Wednesday, April 29, 2009

As a fan of the Halloween series, and especially John Carpenter's original, I was mixed on Rob Zombie's remake.

Now he's back remaking Halloween II, and from the looks of the trailer its not adding anything new to what we've already seen.

Decide for yourself.
From The Dispatch:
There may be a few plot holes here and there, but on the whole this is top-notch mainstream filmmaking. Macdonald wastes nothing, and "State of Play" moves along at a thrilling clip. It has a constantly compelling energy that recalls the great newspaper dramas of the past like "All the President's Men." He creates maximum suspense with minimal action, keeping the viewer guessing with unforeseen twists and turns that constantly turn the story on its head. It is a world where morality takes a back seat in pursuit of the perfect story, and things don't turn out in their most ideal conclusions.
Click here to read my full review.
Of all the films I saw and reviewed for the RiverRun International Film Festival, there was one I did not get a chance to see. This has since been rectified, and even though the festival concludes today, I found the film so extraordinary that I had to give it its due.

Luigi Falorni's Heart of Fire is a superbly crafted sucker punch of a film that chronicles a little girl's radicalization after being forced into a rebel army in Eritrea. The film is not only an examination of a little known fight for independence from Ethiopia, but of two warring factions fighting amongst themselves over who are the true Eritrean freedom fighters. As brother turns against brother and the prospect of independence seems like more and more of an impossible dream, little Awet (magnetic newcomer Letekidan Micael) gets a violent and eye opening education into human nature, with only a little prayer card with the Virgin Mary's heart of fire to give her strength. Falorni, whose last film was the enthralling documentary, The Story of the Weeping Camel, has established himself as a sharp and compelling up and comer.

The film does not currently have a US release date, but here is the film's German trailer to give you a small taste:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I've never been a big fan of traditional Southern music. It has just never really been my cup of tea, even though I'm from North Carolina and I've been around it all my life.

However, I have had the pleasure of seeing banjo virtuoso and multiple Grammy winner Bela Fleck perform live before (with Doc Watson, no less), and it's hard not to enjoy and appreciate his immense talent.

Fleck is probably the most famous banjo player this side of Deliverance, and in Sascha Paladino's new documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, he takes his banjo on the road to Africa, searching for the origins of his favorite instrument.

The banjo has always been associated, as Fleck points out, with twangy, Southern, white music. But the truth is that the instrument originated in Africa, and it remained alive through slaves who brought its essence with them. So Fleck decides to find this banjo ancestor, and while he's at it to introduce Africans to some traditional American music, and fuse it with their own.

So Fleck sets off on a musical journey across the continent, starting in Uganda, then heading to Tanzania, Zambia, and Mali. In each place, he has a musical guide, usually someone adept in local music tradition, who introduces him to the native music of each country. There, Fleck attempts to adapt his style to meet theirs, creating unique sounds as traditional Southern music meets traditional African rhythms.

In some cases the banjo is a more natural fit than others, and as the film moves along and Fleck gets closer to the instrument's origins (which many believe is in Zambia), the banjo seems more and more at home with the musical styles. By the time he reaches Mali, with its luxury hotels and music stars, the banjo seems like it was always meant to be there.

I wish the film had spent more time in Zambia, because that is where I felt like the real story was, the original home of the banjo, playing beside its early cousin, in the very location of the original slave raids. But that all seems to be skimmed over in favor of heading to Mali, which with its air conditioned rooms and royal treatment seems far removed from the more tribal rhythms of the Masai from Tanzania.

But in general, it's entertaining to see the results of these cross-continental collaborations. As a whole the film often feels more like a PBS special than a theatrical documentary, but it's hard to deny the film's charms.

Throw Down Your Heart may not break any new ground in the music documentary department, but it's a journey that I don't regret taking.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THROW DOWN YOUR HEART; Directed by Sascha Paladino; Featuring Bela Fleck; Not Rated; Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC. Additional cities will be added later.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hatice Aslan as Hacer (left) and Yavuz Bingöl as Eyüp in THREE MONKEYS. A film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. A Zeitgeist Films release.

The RiverRun International Film Festival announced the jury prize winners last night.

They are:

Best Narrative Feature: Three Monkeys
Best Director: Paolo Sorrentino, Il Divo
Best Actor: Tony Servillo, Il Divo
Best Actress: Hatice Aslan, Three Monkeys
Best Screenplay: Sergey Dvortsevoy & Gennady Ostrovskiy, Tulpan
Best Cinematography: Il Divo
Special Jury Prize for Cinematic Audacity: Rumba

The 2009 Narrative Competition jury includes Lucasfilm distribution executive Eric Besner; Wake Forest University professor and Hollywood Reporter film critic Peter Brunette; film critic Andrew O’Hehir; Michael Kutza, Founder and Artistic Director of the Chicago International Film Festival; and Callie Martin, a filmmaking student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Best Documentary Feature: Unmistaken Child
Best Director: Robert Kenner, Food, Inc.
Special Jury Prize for Original Music: Rocaterrania

The 2009 Documentary Competition jury includes Facets Cinematheque Film Program Director Charles Coleman; Christian Gaines, Director of Festivals for; Nancy Kalow, Professor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University; Hollywood Reporter Deputy Editor Dave Morgan; and Deede Pinckney, a film student from Wake Forest University.

Best Narrative Short: Pop Art
Best Documentary Short:
The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
Best Animated Short:
This Way Up
Honorable Mention:
Irinka and Sandrinka

The 2009 Shorts Competition jury includes animator Nathanael Fuller, from Out of Our Minds Animation; Elon University Instructor Nichole Triche; Filmmaker Glenda Wharton; Salem College student Lauren Meek and Winston-Salem State University student Nicholas Poinsette.

I was pulling for Three Monkeys and Unmistaken Child, so the best films won, and it's nice that they spread the love around a bit, especially to Il Divo and Toni Servillo for his masterful performance as Giulio Andreotti.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Scott Hamilton Kennedy, whose Oscar nominated documentary, The Garden, opened Friday in Los Angeles. The film, which I wrote a very positive review of last week, chronicles the struggle of a group of Hispanic farmers, who run the largest community garden in the country in the middle of South Central L.A., against government corruption and ruthless land owners who want to shut them down.

From the Front Row: How did you first hear about the story of the South Central Gardeners, and what made you decide to make a film about them?

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: It was through my co-producer, Dominque Derrenger , who saw a PBS piece, on the show Life and Times, about the garden. We had been looking to do a project together, and he said, ‘I think we’ve found something here’, and he was absolutely right. It had so many elements of a great story. He sent me a transcript, and even with that you could see so many elements. I was on a plane and got off in LA, and went right to the garden, and we started shooting the next day. So I guess you could say that there was no pre-production on this film.

FFR: Is the final film anything like what you expected when you started out?

SHK: Yes and no. The original struggle/fight was there in the beginning and through to the end in terms of a mysterious eviction, a back room deal, and the farmers not walking away without a fight. But what I didn't know was how many twists and turns, ups and downs would take place over the course of the 2 and 1/2 years of principal shooting.

FFR: One thing I found fascinating about the film was the undercurrent of racism in an area once torn apart by the Rodney King riots. Were you surprised at all by the animosity that was directed at the farmers?

SHK: I can't say that I was surprised by the fact that people in a position of power were trying to take advantage of people who had much less power, that has been going on forever, and I thought that this was going to continue that story with it being more about class (power/money) than race, but as the story developed, and especially in the editing process, when I really started to look at how people treated each other it made me think about just how hard it is for any of us to treat each other fairly without getting derailed by things like: greed, self interest, race, class, ego, and on and on.

FFR: At the end of the film the owner of the land accuses the farmers of anti-Semitism. Where did those accusations come from?

SHK: They came from a posting by a group who said they supported the farmers, and wrote a web article making accusations to the effect that Horowitz was part of a ‘Jewish Mafia,’ which is of course terrible way to handle a difficult situation, but it wasn’t even from the farmers. I was there for over four years, and I never heard any anti-semitic statements from the farmers. I heard frustration and anger about how they were being treated, but nothing racists. And for Mr. Horowtiz to say that that was the sole reason he didn’t sell the land, I just don’t get it. In end, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles did a study on the situation and they found no evidence that the farmers were anti-semitic.

FFR: Do you still keep in contact with any of the farmers?

SHK: Yes, as a matter of fact I am writing this on a Sunday evening, and I just saw several of farmers today at the Hollywood Farmers market were I picked up some beautiful collard greens and rainbow chard from them.

FFR: What can viewers of the film do to help?
SHK: Help the farmers: join their website: Write to the mayor of Los Angeles and the city council (, and let them know that you think the land at 41 and Alameda should be turned back into a community garden (and anything else you want to say to them).

And to help in your own community: Join or start a community garden in your city or town. Call on your local representatives to do the same. And, this goes beyond the issues of the film: don’t let democracy end at the voting booth. Check in on your representatives and make sure they are following through on their promises, and that they are not getting sidetracked by greed, self interest, power and the rest.

For more information about The Garden, visit, or click here to read my review of the film.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

When I first saw Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, I honestly didn't know what to think. It's a lot to take in with just one viewing, and it was at the end of a long day of movie watching (actually in the wee hours of the morning), so I was admittedly tired and probably not giving it my full attention.

So I decided to give it another shot. And I was shocked to see just how different my reaction was the second time around. Instead of the convoluted narrative I saw the first time, I saw something close to brilliant.

Il Divo is still quite complex, but the key is not to fret about trying too hard to keep up with who's who and what political game is being played at any given moment.
Sorrentino isn't as interested in history as he is in creating what is essentially a character piece, whose goal is not to depict every fact, but to capture the character's essence.

The character in question here is Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo), seven term Prime Minister and leader of the powerful Christian Democrat party, that ruled Italy from the end of WWII until the 1990s.

