Thursday, December 30, 2010

December is the time of year when critics across the country reassess the previous year by releasing their annual top ten lists, proclaiming to the world what films they thought were the best the year had to offer. Every year has its usual suspects of course, with certain films seeming to rack up the lions share of notices, but for some reason this year the homogenous nature of most top ten lists seemed all the more apparent - especially since, in a very weak year for American films, most top tens were made up entirely of American films.

"Psst! You know what's better than a million top ten lists? A BILLION top ten lists!"

The usual suspects this year (and presumptive Oscar nominees to boot) - The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, Winter's Bone, The Fighter, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, Inception, and The Town. Only one of those films is a truly foreign production - The King's Speech. And it's British.

I'm not saying these are bad films - Toy Story 3 and Black Swan are both on my own top ten list, and Winter's Bone nearly made it. I just can't help but wonder why people keep picking the same films over and over and over again. Is it laziness? Is it buying into the critical groupthink fed to us by the studios about what the "best" films of the year are supposed to be? Is it the fact that most critics just don't have access to some of the year's best films? I think it's a combination of all three.

The truth of the matter is, most critics don't seek out films that aren't playing in their cities. There is no reason to review them as their readers can't see them. I never reviewed most of the films that made my list in The Dispatch, few of them ever even opened in North Carolina at all. But because of my completist nature, and because of my work here at From the Front Row and In Review Online, I want to see EVERYTHING. So I am constantly seeking out films, requesting screeners, and going out of my way to get a full picture of the year in film. So I end up seeing a lot more films than most critics who live outside of New York and LA who don't really attend film festivals.

The obscurity of most of the films on my list doesn't extend from snobbery on my part (although you could make that argument), but from the simple fact that the kinds of films I watch and appreciate have left me spoiled. The "best" films of the year that most people see don't do it for me anymore. I've seen what's out there, I've seen the quality of product that exists beyond the mainstream, and I can't go back.

2010 wasn't a very strong year, but there were some strong films out there, especially from countries outside the US. If a film list is full of American productions, I take it with a grain of salt. There is simply too many quality films from the rest of the world for a top ten list made up of American films to be credible. I'm not trying to say that my top ten is better or more "right" than anyone else's, just that in order to make a top ten list that is a true top ten lists, you need to see more films that the films you are "supposed" to see. Just because you've seen all the Oscar contenders doesn't mean you have a true picture of the best films of the year.

There are a lot of films out there. It takes a lot of time and dedication. But it's worth it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My annual top ten list was published in The Dispatch today. Click here to read my full write-up.

(Jessica Hausner, Austria)
"The brilliance of "Lourdes" stems from its enigmatic nature, its ability to be spiritual without being religious, to question without being cynical, to embrace both faith and doubt without judgment -- and that is a miracle in itself."


(Claire Denis, France)
"Like her best work, "White Material" is a deeply reflective collection of moments, both of great beauty and great horror, and it continues to reveal its treasures upon repeat viewings. It is a feast, and for both fans of Denis and newcomers to her talents, it delivers plenty of extraordinary material to explore."

(Olivier Assayas, France)
"A bold and meticulous portrait of a complex man, from his glory days as a proud leftist revolutionary to a man on the run in his twilight years searching for relevancy in a changed, post-Cold War world, "Carlos" is the kind of fearless filmmaking Hollywood has forgotten how to do."

(Lee Unkrich, USA)
"It is both an elegy for and a celebration of childhood with the power to make grown men cry. And while it feels like saying goodbye to old friends, no other film this year felt so emotionally pitch-perfect."

(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
"As blunt and frightening as it is sly and rife with pitch black humor, "Dogtooth" is a bleakly satirical look at the dangers of an oppressive society as seen through the microcosm of what could possibly be one of the most bizarrely dysfunctional families to ever grace the silver screen."

(Darren Aronofsky, USA)"It's an exhilarating exercise in pure cinema, something both trashy and deeply beautiful, taking an old story and making it feel thrillingly new. 'Swan Lake' never sounded so beautiful -- or so immensely frightening."


(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
"De Oliveira is a kind of cinematic poet, a Portuguese bard whose film seems to defy time and place. It transcends the delicate intricacies of language by remaining fixed in its own sense of time while seeming effortlessly timeless. It is both of the past and the present, as if it could be anytime or anywhere or nowhere at all. It is of its own time and place, it is anywhere and everywhere, and de Oliveira beckons us into a peculiar and beguiling world whose treasures will continue to reveal themselves with repeated viewings."

(Klaus Haro, Finland)
"Its themes may not be terribly complex, but its genius lies in the disarming power with which they are conveyed. It leaves an indelible impression, a searing an unforgettable evocation of one man's simple faith and compassion, that finds something of the divine in simple human kindness."

(Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Mexico)
"Sometimes less really is more, and in this case the silence speaks volumes. "Alamar" is a small wonder of a film, a beautiful and bittersweet ode to the love shared by a father and son that resonates in powerful and unexpected ways."

