Sunday, November 09, 2014

Review | "Pelican Dreams"

Judy Irving, director of the 2005 documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which remains one of my favorite documentaries of the last decade), turns her attention to pelicans in this doc about an injured bird who was rescued from the Golden Gate Bridge and sent to a rescue center.

Pelican Dreams follows the bird, whom Irving names "Gigi," through her rehab, as well as other pelicans at the center, some of whom are eventually released back into the wild. Irving clearly cares a lot about this subject, and about birds in general, but unlike in Wild Parrots, that love doesn't necessarily translate into riveting cinema.

The film has a promising start, and it's easy to see why Irving chose Gigi's story as the subject of her next film. Unfortunately, the cards of reality didn't fall in place in such a way as to make this a particularly interesting story.

The birds are rescued, they receive treatment, the humans grow attached to them. That's about it. Criticizing the film feels a bit like kicking a puppy, because it's undeniably adorable, and will doubtless win the hearts of people who enjoy movies about cute animals, but there's just not much meat here. Irving attempts to pad out the scant 80 minute running time with facts about pelicans and some heartbreaking footage of birds that have been affected by oil spills and other environmental damage. But it's all so brief that it just feels like an afterthought. I'm not sure that the subject at hand really warranted its own feature film, it feels like a documentary short stretched out to feature length.

As it stands, Gigi's story is not that remarkable on its own. I'm not so cynical as to dismiss a film about cute birds, but it never really asserts itself beyond that. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was such an emotionally enriching experience, and you can feel Irving reaching for that same kind of compelling emotional hook, but nothing really sticks. It's diverting enough on its own, the birds are fun to watch, and it mostly serves its purpose, but you can probably see more engaging work on the Discovery Channel. Maybe pelicans just aren't as interesting as parrots, but documentaries are meant to observe life as it actually is, and in this case, life didn't give us a story that makes for great cinema.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

PELICAN DREAMS | Directed by Judy Irving | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

On "Birdman"

From The Dispatch:
“Birdman” is about meaning, about leaving a legacy, about asserting to the world that we did something worth remembering. It’s about a group of really screwed up people searching for truth in a world of artifice, where the only honesty they ever know comes in a performance on a stage. There’s a strange current of melancholy pulsing beneath the surface of “Birdman,” and that’s what makes such a singular and incredible achievement. This is bravura filmmaking, a jaw dropping directorial feat for Iñárritu, but most importantly, a soulful film, an intelligent film, the kind of rich and hearty grown up movie that Hollywood has seemingly forgotten to make, which was the whole point all along.
Click here to read my full review.

DVD Review | "Verdun: Looking at History"

There's something uniquely breathtaking about watching Leon Poirier's silent 1928 docudrama, Verdun: Looking at History, a film made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the end of what was then known as The Great War.

It's something that takes a while to sink in while watching the film. We seem so far removed from WWI, much more so than we do from WWII. Most of us have known someone who fought in or lived through WWII, its history as been thoroughly covered in movies and TV shows for decades. But WWI seems more foreign, less glorified. Its history is less glorious and heralded. It was a pointless war born of secret alliances and childish posturing, leading the deaths of millions in the first modern war, where old fashioned military tactics ran headlong into the new industrial machinery of death. It is much harder, then, to look at WWI through the heroic lens that we usually look at WWII, because no one really remembers what we were fighting for, and I'm not sure the people fighting it knew either.

It is difficult to fathom that Verdun was a film made by people for whom WWI was still a fresh reality. And indeed, the film feels shockingly authentic, as if it were shot directly on the battlefield of Verdun itself. It wasn't, of course, but Poirier meticulously recreated it using actors like infamous playwright Antonin Artaud and Maurice Schultz (who also co-starred with Artaud as a villainous priest in Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc that same year). While the film as a whole is no great artistic achievement, its authenticity is nevertheless notable. It plays like a series of loosely connected scenes depicting the war without any real through line to hold it all together, but it is filled with stunning set pieces and haunting imagery. It is clear that Poirier took his cues from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) in his staging of the battles, although his cinematography is much more static than Griffith's.

