subjects in the maw of successive boredom.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fifty Shades Freed / *1/2 (2018)

Perhaps the issue is the constraint of an acceptable running time, or the attitude of a conventional outlook. Some conflicts are not meant to be easily resolved in the span of a two hour film; to do so is to gloss over the intricacies of moral gray areas, even if they may run as shallow as the intentions. Some part of me holds onto this possibility when attempting to deal, in any capacity, with the “Fifty Shades” films, and now I’m confronted with a third venture, in which characters gather to experience life after the fairy tale has ended and find themselves in the embrace of deficient dramatic throes. I guess this idea could possess enough complexity to justify a trilogy of pictures, but is there not a responsibility to anyone involved to make the best use of our commitment? If what exists on screen runs parallel to the written works of E.L. James, then here is a woman who seems incapable of modulating the human rhythm on the tightrope between eroticism and danger. Imagine spending a day in the company of people who raise legitimate doubts about their situations but never come to terms with them, essentially because they have discovered an orgasm that negates their need to contemplate troubling histories.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Killing of a Sacred Deer / **** (2017)

Now comes a rare moment of creative ascension. After the ambitious tests of “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” young Yorgos Lanthimos has distanced himself from the mere notion of promising filmmakers and made “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a movie so strikingly perceptive that it moves him into the company of greater, more assured voices in the medium. And that is a rare feat to reach in this time of artistic saturation, much less limited thematic accessibility. This is a man who, like P.T. Anderson and the Coens before him, hit the ground in a frenetic sprint from the first moment his hands found a movie camera, and at a mere four films has created an anxious anticipation in audiences that have come to see his stories as the groundwork for a deeply resonant critique of the human condition. Would it surprise any of his admirers, then, to discover yet another one of his pictures has used a splendid screenplay to mask a statement about the nature of our flawed operation? Or that his characters move less like human beings and more as tottering platitudes with rather mechanical perceptions? Lanthimos conducts these elements with the precision of a maddened provocateur and finds a great underlying horror, just as the opposing forces of creation and destruction seem to clash in what can be described as a moral minefield.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Predicting the Winners of the 90th Oscars


Heading fretfully into its 90th year, Oscar is set to descend on a bold and foreign new climate when the curtain rises on Hollywood this Sunday. He has never been one to scoff at the wide array of political trends that dominate his parties, to be sure, but even he must be sensing a strange air looming over the 2018 ceremony. It was, after all, the year that sexual abuse dominated the headlines and diminished the glitz of the city’s bright lights. And now in the final hour of those revelations, the notorious #MeToo movement looks poised to flip the script on the industry right down to its most treasured traditions – including the annual practice of handing out those famous gold statues everyone covets.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Post / ***1/2 (2017)

The established tradition of films about the newsroom is that each function within the same handicap: the channel involved – be it a television network or a newspaper – is in a position of professional vulnerability. Hot stories, perhaps, are given an added weight when they fall into the hands of those who may lose everything by running them. Certainly a lauded publication like the New York Times, for example, could be expected to scoop the revelations found in the notorious Pentagon Papers and survive unscathed, but would anyone have expected the same of one that existed on far more fragile ground? Or better yet, one owned by a person who rubbed elbows with sources that would raise dubious questions about their conflicts of interest? You can trace that line of influence all the way back to “Ace in the Hole” and watch as it runs through the veins of nearly every notable endeavor that has followed: “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” “Broadcast News,” “The Paper,” “The Insider,” “Shattered Glass,” “Frost/Nixon” and, more recently, “Spotlight.” Now Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “The Post,” carries that tradition forward in a more pointed way: less bothered with the historical elements, it surrounds the details with a sense of relentless dramatic tension. It is not a film about the misdeeds of a democracy, but about whether it is worth risking everything for the sake of the story.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Dunkirk / ***1/2 (2017)

At the level of a surface observation “Dunkirk” is a historical document about the evacuation of British troops on the coast of France as the Nazis closed in on them, but at a deeper level it is a testament to the audacious power of pure elemental filmmaking. After a handful of taut, tense minutes of almost wordless attacks and ambushes, we begin to sense the stark motivations of its director; borrowing heavily from the technical mechanics of Hitchcock, Eisenstein and even Griffiths, Chris Nolan freely abandons the constraints of a straightforward retelling and conducts a methodical descent into the sensory resonance of sound and movement. It is the film he has been seemingly moving towards ever since his early days as a force of intrigue – a full-fledged mood piece conducted with the utmost skill and fortitude. Some, perhaps rightfully, have described the undertaking as his most powerful excursion to date – and if films earn their merit based on the emotions they conduct in the audience, few of us will walk away doubting whether he is capable of blurring the boundary between a distant event and an immediate experience.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Lady Bird / **** (2017)

Deep love is the central influence of the most fundamental disagreements between mothers and daughters. A friction is roused when a common goal is challenged by methods each sees as wrong or fruitless. Consider what transpires between the young heroine of “Lady Bird” and her mother Marion. Both results of a biting sarcasm permeating through their middle-class existence, each has a concept of how the other should behave in their role but is rarely affirmed by a sense of encouragement. Both, for instance, believe Lady Bird, now a senior in a Catholic high school, ought to advancer her education. She wants to attend a school in New York (“I want to go somewhere with culture,” she says). But Marion, conscious of her daughter’s trajectory as an underachiever, suggests a local community college. And then the two engage in the first of what must be a life’s worth of arguments that escalate, rather heatedly, into personal diatribes about each other’s vulnerabilities. At a certain point it almost becomes insufferably awkward, until the teenager decides to abruptly leave the conversation by tumbling out of a moving car. And so begins – or continues? – a journey where both must come to see one another not as immovable forces, but as independent thinkers capable of making the most informed choices available to them.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Get Out / **** (2017)

A startling honesty ensnares Jordan Peele for every frame he directs “Get Out,” a thriller where the jolts come not from boogeymen or supernatural forces, but an attitude that coalesces within a closed world of privilege and etiquette. This, he argues, is a threat easily concealed behind the eager banalities of others, who engage their victims with the sort of deference that displaces them from the acknowledgment of an immediate danger. Consider how this affects the main character. He is a street-smart guy on his way to meet the parents of his girlfriend, confident and funny, yet quietly dealing with an anxious quandary: they may not be entirely happy with the notion that he is black. When he arrives, however, he discovers not only a welcoming environment, but an awfully convenient sense of acceptance; the parents seem so auspicious that it hardly seems genuine. And then there’s the matter of their servants – all black, each smiling sharply and with vacant expressions, as if stand-ins for the Stepfords. Is his worry unfounded, fueled by the unfamiliar territory he has descended in? Or are the courteous gestures of others a symbol for something far more devious? Peele discovers a disconcerting reality underneath that is as complex as it is timely; he has made not only a tremendously fascinating film, but the first act of cultural relevance in an era where hate has been brought back into political fashion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Phantom Thread / **** (2017)

Although “Phantom Thread” is said to be written under entirely original circumstances, the actual source of P.T. Anderson’s film comes from a personal experience, during which he was stricken ill and tended to by his wife who looked upon him with a “tenderness” he had rarely experienced. This, he notes, is the central point driving the circumstances surrounding the characters of his story, who otherwise seem to float through a dreamlike trance of emotional distance and faux courtesies. At the tip of the pattern is a man who would suggest dissonance from that prospect – a gifted dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock, who charges himself with amplifying the presence of bored and insecure women into the upper ranks of social grace. But he takes his task so seriously that, in some cases, the result must thoroughly transcend the model, even if she barely warrants his stellar reputation. A vital scene is worth considering: after designing a dress for an otherwise insufferable middle-aged woman and apprehensively attending her reception, she proceeds to behave in such a sloppy manner that the dress suddenly becomes a device of judgment – she is now unworthy, and the camera spies him furiously removing the bodice while she is passed out drunk in an upstairs bedroom.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Call Me By Your Name / ***1/2 (2017)

To sense the free-spirited candor of the characters in “Call Me by Your Name” is to recognize a measured development of male romance in the eyes of the Hollywood mainstream, where stories about gay characters have conventionally existed under the weight of a pervasive sociological subtext. In those circumstances, the love between the leads is rarely about the lust or the connection; they are guarded from more liberated behaviors as a means to emphasize an era, a not-too-distant time where homosexual impulses were either frowned upon, cause for mental concern or discouraged through violence. Those are, perhaps, the themes of filmmakers with an outsider’s view of the lifestyle (although no less important). But now comes a moment in time where the lessons of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Weekend” and “Moonlight” have relaxed the aesthetic chokehold and paved the route for a sweet and loving film where the characters are less mindful of an outside response and more consumed by the amorous temptations they possess. If that, in this political climate, leads any in the audience down a rabbit hole they still find discomfort in, their experience is best underscored by the pointed words of a noted observer: “nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Darkest Hour / ** (2017)

My first encounter with the versatile Gary Oldman originates from the age of 12, during a home viewing of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” where I first gazed at the eyes of a man with an unmistakable magnetism. His was the first figure to emerge on the screen, and somehow it had a disarming quality; a handsome and approachable face, full of plausible romantic longings, felt decidedly against the type we expected of a conventional villain. After he disappeared following the prologue, my mind raced with some sense of wonder – who was he? Could we come to see him as a negative force, as the story would ultimately require? And how could any woman, however fearful of his curse, find the strength to overcome his desirable advances, however dangerous? Only much later was it pointed out to me that the old man standing in his place during the film’s first act was the same Oldman, caked in heavy makeup to appear as a 300-year-old count in the shadows of Transylvanian architecture (different actors were cast all the time to play older versions of others, I figured). It was a testament to his ability that he was able to create a great enough illusion to fool even me, and over the years I have consciously followed him with the enthusiasm of a fanatic, curious as to what may come next in his life of relentless skin-shedding.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Florida Project / **** (2017)

A young girl, full of mischief and fire, moves through a low-rent  neighborhood with an impenetrable enthusiasm. Her friends accompany with almost nonexistent parental supervision, and often find themselves caught in situations that test their safety. A motel manager, a gruff sort insistent on rules, nonetheless observes their antics from a safe distance, perhaps because he senses the inability of others to respond to the dangers that inhabit their periphery. A scene involving his intervention with an old man emphasizes that prospect; as the stranger engages with the children as they are grouped around park benches, no parent is around to detect, quite obviously, that he is a predator. Do they in some way depend on his observations, however quietly? Or are they completely ambivalent? Or worse yet, just don’t care? There lies one of the many pointed questions in Sean Baker’s remarkable “The Florida Project,” where the whimsy and enthusiasm of the young stars is cast in a shadow created by adults who are too restrained by their poverty to sense the difference between a good and bad decision (assuming they make one at all).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** (2017)

There are three crucial exchanges in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” between Mildred, a mother dealing with the murder of her daughter, and Chief Willoughby, the man overseeing the difficult pursuit of her killer. Each mounts not just the tone of their journey, but also the deep and painful element of their individual convictions – two occur after she has audaciously called him out in a rather public way for not making any arrests in the case, and another comes in the form of a letter, following a decision he has made in the wake of his terminal medical diagnosis. What each exchange suggests, beneath the impassioned disagreements and heated put-downs, is a respect sourced from the same desire to do what’s right, even in the face of relative personal limits. That would be more than sufficient in a movie that sees pathos as the only possible emotion in a story thick with tragedies, but director Martin McDonagh uses them in a dramatic curve that is equal parts gruff, shocking, devastating and humorous. By all definitions he has made a film that ought to be handled with unwavering candor. But it is within those three scenes where a more intricate foundation is discovered, in characters who know little about conventional mourning but everything about lashing out with sardonic resolve.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I, Tonya / ***1/2 (2017)

Tonya Harding wants people to know something they have refused to see – it’s never been her fault. No, not when she first took to the ice and treated her competitors with the same brash cruelty that her mother passed down to her on a constant basis. Not when she threw a vulgar tantrum in front of judges because they scored her low in one of her earliest skating competitions – essentially because she didn’t dress “appropriately.” And certainly not when her former friend and colleague Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted while training just a couple of months prior to the ’94 Winter Olympics, in an incident now famously known for the involvement of those closest to her circle. In whatever capacity you choose to accept the details – certain or otherwise – it’s never been a fair game to the poor misunderstood Ms. Harding. This despite her impeccable skill, her drive, her refusal to give up in the face of constant verbal and emotional abuse, and her history-making moves on ice that first captured her in the fickle public eye. No four words are uttered more frequently in “I, Tonya” than the dismissal of personal responsibility. But are they always mistaken, or is there some truth to the denial? Does she know any better? When the same phrase is repeated by nearly every important witness to her perplexing public history, it serves to emphasize the nature at which she was created. Here is a woman who was once loved, then vehemently hated, and now forever exists in that distant cesspit of pop culture pariahs where few hope to understand the reasons why people behave the way they do.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

La La Land / ***1/2 (2016)

The ambitious “La La Land” opens with a marvelous scene on a congested freeway overpass, where nameless extras vacate their cars to share in the moment of a colorful musical interlude. Their choreographed zeal is carried by near-perfect technical aptitude that sees the act lifted into the reveries of aesthetical greatness; the camera persists across four minutes of song and dance in one seemingly unbroken shot, and the routine is mirrored by dancers on top of cars that seem to stretch beyond eyesight. What nerve does any modern film have evoking that sense of skill in a moment already overflowing with the heedless optimism of old Hollywood nostalgia? For Damien Chazelle, the director who helmed the brilliant “Whiplash,” that obsessive pitch for perfection is never far from the hearts of even the most good-natured (or spontaneous) entertainers. What they must go through to make their dance moves seem as if they defy gravity, the discipline they endure to find the right key for any number of songs that emerge from their eager lips, is anyone’s guess. Here is a movie with a fascinating duality of values, driven by the same lighthearted spirit that yielded the musicals of the golden age, with an underlying reverence for a craft where the maddening mechanics might have seemed more troublesome than the effort was worth.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beauty and the Beast / ** (2017)

Once upon a time, in a faraway board room of a money-hungry movie studio, someone voiced an idea that signaled the beginning of the end of original concepts: “let’s take all of our animated pictures and remake them into live action ones!” Although the undertaking might have inspired intriguing subtexts, the standard remained depressingly derivative, inevitably leading to a cluster of endeavors that rarely expanded the imaginations of their viewers. And thus Disney gave voice to executives whose primary motivation was dollar signs, an impulse that paved the way for routine retellings of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Pete’s Dragon.” In rare instances, granted, were endeavors that added interesting spins to their premise (“Maleficent”) or even surpassed rather flawed sources (“The Jungle Book”). But when the decision to retool “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the finest of all animated achievements, came down the pike, the core of this capitalist motivation seemed no longer able to masquerade behind plausible convictions. What could today’s artists, really, do to a story that had seemingly been perfected in hand drawings? Was something undiscovered waiting among all those talking pieces of furniture? If anything at all can be said of the live-action rendition beyond a few isolated touches of skill, it’s that the director, Bill Condon, has effectively produced the first movie musical for the “Glee” generation. And that is not something to be proud of.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Shape of Water / *** (2017)

Eventually all moviegoers – even the most open-minded – will arrive at a moment that challenges their ability to tolerate arduous realities. One of mine came during the second act of “The Shape of Water,” when the lead character played by Sally Hawkins shares a detail with Octavia Spencer about the anatomy of the sea creature she has rescued. The preceding scene already leaves little to the imagination; as the camera rests at the entrance of her bathroom, she walks seductively towards the animal, disrobes and closes the shower curtain as they come to a very suggestive embrace. For most there is no possibility of mixed interpretation, and yet I was fully content to overlook what transpired for the sake of riding the film’s momentum. But Guillermo del Toro, the movie’s director, refuses to dismiss the discomfort with glossed over platitudes. That’s never been his style. No, he allows the event to become a topic of lighthearted exchange between she and her friend, who is marveled not only by the idea that this beast even has a penis hidden behind that thick mound of his pubic region, but apparently a very satisfying one. Their exchange leads to a strange chuckle, which the audience nervously joins in on. And there I am sitting in the dark, fidgeting uncomfortably, feeling as if I had been submerged in water that was brought to a very slow boil.