Friday, January 23, 2015

On "Paddington"


From The Dispatch:
It's an endlessly charming film that truly has something for everyone. There is a kind of timeless quality to it, with a delightfully childlike view of the world that doesn't mistake innocence for childishness. This is a warm and wonderful film, a disarmingly moving evocation of childhood fears and dreams brought to life with a winning sense of kindness and good humor. 
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On "American Sniper"


From The Dispatch:
With his trademark minimalism and steely simplicity, Eastwood guides “American Sniper” with a sure and steady hand. Here is one American icon paying tribute to another, a symbol of masculinity exploring the essence of what it means to be a man. It’s truly extraordinary stuff.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, January 09, 2015

On "Wild"


From The Dispatch:
There are times when it loses its way. There are some moments of rocky dialogue as the film plays shorthand with the dissolution of her previous relationship. But there is something agreeably shaggy and organic about this tale of self-discovery and personal redemption. Vallée mostly avoids the typical pitfalls of this kind of film, skirting around moments of maudlin discoveries, and with the help of Witherspoon’s deft performance, gives us something that feels emotionally honest and well worn.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2014

1
THE IMMIGRANT
(James Gray, USA)
""The Immigrant" may be an especially timely exploration of the American immigrant experience from a historical perspective, but Gray never overplays his hand. It unfolds like a great novel, evoking the grimy beauty of turn-of-the-century New York City. "The Immigrant" is an American masterpiece, an achievement worthy of standing alongside the works of Coppola and Leone."

2
UNDER THE SKIN
(Jonathan Glazer, UK)
"A haunting exploration of humanity (and human sexuality) through the eyes of a murderous alien seductress, "Under the Skin" is the most important work of science fiction of the decade, calling to mind the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Tarkovsky."

3
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
(Wes Anderson, USA)
"Evoking a kind of nostalgia for a world in a time that may have never existed, Anderson imbues his film with a wistful sense of melancholy that shines through the elaborately detailed mise-en-scene and opens up his singular snow globe aesthetic in ways we haven't seen since "The Royal Tenenbaums.""

4
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST
(Claude Lanzmann, France)
"The word "monumental" may not be enough to describe Claude Lanzmann's gargantuan, 3 1/2-hour documentary counterpart to his landmark 1985 chronicle of the Holocaust, "Shoah." Was Murmelstein a hero or villain, a savior or a traitor? Lanzmann lets us decide, meditating instead on the moral gray areas of an atrocity we only thought we understood as black and white."

5
THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
(Isao Takahata, Japan)
"A heartbreaking Japanese folk tale that features some of the most gorgeous animation ever to grace the silver screen. Its chalk and watercolor drawings are unlike anything else out there and easily put the computer graphics of its American counterparts to shame. If anyone still needed convincing that animated films were works of art, this should put any doubts to rest once and for all."

6
BOYHOOD
(Richard Linklater, USA)
"Filmed over the course of 12 years, "Boyhood" represents an unprecedented achievement in cinematic history — watching its young cast grow up for over a decade, capturing their journey from adolescence to adulthood in one of the most achingly honest portrayals of childhood ever captured on film."

7
GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE
(Jean-Luc Godard, France)
"No other film this year pushed or challenged film form quite like this one, with its radical use of 3-D, handheld DV cameras and bold, oversaturated colors, Godard may as well be inventing his own artistic language here. If this is truly the future of cinema, count me in."

8
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
(Jean Pierre, Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
"Told with Dardenne's trademark austerity that occasionally recalls the neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica, "Two Days, One Night" is an ultimately hopeful film, but one that raises some serious and complex questions about human nature and our instinct for self-preservation."

9
MR. TURNER
(Mike Leigh, UK)
"A staggeringly immersive film, from the striking period detail to Timothy Spall's guttural, growling emulation of Turner. Each breathtaking frame looks like it could have been painted by Turner himself, drawing us ever deeper into the artist's world. It's a remarkable exploration of the sometimes miniscule line between genius and madness."

10
AMERICAN SNIPER
(Clint Eastwood, USA)
"Eastwood's trademark efficiency is the perfect match for such a tale, allowing Bradley Cooper's extraordinarily nuanced performance to do the heavy lifting. There is no one better suited to deconstructing the mythology of the American hero with such sensitivity, and Eastwood knocks it out of the park."

HONORABLE MENTIONS

"Winter Sleep" (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey), "The Way He Looks" (Daniel Ribiero, Brazil), "Stranger by the Lake," (Alain Guiraurdie, France), "The Congress" (Ari Folman, Israel), "Stray Dogs" (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan), "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (Alejandro G. Inarritu), "Calvary" (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland), "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (Ana Lily Amirpour, Iran), "Like Father, Like Son" (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan), "Interstellar" (Christopher Nolan, USA).

Click here to read my entire top ten write-up in The Dispatch.

The Top Ten Blu-Rays of 2014

1
HALLOWEEN: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION LIMITED DELUXE EDITION
(Scream Factory)
An absolute godsend for Halloween fans, Scream Factory's exhaustive 15 disc set includes all 8 films in the original franchise plus Rob Zombie's two remakes, which isn't in and of itself remarkable as they had all been available as individual Blu-rays at one point or another. However, the sheer amount of special features collected here is staggering, including theatrical, TV, and other alternate cuts of many of the films. But to top it all off, the real Holy Grail for Halloween fans is the long rumored, never before seen Producers Cut of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, which addresses many of the problems in what is widely considered to be the weakest entry in the original franchise.  This is the set horror fans have been waiting for, and it delivers in spades. Any franchise would be proud of such a definitive set.


2
RED RIVER
(Criterion Collection)

The folks at the Criterion Collection can always be depended upon to deliver the goods, but they really outdid themselves with their release of Howard Hawks' Red River (1948). A massive 4 disc set (including Borden Chase's previously out of print novel, "Blazing Guns on the Chisolm Trail," which the film was based on) that includes both the theatrical cut and the longer pre-release roadshow version of the film, Hawks' western masterpiece comes to vivid life in strikingly crisp 1080p black and white. The film cast John Wayne as a kind of anti-hero, a deeply flawed man who represents a kind of archaic, outdated sense of masculinity. In short - he's a bully, an unusual kind of character for Wayne to play, but that's also what makes it one of his greatest roles. In this epic tale of a cattle drive on the Chisolm trail serves as a sweeping backdrop for a growing conflict between an ambitious cattle baron and his adopted son - the ways of the younger generation pushing aside the ways of the old. It's both poignant and thrilling, grand and intimate, and one of the finest westerns ever made.


3
PORTRAIT OF JASON
(Milestone)

There are few labels as dedicated to preserving and releasing important, overlooked films as Milestone Films. Founded by Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, Milestone has previously released such forgotten masterpieces as Killer of Sheep and On The Bowery, and after a spirited fundraising campaign have released two documentaries by Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, on home video for the very first time, packed to the gills with Criterion level bonus features. Ingmar Bergman called Portrait of Jason "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life." And it's certainly an incredible piece of work. Jason Holliday, born Aaron Payne, a flamboyantly gay black man living out and proud in the 1960s, serves as the subject of this essential landmark of queer cinema. Portrait of Jason came at a time when homosexuality was still very much behind closed doors, and LGBT people weren't explicitly represented in cinema at all, it feels somehow revolutionary to see such an unapologetically gay man spinning fantastic tales of his life as a house boy, hustler, and performer in the era of free love. By the end, however, we are no longer sure what is Jason's real life and what is just part of the elaborate performance of his life. Who was the real Jason? We may never know. Clark's film often frames Jason out of focus, just out of reach, a fascinating enigma seen through the haze of celluloid, a lie at 24 frames per second. 


4
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
(Kino Lorber)

There are few more important or more influential horror films in cinematic history than Robert Wiene's German Expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The film that started the Expressionist movement, Caligari is a frenzied, stylish nightmare about a mad psychiatrist and his murderous somnambulist, Cesar. From the dynamic, dreamlike design to the oft-copied twist, Caligari has never been equaled. From a technical standpoint, the new 4K Blu-ray restoration is jaw-dropping. The images have been so cleaned up and sharpened that it's almost like seeing the 94 year old film through new eyes. Gone are the scratches and dirt accumulated over the last century, freeing the film from the ravages of time and emerging with new and vibrant life.The Expressionists sought to convey inner feelings in visual ways, and there have never been a more palpable evocation of madness than here. The outrageous sets, the haunting use of early color filters all pop with a renewed vigor. This is a must have disc not only for true horror fans, but for fans of great cinema. This is a masterpiece that has finally gotten the Blu-ray treatment it so richly deserves.


5
THE BLOB
(Twilight Time)

This remake of the 1958 B-movie classic ramps up the action and the gore, with moderate success. The effects are still pretty impressive for the most part, and the film has a pretty good understanding about what made the original such a success, even if it does head into generic action territory near the end. It's a darker film than the original, to be sure, and I actually think the Blob is more interesting as a mindless mass than an unstoppable killing machine with a mind of its own. As remakes go, however, The Blob is pretty strong. But the quality of the film itself isn't why this is here. It's here because of Twilight Time, the speciality Blu-ray label that has done such an amazing job of digging up long neglected catalog titles from the major studios and releasing them in limited edition Blu-rays for the first time. The special features may not be particularly expanded, but just having these films on Blu-ray is a treat, and for a cult hit like The Blob, that's something major for fans. This old movie has never looked better.


6
SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD
(Flicker Alley)

Flicker Alley may not have the deep catalogue that Criterion has, but their Blu-Ray presentations are every bit as comprehensive and impressive as their more famous counterparts. The Cinerama movies were never meant to be great films. They were the IMAX movies of their day, cinematic travelogues meant to wow with their sheer size and scope. Using three screens that wrapped around the audiences, the effect is undeniably impressive. It may lose something in the transition to the small screen, but Flicker Alley's "Smilebox" format allows us to get an idea of what it must have looked like on the massive Cinerama screens, and it's still pretty awesome. Cinematic masterpieces they're not, but they remain a fascinating curiosity of film technology from the 1950s, and Flicker Alley treats them with a historical dignity that is hard not to admire.


7
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
(Criterion Collection)

At long last one of the most beautiful films of all time arrives on Blu-Ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. There are few more subversive filmmakers in cinematic history than Douglas Sirk, who took stereotypical "women's pictures" and turned them into bold, female empowering, even feminist allegorical dramas that skewered the social mores of the 1950s. Here, Jane Wyman stars as a widow whose relationship with her much younger gardner (Rock Hudson) creates a scandal that rocks the entire town. This is Sirk at his very best, a lushly photographed soap opera that cut straight to the core of middle class hypocrisy and judgement, as societal expectations and idle gossip imprison "respectable" people from finding true happiness. Sirk makes the artifice service the theme. Trapped by conspicuous design elements, his characters seem caught in a pristine snow globe of their own design, held in place by invisible (and completely made up) societal walls. It's interesting watching the film in 2014 and seeing the gay allegories under the surface as well. Knowing now who Rock Hudson really was, Wyman's insistence that people should be able to marry whomever they want without any judgement is remarkably prescient (made even more progressive by the fact that it was released in 1955). Having her say the line to Rock Hudson makes it seem even more poignant. It's one of the great Hollywood melodramas, and Criterion's lush transfer is one of the most stunning Blu-Ray experiences of the year.


8
PERSONA
(Criterion Collection)

Yet another Criterion triumph from 2014 is also Ingmar Bergman's most overtly avant-garde work. Widely considered his masterpiece (although I'm still a defender of Wild Strawberries), Persona remains a legendary cinematic enigma - a psychologically complex look at two women (or is it just one?); an actress who suffered a nervous breakdown and no longer speaks, and the nurse tasked with her recovery. The resulting film is an experience like no other, a deeply fascinating exploration of identity, reality, perception, and how they all intersect in works of art. It's certainly a haunting work, featuring stunning use of light and shadow by frequent Bergman collaborator, Sven Nykvist, who lends the film its striking, dreamlike atmosphere. 


9
SUNDAYS & CYBELE
(Criterion Collection)

I had never heard of Serge Bourguignon's Sundays and Cybele before Criterion released it on Blu-ray and DVD this year. But now that I have I'll certainly never forget it. Bourguignon once referred to the film as "the story of childhood recovered and childhood regained." It's important to remember that, watching the film through a more modern lens, which could easily skew the film's delicate innocence with accusations of pedophila. The story of the unusual relationship between a damaged war veteran and a 12 year old girl who has been abandoned by her parents, Sundays and Cybele often resembles a love story, a kind of reverse Harold and Maude by way of Forbidden Games. And while it is very much a love story (Cybele often talks of marrying Pierre when she turns 18), it is never anything more than a platonic one; it is a tale of two lost souls who find in each other a kind of tenuous solace. While modern viewers may rightfully feel uncomfortable around such subject matter, the way the film eschews cynicism in favor of a more lyrical innocence (and the way in which such innocence is summarily destroyed by cynicism) is both haunting and heartbreaking. Gorgeously photographed by Henri Decae (The 400 Blows), making it perhaps one of the most beautiful black and white films ever made, and the Criterion Blu-Ray perfectly accentuates its stunning imagery. No other release this year was more visually arresting.


10
MANAKAMANA
(Cinema Guild)

Manakamana may be a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, but for those who couldn't make it to the theatre, Cinema Guild's Blu-Ray brings Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's quietly mesmerizing documentary to breathtaking life. The disc includes some gondola rides that weren't included in the film that prove to be just as engrossing as the ones that did. It's a film that demands our surrender, while offering something other films rarely do - a true escape from our ordinary lives. Here is a film that forces us to take life at a different pace, and the results are something disarmingly spiritual and meditative. There's nothing else out there quite like it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review | "The Interview"

Who would have thought that a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco would end up not only being the most talked about film of the year, but also start an international confrontation between a rogue dictatorship and the United States of America?

By all rights, The Interview should be just another dumb comedy. but it's not. It has become a symbol of free speech, a film made by Canadian filmmakers that has been elevated to represent something very American - a disdain for being told what to do, especially by a foreign dictator. While it may not have technically been an issue of free speech, as the film was in no way hampered by the US government (which ultimately encouraged Sony to release the film), the fact that a foreign dictator was trying to suppress a film on US shores through acts of cyberterrorism was cause enough to stir a righteous fervor. The quality of the film was, and is,  a moot point in the face of a dictator's attempted overreach.

At the end of the day, was the film worth it? Does it live up to all the hooplah and controversy? Yes and no. The Interview is not a great film, it's not on the level of, say, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, this ain't. But I do think that The Interview is much more (and much better) than it is being given credit for.


The premise is pretty straightforward - Rogen and Franco run a tabloid TV show specializing in celebrity gossip and other such meaningless puff pieces. They're smut peddlers, feeding soulless junk food to an  un-discerning public. Yet despite their success, they want more, something meaningful; they want to be real journalists, not just lightweight figures of trash TV. So when they discover that Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea, is a big fan of the show, they decide to set up an exclusive interview. When the CIA gets wind of their plans, however, they ask the pair to help them assassinate Kim. They reluctantly agree, and when they arrive, they discover that Kim Jong Un isn't the monster he's been made out to be. Instead of a murderous madman, they find a sensitive, even lovable man child who loves Katy Perry and longs to escape from the shadow of his oppressive father. He shows them around Pyongyang to dispel the myths than his people are starving.

Franco's doofus TV host soon begins to feel sorry for Kim, and refuses to follow through with the assassination plan. But he soon realizes that Kim's nice guy persona is little more than a ruse, a character concocted to hide a petulant and childish dictator willing to kill anyone who stands in his way, and soon our central dimwits find themselves in over their head in a full blown Korean civil war.


There's something vaguely meta about The Interview, perhaps heightened in light of the ensuing firestorm surrounding the film, but one can't help but feel that directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg, are trying to do the same thing as their fictional counterparts. After years of peddling juvenile humor to ever hungry audiences, have they finally given us something weightier to chew on? Well...sort of. The Interview is every bit the rude and crude comedy one would expect from this team, but it also brings real foreign policy questions to the fore, bringing real world political themes to an audience who never would have given such things a second thought. Rogen and Goldberg, advertently or inadvertently, have delivered audiences a comedy Trojan horse, and in a bizarre instance of life imitating art, started a real international crisis by lampooning a real life dictator. That makes The Interview not only the most subversive comedies of the year, but an act of actual courage.

These aren't just two stoner dudes who bumbled their way into a real world crisis like in the movie, these are two very smart comedians who turned a seemingly innocuous comedy into a real life act of defiance. The jokes themselves are hit and miss, some uproarious, others flat, but Rogen and Goldberg have seemingly done the impossible - bring real world issues to a demographic that wouldn't usually engage with such ideas, in ways that are much more nuanced than they appear in the surface. There's a reason why only the fools were allowed to speak the truth to kings. This is just the same old crap, and yet is isn't, much like the movie's own central conflict, And therein lies its clever subversion. The hype isn't much ado about nothing. Sony's utter bungling of its release aside, The Interview lands most of its punches, shone a light on the world's most brutal dictator, and did what any self respectable comedian would do - humanized him, then utterly, completely, humiliated him. For a film that is ultimately about the power of the media (and the sometimes irresponsible American foreign policy), The Interview has become a kind of self fulfilling prophecy with the cajones to wink and say "I told you so."

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE INTERVIEW | Directed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg | Stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang | Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence | Now playing in select theaters and online platforms.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Top Ten Documentaries of 2014

Documentaries are a medium often overlooked by audiences as well as critics. Yet year after year, some of the richest cinematic works have been documentaries, pushing the boundaries of cinema and asking profound questions that prove that sometimes reality really is stranger than fiction.

Here are my picks for the best documentaries of 2014:

1
THE LAST OF THE UNJUST
(Claude Lanzmann)

Monumental is a word that doesn't quite do justice to Claude Lanzmann's The Last of the Unjust, a gargantuan, 3 1/2 hour documentary about Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving Jewish elder of the Theresienstadt ghetto. Lanzmann is most famous for Shoah, considered by many to be the definitive documentary chronicle of the Holocaust. In The Last of the Unjust, Lanzmann focuses on one man, using interviews he shot with Murmelstein in the 70s to give us a stunning inside look at the ghetto from the very man who was in charge of it. Murmelstein is an erudite and often aloof figure, not unlike Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known. His justifications for his actions are passionate but his chronicles of the mass murders enacted on the Jewish people seem detached and clinical, he is a man focused on the details of the running of the ghetto rather than their human impact. Was he a hero who protected his people, or a traitor who collaborated with the Nazis? Lanzmann allows us to make up our own minds, meditating instead on the moral complexities of an atrocity we only thought we understood. An essential document of one of humanity's darkest periods.

2
THE OVERNIGHTERS
(Jesse Moss)

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." - Matthew 25:40. A North Dakota pastor opens up his church to an influx of desperate men, homeless and seeking a job in the newly booming oil fields. But fear of these strangers soon turns the tiny town against the pastor's quest to give these men a second chance at life, turning what was once a man's simple desire to help "the least of these" in Christian love into something much more. Even when the film takes a surprising 3rd act turn, director Jesse Moss keeps the focus profoundly human. This is a powerful and complex exploration of human goodness and human fallibility, even in the pursuit of carrying out Christ's mandate on Earth.

3
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
(Errol Morris)

A startling and haunting look at Donald Rumsfeld's tenure in public office, mainly his time as Secretary of Defense during the Iraq war, the film puts the controversial figure in the spotlight, telling his story in his own words. It's a fascinating look at a man who seems to have worked so hard to twist words and logic into a brilliantly convoluted justification of his own actions. What's most frightening is when his words actually make some sort of twisted sense. Rumsfeld is a less introspective and more slippery figure than Robert McNamara was in Morris' Oscar winning The Fog of War, but the results are no less disturbing or enthralling. One's opinion of this film may depend heavily on how one feels about the Iraq war, but the portrait of Rumsfeld presented here is a disarming study in self delusion and Machiavellian political intrigue.

4
FIFI HOWLS FROM HAPPINESS
(Mitra Farahani)

There is something indescribably beautiful about Mitra Farahani's documentary about famed Iranian artist, Bahman Mohassess. Having disappeared from public life for decades, fleeing Iran due to the controversial nature of his work and his own homosexuality, Farahani found Mohassess in Italy, and discovered that he had destroyed much of his own work in despair for humanity. A fascinating and deeply moving look at an artist's last days, as Farahani befriends the legendary artists and commissions one final masterpiece. Mohassess is an intriguing and enigmatic figure, instantly beguiling and mysterious, who exults great influence over all those around him, including the film being made about him. It's an extraordinarily singular work about an extraordinary man, both elegiac and rapturous.

5
MANAKAMANA
(Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)

Pilgrims to a Hindu temple high in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal travel to and from the sacred site of the goddess Bhagwati via cable car in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's quietly mesmerizing documentary, Manakamana. The filmmakers follow their subjects through a series of uninterrupted takes as the gondola floats to and from the temple, carrying worshippers, tourists, and even animal sacrifices up and down the mountain. We only catch glimpses of the breathtaking landscape around them, but Spray and Velez turn this deceptively simple piece of ethnographic cinema into something disarmingly spiritual. It's a unique and observant experience, at once meditative and enthralling, offering brief peeks and insights into the lives of others a world away.

6
LIFE ITSELF
(Steve James)

It's really kind of impossible to be objective about this film. Roger Ebert was an inspiration to all of us film critics and film buffs. But Steve James' documentary, chronicling Ebert's rise as the critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, his tenure on television with Gene Siskel, and his subsequent battle with cancer, is more than just your typical bio-doc. It's not a film of mourning, it's a film of celebration. It's not a lionization, it's an exploration. Life Itself is a loving, honest, and clear eyed portrait of a great man that isn't afraid to display his warts too. Two thumbs up.

7
THE MISSING PICTURE
(Rithy Panh)

The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia comes to life with clay figurines standing in for the real people in Rithy Panh's autobiographical documentary, The Missing Picture, a 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Panh uses the expressionless figures to fill in the "missing pictures" of one of the darkest chapters in human history, and the results are both riveting and devastating. It's a risky formal choice, but it pays off, giving us a deeply painful and wholly unique glimpse into a the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign of terror.

8
NATIONAL GALLERY
(Frederick Wiseman)

Frederick Wiseman turns his characteristically observant eye onto London's National Gallery art museum, giving us the next best thing to visiting it in person. At nearly three hours long, National Gallery is an immersive experience, like all of Wiseman's films, examining all aspects of the daily operations of the museum, from tours and lectures by art experts, to art demonstrations for the blind, to figure drawing classes for the public, no stone is left unturned. While the behind the scenes administration meetings aren't quite as riveting as they are in his other recent films like La Danse, Crazy Horse, and At Berkeley, they do reveal the interesting and often sad aspect of commercialism in art. Still, when Wiseman focuses on the art itself, National Gallery attains a kind of religious reverence, and when he brings ballet dancers into the gallery at the end - moving artists watched my figures whose stories we come to realize aren't as frozen in time as we might think, it becomes something completely sublime.

9
THE KILL TEAM
(Dan Krauss)

A harrowing documentary about a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan who killed Afghans for sport, masking their crimes by framing their victims as enemy combatants, and the whistleblower who tried to speak up but got blamed for the murders anyway. Explosive stuff, a frightening look at a culture of killing run amok in the hands of a undetected psychopath. Presents a kind of ultimate "what would you do" wrapped up in a no-win situation. This one is hard to shake.

10
EXPEDITION TO THE END OF THE WORLD
(Daniel Dencik)

A group of Danish scientists and artists head into uncharted fjords once blocked by ice to explore a world heretofore unseen by Western eyes. This gorgeous and often breathtaking documentary examines not only their pioneering spirit, but their philosophical musings as their mission reveals to them the fleeting nature of life in the face of such ancient mystery. A simple doc, and it could have gone deeper perhaps, but it's a fascinating one nonetheless.

Top Ten Film Scores of 2014

Today I begin my year-end retrospective of 2014 with a rundown of my picks for the best musical scores of 2014. I've long been a fan of film music so this is one of my favorite year end rituals. It has been a strong year for film music, with several strong scores supporting a stellar list of films. From the avant-garde to the traditional, from the melodic to the ambient, this year's offerings have run the gamut of style and creativity, often pushing the bounds of what it means to be a film score.

Here are my picks for the best scores of 2014.

1
UNDER THE SKIN
(Mica Levi)


For the year's boldest film, first time film composer Mica Levi crafted the year's boldest score. It's a terrifying, sometimes atonal, yet strangely beautiful collection of sounds and textures that works its way under your skin and sets your teeth on edge. A perfectly singular accompaniment to Jonathan Glazer's masterful film about an alien disguised a human preying on lonely humans.

2
THE CONGRESS
(Max Richter)



For a film with such a radical blend of live action and animation, Max Richter lends the film a deep sense of humanity even in its most abstract moments. In a world where everything is a fabrication, Richter deftly reminds us what's real. It's the most moving score of the year.

3
INTERSTELLAR
(Hans Zimmer)


Hans Zimmer's name has become synonymous with a certain kind of big, epic score. So his minimalistic approach to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a refreshing change of pace. Sure it gets loud, but Zimmer's use of Philip Glass inspired rhythms and an old fashioned organ bring this giant space epic home.

4
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
(John Powell)


John Powell actually improves upon his Oscar nominated score for the original How To Train Your Dragon with this lushly thematic sequel, featuring some of the year's best choral writing. In a world of generic scores for kids movies, Powell's bewitching Dragon scores stand head and shoulders above the rest.

5
THE HOMESMAN
(Marco Beltrami)


For Tommy Lee Jones' feminist reworking of Western mythology, Marco Beltrami delivers a harsh yet tenderly beautiful score that perfectly captures the understated longing and tragedy that courses through the film.

6
THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
(Joe Hisaishi)


Hisaishi's scores for Studio Ghibli films are a treasure, and his score to The Tale of Princess Kaguya is no exception. Who but Hisaishi could make such cheerful music sound so achingly sad? It's a deeply impressive achievement.

7
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
(Johann Johannson)



Johann Johannson managed to beat Alexandre Desplat at his own game, stepping away from the minimalism that has defined much of his cinematic output up to this point (see his excellent work for The Miners' Hymns and Prisoners), for a lovely, classically inspired score that gives The Theory of Everything its heart. Even when the film steps into generic biopic territory, Johannson consistently elevates it.

8
THE MONUMENTS MEN
(Alexandre Desplat)


Speaking of Desplat, the man had a stellar year with scores for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Imitation Game, and Unbroken. But my favorite Desplat score this year was for George Clooney's severely underappreciated WWII dramedy, The Monuments Men. Channeling the Americana optimism of John Williams, Desplat delivers a jaunty, infectious score that feels like something out of another era.

9
GONE GIRL
(Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)


The creative collaboration between director David Fincher and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross continues to yield some of the most fascinating and groundbreaking music coming out of Hollywood. For Gone Girl, Reznor and Ross deliver their most melodic, yet most unsettling, work yet, highlighting the rot beneath the veneer of a seemingly perfect marriage.

10
PALO ALTO
(Devonte Hynes)



2014 was a great year to be a teenager on film. Gia Coppola's Palo Alto is a haunting look at high school life, as well as the sometimes devastating emotional and psychological damage those years can bring. Devonte Hynes' ambient score, along with the many original songs composed for the film, capture that fleeting innocence tinged with melancholy that so define the emotional tumult of being a teenager.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

FURY (Steven Price), THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (Howard Shore), MALEFICENT (James Newton Howard), THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Alexandre Desplat), THE IMITATION GAME (Alexandre Desplat), NOAH (Clint Mansell), A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (Joel McNeely), BIRDMAN (Antonio Sanchez), RAGNAROK (Magnus Beite)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Worst Films of 2014

With Christmas just around the corner it's time to kick off my annual year end round up. Before I start counting down the highlights of 2014, let's get the negativity out of the way right off the bat with my picks for the worst films the year. There was a lot to celebrate in cinema in 2014, but there was also an inordinate amount of garbage. For every big budget blockbuster that was artistically daring (Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), there was one that seemed to actually set mainstream filmmaking back a step or two (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction). I saw a lot of terrible films this year (call it an occupational hazard), but these ten are by far the worst offenders.

1
LEFT BEHIND

You could probably fill a list of worst films with nothing but Nicholas Cage films at the rate he's been going lately. But Left Behind, Vic Armstrong's ill advised remake of Kirk Cameron vehicle that was in turned based on the popular series of fundamentalist Christian books about the end of times, is not only theologically unsound, it's also a pretty terrible movie. Attempts to improve on the low budget original but nothing can save something this ludicrous. This is truly, utterly, hilariously inept filmmaking. I know this is a Christian film, but the only thing that could explain the presence of Cage, Lea Thompson, Jordin Sparks, and Chad Michael Murray is a deal with the devil.

2
AMERICA: IMAGINE THE WORLD WITHOUT HER

Conservative author/"filmmaker" Dinesh D'souza can't even stick to his own ridiculous premise, filling this "documentary" with broad generalization and laughable straw man arguments. D'souza thinks that because that other countries have practiced slavery, or that he found a few black slave owners that somehow made everything OK. Or that he found a black female self made millionaire that somehow negates the systemic oppression of African Americans throughout history. Or that Native American tribes once fought with each other over the same land that was taken from them by white settlers makes that theft somehow justified. D'souza's biggest mistake is that he thinks exceptions to the rule negate the rule. America is a beautiful idea, but it isn't perfect. D'souza can't seem to accept that fact, and while very few people would make the argument that we need to totally undo the mistakes of our past and dismantle America (which is an idea just as dumb as anything in D'souza's film), we can at least learn from those mistakes and try to chart a better course in the future. As he did in his previous film, 2016: Obama's America, D'souza makes it all about himself. He wants to be the conservative Michael Moore, but he is in all the worst ways, without any of Moore's filmmaking talent.

3
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES

Jonathan Liebsman's updated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the epitome of the modern generic action movie. It's almost as if aliens found a Michael Bay movie and then tried to make their own, and failed miserably. Yet another example of the bizarre modern trend of taking franchises meant for children and trying to market them toward nostalgic adults (who may or may not have ever actually grown up). The story is darker and grittier, and the turtles are creepy rather than funny (hitting on April, really?). Who is this movie for? It's too dark and violent for kids, too stupid for adults, it just doesn't work on any level.

4
GOD'S NOT DEAD

2014 was a year when Christian filmmaking saw unprecedented box office success, unfortunately the quality of the product being peddled to Christian audiences continues to be far below their lofty aspirations. God's Not Dead isn't a film, it's a thinly veiled evangelism tool that's preaching solely to the choir. It crassly turns God into a commodity to be bought and sold. This is the kind of faith-based film populated by villainous atheists, anti-Christian liberals, foreign communists, fundamentalist Muslims, and general jerks that only exist in a Fox News Christian persecution fantasy, and its cynical, judgmental attitude toward these non-believers is disturbingly un-Christlike to say the least. God may not be dead, but after watching this film, you might think cinema is.

5
V/H/S: VIRAL

This third entry in the V/H/S series of anthology horror films loosely plays with the idea of viral videos while still trying to stick to the analog aesthetic that is the very basis for the franchise, which up until now had been fairly innovative. None of the segments stand out (or make much sense), and some are actually laughable. Brings nothing new to the table, and featuring the weakest framing device of the entire series.

6
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

I was mostly with Michael Bay's Transformers series until this. You know you have a problem when a bunch of CGI robots are more likable and have more depth than your human characters. It's interesting since has last film, Pain & Gain was something of an intentional self parody, knowing and self aware. Age of Extinction feels like a parody of a Michael Bay film. It doesn't even feel like Bay is really even trying anymore. Throw some wall to wall explosions on screen and call it a day. This film is a mess.

7
ANNABELLE

If the cardinal sin of horror movies is dullness, then John R. Leonetti's Annabelle deserves to burn in hell. A bland, awkwardly paced prequel to the surprise hit, The Conjuring, which focuses on the titular doll, and has about as much life as its namesake. Alfre Woodard does her best to class up the affair, but her presence only makes the the rest of the film feel that much more inert. Poor pacing, stiff writing - it's tedious and obvious right from the start.

8
THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS

I was a fan of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's last effort, Amer, which told the story of a young woman's discovery of her sexuality through the filter of Italian giallo horror. Their latest trip to the giallo well, however, is much less successful. Less psychosexual and more just psycho, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears takes its avant-garde tropes away from the surrealistic psychology of Amer and almost into dada territory. There's a certain Theatre of Cruelty element at work here, with its jolting imagery and oppressive sound design, aesthetically reminiscent of Germaine Dulac and Antonin Artaud's 1928 silent short,The Seashell and the Clergyman, but it never adds up to anything. It's a film that's more irritating than dream-like, never achieving the psychological depth to which it inspires, instead spinning its wheels in aimless avant-garde experimentalism without any real purpose.

9
THE ZERO THEOREM

You can't knock Terry Gilliam for aiming small - in The Zero Theorem he tackles the meaning of life and the existence of the soul through the eyes of a blank eyed working stiff (Christoph Waltz) tasked with proving that existence is all for nothing in a dystopian, corporate ruled future. Unfortunately, the resulting film is a muddled mess of spiritual hokum that mistakes sci-fi gobbledygook as philosophical depth. Gilliam manages to combine Minority Report with 1984 without any of their psychological heft.

10
SON OF GOD


At best a Jesus' Greatest Hits album, at worst, a shameless cash grab, re-editing a made-for-TV miniseries into a theatrical feature in an attempt to wring more money out of Christian audiences. The story of Jesus has been told on film many times before, and by far better films than this (King of Kings, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Passion of the Christ), and Son of God brings nothing new to the table. There are a few stirring moments by very virtue of the story they tell, but they are buried beneath Hans Zimmer's bombastic score and wooden acting. It is a film without subtlety or context, the ultimate example of preaching to the choir, never showing who Jesus really was or what made him such a great man - merely playing a game of Sunday School connect the dots. I'm a Christian, and we deserve better movies than this. For examples, check out Randall Wallace's surprisingly affecting Heaven is for Real, or better yet, Martin McDonagh's masterful Calvary. But really, you're much better off reading the book.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

On "The Theory of Everything"


From The Dispatch:
I was reminded in some ways of Julian Schnabel's 2007 film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which told a similar biographical story about a paralyzed man who dictated his entire life story just through blinking his eyes. While "The Theory of Everything" isn't quite on that same artistic plane, it is undeniably moving. Love may not always conquer all, but it is always blindingly, sometimes maddeningly beautiful — and that's one thing that may never be explained by science.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review | "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

It is interesting that this year's two best horror films, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook, were both directed by women.

Described as "the first Iranian vampire western," Ana Lily Amirpour's  A Girl Walks Home at Night feels like a finger in the eye of a patriarchal society, but more than that, of a patriarchal genre. It's no secret that the horror genre has always been male-centric; made by men, marketed to men, and featuring lots of scantily clad women in distress.

There is female nudity in A Girl Walks Home at Night, but here it doesn't feel exploitatitve, it feels revolutionary. This is, after all, an Iranian film, directed by an Iranian woman. Much like Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda (2013), an essentially feminist tale that became the first Saudi Arabian film ever directed by a woman, A Girl Walks Home Alone at night is something of a landmark coming out of the oppressive Islamic regime.

Sheila Vand in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Plot-wise, there doesn't seem to be too much going on here. The film centers around a burqa-clad vampire stalking the streets of a fictional Iranian town called Bad City, preying on the lonely and predatory men. Lest you get the impression this is some sort of feminist revenge fantasy, think again. Our vampire is an equal opportunity blood sucker. But there is something about a sexually empowered Muslim woman preying on men in a historically patriarchal country that is hard to ignore. It's certainly an indelible image, one that makes up the film's haunting and unearthly center. But that's where any semblance of a conventional plot ends.

The vampire, it turns out, is lonely herself; starved for attention and in need of friendship. She finds that friendship in the form of another lonely soul. This is where Amirpour delves into more surreal territory. If you come to the film looking for a plot, you may find yourself confused or frustrated. But you would also be missing the point. Watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I was reminded of the work of Jean Rollin, whose trademark brand of surreal erotic horror in films like The Nude Vampire, Lips of Blood, and The Iron Rose feels like a spiritual predecessor to Amirpour's film.

Arash Marandi in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Rollin's films rarely made sense - but that wasn't the point. But this is no mere empty exercise in style. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night incorporates elements of the horror and western genres, then throws in some film noir for good measure, to create a truly unique genre synthesis. By upending audience expectations, Amirpour deconstructs then reconstructs her chosen genres in increasingly fascinating ways. There's just nothing else out there like it. Amirpour, along with Jennifer Kent, have muscled their way into the horror boys' club by giving us scares that go much deeper than the usual jump scares and gore. While Kent goes for psychological horror, Amirpour goes for something otherworldly, a creeping unease that completely eschews conventional ideas of fear, centered around a female character who serves as both antagonist and protagonist, monster in the dark and damsel in distress.

That's what makes A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night such a special film. Amirpour asserts her own singular voice with such staggering confidence that the film is impossible to ignore. It completely defies filmmaking convention, announcing the arrival of a towering new cinematic talent. A black and white Iranian vampire western directed by a woman may sound like the Loch Ness Monster of horror movies, but it's actually the best thing that the horror genre has given us in recent memory.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT | Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour | Stars Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, Dominic Rains | Not rated | In Farsi w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.