Sunday, May 31, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Near the end of Lee Isaac Chung's extraordinary debut, Munyurangabo, one of the characters turns to the camera and delivers a long form poem called "Liberation is a Journey" directly to the audience. The poem is a lament for Rwanda and the injustices it has faced in years past, one that is both hopeful and starkly honest. It may well be one of the defining moments of cinema in 2009, and one of the most powerful scenes in any film this year.

In many ways, it seems to sum up the entire film, which is an electrifying and engrossing portrait of modern Rwanda, a scarred country still haunted by the ghosts of the infamous genocide that took place just a little over a decade ago.

Following two best friends, Munyurangabo (Rutagengwa Jeff) and Sangwa (Dorunkundiye Eric), as they steal a machete with the plan to kill a man in revenge for killing Ngabo's father during the conflict, the film takes a revealing and intimate look at modern life in rural Rwanda, through the eyes of those who still bear the scars of genocide.

Anyone who has seen Terry George's Hotel Rwanda has a basic understanding of the confict, which occurred when two tribes created by European occupiers, the Tutsis and the Hutus, suddenly switched power and began systematic killings. Now, with the conflict over but the wounds still fresh, Sangwa, who is a Hutu, and Ngabo, a Tutsi, stop at Sangwa's family farm to rest for a few days before continuing on their grim journey. Sangwa's father, a former soldier, is immediately suspicious of Ngabo, however, and over the course of several days, old hatreds are revived and old wounds reopened, as a microcosm of the Rwandan conflict comes to life and plays out amidst a family drama where two friends who were never meant to be together find their friendship tested not only by prejudice and hate, but by the looming pressure of their morbid journey.

There is a deep and profound sense of humanity at work in Munyurangabo, which is astonishing given the path that brought it to the screen. Shot on the fly over the course of 11 days, Munyurangabo is the very first narrative feature film in the language of Kinyarwanda, and stars a cast of non-professionals - all of them actual products of the Rwandan genocide. Chung directs with an improvisational style, allowing the actors to bring their own experiences to the table and shape the story on their own, which infuses the film with an impressive amount of authenticity.

Shot in Super-16, the film has a raw, grainy quality that is not only impeccably composed but starkly beautiful. It's so naturalistic you can almost feel the heat and smell the scent of the air. So totally involving is Munyurangabo that it is easy to forget that it is indeed a narrative film. It's so immediate and authentic that it almost seems like a documentary. Chung doesn't try to add any unnecessary conflict or drama, instead he simply lets the camera capture the action as if it is a casual observer, and unseen third party on the road with Sangwa and Ngabo.

It isn't a film that is so much concerned with any kind of conventional plot. The camera likes to linger on simple actions for minutes on end with very few cuts, often filming through doorways as if the audience is merely watching from the next room. Instead, it's more of an impressionistic, emotional piece, a free flowing meditation on family, friendship, and redemption, dealing with the aftermath of the conflict rather than the conflict itself. This deeply humane and indeed masterful exploration of man's inhumanity to man is the kind of film most filmmakers only wish they could make - a brilliantly composed and flawlessly executed mood piece that is as stirring and expressive as it is haunting and affecting. Munyurangabo is a searing and unforgettable portrait of a nation in transition as seen through the eyes of those whose lives were irreparably changed, as well as an ode to the unifying spirit that makes us all human.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

MUNYURANGABO; Directed by Lee Isaac Chung; Stars Rutagengwa Jeff, Dorunkundiye Eric, Nyirabucyeye Narcicia, Nkurykiyinka Jean Marie, Harerimana Jean Pierre Mulomda, Uwayo B Edouard, Rugazora Etienne, Kayitsinga Pierre Claver; Not Rated; In Kinyarwanda w/English subtitles; Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

When Yojiro Takata's Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, upsetting perceived front runners Waltz with Bashir and The Class, a lot of eyebrows were raised by critics, bloggers, cineastes, and Oscarphiles. At that time, very few people had seen the film, and this underdog from Japan was suddenly on everyone's lips and still a mystery.

It wasn't long after the Oscar ceremony that I saw the film, and I came in with pretty high expectations. Ari Folman's Israeli nominee Waltz with Bashir was one of my top ten films of 2008, and knowing the Academy's track record of awarding treacly tear jerkers over much higher quality films, I was a bit suspicious of Departures.