(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
"If "Eccentricities" is the work of a master painter, then "The Strange Case of Angelica" is the work of a master photographer for whom every picture is a glimpse into its subject's soul. De Oliveira playfully toys with the ideas of perspective through art, but he is also a sly wordsmith as well. At 102 years old, he continues to grow and to impress, and here his narrative is a multi-layered work of great meaning and formalist skill."

Honorable mentions - AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN (Jacques Rivette, France), THE RED CHAPEL (Mads Brugger, Denmark), WINTER’S BONE (Debra Granik, USA), PRINCE OF BROADWAY (Sean Baker, USA), MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea), THE GHOST WRITER (Roman Polanski, France), THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher, USA), LAST TRAIN HOME (Lixin Fan, Canada/China), BLUEBEARD (Catherine Breillat, France), LEBANON (Samuel Maoz, Israel).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

From The Dispatch:
"The Fighter" may well be the best acted film of the year, with great turns by Wahlberg and Amy Adams as Ward's stalwart girlfriend, but the standouts are Bale and Leo, who go above and beyond what it means to be a great actor. Bale's transformation into Dickey is awe-inspiring; it's a wholly immersive performance that showcases Bale's immense talent as an actor. It's career best work from one of Hollywood's most serious talents. Leo, for her part, is equally impressive as Ward's mother, disappearing into the role with chameleon-like intensity.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Time, stand still. And you, former beings who roam fantastical, celestial ways, Angels open the gates of Heaven, for in my night is day, and God is in me."

So reads a poem oft quoted in Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, the latest film from the staggeringly productive 101 year old director from Portugal. Its strange and exquisite beauty mirrors that of the film for which it provides a backbone, and in its own way, seems like a sort of poetic synopsis, expressing the film's themes even as its characters utter it.
His second film to be released this year after Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, The Strange Case of Angelica serves as a kind of spiritual companion piece to that film, sharing not only similar themes of forbidden love but also its lovelorn protagonist, in the form of de Oliveira's grandson, Ricardo Trêpa. Here he plays Isaac, a photographer who is summoned to the estate of a wealthy family to take the final photographs of their lovely young daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), who tragically passed away in the night.

Pilar López de Ayala in “The Strange Case Of Angelica.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Upon seeing Angelica for the first time however, he is strangely drawn to her - even more so, when her serene corpse seems to smile at him. At first taken aback, Isaac instead finds himself increasingly obsessed with Angelica, poring over her photographs, hoping for another glimpse of her beautiful, smiling face. Soon, Angelica threatens to take over Isaac's entire life. Even his neighbors begin to notice his peculiar behavior. Isaac's landlord chides him for photographing field workers across the street, saying that no one does it by hand anymore, that it is all done by machines now. "Old fashioned work interests me." He replies. One can almost hear the words being uttered by de Oliveira himself, who is obviously far more fascinated by old fashioned societal constructs and cinematic formalism than the modern world. Except his work never feels outdated - it feels timeless, almost as if his characters exist within their own temporal reality. Much like in Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, the characters seem almost displaced in time, but feel less like inhabitants of a bygone era than citizens of their own private world, trapped in a pristine snow globe.

Like the photographs of the dead Angelica, every shot of The Strange Case of Angelica is framed like a photograph of its own. De Oliveira deliberately frames each shot with a photographer's eye, giving the audience a small window into the peculiar lives of his protagonists as if thumbing through an especially exquisite family album. If Eccentricities is the work of a master painter, then Angelica is the work of a master photographer for whom every picture is a glimpse into its subject's soul.

Ricardo Trêpa in “The Strange Case Of Angelica.” Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

De Oliveira playfully toys with the ideas of perspective through art, but he is also a sly wordsmith as well. When the characters discuss the nature of matter and anti-matter around the dinner table, it is clear that science isn't what they are talking about, they are talking about love - attraction through reaction. Isaac views the world through a camera lens, and it is through that camera lens that he finds love, even if the woman he falls in love with is dead. The camera gives her life, and through art she finds eternal life. It is understood that this cinematic exploration of art and its effect on human perspective is a kind of irony in itself. De Oliveira is a supreme cinema artist. The way his camera lingers on the night sky, or a wisp of smoke is breathtaking. There is no wasted shot or meaningless gesture. At 101 years old, he continues to grow and to impress, and here his narrative is a multi-layered work of great meaning and formalist skill. His formal mastery is on staggering display here, communicating with the audience on myriad levels, in essence using art to make a comment on art.

With skills as sharp as ever, De Oliveira crafts a haunting narrative, a film of great resonance and beauty that penetrates greatly beneath its deceptively simple veneer. Even at 101, he is still outpacing directors less than a third of his age. A lifetime of observing, learning, and absorbing cinematic craft has led to a kind of assured perfection - studied, yes, but brilliant nonetheless. It is a master class in cinematic formalism, from a man with a lifetime of knowledge and experience. This is how you do it, kids.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA | Directed by Manoel de Oliveira | Stars Ricardo Trêpa, Pilar López de Ayala, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, Ana Maria Magalhães, Isabel Ruth | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The noted acting teacher, Sanford Meisner, once designed an acting exercise called "coming home to be alone." Its purpose for actors is to imagine that something very important or meaningful, for good or ill, has just happened to you, and that you are coming home to be alone with your thoughts. It is an important exorcise, allowing the actor to convey emotion without words, using only body language and most importantly - the face.

There is a lot of coming home to be alone in Stéphane Brizé's Mademoiselle Chambon, an elegant and heartfelt love story that is not a love story. It is the tale of Jean (Vincent Lindon), a married man who falls in love with his young son's substitute teacher, Véronique Chambon (the luminous Sandrine Kiberlain, Lindon's real life ex-wife). He is a simple man, a construction worker, but when he is asked over to her house to replace a window and discovers that she is a violinist, he asks her to play something for him, having only seen violins before on TV.

She shyly obliges, insisting that her talents are not that great. But her music communicates something to Jean, and he finds himself falling in love with her. When she plays the violin, it is as if she is speaking directly to him, saying everything she has neither the courage nor the willpower to articulate, and he understands every word. His home life isn't particularly unhappy, his relationship with his wife is stable and content. But he and Mme. Chambon share a strange, unexplainable connection that he cannot ignore, something neither can express but both feel just as strongly.

Theirs is a relationship communicated through music. Chambon, shy and quiet; Jean, stoic and awkward - neither can articulate their feelings. They can only share them through their common love of the violin. It is a tentative romance, told through furtive glances and musical interludes, letting that which goes unspoken do all the talking as they awkwardly try to fill the silences with small talk. Soon Jean is faced with an impossible choice - abandon a happy home life for uncertainty, or pursue his undeniable love for Mme. Chambon, whose restless nature never allows her to stay in one place for very long.

Much is communicated through Kiberlain's melancholy eyes alone. Her face reveals a deep loneliness that is both haunting and heartbreaking. What she is able to communicate while barely uttering a work is astounding. It's a remarkable performance in a completely lovely film, and if its themes of marital infidelity seem a bit old hat, Brizé imbues it with new life through his exquisite use of music to tell its story. Brizé uses music to describe the characters' feelings when they cannot - much of Mademoiselle Chambon's most striking moments come not through great writing (although the script is excellent), but through the physical performances of the actors and the music that reveals their innermost selves.

In fact, Brizé's direction is so confident and the performances so assured, it could almost have been a silent film. As Norma Desmond once said in Sunset Boulevard - "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!" Watching Mademoiselle Chambon, that quote carries a lot of resonance. For such a minimalistic film, it is incredibly visual, basing much of its emotion on wordless evocations. It is an aching and elegant narrative, a powerful and moving romance that says much while hardly saying anything. And in this day and age, that is an impressive achievement indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON | Directed by Stéphane Brizé | Stars Vincent Lindon, Sandrine Kiberlain, Aure Atika, Jean-Marc Thibault, Arthur Le Houérou | Not Rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, featuring an interview with the director, deleted scenes, and more.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

With today's announcement of the 2010 National Board of Review honors, the awards season has officially begun. Sorry Gothams, this is where it really starts. Here is the list of nominees:

Film: "The Social Network"

Director: David Fincher, "The Social Network"

Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network"

Actress: Lesley Manville, "Another Year"

Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"

Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom"

Foreign Language Film: "Of Gods and Men"

Documentary: "Waiting for Superman"

Animated Feature: "Toy Story 3"

Ensemble Cast: "The Town"

Breakthrough Performance: Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone"

Debut Directors: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, "Restrepo"

Spotlight Award: Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati, "The Illusionist"

Original Screenplay: Chris Sparling, "Buried"

Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, "The Social Network"

Special Filmmaking Achievement Award: Sofia Coppola for writing, directing, and producing "Somewhere"

William K. Everson Film History Award: Leonard Maltin

NBR Freedom of Expression: "Fair Game," "Conviction," "Howl"

Production Design Award: Dante Ferretti, "Shutter Island"

Ten Best Films

"Another Year"

"The Fighter"



"The King's Speech"

"Shutter Island"

"The Town"

"Toy Story 3"

"True Grit"

"Winter's Bone"

Five Best Foreign-Language Films

"I Am Love"


"Life, Above All"

"Soul Kitchen"

"White Material"

Five Best Documentaries

"A Film Unfinished"

"Inside Job"

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"


"The Tillman Story"

Top Ten Independent Films:

"Animal Kingdom"


"Fish Tank"

"The Ghost Writer"


"Let Me In"


"Please Give"


"Youth in Revolt"

Monday, November 29, 2010

So many modern period pieces fall into an all-too-common trap - they feel fake, never escaping the feeling that all you are watching is a bunch of actors playing dress-up. They are the very definition of "costume dramas."

On the surface, that is exactly what Margarethe von Trotta's Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen appears to be, and it's ungainly title doesn't help. However, despite the fact that it's title has the ring of a dry, tedious history lesson, the film itself is anything but.

What Von Trotta creates is instead is a vibrant and evocative recreation of another time, a deeply reverent portrait of one of history's pioneering women that few have ever heard of. As its title suggests, Vision is the true story of Hildegard von Bingen (the magnificent Barbara Sukowa), a 12th century German nun who claimed to have received visions from God, a claim that brought her both great fame and adoration, as well as great suspicion from jealous male peers.

Barbara Sukowa as Hildegard von Bingen in VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.
A Zeitgeist Films release.

However, much to the head of her order's chagrin, her visions are endorsed by the Pope, and she is looked to by many as a great teacher and prophet. She uses her newfound power to establish her own convent, intent on spreading the word of God to those who have not yet heard it, while exploring the sciences that fascinated her so and being a good steward of the Earth. She was a woman ahead of her time, she was a poet, a playwright, a composer, a scholar, but above all she dedicated everything to her faith. But even her faith, as strong as it is, can't save her from personal problems of her own, as she is betrayed by those closest to her, the ones who helped her overcome the obstacles of patriarchy and incredulity, and she begins to realize that she may not enjoy the full confidence of the sisters under her leadership.

Vision is a lovely and lyrical film, and thanks to some striking production design (featuring great use of real medieval abbeys) and cinematography, it is a period piece that doesn't feel like a period piece. Its characters have very real hopes and dreams that aren't too different from those of modern women, and Von Trotta treats her subject with a great deal of veneration.

Barbara Sukowa as Hildegard von Bingen and Heino Ferch as Brother Volmar in VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Everything about the film just feels right. Von Trotta strikes just the right tone of lyricism and piety to deliver a film that evokes a deep sense of religious faith without coming across as heavy-handed or preachy. It is a deeply felt biographical exercise that skillfully avoids the usual pratfalls many biopics succumb to. Von Trotta's consistently engaging style keeps the film moving, and despite a few dramatically inert moments, the film moves surprisingly well given its subject. It's never uninteresting, and Sukowa imbues Hildegard with a spirited sense of life. She is no dour nun, she is a woman of great spiritual intensity and fervor, and also a woman fascinated by the beauty of the world around her. So too is the film, consistently engaging the audience with its confidence.

Vision is a striking film, a film that is not content to be a mere history lesson. Von Trotta takes a great woman who made great strides for women in the church, becoming one of the first female preachers, something that was unheard of in her time, and crafts a compelling and entertaining narrative that is as much about her life as it is her inner life. It's a costume drama that isn't about the costumes or the sets, it's about the people, and that may be its greatest achievement of all.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

VISION: FROM THE LIFE OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN | Directed by Margarethe von Trotta | Stars Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung, Alexander Held, Lena Stolze, Sunnyi Melles, Paula Kalenberg | Not Rated | In German w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.
From The Dispatch:
It's the same old grisly song and dance, and even the 3-D fails to breathe new life into its tired bones. We have come to expect and even anticipate the now requisite twists at the end of each film (none have matched the original for sheer unexpectedness). And even though this final (?) entry in the series brings about a mostly satisfying conclusion to its characters, the film surrounding them is an all-too-familiar slog.
Click here to read my full review.
There is an annoying self-righteousness about Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun strangely prudish documentary, The Price of Pleasure, that set me on edge right from the start. Billed as an exploration of America's growing adult entertainment industry, the film feels more like a hit-job, hiding behind a facade of fairness.

The filmmakers interview people who are both for and against pornography, but there is a clear negative slant against the porn industry. Picker and Sun have an obvious agenda, playing dark, menacing music while showing people watching pornography and willfully leaving huge gaps in their central argument that pornography is degrading to women.

The film completely ignores gay pornography, and that is its fatal flaw. By portraying pornography as an industry run by and for heterosexual men, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that women are the only ones willing to be "degraded" on camera, while in fact there are plenty of men, both gay and straight, who willingly do so on a daily basis. Straight women are not the only ones portrayed in submissive bondage situations - gay men are too, and there are even porn subgenres where women dominate men. By focusing on straight porn, The Price of Pleasure misses an entire segment of the adult entertainment industry, and stands on very shaky ground.

Picker and Sun miss a golden chance for a balanced and objective exploration of why pornography has become such a mainstream part of our culture while still remaining such a taboo, but instead they sacrifice that for what seems like a moral crusade. Who are these people they are interviewing? Who cares what these random college students have to say? The fact that a few people feel cheapened by it is not a solid argument on which to build a film, and The Price of Pleasure never feels like anything more than a wasted opportunity.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE PRICE OF PLEASURE | Directed by Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun | Debuts on DVD tomorrow, November 30, from Cinema Libre.
Over the years, Christopher Guest has basically cornered the market on the mockumentary genre. But in her directorial debut, Amy French makes a decent stab at it in El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances, an agreeably silly look at an overweight, balding white man who, after being raised by his Mexican nanny, decides to become a folk singer, fancying himself the voice of his people with the heart of a migrant worker.

As he rises to fame, however, he begins to leave his roots as the call of glamor and fortune beckon, becoming something more akin to a Latin gangsta rapper than a Mexican folk singer, before he eventually comes to terms with who he really is.

French is certainly no Christopher Guest, but she delivers some laughs here and a few punches to the gut of musical self-importance and selling out. Her cast is also game, turning in some amusingly earnest performances that sell French's central conceit. It's a relatively minor film, but French shows promise and El Superstar may well be a stepping stone to greater things. She obviously has an eye for sly, deadpan comedy. Hopefully she will continue to find her voice as her career progresses.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

EL SUPERTSTAR: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF JUAN FRANCES | Directed by Amy French | Stars Spencer John French, Lupe Ontiveros, Danny Trejo, Elisa Bocanegra, Maria Esquivel, David Franco | Not Rated | Debuts on DVD Tuesday, January 18th, from Cinema Libre.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

There is an entire subgenre out there about disaffecting twenty-somethings drifting through life trying to find themselves. Very few of them, however, are as clever or as wise as writer/director/star Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, the Best Narrative Feature winner at this year's SXSW Film Festival.

In many ways it is exactly the kind of twee indie festival film that one would expect it to be, but Dunham's unique voice adds something special to the proceedings that so many of its peers lack - honesty.

Tiny Furniture is a kind of summation of Gen-Y hopes and fears, a generation of young people who came of age during the Bush years and now find themselves graduating and entering the real world in a time of economic downturn and general social anxiety. It is a generation to which I belong, and its characters are very much people I recognize.

David Call as Keith and Lena Dunham as Aura in TINY FURNITURE directed by Lena Dunham.
Photo by Joe Anderson. An IFC Films Release.

Dunham herself stars as Aura, a recent college graduate who has returned home in hopes of finding a job and getting an apartment with her best friend. The problem is she still has no idea who she is or what she wants to be, despite societal pressures to the contrary. Her mother is an aloof and distant photographer, her younger sister is a child genius, but Aura is just, well, Aura. Plain, un-extraordinary Aura. She gets a job as a hostess as a restaurant, but finds it boring, and not at all what she went to school for. She is unlucky in love, and the only friends she has are strange figures from her past she doesn't really even like to begin with. She strikes up a tentative friendship with an internet celebrity who makes comedy videos on YouTube, while harboring a crush on a chef at work. But life just isn't working out the way she pictured it, and she is as disconnected from life as she is to the tiny articles of furniture that her mother became famous for photographing.

While it is overly precious at times, Tiny Furniture is a disarmingly mature work. It doesn't try to put any schmaltzy Band-Aids on real problems, nor does it wallow in self-pity. Dunham achieves her goals with a great sense of self-deprecating humor, and thankfully never mistakes the over-use of indie rock songs for emotional depth like so many other, similarly themed films do. No, Dunham shows a directorial restraint that is wise beyond her years, and while it is very much a film of its time and of her generation, there is a keen sense of self-awareness at work here.

David Call as Keith and Lena Dunham as Aura in TINY FURNITURE directed by Lena Dunham.
Photo by Joe Anderson
. An IFC Films Release.

Dunham may be young, but unlike the character she portrays, there is a unmistakable sense that she knows who she is, as a person and as an artist. Her work on Tiny Furniture is confident and assured, her writing sharp and witty. She has her finger placed directly on the pulse of her generation, and has given it a striking and curiously moving voice. Adrift in post-college confusion, Dunham sums up Gen-Y's collective anxiety with great warmth and humor without many of the indie comedy cliches we see over and over again. The characters are more than just the sum of their quirks, they're real people. Whether they just lack drive, maturity, opportunity, or all of the above is up for debate, and Dunham makes no attempt to psychoanalyze anyone. Instead she captures a feeling, a kind of unspoken zeitgeist, as much or even more so than David Fincher's much balleyhooed "decade defining" The Social Network. Whereas that film chronicled the lives of Harvard elites, Tiny Furniture focuses on the rank and file of the Facebook generation.

It is a refreshingly frank and unencumbered narrative, just as funny and charming as it is melancholy and moving. Beneath its odd sense of humor there is an unmistakable sadness, a confusion that is common for anyone growing up. But as the world gets tougher, so does getting older, and Tiny Furniture gives voice to the alienated, the lost, and anyone just trying to discover who they are.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TINY FURNITURE | Directed by Lena Dunham | Stars Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Rachel Weaver, Merritt Weaver, Amy Seimetz, Alex Karpovski | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ME, TOO (YO, TAMBIEN) | Directed by Álvaro Pastor & Antonio Naharro | Stars Pablo Pineda, Lola Duenas | Not Rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles.

Álvaro Pastor & Antonio Naharro's Me, Too (Yo, Tambien) may have one of the most uncomfortable sounding premises of any film this year. It's the story of Daniel (Pablo Pineda), an extraordinary man with Down Syndrome who became the first man in Spain with the condition to receive advanced university degrees. Determined to lead as normal a life as possible, he takes an office job as a social worker for disabled people. He is, in every respect, a "normal" man with the body of someone with Down Syndrome, and along with it comes a powerful sex drive. He falls in love with a co-worker named Laura (Lola Duenas), a troubled woman with a checkered past and self-confidence issues.

The two forge a tentative and unusual friendship, but while Laura wants to keep it at that, Pablo wants something much more, something society tells him he can't have. Soon the prospect of leading a "normal" life seems an impossible dream, and he begins to resent his parents for pushing him to succeed in spite of his handicap.

It's a premise that has schmaltz written all over it, but it's a surprisingly mature take on difficult themes, treating its subject with the dignity and grace it deserves. It may touch on uncomfortable topics such as Downs Syndrome and sexuality, but it tackles them head on whereas they are usually swept under a rug. Pineda, a first time actor who actually was the first man with Down Syndrome to graduate from university in Spain, is extraordinary as Daniel, and adds an extra dimension of experience to the film's credibility.

Points must be given to it for attempting to take on this subject in an intelligent and unsentimental way, and while it doesn't always succeed, it's a noble and often compelling effort - a strange and moving tale of love and compassion that gives its characters the respect they deserve.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

NOTHING PERSONAL | Directed by Urszula Antoniak | Stars Stephen Rea, Lotte Verbeek | Not Rated.

Unusual friendships is also the theme of Urszula Antoniak's Nothing Personal, a strangely beguiling May/December romance about a fiery and independent Dutch girl named Anne (Lotte Verbeek), who leaves behind her home in the Netherlands to trek across Ireland on foot. She survives by scavenging for food, refusing the help of strangers, determined to make it on her own. That is until she meets Martin (Stephen Rea), an older hermit living alone on the island. He gives her shelter and food in exchange for work, which she accepts on one condition - there is to be no exchange of personal information between them. No names, no histories, nothing. He refers to her simply as "you."

Their initially terse relationship soon becomes something akin to mutual respect, then later to friendship. But whereas the anonymous nature of their relationship is initially liberating, it soon becomes much stronger, and the two find in each other something they never thought they would find again.

Nothing Personal is a strangely beguiling, if slight, romance; beautifully filmed and acted by its two leads. If the final product is a bit unmemorable and anonymous (much like Anne and Martin's relationship), it isn't due to the efforts of the actors. It's the kind of film that illicits responses such as "that was nice" but never really digs deeper or goes beyond that. It's a fine viewing experience in the moment, but viewers may find it fades rather quickly.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

ME, TOO and NOTHING PERSONAL are now playing in NYC. Both films open Friday, November 26, in LA.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

There are few things in cinema more worthy of excitement than a new film by Claire Denis. One of the most interesting and consistently excellent directors in the world today, Denis is responsible for some of the finest films of the last decade, including Beau Travail and 35 Shots of Rum (one of my top ten films of last year).

Her latest film, White Material, reunites her with one of her favorite themes, French/African relations, and unites her with one of France's greatest actresses, Isabelle Huppert, for the first time. It turns out to be the match made in Heaven that one would expect, and even though Huppert has appeared completely exposed in many of her films, never has she seemed quite so emotionally naked. A striking, regal beauty in real life, Huppert has never seemed so careworn or, dare I say it, old, as she does in White Material.

As Maria Vial, a French coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country, Huppert exudes a haunted vulnerability, brought on by the societal turmoil she suddenly finds herself surrounded by.

Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial in WHITE MATERIAL directed by Claire Denis.
An IFC Films Release

Having lived in Africa so long, she feels as much a part of the land as the native Africans who work for her. But times are changing, and the country is in upheaval. The French army, which has occupied the country for the better part of a century, is withdrawing, leaving the country to its fate and evacuating all remaining French nationals. Maria, however, refuses to leave her life behind and stays on the plantation with her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a no account slacker who Maria worries is wasting his life. As the French army withdraws, the new native government is busy tracking down rebel factions, specifically one led by a man known only as The Boxer (Isaach De Bankole), who is hiding with the Vials. Through sinister, whispery radio transmissions, the seeds fear and dischord are sewed amongst the populace, as the countryside is terrorized by roving gangs of child militants. It's a volatile situation, but Maria refuses to abandon the life she fought so hard to create.

Huppert's eyes suggest a woman who has lost everything but is willing to do anything to get it back. Through her own denial of the danger she and her family are truly in, she finds within herself a strength she didn't know she had. The "white material" of the title refers literally to the dismissive term used by the native Africans to describe the superfluous material trappings of white society. But much bigger than that, it really refers to the strife brought upon Africa by colonial intervention. The societal rot, the violent death squads, the human pain and suffering that is a direct result of colonial interference and years of oppressive rule is the real white material, and the Vials find themselves left behind to reap what has been sewn years before them.

Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial and Christopher Lambert as André Vial in WHITE MATERIAL directed by Claire Denis.
An IFC Films Release

Denis crafts her symbolic narrative with elegance and a staggering formal mastery. Her compositions are flawless and tonally precise. Denis' innate ability to craft a memorable atmosphere is on full display here, drawing the audience in with a mere glance or a whisper. There is not a single wasted shot or throwaway line. She says so much with so little, as does Huppert, whose careworn face suggests a woman who has seen her entire life disappear in an instant.

Everything about White Material is infused with meaning. By not revealing the name of the country, Denis presents an Africa that is not necessarily an Africa that actually exists, but a representation of the societal decay that is brought on by colonialism. And while the narrative itself isn't exactly the point, Denis so enthralls the viewer that it becomes a compelling and riveting experience in its own right. Juxtaposing bitter ironies (a church with a sign reading "God never gives up" is revealed to contain the bodies of slaughtered Africans) and white arrogance, White Material refuses to be yet another lament for "poor Africa. It's a lament all right, a guttural cry of anguish, but Hotel Rwanda this isn't. Denis isn't interested in a straightforward, black and white approach. What she achieves here is much more subtle and lyrical. Like her best work, White Material is a deeply reflective collection of moments, both of great beauty and great horror, and it continues to reveal its treasures upon repeat viewings. It is a feast, and for both fans of Denis and newcomers to her talents, it delivers plenty of extraordinary material to explore.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WHITE MATERIAL | Directed by Claire Denis | Stars Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Isaach De Bankole, Nicolas Duvauchelle | Not rated | In French with English subtitles | Now playing in NYC.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

AMPAS has released their 2010 shortlist of documentaries that will compete for 5 nomination slots. They are:

• “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” Alex Gibney, director
• “Enemies of the People,” Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, directors
• “Exit through the Gift Shop,” Banksy, director
• “Gasland,” Josh Fox, director
• “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould,” Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, directors
• “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson, director
• “The Lottery,” Madeleine Sackler, director
• “Precious Life,” Shlomi Eldar, director
• “Quest for Honor,” Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, director
• “Restrepo,” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, directors
• “This Way of Life,” Thomas Burstyn, director
• “The Tillman Story,” Amir Bar-Lev, director
• “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, Davis Guggenheim, director
• “Waste Land,” Lucy Walker, director
• “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, directors

2010 has been a very strong year for documentaries, but not a single one of my favorites made the shortlist. Notable exclusions include Winnebago Man, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Oath, Best Worst Movie, Sweetgrass, and Last Train Home. Marwencol, another excellent 2010 doc, failed to make the cut as well due to eligibility issues.

Monday, November 15, 2010

AMPAS has released its list of the 15 films eligible to be nominated for Best Animated Feature.

• “Alpha and Omega”
• “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”
• “Despicable Me”
• “The Dreams of Jinsha”
• “How to Train Your Dragon”
• “Idiots and Angels”
• “The Illusionist”
• “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”
• “Megamind”
• “My Dog Tulip”
• “Shrek Forever After”
• “Summer Wars”
• “Tangled”
• “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue”
• “Toy Story 3”

Since there are only 15 eligible films, only 3 can be nominated, lessening the chances of a "Secret of Kells" type surprise nominee. I expect the final 3 to be "How to Train Your Dragon," "The Illusionist," and "Toy Story 3."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Watching Chris Morris' hilarious new comedy, Four Lions, I couldn't help but be reminded of Harry Potter. Not thematically or aesthetically of course, but of the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry and his friends are faced with a boggart, a creature that takes the form of whatever the person facing it is most afraid of, and the students must cast a spell on it to make it look ridiculous, thus draining it of its fearsome power. Four Lions does much the same thing for the face of modern terrorism.

The plot of Four Lions centers around four British jihadists whose dream is to serve Osama bin Laden and sacrifice themselves for Islam, thus earning the 72 virgins and yada yada yada. The problem is that they are all complete idiots. Whether they are traveling to Pakistan to train with al Qaeda, or attempting to execute their own terrorist plot in London, these four "lions" can't seem to do anything right.

Pictured from left to right: Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Arsher Ali in FOUR LIONS by Drafthouse Films, All Rights Reserved.

Their leader is Omar (Riz Ahmed), a dedicated Muslim family man who is the only one among them with a modicum of sense, but is surrounded by so many morons that his plans can never get off the ground. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is his right hand man, but since he doesn't really have a mind of his own, Omar does all the thinking for him. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is a white Muslim convert who isn't so much dedicated to Islam as he is just a disgruntled misanthrope looking to channel his deep dissatisfaction with the world around him with something that involves explosives and telling other people what to do. Then there is Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who is too afraid to blow himself up, so he is trying to train cows to fly through windows with bombs instead.

Needless to say these four aren't getting very far, and that is the beauty of Four Lions. Rather than cheapening or downplaying the serious nature of terrorism, Morris instead holds it up to the light, exposing these extremists for the ideological buffoons that they really are. That is not to discount the cold calculation that goes into planning horrific terrorist attacks, nor the tremendous amount of human suffering that comes from them, instead Morris understands that sometimes the best antidote for fear is laughter. To coin the common post-9/11 maxim, if we walk in constant fear of terrorism, then the terrorists truly have won.

Pictured from left to right: Kayvan Novak, Arsher Ali, Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay in FOUR LIONS by Drafthouse Films, All Rights Reserved.

Morris holds modern terrorism up as a boggart to be mocked and ridiculed, dressing it up in silly costumes (both literally and figuratively) and strips it of its psychological power. While real threats must be taken seriously, the ridiculous and hateful ideologies that fuel these jihadists cannot, and Morris clearly understands the difference. Make no mistake, Four Lions is a farce, filled with buffoonish characters and outlandish situations, but it actually does have a serious message - sometimes the best medicine is laughter.

