Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "Southpaw"

From The Dispatch:
While the trajectory the film takes may be familiar, Gyllenhaal and Horner certainly took the road less travelled. Fuqua has inspired great work from his collaborators before (Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in the director’s “Training Day” in 2001), and “Southpaw” is no different. It may be less than the sum of its parts, but taken on their own, those parts often hit all the right notes.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On "Minions"

From The Dispatch:
The problem isn't with the Minions, though, it's with the story. There's just not that much going on here. Everything about it is a weak excuse to give the Minions something outlandish to do, but there isn't a particularly strong thread running through any of it. This is why, perhaps, the Minions are better off working as supporting characters. Their constant pratfalls and gibberish chatter can only carry them so far in a traditional narrative structure, and "Minions" the film doesn't quite seem to know what to do with them.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

On "Terminator Genisys"

From The Dispatch:
It’s as if studios have finally figured out a way to balance pleasing fans and pleasing casual viewers, while not alienating either group. Sure it leans heavily on nostalgia and one’s love for the property, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If done well, which “Terminator Genisys” certainly is, it cane make for an entertaining trip down memory lane that can still deliver new thrills. Arnold is back, and it’s great to see him prove once and for all that he may be old – but he’s definitely not obsolete. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

On "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story"

From The Dispatch:
Big Bird has had a bigger impact on our society than perhaps we realized (witness the uproar over Mitt Romney's controversial comments about defunding PBS during the 2012 election). In "I Am Big Bird," all those childhood memories come flooding back, making us appreciate them in completely new ways. It is a truly magical experience from start to finish, with a heart as big and kind as the bird himself. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

On "Aloha"

From The Dispatch:
Crowe clearly has the chops, but he just doesn't seem to be that inspired by the film's Hawaiian setting, turning in a film that feels more like a tourist's emulation of the Aloha State than an authentic evocation of its culture. It's all surface beauty with no real depth. Crowe paints with a broad and often heavy-handed brush, leaving us with a film that seems strangely unsure of itself and what it wants to be. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Blu-Ray Review | "Scarecrows"

I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw Scarecrows (1988), but I do know I was too young. It was one of those movies I knew I wasn't supposed to watch, but rented anyway one night while staying at my grandparents' house. It was a decision I regretted for months afterword.

Scarecrows terrified me. I couldn't sleep (even in my parents' bed, where I sought refuge), I often laid awake at night staring at the ceiling, afraid to even look at the door for fear a scarecrow would come bursting through it any minute. For years I considered Scarecrows to be the scariest movie I had ever seen. To this day, there hasn't been a horror movie that has affected me quite like this one.

Watching it as an adult, its power is somewhat dulled, but it is also easy to see how this film had such a profound impact on my young mind. There is something deeply primal about it. Maybe it's the ingenuity brought on by the shoestring budget. Maybe its the abject refusal to play by any traditional rules of filmmaking. Either way, Scarecrows is something special. Not a great film certainly. It's a movie made by teenagers who had never made a movie before. But that amateur quality lends it a unique kind of charm that sets it apart from other B slasher films of the 80s.

The plot, such as it is, centers around a group of bank robbers who commandeer a small plane and kidnap the pilot and his daughter in order to make their escape. When one of their members goes rouge and parachutes from their plane with all their stolen money, they forced to make an emergency landing in a cornfield. They soon discover, however, that this is no ordinary cornfield, as the scarecrows that surround a nearby farmhouse come to life, possessed by the spirits of three dead farmers, and begin to pick them off one by one.

First time director William Wesley conjures up an eerie, almost hallucinatory atmosphere (his use of night vision is especially creepy), as the scarecrows have the ability to mimic people's voices, meaning the audience doesn't always know who is talking and when. It's deliberately disorienting, for the characters and for the audience, and while this isn't always effective as it could be, Scarecrows is nevertheless a mean piece of work. It's short, fast paced, and perhaps most disquieting of all, doesn't go out of its way to explain itself and the origins of its demonic scarecrows, which make them all the more terrifying. Their zombified victims often don't know they're dead, carrying on conversations with their new victims while trying to kill them as if nothing is wrong. The deaths scenes are still pretty graphic, even by today's standards. There's just something particularly disturbing about being gutted, stuffed, and turned into a living scarecrow.

Killer scarecrow movies aren't exactly a very expansive genre, but Scarecrows is easily the strongest of the pack. Shout Factory's new Blu-Ray at long last brings the film back into wide release, which will hopefully shine a spotlight on this often overlooked horror gem. It doesn't always make sense, but that's one big reason why it works so well. In our prequel obsessed culture, modern horror films often spend too much time trying to explain the origins of their antagonists. Scarecrows flatly refuses to engage in such nonsense, driving headlong into an action/horror mashup that focuses on atmosphere over plot. And surprisingly it mostly works. Wesley doesn't belabor the plot details, and instead gives us a film that operates on a purely visceral level. Sure, parts of it feel dated and even goofy now, but it still hasn't lost its wicked edge over the last 30 years. The new Blu-Ray features audio commentaries and making-of docs that illuminate the rather unconventional process that lead to its creation. And while I'm not a huge fan of polishing up horror movies that benefit from their grainy haze, the darkness of the film remains intact and terrifying. Shout Factory has resurrected yet another cult classic, giving a whole new generation the opportunity to discover its  multitude of B-grade riches.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Scarecrows is available today on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

From the Repertory: May 2015

For several years now, I have written monthly home video columns for The Dispatch in which I reviewed new Blu-Ray and DVD releases that I may not have otherwise been able to review in print. This will continue, but unfortunately limitations on space have forced me to cut back the amount of discs I am able to review. So I have decided to introduce a new feature here at From the Front Row called From the Repertory. This will allow me to review new releases of classic films, rereleases, and even some current independent and foreign films, while focusing on major Hollywood releases at The Dispatch.

Ideally, this will expand my ability to discuss older films in greater depth, and create my own version of a repertory cinema here at From the Front Row, spotlighting worthwhile releases from specialty outlets like Criterion, Kino, Flicker Alley, and Twilight Time.

Flicker Alley recently unveiled their new manufactured on demand program through their website, with 20 discs available for purchase. It's a great idea, allowing many classic silent works to be available on home video in affordable, cost effective ways. While they may not have the same quality or special features we have come to expect from Flicker Alley's other efforts, this program is a fantastic way to make some forgotten gems available for the first time. One of the highlights of this program is The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, which gathers some of the best of the comedy pair's short films, before Buster Keaton struck out on his own in 1920. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was far better at creating individual gags than he was at sustaining their manic energy over the course of an entire film (something his apprentice, Keaton, would later perfect). Instead, his films play like training grounds for talented comedians, bouncing ideas off each other and trying out new gags. The films themselves are a mixed bag, but it's fascinating, especially for fans of Keaton, to watch him grow, along with Arbuckle's skills as a director. ★★★

CRIES AND WHISPERS (The Criterion Collection, 1972)
One of Ingmar Bergman's most deeply introspective films, Cries and Whispers is a hushed and devastating exploration of death, as two sisters hold vigil over the deathbed of their dying third sister. While not quite the psychological rabbit hole that is Persona, Cries and Whispers is nevertheless a film very much preoccupied with the inner life of the sisters, as well as their faithful servant, who, in the end, is more of a family to the dying woman than her own flesh and blood. It is a boldly abstract (with a striking color palate dominated by the color red) and hauntingly emotional emulation of the threshold of death, that is often incredibly beautiful, often obfuscating, but always completely fascinating. The special features on the new Blu-Ray may not offer any greater insight into Bergman's process than other Criterion discs of the director's films already have, but Sven Nyqvist's Oscar-winning cinematography is absolutely stunning in the new 2K digital restoration. ★★★½

In 1967, Jean-Luc Godard infamously declared the "end of cinema" at the close of his most radical masterpiece, Weekend, before descending into a period of underground, Marxist filmmaking from which he never quite emerged. In his latest film, he bids farewell to language, but rather than seek to bury has his younger self did, the 84 year old raconteur seeks to expand, dismantling then rebuilding the cinematic language into something thrillingly new. Goodbye to Language is less a deliberate provocation like his last film, Film Socialisme, and more of a bold, purposeful cinematic experiment. Yet Godard refuses to give us anything familiar to hang on to. Every time it seems like he may give us something resembling traditional or familiar film form, he yanks it out from underneath us, forcing us to reevaluate the very way we watch and engage with movies. He explores philosophies of language and human communication while singlehandedly revolutionizing the medium and how movies are made. With a breathtaking use of multiple planes of space and its vibrant, oversaturated color palate, Goodbye to Language bids adieu to old modes of expression and through the use of modern tools and technologies strips down (literally and figuratively) the art form to its barest essence, before reconstructing it into a wholly unique and groundbreaking work. If this is the future of cinema - I'm in. For those who aren't convinced, the essay by David Bordwell that is included in the 2-disc Kino Blu-Ray (which features both the 2D and the 3D versions of the film) is almost worth the price of the disc alone. Bordwell cannily dissects the film in such a way that a second viewing actually seems even more fresh. ★★★½

MAD MAX (Shout Factory, 1979)
George Miller's nihilistic vision of the future launched the career of young Mel Gibson, and set the tone for the every post-apocalyptic movie that followed. It's interesting to see now just how little Max is actually in this film, as parts of it seem to be a little too easily distracted by its own grim universe. Still, the quiet, grittiness is reminiscent of Sergio Leone, and the stunts remain incredible to this day. Miller's hard edged take on the future took us away from the optimistic view of the future we had so often seen, and took us directly into a bleak, post-Vietnam wasteland, setting up a superior sequel that would build on the foundations that Miller lays here. ★★★

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (The Criterion Collection, 1941)
"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan." A famous Hollywood director, sick of making what he considers frivolous comedies, wants to make the ultimate cinematic examination of poverty (in the form of a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?), decides to head out amongst the less fortunate disguised as a tramp in order to better depict the plight of the poor. Along the way, however, he discovers that the poor don't want to be reminded of their poverty, they just want to laugh. In Sullivan's Travels, director Preston Sturges gives us perhaps the quintessential defense of comedy the movies have ever seen. Released in December 1941, the film arrived at the end of the Depression and the beginning of WWII, and at no time in our history was there a moment more perfect to escape, if only for a moment, and be able to laugh. Fans of Sturges will want to pick up the disc to check out  Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, a full length American Masters doc that provides an indispensable look at the legendary director. ★★★★

WINTER SLEEP (Kino, 2014)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's sublimely autumnal Palme d'Or winner follows a former actor whose new life as a hotel manager no longer feels as safe and comfortable as it once did, leading to conflict with his sister and his idealistic young wife. Has a laid back, lived in quality, but also an urgency and vitality that his hard to shake. The screenplay, written by Nuri Bilge and Ebru Ceylan, adapted by a short short by Anton Chekhov, is a remarkable piece of work, exploring the depths of its characters discontent on a personal, political, and spiritual level. Ceylan deftly juggles these themes into his most vital work, a massive 3 hour plus epic that turns a personal journey and crisis of self into a haunting sort of poetry. There are no extras on the new Kino Blu-Ray, which is a shame given that the film was so widely hailed. But the ravishing cinematography really shines, and losing yourself in this beautiful film is now easier than ever. ★★★½