There are many who would say that is exactly what it is, a treacly tear jerker; and to some degree they'd be right. Departures is an absolutely shameless, borderline manipulative tear jerker filled with improbable coincidences that threaten to dissolve into sappy, sentimental mush. But strangely enough, it works, and it's wonderful.

Masahiro Motoki as Daigo Kobayashi [L] and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sasaki [R]

Until about halfway through the film, I was all but ready to write it off as a schmaltzy misfire. But then something curious happens - a montage (yes a montage, that most hoary of cinematic cliches) comes along and lifts the film up on the wings of Joe Hisaishi's glorious cello driven score, and it never looks back. From that moment on, the true beauty of Depatures is awakened, and it goes staight for the heart.

The film tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who finds himself out of work when his orchestra goes out of business during an economic downturn. Out of work and desperate to find steady, reliable employment, Daigo turns to the want ads, where he finds an advertisement for a business wanting help with "departures." When he inquires about the business, however, he finds himself hired on the spot before realizing that "departures" means "the departed" - he is to assist in helping prepare bodies for burial.

He is initially appalled at the idea, but with work scarce he grudgingly takes the job. But he is so embarassed by the job that he even hides it from his adoring wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) for fear of bringing shame to her because of its lowly status. But his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is completely unphased by the public's perception. His goal is to give the departed a final, honorable send-off, and to provide a necessary and comforting service to their families. His adherence to ritual and courtesy soon rubs off on Daigo, who soon becomes devoted to his job, even as it threatens to estrange him from his friends and family. But everyone must experience death, and soon those around him begin to understand the power and importance of what he does.

Masahiro Motoki as Daigo Kobayashi [L]and Ryoko Hirosue as Mika Kobayash [R]

is by no means in the same league as Waltz with Bashir, which is a near masterpiece. This, on the other hand, is merely solid entertainment. It's the kind of thing that is easy to roll your eyes at, even while wiping away a tear, knowing full well it shouldn't be making you cry, even though it is. In that regard, it's highly effective in its aims. It's not a film for the cynical, it's the kind of thing you just have to surrender to and let it take you on its journey. The structure is a bit clunky, driven by slightly awkward narration and some obvious plot twists. But by the time it reaches its deeply moving (if improbable) finale, it has pulled a complete hat trick, sneaking in and stealing the audience's heart just when they least expect it. It's a charming, winning piece of filmmaking that, while in no way deserving of the title of Best Foreign Language film of this or any year, is a heartwarming and bittersweet tale that hits all the right notes.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DEPARTURES; Directed by
Yojiro Takata; Stars Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki; Rated PG-13 for thematic material; Opens Friday, 5/29, in NYC, LA, and Chicago.
Historically, I haven't been a fan of Steven Soderbergh's more experimental works. I've had great respect for films such as Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Che, but in films like The Good German, or especially Bubble, it almost seems like his head disappears completely up his ass.

His latest excursion into creative self exploration is The Girlfriend Experience, and unlike many of his previous smaller films, it is free of the self indulgence that has marked other, similar projects.

It is a free flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness look at a high-end call girl named Chelsea (played by real life porn star Sasha Grey) who offers the full "girlfriend experience" - in other words french kissing, full intercourse, and oral sex without protection. Chelsea is a favorite of big name clients, but she always manages to separate her job from her actual relationship with her boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer who suddenly finds himself presented with a business opportunity that will take him away from the mid-range gym where he currently works to service wealthy hedge-fund managers.

Sasha Grey in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, a Magnolia Pictures Release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election and the looming economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience also examines the economic intricacies of romance, and on people from all walks of life. Even call girls have to worry about economic down slides. So when Chelsea is asked for a freebie by a sex connoisseur who runs a call girl review website in exchange for a favorable review, she grudgingly accepts. However, it all backfires when the review turns out to be mean spiritedly negative, putting her career in jeopardy and her personal life in turmoil. But it all begins to look up when she meets a client who connects with her on a much deeper level, giving her a taste of the "girlfriend experience" for the first time.

The premise is undeniably interesting, if not exactly original. By putting the story in the context of the current economic collapse and the national changes represented by the recent presidential election. The idea of the tendrils of the economic crisis reaching into even unorthodox business is a very relevant topic, but I can't help but feel that the film is far too lightweight to fully deal with the subject. It's stylish and sexy, with Soderbergh's keen filmmaker's eye in full swing, but it feels every bit as shallow and superficial as an encounter with an actual call girl. Sure it's pretty, and its an engaging watch, but it fades just as quickly, skimming the issues that it raises in a breezy and abbreviated way.

