Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review | "Song of the Sea"

When the 2009 Academy Award nominations were announced, Oscar watchers were left scratching their heads at the inclusion of Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells among the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It was a film that wasn't really on anyone's radar before that moment, from a relatively unknown distributor, GKIDS, which specializes in foreign animation.

Since then, GKIDS has racked up five additional Oscar nominations for A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, Ernest & Celestine, and two nominations this year for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and Moore's latest film, Song of the Sea. This time, many more Oscar watchers saw Moore coming. While many thought there would only be room for one foreign animated title this year, few thought that both PrincesKaguya and Song of the Sea would make it into the final five, especially at the expense of perceived frontrunner, The LEGO Movie (I had given the edge to the more widely acclaimed Princess Kaguya in my own predictions).

The fact that the Academy found room for both films, however, is heartening, because their nominations ensured a much larger audience than they might otherwise have had. Song of the Sea is an utter delight, a film filled with subtle wonders that continue to reveal themselves upon repeat viewings. It's a deceptively simple story, deeply rooted in Irish folklore, about a young boy named Ben and his mute little sister, Saorise, who turns out to be the the Selkie, an ancient race of seal people who made their home on both land and sea. After their mother, a Selkie herself, had to return to the sea when Saorise was born, their father became determined to save Saorise from a similar fate. Yet Saorise's heart longs for the sea, but as her magic grows weaker from living on land, a powerful witch, determined to rid the world of all feelings to heal an ancient pain, seeks to keep Saorise from returning to the sea, and undoing her spells with her Selkie magic.

It seems simple enough, but the folklore here is actually pretty dense, especially for outsiders not familiar with Irish legends. In fact, at first glance, it seems such a slight confection, but Moore has clearly done his homework. Song of the Sea isn't just a pretty picture. Its hand drawn animation is certainly breathtaking, with Moore's geometric style yielding some of the most beautiful animation to grace the silver screen in recent memory. But beyond the film's glorious style, Song of the Sea is a delicately crafted ode to the power of emotions. In Moore's world, even the most painful of emotions are responsible for who we are, and Song of the Sea embraces them with open arms. While it's essentially a children's story, there's something here for everyone. Adults will certainly marvel at the gorgeous images on display and exploration of Irish legend (I especially appreciated the use of W.B. Yeats' classic poem, "The Stolen Child"). It's still a shame that the Academy couldn't find room for the excellent LEGO Movie among the five nominees for Best Animated Film, I'm glad that Song of the Sea managed to land a nomination. Animation like this what saves us from the increasing homogenization of the computer animated family blockbuster. There is so much artistry at work here, impeccably hand drawn and utterly original. It made me long for the days when films like this were the rule rather than the exception, but coming in 2014, Song of the Sea is a breath of fresh air, as rare and as beautiful as the Selkies it depicts.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SONG OF THE SEA | Directed by Tomm Moore | Voices of Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Blu-Ray Review | "101 Dalmatians"

It would be difficult to argue against 101 Dalmatians (1961) being one of Disney's finest animated films. Walt Disney himself sought out the rights for Dodie Smith's children's book of the same name, and the resulting film is one of the most beloved and enduring films in the Disney canon.

It's certainly a charmer; the dogs are some of Disney's most delightful heroes. But the real star here is Cruella De Vil, one of the mouse house's most wickedly clever creations - a chain smoking, fur obsessed one percenter (before such terms had been coined) who was willing to do anything to turn a pack of dalmatian puppies into a fur coat. Such a dastardly villain (she wants to kill and skin puppies!) certainly cemented the film's place in the Disney canon, but the truly ghastly nature of who and what Cruella is helped ground the film in its more realistic modern setting. That immediacy made Cruella all the more terrifying. She doesn't have supernatural powers, she's just pure evil.

Cruella's evil may be what seared the film into the minds of so many (with the help of George Brun's immortal song), but visually it's one of the most striking Disney films of the classic era, with its almost impressionistic pencil drawings and dazzling use of color. 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney film to utilize xerography in its animation, meaning the individual frames no longer had to be hand traced onto separate cells, leaving behind the stray lines left by animators' pencils. This gives the film a unique look, one that would endure in Disney animation until computers replaced the xeroxing process with 1989's The Little Mermaid.

All of this is fascinatingly detailed in the special features on the new Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, which thankfully includes all the features from the Platinum Edition DVD, as well as some mostly minor new extras. It seems as if Disney learned their lesson after the underwhelming Diamond Edition of Sleeping Beauty failed to include any of the old special features from previous editions, and replaced them with some rather lame kid oriented bonus content. While many of the old special features provide history lessons for grown ups, the highlight of the new content is "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt," which follows the heroic western canine that so enthralled the puppies on TV in the film. While it's unfortunately short lived, it's fun to see more of Thunderbolt. A feature hosted by Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce is mostly perfunctory, but a 1961 featurette called "The Best Doggone Dog in the World" hosted by Walt Disney himself makes for an entertaining time capsule. It provides some insight into what made 101 Dalmatians so special for him. And clearly this was a labor of love, you can feel it in every aspect of the production. While it was remade into a live action version in 1996 starring Glenn Close (a film that, for all its Home Alone style antics, was surprisingly good), nothing can ever beat the original. As always, these Blu-Rays are limited editions, and will be heading back into the infamous Disney vault before you know it, and this is definitely one that belongs in any true Disney fan's collection.

GRADE  - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Blu-Ray Review | "A Day in the Country"

Jean Renoir may have left his 1936 film, A Day in the Country unfinished, abandoning it to work on 1937's Grand Illusion after a run of bad weather caused a delay in production, but even in its incomplete form it somehow still feels like a complete and satisfying work. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father, painter Auguste Renoir), A Day in the Country, deftly combines his father's idyllic view of country living with de Maupassant's darker fatalism.

It's the story of a bourgeois Parisian family heading out to the country for an afternoon getaway (a pastime of the French upper crust that greatly annoys the provincial locals). Once there, the mother and her lovely daughter (who is engaged to a clueless buffoon at the behest of her family) become the object of admiration for country folk, two of whom invite the ladies for a canoe trip down the river. Along the way, the daughter finds herself drawn to her mustachioed suitor, who will give her an encounter she will remember for the rest of her life.

Renoir masterfully suggests not only the loss of the daughter's innocence (in a truly haunting closeup in which she looks directly into the camera), but also the wistful melancholy of the chance encounters of youth as time inevitably marches on. It may only be 40 minutes long, but Renoir is in top form here. It's hard to imagine this as a longer film, but one can't help but wonder - if A Day in the Country is this good in its truncated form, how major would it have been if Renoir had completed it? It's almost as big a "what if?" as the central question of the film, reflecting on what life could have been when those idyllic moments of the past are gone and cold, hard reality takes their place. We get a glimpse at the film that might have been on the Blu-Ray, which offers Criterion's usual wealth of extras, including outtakes that are longer than the film itself, as well as an insightful interview with Renoir scholar, Christopher Faulkner.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The new transfer beautifully captures Renoir's lyrical imagery, which in turn evokes the landscape paintings of his father, Auguste. The images are still soft, as one would expect from a film from this time period, but they seem more focused, more robust. The softer focus employed here almost makes the film seem more painterly, as if Renoir were bringing the paintings of his father to life on screen, while delicately skewering their romantic idealism. Renoir's lovely mise-en-scene, and in turn the countryside itself, almost becomes its own character, just as important to the thematic integrity of the film as the characters themselves (if not more so). Here, Renoir is both romantic and realist, incorporating the ideals of both de Maupassant and his father, Auguste, looking with wistful longing at the bygone days of youthful abandon and the often aching reality that follows. It's one of Renoir's most bittersweet works, a film that, just like the country life it depicts, feels beautifully, perfectly incomplete.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Introduction by director Jean Renoir from 1962 
  • The Road to “A Day in the Country,” a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner about the film’s production 
  • Renoir at Work, a new video essay by Faulkner on Renoir’s methods 
  • Un tournage à la campagne, an eighty-nine-minute 1994 compilation of outtakes from the film 
  • Interview with producer Pierre Braunberger from 1979 Screen tests 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez
Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Review | "The Duke of Burgundy"

While mainstream audiences are likely to flock to Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine's Day, this year, the thinking man's superior alternative is currently playing in limited release in select cities.

Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy is the story of two women, whose unusual relationship is slowly revealed over the course of the film. When we are first introduced to them, they could be a maid and her employee, or they could be something more. But when your film begins with a woman punishing a disobedient maid by urinating in her mouth, you know you're in for something unusual. Unlike E.L. James' inexplicably popular series of erotic novels, however, everything about The Duke of Burgundy is surprisingly tasteful.

Strickland isn't interested in the sexuality of their relationship, in fact there is no nudity at all anywhere in the film. It feels surprisingly non-exploitative given the subject matter. For a film this bold and gutsy, it's unexpectedly tender and measured in its depictions of sadomasochism.

Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), the younger of the two women is the submissive in the relationship, slave to the objectified whims of her dominant, the schoolmarm-like dominatrix, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Their lives are filled with role playing, a series of commands, tasks, and punishments punctuated by moments of real intimacy when the games are over. Or at least that's the way it seems on the surface. Outside their world of S&;M, Cynthia is a mild mannered naturalist who spends her time studying butterflies and moths, while Evelyn spends her days planning ever more elaborate role playing games and punishments for Cynthia to dole out to her, essentially directing her own domination.

Which begs the question; who is the real dominant here? As Cynthia longs for a more loving, more traditional relationships, Evelyn's demands become more and more extreme, causing Cynthia to become more and more disconnected. It's a riveting and remarkable character study that culminates in a moment of such erotic emotional power that the performance that the performances by Knudsen and D'Anna seem to shake the very ground they stand on. Knudsen's performance is especially affecting, reflecting both deep pain and deep love in a performance of great power and grace as she transitions between the woman she really is and the woman her lover is forcing her to be.

Fifty Shades of Grey has come under fire for being misogynist, a strange criticism given that it was both written and directed by women. But The Duke of Burgundy is the very definition of a feminist film. Featuring a cast of entirely made up of women, there is nary a man in sight with a speaking role. Strickland chooses instead to focus on women, their feelings, their desires, their faces, and ultimately, their sexuality. There hasn't been a film in recent memory to so thoroughly focus on female sexuality, especially two women who really take control of their own pleasure, and don't need men to do it for them. Yet that control is what makes this film so fascinating. Strickland confronts us with questions of sexual power, asking whether we really ever know who is really in control. Do love and desire truly intertwine? Can love built on unequal power truly last?

For a film about sexuality, sex is almost beside the point. Strickland is more interested in sex as power, and by taking men completely out of the equation, he delivers something almost unheard of in modern cinema. The Duke of Burgundy feels like something from another era (Strickland was clearly influenced by Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour), Strickland's directorial style feels both timeless and innovative, aesthetically thrilling and psychologically daring. It plays with our expectations, of character, of relationships, of sexuality, and gives us a thriller of surprising and unusual depth. There are many layers at work here in The Duke of Burgundy, each more gripping and exciting to contemplate than the last, as it deftly deconstructs the endlessly complex nature of love.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY | Directed by Peter Strickland | Stars Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

On The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films

My review of this year's Oscar nominated short films was published in The Dispatch today. They're a mixed bag, as usual, but there are some real gems here. Check them out!

Best Animated Short

"Never quite reaches the level of dark humor mixed with pathos that it seems to want to achieve. (C)"

"It is an evocatively rendered and deeply felt work that aims straight for the heart, and hits an unforgettable bullseye. (A)"

"An adorable tale of animal love and devotion, looking at human life through the eyes of the pets that love us the most. (B+)"

"Nothing really new here, but Kove's drolly evocative style elevates the material. (B-)"

"Surprisingly dark, but brutally funny, "A Single Life" may not be the strongest nominee, but its originality is hard to dismiss. (B)"

Best Documentary Short


"An essential testament to the men and women who are fighting to save the men and women who saved us. (A-)"

"A deeply felt and emotionally honest work of art. (A)"

"Strangely mundane given the subject matter, "Our Curse" attempts to examine how the couple copes with the stress, but the static shots of them on a couch grind the film to a halt and offer little insight into the situation. (C-)"

"There are moments of strange beauty, but it just doesn't reach the philosophical heights that it seems to be striving for. (C)"

"Beautifully shot, even if the 19 minute running time hampers the film from hashing out its more interesting ideas. (C+)"

Best Live Action Short

"The final result feels underwhelming, with the character motivations feeling underdeveloped. (C)"

"A short, sweet, and completely winning tale of friendship and the things parents will do for the love of their children that is charming in every way. (B+)"

"An oddly affecting critique of a culture that has become too obsessed with falsehood at the expense of engaging with the real world around us. (A)"

"It's a pretty straightforward film, handsomely shot, but the real star here is Nissa Kashani's soulful performance as Parvaneh. (B)"

"Kirkby keeps the film about the performances, making the most out of Hawkins' face, allowing the subtleties of her performance to carry what could have been a very static film. But he overplays his hand in the end, undercutting the film's haunting denouement with a song choice that just doesn't work. (C+)"

Click here to read my full review in The Dispatch.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

On "The Imitation Game"

From The Dispatch:
Tyldum attempts to frame the film as some sort of mystery, intercutting the World War II story with the later investigation into Turing's sexuality. It's all very tastefully done, but it's too tasteful, glossing over Turing's suicide (by poison apple, no less) and his inner struggles in an attempt to make the film an inspiring "overcoming adversity" biopic.
Click here to read my full review.

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

(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."

(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."

(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.""

(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."

(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."

(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."

(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."

(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."

(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."

(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."


"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

(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.

(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.


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. 

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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. 

(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.

(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.