Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: "The Beaches of Agnès"

One can't help but have great respect for Agnès Varda. After all, she's a living legend - one of the greats. As one of the members of the French New Wave, she has worked with such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard (who appeared in her seminal film, Cleo from 5 to 7 in 1962) and Francois Truffaut. Her husband, Jacques Demy, directed the classic French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Cinema is in her blood, and for a woman of her immense talent and life experience, seeing her direct a film that reflects back on her life in her own words should be a cinephile's dream.

However, the resulting film is more of a convoluted mess than a revealing look inside an artist's process. One could always make the argument that a glimpse into the mind of an artist is always going to be a bit of a wild and disarming experience, but in her new film, The Beaches of Agnès, Varda throws everything resembling cinematic form and cohesive structure out the window in favor of aimless navel-gazing.

There is always going to be some self indulgence present in a pseudo-documentary about one's own life, especially when said person is an artist of any kind. To her credit, The Beaches of Agnès is very much free of the pretension that made Terrence Davies' Of Time and the City so interminable, but it also lacks that film's inherent beauty. Armed with a consumer grade digital video camera, Varda sets out to create a portrait of her own life through a series of metaphorical set pieces and recollections. Jumping from one thing to another with no real cohesion, we go from fascinating insights about Godard and the French New Wave while working on Cleo from 5 to 7 (where he allowed her to photograph him without his trademark sunglasses), or of directing her dying husband's biopic, to bizarre and off putting scenes of Varda having conversations with an animated cat, or pretending to drive around in a cardboard car.

Having just discovered the ease and freedom of DV, it seems as if Varda has discovered cinema for the first time. But instead of feeling like the renaissance of a seasoned master, it feels like a turgid and amateurish student film. It's easy to see that Varda is having a great time frolicking around on the beach and reflecting upon her life in her own way, but the film itself never translates into any kind of satisfying whole.

For a woman of her age (she turned 81 this year) to still be making films with the same kind of energy and verve is a remarkable achievement in and of itself. But her latest film is just too self-indulgent and too scattershot to recommend. It's worth watching for cinephiles and devotees of the Nouvelle Vague, but even then the insights it offers are often lost amid the film's random, rambling musings. Varda directs with the unabashed glee of a child who has found her parents' camcorder, but too often that's exactly what the film feels like.

It is a rare and unfortunate misstep in a long and illustrious career.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS; Directed by Agnès Varda; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles; Opens tomorrow, 7/1, at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Win 2 Tickets to See "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

Ladies and gentlemen, after a long hiatus, contests have returned to From the Front Row. Through our new partnership with Fandango, I am pleased to bring blog readers a chance to win 2 tickets to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner, 7.15). All you have to do is send an email to contests.fromthefrontrow@gmail.com with the subject heading HARRY POTTER TICKETS, along with your name.

And that's it!

The winner will be selected at random from the submissions I receive. Only one entry per person, please. Entries will be accepted through July 10, the winner will be announced on July 11.

Good luck!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Best of 2009 (So Far)

With 2009 almost half way over, I've been looking back on the first half of the year at the films that I feel are the best. While it is too early to pass judgment on the year as a whole, but there have been quite a few excellent films, many of which have been overlooked.

Here are the 10 films that have been released so far in 2009 (or will be by the end of June) that have resonated with me the most, in alphabetical order:
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, USA)
  • Captain Abu Raed (Amin Matalqa, Jordan)
  • The Garden (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, USA)
  • Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)
  • Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, Rwanda/USA)
  • Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
  • Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  • Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
  • Unmistaken Child (Nati Baratz, Israel)
  • Up (Pete Docter, USA)

That's a strong group of films, and quite honestly they would be strong enough to make a respectable year end top ten list. There are a couple of films I have seen that won't be released until the second half of the year that would actually make the list, but since they won't be released before July are ineligible. On top of this we've had a few very good films that just narrowly missed this list, like Greg Mottola's moving coming of age comedy, Adventureland, and Kathryn Bigelow's widely acclaimed war actioner, The Hurt Locker. There have also been some top drawer summer blockbusters like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (still the highest grossing film of the year, with no close competition), and several excellent films on the horizon (Ponyo, You, the Living, Heart of Fire, Rumba).

It has yet to be seen how the year end prestige fare will turn out, but already 2009 has been a pretty good year. Hollywood's summer fare, by and large, hasn't been great, but if you know where to look, we've had quite a few small gems out there this year, and the ten films listed here are an excellent place to start.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Goodbye Solo" Comes Home

OK North Carolina folks, one of the year's best films, Goodbye Solo, opens today in Winston-Salem at the Grand 18, and Greensboro at the Carousel.

Filmed right here in Winston and Blowing Rock, this powerful tale of friendship between a friendly cab driver and a lonely old man is one of the most acclaimed films of 2009. I've been pushing it here since before its release in March, but since it's just now opening in the area, I'd say it bears repeating.

GO. SEE. THIS. MOVIE.

I recently payed to see it at a commercial screening here in Boone, and the reactions were all very positive. I think I even liked it more upon second viewing. It's such a lovely and profound film, and the shared experience of seeing it with an audience seemed to deepen its impact.

My review was published in The Dispatch this week to coincide with its local release. Here is a excerpt:
"Goodbye Solo" is, above all else, a film about love. It is an unconditional love between two friends who come to share a deep and unbreakable understanding. It is a film of profound wisdom and great beauty, so much so it gave me chills. And I say all of this not as someone who is from here but as a human being.
Don't miss your chance to see one of the year's finest films on the big screen. The fact that it was made in North Carolina just makes it that much more special. Movies this good don't come along very often.

"Under Our Skin" Expands Today

Andy Abrahams Wilson's terrifying documentary, Under Our Skin, has expanded into additional cities today.

For those of you who have yet to see this film, which sadly is probably almost all of you, I urge you to check this film out. It's an important work that needs to be seen. Some Lyme disease advocate groups are even going so far as to buy tickets for the film in faraway cities just to boost the numbers to try to get it to expand even further. This is a film that has the potential to bring about real change, and the more people that see it the more likely those in the medical establishment are likely to take notice.

Visit the film's website (which now features a quote from yours truly) for more information on how you can get involved in the fight to stop Lyme disease. Click here to read my review.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: "The Hurt Locker"

It seems like Kathryn Bigelow's much buzzed about and widely admired The Hurt Locker should have come out a long time ago. Critics and bloggers have been talking about it for a long time, many of us having seen it months ago or even longer.

And rightly so, The Hurt Locker, probably the first straight action movie to come out of the Iraq war, is a fantastic film that deserves to be noticed. But one can't help but wonder if waiting this long to release it may hurt it in the long run.

Like I said, it feels like it has been so long since I saw this film that it should have already come and gone. But I can't help but wonder if Summit is trying to drive the point home that keeps getting brought up again and again - this isn't just another Iraq war movie.

Nearly all the films to deal with Iraq directly so far have been commercial flops. But almost every one had some kind of serious political message. For a country weary of war, movies that remind people what a horrible situation we're in just aren't attracting big box office numbers, and understandably so.

But The Hurt Locker is different. Bigelow has no political agenda here, no axe to grind, and no message to convey. Her goal is to thrill, and she succeeds in spades. This is no weepy "war is hell" drama, this is a hard-edged, white knuckle action movie that turns on the tension to the max and never lets up.

Following an elite military bomb squad in Iraq, The Hurt Locker centers around hotshot squad leader William James (Jeremy Renner), who arrives to replace the squad's fallen former leader. But his over confidence and cocky swagger put him at odds with his crew, as he throws caution to the wind, putting the crew in increasingly tight and dangerous situations.

The Hurt Locker has one goal on its mind, and that is to give its audience the ride of their lives. And that is precisely what it does. Diffusing bombs has got to be one of the most nerve-shredding cinematic devices ever created, and Bigelow grinds out every last ounce of tension possible. This is absolute top drawer action filmmaking, with masterful use of editing and sound design to create maximum suspense. Her portrayal of the comraderie between the soldiers makes it that much more intense.

Few movies can actually claim to be completely unpredictable, but unlike most Hollywood action thrillers, The Hurt Locker actually delivers on that promise. Just when you think you know who will live and who will die, Bigelow changes directions and pulls the rug out from under us. It is a testament to her craft that she is able to keep up the level of tension and supsense right up until the end, but no other film this year has delivered the thrills like this one does. Forget for a second that this is an Iraq movie and just go. As taut and tense as a trip-wire, The Hurt Locker is a go-for-broke, hang on for dear life, action thrill ride that, from an artist's perspective, also happens to be one of the most well made films so far this year.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE HURT LOCKER; Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; Stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pierce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly; Rated R for war violence and language. Opens tomorrow, 6/26, in New York and Los Angeles.

GRADE -

Review: "The Stoning of Soraya M."

Cyrus Nowrasteh's The Stoning of Soraya M. (Roadside, 6.26) could not have been released at a better time. With the social upheaval surrounding the recent election in Iran taking center stage in the world's focus, suddenly everyone is taking a much harder look at Iranian culture and politics.

With the young people taking the fate of their country into their own hands in a reaction against the oppressive Islamic rules of the past, Iran is in a state of violent revolution. The Stoning of Soraya M., based on the best selling non-fiction book of the same name by Freidoune Sahebjam, takes an unforgettable look at the barbaric practice of execution by stoning, still practiced in many places throughout the world. It is the punishment demanded by strict adherence to Islamic Sharia law for the crime of adultry.

Set in 1986, the film begins with French journalist Sahebjam's (Jim Caviezel) car breaking down in a small village near the Iranian border. But something is amiss in this tiny town, and when he meets Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a frantic widow who has urgent news, it becomes quickly apparent that the little village has a dark secret.

Zahra insists that Sahebjam listen to her story, so that the world may know what is going on in Iran. What unfolds is a haunting and disturbing tale of deceit, betrayal, and pure human barbarism, as Zahra's neice, Soraya (Mozhan Marno) finds herself falsely accused of adultry after her husband takes up with a 14 year old girl. Desperate to get rid of his wife in accordance with Sharia law, he conspires with the village's illigitimate mullah to have her accused of sleeping at another man's house. As the rumor mill begins to turn in the small town, everyone, including her own sons, turns against Soraya, and the town's moral fervor soon results in her horrific death by stoning in the town square.

It is a grim and shocking tale of not only man's inhumanity to man, but of the plight of women in an oppressive Islamix society living under the iron fist of the Ayatollah. As Soraya's husband openly cavorts with a 14 year old girl, it is she that bears the brunt of the law's moral outrage. It is a society where women are totally marginalized, and through the courage of Soraya and Zahra, the story has now been heard, and it is even more powerful and important than ever.

The film itself, however, isn't without its problems. The Stoning of Soraya M. is essentially a melodrama, and it has the tendency to veer off into overwrought histrionics, especially in its cliched and manipulative final shot. It's beautifully filmed and superbly crafted, but I think it would have benefited from a gritter, more hard edged treatment, a trap that 2007's The Kite Runner also fell into. It almost feels overproduced...too beautiful for such repulsive subject matter.

The actual stoning, on the other hand, is every bit as shocking and unbearable to watch as it should be, in many ways echoing the torture scenes from The Passion of the Christ (and not just because of the presence of Jim Caviezel and John Debney's ethnically rich score) in its graphic ferocity. The searing images and powerful performances ultimately overpower the sometimes overripe direction, and the audience is left with the feeling that it has witnessed something truly powerful, and indeed, quite important. It is a respectable and solidly made melodrama whose lofty intentions are more noble than they are effective. But with a strong mix of first rate performances and unforgettable images, The Stoning of Soraya M. is a film that leaves a lasting impression.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE STONING OF SORAYA M.; Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh; Stars Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jim Cavizel, Mozhan Marnò, Navid Negahban, David Diann, Ali Pourtash; Rated R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language; Opens tomorrow, 6/26, in select cities.

Review: "Afghan Star"

It's hard to imagine, as an American who is used to all the freedoms and privileges that that entails, a show like American Idol being anything more than a pop culture sensation. To say that it has any deeper meaning or social significance is almost laughable. But to a country just coming out from under the oppressive rule of a radical Islamic regime, a televised talent competition could bring the modern world rushing in in a way few other things could.

For Afghanistan, the show Afghan Star is more than just a talent competition. It is a social and cultural watershed moment that is for many their first encounter with the democratic process. With music having been banned under Taliban rule, Afghan Star brings both modernity and multiculturalism to Afghanistan, as contestants from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds compete for the title.

That is probably the show's most commendable and most problematic element. For most people, it is the contestant's ethnicity that defines their allegiance more than their actual talent. Not that the finalists chronicled in Havana Marking's new documentary, Afghan Star aren't talented, but it is a shame to see the competition come down to voting along ethnic lines.

Contestant Lima Sahar on stage in AFGHAN STAR, a film by Havana Marking. A Zeitgeist Films release.

The film takes its cues from other documentaries such as Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, following four contestants from the early stages of the competition to the final performance, each one coming from a different ethic background. While Marking focuses on the contestants and their on-the-road campaigns for the title, the real political undercurrents seem to get overlooked. Ethic and gender politics play a huge role in what's going on here, and while that occasionally comes to the fore, the musical aspect is what really takes center stage. Credit must be given to Marking for focusing on the show's unifying elements, there is often less Slumdog Millionaire and more Kite Runner at work here.

For all the progress Afghanistan has made in even allowing a musical competition to take place, it is still shocking to see such a national uproar when one of the contestants dances on stage, even to the disgust of her fellow competitors. The controversy is so huge that the show is threatened with being shut down, while she is met with death threats and must be put under protection. They've come a long way just to get to Afghan Star, but they still have a long way to go.

Contestants Rafi Naabzada (left) and Lima Sahar (center) on stage in AFGHAN STAR, a film by Havana Marking. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Structurally, Afghan Star is nothing new. From that standpoint, it's a pretty standard competition documentary. But the subject is something new and extraordinary. Afghan Star is so much more than a reality show, it is a microcosm of the birth of a new democracy, of a free people facing the dawn of a new day. It isn't always a smooth transition, and while Marking occasionally misses prime opportunities for deeper studies of the the subjects at hand, the film is both compelling and emotionally involving. As a sociopolitical cultural study, Afghan Star is completely fascinating, even if it ultimately leaves you wanting more.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

AFGHAN STAR; Directed by Havana Marking; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 6/26, in NYC at Cinema Village.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

82nd Oscar Ceremony to Feature 10 Best Picture Nominees

In probably one of the most shocking changes to the Oscars in recent memories, AMPAS president Sid Ganis announced today that next year's Academy Award ceremony will feature 10 Best Picture nominees instead of the traditional five.

There haven't been that many nominees since 1943, and one wonders if the uproar over last year's Dark Knight snub has anything to do with this.

Personally, I think it's a terrible idea. While recognizing more great films is certainly an attractive proposition, being more inclusive makes the title of Best Picture nominee less prestigious.

Didn't they watch The Incredibles?

If every one is special...then no one is.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Review: "Under Our Skin"

One of the most rewarding things about documentary films are their ability to expose little known injustices in a compelling and artistic way.

In Andy Abrahams Wilson's terrifying new documentary, Under Our Skin, one of the most controversial and overlooked medical emergencies of our time. One that some doctors say doesn't even exist.

The epidemic in question is Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that can only be spread through the bites of certain ticks.

But is there more to the story than originally thought?

Lyme disease is named after the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where in 1975 the mysterious disease was affecting whole families without any diagnosis.

Warnings seem insufficient to halt the growing Lyme disease epidemic. From UNDER OUR SKIN, a film by Andy Abrahams Wilson.

Now, the illness known as Lyme disease has a very specific set of symptoms that are widely accepted to be easy to detect and treat. But many patients are reporting far worse symptoms that suggest that Lyme may be a far more severe, debilitating illness than previously thought, even becoming a terminal problem in some cases, causing permanent neurological damage and even death. The problem is that many doctors claim that the symptoms are all in the patients' heads, some even going so far as to say that Lyme doesn't exist at all, that it is all purely a psychological condition.

The vast distance between the opinions of the medical establishment and the cutting edge research on Lyme is quite frightening, and while it is clear that Under Our Skin is of the opinion that Lyme is far worse than mainstream doctors admit, Wilson wisely gives voice to both sides of the argument. Using interviews with real people who have struggled with Lyme disease for many years, the documentary takes on a more personal look at how it has affected their every day lives. While the film is not particularly unique in its presentation, its examination of the personal stories of those who have fought back against Lyme and the doctors who have supported them at the risk of their own medical licenses, is what makes the film so compelling.

Sean Cobb tends to his wife Mandy Hughes as she suffers a seizure in UNDER OUR SKIN, a film by Andy Abrahams Wilson.

I had heard of Lyme disease before in connection with ticks, but I had no idea that there was such a huge medical controversy surrounding its very existence. With opinions varying so greatly on the symptoms and nature of the disease, its downright scary to think of the ramifications. Some scientists have made some startling discoveries involving Lyme and other terminal diseases such as Alzheimer's and Lou Gerhig's disease, including one who found the bacteria that causes Lyme present in 7 out of 10 Alzheimer brains.

A discovery of that nature could be a major medical breakthrough, and while one can't help but wonder if this is sound science or needless hysteria, Under Our Skin makes a very convincing case. If what it claims is true, this could be one of the greatest medical failures of all time, one that should no longer be ignored. Now that the film has given voice to those who have been previously ignored, perhaps some real change can at last be made.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

UNDER OUR SKIN; Directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson; Not Rated; Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

Trailer: "World's Greatest Dad"

The red band trailer for Bob Goldthwait's Robin Williams vehicle, World's Greatest Dad was released today, and it actually captures the film better than I expected.



I saw the film back in April, and found it to be a very peculiar dark comedy that turns out to be very moving. But it's also a very off kilter film that would be very hard to market. The trailer makes it look more upbeat than it actually is, and tells nothing of the actual plot, but it isn't quite as misleading as the film's happy-go-lucky poster.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On "The Taking of Pelham 123"

From The Dispatch:
Scott's typical lightning fast-style works to build intensity in a film that is basically locked in two locations, and with crisp editing and the solid performances, he mounts the tension where Helegeland's screenplay fails. It is an easy film to enjoy in the moment, but not one that really sticks in the memory. It's a solid time-passer that never rises up to create any real drama, despite a noble attempt to give it contemporary social significance.
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review: "Food, Inc."

Ever since Michael Moore made it profitable to release muckraking documentaries, it seems to have opened up the floodgates for documentary filmmakers with something to say and injustices to expose.

The good thing is, that the majority of these films have been quite good. Moore created opportunities for other documentarians, and to be quite honest I think we're all the better for it.

Films like Robert Kenner's expose of the food industry, Food, Inc., are honestly what free speech is all about. It is not only an impressively mounted and slickly produced documentary, but an important and essential film as well. It's the kind of film with the power and potential to make a real difference. Think of it as the Inconvenient Truth of 2009 - a solid, engaging doc with real potential for mainstream success, if only enough people see it and make enough noise.

Food, Inc. takes a wide-ranging look at America's food industry, and the increasing dangers of chemical and genetic engineering of what we eat. It is a startling expose of just how much the way we eat has changed in the last 50 years. Food production has become consolidated among a very few companies, slaughterhouse conditions are still terrible, corn seems to have infused everything, and modifications meant to increase production have instead upset natural balances and are hurting us more than helping us. Alarming facts like how in 1972, the FDA conducted 50,000 food safety inspections, but in 2006 only conducted 9,164, is enough to make one wonder how much progress is actually hurting us.

It's the kind of thing that most people would rather stick their heads in the sand and ignore. But Kenner refuses to let the audience off the hook. Instead of merely rehashing facts with faceless interviews, he introduces us to real people who have been adversely affected by the conglomoratization of America's food supply. That struggle is embodied by Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother whose 2 and a half year old son died as a result of a new E. coli strain that was created when the bacteria adapted to the cow's corn diet that it was never meant to have. Kowalcyk has since become an activist, trying to get "Kevin's Law" passed, which would help prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

Joel Salatin in FOOD, INC., a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

What really sets Food, Inc. apart, however, is that it is not merely content to point out problems. It offers solutions as well. It paints a dark picture, but not a bleak one. There is hope, and Kenner makes it very clear that organic foods are the best viable alternative to the other mess we have gotten ourselves into. And in the name of fairness, it explores legitimate ethical questions about modifying foods and adding growth hormones to increase production. If we have the means to make more food to feed more people, shouldn't we? What if that food could possibly upset the ecosystems and give rise to new forms of harmful bacteria? The questions are almost endless, and Kenner handles them well.

But he also makes his own case very well, and he leaves the audience wanting to take action. Food, Inc. is both disturbing and entertaining, a compelling and eye-opening documentary made with clear-eyed passion and a deep seeded sense of justice. It is clearly a film made out of a real desire to make a difference, and in the right circumstances with the right audience...it may yet do just that.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

FOOD, INC.; Directed by Robert Kenner; Not Rated.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On "Land of the Lost"

From The Dispatch:
There are some funny moments, but the film is just too bizarre and scattershot to be a truly solid work. It's such a random and schizophrenic concoction that it's hard to tell what it really wants to be. It's neither a spoof nor an homage. It's just, well, weird. But it's likably weird. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a good movie, but it's every bit as campy and outlandish as the original, just in a completely different way. More jokes fall flat than actually work, but the complete strangeness of it all adds a level of charm to it that it might not otherwise have had.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Long-form Dada

Surprisingly enough, I think many critics are missing the point when it comes to Brad Siberling's agreeably goofy, intentionally bizarre Land of the Lost. It's completely random and nonsensical, but that's the whole point.

One of the best reviews I've read of it so far was written by The Houston Chronicle's Amy Biancolli, who understands the film's borderline surrealist aesthetic:
Everyone, it seems, was determined to make this big-screen parody as retro-trippy as humanly possible, utilizing lizard suits, woozy Theramin music and scenes that Salvador Dali might have cooked up for a stoner movie...It all amounts to a certain brand of comedy — something closer to long-form Dada than conventional humor.
Is it a good movie? Well that's up for debate. It's definitely not for all tastes, but it's most certainly not the disaster it's been made out to be. I think most people just don't know what to make of it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: "Summer Hours"

The old guard passing the torch to the new has been a running theme in many films here as of late. It is a very timely and apt subject of course, and in Olivier Assayas' sublime new film, Summer Hours, the passage of time takes on a beautiful and poignant new resonance.

Family is the centerpiece of Assayas' tender and moving tale, but the family surname is never revealed. They could be any family, anywhere, at any time. But summer is winding down for this family, as Helene (Edith Scob), the family matriarch, suddenly passes away, leaving the handling of her estate to her three grown children, Adrienne, Jérémie, and Frédéric.

Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), is a designer living in New York, far away from the family home in the French countryside. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) is a businessman preparing to move to China with his family for an extended period of time. And Frédéric (Charles Berling) is an Economics professor in Paris, the only one of the children who stayed close to his roots.

Charles Berling as Frederic, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne and Dominique Reymond as Lisa in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release

With all three faced with pressing affairs in their own lives, and none of them able to stay in Paris to keep up the estate, the task of dividing up and auctioning off their childhood home must be done as quickly as possible. Helene's uncle was a renowned artist, and left a priceless collection at the estate, which makes it a very rare and important find. As appraisers and auctioneers descend on their home, each sibling is faced with a flood of childhood memories, and each must confront old wounds as they watch the last remnants of their past get scattered into the wind.

Despite its sad premise, Summer Hours is ultimately an uplifting, if bittersweet, experience. It is a film about growing up and moving on, told with maturity, tenderness, and assurance. As I said earlier, the family's surname is never revealed, which allows the audience to insert themselves into the narrative. They may not be a typical family, but they have their problems just like any other.

Jeremie Renier as Jeremie, Juliette Binoche as Adrienne and Charles Berling as Frederic in SUMMER HOURS directed by Oliver Assayas Photo credit: © Jeannick Gravelines. An IFC Films release

And just like any other family, sometimes they lose sight of what is most important. Preoccupied with their own individual lives, the relics of the past seem almost trivial and unimportant. But as the film progresses, each begin to realize the profound effects their childhood had on who they are, and the void that will be left by the selling of their birthplace. In many ways, it resembles a less cynical A Christmas Tale, with much more likable characters. Unlike that film, however, Summer Hours is ultimately a positive film. Assayas masterfully portrays life's natural progression - the old eventually steps aside to make room for the new, and whole new generation moves in.

The catch is that the old guard, memorably and heartbreakingly embodied by the family's faithful, elderly maid, is often overlooked in the face of such newness. It's the double edged sword of progress, and Assayas knows it. It's what makes Summer Hours such a remarkable and moving film. With his incisive screenplay and stellar ensemble cast, Assayas reinforces the power of family and importance of remembering one's roots. Progress is inevitable, and even desirable, but the past is always there. Nostalgic without being sentimental, Summer Hours is a profound and affecting film that is both inspiring and unforgettable. And if it makes you want to go hug your mother, well then, so much the better.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SUMMER HOURS: Directed by Olivier Assayas; Stars Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob; Not Rated; In French with English subtitles.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review: "Outrage"

Kirby Dick's near infamous new documentary Outrage started causing controversy before it was ever released. It was also probably the cause of lots of discomfort and hang wringing in Washington, the main target of this incendiary and pointed doc that takes a hard look at closeted gay politicians with abysmal gay rights voting records..

I'll admit when I first heard the premise of Outrage, I had mixed feelings - the idea of outing people against their will is a major and often painful taboo. On the other hand, I've always believed that hypocrisy and injustice must be exposed wherever it rears its ugly head, and for homosexuals to bury themselves in the closet, lead a double life, and vote against the rights of others like them seems to be the ultimate act of betrayal.

As it turns out, the film is not the unabashed mass outing that I had expected. Fair and balanced it isn't, but it never makes the claim to be. Instead it is a much more clear-eyed and even tempered look politicians around whom gay rumors have swirled for years who have consistently voted against gay rights, and asks the simple question: why?

Barney Frank in OUTRAGE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the politicians profiled in the film are Republicans, which isn't surprising given the conservative nature of the Republican party. But there are a few Democrats that fit the bill too, mostly due to the political liability that stems from being openly gay. The film centers around the efforts of Michael Rogers, an activist and founder of BlogActive.com, which is dedicated to outing anti-gay homosexuals in government.

It is a legitimate question to ask whose job it is to out these men, who are so obviously self-loathing and self serving as to continually hide who they truly are and lie to themselves and others, but it's hard to argue with Rogers' righteous indignation. What these men are doing is tantamount to treason in the eyes of many, and Rogers hopes that exposing them will not only help them be honest with themselves, but also improve their voting record.

Through interviews with outed politicians such as New Jersey's disgraced former governor, James McGreevy, to openly gay Senator Barney Frank, Outrage examines the effect the closet has had on American politics, and its repercussions on their personal lives. Using firsthand testimonies with men who claim to have actually had sex with men like Senator Larry Craig and Florida governor Charlie Crist, the film eschews mere gossip and speculation for something more substantive. This is no malicious hit piece, it's simply a film that wants, no, demands some answers.

Larry Craig’s mugshot in OUTRAGE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Regrettably, it never takes the time to consider the damage it may cause. That McGreevy is to himself and others now is admirable, but the damage his lies caused to his family is only briefly glossed over when considering why the spouses of these men stand by them. But for the other men who did not participate in the film who are the target of its attacks, the potential personal and public repercussions are seemingly ignored.

Ultimately, however, Outrage succeeds in making a powerful indictment of those who are willing to throw others like themselves under the bus to save their own skin. The information put forth is nothing new or particularly groundbreaking, but it's pretty searing, damning stuff. I hesitate to call it an essential documentary, but the more people who see this the wider the closet door swings. And then maybe, at last, the cry for justice will be hard to ignore.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

OUTRAGE; Directed by Kirby Dick; Featuring Barney Frank, Tony Kushner, James McGreevy, Michael Rogers; Not rated.

On "Up"

From The Dispatch:
While there is action and slap-stick comedy aplenty, what really makes "Up" so wonderful is its mature treatment of aging and mortality. The film tackles grown-up issues in a poignant and bittersweet way. I was reminded in some ways of Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt" in the way the film deals with getting older. It is a testament to Bob Peterson's screenplay that it balances humor and pathos with such nimble aplomb. Pixar's films have always dealt with more adult issues underneath the child friendly humor, but here it seems to go to the next level. It's not quite Pixar's deepest or best work (that title belongs to last year's "WALL-E"), but it's pretty close.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Review: "Unmistaken Child"

Anyone who has ever seen Martin Scorsese's vastly underrated Kundun has a basic knowledge of the beautiful mysteries that drive the religion of Buddhism. It is not necessarily a world that is easily accessible to outsiders. Buddhism is a religion steeped in tradition and mysticism that can seem very strange and even alienating to Western eyes, but in Unmistaken Child, the new documentary by Israeli director Nati Baratz, we get a revealing and unprecedented look behind the scenes at some of Buddhism's most sacred rites.

The idea of reincarnation is central to the Buddhist faith, so when Lama Konchog, a deeply revered and highly respected monk, passes away at the age of 84, his young disciple, Tenzin Zopa, sets out to find his reincarnation - the "unmistaken child" that is unquestionably the return of Lama Konchog's spirit to Earth.

Tenzin Zopa's quest leads him into the rural villages of Tibet, searching for a child whose birth fell after the death of Lama Konchong. It is a grueling journey, guided by astrology and faith and marked by one dead end after another, until at last one young candidate meets the desired qualifications.

Discovering a likely candidate, however, is only the beginning of the journey. From there, Tenzin's young protege must undergo a series of tests to determine whether or not he is the reincarnation of Lama Konchong. He will be faced with many challenges on a path that will take him to the Dalai Lama himself, and if he succeeds, he will face being separated from his parents on the path to enlightenment, as he devotes his life to the quiet study of Buddhism.

Baratz directs the film almost like a narrative feature. It is free of the usual talking heads that have come to be associated with documentaries. Instead, it simply follows the journey, taking the audience along as a casual observer - a witness to an ancient and sacred ritual that is both disarmingly beautiful and truly unforgettable.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating - the best documentaries transport their audiences into new worlds, with an immediacy that a narrative film could never hope to achieve. Unmistaken Child is one such film. It is almost a religious experience in and of itself, one that touches the heart and stirs the soul. Baratz brilliantly crafts his film so that it never actually feels like a documentary, it feels like a living, breathing story - an epic journey that has all the ingredients of any Hollywood blockbuster - suspense, emotion, heartbreak, and ultimately, joy.

This is masterful documentary filmmaking, chronicling a once in a lifetime event with great sensitivity and pathos. There is a great and powerful beauty at work here, something almost imperceptibly beyond the tangible. What Baratz captures here is nothing short of incredible. Unmistaken Child is a wonderful and wholly unique experience that transcends mere cinema and achieves something far grander and more special. This is vibrant and extraordinary filmaking, a compelling and unforgettable look at an ancient rite that is at once intimate and breathaking. This is what documentaries are all about.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

UNMISTAKEN CHILD: Directed by Nati Baratz; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 6/3, at the Film Forum in Manhattan.