Sasha Grey in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, a Magnolia Pictures Release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

At a scant 77 minutes, The Girlfriend Experience just feels slight, and it's non-linear structure doesn't seem to serve the story or the overall feeling. The performances from the mostly non-professional cast, while by no means stellar, are servicable nonetheless. One of the highlights is perhaps former Premiere editor and film critic Glenn Kenney as the sleazy sex conisseur. It's a cringe worthy scene, but highly effective.

It doesn't really change the fact that the film feels more like an exercise in style and construction than one of any great depth. It's intermittenly effective but strangely devoid of real emotion. This could be simply because Chelsea's life is so devoid of real emotion, but even when she finally finds a connection it feels cold and sterile. I respect Soderbergh's determination to continually branch out and explore his creativity, even if the results aren't always on par with his best work. Still, The Girlfriend Experience offers an intriguing if strangely empty glimpse inside a seemingly glamorous world, and the cracks in the sexy veneer where even the world's oldest profession is no match for modern day capitalism and the calls of the heart.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE; Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Stars Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Philip Eytan, Glenn Kenney, Timothy Davis, David Levien, Mark Jacobson; Not Rated.
From The Dispatch:
It's both frustrating and seemingly pointless, serving no real purpose in the overall story arc other than to give long-time fans some moments they've been waiting to see. It is a soulless, cynical film, designed only to mine a 25-year-old cash cow, and if there is any proof of that it lies in its more audience friendly PG-13 rating in a series defined by its R-rated violence. It's just another sign of the shameless desperation for box office that this film represents and an overall downward slide in Hollywood's never-ending barrage of summer sequels.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One thing I've discovered in my years as a film critic is that the best thrillers often come from outside the United States. Foreign directors seem to have such a different sensibility than the often more action oriented American thriller mentality; giving psychological drama the forefront over obvious thrill seeking.

In German director Christian Petzold's Jerichow, a reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice, we are introduced to Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a victim of an apparent mob crime who finds himself out of work, when in a chance encounter he meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer), an alcoholic snack bar tycoon, and helps him out of a tight spot. Impressed by and grateful to Thomas, Ali offers him a job as his driver after his license is revoked. Desperate for work, Thomas accepts, and is soon introduced to Ali's beautiful wife, Laura (Nina Hoss). Their friendship quickly turns into a secret love affair, but Ali's suspicious nature and explosive temper are always looming above them, as well as his financial and psychological control over Laura, whom he rescued from a mountain of debt and legal trouble by marrying her.

Hilmi Sözer, Benno Fürmann and Nina Hoss (from left to right) in Christian Petzold’s “Jerichow.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Instead of inserting unnecessary action or contrived plot twists, Petzold allows the feeling of impending disaster to drive the film, creating a winding and unnerving suspense to flow directly from the inherent drama of the story. I was actually reminded a bit of Michael Haneke's Cache (Hidden) in the film's overall construction and sense of pace. While not quite as good or as nerve-fraying as that film was, Jerichow achieves its goals well. Petzold directs with a sharp eye for creating tension, building his tale of forbidden love and betrayal with only the anticipation of potential trouble.

The actors are the ones who really sell it though. They bring Petzold's tight script to life it a way that is both sexy and disquieting. The overall sense of dread is unnerving and superbly crafted, and even if the ultimate conclusion isn't exactly unexpected, it still feels like a fist to the gut.

Benno Fürmann and Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold’s “Jerichow.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

While not a great film, Jerichow is a compelling and intelligently crafted thriller. Petzold is a confident and skilled storyteller, and he holds the audience in his thrall for the film's entire running time. It's a lean and efficient tale of marital infidelity that never fails to engage its audience. Thrillers like this are few and far between, and when they do come along they deserve to be embraced and celebrated. There truly aren't enough films in the world like Jerichow.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

JERICHOW; Directed by Christian Petzold, Stars Benno Fürmann, Nina Hoss, Hilmi Sözer; Not rated; In German with English subtitles.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I recently saw Lee Isaac Chung's Munyurangabo (Film Movement, 5.29), and was pretty close to blown away.

