Friday, February 05, 2016

Review | 2016 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

The animation branch of the Academy tends to be the most adventurous branch, routinely nominating challenging and obscure fare often overlooked by everyone else. The nominees for Best Animated Feature this year make up perhaps the strongest category at the Oscars this year. While the nominees for Best Animated Short aren't quite as strong, the category does boast one of the best films nominated for an Oscar in any category this year - Don Hertzfeldt's masterful World of Tomorrow.

After being kidnapped by the circus and separated from his family, a bear will stop at nothing to escape and reunite with his loved ones, and continues to tell his story on street corners through an automated marionette. Bear Story is the most blatantly heart-tugging of the 2016 nominees for Best Animated Short, and is therefore probably the greatest threat to Pixar's high profile Sanjay's Super Team. It never quite achieves the kind of wistful melancholy for which it strives, but it's undeniably moving. It's the most obviously charming of the Oscar nominated shorts, which is both to its credit and its detriment.

Greeks and Spartans engage in brutal warfare in this beautifully animated, Oscar nominated short film. The pencil drawings are lovely, but give a shockingly violent and raw depiction of war. There's not much else going on here beyond a brief animated battle scene (and the subsequent horrific aftermath), but its animation is undeniably stellar.

How many mainstream films have there been about a Indian boy finding common ground between his love of superheroes and his father's religious devotion to Hinduism? This is fantastic stuff, a surreal and lovingly rendered tale of family and the importance of embracing traditions while exploring your own interests. Clearly a deeply personal work for director Sanjay Patel, Sanjay's Super Team is a groundbreaking and essential showcase of Indian culture for a broad audience.

Two best friends who have always been inseparable, become cosmonauts and dream of going into space together. Even when one gets to go into space and one has to stay behind, their bond remains unbreakable. It's a wistful, bittersweet animated short that ultimately feels a bit calculated. It's heartfelt, certainly, but something about it seems disconnected and distant, so much so that the final emotional payoff rings hollow.

Is there any filmmaker who can imbue stick figures with such deep humanity as Don Hertzfeldt? Like his masterful 2012 feature, It's Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow is a fully realized wonder (and his first to be digitally animated) - 16 minutes of pure philosophical animated bliss, in which a clone from the future contacts her original source as a little girl hundreds of years in the past. A beautifully melancholy treatise on the often fleeting rapture and sadness of memory, World of Tomorrow recalls Chris Marker's seminal sci-fi short, La Jetee, delivering so much in so little time. This is the best short film to come along since Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World, and another brazen step forward for one of the most thrilling talents in animation.

Review | 2016 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

Once again, thanks to the folks at Shorts International, the Oscars' short film categories (once the most obscure categories of the awards), are being released for a wide audience. As usual, the films a mixed bag, showcasing filmmakers from around the world, including Germany, Kosovo, Palestine, the UK, and the USA.

"Everything will be OK" is what all the adults tells 8 year old Lea, but we know it won't be, it can't be. Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK) is a film about a little girl whose estranged father attempts to kidnap her after her mother seeks to block him from seeing her. But more than that, it's about the platitudes and lies we tell children in order to gloss over much deeper problems. It's a wrenching reality (and a haunting final shot), as adults continue to try to placate a clearly traumatized Lea, when we know nothing will ever be OK again. Devastating.

A Jewish family has an accident outside a remote Christian monastery on the eve of Shabbat, where the Jews' refusal to do any work on the Sabbath runs afoul of the nuns' vow of silence. There's a lot of comedy to be mined from this clash of cultures, but unfortunately the film never really mines it. There's a brief spat over who can and can't dial a telephone, but otherwise the film's central conflict is resolved a little too quickly, leaving much comedic territory unexplored. It's a charming little film, but one with a lot more potential than its brief running time can fulfill.

On her first day on the job, an interpreter for the US Army finds herself thrust into an extraordinary situation as the wife of suspected terrorist goes into labor. It's harrowing stuff, but beyond its viscerally shocking situation, what is so impressive about Day One is how simply and elegantly it turns such a gruesome thing into a deeply emotional moment. It moves beyond enemy combatants and finds common humanity in a truly beautiful way. It never feels as inauthentic or manipulative, it's simply a powerful tale of beginnings, both for its main character, and for the young life she brings into a broken world. The best of the 2016 Oscar nominated live action shorts.

The requisite "childhood friendship against the backdrop of war" film among the 2016 nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, SHOK follows two Albanian boys whose dealings with the Serbian army in Kosovo eventually lead to tragedy. We know where this is heading from the beginning, but this true story feels like something we've seen many times before. It doesn't help that the opening scene basically gives the whole thing away. It's beautifully shot, but also baldly manipulative, leaving little room for subtlety or a chance to really settle into the world of the story.

A man whose speech impediment betrays his rich and eloquent inner life is faced with his greatest challenge yet - meeting a romantic interest he has only known online. Sweet and endearing without being cloying, Stutterer is a story about connection and shattering appearances that has a strong inner life of its own. A simple beauty.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

10 Best Blu-Ray Releases of 2015

2015 gave us an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles. Even as sales of physical media continue to decline, there are many specialty labels keeping the form alive, releasing great films on Blu-Ray and DVD that would probably not have otherwise seen the light of day. The internet has given us greater access to cinema than ever before, but thanks to a few dedicated labels, many amazing works are being released in pristine, hi-def editions for eager film fans and cinephiles to enjoy. Here are my ten favorite releases from last year that really stood out from the pack.


The Criterion Collection's long awaited release of Satyajit Ray's monumental Apu Trilogy was everything we hoped it would be, and more. From the wide eyed wonder of Pather Panchali, to the grim realities of growing up in Aparajito, to the full circle beauties of adulthood in Apur Sansar, The Apu Trilogy is a landmark of world cinema, seemingly containing the whole of life's experiences over the course of three masterful fulms. Beautifully restored and loaded with extras, Criterion's box set release is a kind of cinephile holy grail, offering top notch presentations of the greatest motion picture trilogy of all time (sorry, Star Wars fans).

(Flicker Alley)

Flicker Alley has quickly become one of my very favorite distributors, regularly releasing great cinema in packages that rival industry standard bearer, Criterion. This stellar collection of avant-garde short films from 1920 to 1970 is an absolute goldmine for cinephiles, especially for fans of surrealism and experimental film. Some of these films have been released on similar collections before (Ballet Mechanique, Anemic Cinema, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra, and Lot in Sodom, all appeared on Kino's excellent avant-garde collection several years ago), but they have never looked as good as they do here. This set offers a tour through 60 years of experimental filmmaking, including Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's astonishing "city symphony," Manhatta (1920), animator Oskar Fischinger's mesmerizing MGM release, An Optical Poem (it's impossible to imagine a mainstream studio ever playing something like this in a theater now), and perhaps most notably, Maya Deren's dreamlike masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon. This is an absolutely essential collection, providing 418 minutes of boundary-pushing cinema that helped revolutionize the medium as we know it today.

(Flicker Alley)

Fresh off his seminal work for the Keystone studio, Chaplin left for competing studio, Essanay, for a year long, $1,250 per week contract. Chaplin didn't flourish creatively in quite the same way as he did at Keystone or Mutual (where he would go in 1916 after leaving Essanay), yet it is here where we begin to see the seeds of the characters and situations that he would expand upon in his feature films beginning in 1920 with The Kid. Flicker Alley, along with Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna, has collected his 15 Essanay films for this set, completing their collection of Chaplin shorts after releasing box sets of his Keystone and Mutual comedies. Many of these films showcase a different side of Chaplin than many of us are used to seeing - the affable, lovable Tramp with a heart of gold is here sometimes replaced by a drunken rogue out on the town (as seen in A Night Out). Released just in time for the 100th anniversary of the films, Flicker Alley's presentation showcases just how timely (and how funny) Chaplin continues to be.


I was probably 14 or 15 the first time I saw David Lynch's Muholland Dr. It was the first time I had been exposed to cinema that lay outside the typical narrative conventions, and I haven't been the same sense. When I think of the first decade of this century, there are three films that come to mind as the top of the pantheon of great cinema - Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, and this. Revisiting the film now, 15 years older and more familiar with the world of surrealist filmmaking (and Lynch's oeuvre in general), I am still floored at the sheer power of Lynch's masterpiece. When I first saw the film as a teen, I didn't really understand it, but I knew I had seen something special, something brilliant, something that operated on a completely different level that anything I had ever seen before. I was able to follow its mysteries of Lynch's beautiful puzzle box better than I had before. It's a haunting, disturbing tale of doomed love, jealousy, and faded dreams in the city of light. Naomi Watts is a plucky young starlet looking to realize her dream of becoming an actress (and in the process gives one of the all time great performances). Laura Harring is a troubled amnesiac who is trying to discover her true identity after a car accident robber her of her memory. For the first two hours, we think we're watching two women search for one's identity. Then Lynch unlocks the blue box and plunges us down the rabbit hole, pulling the rug out from under us and upending everything we've already seen. This is David Lynch's Persona, a pyscho-sexual exploration of memory and identity that is clearly the work of an artist working at the height of his creative powers. Mulholland Dr. represents a singular vision in service of a seemingly straightforward film noir, warped through Lynch's own unique psyche. Sometimes words don't quite suffice. This is a film that needs to be experienced. Lynch's films are something you feel in the pit of you stomach, in the raised hair on your arms, in the depths of your soul. This is one for the ages.

(Flicker Alley)

"This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature." So begins Dziga Vertov's pioneering work of documentary cinema, Man with the Movie Camera, which chronicles Vertov's journey across the Soviet Union armed with his trusty movie camera. A wildly kinetic, experimental work that captures the pulsing rhythms of the city and championing the ideas of the Soviet Montage movement pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein, Man with the Movie Camera remains one of the most astonishing works of art in cinematic history. It's a shame that the score it is most often presented with, composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra (based on notes by Vertov), often feels too modern and grating, which distracts from Vertov's stunning imagery. Still, it's hard to deny Vertov's genius, and even with the grating score it still shines through, capturing the humming city and progress of technology in often glorious fashion. Also contains Vertov's Kino-Eye, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, and Three Songs About Lenin.


F.W. Murnau's 1926 adaptation of Goethe's Faust, remains perhaps one of the most impressive achievements of silent cinema. Not only are the visual effects especially impressive (thanks to the massive resources of UFA Studios), but Murnau's imagery is some of the most haunting in all cinema history. Based on the German folktale, Faust is a religious allegory about a man who is the subject of a bet between God and the Devil, in which the Devil offers elderly alchemist Faust power, glory, and eternal youth in exchange for his soul. Emil Jannings is great fun as the demonic Mephisto, chewing the scenery with great gusto. The film becomes somewhat distracted in the third act as it pulls away from Faust and Mephisto, a small quibble in such a masterfully directed film. The expressive imagery is nothing short of stunning, from the impeccable period detail, to the evocation of a plague-ridden village, to the unforgettable moment when Faust first summons the Devil, Faust is a visual marvel. The new restoration and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber is stunning, enhancing Murnau's striking use of light and shadow. Murnau certainly made better films, but Faust remains his most technically dazzling marvel.


There is a special and unique beauty about Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a landmark of the French New Wave and the film that put the legendary director on the map. Set in post-war Japan, the film is a love story between a French woman and a Japanese man with very different perspectives on the war. Resnais splinters the narrative with an almost Rashomon-like disregard for time and truth, capturing the essence of a foreign love affair with a delicacy that recalls David Lean's Brief Encounter. But unlike that film, Resnais experiments with the form (some refer to the film as the first modern sound film), incorporating the theories of Sergei Eisenstein into something that feels thrillingly contemporary even today. Resnais uses the setting of Hiroshima, now a commercialized tourist destination a mere 14 years after it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb, as a hub for the disorienting collision of tradition and modernity, love and war, peace and chaos, to deliver a jarring yet strangely familiar narrative of deep, passionate longing.


Another Resnais release, this time from Kino Lorber, who gave it one of their finest treatments of the year. Resnais dabbled in science fiction (sort of) for his 1968 film, Je T'aime, Je T'aime, delving into the mind of a man who becomes trapped in his own past (or as Resnais put it, a perpetual present) during an experiment in time travel. Forced to relive the same moments over and over again, he begins to unravel not only his own guilt over the death of a former lover, but the root of his own attempt at suicide. Resnais' approach to sci-fi is so subtle that it never feels like "sci-fi" as we often think of it. It recalls the work of Chris Marker in its philosophical poetry (and would go on to inspire films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), taking a seemingly random tour through the events of one man's memories. It's a boldly experimental work, seemingly caught in a temporal loop of repeating moments and ideas, giving the audience a constant sense of deja-vu. Have we seen this already? Didn't he just say that? The effect is both disorienting and exhilarating, as Resnais constantly pushes the boundaries of cinematic logic in favor of something that borders on the surreal. Based in part on stream-of-consciousness writings by Belgian surrealist, Jacques Sternberg, Je T'aime, Je T'aime is a work of fragmented genius, conjuring images and moments like randomly firing synapses of a dying brain. Seemingly random, yet anything but, Resnais crafts a confounding portait of a life that is at once chaotic yet perfectly calibrated, evoking the nature of both memory and time in thrillingly ingenious ways.


Has there ever been a movie star with the same luminosity as Louise Brooks? Her darkly seductive features make up the expressive core of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece, Diary of a Lost Girl, a tragic tale of a young woman who is sent off to boarding school after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. After escaping boarding school to find her child, she ends up working as a high class prostitute before returning to upend the society that shunned her. One of the things that makes the film so striking today is just how startlingly contemporary it feels. Pabst's fluid camera movements, the lingering close-ups, the masterful compositions, it's a gorgeous film. And while the plot often feels like one of those old melodramas where tragedy and misfortune happen so frequently that it threatens to become laughable, Pabst handles the material with such a gentle hand that it transcends its pulpy source material with a kind of delicate lyricism. Pabst knew how to use Brooks better than anyone, and she was never more breathtaking than she was here. Heavily censored upon its original release in 1929, the film has been restored to its original glory as intended by Pabst, and it is a masterpiece of the silent era.

(Scream Factory)

Maybe this is the fanboy in me talking, but I loved this release so much. I've been a Troll 2 fan ever since seeing Michael Paul Stephenson's Best Worst Movie at SXSW in 2009, and having the two films together in one set is great. Best Worst Movie is kind of the ultimate special feature for Troll 2, while stars George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide an amusing commentary track for the film. Also included is Troll, which is actually a good movie (unlike the so-bad-it's good Troll 2), but so rarely gets any attention because of the infamy of its more famous not-sequel. Troll 2 is not a film you need to see on Blu-Ray to appreciate (beautiful it is not), but this is a must-have set for Nilbog fans of all ages.

Flicker Alley

With their continued dedication to quality over quantity, their trio of substantive sets (Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, and Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera), plus releases of 3-D Rarities, Sherlock Holmes, and a new VOD program for silent classics, lifts them to the top of the class. Flicker Alley had an amazing year, and their dedication and passion to their products places them firmly as 2015's Blu-Ray MVP.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Moana with Sound"/"Tabu"

Ethnographic films had been all the rage in the 20's, as film gave audiences unprecedented access to cultures they had never been able to see before. Robert Flaherty was one of the foremost directors of ethnographic film, and is perhaps best known for directing the classic silent film, Nanook of the North.  Kino Classics has released two Flaherty films, Moana with Sound (1926) and Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931) in stunning new Blu-Ray editions that give us a deeper look into the island world that Flaherty so fell in love with.

Normally I would not be an advocate for putting sound into silent films, but a film like Moana almost demands it. Robert and Frances Flaherty's documentary about life in a Samoan village was meant as a kind of travelogue, a document of another civilization. One of the filmmakers' greatest regrets about the film is that they could not capture the people's singing, leaving a film that, to them, felt somehow incomplete. In 1975, the filmmakers' daughter, Monica Flaherty, returned to the island to record the sounds her parents could not, and breathed new life into Moana. The resulting film, known as Moana with Sound, feels like a whole new film, and a completely new experience. It feels like a more complete version of the film, a deeper immersion into the cultures that Robert and Monica Flaherty set out to depict. While the sounds don't always fit perfectly, it's remarkable how natural they often seem, providing a more accessible portrait of Savai'i, even if it is no longer 100% authentic. Still, you can't help but feel this is what the Flahertys really wanted to bring back from the island, and Moana with Sound is the most fully realized version of their vision.

Several years into the sound era, Flaherty, along with F.W. Murnau and  bucked the current Hollywood trend and set out to Bora Bora to make a make an ethnographic document of island life. Flaherty was known for his ethnographic films, and in teaming up with legendary German filmmaker, F.W. Murnau, they created something of a perfect marriage between their two styles. Less authentic, perhaps, than Flaherty's previous ethnographic work, but thanks to Murnau, more artistically satisfying, Tabu is a Romeo & Juliet-esque tale of star crossed native lovers.

A young woman is chosen to be a virgin symbol of the tribe, but her young lover refuses to give her up. So the two run away together, bringing a death warrant upon their heads, as they navigate the tricky political waters of an island paradise being encroached upon by western civilization. Tabu is a more political work than Flaherty's other, more observational documentaries, a fact probably more attributed to Murnau, who brings a kind of shadowy tension to the pristine beauty of Bora Bora. Murnau lends a sense of inevitable tragedy to the proceedings, placing an idealistic young couple in the middle of a clash of cultures, of tradition vs. modernity. It's a relatively minor Murnau film, lacking the director's usual visual flair (perhaps due to the almost documentary-like shoot), but Murnau's mastery of film as a visual language remains on display, along with Flaherty's clear love of its island location.

MOANA WITH SOUND - ★★★ (out of four)
TABU - ★★★½ (out of four)

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Top Ten Documentaries of 2015

2015 has been a great year for documentaries. It has given us an embarrassment of riches, from the political, to the historical, to the experimental. They've examined the lives of movie stars, singers, artists, murderers, religious fanatics, and every day, normal people. Documentaries have the power to transport us not just to other worlds, but illuminate the world we live in. They offer unique perspectives into reality where narrative films can't necessarily go. I could easily have listed 10 more documentaries in addition to these, but these are the ten that have stuck with me the most this year.

(Laurie Anderson)

Artist Laurie Anderson uses the life of her beloved dog, Lolabelle, as a lens through which examine the nature of death, love, and the post-9/11 paranoia that changed our world. Heart of a Dog is a rapturous, impressionistic work that is dreamlike and yet hauntingly familiar. Anderson's philosophical musings are funny, sad, profound, and heartbreaking. It feels like she's going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, like a terrier chasing a mouse, yet it remains endlessly engrossing. As a personal testament, as a piece of experimental film, as a work of art, Heart of a Dog is a constant wonder. Anderson's lovely and amazing film is a wholly new kind of a documentary, one that transcends the conventions of its form and captures a rarefied essence of stream-of-consciousness thought. It's like something cooked up in a dream, meandering, slightly delirious, nonsensical yet pregnant with deep and almost unfathomable meaning. It's an incredible film, a heartfelt testament to life and death that manages to pack life's biggest questions and the very essence of the 21st century into a breathtaking 75 minutes.

(Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his explosive documentary, The Act of Killing, with another examination of the cruelty of the military dictatorship of Indonesia through a completely different lens. In Act of Killing, Oppenheimer never directly challenged his murderous subjects, allowing them to tell their stories in their own way, in some cases leading a devastating kind of clarity. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer takes a Indonesian citizen whose brother was brutally murdered by the military junta for being a suspected communist, and follows him as he confronts his brother's murderers face to face. Feels like a natural extension of Act of Killing without being a retread. It dares to stare into the face of evil, and the result is a chilling portrait of human cruelty and the power of self delusion, but also about the cathartic power of forgiveness. Essential stuff.

(Stevan Riley)

Using hours upon hours of audio recordings made my Marlon Brando, Stevan Riley's new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, pieces together an impressionistic portrait of the enigmatic actor, a man often considered to be the greatest actor of all time. Brando is no less an enigma by the time the film ends, but that is as it should be. Brando's musings on life, on acting, on his career, are both fascinating and obfuscating, managing to simultaneously provide insight into his thought process and worldview, while also muddying the waters just as much. Riley weaves a deeply engaging tapestry of Brando's words into a powerful new work of art, a towering paean to a towering man. Yet it is neither hagiographic nor biographical. Listen to Me Marlon reaches for the essence of the man, and emerges as a beautifully mysterious, maddeningly cryptic, yet endlessly engrossing work of art, not unlike the man himself.

(Frederick Wiseman)

In his latest documentary, Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Jackson Heights, a New York neighborhood considered by some to be the most diverse neighborhood in the Unites States. From Churches, synagogues, and mosques, gay pride parades and transgender support groups, wealthy, poor, migrant workers, driving instructors, and ladies' knitting circles, Jackson Heights hums with a vibrant sense of multiculturalism. Here, Wiseman observes citizens coming together to better their community, workers making their daily wage, marginalized groups protesting for their rights, and every day people living out their normal lives in a place that serves as a microcosm of modern America. Wiseman is a master of observation, leaving no detail unexplored, he immerses us in this world so that by the film's end we feel as though we have actually spent a day in Jackson Heights. There's something joyful and even hopeful about In Jackson Heights, as we watch such disparate groups co-existing in such a small place, supporting and helping each other along. This is the heart of America, and in Wiseman's steady hands, it becomes a celebration of our diversity and our strength, showing civic action as the backbone of our democracy. It's refreshing to see such cooperation in our highly divisive, politicized times. Essential stuff.

(Debra Granik)

Sometimes a film comes along that completely restores your faith in humanity. Debra Granik's warmly observant portrait of Ron "Stray Dog" Hall, a biker and Vietnam veteran, is at once a celebration and examination of the American heartland. It's also a subtle yet disarming indictment of how our veterans are often neglected by our government. Yet Hall and his buddies never forget their own, riding across the country to attend funerals, memorial dedications, and supporting each others' families. You'll find no political grandstanding in Stray Dog, no talking heads or interviews, instead Granik merely observes, creating a powerfully rendered meditation on the American family, no matter what form that may take, and the essential goodness of human beings. This is what great documentary filmmaking is all about.

(Patricio Guzmán)

Director Patricio Guzmán uses water as a metaphoric lens through which to tell the story of Chilean natives, whose ancient relationship with the ocean has been all but lost through systematic subjugation by colonial occupation, in a genocide that lasted well into the 20th century. Lyrical and heartbreaking, The Pearl Button is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that is both a celebration of a lost culture (only 20 direct descendants of the Patagonian natives remain), and an elegy for a forgotten genocide that is arguably one of the most ghastly in the history of the world. Yet through Guzmán's unique lens, the history of the natives becomes a kind of ethereal reflection of the universe, irrevocably changed by colonialism and western invasion, moving through the glistening waters of the Chilean coastline like ghosts. Guzmán's placing of the natives' struggles in cosmic perspective makes the film an interesting companion piece for his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light. While the metaphor gets lost in its grandiosity at times, The Pearl Button is nevertheless a deeply moving experience, that tells a story as timeless as the sea itself.

(Alex Gibney)

Alex Gibney's disturbing look inside the Church of Scientology is an explosive expose of the infamous religion's nefarious brain washing tactics. Gibney takes a devastating look at L. Ron Hubbard's brain child, from its origins as a money making scheme for Hubbard to the massive, cult-like phenomenon that it is today. It's hard not to be reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and just how close it was to Hubbard's actual life and the teachings of Scientology. Plus, the revelation of the church's true beliefs about Earth being an alien prison planet where frozen bodies were dropped off into volcanoes by the galactic overlord Xenu, releasing alien spirits into the world that are the source of all human suffering (all of which had been famously detailed by "South Park") seem all the more damning here. Going Clear is a frightening and essential doc about the human need to believe and belong, and the power of denial, even if the face of evil and oppression.

(Liz Garbus)

Liz Garbus' deeply incisive portrait of legendary blues singer, Nina Simone, examines her life and career through her own words and through the recollections of the people who knew her best. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fascinating look at a brilliant artist, brought down by her own demons (and a more militant streak during the civil rights movement) and then resurrected from the ashes. Simone's singular voice shines through at every turn, and the film both pays tribute to her genius and highlights her failures by posing the essential question - "what happened?" I found this more compelling and more moving than AMY, which is very similar in both structure and theme. But the many layers of Simone's rise and decline, from political (race, gender, militancy), to personal (abusive relationships, mental illness), I think are far more intriguing, and Garbus' direction strikes a fine tonal balance between reverence and inquisitiveness.

(Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)

Riveting documentary chronicles the 1968 debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, as they publicly clashed on ABC during the Republican and Democratic conventions in a heated match of wits and cultures. Best of Enemies presents these debates as a touchstone that eventually led to our current, hyper-partisan culture, where commentating and opinion has replaced reporting and presentation of fact. But even more fascinating, the film is a portrait of two men whose hatred of each other gave them an almost symbiotic relationship, where the identity of each one was inexorably linked to the other. It's compelling stuff, and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville make it work on multiple levels even with its brief, 85 minute run time.

(Evgeny Afineevsky)

Evgeny Afineevsky's harrowing documentary puts us on the front lines of the 2013 revolution that brought Ukraine back from the brink of Russian control. Using on-the-ground footage taken from the scenes of the riots protesting the Ukranian president's withdraw from promised European Union inclusion, and violent clashes where policemen beat up peaceful protestors, Winter on Fire is a riveting look at democracy (and fascism) in action, as a people fight for their freedom against an oppressive police state. One can't help but draw parallels from Ukraine's struggle to the American "Black Lives Matter" protests, and while the stakes of those protests may be more abstract, one can't help but get a queasy feeling watching the protesters being brutally beaten. Afineevsky treats it like an action thriller, but this is more riveting than any Hollywood action film. This is real - and the blood, sweat, and tears of the Ukrainian patriots runs through every frame. It doesn't always need the dramatic music cues, it's dramatic enough already, but the final result is certainly inspiring, and the fly on the wall footage is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This puts everything Michael Bay has ever made to shame.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Top Ten Scores of 2015

Time to start counting down the best in cinema from 2015, leading up to my list of the top ten films, starting out with my ten best scores of the year.

Movie scores are one of my favorite things, and mostly what I listen to when listening to music, so this is always one of the highlights of the year for me. 2015 was a strong year for scores, featuring new work from old masters and some great new work from previously unknown up-and-comers. My list contains some of both. What did I miss? Which scores would make your own list?

(Carter Burwell)

(Ryuichi Sakamoto)

(Daniel Pemberton)

(Alexandre Desplat)

(Thomas Newman)

(Ennio Morricone)


(Ludwig Goransson)

(Michael Giacchino)

(Fernando Velazquez)

BROOKLYN (Michael Brook)
WOLF TOTEM (James Horner)
THE 33 (James Horner)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On "The Danish Girl"

From The Dispatch:
There's something to be said for formula executed well, and Hooper takes a vital, necessary story about something that is still very foreign to many people and breathes into it a dynamic energy, using the constraints of a formula that makes an unusual story hauntingly familiar. It's an impressive feat that probably won't get nearly the appreciation that it deserves.
Click here to read my full review.

Blu-Ray Review | "Speedy"

Harold Lloyd's final silent comedy, Speedy, is a zippy, fast paced romp about a young man trying to save the horse drawn carriage business of the father of the girl he loves. As villainous railroad barons conspire to take the cart and take over its tracks, Lloyd leads them on a series of misadventures, including a street brawl and a breakneck chase in a horse drawn carriage through the streets of New York. It's not a coincidence, I think, that Lloyd's final silent film is about a man trying to protect a traditional mode of transportation, only to give in at the end and accept that modernity is inescapable. After all, he was a man facing the end of silent film and the beginning of the sound era.

You'll find no such thematic weight in Speedy, though. At least not overtly. Lloyd always rejected the sentimentality of Chaplin and the droll cynicism of Keaton. Lloyd just wanted to have fun, and Speedy has it in spades. Lloyd's dynamic set pieces never quite measure up to his more famous contemporaries, but it's hard to deny their technical skill, especially in the white-knuckle climactic chase scene (which, it was recently discovered, led to an actual carriage crash and a cover-up).

Lloyd's "everyman" persona is appealing as always, and he makes the most of it here, sending him through a comedy of errors of a man whose irrepressible spirit can't be dampened, even after mundane mishap after mundane mishap. Lloyd was the comedian of the regular Joe, and Speedy, while not as technically accomplished as Safety Last, is a lively, spirited good time.

Criterion's new Blu-Ray edition comes on the heels of their recent releases of The Freshman and Safety Last, making Grandma's Boy the only major Lloyd film not available on Criterion Blu-Ray. Lloyd fans will find a lot to feast on here, but the real highlight is the inclusion of Bumping into Broadway, another New York centered Lloyd two reeler from 1919 that showcases more of his famous "Glasses Character." Lloyd may not be as revered by cineastes and historians as Chaplin and Keaton, but he has a warm-hearted, easy-going style that stands apart from those giants of silent comedy. The new Criterion Blu-Ray provides a window into his unique genius, revealing why Lloyd deserves a place alongside his more famous contemporaries as an enormous talent with a unique and singular voice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Special features:

  • New 4K digital restoration from elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1992, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies director of program production Scott McGee 
  • In the Footsteps of “Speedy,” a new short documentary by Goldstein about the film’s New York shoot 
  • Selection of rare archival footage from UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Hearst Newsreel Collection of baseball legend Babe Ruth, who has a cameo in the film, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts
  • New visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film and narrated by Goldstein 
  • Selection of actor Harold Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd 
  • Bumping into Broadway, a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Phillip Lopate

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review | "Krampus"

Christmas-themed horror films aren't exactly a thriving subgenre, but there have been a few gems here and there across the years. There just seems to be something a little more perverse about setting a horror film during the usually cheerful Christmas season, which could explain why few filmmakers have dared to tackle it. 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night is perhaps the most famous (infamous?) example, along with 1974's Black Christmas (and its 2006 remake). Neither were great hits, although I stand by my assertion that Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the nastiest yet most psychologically astute slasher films ever made (the less said about its repugnant 1987 sequel, the better). So Michael Dougherty's Krampus is somewhat unique in the history of horror films.

Based on an ancient legend of St. Nicholas' demonic assistant who comes on Christmas Eve to collect naughty children and seek revenge against those who betray the spirit of Christmas, Krampus delves deep into Yuletide lore to deliver something wholly original, making it something of a breath of fresh air for horror aficionados.

The film starts off like many other Christmas films; a dysfunctional family is gathering to celebrate the holidays, everyone's nerves are frazzled, and oversized personalities are starting to clash after being crowded together under one roof. But everyone still loves each other, right? Not according to young Max Engel, who is so frustrated by his family's constant fighting and lack of holiday spirit, that he tears up his selfless letter to Santa and tosses it into the wind. Little does he know that this act will soon bring death and destruction down upon them, and this year instead of a visit from St. Nicholas, the Engel family is about to be visited by Krampus, who has come to spirit the ungrateful family away for their lack of Christmas cheer.

In that regard, Krampus is a spiritual thematic counterpart to director Michael Dougherty's last film, the Halloween cult hit, Trick 'r Treat, an anthology film about a vengeful Halloween sprite who seeks revenge on those who don't keep the spirit of Halloween. Krampus is a devilish good time from start to finish, blending elements of comedy, horror, and Christmas cheer into a slyly satirical look at just how far the modern iteration of Christmas, with its vacuous displays of greed and materialism (not to mention the imagined "War on Christmas"), has strayed not only from its original spirit of giving and goodwill, but from its pagan roots as a celebration of the winter solstice.

What's more, it never takes itself too seriously, yet plays its ridiculousness completely straight, sending out legions of killer toys, evil gingerbread men, and even an evil Christmas tree angel to torment the family at its center (scored with eerily retooled version of familiar Christmas tunes by Douglas Pipes). Krampus himself is an ingenious creation, using practical effects and puppetry rather than relying on CGI, giving the film the feeling of something out of the 1980s. It's refreshing throwback to see a modern horror film that's so creature heavy use CGI so sparing, but it really pays off, making Krampus a much more tangible (and frightening) figure in the film.

In the end, however, there's a surprisingly warm heart beating at the film's center, It slyly tweaks Chrismtas movie conventions while in essence being a celebration of the Christmas spirit and the importance of family, with just a hint of wicked gleam in its eye. I walked out of Krampus with a big grin on my face - it's good fun no matter how you look at it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KRAMPUS | Directed by Michael Dougherty | Stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony | Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens"

From The Dispatch:
"The Force Awakens" hums with the constant energy of a film trying desperately to please, and while it doesn’t always hit every note perfectly (I will be interested to see how they manage to explain the sudden appearance of Luke’s old lightsaber) it hits them with such gusto that it makes up for its faults. It feels good to have "Star Wars" back in the world, and "The Force Awakens" is a joyous return to the innocence and magic of that galaxy far, far away. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review | "Carol"

It's hard to do justice to the exquisite longing that courses through the veins of Todd Haynes' Carol. Haynes makes films that must be felt on a gut level, the kinds of films that causes chills that start in your very core and radiate out to the tips of your fingers. As he did in Far From Heaven, Haynes takes the staid structures of the 1950s "women's pictures" and explores the unspoken emotional truths coursing beneath the surface. While Haynes isn't recreating the work of Douglas Sirk here, that same DNA runs deep in Carol, as he explores the forbidden Eisenhower-era romance between an upper middle class housewife and a younger shop clerk.

Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is in the process of going through a divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Carol, it seems has always preferred the company of women to men, most notably her daughter's godmother, Abby (Sarah Paulson); and despite her husband's instance on making things work, she can't change who she is or what she wants. What once seemed to be the picture-perfect 1950s family has been torn apart, leaving their young daughter, Rindy, in the middle.

That is when Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy young shop clerk who dreams of being a photographer. After Carol accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store, Therese returns them, and Carol asks her to dinner to thank her. It is the beginning of a friendship that soon turns into something more. There is never an "aha" moment of realization for Therese. Clearly Carol is a woman more confident in her sexuality, but Therese is young and still trying to understand herself. She's had relationships with men, but couldn't quite understand why they were never fulfilling. Yet there is something about her relationship with Carol that just feels natural, and Haynes creates an mesmerizing drama out of watching it evolve. He doesn't hit us over the head with one dramatic moment or spend any time with Therese struggling with her sexuality, he allows their friendship to become a romance before either of them really know it. When the tension finally breaks, its feels inevitable, natural, almost like fate.

Like the "women's pictures" that were so popular in the 1950s, domestic love stories with female-centric stories, Haynes' films are often filled with surface pleasures - immaculate period design, a haunting, Philip Glass-like score by Carter Burwell; but like Sirk before him, Haynes always takes it one step further, examining the deeper emotions emotions beneath the seemingly flawless veneer. There is always something more going on in each scene than meets the eye. Like its two characters, living out a hidden romance in plain sight of a repressive society, Carol keeps its emotions boiling beneath the surface. More is said in what the characters don't say than what they are able to articulate themselves. That is the kind of directorial restraint that defines Carol. It walks a delicate tightrope of emotions, using its sumptuous design as a thematic facade covering up the inner turmoil beneath.

Carol and Therese come from two different worlds, yet find each other in a society that denies their right to exist. Yet in 2015, a year that gave same-sex couples in America the right to get married nationwide, Carol doesn't feel in any way radical or envelope-pushing. It just feels human. We may be in a time when "morality clauses" were still grounds for taking a mother's children away from her, but Haynes has moved queer cinema out of the closet and into the mainstream in such a way that one has become almost indistinguishable from the other. That's whats so fascinating about his chosen aesthetic here. "Women's pictures" were often the most squeaky clean of genres, little more than glorified soap operas (subverted at times by directors like Sirk), yet Haynes uses them as a vehicle to tell a story that could have never been told then, and it feels almost as if it stepped out of the mists of time, a lost lesbian romance from the 50s finally able to see the light of day.

At the film's center are two luminous performances by two consummate actresses. Blanchett and Mara are both absolute perfection, channeling the deep, repressed emotion of two women whose true feelings can't be adequately expressed in the language of the time. They make us feel every moment in a way that feels strangely personal. The same could be said of the entire film. It's a beautiful work, but more than that, it's a deeply powerful one. Haynes so expertly subverts the formulas in which he dabbles, using them to his advantage to tell a story that runs beneath the surfaces he creates. You don't just watch his films, you feel them on a completely different level. He says so much in the longing glances, the subtle gestures, each contained within an impeccably composed frame. Carol is a sublime love story, one that brims with the fiery passion of first love bulging at the seams of its societal prison. It is a major work by a major filmmaker, working at a level of narrative grace and elegance that is almost unmatched in contemporary cinema. In short - Carol is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

CAROL | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson | Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language | Now playing in select cities.