Monday, August 22, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "Mountains May Depart"

There is perhaps no director who has so perfectly captured the changing landscapes of modern China than Jia Zhangke. From the literal shifting landscapes caused by the Three Gorges Dam in Still Life (2006), to the dissolusion of industry in 24 City (2008), to generational conflict in A Touch of Sin (2013), Zhangke's camera has captured a nation in transformation.

The opening credits of Zhangke's latest film, Mountains May Depart, don't occur until 45 minutes into the film, signaling to the audience that what we have been watching up to that point was, in fact, an extended prologue. Zhangke family melodrama spans three decades, and is divided into three different segments; 1999, 2014, and 2024, each shot in a different aspect ratio, widening the frame as the years wear on.
Zhao Tao in MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Each of Zhangke's films seems to operate within the construct of a different genre. As his first melodrama, Mountains May Depart is the story of a family, whose changes and conflicts reflects that of the new China in which they live. It starts out as a love triangle between three friends, where a woman named Shen Tao (Zhao Tao, in a mesmerizing performance) is forced to choose between two men; one wealthy but jealous and temperamental, one poor but kind and just. She chooses the wealthy man, a coal magnate, who eventually leaves China behind with her son, while the poor manis hit hard by China's loss of industry. Meanwhile, he son is caught in the middle, growing up without even knowing his own native Chinese language, separated from his mother, and set adrift abroad.

Zhangke captures a sense of melancholy about a nation for whom rapid change has created a loss of identity. He turns the film's melodramatic structure into a requiem for the China he once knew. Mountains May Depart is a film of cultural ennui wrapped in the tale of one family's struggles - creating a conflict deeply personal intimate. In that way, it becomes not just a personal tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire nation.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART | Directed by Jia Zhangke | Stars Sylvia Chang,  Dong Zijian,  Liang Jingdong,  Zhang Yi ,Zhao Tao | Not Rated | In Cantonese and Mandarin with English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Friday, August 19, 2016

From the Repertory - 8/19/16

New and notable Blu-Ray releases.

I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963)

Is there any film whose title has taken on more inadvertent poignancy than I Could Go On Singing? As Judy Garland's final film (featuring a title tune by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the duo who also gave her her immortal signature tune - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow") I Could Go On Singing now stands as a bittersweet swansong for one of Hollywood's most beloved and tragic figures.

As Jenny Bowman, an American singer in London who reconnects with an old love and the son she left behind, who doesn't know she's his mother, Garland pours her soul into a role that could have very easily been a stand-in for Garland herself. Bowman's domineering spirit, her overwhelming need to be loved, her often complicated relationship with her own children, have haunting echoes into Garland's own life. The result is a testament to the enigma that was Judy Garland. And boy does she ever go out on a high note. After a confessional monologue that was mostly improvised (is it Bowman or Garland speaking?), she takes the stage to an adoring crowd, and belts out the title song, "I Could Go On Singing." She didn't, as it turns out. But she left us with a final statement that is perhaps one of cinema's great farewells.

"Jenny gives more love than anyone," her ex-lover said of her, "but she takes more love than anyone can possibly give." The same could have been said about Garland. If only she knew just how beloved she really was.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943)

Busby Berkeley's first color film is everything you would expect it to be - a vibrant, Technicolor fantasia that makes every use out of the swirling, twirling visuals to create bursts of stunning, colorful magic.

Released in 1943 at the height of WWII, The Gang's All Here was Berkeley's antidote to the the growing darkness of wartime. Just as his lavish musicals of the 1930s lifted America's spirits during the Great Depression, The Gang's All Here took a look at soldiers and the women who loved them with toe-tapping musical glee. As is typical with Berkeley, plot is almost beside the point, the central romantic triangle feeling almost like an afterthought to the spectacularly staged musical numbers. I challenge anyone to find a musical number as visually stunning (or as blatantly suggestive) as the dazzling centerpiece, "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat," which features lines of chorus girls dancing with giant, phallic bananas. It's a wild burst of colorful energy that is pure Berkeley, and one of his most wildly surreal set pieces. While the film doesn't quite match up to his legendary run of the 1930s, it's hard to ignore the infectious energy of this late period triumph.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963)

Mostly remembered now as the film that made Sidney Poitier the first African American Best Actor Oscar winner, Lilies of the Field is the heartwarming story of a drifter named Homer Smith who meets a group of German nuns in the countryside who escaped East Berlin and came to America. What begins as a pit stop for water becomes something much more, as the nuns decide that he has been sent by God to finish their rural chapel, and enlist the reluctant drifter to stay and help.