That's what really keeps Verdun from being the truly great film that it could have been. It is fascinating as a historical artifact, but it is never more than that. It feels as though we are watching history unfold before our very eyes. It doesn't even feel like a movie really, it feels like an accidental eyewitness to history, as if someone just happened to have a camera with them when WWI broke out and captured the whole terrible affair for future generations. It is a film with individual flashes of greatness that structurally never add up to a satisfying whole. Still though, its historical importance can't be denied, and Kino Lorber should be commended for making it available on DVD for the very first time. As a historical document, Verdun is absolutely essential. Watching it is an undeniably moving experience, knowing that this was a document of one of the most terrible human conflicts of all time made by the very people who lived it. It feels fresh and vital even 86 years later, a chilling and unforgettable reminder of a war that has been largely forgotten through time and distance. In Verdun, all that time and distance is searingly erased.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On "Listen Up Philip"

From The Dispatch:
Perry has crafted an incredibly complex comedy here, his performers conveying so much more than what is written on the page. It's a remarkable blend of razor sharp comedy and personal tragedy starring a man that's almost impossible to root for. Yet Perry makes it work to his advantage. He puts the literary intelligentsia under a microscope and comes away with a bitingly hilarious satire that has all the trappings of a incisive relationship drama. Self-delusion has never been so wickedly funny, or so deeply heartbreaking. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Blu-Ray Review | "Audrey Rose"/"The Blob"

With each new release, specialty Blu-Ray label Twilight Time has done an excellent job of carving out a niche for itself, issuing limited releases of titles in high definition that studios wouldn't have otherwise bothered with.

In some cases, it's easy to see why the studios saw no prospects for releasing the films on Blu-Ray, whether it's because of the quality of the film or the limited nature of their appeal. But in many cases, it's a great thing to see some of these films at last making their Blu-Ray debuts. This month, Twilight Time is releasing two such horror films just in time for Halloween; Audrey Rose and the 1988 remake of The Blob.

Directed by the incomparable Robert Wise, Audrey Rose (1977) came at a time when movies about demonic possession (and evil children) were all the rage. Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen all preceded it, but Audrey Rose took that familiar formula and then brought something completely different to the table.

Less horror movie and more psychological thriller, Audrey Rose focuses on reincarnation rather than possession, and a troubled child rather than an evil one. Anthony Hopkins stars as a man who believed that a little girl named Ivy is actually the reincarnation of his daughter, Audrey Rose, who was killed in a fiery car crash minutes before Ivy's birth. Her parents are resistant, even frightened at first, but when Ivy begins having violent nightmare about being trapped in a burning car, her mother (Marsha Mason) begins to wonder if she may actually be someone else, and decides to do anything she can to get to the bottom of it.

Elegantly directed and beautifully acted, Audrey Rose is a different kind of horror movie. Wise was a kind of directorial chameleon, able to adapt to any genre with ease. From musicals (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) to horror (The Haunting) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Wise conquered them all. Here, he harkens back to his directorial debut, The Curse of the Cat People, using psychological horror to explore the psyche of a troubled young girl. Wise shies away from the more supernatural elements of the story, especially in the film's gripping climax, keeping the film grounded even as it searches for answers to bigger questions to answers beyond our world.

The Blob, on the other hand, is a completely different animal.  A remake of the 1958 sci-fi B-movie classic that launched the career of Steve McQueen, The Blob updated the story with bigger, gorier special effects and a darker tone.

While I'm not one of those who contend that this Blob is stronger than the original Blob, it's still a surprisingly solid remake, especially considering it's about a giant glob of alien goo that eats people alive. This time, however, director Chuck Russell (who had recently breathed new life into the Nightmare on Elm Street series with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) delves a little deeper into the origins of the monster, painting it as the product of a government experiment gone wrong.

The effects are better, the deaths are gorier, but ultimately the film lack's the original's sincere charm. While the remake embraces its B-movie roots somewhat, it's also a darker film, and falters a bit when it goes for a big action climax.