ZARDOZ (1979, Twilight Time)
After directed the Oscar-nominated film, Deliverance, John Boorman turned his attention to this bizarre sci-fi epic about a dystopian future where the wealthy have separated themselves from the poor, and use a giant floating machine head "god" named Zardoz to control the barbaric masses. Sean Connery stars as one of their barbarian enforcers, charged with killing those who still breed, stows away inside the god head, he infiltrates the world of the rich, where they have achieved immortality, only to long for the release of death. Filled with philosophical musings on religion (especially as a tool to control and subjugate) and sexuality, Zardoz is a wholly singular experience that has become something of a cult classic. Boorman is clearly fascinated with the idea of searching for god, finding him, and ultimately destroying him to embrace mortality rather than everlasting life. While not all of the ideas explored in Zardoz ultimately work, it alternates between silly and profound, I think Boorman was onto something here. It's a wildly experimental work that certainly leaves a lasting impression. ★★★

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Review | "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared"

After the death of his beloved cat, 99 year old Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) sets a dynamite trap for the fox that killed him. The trap kills the fox, but lands Allan in a nursing home. Never the type to be cooped up, Allan escapes out the window on his 100th birthday, heading anywhere but back to the nursing home. But a bag mixup at the train station leaves Allan in possession of a suitcase full of stolen money, making him the target of an international mob who will stop at nothing to get their money back.

Along the way, Allan makes friends with an elderly train station keeper, a zoology student, a mobster's ex-girlfriend, and an elephant named Sonya who help him on his journey. Pursued by the mob, each mobster more incompetent than the last, the motley crew inadvertently does battle with an international crime syndicate through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, while all Allan wants to do is be free to live his life and blow things up.

Allan (Robert Gustafsson) in THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN...
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
As they travel, Allan recounts his life story, one that lead him through many of the great events of the 20th century. Whether it was saving the life of General Franco, helping Robert Oppenheimer with the Manhattan project, or becoming a double agent for Russia and the USA during the Cold War, eventually helping bring down the Berlin Wall, Allan always seemed to accidentally move history forward. You'd be forgiven if you thought it sounded a bit like Forrest Gump, because it absolutely is. And while Allan's history doesn't have that much to do with the main plot, it adds to the film's droll sense of humor. Allan rarely seems to understand the gravity of any situation, blithely recounting stories from his past to anyone who will listen, even at the most inopportune times.

It all has the feel of a tall tale spun by an old man exaggerating events from his life. It's whimsical and consistently amusing, managing to get by on good old fashioned charm even in its similarities to Forrest Gump. Gustafsson is a delight in the lead role, playing Allan from young man to old in such a way that I was almost reminded more of Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp than Forrest Gump. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared never overplays its hand, it never feels schmaltzy or forced, and has just enough dark humor to keep from being maudlin. Director Felix Herngren knows better than to take such an inherently absurd tale and turn it into a weepie. He lets the simple charms of the story speak for themselves. The result is an irresistible and endearing adventure that is pure escapism, a rare type of cinema magic that is as transporting as it is captivating. This one is a real diamond in the rough.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED  | Directed by Felix Herngren | Stars Robert Gustafsson, Iwar Wiklander, David Wiberg, Mia Skäringer, Jens Hultén | Rated R for language and some violence | In Swedish & English w/English subtitles | Opens tomorrow, May 8, in NYC, LA, San Diego, and Atlanta. Opens nationwide soon.

On "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

From The Dispatch:
A film that works on a scene-by-scene basis, but doesn't quite add up to a satisfying whole. It lacks focus, favoring spectacle over efficient plotting, assaulting us with CGI set pieces but rarely taking the time to place them in greater context or service to the story. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Review | "The Salt of the Earth"

Conventional wisdom dictates that photography is inherently non-cinematic. Static where film is kinetic, photography may be beautiful to look at, but it isn't necessarily as involving as cinema can be because it isn't moving.

Conventional wisdom, it turns out, is sometimes wrong.

Case in point, Wim Wenders' mesmerizing new documentary, The Salt of the Earth. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards, The Salt of the Earth is the story of renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, a man known the world over for capturing the story of humanity in striking black and white.