Set in modern day Rwanda, Munyurangabo follows two friends, Ngabo and Sangwa, as they find their relationship tested when they steal a machete and set out with a plan to kill the man who killed Ngabo's father. While making a stop at Sangwa's family farm, they find the wounds of the Rwandan genocide are still very fresh, and their resolve and friendship is put to the ultimate test.

The first thing that struck me about it was its raw, grainy texture and it's brilliant visual composition, but the film as a whole is a moving, poetic work. You'll be hearing more on this one from me in the days to come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

From The Dispatch:
It's interesting that my description of Brown's writing could also be applied to Ron Howard's filmmaking. He's a competent middlebrow craftsman, if not a brilliant artist, but the problem with adaptation of Brown's books to the screen is the inevitable condensation of the dense historical facts and intricate series of interlocking clues that solve the mystery. By necessity, these history lessons are condensed, often into character dialogue, in very awkward expositional speeches that not only feel out of place but are extremely cumbersome, giving the film a bloated and unwieldy structure.
Click here to read my full review.
It's easy to make fun of rock bands that are still going long after its members have cracked 60 (hello Rolling Stones!). But after seeing Sacha Gervasi's wryly funny, surprisingly moving documentary, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, making fun of aging rock bands will never seem quite as funny or as fair.

Of course, the Rolling Stones have been on top for a very long time. But for Robb Reiner and Lips, frontmen of the heavy metal band, Anvil, success has eluded them from the very beginning. It becomes clear, however, that Anvil is consistently cited as one of the greatest metal bands of all time by some of the genres most successful groups.

It turns out, Anvil was one of the pioneering heavy metal groups, playing to audiences of thousands in Japan along with Bon Jovi and other great metal bands. But due to mismanagement, poor timing and all around bad luck, they did not end up with representation, and Anvil faded away into obscurity, leaving its only two original members working small, low income jobs far away from the spotlight and screaming fans.

Then, nearly a quarter of a century later, opportunity comes knocking again for Anvil, when a European fan offers to represent them on a tour across the continent. Eager to return to their passion, Robb and Lips quickly agree, but the tour is anything but a smooth and welcome return to stardom. As tensions rise and tempers flare, it seems like the tour, and the band itself, may disintegrate around them.

As someone who is not a fan of heavy metal, and therefore knows nothing about the genre, I still found The Story of Anvil to be completely compelling. It's not so much about music as it is the human capacity to pursue their dreams in the face of great challenge. And while that may sound like a cliche, it becomes quickly apparent that one need not even like heavy metal to appreciate this warm, funny, and often quite touching human drama.

The music is ultimately beside the point, for the audience anyway. Because no matter what kind of music these guys are playing, it is their passion and determination that is so inspiring. Robb and Lips are a pair of colorful characters, and their unassuming nature makes it easy to root for them. Gervasi, who was a fan of Anvil from the very beginning, directs with a genuine affection for his subjects. Never before have we seen such a revealing and intimate portrait of a rock band that shows its subjects warts and all, and still comes off as being this funny and even heartbreaking. Robb and Lips are so wonderfully, unabashedly human and real that you can't help but identify with them.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a powerful and rousing documentary, the kind of crowd pleasing stand up and cheer movie that so many movies strive to be but so few ever are. It is a movie for the dreamer in everyone, and for anyone who ever dared to reach out and make it happen.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL; Directed by Sacha Gervasi, Featuring Robb Reiner, Steve "Lips" Kudlow, Slash, Lars Ulrich; Not Rated
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Marlene Rhein's unheralded indie gem, The Big Shot-Caller, and having seen it I am honestly surprised that there has not been more advance buzz surrounding it.

I knew nothing about the film going in, which is a rare o
ccasion. I like discovering films blind, but since it is my job to be informed, those moments are few and far between.

On paper it sounds like a typical underdog does well flick, about a socially awkward, legally blind loner named Jamie (David Rhein) who is stuck in a boring desk job and can't seem to hold onto a relationship, even when he seems to have found one that i
s actually working. His sister, a dancer named Lianne (Marlene Rhein), encourages him to take salsa lessons, since he was obsessed with Strictly Ballroom as a kid. So Jamie takes up ballroom dancing, but with his eye condition and his awkward nature finds it much more difficult than he first thought. But that doesn't discourage his stubborn spirit, that is determined to succeed and achieve his childhood dream at all costs.