The film's original advertising proclaimed Lilies of the Field to be "perhaps the most extraordinary story of courage, conflict, and devotion ever filmed." That may have oversold it a little, but there's something quietly endearing about this little film that goes beyond Poitier's powerhouse performance. He's certainly the anchor of the film, but it is his tempestuous relationship with the nuns that give the film its emotional center. Occasionally adversarial, occasionally friendly, always rooted in mutual respect, Homer and the nuns represent a kind of culture clash that, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement no less, has more to do with faith than race. There's a kind of Western vibe at work here - Poitier the rootless wanderer who drifts into town at just the right time, only to ride off into the sunset when his task is through. His task, it turns out is far more than just building a chapel, it's building a community, a rock on which to build a church. It's a beautifully understated work, built on the dignity of Poitier's warm gravitas, and told with a gentle and disarmingly moving confidence. It may be remembered mostly for Poitier's historic Academy Award, but beyond its trivia night significance, it's one of the era's unheralded gems.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE MAN WITH THE SEVERED HEAD (1973)

Also known as Crimson in its edited American release, Juan Fortuny's Euro-trash horror re-imagining of Frankenstein is borderline unwatchable. Not even one of those "so bad its good" type of movies, The Man with the Severed Head is just plain bad - a strangely uneventful film about a mad doctor who performs a head transplant on a dying crook, replacing his head with that of a psychopath, turning him from a petty criminal into a murderous maniac who isn't in control of his own actions.

The French version is slightly longer, with more nudity and gore, but that still doesn't turn this wannabe exploitation movie into anything worth watching. It's a dramatically inert, awkwardly paced work that, like most exploitation movies of its era, never delivers on the lurid promise of its title, and doesn't even have the good taste to be tasteless enough to be interesting.

GRADEzero stars (out of four)

THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (1952)

The same year that he directed the legendary western, High Noon, Fred Zinnemann also directed this lyrical and understated adaption of Carson McCuller's play, The Member of the Wedding. About half the length of the play's gargantuan 3- hour running time, Zinnemann's film is more light on its feet (if less focused on recital issues), a touching an brilliantly acted piece of southern gothic that examines the awakening of a 12 year old girl, whose older brother is getting married and leaving home. Mad with jealously, confusion, and adolescent romanticism, young Frankie plans to run away with them, baring her soul to her African American housekeeper, and the young boy who lives next door.

Zinnemann displays a similar restraint as he did in the same year's more famous High Noon, yet here it's in service of something much more personal. Zinnemann replaces the American iconography of High Noon with the politics of gender and race, rendered indelibly by the masterful performances of the play's original Broadway cast - Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and young Brandon de Wilde, who just the next year would enter into Western iconography himself by crying "come back, Shane!" While the film does not go as deep as the play on which it is based, it allows these fine actors to carry the stellar screenplay with great warmth and heart. The film often betrays its stage roots, with its single setting and long stretches of dialogue, but Zinnemann wisely steps back and allows the actors to carry it. And boy are we ever on good hands.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990)

Tom Stoppard penned the screenplay (adapted from a novel by John le Carre) for this lovely, subdued spy drama about a boozed-up British ex-pat living in Russia (Sean Connery, in one of his most delicate performances), who is recruited by British intelligence and the CIA after he is given a secret manuscript by a beautiful and mysterious Russian citizen (Michelle Pfeiffer). THE RUSSIA HOUSE eschews the chase scenes and shoot-outs usually associated with espionage thrillers for dazzling wordplay, character-driven intrigue, and a strong emotional core, as the newly minted spy Connery begins to fall in love with the woman he's supposed to be spying on.