Co-directed by Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro, The Salt of the Earth is a deeply personal chronicle of one man's lifelong quest to document the story of this earth and the people who make it what it is. From miners to merchants to endangered species, Salgado's warmth and love for his fellow man, and the fellow inhabitants of planet Earth, radiate from each glorious photograph.

Wenders wisely steps back and allows the photographs to speak for themselves. And while a film comprised mostly of photographs may not sound very visually appealing, Wenders has crafted something completely breathtaking and wholly beautiful. Each photograph tells a story, some poignant, some funny, some tragic, each a portrait of a specific moment in time that seems to reverberate through the years. Salgado doesn't need moving images to tell his story, and neither, in turn, does Wenders. Through Salgado's own words and the lyrical eye of his camera, Wenders captures a singular document of our world - with all our joys, tragedies, triumphs, and failures intact. Salgado tackles subjects from the Gulf War (memorably capturing the the burning oil wells of Iraq) to deforestation in South America, telling stories that need to be heard through a series of unforgettable images.

Salgado documents human existence with remarkable sensitivity and profound insight into the mysteries of life, and so too does Wenders. The Salt of the Earth is a tremendous testament from one artist to another, speaking volumes through the art of photography in ways you may not have even realized were possible.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four) 

THE SALT OF THE EARTH | Directed by Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, May 1, at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On "The Age of Adaline"

From The Dispatch:
The film also suffers from a subpar screenplay, which spends way too much time twisting itself in ridiculous knots to explain the biology behind Adaline’s condition, when it should have just allowed the audience to suspend its disbelief. It’s obviously a somewhat outlandish plot, but by trying to rationalize and explain it, the filmmakers end up pushing the audience further away. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On "Unfriended"

From The Dispatch:
There is plenty of room for horror in our increasingly connected world (the horror anthology film "V/H/S" featured a Skype segment that managed to be effectively creepy). But once the central idea is established, it loses steam very quickly. A creatively bankrupt product of the Internet generation that lacks any real sense of purpose or innovation, leaving the audience wishing we could just hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE and put us out of our misery.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Your Guide to the 2015 RiverRun Film Festival

With over 165 films playing over 11 days at this year's RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, it's pretty much impossible to see them all. Thankfully I got a little preview of some of this year's titles, and have created this handy guide to some of this year's highlights.

AMOUR FOU (Jessica Hausner, Austria) | A depressed poet seeks a partner willing to die with him in a murder/suicide pact, having become fed up with the seemingly empty and shallow world around him. Jessica Hausner (whose last film, Lourdes, was my favorite film of 2010) drolly examines an aristocratic world appalled by the democratic reforms sweeping Europe in the wake of the French revolution, highlighting the absurdities of a feudalistic society as pretentious philosopher prattle on about the banalities of every day life, leading them all to a tragic end. Not as symbolically weighty, perhaps, as the magistirial Lourdes, but Amour Fou is a fascinating look at ironic tragedy in the face of grave social injustice, expanding the themes of Lourdes in a surprisingly funny way. (★★★)

ANYWHERE ELSE (Ester Amrami, Israel) | At first, Ester Amrami's Anywhere Else seems like another film about an over privileged college student whining about needing to discover who they truly are. But then, by the time Jewish Noa takes a break from studying abroad in Germany to visit her family in Israel, something opens up and Amrami's film turns into a romantic comedy with a striking sense of humanity. Amrami creates real people rather than caricatures, and directs with a disarming sensitivity that makes up for the film's rather gloomy start. It's a warm hearted film about embracing your roots that never feels cloying or needlessly rebellious. A solid effort on all fronts. (★★★)

