Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review | "The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears"

As someone who was impressed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's last feature film, Amer (they also collaborated on the O is for Orgasm segment of the horror anthology The ABCs of Death last year), I was deeply disappointed by the comparative aimlessness of their follow-up, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears.

Continuing to pay homage the Italian giallo horror films of the 1970s, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears seems more like an exercise in Theatre of Cruelty than anything else. It's an almost self-consciously avant-garde work, relying on split screen, sped up imagery, and frequent repetition to create its atmosphere of madness. But what they achieve here seems to push the boundaries of surrealism into dadaism. In other words, pure meaninglessness.

What I love so much about surrealism is that it seeks to recreate the feeling of being in a dream, where logic no longer applies and anything is possible. Dada was anti-art, anti, well, pretty much everything. It purposefully defied all interpretation because life, according to the dadaists, was meaningless.

In Amer, the surrealism served to suggest the horror of a young woman's discovery of her own sexuality. In The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, the goal is similar, but far more disjointed. The film centers around a man's frantic search for his missing wife. As in Amer, plot matters very little in the face of symbolic imagery and atmosphere, but here Cattet and Forzani seem intent on punishing the audience, something very much akin to infamous playwright Antonin Artaud's theories on Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud sought to jar the audience, to rub their faces in the ugliness of humanity, often using loud noises, flashing lights, and naked bodies writing on a stage showcasing horrific acts. He even wrote the 1928 silent short film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, a film that clearly served as an inspiration for many of this film's avant-garde tropes.

But therein lies the biggest problem with The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - it's almost too beholden to its own inspirations. In Amer, Cattet and Forzani used the almost nonsensical style of Italian giallo filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava to tell a unique and disturbing tale of psychosexual awakening. Here, all of that seems to get lost in a mishmash of styles that never add up.  It's almost as if they are trying too hard. You could say the same for some of the avant-garde affectations of The Seashell and the Clergyman, but in 1928 Germaine Dulac was still exploring and pushing the bounds of cinema. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, on the other hand, seems trapped in its own style, more concerned with its stylistic elements than its perfunctory lip-service to psychological depth. Whereas Amer felt effortless, this feels ponderous; an aimless doodle where film school affectations are mistaken for actual depth, a modern day piece of avant-garde standing in the shadow of masters.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS | Directed by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani | Stars Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens August 29 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.

Review | "The Congress"

Ari Folman is primarily a director of animated films (as he demonstrated in the wonderful, Oscar nominated animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir), and it shows in his latest effort, The Congress, a live action/animated science fiction hybrid based on Stanislaw Lem's novel, "The Futurological Congress."

The live action segments of The Congress, mostly bookended at the beginning and end of the film, feel a bit drab and uninspired. But what a jaw dropping beauty those animated parts are, so much so that by the time we return to the real world in the film's finale, their blandness is jarring, suddenly making sense in a very carefully designed world borne out of Folman's vivid imagination.

At its core is a performance by Robin Wright that can only be described as fearless. Rarely do actors or actresses allow themselves to be so emotionally naked onscreen, but in playing a version of herself, a former starlet turned actress of a certain age who is no longer Hollywood's "it-girl," Wright turns in a raw, self reflective performance that is nothing short of exhilarating.

In The Congress, Wright is an actress facing irrelevance in a world that no longer seems interested in her talents. Her manager, Al (Harvey Keitel), is negotiating her final contract with movie studio Miramount, whose president, Jeff (Danny Huston), is planning to scan the faces of every actor into a giant database that will render actors obsolete. In essence, movies will no longer feature flesh and blood people, but digital approximations capable of doing anything the studio demands, never aging, never fading, always young and always exactly the same. The actors must sign a contract to never again perform in any capacity, in order to preserve the cinematic illusion of agelessness. The actor's likeness will forever belong to the studio.

Flash forward 20 years. Wright has taken the buyout, and is traveling to make an appearance at the Futurological Congress, a gathering held in an all animated zone, where hallucinogenic drugs take people to an alternate reality where everything is animated. There, the Congress plans to announce the release of the drug on the mainstream market, where anyone can escape into the animated zone and be anything or anyone they want. Identity is a thing of the past in a world where reality no longer has any meaning. Lost and alone amidst a sea of animated oddities, Wright must reunite find her children, even if it means escaping into reality and losing her only love.

It's a sprawling narrative, but its often scattershot nature is the point. Nothing makes sense anymore, not in this new animated world. And just when you think this thing is about to fly off the psychedelic rails, Folman pulls it all back in, grounding it in real human emotion. That's what's really so fascinating about The Congress; Folman has created a fantastical world like nothing we've ever seen before, where people can be anyone from Marilyn Monroe to Cleopatra, or something completely out of their own dreams (or nightmares), but it's never anything less than completely emotionally engaging. The final impact of this thing is tremendous, blindsiding us with its surprising resonance.

There are moments of such beauty in The Congress that it's almost breathtaking. It's also a bold and incisive satire of our current moviegoing culture. One need only look at this year's highest grossing film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, to see what Folman is skewering here - a world where CGI robots are the stars and the humans are perfunctory at best. Who needs real human emotions anymore when you can do anything with a computer? In The Congress, Folman argues the opposite - those human emotions are what bind us all together. They are essential to our very beings. They are us. And no computer can ever replicate that, no matter how much studios may want to cut corners or churn out yet another soulless blockbuster. This is an extraordinary film, a unique film, the kind of film that reminds us of the true power of science fiction to comment on our society. But it's also a film of very delicate beauty, from Folman's startling imagery to Max Richter's heartbreaking score - The Congress stands as a refreshing reminder of the singular power of cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE CONGRESS | Directed by Ari Folman | Stars Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, John Hamm | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

On "Guardians of the Galaxy"

From The Dispatch:
This is pure fun from start to finish, a joyous, outrageously entertaining summer blockbuster that delivers everything anyone could really want out of a comic book movie. It's thrilling, it's funny, it's moving, it's the whole package. It's easily the best comic book movie since "The Avengers," but "Guardians" may have even done it one better. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Review | "Fifi Howls From Happiness"

There is something indescribably beautiful about Mitra Farahani's documentary about famed Iranian artist, Bahman Mohassess.

Mohassess may not be a household name, especially for those in the United States or those outside the artistic community, but his reputation as the "Persian Picasso" and somewhat mysterious nature have made him an almost larger than life figure, an enigma of epic proportions, a kind of Iranian J.D. Salinger with a paintbrush.

For years he seemed lost to time, having fled Iran after the controversial nature of his work and his own homosexuality became a liability after the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. What pieces of his aren't weren't destroyed by Iranian authorities became prized by collectors, with nothing new released for many years. That is until Farahani tracked him down to Italy, where he had been living a quiet life in a small apartment, away from a world that no longer interested him.

Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Mohassess, it turns out, had destroyed more of his own work than even the Iranian authorities, disgusted with the world around him  and its ever increasing cruelty and hypocrisy. Farahani befriends Mohassess, and through her we discover a truly fascinating man with a  unique worldview. A gay man himself, Mohassess rejects the gay rights movement and same sex marriage, claiming that they took away from the forbidden mystique that had once people like him and Leonardo Da Vinci apart. It's that strange blend of self aggrandizement and humility that make him such a singular figure. Mohassess takes us on a tour of his work throughout the years, most of which exist now only in photographs, each one revealing more about the artist and the world in which it was created.

We never really leave the confines of his tiny apartment, and even he admits that might make for a boring, if truthful, film. But Fifi Howls From Happiness is anything but. Named for Mahassess' most favorite of his paintings, the film is an engaging and deeply moving exploration an artist's last days, one who is taking stock of a life while preparing to paint one final masterpiece. Mohassess is an intriguing and caustic figure, instantly beguiling and mysterious, who exults great influence over all those around him, including the film being made about him.

Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Farahani directs with a kind of lyrical grace, turning that little Roman apartment into an artistic treasure trove. But at it's core, Fifi Howls From Happiness is a great tragedy, mourning for the loss of hundreds of works of art that can never be replaced. Even Mohassess, faced with painting one last work, seems daunted by the task of returning to his easel, dwarfed by an unreachable persona he himself created that now belongs to the ages. It is telling that Farahani chose to end her film with Mozart's "Requiem" long before Mohassess passed away in 2010 before filming was completed. The film serves as an elegiac tribute not only to Mohassess' work, but to all art, being destroyed and replaced by something new, shiny, and ultimately vapid.