A feared and enigmatic figure, Andreotti's career was mysteriously followed by a series of convenient deaths that always seemed to be blamed on someone else. But as his seventh government begins, Andreotti is riding high, seemingly untouchable. So he sets his sights on what is to be the crowning achievement of his career; being elected President of the Republic. But his government finds himself in turmoil when one of its key members leaves in disgust, and the violent murder of government prosecutor Giovanni Falcone throws the Italian parliament into chaos. From there, Andreotti finds himself subject to a humiliating political defeat, and a government investigation into possible mafia ties.

Trying to keep up with all the political intricacies of Il Divo, however, is an exercise in futility, especially to someone totally unfamiliar with Italian politics. It may all seem a bit overwhelming at times, but the details are ultimately beside the point. Il Divo is a film of textures and feelings, a multi-layered thing that continues to reward the viewer with hidden riches upon each viewing.

There are some who would say that a film is meant to be watched once, but, all due respect to Pauline Kael, I'm not so sure I agree with that. Yes a film should work on its own merits, but I think to truly appreciate a film like Il Divo, one must dig a little beneath the surface. One problem I've always had with mob movies, is that often there are so many characters and hidden allegiances and things going on behind the scenes that it's often hard to keep up with, especially if there are so many characters that they aren't given time to fully develop (all of which were problems I had with Matteo Garrone's much balleyhooed Gomorrah). To some degree that trend continues here, but this time it seems to only add to the sense of discovery in subsequent viewings.

Sorrentino's camera, with the aid of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, almost seems alive. Each shot is exquisitely framed, and filmed with such an exciting verve that may be artificial, but it never feels dishonest. Sorrentino is more interested in capturing feelings and essences, and the eclectic soundtrack, which features everything from classical (Fauré's Pavane Op. 50 for Orchestra and Chorus is used to an especially haunting effect) to modern rock, gives the film an unmistakably contemporary but strangely timeless atmosphere. Il Divo is an extremely stylish film, but don't be fooled into thinking that it is all flash and no substance. Often, the style is the substance, creating feelings and moods that range from disturbing to sublime.

Holding it all together is Toni Servillo's extraordinary performance as Andreotti. With his stiff, slightly hunched posture, his square shoulders and droopy ears, his Andreotti almost seems like a cross between Bilbo Baggins and Nosferatu, strangely benign but unapproachable, cold, unreadable, and ultimately intimidating in a strangely unassuming way. For all of Il Divo's aesthetic power, it is his small gestures, the glances and ticks, that make it really come to life. He makes an inhuman character human in the center of a complex and visually stunning narrative, whose parts are always just on the verge of overwhelming the others; yet thanks to Sorrentino's sure hand, all somehow come together in the end. It's admittedly a very strange and unique mix, but sometimes the best dishes are made from the most unlikely ingredients.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IL DIVO; Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; Stars Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto, Giulio Bosetti, Flavio Bucci, Alberto Cracco, Gianfelice Imparato; Not Rated; In Italian w/English subtitles.
The Auteurs, in agreement with distributor Zeitgeist Films, is making Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys available online 5 days before its theatrical opening in New York, on May 1.

That's right, you can watch one of the year's best films online for free before it is released in theaters - and it's all legal. But it's only available today, so catch it while you can!

Check it out here, or watch below:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Emmanuel Mouret's Shall We Kiss? starts off as a pretty typical romantic comedy. Émilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) meet cute on a sidewalk one evening while Émilie is looking for a cab. After Gabriel offers her a ride, the two spend a romantic evening together. But when Gabriel tries to kiss her goodbye, she stops him, even though she wants to.

Confused and taken aback, Gabriel asks her why. And that is where Shall We Kiss? veers away from your run of the mill romantic comedy.

It turns out Émilie has a story to tell of two best friends, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), and Nicholas (Nicolas) whose lives are changed by a kiss that is supposed to have no consequences.

Judith is happily married, and Nicholas is unlucky in love. Both have been best friends for years, but never with any romantic overtones. That is until Nicholas' sexual frustration becomes more than he can bear, and he asks Judith to have sex with him just once so he can satiate his needs.

Judith agrees, and their first sexual encounter is almost painfully awkward. But it gets the job done and the two go on about their business as if nothing ever happened. Well, that's the plan anyway. Naturally, that's not exactly how it goes. Judith and Nicholas can't get that first encounter out of their minds. Deciding it must be a fluke, they decide to have sex again to prove that it wasn't actually any good and that they had imagined the whole thing. This, of course, leads to even more sex, and before they know it, Judith and Nicholas are head over heels in love.

But the problem is that Judith is married and Nicholas now in a steady relationship. Both are happy and neither wants to hurt their significant others. So they devise a series of elaborate schemes to find their lovers someone else so that they may be happy, to hilarious and poignant results.

That's what sets Shall We Kiss? apart from the competition. Of course, being a French comedy, it's light, fluffy, and incredibly sexy, but Mouret doesn't ignore the emotional ramifications of his characters actions. Often in films such as this the jilted others are either jerks or totally forgotten about, but here Mouret brings that conflict front and center. That is why Émilie will not kiss Gabriel, she knows of the consequences of a seemingly meaningless kiss.

Eventually, everything comes full circle and Shall We Kiss? becomes the effortless, and surprisingly perceptive, charmer it was always meant to be, but more so than other films of this type, it dares to explore deeper, and dare I say darker, questions than most of its romantic comedy counterparts. Shall We Kiss? positively crackles with lively French wit and captivating romance .

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SHALL WE KISS?; Directed by Emmanuel Mouret; Stars Virginie Ledoyen, Julie Gayet, Michaël Cohen, Frédérique Bel, Stefano Accorsi, Mélanie Maudran, Marie Madinier; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles.
Not many people had heard of The Garden when it was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards. It was up against high profile players like Man on Wire, Trouble the Water, and Encounters at the End of the World.

That's all changed now, because Scott Hamilton Kennedy's remarkable film is poised to make waves.

Shot over a period of 2 and a half years, The Garden tells the story of the largest community garden in the country, nestled right in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, in an area once ravaged by the Rodney King riots.

Born out of the ashes of racial strife, this 14 acre green oasis is tended to by the mostly Hispanic population, who grow their own food and have created a lifestyle in this wholly unique environment.

But all of that is disrupted when the city of Los Angeles, in a secret back room deal, sells the land back to its original owner, a wealthy land developer, for the same price they payed him for the land back in 1992.

Soon the gardeners find themselves facing the destruction of their garden, but they refuse to go quietly. Instead, they head to the courts to fight the eviction, up against powerful political opposition in league with land developers with a sketchy track record of raising millions only to produce cheap, substandard results. As their plight gains national attention, celebrities such as Daryl Hannah, Willie Nelson, Danny Glover, and James Cromwell, as well as politicians such as Dennis Kucinich, descend on the garden to try to raise some awareness of their own.

But the gardeners find themselves in an increasingly uphill battle, fighting against a seemingly uncaring system filled with political red tape, racial tension, and good old fashioned greed. As the gardeners become embroiled in a fight for their very lifestyle, The Garden takes on a universal urgency that is both riveting and heart wrenching.

Kennedy's film is both straightforward and powerfully contemporary, and in a world where corporate and government greed makes headlines almost every day, The Garden becomes a sort of microcosm of our society. The farmers represent the populations that often go overlooked, struggling to make a living while fat cats make secret deals in dark and smoky rooms. This is a story to be outraged about, to get up on your feet and shout from the rooftops. How is this possible in 2009? Why haven't we learned our lesson? Why, in the rubble of the Rodney King riots, does racism still lurk unnoticed in the hearts of those who should know better?

It's probably one of the saddest observations in the film, as members of the mostly African-American South Central L.A. rail against the gardeners for not representing the majority of the population. Racism is a vicious cycle, and the South Central gardeners end up as victims on several levels, but their resilience and strength is both remarkable and inspiring. Their battle against social injustice and their stand to protect their green haven amidst the skyscrapers should be an example for us all. The Garden is an extraordinary documentary and a stinging portrait of social injustice, that quite simply, should be required viewing. I defy anyone not to feel some emotion out of it, be it anger, sadness, or both.

As a portrait of out time, The Garden is both inspirational and sobering. This is the kind of documentary that reminds us just how powerful a documentary can really be.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE GARDEN; Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy; Not Rated; Opens today in Los Angeles.
To be quite honest, I do not like sports, I especially do not like boxing, and I know very little about either.

I knew even less about Mike Tyson before seeing James Toback's new documentary, Tyson. I knew he was a boxer, I knew he had a bad reputation, and I knew he bit Evander Holyfield's ear. But that's about it.

So I was surprised, nay shocked, and how engrossing I found Tyson to be.

It turns out Mike Tyson is not the man I expected him to be, and I suspect that will be the case for a great number of people who see this film.

Tyson is the man in his own words. It opens with Tyson sitting on a couch, talking about his life. And that is pretty much the whole film. But it turns out he is a surprisingly eloquent and self-aware speaker, one who has come a long way from his troubled youth to become a much wiser, more mature man.

Tyson takes us on a journey from his hard scrabble childhood to his discovery as a boxer while in a juvenile detention center. His roots obviously mean a lot to him, as he even allows himself to cry at the memory of his late trainer, Cus D'Amato, who eventually became his legal guardian. Quickly rising through the ranks of professional boxing, Tyson made a name for himself with his trademark speed and agility, eventually becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever in 1986 at the age of 20.

But his cocky nature and wild ways eventually get him in trouble with the law, eventually finding himself convicted of raping Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America Contestant, and is sentenced to ten years in prison. This is where Tyson's insight into his own life become really fascinating. Still declaring his innocence, Tyson rails against Washington, showing an old wound that has still yet to heal.

That is the trademark of the film as a whole. Tyson is remarkably raw and candid, displaying the maturity of man who recognizes and understands his mistakes, and isn't afraid to admit them. Toback has pulled some surprisingly intimate details from Tyson, getting him to open up in ways I would have never expected. Tyson, now a father, seems to have mellowed, but he hasn't lost that certain spark in his eye. He's still has the same tough spirit he's always had, but it has become more tempered with restraint gained from a greater insight into life.

Tyson the film is a raw, riveting portrait of the rise and fall of a superstar as seen through his own eyes. It is a rare glimpse into the psyche of a living legend, an infamous bad boy who has opened up about his life in astonishing ways. Tyson shocks and surprises at every turn, and may redefine how a nation views one of its most infamous sports figures.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TYSON; Directed by James Toback; Rated R for language including sexual references; Opens today in select cities.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My coverage of the annual RiverRun International Film Festival was published in today's Dispatch. Here is a look at some of my recommendations I didn't mention in yesterday's 6 Must See Films piece:

'I Sell the Dead' (U.S.; Director: Glenn McQuaid) - Critic's Pick

Gleefully macabre horror comedy about two 18th century graverobbers who begin to encounter undead corpses and discover a previously untapped market in transporting reanimated corpses. Well done on all fronts, with a "Dawn of the Dead" meets "Death Becomes Her" vibe. Highly entertaining. Screenings: 11:30 p.m. Friday, The Garage; 9 p.m. Saturday, The Garage (3 stars out of four)

'Kalinovski Square' (Estonia; Director: Yury Khashchavatski) - Critic's Pick

Like some kind of Estonian Michael Moore, Yury Khashchavatski takes us on a behind the scenes tour of political life in Belarus under dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Using wry, tongue-in-cheek narration and interviews with both Lukashenko supporters (mostly poor villagers whose only news come from state-issued, one-station radios) and his detractors, "Kalinovski Square" gives us a rare, intimate look at life in a totalitarian state. Screenings: 10:30 a.m. Thursday, UNCSA Gold; 4 p.m. Friday, Reynolda House; 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Reynolda House (3 stars out of 4)

'Shall We Kiss?' (France; Director: Emmanuel Mouret) - Critic's Pick

Clever, entertaining French romantic comedy about a couple who meet, but the woman refuses to kiss him, relating a strange romantic tale of two best friends who fall in love and try to find ways of leaving their significant others without hurting them. No one does romance like the French, and "Shall We Kiss" is a beautiful, swoon-worthy truffle. Screenings: 7 p.m. Sunday, UNCSA Main; 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, UNCSA Gold (3 stars out of 4)

'Treeless Mountain' (South Korea and USA; Director: So Yong Kim) - Critic's Pick

Beautifully simple story about two young sisters who are left with an uncaring, alcoholic aunt while their mother goes off to search for their deadbeat father. Finding themselves abandoned twice, the girls have to make a living on their own, trying desperately to do all they can to bring their mother back. An enchanting piece of realism as seen through the eyes of children in the face of great hardship. Screenings: 10 a.m. Thursday, UNCSA Babcock; 4:30 p.m. Friday, UNCSA Gold; 12:30 p.m. Saturday, UNCSA Babcock (3.5 stars out of 4)

For more of my coverage on the 2009 RiverRun Film Festival, click here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It all starts off with great promise. Terence Davies' haunting tone poem, Of Time and the City, is at once a love letter to his hometown of Liverpool and a eulogy for the city of his childhood memories. It is filled with striking images, culled from both archival footage and original photography, that create singular portrait of a man's hometown and its inexorable evolution into something more modern and unrecognizable.

But then Davies begins to speak.

I've never been a big fan of narration, but I can see and understand what Davies was going for here, and it could have worked. But his deep rich voice reciting poems over countless Liverpool images quickly begins to sound like a parody of a pretentious art house film.

This is the kind of movie that causes people to make fun of art house films. Davies alternates between moments of sublime beauty to moments of stifling self-importance. When he steps back and lets the images and music work in tandem and speak for themselves, Of Time and the City becomes something thoroughly mesmerizing, but his narration is often grating and self-parodic.

The glimpses into Davies' childhood, especially his struggling with his homosexuality in an extremely intolerant Catholic environment, are often quite poignant. But the more he talks about them, the more heavy-handed it seems. There were times during the film where I cringed at the overripe dialogue, that often seems like the kind of poetry that is trying too hard to sound poetic, if that makes any sense.

Of course, to give credit where credit is due, some of it is quite beautiful. But these moments are quickly swallowed up in what ends up being one giant ego-centric mess. I wanted to like it, I really and truly wanted to like it, but by the time it was over I was just exasperated with it. During its more lyrical passages I would finally find myself sinking into its shimmering black and white embrace, before being rudely jerked out again by Davies' incessant narration.

It's easy to see just from the images I have included with this review what a haunting visual quality the film has (the recurring theme of buildings being razed is especially heartbreaking, sweeping away the memories of old), and it is without a doubt a work of art. But it's the kind of art that people like to pat themselves on the back for liking to make themselves feel sophisticated, but it's really absolute rubbish.

Aesthetically, yes, Of Time and the City is quite appealing. But it also thinks way too highly of itself. It's a pompous, ostentatious mishmash of artful lyricism and egotistical self-aggrandizement. Somebody has to be the one to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes.

GRADE: ★★ (out of four)

OF TIME AND THE CITY: Directed by Terence Davies; Not Rated
There has been a trend in independent cinema recently toward small, sparse narratives about people dealing with personal and economic hardships.

You could see this as part of an overarching trend brought on by the state of the world economy, or as part of a new movement in filmmaking (an controversial opinion held by A.O. Scott). No matter how you look at it, it's a growing trend both in American cinema (Goodbye Solo, Wendy and Lucy), and abroad.

The latest in this new trend is So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain, a delicate, shimmering little gem about two young girls, six year old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), and her four year old sister, Bin (Song Hee Kim), who are left with their Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim) while their mother (Soo Ah Lee) goes in search of their deadbeat father.

Before she leaves, she gives the girls a piggy bank, and tells them that Big Aunt will give the girls a coin every time they are good and obedient, and that when the bank is full, then she will return.

But Big Aunt is an uncaring, self centered woman who has never had to deal with children before, and to her, Jin and Bin are nothing but an inconvenience. Coins are out of the question. The girls soon realize that if they ever want their mother to return, they're going to have to find a way to fill the piggy bank themselves. So they begin to cook and sell grasshoppers on street corners, filling their piggy bank coin by coin and every day rushing to the bus stop to wait, but it becomes increasingly evident that their mother may not be returning as soon as they had hoped.

Based on events from director So Yong Kim's own life, Treeless Mountain takes an unmistakably childlike view of the world as seen through the eyes of its two remarkable leads. Not only are these kids irrepressibly adorable, but with her naturalistic, simple style, Kim has captured two extraordinary performances that carry the film with great emotional resonance.

Kim skillfully avoids the trap of sentimentality that so often engulfs childhood films. She eschews nostalgia for realism, and her camera seems to capture life as it unfolds, following the two girls along on their adventures. Left alone to their own devices, Jin and Bin step up to become almost more adult than the adults in the film, taking responsibility for themselves in the absence of their beloved mother. When we first meet Jin, she is beginning elementary school but still wetting the bed (an accident for which her younger sister often gets blamed). By the time the film ends, Jin has become a little adult, evolving out of necessity into a default guardian for Bin and a decider of her own destiny. The film is not moving toward any specific conclusion, and it leaves us not with the tidy ending we expect or want, but with the idea of growing up and moving on. Both girls have found home not in a specific place, but in each other.

Treeless Mountain is a tender and poingnant testament to the strength and self-reliance reliance of children in the face of adversity, achieved without music or distracting directorial flourishes. It is a simple, straightfoward film that doesn't focus on narrative so much as tone and feeling. It actually feels like childhood, and that it is being captured in real time. There is a melancholic innocence at work here, juxtaposed with the tender warmth of Kim's camera, and we are left with the question of whether childhood innocence has survived or ended too early. It's ultimately a bittersweet but uplifting answer, as Bin and Jin's carefree songs fade into the distance, that life moves on, ready or not.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TREELESS MOUNTAIN; Directed by So Yong Kim, Stars Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park; Not Rated; In Korean w/English subtitles; Opens today, 4/23, at the Film Forum in NYC.
Jack Cardiff, Oscar winning cinematographer of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, died today at the age of 94.

Cardiff also lensed such films as The African Queen, War and Peace, Death on the Nile, Conan the Destroyer, and Rambo: First Blood Part II, and directed Sons and Lovers in 1960.

Black Narcissus, in my opinion, is the most exquisitely lit film ever made, with The Red Shoes close behind as some of the most beautiful images ever put to celluloid.

Cardiff worked right up until the end. His last project was the TV miniseries, The Other Side of the Screen, in 2007.

He was one of the giants in his field, and he will be missed.

Source: CBC News

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It's that time of year again, The RiverRun International Film Festival opens tomorrow, April 22, at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, with a screening of (500) Days of Summer, and runs until next Wednesday. The festival will showcase a series excellent films from around the world.

My full coverage will be published in The Dispatch this Thursday, but here's a preview of the 6 (I just couldn't narrow it down to 5) must see films of the festival:

1) GOODBYE SOLO (USA, Dir. Ramin Bahrani)
I know I've been pushing this one constantly here, but it bears repeating. Ramin Bahrani's powerful third feature finally arrives in its hometown, making its Winston-Salem premiere on April 25th, after which Bahrani will be presented with the inaugural Emerging Master Award. Don't miss your chance to catch the year's best film so far.

2) UNMISTAKEN CHILD (Israel, Dir. Nati Baratz)
Playing in the documentary competition, Nati Baratz's deeply moving documentary about a Buddhist monk's search for his reincarnated master is the finest documentary I've seen all year. Playing out almost like a narrative feature, this powerful and uplifting film is a spiritual experience all its own.

3) THREE MONKEYS (Turkey, Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Turkey's official submission to this year's Academy Awards may not have ended up with a nomination, but that doesn't mean it didn't deserve it. Ceylan's haunting examination of the myriad consequences on a family stemming from one unethical act is a quietly devastating piece of work.

4) THE GARDEN (USA, Dir. Scott Hamilton Kennedy)
One of the 5 Oscar nominated feature documentaries from this year's Academy Awards, The Garden is a wrenching look at government corruption gone awry, as the nation's largest community garden in South Central Los Angeles finds itself in an uphill legal struggle to stay open. Keep any eye out for my interview with director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, coming soon.

5) RUMBA (France, Dir. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy)
This nearly silent French comedy, in the tradition of Jacques Tati, is as beguiling and winning as they come. It follows the travails of two Rumba loving school teachers who are injured in a car accident through a series of brilliantly constructed comic set-ups.

6) FOOD, INC. (USA, Dir. Robert Kenner)
This shocking, slickly produced documentary takes a hard look at the insidious underbelly of the food industry, and the rise of negative side effects of genetic engineering and the ubiquitousness of corn. Unsafe conditions, animal cruelty, and government corruption all rear their ugly heads in this eye-opening doc that has the potential to be the Inconvenient Truth of 2009.

For more information on these and other films playing at River Run, visit

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Yes you read that headline right. McG, the director behind Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Terminator: Salvation is eying to adapt the hit Broadway rock musical, Spring Awakening, into a feature film.

And my first reaction is, WTF? Really? I LOVE Spring Awakening, and I honestly think that it has a depth of emotion that McG just hasn't proven he can do. My fear for this is that it will be all flash and no substance, as McG films tend to be.

I really hope they find another director to do it. I'm not sure who I would pick myself, just not Chris Columbus.

Story via /film.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I've always been a bit curious about how the non-famous significant others feel about always living in their shadow. Oftentimes of course, the spouse/lover becomes famous by default. But sometimes that's just not the case.

Meet one of those exceptions - Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, or Paul H-O, as he likes to be called. Paul was the host of a scrappy public access TV show called Gallery Beat, that covered the New York art world scene from 1993 to 2002 with a trademark irreverence toward what he saw as a self important and elitist cabal.

His new documentary, Guest of Cindy Sherman, co-directed by Tom Donahue, begins as a behind the scenes look at NY art culture as seen through the eyes of the ultimate outsider. It's interesting to see the varying degrees of reactions that he is met with, from bemused, to annoyed, to outright hostile (Julian Schnabel gives H-O a particularly harsh dressing down at one point), as the self described "Beavis and Butthead of the art world" take on NYC galleries and some of the biggest names in art at the time.

But the holy grail of all these was Cindy Sherman, the enigmatic and notoriously reclusive artist known for her ability to transform into nearly anyone in her photographs of herself. In a complete stroke of luck, Sherman had seen Gallery Beat on TV, and agreed to meet with Paul because she found him interesting. Their first encounter is both mutually flirtatious and uncomfortable, with Sherman visibly out of her element but clearly enjoying herself. The first interview led to more interviews, with Paul scoring an incredibly rare in-studio interview,and the chance to watch Sherman create her latest project. It is such an intimate setting and such a private process that the audience almost feels as if it is intruding, but such is the charm of Guest of Cindy Sherman.

Their time together leads to a relationship, and soon Paul finds himself swept away from his outsider status to the arm of the art world's reigning queen, known for hobnobbing with the likes of Steve Martin and Madonna. But after nearly six years of dating, Paul begins to feel the pressure of having a famous girlfriend, a realization that comes to a head after he is seated far away from her at a prestigious dinner, with a place card that merely reads, "guest of Cindy Sherman." It soon became clear that he would always just be "the boyfriend," and not an actual person, to everyone but Cindy herself.

Although Sherman has since disowned the film, and apologized to all her friends who participated with it, it was initially begun back in 2003 with her full cooperation, while the relationship was still going on. As such, Guest of Cindy Sherman is not a hit-piece by a jilted ex-boyfriend. Instead it's a candid, engrossing backstage pass to an artist's inner sanctum, that raises lots of burning questions along the way. Some wonder if Paul's jealousy of Sherman's fame doesn't stem from some kind of deep-seeded macho need to be the big person in the relationship. Paul himself admits that his concerns and annoyances are silly, but they cannot be ignored. There are lots of gender politics to be explored here - is it OK for a woman to have a famous husband, but not vice versa?

To his credit, Paul does not skirt those questions, he faces them head on, opening himself up for grillings by some of Sherman's friends, and a pair of incredulous, feminist radio hosts. He even goes on to interview David Furnish, husband of Elton John, about the pressures of being married to an icon.

As for Sherman, she is never seen outside of the archival footage from Gallery Beat and her artwork. She remains shrouded in mystery, just as unreachable as she began. Even with Paul's informal interviews, Sherman is still a carefully crafted enigma. But that is as it should be, I think. While Guest of Cindy Sherman is a revealing look at the art culture at the end of the 20th century from a decidedly unorthodox and personal point of view, there is still something undeniably reverent about the way Paul paints Sherman. While all he may ever be is a guest of Cindy Sherman, he has made quite an impression himself with this film, as both an outsider looking in, an insider looking out, and ultimately as someone who doesn't quite fit into either place.

GRADE: ★★★ (out of four)

GUEST OF CINDY SHERMAN: Directed by Paul H-O, Tom Donahue; Featuring Paul H-O, Cindy Sherman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, John Waters, David Furnish, Danny DeVito, Karol Kane, Molly Ringwald; Not Rated.
Now here's something you don't see every day. I didn't really know what to expect going into Glenn McQuaid's I Sell the Dead, but I was pleasantly surprised by its freshness and creativity.

Set in 18th century England, I Sell the Dead is a gleefully macabre horror comedy about two grave robbers (Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden) who come in contact with the living dead, and discover a huge, untapped market in transporting undead corpses.

It's kind of a warped mix of Dawn of the Dead and Death Becomes Her, and after Make-Out with Violence, is yet another 2009 winner that deals with zombies in an unusual way.

There is no release date as of yet, it's still making the festival circuit. It will, however, be showing at the River Run Film Festival in Winston-Salem on April 24 at 11:30 PM, and April 25 at 9:00 PM at The Garage.

For those of you who like your humor a bit dark, I highly recommend this one.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

YouTube launched its feature film section today, which features full length movies available to watch for free. And yep, it's all legal.

There are some surprisingly good choices available, such as The Times of Harvey Milk and Carrie. But here is the best I've run across so far, Werner Hezog's masterpiece, Aguirre: The Wrath of God. If you've never seen it, don't miss your chance to check out one of the greatest films ever made - for free:

From The Dispatch:
Set in 1987 and filled to a terrific soundtrack of '80s hits, "Adventureland" transports us back to another time and place, that no matter what decade you grew up in, is readily recognizable and instantly accessible. Mottola has essentially created an ode to the youths of an entire generation. Based on experiences from his own life, there is obviously something deeply personal at work here. "Adventureland" rises above its comedic cohorts by achieving something that few comedies ever dare to reach for - emotional truth. Even in the scenes of heightened comedy, "Adventureland" always feels completely honest. I had heard good buzz going in, but I really didn't expect this level of verisimilitude.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I got a look at Gerald Peary's buzzed about doc For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, and was reasonably impressed. It's a straight forward, clear-eyed history of film criticism and what it means to our culture and its place in society today.

It's hard to critique a movie about film criticism, but I found it entertaining and informative, if ultimately a bit lacking in overall style and presentation. There were times, especially in its use of title cards to present questions for each segment, where it felt a bit like a company training video that would be shown at the National Society of Film Critics dinner. But I enjoyed listening to those who currently share my profession and those who came before them, espouse their passion for film and why they love what they do.

Looking at American film criticism is only a small part of the big picture, of course, but it does touch on the Cahiers du Cinema critics like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, if only briefly. As a documentary it's merely middling in craft, as a document of and paen to a dying (or rapidly evolving, depending on your point of view) art, it's highly involving.

No US release date is currently set, but it is making its rounds on the festival circuit. Hopefully it will get a proper release very soon.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

There are many striking images in Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, but none quite so haunting as this final scene of family patriarch Eyup watching an approaching storm from his rooftop.

The symbolic imagery of the gathering storm repeats itself often throughout the film before coming to a head here. There is no dialogue in the scene, the images and sound design say it all. That's part of the film's beauty, its ability to convey so much emotion without saying a word.
Speaking as someone who is not a sports fan and who doesn't care for boxing at all, I knew nothing of Mike Tyson beyond his infamous reputation as the guy who bit Evander Holyfield's ear before seeing James Toback's compelling documentary, Tyson (Sony Pictures Classics, 4.24).

So naturally, the film was nothing like what I expected. Mike Tyson is an astonishingly eloquent and self aware speaker, reflecting on the ups and downs of his career with startling candor, revealing a heretofore unseen vulnerability and even wisdom. Tyson is a raw, revelatory piece of work that will open eyes and possibly change some minds about one of the sports world's most notorious bad boys. Sony Pictures Classics will open the film on April 24 in limited release.

Check out the film's trailer here:

Sometimes a movie just hits you. It comes out of nowhere and blindsides you in such a deeply moving way that it's hard to articulate. That is how I feel about Nati Baratz's Unmistaken Child (Oscilloscope, 6.3).

This incredible documentary tells the story of Tenzin Zopa, a Buddhist monk who sets out to find the unmistaken reincarnation of his master, Lama Konchog. I've seen this process in narrative films such as Martin Scorsese's vastly under appreciated Kundun, but never like this. Filmed without talking head interviews or unnecessary trappings, Unmistaken Child plays out like a real life narrative, becoming a deeply moving and unforgettable spiritual journey.

There has been relatively little buzz about this one, and I want to start some, because this is the best documentary I've seen all year. This extraordinary film will be playing at the River Run Film Festival in Winston-Salem this month, and will be released theatrically by Oscilloscope on June 3, at which point I will post a review.

Here is the trailer: