Thursday, September 25, 2014

On "Love is Strange"

From The Dispatch:
It's unlikely that you will see a more gentle or humane film in a theater this year. It lilts along at the pace of life, buoyed along by Chopin's Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat Major and the incredibly lived in performances of Lithgow and Molina. It truly feels as if they have been together for nearly 40 years. Both men have had long, illustrious careers in both film and theatre, but they turn in arguably career best work in “Love is Strange.” Their performances are tender, honest, and fully realized in ways that movie characters rarely are. Even if the film sometimes feels slight or inconsequential, there is always a palpable current of humanity pulsing beneath the surface. It's a wonderful work, one filled with deeply felt observations about life and love. Sachs has crafted something universal and resonant, a bittersweet, funny, and ultimately moving film that shows that even though love may be strange, it's never anything short of beautiful.
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On "The Zero Theorem"

From The Dispatch:
Gilliam is certainly out there on his own wavelength, but “The Zero Theorem” is a strange animal indeed, a kind of familiar cliché and original vision that never really forms anything cohesive. It feels like the work of a tired filmmaker leaning back on the tropes of their more successful films from the past, ultimately turning in a movie that neglects everything that made those films good in the first place. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review | "God Help the Girl"

There's a certain amateurish "hey guys let's make a movie" quality to Stuart Murdoch's new musical, God Help the Girl, that is at once organic and charming. Like the titular band its young protagonists are trying to put together, God Help the Girl is loosely structured, scrappy, and oh so very hip.

Yet unlike most things that get slapped with the label "hipster," the film never comes across as ironic or condescending, it's incredibly warm and sincere, bathed in a youthful nostalgia that is hard to resist.

Emily Browning stars as Eve, a teenage girl who has been hospitalized for severe anorexia. But she constantly yearns for life outside her sterile hospital walls, and frequently sneaks out in the dead of night to listen to music and write songs, constantly looking for inspiration. It is on one such excursion where she meets James, a sensitive young life guard who really doesn't know how to talk to girls.

The two become fast friends, and James begins to develop feelings for Eve, but being shy and awkward is unable to articulate them. Eve also has feelings for James, which she can only articulate through song (and he's not always sharp enough to get the point), but finds herself also drawn to a bad boy musician she needs to help her get her demo tape the attention it needs to ignite her career.  Together, Eve and James form a band with Cassie, an aspiring songwriter that James is teaching to play guitar.  They sing, they dance, they contemplate deep questions as they float through life - but Eve has a dream to become a world renowned musician, and begins to realize that perhaps the small time doodlings of her current life might not be enough.

It's all very loose, its structure almost free form and secondary to its music, which takes center stage. Murdoch, of the band Belle & Sebastian, directs with a naturalistic, easy going style that brings to mind Jacques Demy and the French New Wave. He is completely unconcerned with telling a traditional narrative, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. The songs are a bit too on-the-nose at times, their descriptions of the action seem less inspired than when the characters allow their minds to wander. But there is a certain naturalist quality here that is hard to resist. The film looks the best when it switches into the 16mm films shot by James, and it almost made me wish the entire film had been shot like that. Those 16mm segments are the most visually inspired pieces of the entire film.

I'm certain that the film will be viewed as too precious and twee in some circles, and that's fine. Movies like this aren't made for the cynical. This is a film about the cathartic power of music, and by extension, of art itself. God Help the Girl is the very embodiment of that idea. It's the kind of film that requires its audience to be on a very specific cultural wavelength to fully embrace, but its openness and heart should be enough to win over even the most jaded among us.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GOD HELP THE GIRL | Directed by Stuart Murdoch | Stars Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Review | "Wetlands"

You would be hard pressed to find a coming of age film more disturbing, more disgusting, and more outrageous than David Wnendt's Wetlands. At first it seems like a put-on, a so-gross-this-can't-possibly-be-serious act of deliberate provocation. The reality, however, is somewhat more complex.

For a film about a teenage girl who's obsessed with her own hemorrhoids and bodily fluids, Wetlands is a surprisingly sincere, even moving work. Based on the controversial novel by Charlotte Roche, the movie is intentionally over the top, almost daring the audience to be offended. It wants us to recoil, and it laughs at us for doing so. But there is a lot more to Wetlands than just shock value. This is a cry for attention about a cry for attention, a movie desperate to offend about a young girl also just as desperate to be noticed. In essence, it is the movie its young protagonist would have made about herself if she could have made a movie.

To call Carla Juri's performance as Helen Memel fearless would be an understatement. She hates hygiene, she loves her hemorrhoids and the smell of her unwashed nether regions, she relishes in languid nudity, and doesn't mind exacerbating a self inflicted anal fissure if it means staying in the hospital with a male nurse that she has taken a liking to. Her relationship with her best friend is so close they often share tampons and smear each other's menstrual blood on their faces. None of this is, by any means, normal behavior. Yet for all of its graphic depravities, Wetlands is a surprisingly sincere film. Its perversions are simply the self conscious affectations of a girl desperate for attention, from her broken family, from her friends, from the man she has unexpectedly come to love. On the outside she is obsessed with sex, but as the film goes on we come to discover what she really is obsessed with is love.

I often found myself wanting to look away from the screen (I'll certainly never look at pizza the same way again), I even found myself feeling nauseous a few times, but something about Helen's story struck a chord. Her story is a universal one, maybe not in regards to her peculiar sexual proclivities, but in her ultimate desire to be loved at all costs. Wnendt cleverly conveys her often troubled mental state without judging or celebrating it. It's a fine tightrope to walk, but he ultimately sticks the landing. That delicate balance between celebration and judgement is why Wetlands works so well, and a film like Lukas Moodyson's We Are the Best never quite jells. They offer two very different visions of teen angst, but Wnendt uses Helen's antisocial nature as a kind of thematic force all its own, and that's what sets it apart.

It would be easy to compare Wetlands to this year's other major film about sexual obsession - Lars Von Trier's epic Nymphomaniac. Both are about strong women who take their sexuality into their own hands, but both have very different approaches and themes. In Nymphomaniac, it is almost a kind of strength; in Wetlands, it is both strength and weakness - a sense of misanthropic independence that that ultimately harms even as it leads her to pleasure.

Yet more than any other emotion, I was fascinated by Wetlands. There's just nothing else out there like it. It is a wholly unique film that, while certainly not for all tastes, is a disarmingly touching film about growing up and finding ones own identity. Few films have ever done that in such a singular and memorable way that is as tender as it is off-putting. It is a film that is always vibrantly alive with a sense of self discovery and even wonder - at the world, at life, at the human body, and it does so without any self consciousness or forced sincerity. You'll never see anything like it again, and you probably won't want to, but one thing is for sure - Wetlands is one of a kind.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WETLANDS | Directed by David Wnendt | Stars Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Marlen Kruse, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg | Not rated | In German w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC, opens Friday in LA.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Theatre Review | "The 39 Steps"

While Alfred Hitchcock wasn't really known for directing comedies, many of his films often contained an element of humor. This is especially true about his early British capers like The Lady Vanishes and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but perhaps most famous of all, in his 1935 espionage thriller, The 39 Steps. While the film isn't a comedy, Hitchcock often displayed a lighter touch in those earlier pictures before turning to darker and more macabre subject matter in his more well known later period. That makes something like The 39 Steps ripe for comedic adaptation, which is just what playwright Patrick Barlow did for his popular stage version of the film.

Opening the 14th season at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC, The 39 Steps is perhaps one of their most immensely likable productions yet. Featuring four actors, 150 characters, and lots of hilarity, The 39 Steps is a high energy farce that will keep audiences in stitches from beginning to end. The plot is much the same as in Hitchcock's original; an innocent man named Richard Hannay (Brian Lee Huynh) gets tangled up in an international espionage plot when he meets a beautiful and seductive secret agent (Laura Woodward) on the run. But when she turns up dead, Hannay finds himself wanted for murder, and sets out to complete her mission before top secret information about Britain's air defenses end up in foreign hands. His adventures will lead him to exotic Scotland, across speeding trains, in the lair of evil Nazis, and beyond, with countless characters deftly played by the immensely talented clowns - Sal Cacchiato and Andy Paterson.

Brian Lee Huynh, Laura Woodward, Sal Cacchiato, and Andy Paterson in The 39 Steps.
Courtesy of Triad Stage.
In fact, the on screen hi-jinks are so sidesplittingly funny one could almost miss the fantastic set design by Timothy R. Mackabee, which feels like a throwback to the grand theaters of old, with its elaborate chandelier and red velvet curtains. As soon as you walk into the theater you are thrust back into a world of femme fatales and dashing heroes with slicked back hair and tumblers of scotch. But even with all tongue-in-cheek suspension of disbelief and self-aware, meta-theatrical humor (not to mention the clever references to other Hitchcock films), director Jen Wineman makes us feel as if we are a part of a very specific, very heightened world, and makes sure that the audience is always in on the jokes.

It's telling that Triad Stage has chosen to kick off their 14th season in such a high spirited and entertaining way - it sets a very fun and accessible tone for the season to come, which will certainly feature plenty of more serious fare. But The 39 Steps has something for everyone, and is the kind of show for which many people go to the theatre in the first place. Here's hoping this is a harbinger of things to come - a hugely enjoyable kickoff to another great season of theatre in the Triad.

THE 39 STEPS runs from August 31 to September 28 at the Pyrle Theater in downtown Greensboro. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Thursday, September 04, 2014

On "Calvary"

From The Dispatch:
Director John Michael McDonagh never offers any clear or simple answers, but instead finds a strange sort of redemptive peace amidst impossible darkness. "Calvary" is a sharply written, beautifully rendered film of faith of a truly introspective and spiritual kind; one that acknowledges the darkness and deeply rooted faults of humanity and the Church and forgives them with a full and loving heart. This is truly something special. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Blu-Ray Review | "All That Jazz"

Bob Fosse's All That Jazz is perhaps the quintessential showbiz movie, up there with Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Floyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade.

Fosse was already a renowned theatre director when he made his film debut, 1969's Sweet Charity. And his theatre work is most likely what still defines him in the minds of many today. He won an Oscar for his direction of Cabaret in 1972 (beating out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather), which went on to win eight Academy Awards and is arguably his most popular film.

But all of that was just a build up to his 1979 masterpiece, All That Jazz. He would make just one more film, Star 80, in 1983, before his death at age 60 in 1987. But All That Jazz was clearly his most personal work. While not explicitly autobiographical, the parallels are clear. It was, in many ways, a vibrant and visceral assertion of what it meant to be Bob Fosse.

More than that, it's a full throated exclamation of what it means to be an artist. Anyone who has ever worked in show business in any capacity, be it theatre, film, or dance, will find something they recognize here. Fosse's cinematic proxy, the hard drinking, pill popping, womanizing director, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, in a career best performance), is a man consumed by the theatre. He lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, and drinks it. His passion is palpable, but it's also completely all-encompassing, and dangerously so. But as Moira Shearer's Victoria Page once observed in The Red Shoes when asked "why do you want to dance" by choreography Boris Lermontov, "why do you want to live?" To which Lermontov responded, "Well I don't know exactly why, but I must."

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
That is Gideon's, and by extension Fosse's, answer too. He is completely consumed by the desire to create, almost involuntarily. All That Jazz is a testament to that zeal. You can feel the energy pulsating off this thing from every frame, each musical number springing forth from Gideon's fertile imagination decades before Rob Marshall borrowed the technique for his Oscar winning Chicago. That The Criterion Collection chose to add this film to their impressive roster should come as no surprise - it's a modern masterpiece, a pinnacle of perhaps the greatest decade for American film, where artists almost routinely explored the boundaries of their medium in ways that had not been seen since the silent era. All That Jazz was never a particularly colorful film, Fosse tended to prefer a more muted color palate filled with blacks and silvers, and on Criterion's lovely new Blu-Ray it sparkles brighter than ever. Fans of Fosse will find lots to feast upon here, with several documentaries and interviews focusing on the director's career, including the 2007 documentary, Portrait of a Choreographer. It allows us to go deeper inside a movie that was so much more than just another musical, it is a window into the soul of an artist, and as a piece of cinematic history, that makes All That Jazz wholly indispensable.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary featuring editor Alan Heim 
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by actor Roy Scheider 
  • New interviews with Heim and Fosse biographer Sam Wasson 
  • New conversation between actors Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi 
  • Episode of the talk show Tomorrow from 1980, featuring director Bob Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille 
  • Interviews with Fosse from 1981 and 1986 
  • On-set footage 
  • Portrait of a Choreographer, a 2007 documentary on Fosse 
  • The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards, a 2007 documentary about the film’s music 
  • Interview with George Benson from 2007, about his song “On Broadway,” which opens the film 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Hilton Als

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)