To further illustrate this point, Farahani uses clips from Luchino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard, a film about the fading upper crust of Italy. In the film, Burt Lancaster's Prince Salina says "We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep." Bahman Mohassess was a giant, a strange and wholly original man who is known by far too few. That is the great tragedy of Fifi Howls With Happiness - can there ever be room again for filet mignon in a completely fast food culture? Yet Farahani finds both joy and despair within those walls, reintroducing a great man to w world that still may not understand. This an extraordinarily singular work about an extraordinary man, both elegiac and rapturous; a film befitting a true leopard.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS | Directed by Mitra Farahani | Not Rated | In Farsi w/English subtitles Opens Friday, August 8, at the Lincoln Plaza in NYC.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On "Snowpiercer"

From The Dispatch:
In the end, it is humanity that will always be the agent of its own destruction, but what makes “Snowpiercer” so unique is its refreshingly non-whitewashed vision of the future. Bong understands that while the ground outside may be white, the future certainly isn’t. The barriers of race and class are destined to fall, even if human nature continues to try to force those divisions on itself. This is a rare kind of adventure, a smartly directed and thrilling film that never once panders to its audience. “Snowpiercer” has the power to restore faith in this kind of genre filmmaking. It’s a totally unique, delightfully weird romp that offers a spark of imagination that is sorely lacking in so many of our summer movies. For anyone tired of the same old, same old at the multiplex, this is a film well worth seeking out. 
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Review | "Venus in Fur"

It's a bit surprising just how mainstream the idea of sadomasochistic sexuality has become in the wake of E.L. James'  inexplicably popular best seller, Fifty Shades of Grey. But fans of James' insipid version of "mommy porn" will likely be disappointed in Roman Polanski's new film, Venus in Fur, which is far more sexy and sophisticated than any of the Fifty Shades novels could ever hope to be.

Based on the play by David Ives, which in turn was based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel of the same name, from which the term 'masochism' draws its name, Venus in Fur is a small, self contained film, featuring only two characters in one room, that absolutely crackles with erotic energy. Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is a renowned theatre director getting ready to stage his own adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's work on the stage, but has been unsuccessful in finding his female lead. He is on the verge of giving up, when the seemingly frazzled and flighty Vanda waltzes into the theatre late, demanding to be auditioned.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Mathieu Amalric (Thomas) in Roman Polanski’s VENUS IN FUR.
 Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis. A Sundance Selects Release.
He is reluctant at first, then begrudgingly allows her to perform, if only to shut her up. He is shocked, then, to find out that she is actually talented, and he agrees to read the role of the submissive male protagonist. What ensues is a fascinating sadomasochistic tete-a-tete that explores ideas of power and sexual dynamics as the line between fantasy and reality, theatre and real life become increasingly blurred. There are times when it becomes almost impossible to tell when the characters are in character and when they deviate from the script into their own true selves. It is reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, and while it never quite reaches the same heights as that film, Venus in Fur is still a sly and engaging film that is sensual and sexy without ever being overtly explicit.

Polanksi suggests rather than shows, which makes for a far more alluring experience. The limited space betrays its theatrical roots, but Polanski adds a new more cinematic dimension in its transition to the screen by exploring exploring the relationship between performers and audiences, manipulating our own perceptions as the line between the world of the play and the world of the film become increasingly blurred. Mimed actions and objects suddenly become more tangible by adding sound effects, allowing the audience to accept the artificiality of its central construct, getting lost in a world where we can no longer tell the difference between what is real life and what isn't.

Emmanuelle Seigner (Vanda) and Mathieu Amalric (Thomas) in Roman Polanski’s VENUS IN FUR.
 Courtesy of Guy Ferrandis. A Sundance Selects Release.
That's what makes up the real core of Venus in Fur. It isn't a film so much about sexual gratification as it is about power, of a feminine reclaiming of objectification by a patriarchal society by turning the tables against the source of their oppression, even if the oppressor doesn't even realize he's being oppressive. Even as the two of them switch roles, Vanda still retains power, and Thomas finds himself willfully submitting to the woman he calls goddess - his Venus. It's interesting to watch how the roles play out, even as they constantly ebb and flow, exploring sexuality as well as theatrical artifice in increasingly clever ways.

It may feel a bit sterile at times, but it's always engaging, thanks mainly to the riveting performances of Seigner (Polanski's real life spouse) and Amalric, who bring a fire to the screen that keeps the film crackling. It's an erotic firecracker of a movie; at once coy and vivacious, fascinating and mysterious. The 80 year old Polanski feels nimble and rejuvenated here, a master director who, while maybe not at the top of his game, is still displaying more verve and wit than many much younger directors. If you're going to film such a potentially claustrophobic play, this is absolutely how it should be done.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

VENUS IN FUR | Directed by Roman Polanski | Stars Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric | Not Rated | In French with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Theatre Review | Caleb Sigmon Live! Magic in Concert

One of the funny things about magic shows is that they very rarely contain any magic. Oh sure, they have plenty of magic tricks of varying quality, but how often do you get to sit down in a magic show and see something you've never seen before? How many magicians do you know of that actually take the time to craft a fully realized experience, rather than just show off a few tricks with some tired old light cues and cheesy music?

Enter Caleb Sigmon, who with each passing show looks to give the audience something completely new. In his most recent endeavor, Caleb Sigmon Live! Magic in Concert, combined Caleb's unique blend of magic, comedy, and motivational speaking with the wonderful music of the Berry sisters, whose violin and piano accompaniment added a beautiful new dimension to the show. Reviewing a show like this isn't always easy, because no two shows are alike. Each one is distinguished by new guests, new dimensions, and new laughs - and Caleb is always on his toes. His quick wit and his easy charm make for an effortlessly entertaining evening, even if you've seen his show and his tricks before.

Each show is a unique animal, a living, breathing experience, which is part of what makes them so much fun. This isn't all about Caleb - it's a shared experience with the audience in which the audience is very much a part of the show. He manages to make everyone feel comfortable, even if they end up in the spotlight. There's a kind of shared understanding that we are all in this together, and that we are somehow a part of the magic. That's real magic. These aren't just cheap parlor tricks, in fact the actual magic tricks really aren't even the star of the show. Caleb blends them together his incredible gift for storytelling, easily transition between high comedy and more tender inspirational moments. It is this deft showmanship that sets Caleb apart from other magicians. And I don't just say this because he is one of my best friends (full disclosure time), but because he is one of the most talented people I know. Even people who aren't fans of magic shows will find something to enjoy here. Each show is an evening of good, clean family fun of a quality that is hard to find nowadays. There's something charmingly old fashioned about what Caleb is doing. He isn't trying to wow you with lots of flash and dazzle, he wants you to feel a sense of awe, a childlike wonder that is sorely missing in this fast paced world. Under his spell, we are all children again - and that is the real magic of Caleb Sigmon.

His next show, Caleb Sigmon LIVE! Nothing Up My Sleeve is Friday, July 25 at the Old Post Office Playhouse in Newton, NC. For more information, visit

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Blu-Ray Review | "Fate is the Hunter"

Released on the heels of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time, Twilight Time's new Blu-Ray of Ralph Nelson's Fate is the Hunter (1964), couldn't have come at a better time.

Not released to capitalize on the tragedy (it was in the works long before the missing plane flew into history), the disc instead arrives at a time when interest in aviation disasters is at a fever pitch. It's a relatively obscure title (despite the presence of stars Glenn Ford, Rod Taylor, and Suzanne Pleshette), but this is what Twilight Time really excels at - releasing top quality transfers of films the studios have no interest in releasing on Blu-ray. As such, the label is a favorite amongst hardcore cinephiles, despite their limiting releases to a mere 3,000 copies.

Yet despite the timeliness of its release, Fate is the Hunter isn't exactly a long lost masterpiece. It's a solid film, however, and one almost begging to be discovered at this point in time. It's part disaster film, part procedural, following the aftermath of a mysterious jet liner crash that claims the lives of over 50 passengers and crew. What separates the film from the other disaster movies of the era is that the plane actually goes down before the opening credits, its fiery descent punctuated by the arrival of the title and the credit sequence, setting the tone for the film to come. Unfortunately the film never again achieves those heights that it demonstrates by that initial jolt of energy, choosing instead to focus on the investigation into the causes of the crash. 

That's actually a great approach to take, but the film does so with all the energy and verve of one of CNN's MH370 reports. So Fate is the Hunter becomes a kind of collection of moments, some listless, some sublime, in a film that actually feels startlingly contemporary. I couldn't help but be reminded of Robert Zemeckis' Flight, as Rod Taylor's pilot becomes the target of a posthumous investigation into his sobriety at the time of the crash. Flight is actually the superior film, but Fate is the Hunter has a strange sort of allure to it that is hard to shake.

It was shot by the great cinematographer, Milton Krasner (All About Eve, King of Kings), who received a well deserved Oscar nomination for his evocative work here. The Blu-ray transfer is crisp and clear, with striking black and white contrast, perfectly capturing Krasner's noir-ish work. The transfer is what is most impressive about this release, which probably would have gone mostly unnoticed if it hadn't been a Twilight Time release. While their special features are usually pretty bare bones (isolated scores are a big thing here, being affiliated with soundtrack label Screen Archives Entertainment), Twilight Time has starting upping their game with impressive releases of films like David Lynch's Wild at Heart and cult classic Thunderbirds are Go, each of which boasted extensive features.

Included with Fate is the Hunter is the feature length documentary, To Whom it May Concern: Ka Shen's Journey, chronicling the life of Nancy Kwan, one of the first major Asian American actresses to break through in Hollywood. Directed by Brian Jamieson (who is also one of Twilight Time's founders), the film offers some interesting insight into a fascinating woman who has gone mostly overlooked by Hollywood history. Kwan also appears on a commentary track with film historian and Twilight Time co-founder, Nick Redman.

It's not particularly surprising that a studio didn't want to release a film Fate is the Hunter on Blu-ray. There's just not that big of an audience out there for films like this. But that's what I love about Twilight Time, they're willing to take risks, and in the process unearth some under appreciated gems. This is one of those that is ripe for rediscovery, and now film fans have a chance to discover a 50 year old film that looks and feels like something completely new.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review | "Nymphomaniac"

When Lars von Trier announced that his next movie would be a four hour long "sex film" featuring well known actors performing un-simulated sex acts, many wondered if the Danish enfant terrible had finally lost his mind, at long last flying off the deep end in the ultimate act of cinematic provocation. Coming off his controversial remarks while promoting his film, Melancholia, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (which resulted in his being declared persona non grata and banned from the festival), it certainly seemed like a distinct possibility.

As it turns out, Nymphomaniac isn't nearly the most provocative thing von Trier has ever directed (that title belongs to 2009's blistering Antichrist), and it isn't even really about sex, although there is certainly plenty of it (performed, as it turns out, not by the stars, but by stand ins and CGI trickery).

Despite the fact that it is split into two halves for it's theatrical release and distributed as two separate 2 hour films, Volume 1 and Volume 2, it is impossible to consider Nymphomaniac as anything other than one giant film that is in many ways von Trier's magnum opus.

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
Despite frequent accusations of misogyny, Von Trier's films have always been about strong woman. They may go through extraordinary hardships (Dancer in the Dark) or degradation (Dogville), but ultimately it is their strength that defines them. You could even argue that Von Trier is perhaps one of the most vocal feminist voices in cinema today, and if that is the case then Nymphomaniac is his most vociferous statement yet. The Nymphomaniac of the title is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as a young woman), a sex addict whose troubled life has left her unconscious and bleeding in a dark alley. She is rescued and taken in by a kindly bachelor (Stellan Skarsgård), who is more interested in fly fishing and literature than anything sexual. Joe begins to relate her long, sad tale that led her to that alley - how she discovered her sexuality at a young age, how she and her friends created a club in which they slept with a new man every night, and never the same one twice, how her appetites became increasingly insatiable, leading to a modern day Homer's Odyssey of sexual encounters where love was an afterthought and pleasure and power the only real goal.

But something is missing from Joe's wide array of sexual conquests. As one of her closest friends tells her before abandoning their club, "love is the secret ingredient to sex." Joe has never known love, until she meets Jerome (Shia LeBeouf). But even love may not be strong enough to feed her ravenous appetite for sex, even if it leads her down an inevitable path of self destruction.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME II, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
Nymphomaniac  is certainly edgy and provocative, and is in no way, shape, or form a film for all tastes and sensibilities. It is every bit as graphic as one would expect from a film of its subject matter, showcasing some of the most hardcore sex scenes ever shown in a widely distributed film. Von Trier does not shy away from any explicit details, but for all its themes of sexual liberation, female empowerment, and depictions of real sex, Nymphomaniac is, at its core, a surprisingly conservative film, especially coming from Von Trier. One would be hard pressed to describe the sexuality depicted in the film as arousing or attractive. It's dark, dangerous, and ultimately destructive. Love is nowhere to be found here, and that is really the point. This is not pornography, because unlike porn, Von Trier isn't inviting us to look, he's daring us to look away. He has whittled down humanity to its most base instincts, summing up many of the themes that he has been exploring his entire career. While I am one of the few who still defends Antichrist as a masterpiece (it is, perhaps, the most stunningly realized portrait of a filmmaker's own personal demons ever put to celluloid), I was not a big fan of Melancholia. Nymphomaniac, on the other hand, seems like a continuation of the work began in those most recent works, even paying direct homage to by revisiting some of the scenes and locations from those films. It is as if Von Trier has finally come out of the psychological woods and revisited and refined the ideas explored there with a more clear and rational mind.