It's also a striking political thriller, a film whose plot revolves around a manuscript that reveals that the Russians are completely unable to engage in war, and that the Americans are engaged in an arms race essentially with themselves - a fact the CIA means to cover-up. Released in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin wall, The Russia House was one of the first American films to be shot in post-Soviet Russia. It took a daring, if understated, view of a world that was no longer black and white, but whose shades of gray were reflected in the hazy drabness of early 90s Moscow, and set to the aching noir-ish tones of Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Review | "Our Little Sister"

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating - there is no more clear spiritual successor to legendary Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, than Kore-eda Hirokazu. Through films like Still Walking, I Wish, and Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu has inherited the mantle of the foremost chronicler of the Japanese family, crafting touching, often heart-wrenching, explorations of familial relations and their often complex dynamics.

Despite a plot ripe for soap-opera histrionics, his latest film, Our Little Sister is perhaps one of Hirokazu's most subdued films. That's saying something for a filmmaker whose trademark is a kind of restrained serenity, but here he never tips the scale toward overt emotionalism as he has in previous films.

Our Little Sister is the story of three sisters, who discover they have a teenage half-sister through one of their late father's affairs. Rather than shun her, they offer her a place to live, and give her a new lease on life by putting aside their distaste for her mother, the woman who broke up their family.

Left to right: Masami Nagasawa as Yoshino Koda and Suzu Hirose as Suzu Asano © 2015 Akimi Yoshida, SHOGAKUKAN, FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK INC., SHOGAKUKAN INC., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Despite some brief objections from their own mother, Hirokazu mostly avoids the drama inherent in such a potentially explosive situation, and instead focuses on the developing relationship between the four young women. It is ultimately a film about the bonds of sisterhood, and Hirokazu guides it with remarkable grace. Family relationships are a strong theme in Hirokazu's work, much as they were in Ozu's, and while Hirokazu sometimes skirts sentimentality in ways that Ozu mostly avoided, it's hard to ignore the strong bond that unites their body of work.

Like Ozu's work, Our Little Sister a slow burn, taking its time developing its characters and watching them grow, and it lacks a final "payoff" moment, but it rewards our patience with an undeniable charm. It's a lovely and lyrical film that deftly avoids emotional fireworks for something much more honest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

OUR LITTLE SISTER | Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu | Stars Haruka Ayase, Suzu Hirose, Kaho, and Masami Nagasawa | Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language | In Japanese with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 8/19, at the Ballantyne Village in Charlotte.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Blu-Ray Review | "The New World"

Like most of Terrence Malick's filmography, The New World is a film whose beauty often defies words. It doesn't matter if you watch the more streamlined theatrical cut or the more abstract extended cut, The New World is a monumental work in any form. While Malick cut down the film for its theatrical release, the extended cut almost feels like a different film entirely - more loose, more elliptical, more in line with Malick's more recent works like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups.  All three versions of the film, the first cut, the theatrical cut, and the final extended cut, are all included on Criterion's sumptuous new Blu-Ray package, which also includes and informative comparison of all three cuts.

Still, there's more of a plot-like structure here than there is in his later work, and The New World may mark his finest balance between plot and abstraction. Perhaps it is because the story he tells here is so familiar. The story of Pocahontas has been a part of American lore for centuries - the Native American princess who fell in love with John Smith, saved him from being executed by her father, and went on to marry John Rolfe before dying in England, a world away from her pristine homeland of what is now Virginia.


You can almost divide the film into two parts. The first half is about discovery - of a new world, of a new love, of one's self. It is awash in wonder and beauty (made even more breathtaking in its new 4K restoration on the Blu-Ray), and the heart-pounding, breathless yearning of first love. The second half is about disillusion, the death of innocence, and ultimately, the discovery of a new kind of love, less about unbridled passion and more about stability. Some may call the "settling," but Malick passes no such judgements here. Malick is the great cinematic observer, a poet-philosopher whose vision is presented through questions, musings, and a never-ending search for answers, both earthly and divine.

As is typical of Malick, the central love stories, between Pocahontas and Smith, then Pocahontas and Rolfe, are much more than they appear to be on the surface. Malick has constructed them as metaphors for the discovery of America - from its initial, untouched promise, to "destruction of Eden" that marks the end of the Natives' idyllic paradise, to the eventual acceptance of a new way of life, one that is not necessarily bad, but not as good as what came before.


In a sense, The New World is a deeply American love story, in which America is the object of desire. It is at once an elegy and a romance for a bygone world, one whose ramifications echo into our own world still today. Malick has much to say about the nature of love and desire here. But he also has a great deal to say about the nature and origins of America. Don't expect a political screed - Malick is far too lofty a filmmaker to sully himself with such mundanities. No, Malick reaches for the heavens, for an ideal. The New World is a search for the American soul, and we are still searching for it today. In today's heated political climate, it is a film that feels all the more vital - a probing, lyrical exploration of what makes us, as humans, as Americans, as inhabitants of this mortal plane, who we are.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration of the 172-minute extended cut of the film, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick and featuring material not released in theaters, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rays 
  • High-definition digital transfers of the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut of the film, supervised by Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays 
  • New interviews with actors Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher 
  • New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West 
  • Making “The New World,” a documentary shot during the production of the film in 2004, directed and edited by Austin Jack Lynch 
  • New program about the process of cutting The New World and its various versions, featuring interviews with editors Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, and Mark Yoshikawa 
  • Trailers 
  • PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

From the Repertory - 7/26/16

CAT BALLOU (Twilight Time)

Elliot Silverstein's delightfully silly western parody also has the distinction of being a classic western in its own right. There's Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda), a timid schoolteacher-turned-outlaw who hires a legendary gunslinger (Lee Marvin, in an Oscar-winning performance) to help her avenge her dead father. The gunslinger, naturally, turns out to be a tired old drunk, but that doesn't stop them from forming a crack shot gang that goes head to head with a corrupt local government.

Narrated in song by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as a couple of troubadours, Cat Ballou is one of those films that can't help but leave a smile on your face. Fonda adds weight while Marvin is a terrific, cast-against-type comic foil (not to mention is hilariously menacing role as the film's noseless antagonist). It manages to work as both a comedy, a musical, and a rip-roaring action adventure, which is no small feat. It's a lovably scruffy western send-up with a heart as big as the desert and an infectious sense of whimsy. (★★★½)


COWBOY (Twilight Time)

Billed as a "real western," Delmer Daves' Cowboy set out to paint a true picture of the American west. You'll find no gunslingers or saloon brawls here - Daves' film is a examination of the cowboy mythos that upends Western genre stereotypes and instead finds its drama through trials and tribulations of a group of cattle drivers. Glenn Ford is a hardened cattleman, Jack Lemmon is a city boy who longs for the romance of the cowboy life, only to discover that it is nothing like he imagined. What ensues is a battle of wills between two men who begin as adversaries but end as friends, finding common ground in their unique visions of leadership and masculinity.

It's reminiscent in many ways of Howard Hawks' Red River; and while Cowboy isn't quite on that level, its certainly a strong upending of typical genre techniques. Daves brings a kind of gritty realism and strong sense of framing, using the terrific performances of Ford and Lemmon to explore masculine rivalries and western mythos. At only an hour and a half, it feels strangely brief and comes to a somewhat abrupt conclusion, but Cowboy is about the evolution of a man more than the western backdrop it employs. There's an unmistakable earthiness to Daves' works that sets it apart from the likes of Hawks and Ford. Daves eschewed the romanticism of the West, represented here by the wide-eyed Lemmon, and instead gives us a hard dose of reality, represented by the grizzled Ford, who has no time for such lofty ideas. He has a job to do, and no time for city-slickers looking to play cowboy. It's a simple yet powerful theme, one that allows Daves to get right to the heart of the film's title, one that may seem presumptuously general (a western called Cowboy?), but actually gets right to the essence of an American myth. (★★★½)

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (Criterion)

When a heavenly clerical error results in boxer Joe Pendleton being taken from Earth prematurely, he is returned to life in the form of a corrupt millionaire, and given the chance to redeem the crooked sinner and find true love in the form of his old nemesis. A hugely influential Hollywood comedy (it went on to inspire such films as Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth), Alexander Hall's Here Comes Mr. Jordan is as delightful and effervescent as they come.

Effortlessly charming (thanks in part to the peerless Claude Raines) and endlessly imitated, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a fantasy comedy with a surprisingly complex take on the afterlife and the nature of fate. There's just enough black comedy here to keep it spicy, but the ultimate message is one of optimism and hope. There's a real sense of romantic longing here, of a man in love with a woman but unable to tell her, that strikes a chord, giving the film a kind of missed connection resonance that still rings true today. The new Blu-Ray edition by the Criterion Collection cleans it up beautifully - the glistening black & white is flawless. (★★★½)

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (Twilight Time)

Hammer Horror turned its attention from classic movie monsters to the world's greatest detective in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles, which reunited the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes and Henry Baskerville, respectively. Hammer was perhaps the perfect studio to capture the gothic nature of what is arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous Holmes mystery.

Director Terence Fisher captures the mist-shrouded eeriness of the English moors, adding a tinge of horror to the proceedings that, true to the novel, turn out to be grounded in reality. Cushing is a stellar Holmes, nailing his balance between arrogance and charm, and adding just enough menace to give the proceedings that certain sense of horror. It drags a bit in the middle, especially during the long stretches in which Cushing isn't present. Still, its terrific use of Technicolor (that blood!) and its strong performances make this Hound of the Baskervilles on of the most indelible incarnations of Doyle's immortal detective. (★★★)

THE PLAYER (Criterion)

Robert Altman takes on the Hollywood establishment in this merciless satire about a studio exec who becomes embroiled in a scandal after he murders a jilted writer who was threatening him.

Altman structures the The Player like a film noir, but one that feels like a tune on a piano being played slightly off-key. This is a fantasy world crafted by people who are completely out of touch with reality, and it is as if the film we are watching is a potboiler cooked up in the board room of the very characters we are watching. It's a sly and biting satire of Hollywood's shallowness and artistic (not to mention moral) bankruptcy. Featuring a veritable who's who of early 90s star cameos, The Player is the darkest and most ruthless Hollywood satire since Sunset Boulevard. It also looks especially great on Blu-Ray, the folks at Criterion working their magic to take this film out of the early 90's and making it feel startlingly contemporary. This is one film that hasn't lost its bite. (★★★½)

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (Twilight Time)

James Garner is a smooth talking, quick witted gunslinger who arrives in a lawless town just in time for a gold rush, signs up to be sheriff, and sets about cleaning up the streets in this nimble western send-up. The plot of Support Your Local Sheriff is a mirror of High Noon, as Garner arrests a member of a local family, who decide to rustle up a posse to ride into town to rescue him. But instead of a meditation on masculinity, we get a a laid back, lackadaisical comedy imbued with an effortless charm by Garner, and director Burt Kennedy's sharp sense of comedic timing.

Kennedy was well versed in the western genre, having directed John Wayne in The War Wagon (and several years later in The Train Robbers), and Henry Fonda in Welcome to Hard Times, so Support Your Local Sheriff doesn't feel like a western send-up, it feels like a real western. That's part of what makes its easy-going humor so effective, it fits so naturally into the world around it. Its comedy arises from the characters rather than through slap-stick or high concept pratfalls. Kennedy deftly uses character interplay and Garner's no-nonsense sass to bring natural comedy from a familiar western plotline, so the result is less parodic and more authentic. That's why the film works so well, it's a loving tribute to the genre rather than a satire, lovingly poking fun at genre stereotypes while existing squarely in the world it so effortlessly lampoons. (★★★½)

THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT (Twilight Time)

Michael Cimino made his directorial debut under the watchful eye of Clint Eastwood in 1974's Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, a combination road movie/heist caper about a grizzled criminal on the run (played with steely resolve by Eastwood) and a young upstart drifter (an Oscar nominated Jeff Bridges). With two jilted former partners hot on their tail, the two set out to find an old stash old gold hidden in the desert, setting them off on a journey that will bond the two men in ways they never expected.

With famously economical star and producer Eastwood holding Cimino back from the excesses for which he later became known, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is surprisingly economical and straightforward, lacking the indulgence that sometimes plagued the director, but maintaining his sharp focus on masculine friendships. There is a distinct homoerotic undercurrent here between Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Bridges' Lightfoot. But even if you ignore that subtext (and it's pretty hard to ignore), Cimino still keeps the action focused inward, developing the relationship between the two men with great care. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is an action film, but it's one where explosions, car chases, and violence seem almost beside the point. This is a tale of friendship, a character drama masquerading as a heist movie, that features some of the most subtle performing Eastwood has ever done. For those who missed the now out of print Blu-ray from Twilight Time, this reissue will be welcome news. (★★★)


WOMAN ON THE RUN (Flicker Alley)

After a man witnesses a mob hit, he goes on the run to save his own life, and is pursued by police in hopes of using him as a witness. Unable to track him down, the police turn to his estranged wife (Ann Sheridan), who wants nothing to do with him. She is eventually convinced by a reporter to help track the man down. Followed by both the police and the mob, both searching for her husband, she soon finds herself in an underworld of lies and murder that threatens not only her husband's life, but her's as well.

A wonderfully engaging film noir, long thought lost after the only surviving American print was burned in a fire in 2008. It has now been resurrected by the Film Noir Foundation and released on Blu-Ray for the first time by Flicker Alley. The roller coaster finale (a favorite climactic location for noir films of the period - see also 1953's Man in the Dark 3D) is especially thrilling, releasing 70 minutes worth of tension that makes for a tightly crafted joyride of a film. (★★★)


ZELIG (Twilight Time)

Woody Allen faithfully recreated newsreel style documentaries in this faux-examination of a man named Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who was so eager to please that he literally became like whoever he is around. If he's around a black man, he turns black. If he's around a fat man, he turns fat. If he's around a doctor, suddenly he's a doctor, too. Of course, these changes don't always work out for him, and an intrepid doctor sets out to cure him at all costs.

Zelig is almost pure Allen id, an exploration of his own eagerness to be liked. What makes the film so special, however, is its painstaking recreations of old newsreel footage. With the help of cinematographer, Gordon Willis (who received an Oscar nomination for his work), Allen nails the style and tone of self important biographical documentaries (often interviewing real intellectuals like Susan Sontag). It's all so perfectly executed that it never feels as if we're not watching a real documentary, and Willis captures some evocative images that feel as if they were pulled right from the mists of time. It's a fascinating experiment, filled with Allen's trademark visual wit and intellectual predilections. It is perhaps Allen's most stylistically daring films, and unlike Shadows and Fog, it doesn't get so caught up in its own style that it ignores its own story. While the documentary style doesn't necessarily lend itself to emotional connection, here, Allen probes the depths of human desire for love and acceptance, and the results are often stunning. (★★★½)

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.

THE RESTLESS ONE - ★★★
THE DESOLATE ONE - ★★★½
THE ENCHANTED ONE - ★★

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.

THE GRADUATE (★★★★)
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.


SHADOWS AND FOG (★★★)
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.

BODY TEAM 12
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.
GRADE: C+


CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES
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.
GRADE: B-


CLAUDE LANZMANN: SPECTERS OF THE SHOAH
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.
GRADE: B


A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS
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.
GRADE: A-


LAST DAY OF FREEDOM
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.
GRADE: A

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.

BEAR STORY
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.
GRADE: B-

PROLOGUE
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.
GRADE: C+

SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM
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.
GRADE: A

WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS
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.
GRADE: C-

WORLD OF TOMORROW
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.
GRADE: A+

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.

ALLES WIRD GUT (EVERYTHING WILL BE OK)
"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.
GRADE: A-


AVE MARIA
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.
GRADE: C+

DAY ONE
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.
GRADE: A

SHOK
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.
GRADE: D+


STUTTERER
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.
GRADE: B-