Basically, the Blob is a much more interesting character as a mindless killing machine than a sentient monster with tentacles that reach out to trap unsuspecting victims. The original is just more likable. You can't help but admire the remake, however. It makes the most out of its much larger budget and updates the concept well. It's one of the strongest horror remakes to come along, and Twilight Time's Blu-ray transfer is excellent. For fans of sci-fi horror, this is a must have, and it's clear that Twilight Time expected the popularity of this title, by expanding their limited run from the usual 3,000 to 5,000 units. As of press time, however, those copies are almost all sold out, so if you're thinking of picking this one up, don't wait. Twilight Time has really outdone themselves with their October output, and both of these discs come highly recommended.

THE BLOB - ★★★

To order, visit

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review | "The Notebook"

Don't let the title fool you, János Szász's The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is no Nicholas Sparks love story. Set in Hungary during World War II, The Notebook is about as far from Sparks territory as you can get. This is the story of two twin boys whose mother drops them off with their grandmother in the countryside near the Hungarian border to escape the brunt of the war. Instead, she inadvertently dumps them right in the middle of Hell, as their grandmother turns out to be an unfeeling monster (locals refer to her as "the witch"), and the German army moves into one of her extra buildings on the farm.

Working day in and day out to earn their meager food, often not being allowed to sleep inside, the boys try to build up an immunity to pain, hitting and slapping each other until they are numb. But the pain the must endure isn't just physical. As the war progresses, the evils they must face become more intense. The war will change them, shape them, redefine them, but it can only reinforce their unusual bond, as all they have left of themselves is each other.

Left to right: László Gyémánt as Egyik Iker and András Gyémánt as Masik Iker
Photo by Christian Berger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Notebook is reminiscent of Rene Clement's war-through-the-eyes-of-a-child classic, Forbidden Games, although with a much bleaker outlook. It is a handsomely mounted film, but it is unrelentingly dark, which is appropriate for a film about the horrors of war. The problem is, rather than find transcendence through the darkness, the film wallows in it. There is no hope, no redemption to be found here, just unrelenting ugliness. That's certainly a legitimate approach, but it's a deeply unpleasant one. The film's episodic structure also enforces this; it is just one ghastly horror after another, with no end in sight. Szász sets out to illustrate the ugliness of war - but in the process he made a film that is as oppressive as the darkness he seeks to illuminate. There is a lot to be explored about the toll of war on the human spirit, unfortunately The Notebook would rather dwell on its misery than explore it in any meaningful way.

Films do not need to be upbeat or even hopeful to be effective, but there are few redeeming qualities about this film. The sheer never-ending level of atrocity and degradation depicted in The Notebook becomes almost laughable by the end, it's a litany of woe and misfortunate that would make even Job's jaw drop. That's what makes it ultimately ineffective, like the twin boys who are our guides through the war, we become desensitized to the horror. It just no longer affects us after a while. It deadens us, numbs us under its constant assault. It certainly paints a grim picture, but if war is hell, so is this film.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE NOTEBOOK | Directed by János Szász | Stars László Gyémánt, András Gyémánt, Piroska Molnár, Ulrich Thomsen | Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language | In Hungarian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today at the Ballantyne in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Blu-ray Review | "Sleeping Beauty"

Sleeping Beauty has long been my favorite Disney film, in no small part thanks to its iconic villain, Maleficent. It should come as no surprise, then, that Disney chose to release it on Diamond Edition Blu-Ray to coincide with the upcoming home video release of its summer hit, Maleficent, coming up in November.

Interestingly, Sleeping Beauty has already been released on Blu-Ray once before, in a 2009 50th anniversary Platinum Edition, but has long been locked away in the Disney vault. Anyone who already had that Blu-Ray in their collection shouldn't bother upgrading, as there's no real difference in image quality and, surprisingly, many of that release's special features are conspicuously absent.

Still though, anyone who doesn't already have Sleeping Beauty in their Blu-Ray collection is highly encouraged to pick this up.

That's because Sleeping Beauty is arguably the most beautifully animated of all of Disney's classic films. The detail in each frame is breathtaking, and the Blu-Ray really enhances their beauty in ways we've never seen before. The story may be one of their most straightforward and simple - a beautiful princess falls under the curse of an evil fairy and can only be woken by true love's kiss (who, naturally, she just met the day before). It is, in many ways, the quintessential Disney princess movie, and many of its tropes have since been parodied in Disney's more recent films like Frozen and Maleficent. But in its simplicity lies its charm. Its gender politics may seem outdated by today's standards (Aurora is the very definition of the passive heroine), but Sleeping Beauty retains its timeless feeling nevertheless. It consistently has the aura of an old fairy tale, lovingly told, and the ingenious use of Tchaikovsky's ballet as the film's score reinforces its timelessness.

The runaway success of Maleficent is a testament to the film's enduring power, even if the story was drastically changed to correspond with more modern social mores. I just wish that the Diamond Edition had included some of the special features from the first Blu-Ray release. You would think that something labeled "Diamond Edition" would be the ultimate release of a film, but the Platinum Edition's features far outpace the new release. There are a few deleted scenes that will be of interest to fans of the film, and a piece that focuses on the enduring legacy of Disney villains, but there is a wealth of material missing here - documentaries and featurettes focusing on Tchaikovsky's ballet that appealed to perhaps an older audience of collectors have been left by the wayside. It feels like a rush job to cash in on Maleficent, far below the standards of its previous Diamond Edition releases. It's a shame, because I really do believe this is Walt Disney's crowning achievement, but anytime this classic is released from the Disney vault is a cause for celebration, even if this is strictly for those who don't already have the excellent 2009 Platinum Edition.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

On "Love is Strange"

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On "The Zero Theorem"

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review | "God Help the Girl"

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Review | "Wetlands"

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Theatre Review | "The 39 Steps"

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 04, 2014

On "Calvary"

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

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Blu-Ray Review | "All That Jazz"

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

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

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review | "The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears"

As someone who was impressed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's last feature film, Amer (they also collaborated on the O is for Orgasm segment of the horror anthology The ABCs of Death last year), I was deeply disappointed by the comparative aimlessness of their follow-up, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears.

Continuing to pay homage the Italian giallo horror films of the 1970s, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears seems more like an exercise in Theatre of Cruelty than anything else. It's an almost self-consciously avant-garde work, relying on split screen, sped up imagery, and frequent repetition to create its atmosphere of madness. But what they achieve here seems to push the boundaries of surrealism into dadaism. In other words, pure meaninglessness.

What I love so much about surrealism is that it seeks to recreate the feeling of being in a dream, where logic no longer applies and anything is possible. Dada was anti-art, anti, well, pretty much everything. It purposefully defied all interpretation because life, according to the dadaists, was meaningless.

In Amer, the surrealism served to suggest the horror of a young woman's discovery of her own sexuality. In The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, the goal is similar, but far more disjointed. The film centers around a man's frantic search for his missing wife. As in Amer, plot matters very little in the face of symbolic imagery and atmosphere, but here Cattet and Forzani seem intent on punishing the audience, something very much akin to infamous playwright Antonin Artaud's theories on Theatre of Cruelty. Artaud sought to jar the audience, to rub their faces in the ugliness of humanity, often using loud noises, flashing lights, and naked bodies writing on a stage showcasing horrific acts. He even wrote the 1928 silent short film, The Seashell and the Clergyman, a film that clearly served as an inspiration for many of this film's avant-garde tropes.

But therein lies the biggest problem with The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - it's almost too beholden to its own inspirations. In Amer, Cattet and Forzani used the almost nonsensical style of Italian giallo filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava to tell a unique and disturbing tale of psychosexual awakening. Here, all of that seems to get lost in a mishmash of styles that never add up.  It's almost as if they are trying too hard. You could say the same for some of the avant-garde affectations of The Seashell and the Clergyman, but in 1928 Germaine Dulac was still exploring and pushing the bounds of cinema. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears, on the other hand, seems trapped in its own style, more concerned with its stylistic elements than its perfunctory lip-service to psychological depth. Whereas Amer felt effortless, this feels ponderous; an aimless doodle where film school affectations are mistaken for actual depth, a modern day piece of avant-garde standing in the shadow of masters.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS | Directed by Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani | Stars Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens August 29 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.