Friday, May 20, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Arabian Nights"

It's difficult to judge Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights as separate films, especially its first entry, Volume 1, The Restless One, because it's really just the first part of a much larger whole.  Easily Gomes' largest canvas to date, the Arabian Nights trilogy is an ambitious, sprawling work that confronts the Portuguese austerity measures that resulted from the global recession, and plunged much of the country into poverty.

Gomes takes the structure of the ancient tale of Scheherazade and re-purposes it into something adventurous and new. Utilizing documentary techniques, Brechtian alienation techniques, and surreal metaphorical flourishes, Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One weaves an immersive, humorous, and often angry portrait of a nation at a specific point in time whose corrupt leaders have lead them into poverty and ruin. Taken on its own, it often feels aimless and scattershot, but when viewed as part of a larger whole, it's spectacular - a wholly unique work of artistic activism. There's really nothing else like it.

The second volume in the trilogy, The Desolate One, stands on its own much better than The Restless One. Here, Gomes continues to explore the desolation of Portugal at the hands of government austerity measures through a series of stories as told to the king by Scheherazade, but the results are more streamlined and memorable here. The vignettes are longer, allowing them to establish themselves in deeper ways, and more focused on narrative, rather than switching back and forth between fiction and documentary. While the effect was often exhilarating in The Restless One, The Desolate One goes deeper.

In one engrossing sequence, a judge tries to get to the bottom of what seems like a simple crime, only to uncover a trail of corruption and misdeeds (some of which involve a genie and a talking cow) so wide-reaching that it causes her to break down in despair.  It is perhaps the finest sequence in the entire trilogy, exposing the complexities of the Portuguese economic crisis for which everyone and no one is to blame. The film culminates with the tale of a dog, transferred from master to master, loving each in turn as if the previous owners never existed. Here, Gomes explores the passage of time in such a poignant way, using magical realism to blend fantasy with the cold, realities facing Portugal today. This is where Arabian Nights really comes into its own - bracing, angry, hilarious, moving, and above all, highly original.

As a whole, Arabian Nights is a fascinating piece of cinema, but its third and final installment, The Enchanted One, goes off the rails in comparison to the previous two films. Here, Gomes abandons the structure of the work up until now, and introduces Scheherazade as an actual character, caught between modern day and antiquity. Her stories here focus more on documentary style, in this case relating the tale of a group of bird-catchers who spend their time catching chaffinches.

This is where The Enchanted One misses the mark - its focus on the chaffinches is strangely un-involving and unfocused (especially strange given how riveting sequences of The Desolate One were. Arabian Nights ends with a whimper rather than a bang, seemingly losing sight of its own righteous indignation at the injustices facing the people of Portugal after its economic crisis. Taken as a whole, it's a tremendous work, but it doesn't quite stick the landing in its final installment.


All three films are now available on a 3-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set from Kino Lorber.

Review | "The Measure of a Man"

Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man sort of feels like something you might miss if you blink. It's a work of such subtle power, it's dramatic weight so imperceptible, that you almost don't realize what it's doing to you until the final shot. Much of that power is due to Vincent Lindon's beautifully understated performance as unemployed, working class family man, Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon), who has been out of work for months and is barely scraping by on a €500 a month unemployment check.

Angry that his skills are getting him nowhere, and that unemployment continuing education classes have been useless, Thierry becomes increasingly desperate for work, eventually accepting a position as a loss prevention officer at a soulless corporate big box store. At first the job seems straightforward - catch people shoplifting, apprehend them, and hopefully settle the conflict by getting them to pay rather than calling the authorities.

But soon Thierry realizes that his job is more than just catching petty thieves pocketing phone chargers on their way out of the store, he's also being asked to keep tabs on the employees as well. Management, it seems, is looking to downsize the company, and rather than making cutbacks elsewhere, they ask loss prevention to monitor the employees and report on even the tiniest infractions. This puts Thierry in a moral dilemma - is he willing to sacrifice the jobs of others in order to preserve his own? Is he willing to put people in the very situation he just climbed out of in order to provide for his own family?

It's a disquieting question, one for which Brizé provides no answer. Brizé directs with a kind of unobtrusive, observational naturalism reminiscent of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. He allows Lindon's performance to carry the film, the moral weight of his choices forming the core of the film without ever drawing attention to themselves, until Brizé hits us with the chilling implications of his dilemma in the film's final moments. Even then, there is a certain sense of the mundane to the moment - this is just another day at the office for Thierry. This is his life now. But at what cost? He has sold his soul to the devil, and he may not even know it. In The Measure of a Man, it is the small choices that make you who you are. Just doing your job may not feel like anything wrong, but at what point will the small chips in your moral fabric finally break you? It's all written on Lindon's haunted face, but Brizé wisely leaves it to the audience to decide - he presents us with an unassuming but surprisingly sharp moral quandary, a nagging question of honor that's hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MEASURE OF A MAN | Directed by Stéphane Brizé' | Stars Vincent Lindon | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens today in select cities.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Bicycle Thieves"

As haunting a portrait of the desperation of poverty as the cinema has ever given us, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) remains one of the supreme film masterpieces. A product of a devastated post-war Italy, Bicycle Thieves took a hard look at the economically downtrodden, desperate to rise above yet constantly held back by circumstances beyond their control. In this case, our subject is Antonio, a family man who has finally gotten a job after being out of work. The catch is that he must have a bicycle, and his bicycle is at the pawn shop. After selling their bedsheets to get the bike back, it gets stolen on his first day on the job, leading to a frantic search across Rome, and an impossible choice that that will take him and his son to the depths of despair.

De Sica would more blatantly pull the heartstrings in Umberto D. in 1952, but there's really nothing else that compares to the grim efficiency of what he achieves here. Sparse, melancholy, and strikingly real, Bicycle Thieves has the haggard, hangdog feel of a documentary, with a dramatic structure so subtle that its shattering climax almost comes as a blindside. Using non-professional performers and real locations, the film feels unquestionably authentic, which adds to its quietly immense power. Bicycle Thieves isn't so much an indictment of a broken system, but a cry of anguish at an uncaring world. It leaves us with such an air of hopelessness that it becomes a moral call-to-action. It may not be Brechtian in style, but there's still something distinctly Brechtian about De Sica's determination to remind us of a world outside the cinema, of the plight of those less fortunate, and the deck that seems so frustratingly stacked against them.

The new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray may just be a direct upgrade from the earlier DVD release, with no new special features, but it's still a must have for any serious cinephile. Before Citizen Kane became the new reigning champ, Bicycle Thieves was considered the greatest film ever made for many years. Even today, when other films have become more highly regarded in retrospect, Bicycle Thieves has always been one of those films that has endured to the point of immortality. Indeed, watching it again in 2016, its timeless power is even more evident. It's themes remain universal, its impact un-blunted by time. This is one disc that deserves a special place on any collector's shelf.

GRADE - ★★★★

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "L'inhumaine"

Marcel L'Herbier's oft overlooked silent masterpiece, L'inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman) is one strange animal. A delirious pastiche of cinematic styles, from French Impressionism, to German Expressionism, to Soviet Montage, L'Herbier's film feels like a sweeping portrait of the state of the art in 1924.

The film centers around a wealthy opera singer (real life prima donna Georgette Leblanc), who holds court over a host of suitors vying for her affection. With great relish she teases and torments each man as he throws himself at her feet. One man in particular, a young scientist named Einar (Jaque Catelain), falls so madly in love with her that he commits suicide after she spurns him, leading the town to violently turn its back on the once popular diva. But when the stunning truth at last comes to light, a scientific breakthrough that can allow people to live forever comes to light, and the opera singer soon discovers that it is truly possible to become the "Inhuman Woman" that the public has referred to her as all along.

In some ways, L'inhumaine feels like a precursor to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), with its grand, expressionistic science fiction elements. L'Herbier introduces his film as a romantic drama, one that exudes sexual tension and dread at every turn. The prima donna's lavish parties are attended by servants in grinning masks, rendering them deaf, mute, and perpetually smiling. It's an eerie, haunting, almost dream-like world, and L'Herbier takes us on a journey into the dark depths of romantic obsession before taking a hard turn into science fiction in the film's final third.

The most striking difference between L'inhumaine and Metropolis, however, is their views on technology. Whereas Lang viewed technology as man's ultimate downfall, L'Herbier envisions it as humanity's salvation. It's a remarkably prescient work, imagining a world connected by technology, connecting artists with their public as never before. Rather than take a dystopian view of the future, L'inhumaine takes an almost utopian turn, a striking turn of events after its rather grim view of humanity at the start. Whether or not technology ultimately brought out the best in us, as L'Herbier contends, is up for debate, but it's hard to ignore its uplifting optimism that stands in stark contrast with other science fiction films of the period (and beyond), which envisioned a world of technology run amok. L'Herbier has a tendency to overindulge, letting his sequences of debauchery go on for unusually long periods, but the effect is nothing short of intoxicating. He creates such an indelibly realized world, featuring striking use of deep focus and sweeping cityscape shots, that immerse the audience in his singular vision.

L'inhumaine is the latest silent classic to get the Blu-Ray treatment for the first time from Flicker Alley, who seem to have made it their mission to shine a light on otherwise forgotten masterworks of the period. After dominating the speciality market last year with releases of Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, Man with a Movie Camera and Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, Flicker Alley has started off 2016 with a bang with L'inhumaine. Bonus features may be sparse, - a 15 minute making-of featurette, a behind the scenes look at the creation of one of the two scores available on the disc, and a booklet detailing the history of the film and L'Herbier's other work - but they make the most out of the features they do have. They provide an illuminating insight into an all but forgotten piece of cinema history - one that managed to unite contemporary artistic giants such as Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, René Clair, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound in one key crowd scene. There's really just nothing else out there like it. And now at long last it has received the gorgeous, beautifully restored Blu-Ray release it deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.

Friday, February 19, 2016

From the Repertory - 2/19/16

GILDA (★★★½)
There are few entrances in all of cinema as iconic as Rita Hayworth's in Gilda, emerging from the bottom of the frame, tossing back her mane of hair, effortlessly sexy and (in 1946) a woman fully in control of her own sexuality.

It's easy to see why Hayworth became such a sensation. Gilda is a strange animal, to say the least. At once a hard boiled film noir and a romantic melodrama, with Hayworth as a sexy ingenue rather than a femme fatale. It feels as if she should be in a musical or a romantic comedy, yet the film around her is a dark tale of betrayal and murder. Layers upon layers of emotion and feeling pile up, leaving the audience both uneasy and at times confused. Director Charles Vidor leaves much of the characters' motivations in the shadows, as if the barely know their own selves, let alone each other. Glenn Ford's grizzled, noir narration even disappears by the film's end, leaving the audience in the dark, much like its characters. Gilda is a film of textures and moods, light and shadow, cast in shades of gray where black and white are merely the colors of the film. Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Benjamin is worried about his future. Fresh out of college, spending his days drifting in his parents' pool, Benjamin has no idea what he wants to do with his life. That is until he is seduced by a family friend, Mrs. Robinson, and begins a mostly passion-less, summer-long affair, before developing feelings for Mrs. Robinson's daughter.

There are few more indelible portraits of youthful ennui than The Graduate, with its memorable evocation of Boomer restlessness in a rapidly changing world. Yet as much as the film is a product of the 1960s, it remains somehow timeless, ignoring era-specific references that could have easily dated it. Instead, it focuses on Benjamin, a young man who has no clue what he's supposed to do with his life. It's the ultimate "what now?" movie. It's a question that remains unanswered, which is what continues to make The Graduate still so relevant today. Through Dustin Hoffman's star-making performance, through Simon & Garfunkel's now iconic soundtrack, through Mike Nichols' canny direction, The Graduate captures youth at a crossroads like no other film. And while its ending seems ripped right out of a cheesy romantic comedy, there's a melancholy question mark that continues to hang over the entire film. Five decades later that question mark still haunts, not just because of its uncertainty, but because of how little things have changed. On Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on Feb. 23.

THE KID (★★★½)
Charlie Chaplin moved into the world of feature films with 1921's The Kid, blending slapstick comedy with sentimental melodrama in a way that would come to be his trademark. Here, his iconic Tramp meets a little boy who was abandoned by his mother after being born out of wedlock, and reluctantly becomes a father. Over the course of five years, the two form an inseparable bond, until a county doctor finds the boy's living conditions unsuitable, ordering him removed from the house,

The Kid remains one of Chaplin's most deeply affecting works. There are few scenes in all cinema as heart-wrenching as the one in which the boy is forcibly removed from his home by the authorities to be carted off to the orphanage. Chaplin's transition from short form comedy to feature length dramedy isn't always a smooth one - the ending remains abrupt and the final dream sequence feels like an unnecessary distraction from the plot, included to fill time rather than progress the story. Still, Chaplin proved himself equally adept at tickling funny bones and pulling heartstrings, and his chemistry with young Jackie Coogan remains one of cinema's great onscreen pairings. The film itself has never looked as good as it does on Criterion's new Blu-Ray, which brings the now 94 year old film look crisp and new. The disc also includes Nice and Friendly, a 1922 short film starring Chaplin and Coogan. Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Woody Allen's loving ode to German Expressionism is perhaps the most visually stunning film of his career, even if the film itself occupies a rather minor place in the director's canon. Drenched in Weimar-era delights, from the Kurt Weill tunes on the soundtrack ("Mack the Knife" has never had such a keen emotional impact), to the fog-laden, backlit streets of Eurpoe, Shadows and Fog creates such an indelibly intoxicating atmosphere that it's hard not to become lost in its more sensual pleasures.

On the other hand, the content of the film is rather thin, despite its take-off on the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Allen stars as a nebbish-y coward who finds himself caught up in a vigilante crusade to find a phantom strangler who is stalking the streets at night, yet despite his seemingly important role in finding the killer, he never actually discovers what his job is supposed to be. Along the way he gets caught up with the police, meets a merry band of man-hating prostitutes, and befriends a sword-swallower on the run from the circus (and her philandering husband). Shadows and Fog features a never-ending litany of cameo performances - Mia Farrow, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, John Malkovich, Donald Pleasance, John Cusack, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, David Ogden Stiers, Wallace Shawn, and Madonna all show up in one capacity or another. It's a consistent joy, but it's also unfocused, showcasing Allen's tendency to get lost in unnecessary subplots. It's all so beautifully done that it's often easy to ignore its faults, but once you get past its breathtaking imagery there's unfortunately not a lot going on here, especially when you have so much material to work with when you're cribbing from the films of Lang, Pabst, and Murnau. Now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

On "The Witch"

From The Dispatch:
“The Witch” is a work of profane brilliance, elegantly crafted and truly, deeply frightening. Its masterful blending of the sacred and the blasphemous makes it not just a great horror film, but perhaps the first true horror masterpiece of the new century. 
Click here to read my full review.

Review | 2016 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

Perhaps the most obscure films in any Oscar category, even among the short films, the documentary shorts tend to be a showcase for up and coming talents in the field. Doc shorts allow filmmakers to explore interesting subjects that may not be enough to carry their own feature film, but are nonetheless stories worth telling. In a few cases this year, however, some of these subjects absolutely deserve their own feature, and the shorts leave us wanting more. This year's nominees cover a wide variety of subjects, from Red Cross workers tasked with disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims in Liberia, to arraigned marriages and "honor killings" in Pakistan.

A team of Red Cross workers are tasked with removing and disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims in Liberia during the disastrous outbreak of 2014 in David Darg's Oscar nominated documentary short. It's fascinating to see how the crew interacts with the families of the victims, many of who refuse to let them remove the body, thereby putting others at risk of infection. The problem is that it's almost too short. At only 13 minutes, we barely get the time to get to know the subjects, much less the families of the victims. There's a strong story here waiting to be explored, but BODY TEAM 12 merely scratches the surface.

A young, aspiring Vietnamese artist struggling to overcome his birth defects as a result of Agent Orange is the subject of Chau, Beyond the Lines, a short documentary that chronicles his journey from a special hospital, to striking out on his own to pursue his dream. Chau is an interesting subject, but I found myself more drawn to the broader plight of the millions of Vietnamese children still being born with major birth defects due to the United States' use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.  I think there is a larger story to tell here, of which Chau plays a vital role, about the continuing fallout from the Vietnam War, and the grotesque exploitation of Agent Orange hospitals as tourist attractions for people to come and gawk at deformed children. Director Courtney Marsh shows these things, but never really explores them, focusing instead on Chau alone, when it feels like the focus should be much broader. There is a feature documentary waiting to be made here, and a much bigger story that deserves to be told.

More of a portrait of an artist than an appreciation of his work,Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah examines the toll of filming the monumental, years in the making, 10 hour long documentary, Shoah, on its director. Begins with some brief accolades of the film by critics and filmmakers, but mostly focuses on Lanzmann and how he remains haunted by a work that almost drove him to suicide. Feels a bit like a DVD supplement, and while the beginning of the film seems a bit extraneous (and even perfunctory) given the film's main focus, Lanzmann's own remembrances are chilling stuff, reminding us of the seemingly neverending ripple effect of Hitler's final solution, and the enduring power of art.

A young Pakistani woman is shot in the face and left for dead in the river by her own father and uncle in a self described "honor killing," after she ran away from home to marry the man she loved against her father's wishes. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's harrowing documentary takes a hard look at a patriarchal society that condones such honor killings, as the young woman's quest for justice is continually blocked by men in her community who strong-arm her into forgiving her would-be murderers in order to preserve the honor of her family. It's a difficulty and frustrating watch, and with good reason. We watch, completely helpless, as a young woman is forced to give up her agency to appease a society dominated by men and their fragile sense of masculinity. A tough but surprisingly fair minded film that examines both sides of the issue, interviewing both the accused and the accusers, and comes away with a quiet sense of righteous rage.

Heartbreaking animated documentary examines the case of a Vietnam veteran executed for murder, despite overwhelming evidence that it was a PTSD flashback episode that lead to his crime. Told from the point of view of the man's brother, who remains haunted by the fact that he turned his own brother into the police after discovering evidence of the crime, Last Day of Freedom is a powerful look at the American justice system, and how it failed one of its own soldiers, who was just as much of a victim as the woman he killed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On "Hail, Caesar!"

From The Dispatch:
"Hail, Caesar!,” is a great, big love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood manages not only to showcase a plethora of old Hollywood genres, but also be all of them at once. Part film noir, part musical, part costume drama, part historical epic, “Hail, Caesar!” is a relative smorgasbord of old Hollywood delights. The Coens manage to satirize the confines of the system while also paying homage to it. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Review | 2016 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review | 2016 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

10 Best Blu-Ray Releases of 2015

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


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

(Flicker Alley)

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

(Flicker Alley)

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


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

(Flicker Alley)

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


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


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


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


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

(Scream Factory)

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

Flicker Alley

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

Monday, January 04, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Top Ten Documentaries of 2015

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

(Laurie Anderson)

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

(Joshua Oppenheimer)

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

(Stevan Riley)

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

(Frederick Wiseman)

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

(Debra Granik)

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

(Patricio Guzmán)

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

(Alex Gibney)

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

(Liz Garbus)

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

(Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)

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

(Evgeny Afineevsky)

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