We've come a long way from the angry and brutal depiction of female sexuality in Antichrist (which, not coincidentally I think, also starred Gainsbourg as its female protagonist), as Nymphomaniac finds a woman taking control of her own sexuality in a world that only sees her as an object, an idea hammered home by film's shocking final scene. Von Trier seems much calmer here, more focused than he has since his 2004 masterwork, Dogville. He is still a gleeful provocateur - relishing in blending the sacred with the profane, so much so that Nymphomaniac often takes on an air of ecclesiastical spirituality. But also feels much less like provocation for provocation's sake. It is brash, bold, erotic, messy, mesmerizing, and ultimately cathartic; a kind of neo-feminist allegory that synthesizes sex, philosophy, religion, and politics as only Von Trier could do it. The Fibonacci Sequence has never been so riveting.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

NYMPHOMANIAC | Directed by Lars von Trier | Stars Charlotte Gainsboroug, Shia LeBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Stacie Martin, Christian Slater | Not rated | Now playing in select cities. Opens today at the a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On "Under the Skin"

From The Dispatch:
“Under the Skin” is perhaps the most important piece of science fiction to come along in the last decade, maybe longer. Glazer’s hauntingly assured direction, accompanied by Johansson’s chilling performance, merge to create something unforgettable. The formal audacity of Glazer’s craft is nothing short of staggering, resulting in imagery that is both lyrical and terrifying. Just as Johansson constantly stops to gaze upon her alien reflection, so does Glazer hold a mirror up to us and ask us to peer in. Is the reflection a frightening one? Absolutely. But it’s an essential one. It’s a daring opportunity to look at humanity through fresh eyes, in all it’s broken beauty, banality, and ugliness. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

From The Dispatch:
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a nostalgic paean to faded grandeur and innocence lost. Set in a world on the brink of destruction by forces from within and without, the hotel represents a simpler, more civilized time being threatened by increasing modernization. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Memory Lane

Of the 5 nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, Japan's Departures was not the best (Waltz with Bashir and Revanche are both superior films). But I don't begrudge it its win at all. It's a profoundly moving film, and Joe Hisaishi's score gets me every time. Listen to this and tell me you don't feel something.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review | "Tim's Vermeer"

As I watched Penn and Teller's new documentary, Tim's Vermeer, I was reminded of the quote from Pixar's The Incredibles - "if everyone's super, no one will be."

Implied or not, that is the undercurrent running through the entire film, in which Tim Jenison, an amiable inventor and jack of all trades, who sets out to discover the secret behind Johannes Vermeer's photorealistic paintings. How did Vermeer capture light with such a keen, photographers eye centuries before the invention of the camera?

Convinced that Vermeer must have have used some sort of aid beyond the Camera Obscura that is generally attributed to him, Jenison sets out to discover the true method behind Vermeer's genius, and once he does, to recreate it himself.

Is a non-painter claiming he can paint a Vermeer the ultimate act of hubris? Or the eccentric musings of a man with a passion for learning? A little of both, it turns out. Jenison isn't a braggart or an egoist, he seems like a pretty down to earth kind of guy who is doing this out of sheer curiosity than to prove any sort of point. And the final results are pretty surprising, although they are sure to infuriate art purists.

Tim Jenison (right) demonstrates his first painting experiment to his friend, producer Penn Jillette (right). Photo by Carlo Villarreal, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
It's an undeniably fascinating premise, however, and the results even more so. Here is Jenison, a man who has never picked up a paintbrush before, but is able to recreate the look and feel of a real Vermeer with the help of an inegenious mirror device that, in all liklihood, is what Vermeer once used to create his masterpiece.

So is Jenison an artist on the level of Vermeer? Or was Vermeer a hack, doings something that literally anyone could do if they put forth the time? Unfortunately, the film never quite delves into those questions, choosing instead to focus on the process of Jenison's experiment rather than the philosophical questions it raises. When the film does touch on those questions, it does so almost flippantly, as if the why doesn't matter as much as the how. The result is a film that feels more like an episode of "Mythbusters" than a feature documentary. The narration by Penn Jillette is almost too jovial for a film with real philosophical underpinnings, and while the filmmakers were clearly going for a more lighthearted tone at times, it often seems at odds with what's actually going on. Tim's Vermeer comes across like a television special, a middle of the road documentary about an interesting concept that would have done just as well with a documentary short. As is, there's just not enough here to justify a full length documentary, filling in gaps with long stretches of Jenison painting and building his sets; time which could have been better used by examining the implications of Jenison's work that are so blithely glossed over.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

TIM'S VERMEER | Directed by Teller | Featuring Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette | Rated PG-13 for some strong language | Opens today at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On "The Wind Rises"

From The Dispatch:
If what Miyazaki says is true, and "The Wind Rises" truly is his last film, then he has chosen to bow out with incredible grace. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Blu-ray Review | "Drums Along the Mohawk"

Much has been written over the years about 1939 being the greatest year in the history of cinema. And it's certainly a hard theory to argue with. After all, 1939 was the year that gave us The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Rules of the Game, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, you would be hard pressed to find a year as jam packed with bona-fide classics and masterpieces.

While John Ford's seminal Stagecoach is perhaps his best remembered film from that year, Ford also released his very first Technicolor picture, Drums Along the Mohawk, later in the year. Its success at the Academy Awards was muted in the shadow of Stagecoach (and an MGM sweep by Gone with the Wind), it only managed to garner a Supporting Actress nomination for Edna May Oliver (she lost to Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel).

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
While Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are often regarded as the standard bearers of Technicolor photography, it's hard to fathom why Drums Along the Mohawk isn't mentioned right alongside them. Here is a film from a man who would give us the sweeping Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers 17 years later, flexing his considerable Technicolor muscles for the time, and the results are absolutely stunning.

Starring Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin and Claudette Colbert as his new wife Lana, Drums Along the Mohawk is the tale of a young farmer who takes his city-bred new wife out to the Western frontier in the days leading up to the American Revolution. Things aren't as idyllic as he'd hoped, however, as Tory sympathizers recruit local indians to raid settlers' homesteads and wage war on a new front. When their new home is destroyed, the Martins are forced to move in with a sassy, no nonsense old widow named Mrs. McKlennar (Oliver), who brings them in as hired help. But as the raids become more frequent and more fierce, Martin is called up as part of the militia, and soon the war has followed them to the frontier, where they must make one last stand in the name of freedom.

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Drums Along the Mohawk deals with many themes that Ford would continue to revisit throughout his career, most notably the relations between settlers and Native Americans. Here, Ford takes a Western plot and relocates it to era of the American Revolution and away from the post-Civil War era the genre often occupies. Ford never quite demonizes his indian antagonists the way many films of the time did (he also gives Fonda a native best friend), but he doesn't explore that as deeply as he would in his later films. Here they are seen as an arm of the British, and part of a greater fight for American independence, rather than an obstacle to American expansion, which is a key distinction. While the film does indulge in some stereotyping (the drunken indians who attack Widow McKlennar are especially cringe-worthy in a modern context), it does so with a surprisingly light touch.

In fact Ford peppers the entire film with a warm sense of humor to balance the gravity of the plot (and the deaths of several heroic characters). His attention to detail is extraordinary, and the film isn't just a thrilling period adventure, it's a fascinating portrait of frontier life. What really sets it apart, though, is that gorgeous cinematography by frequent Ford collaborator Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan. The recent Blu-ray release by Twilight Time (which is only available in a limited, 3,000 copy pressing) makes the brilliant colors really pop, rivaling even the Warner Brothers Blu-ray of Gone With the Wind. Pay close attention to the scene where Fonda is running to get reinforcements, a band of indians at his back, his silhouetted image against a fiery red and orange sky behind him. These are the images of a consummate filmmaker, and this is Twilight Time's most impressive package in an already pretty impressive lineup, as they continue to distinguish themselves as one of the top specialty Blu-ray labels on the market. Here, they have given their all to one of Ford's lesser known masterpieces (along with comprehensive documentary, Becoming John Ford), and given it the beautiful HD presentation it deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.