THE CHINESE MAYOR (Zhou Hou, China) | The mayor of Datong seeks to return the city to its days of imperial glory by rebuilding its magnificent city walls, even if it means relocating tens of thousands of impoverished citizens and bulldozing thousands of homes. A striking portrait of a politician who will do anything to secure his legacy, and whose strong devotion to the inherent goodness of government leads him on a crusade against government waste and inefficiency (all while driving the city billions of dollars in debt). Admirably even handed, The Chinese Mayor is an engaging look at Chinese politics, and the universal intricacies, peculiarities, and contradictions of politics. (★★★)

FELIX & MEIRA (Maxime Giroux, France) | An Orthodox Jew who feels trapped in her marriage by the restrictions of her faith finds solace in a similarly wounded man who is mourning the death of his father. There are some interesting ideas here, and director Maxime Giroux certainly has a keen visual eye, but the film often feels like a dour, plodding soap opera rather than an in depth exploration of the questions and themes it raises (its finale is especially protracted in an unnecessary way). (★★½)

FIVE STAR (Keith Miller, USA) | I was a big fan of Keith Miller's last film, Welcome to Pine Hill (which appeared on my 2013 top ten list), so with those high hopes I found myself slightly disappointed by his sophomore effort, Five Star. Miller once again uses non-professional actors in the lead roles, focusing on a real life former member of the Bloods who takes a fallen friend's young son under his wing to teach him the ways of the streets. The use of non-professionals worked wonders in Welcome to Pine Hill, but here, with more dialogue and more emotional weight to carry, the effect is somewhat lessened. Still, there is a lived in authenticity to Miller's work that is undeniable, making him a rising talent to watch. (★★½)

HOMELESS (Clay Hassler, USA) | Shot in and around Winston-Salem and Asheboro, NC, and featuring a lead actor from Lexington, Clay Hassler's Homeless is a striking debut feature about a young man's experiences in a homeless shelter. Shot in a real homeless shelter with an actual homeless cast, Homeless has a raw, neo-realist authenticity reminiscent of the work of Ramin Bahrani or Sean Baker. It hums with a powerful energy, lyrically chronicling the plight of society's forgotten overlooked without feeling forced or exploitative. This isn't mere "poverty porn," it's a frank and honest exploration of life on society's outskirts, featuring a strong performance by its young lead.  (★★★½)

JOY OF MAN'S DESIRING (Denis Cote, Canada) | The cinema vérité style of Frederick Wiseman meets Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab in Denis Côté's documentary hybrid about life in a factory. Côté doesn't adhere to the long takes of Wiseman, but his observational style of the day to day factory business achieves a similar goal. But instead of merely observing, Côté turns what we're seeing into a kind of quietly rhythmic poetry. Not a typical documentary, Joy of Man's Desiring also features some scripted moments of absurdist dialogue that shake up the film's repetition, highlighting the strange beauty and otherworldliness of the places that create what we most desire. (★★★)

THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/UK) | 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. The Look of Silence 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. (★★★½)

STILL THE WATER (Naomi Kawase, Japan) | There is something hauntingly meditative about Naomi Kawase's Still the Water, which follows two teenagers whose discovery of a dead body on a beach leads them to a deeper exploration of their own identities. A deeply lyrical film, marked by delicate quietude, Kawase's film examines the sometimes rapturous, sometimes painful details of growing up, when naïveté is still acceptable, even expected, and the burden of adulthood still an arm's length away. Extraordinary stuff, sensitively directed by Kawase, who coaxes lovely performances from her young cast. (★★★½)

STRAY DOG (Debra Granik, USA) | 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. (★★★½)

TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER (Nick Broomfield, UK) | A serial killer terrorized South Central Los Angeles for nearly 20 years before even being publicly acknowledged by police. Preying on black women, drug addicts, and prostitutes, the killer known as the Grim Sleeper was finally caught in 2010, but as filmmaker Nick Broomfield discovered as he, along with a streetwise guide, scour the streets of South Central LA, there was mountains of evidence in plain view, pointing toward the suspect that could have lead police to the killer decades earlier. A stinging indictment of a system plagued by institutional racism, Tales of the Grim Sleeper isn't your average serial killer film. Broomfield chooses not to focus on the murders themselves and instead focuses on why he wasn't brought to justice sooner. It's a disturbing and vital look at the struggles faced by those overlooked by society, even when a serial killer is picking them off one by one for 25 years. (★★★½)