It would be easy to dismiss The Big Shot-Caller (whose title refers to God) based on that description alone, but to do that would be to miss out on what an easygoing charmer it is. Filmed in a low budget, shot in an on the fly style, the film often seems at once artificial and naturalistic, captured in the moment and yet staged, often due to the amateurish quality of some of the acting. But that is part of its charm. Rhein's screenplay is witty and original, never taking the expected path and nimbly avoiding cliches and narrative pitfalls. She strikes a fine balance between humor and nostalgic emotion, and never is her sharp dialogue more on display than in her own sarcastic performance as Lianne, to her real life brother David's (whose life inspired the film) Jamie. Rhein always keeps in real, and nothing in the film feels forced or overwrought. Even when it begins to teeter into sentimentality in the end, it doesn't matter because by that time she's already hooked you.

I liked the film's unpolished, do-it-yourself aesthetic. And while it may be a little rough around the edges, it's hard to deny The Big Shot-Caller's inherent likability. I wanted to wrap it up in a big hug. It's just that kind of film. This is definitely "little indie that could" material. And while in all actuality it may not ever break out beyond the art house circuit in its limited release, this is the kind of feel good comedy that really makes this job worth it. Every time I discover a film like this I can't help but smile, and I know I left The Big Shot-Caller with a big grin on my face. This is why I love this job. There is nothing more thrilling than discovering a new filmmaker and a new talent, and Rhein, who had previously cut her teeth on music videos, is definitely one to watch.

- ★★★ (out of four)

THE BIG SHOT-CALLER; Directed by Marlene Rhein, Stars David Rhein, Marlene Rhein, Laneya Wiles, Leslie Eva Glaser, Robert Costanzo; Not Rated; Now showing at The Quad in NYC.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From The Dispatch:
"Star Trek" is a movie for everyone, and while it may suffer from some awkward expositional moments in the middle stretch (a problem that could have been avoided by including more of the plot explored in the excellent "Countdown" comic books that were released in the weeks leading up to the film's opening), what Abrams has done here is simply staggering. With its soaring space battles, gorgeous cinematography (complete with much discussed and hugely effective lens flares), and a grand score by Michael Giacchino (which recalls James Horner's work for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock"), "Star Trek" is in many ways the quintessential summer blockbuster. It delivers the thrills without insulting the audience's intelligence, transporting us into another time and place on the wings of that good old Gene Roddenberry optimism.
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

From The Dispatch:
But then it falls into the same trap that the third "X-Men" film fell into; it tries to cram too many fan favorite characters into too short a running time, so that none of them really gets any kind of decent treatment. No one really has any development beyond Wolverine, and quite honestly his character just isn't interesting enough to carry an entire film without the other X-Men to balance it out. It's all Wolverine all the time, and, frankly, it's pretty dull. There's plenty of brawn and brute force to go around of course, but it lacks the heart and soul that distinguished the franchise. And without that, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is just another dime a dozen comic book flick.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, which I reviewed back in March, has officially opened in NYC.

From my review:
This is really stunning work. It is a darkly lyrical film, filled with muddled morality, family angst and shady deeds, but like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, Three Monkeys is a family drama that defies stereotypes and really works. Ceylan takes what has become an indie-movie specialty and made it feel shockingly, and thrillingly, new. He examines the darkness darkness beneath the surface with the deep seeded assuredness of a born filmmaker, and it will haunt the mind for days to come.
Don't miss it.

Friday, May 01, 2009

I had not heard of Marlene Rhein's The Big Shot-Caller (Stella Films, 5.15), until last week. But having now seen it, I'm surprised there hasn't been more advance buzz around it.

Based on events from Rhein's own life, and starring her brother, David in a role based on himself The Big Shot-Caller follows a socially awkward, legally blind man who dreams of becoming a salsa dancer as a child, but got sidetracked from his dreams by real life.

It sounds like a run-of-the-mill inspirational follow your dreams story, but it's not. It's witty, clever, and completely charming. Having heard nothing about it until recently, I found it to be a pleasant surprise.

I'll be posting a full review closer to its release, but I wanted to get the word out there. The Big Shot-Caller opens on May 15 at the Quad in NYC, and I recommend it to everyone nearby. I don't want people to be able to ignore it because they haven't heard of it, so I'm getting the word out.

Here's the film's trailer: