Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

From The Dispatch:
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a nostalgic paean to faded grandeur and innocence lost. Set in a world on the brink of destruction by forces from within and without, the hotel represents a simpler, more civilized time being threatened by increasing modernization. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Memory Lane

Of the 5 nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, Japan's Departures was not the best (Waltz with Bashir and Revanche are both superior films). But I don't begrudge it its win at all. It's a profoundly moving film, and Joe Hisaishi's score gets me every time. Listen to this and tell me you don't feel something.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review | "Tim's Vermeer"

As I watched Penn and Teller's new documentary, Tim's Vermeer, I was reminded of the quote from Pixar's The Incredibles - "if everyone's super, no one will be."

Implied or not, that is the undercurrent running through the entire film, in which Tim Jenison, an amiable inventor and jack of all trades, who sets out to discover the secret behind Johannes Vermeer's photorealistic paintings. How did Vermeer capture light with such a keen, photographers eye centuries before the invention of the camera?

Convinced that Vermeer must have have used some sort of aid beyond the Camera Obscura that is generally attributed to him, Jenison sets out to discover the true method behind Vermeer's genius, and once he does, to recreate it himself.

Is a non-painter claiming he can paint a Vermeer the ultimate act of hubris? Or the eccentric musings of a man with a passion for learning? A little of both, it turns out. Jenison isn't a braggart or an egoist, he seems like a pretty down to earth kind of guy who is doing this out of sheer curiosity than to prove any sort of point. And the final results are pretty surprising, although they are sure to infuriate art purists.

Tim Jenison (right) demonstrates his first painting experiment to his friend, producer Penn Jillette (right). Photo by Carlo Villarreal, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
It's an undeniably fascinating premise, however, and the results even more so. Here is Jenison, a man who has never picked up a paintbrush before, but is able to recreate the look and feel of a real Vermeer with the help of an inegenious mirror device that, in all liklihood, is what Vermeer once used to create his masterpiece.

So is Jenison an artist on the level of Vermeer? Or was Vermeer a hack, doings something that literally anyone could do if they put forth the time? Unfortunately, the film never quite delves into those questions, choosing instead to focus on the process of Jenison's experiment rather than the philosophical questions it raises. When the film does touch on those questions, it does so almost flippantly, as if the why doesn't matter as much as the how. The result is a film that feels more like an episode of "Mythbusters" than a feature documentary. The narration by Penn Jillette is almost too jovial for a film with real philosophical underpinnings, and while the filmmakers were clearly going for a more lighthearted tone at times, it often seems at odds with what's actually going on. Tim's Vermeer comes across like a television special, a middle of the road documentary about an interesting concept that would have done just as well with a documentary short. As is, there's just not enough here to justify a full length documentary, filling in gaps with long stretches of Jenison painting and building his sets; time which could have been better used by examining the implications of Jenison's work that are so blithely glossed over.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

TIM'S VERMEER | Directed by Teller | Featuring Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette | Rated PG-13 for some strong language | Opens today at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On "The Wind Rises"

From The Dispatch:
If what Miyazaki says is true, and "The Wind Rises" truly is his last film, then he has chosen to bow out with incredible grace. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Blu-ray Review | "Drums Along the Mohawk"

Much has been written over the years about 1939 being the greatest year in the history of cinema. And it's certainly a hard theory to argue with. After all, 1939 was the year that gave us The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Rules of the Game, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, you would be hard pressed to find a year as jam packed with bona-fide classics and masterpieces.

While John Ford's seminal Stagecoach is perhaps his best remembered film from that year, Ford also released his very first Technicolor picture, Drums Along the Mohawk, later in the year. Its success at the Academy Awards was muted in the shadow of Stagecoach (and an MGM sweep by Gone with the Wind), it only managed to garner a Supporting Actress nomination for Edna May Oliver (she lost to Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel).

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
While Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are often regarded as the standard bearers of Technicolor photography, it's hard to fathom why Drums Along the Mohawk isn't mentioned right alongside them. Here is a film from a man who would give us the sweeping Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers 17 years later, flexing his considerable Technicolor muscles for the time, and the results are absolutely stunning.

Starring Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin and Claudette Colbert as his new wife Lana, Drums Along the Mohawk is the tale of a young farmer who takes his city-bred new wife out to the Western frontier in the days leading up to the American Revolution. Things aren't as idyllic as he'd hoped, however, as Tory sympathizers recruit local indians to raid settlers' homesteads and wage war on a new front. When their new home is destroyed, the Martins are forced to move in with a sassy, no nonsense old widow named Mrs. McKlennar (Oliver), who brings them in as hired help. But as the raids become more frequent and more fierce, Martin is called up as part of the militia, and soon the war has followed them to the frontier, where they must make one last stand in the name of freedom.

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Drums Along the Mohawk deals with many themes that Ford would continue to revisit throughout his career, most notably the relations between settlers and Native Americans. Here, Ford takes a Western plot and relocates it to era of the American Revolution and away from the post-Civil War era the genre often occupies. Ford never quite demonizes his indian antagonists the way many films of the time did (he also gives Fonda a native best friend), but he doesn't explore that as deeply as he would in his later films. Here they are seen as an arm of the British, and part of a greater fight for American independence, rather than an obstacle to American expansion, which is a key distinction. While the film does indulge in some stereotyping (the drunken indians who attack Widow McKlennar are especially cringe-worthy in a modern context), it does so with a surprisingly light touch.

In fact Ford peppers the entire film with a warm sense of humor to balance the gravity of the plot (and the deaths of several heroic characters). His attention to detail is extraordinary, and the film isn't just a thrilling period adventure, it's a fascinating portrait of frontier life. What really sets it apart, though, is that gorgeous cinematography by frequent Ford collaborator Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan. The recent Blu-ray release by Twilight Time (which is only available in a limited, 3,000 copy pressing) makes the brilliant colors really pop, rivaling even the Warner Brothers Blu-ray of Gone With the Wind. Pay close attention to the scene where Fonda is running to get reinforcements, a band of indians at his back, his silhouetted image against a fiery red and orange sky behind him. These are the images of a consummate filmmaker, and this is Twilight Time's most impressive package in an already pretty impressive lineup, as they continue to distinguish themselves as one of the top specialty Blu-ray labels on the market. Here, they have given their all to one of Ford's lesser known masterpieces (along with comprehensive documentary, Becoming John Ford), and given it the beautiful HD presentation it deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Blu-ray Review | "The Jungle Book"

As I child, I had pretty much every Disney movie on VHS. We had a whole shelf full of those big plastic cases, and I would watch them frequently.

Oddly enough, one of the ones I watched the least was The Jungle Book, and revisiting it now on Disney's latest Diamond Edition Blu-ray, I was reminded of why.

The Jungle Book is most notable for being the last animated feature to get Walt Disney's personal touch before his death in 1966. It has become something of a classic thanks to its catchy Sherman brothers songs like"Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You,"  but seeing it again after all these years, I was surprised just how uneventful it was.

Mowgli the "man-cub" was raised by wolves, but upon the return of the tiger Shere-Khan, Mowgli must be returned to the man village or face death by the vengeful tiger.

And that's pretty much it. Mowgli is escorted to the man village by Bagheera the panther, and meets an array of colorful characters, from Baloo the bear to Kaa the snake to King Louie the ape, each helping or hindering his journey in some way. But that's really all the movie is, an episodic collection of vignettes that moves along at a surprisingly meandering pace. On the other hand, its characters are some of the most enduring in the Disney canon, which makes The Jungle Book something of an odd bird indeed. It's hard not to be charmed by it, and it has clearly endured for some reason. It doesn't have the strong plotline or classical structure of some of its predecessors, but something about it works in spite of itself. It's essentially a rambling collection of songs, but its characters and their relationships make it work.

As usual, Disney has gone all out on their latest Diamond Edition Blu-ray release, although it's strange that The Jungle Book was chosen as a worthy candidate for deluxe treatment while superior films like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland were only given standard edition releases. Still, the presentation is impressive. I had never noticed before just what a beautiful film it is, and the Blu-ray upgrade certainly pops, even if the automatic "Jungle Karaoke" feature that pops up when you pause the film is a bit annoying. Disney has demonstrated their continuing commitment to their catalogue classics, and The Jungle Book has received an impressive sprucing up that will no doubt please fans and Disney enthusiasts. It may be one of their lesser classics, but there is a reason why it has endured for so long.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On "The Monuments Men"

From The Dispatch:
Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script may overstate this message occasionally, but it’s a solid, tightly directed film. I love its old fashioned sensibilities, its constant (and completely accurate) depiction of characters smoking, its refusal to turn into a dishonestly fast paced thriller. It feels like something from another time, and that’s what’s so refreshing about it. It’s a pleasure to watch these actors work together and create something so instantly beguiling. It may not dig very deep, but it’s an effortlessly entertaining homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood that packs a surprising emotional wallop. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

On "The Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts"

From The Dispatch:
Of all the various categories at the Academy Awards, the short film categories tend to be regarded as the most obscure by mainstream moviegoers. Which isn't surprising given that shorts don't often play in movie theaters outside of film festivals, so audiences just don't have access to them they way they do the other Oscar nominees like "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave," and "American Hustle." It's a shame, because audiences miss out on some fantastic films. Short films used to be a staple of the movie going experience decades ago, but have faded away into obscurity, even as they still tend to be stepping stones for directors to gain enough attention to move into feature films. Fortunately, Shorts International has started an annual tradition of releasing the Oscar nominated short films in theaters just before the ceremony, giving the mainstream public in select cities a chance to catch up with all the nominees. 
Click here to read my full review.

On "August: Osage County"

From The Dispatch:
“August: Osage County” is a veritable acting master class, and is worth the price of admission for the actors alone. But more than that, it’s a deeply funny and strangely moving tale of a broken family. There’s something cathartic about Letts exorcising his own demons through his writing. And when brought to life by such world class actors, the results are often electrifying.
Click here to read my full review.

On "Philomena"

From The Dispatch:
It may be one of the smallest of the Best Picture nominees this year. It's not even in the five best of the nine nominees, but it has an undeniable charm about it and leaves a lasting impression. It's the kind of film that sneaks up on you, and the results are at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. Come for Dench. Stay for the film's deeply moving final 15 minutes. 
Click here to read my full review.

On "Her"

From The Dispatch:

“Her” is a strange and unique animal, but a tremulously beautiful one. It finds more truth in this seemingly odd relationship between a man and his computer than most love stories with flesh and blood characters do. That is a feat in and of itself, but Jonze doesn’t stop there. He delivers one of the most deeply felt and profoundly wise love stories to come along in a long time.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review | "Like Father, Like Son"

If there is any filmmaker who can be said to be the heir apparent of the great Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-eda Hirokazu would be at the front of the line.

Ozu was the master of Japanese family dramas, giving us masterpieces like Tokyo Story and Late Spring that demonstrated universally profound insight into the family dynamic. Through films like Still Walking (which examined adult children and their elderly parents) and I Wish (which explored the essence of childhood), Hirokazu has likewise proven himself extraordinarily adept at exploring what it means to be a family with tremendous grace and dignity.

In his latest work Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu examines not only the meaning of family, but the meaning of fatherhood, going even beyond the boundaries of familial ties.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION. All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.

The film centers around a seemingly implausible situation; two babies switched at birth in a mistake that isn't discovered until six years later. In the middle of everything is the Nonomiya family, whose father, Ryota, is a stern businessman driven by success and money. He pushes his son, Keita, to excel at the piano, practicing every day despite the child's disinterest and lack of aptitude. To Ryota, image is everything, and his son is a reflection of his own success.

But when he discovers that Keita is actually the child of a lower middle class shopkeeper named Yukari  Saiki, with a large family and much more lax standards of child rearing, his feelings toward Keita begin to change. Yukari's son, Ryusei, is undisciplined and active, whereas Keita is calm and reserved, each a reflection of the man who raised them. But now both families are faced with an impossible choice; do they exchange children to raise their own flesh and blood, or do they keep the children they have raised as their own for six years?

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION.
All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.
It may seem like an impossible scenario, but it's also an ultimate "what would you do" question. The answer may seem simple to some, insanely difficult for others. And Hirokazu treats it with the intricacy and thoughtfulness it deserves. Family is about more than just blood ties, and in that regard Like Father, Like Son isn't just an ode to fatherhood, it's a loving tribute to adoptive families everywhere. Coming out of a society where so much importance is placed on blood lineage, this is a special film indeed.

Like the very best of Ozu, Hirokazu never goes for obvious sentiment or sugary manipulation. Every note of Like Father, Like Son rings true. It's not a situation that demands an easy answer, and neither does the film. It builds to a quietly powerful climax, shattering in its simplicity and beautiful in its wisdom. This is a film that deftly explores that complexity and importance of fatherhood and family, and what that means in a world where families are frequently more than just the traditional two parent, mother/father model. In Hirokazu's world, there is room for all sorts, and it is a lesson that isn't without its price. It is, however, an essential one, and no one is better suited to tell this tale than Hirokazu, who directs with such delicacy that the result is something extraordinarily moving. No one can rend hearts quite as deftly as he can, and Like Father, Like Son is a keenly observed portrait of steadfast fatherhood and masculinity in a rapidly evolving world.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu | Stars Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Riri Furanki, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang | Not rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Review | "The Great Flood"

Director Bill Morrison, whose previous works include Decasia and The Miners' Hymns, has proven himself exceedingly adept at assembling pieces of found footage into new and compelling works of art.

You'll find no talking heads here, no dialogue or narration, just a series of haunting, grainy images culled from actual footage of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, which covered 27,000 square miles, displacing thousands of citizens from up and down the United States. This displacement led to a mass exodus of rural sharecroppers into cities like Chicago, many of them African American, leading to the eventual creation of jazz, forever altering the American cultural landscape.

Bill Frisell's jazz-infused score pays tribute to the musical idiom that was borne out of this immense disaster, but it often feels anachronistic to the images onscreen, even if it is thematically appropriate. It doesn't quite have the same emotional power as Johann Johannson's magnificent work for The Miners' Hymns.

However, Morrison makes great use of the marriage of silent images and music, creating a kind of mesmerizing tapestry of striking moments and unforgettable imagery. The damage to the original film prints lends a kind of avant-garde visual poetry to the film, not unlike Morrison's own Decasia, which showcased the strange beauty of film decay. Morrison weaves a distinctly American narrative, creating a clear timeline from the beginning of the flood, to the visits by politicians, to the eventual migration away from the deltas. People are swept away on top of motorcars by raging waters, people and dogs are stranded on roofs, and Herbert Hoover himself, not yet president, comes to survey the damage. But from all this destruction comes something distinctly beautiful, the birth of one of the most truly American forms of music.

The Great Flood has a remarkably keen sense of time and place, and Morrison immerses us in a world that feels remarkably similar to our own, even through 87 years of film dirt and grain. It's an evocative and beautiful work made with Morrison's distinct and unique voice. It is both an elegy for a forgotten time and a celebration of the life that sprang from the darkness. It is an event few are familiar with, and while Morrison's aims are more sensory than educational, the end result is something singularly enthralling.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE GREAT FLOOD | Directed by Bill Morrison | Opens today, 1/8, at the IFC Center in NYC.

On "Lone Survivor"

From The Dispatch:
"Lone Survivor" is bookended with actual footage of real servicemen set to Peter Gabriel singing a forlorn cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," setting the tone for the strenuously earnest film to come. It's one of those war movies that tries so hard to honor the troops that its self seriousness is almost goofy. Its heart is in the right place, but it has all the nuance and depth of one of those Nickelback National Guard commercials.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Top Ten Films of 2013

My annual top ten list was published in The Dispatch this past Thursday. Here is the full list:

(Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, UK)

"The cameras are even freed from the bounds of normal movement, thrown from the ship on tethers, skipping along the waves in ways that provide a truly unique and stunning visual experience that completely changes the cinematic paradigm. No other film this year approached its sheer formal audacity, and the result is a documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form."

(Joshua Oppenheimer, UK)

"It begins as a sobering look at what motivates and corrupts the human spirit to the point they could commit such atrocities, but when the murders put themselves in their victims’ shoes during the reenactments, becomes something even more profound; a look at a group of cold blooded killers coming to grips with the gravity of their sins. Watching that dawning realization of extreme guilt makes for an extraordinarily moving, and cathartic experience."

(Steve McQueen, USA)

"From the stunning performances by its tremendously talented cast (led by a jaw-dropping turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor), to the hauntingly observant direction by McQueen that finds beauty even in the ugliest of events, “12 Years a Slave” is a raw, unblinking look at one of the darkest chapters of American history that is destined to go down in history as a modern classic."

(Harmony Korine, USA)

"Director Harmony Korine assaults us over the top sex and violence, slyly playing on the demands of a hungry audience, turning their demands for more into a resounding, neon-lit condemnation of the culture of spring break hedonism. Are you not entertained?"

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

"Using gorgeous hand drawn animation (something all too rare these days), Miyazaki tells a tender story of a man who conceived something beautiful, only to see it used for death and destruction."

(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

"At once feverish and elegant, debauched and spiritual, “The Great Beauty” is a gorgeous paean to artistic inspiration and societal decay masquerading as intellectualism and spirituality."

(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong)

"Gorgeously photographed, Wong creates an intoxicating exploration of love and honor with the grace and elegance of a ballet."

(Richard Linklater, USA)

"An honest, beautifully rendered portrait of true love, not in the cinematic fairy tale sense, but in the real sense, as their love settles into something more deeply felt than either realizes. Linklater reminds us why Celine and Jesse are perhaps the most real and meaningful couple ever to grace the silver screen."

(Keith Miller, USA)

"Simple, organic, and never manipulative, Miller's agreeably sparse style never veers into maudlin territory, creating a straightforward and quietly shattering experience. An incredible American indie."

(Abbas Kiarostami, France)

"Brilliantly assembled, Kiarostami constructs the film with the eye of a consummate craftsman, slowly, elegantly peeling back layers of identity, with haunting results. A beautiful enigma."

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria), Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA), Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France), At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA), Drug War (Johnnie To, Hong Kong), All is Lost (JC Chandor, USA), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, USA), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA), Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton, USA)