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR (Farihah Zaman, Jeff Reichert, USA) | Well intentioned documentary about the rebuilding of Long Beach Island has some undeniably moving moments. It's clearly a labor of love on the part of the filmmakers, who have cobbled together a portrait of the resilience of the human spirit in a devastated community. Unfortunately I'm not sure there was enough material here for a feature documentary. It feels a bit like a documentary short stretched out to an hour and a half. The film's final moments, however, are an emotional powerhouse.  (★★½)

THE TRIBE (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine) | Like a Romanian New Wave film as directed by Michael Haneke, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe is an audacious formal experiment wherein characters speak only sign language without any subtitles or narration to prompt the audience as to what is going on. Instead, we are left to read the body language and situations of this harrowing crime drama set in a school for the deaf and mute, where a new student finds himself rising through the ranks of a gang known as The Tribe. Both brilliant and brutal, this is a film of remarkable discipline and power, boldly taking us into a brave new cinematic world, leaving us, a hearing audience, stranded and alienated in a non-hearing world. Extraordinary. (★★★½)

WELCOME TO LEITH (Christopher Walker, USA) | This deeply disturbing documentary chronicles the infamous attempt of white supremacist, Craig Cobb, to buy up all the land and set up the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota as a haven for white supremacy groups. You'd be hard pressed to find a more terrifying film than Welcome to Leith (the use of Mica Levi's unnerving score fromUnder the Skin heightens the effect), which uses interviews with Leith citizens as well as with Cobb and his allies to paint a chilling portrait of domestic terrorism and the sometimes invisible hand of hate right in our own backyard. (★★★½)

WHEN UNDER FIRE: SHOOT BACK (Marc Weise, South Africa) | The quietness of Marc Wiese's documentary, When Under Fire: Shoot Back, is perhaps its most striking aspect. Chronicling a group of photographers known as the "Bang Bang Club," that covered the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent violent conflict, Wiese's film is somber and respectful, if not always as engaging as one feels it could be. Examines the effects of being surrounded by such human evil on those who task themselves with documenting it in an often chilling way. (★★½)

For a complete schedule of films, visit
For more coverage of RiverRun 2015, check out my Best of the Festival article in The Dispatch.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review | "Jauja"

As cinematic enigmas go, you would be hard pressed to find one more deliberately obfuscating than Lisandro Alonso's Jauja.

Yet far from hampering one's enjoyment of the film, its seeming impenetrability and its hazy thematic content deepen one's engagement with the work. Part of the beauty of this film lies in its mystery. Alonso doesn't want us to understand what we're watching so much as feel and contemplate it. Jauja is a film that seems to exist outside of time and place. It begins in the 19th century, as a father and daughter join a military caravan searching for the mythical city of Jauja, which, according to South American folklore, is a land of eternal youth and beauty. Like the fabled Fountain of Youth, man have set out in search of Jauja, but none have returned.

Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is a Danish engineer contracted with the Argentinian military. His 15 year old daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), is the only woman in a barren land full of men, and as such begins to attract attention, both wanted an unwanted. The group's commanding officer ask's Dinesen's permission to court Ingebog, much to Dinesen's disgust. But Ingeborg isn't interest, turning her affections instead toward a young soldier named Angel (Esteban Bigliardi).

Viilbjørk Malling Agger & Esteban Bigliardi in a scene from Lisandro Alonso's JAUJA.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
When Ingeborg and Angel's relationship begins to attract attention and jealousy from his fellow soldiers, they decide to run away together, stealing off quietly in the night. Not prepared to give up his daughter, and afraid for their safety in a wild and dangerous country, Dinesen mounts his horse and rides off into enemy territory in search of the young lovers. There he will face bandits, indians, and ultimately time itself, facing down an enemy man has fought against since the beginning of the world.

Jauja almost feels like some sort of Argentinian art-house reimagining of John Ford's The Searchers, with Mortensen on a kind of metaphysical quest to reclaim his daughter that ultimately becomes something much more. But what exactly is it? That question remains, sometimes frustratingly, up for interpretation. Jauja remains stubbornly confounding right to its haunting conclusion. It exists in a realm where time no longer has any meaning, and Alonso glides through time with a keen eye for atmosphere but absolutely no regard for conventional storytelling techniques. To look for a typical story here is to miss the point. Alonso was inspired by the death of a close friend, and he seems to almost get lost inside the haze of folklore and myth, as Dinesen wanders through the wilderness in a strange riff on the classic Western. He becomes enamored with the timelessness of folklore and legend, yet the film never seems to lose itself, even as we become disoriented, or even intoxicated, by its unusual beauty. A haunting existential work, often perplexing, always fascinating, Jauja is a dazzling experiment that never fully reveals itself, always hiding its meanings and ideas behind long takes and metaphors, but the result is undeniably mesmerizing, and Mortensen is tremendous in the lead role. It allows us to lose ourselves on the path the path to Utopia. We may not know how we got there in the end, but the one thing we know for sure is that the journey was more than worth it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

JAUJA | Directed by Lisandro Alonso | Stars Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Malling Agger, Esteban Bigliardi | Not Rated  | In Spanish & Danish with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Review | "Red Army"

Propaganda has always been one of the most important weapons of war. Never was that more true than during the Cold War between the United States and Russia, which was almost exclusively fought by propaganda, as the two countries constantly tried to one up each other with symbolic, non-violent victories like some sort of international dick measuring contest.

Gabe Polsky's new documentary, Red Army, focuses on one of the centerpieces of the Soviet Union's propaganda machine - the Red Army hockey team. One of the apples of Stalin's eye the Red Army team dominated world hockey for years. Yet as the USSR began to decline, so too did the Red Army, affecting their team members in life changing ways.

Red Army details the team's trips abroad, how they were watched over by Soviet agents and allowed to see and experience the West in ways most Soviet citizens never could.

Left to right: Alex Kasatanov, Viktor Tikhonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Igor Larionov, Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov 
Courtesy of Slava Fetisov/Sony Pictures Classics
It's certainly an interesting topic for a documentary, watching these hockey players go from propaganda pawns to, in some cases, Russian politicians and political opposition to the Communist regime, is the stuff of great drama. Yet Red Army never really manages to find that drama. It feels strangely thrown together and disorganized, as if its interviews weren't prepared to be filmed. His subjects are often answering phone calls or texts, while crew members set up the shot as Polsky is asking questions. His use of dramatic zooms and music cues lends more goofiness than gravity, swooping in on the subjects' faces during tense moments in ways that seem like a documentary parody. Its tonal shifts undercut its narrative momentum, leaving it feeling scattershot and kind of sloppy. This just doesn't feel like a professionally shot documentary.

Which is a shame, because there's certainly a strong film somewhere in here. The hockey players themselves are an undeniably fascinating lot. Their no-nonsense incredulity at some of Polsky's questions indicate that they don't really have time for this silliness. You can see how they would have made formidable opponents on the ice. Unfortunately, I just didn't find the resulting film all that engaging. I don't think Polsky dug deep enough, or managed to get behind the stoic veneers of his subjects. This is Polsky's first feature documentary, and it feels somewhat undisciplined, like the work of an amateur filmmaker. With cleaner editing and a tighter focus, Red Army might have been something special. Instead, it takes a strong subject and renders it toothless and forgettable.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

RED ARMY | Directed by Gabe Polsky | Not Rated | In Russian with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, March 20, at the Ballantyne in Charlotte, NC.