In his director's statement, Morris says:
Where’s the joke in terror? Actually, as Four Lions will demonstrate, it’s staring you right in the face. At training camps young jihadis argue about honey, shoot each other’s feet off, chase snakes and get thrown out for smoking. When 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta was teased for pissing too loudly, he blamed the Jews for making thin bathroom doors.
Four Lions makes a pointed mockery out of such self important lunacy. Plot-wise it's a bit disjointed, but the satire is so sharp and the humor so riotously funny that the final product is a great success. "Terrorism is about ideology," Morris says, "but it’s also about imbeciles." Never has that point been so bravely or so hilariously made as in Four Lions - a clever and original comedy that, above all, refuses to let the terrorists win.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FOUR LIONS | Directed by Chris Morris | Stars Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar | Rated R for language throughout, including some sexual references | Now playing in select cities, visit Drafthouse Films to find a city near you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From The Dispatch:
For the most part, the film stays true to themes and issues that have been near and dear to Perry since the beginning, but here he seems more comfortable, more confident in his own directorial abilities to let the themes speak for themselves, rather than spell it out so blatantly. The result is a lovely and moving film, at once Perry’s most dynamic and his most subtle work. “For Colored Girls” is a beautiful film with a universal message of hope that goes beyond Perry’s target audience. Tyler Perry isn’t just a niche filmmaker anymore.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, November 08, 2010

From The Dispatch:
As with most of Eastwood’s films, “Hereafter” is simple and economical, but it seems to waste Bryce Dallas Howard in a small role that doesn’t really lead anywhere, a sidebar in an otherwise one-dimensional segment of the film. Damon’s psychic powers are a slightly awkward narrative crutch, offering an easy answer to a problem that shouldn’t really have one. It’s a strange easy out for a film that is often so doggedly opaque and requires a greater suspension of disbelief than really should be necessary. If the film wanted to truly explore ideas of the afterlife, a psychic with true and consistent psychic powers seems like a cop-out.
Click here to read my full review.
It is refreshing, especially in today's heightened political climate, to see Muslims portrayed as human beings rather than monsters or terrorists. That is the central idea behind Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, which sadly falls short of its goal.

Based on the novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores is the story of Yusef, a Pakistani engineering student who moves into a house off-campus with a group of Muslim "punks," young men and women who refuse to conform to religious and societal norms while still remaining true to Allah as they understand him. They are united by their love of "Taqwacore," a form of punk rock music of Muslim origin, with band names like the Guantanamo Bay Packers and Osama's Tunnel Diggers. Each tenant represents a different facet of Muslim culture, and a different marginalized segment of society. Their faith brings them together under one umbrella as part of a larger society that is becoming increasingly shunned by a growing segment of America - but one this is clear, these are not the Muslims FOX News told you about.

Bobby Naderi and Dominic Rains in Strand Releasing's THE TAQWACORES.

The problem with the film is that it paints with such broad strokes. The characters are a collection of cliches, cardboard representations of different subcultures that never dig below the surface. There's the feminist (who wears a decorated burqa for irony), the gay guy, the punk rocker, the skateboarder, the Asian, the religious conservative, the list goes on and on. If Zahra wanted to portray diversity within the Muslim world, he does these subcultures disservice with such thin characterizations. All the while, Yusef remains a passive and bland protagonist. He's more of a guide meant to be a sort of channel for the audience, but instead he fails to inspire interest. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, any emotional impact it could have had is lost in a sea of weak storytelling crutches and a muddled narrative.

The Muslim punk scene that the film chronicles is a fictional one, although in a case of life imitating art, the novel did inspire a real one that still exists. You have to admire Zahra's fervor in showing the world that Muslims are not the Jihadist murderers that many try to paint them as, but the almost cartoonish caricatures that are the film's characters betray that goal at every turn. Yes, Islam is not the religion of violence and terror we often see on the nightly news, but it's much deeper and more complex than The Taqwacores suggests as well.

Ian Tran, Nav Mann, Volkan Eryaman, Bobby Naderi, Dominic Rains, Tony Valda, and Noureen DeWulf in Strand Releasing's THE TAQWACORES.

The film fails to portray its characters as actual people, instead they are paper-thin representations of very broad cliches. Even its portrayals of anti-Muslim sentiments lack nuance (not that the sentiments themselves had any nuance to begin with). It's hard to deny that its heart is in the right place, but The Taqwacores never seems to establish its own identity. There are too many characters and not enough development of any of them to amount to anything that can truly get across the message it's trying so hard to convey.

It's a missed opportunity that is at once strenuously sincere and painfully misguided - a ham handed cry for tolerance that doesn't do its characters, or its subject, justice.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE TAQWACORES | Directed by Eyad Zahra | Stars Bobby Naderi, Noureen Dewulf , Dominic Rains, Nav Mann, Volkan Eryman, Ian Tran, Tony Yalda, Rasika Mathur, Anne Leighton | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, November 05, 2010

With a historic election less than a week old that shifted the balance of power of our government, it seems like the perfect time for a film like Francis Megahy's new documentary The Best Government Money Can Buy. After all, it deals with perhaps one of the most important issues of our time - the role of professional lobbyists in our government.

It was one of Barack Obama's key campaign issues, and Megahy takes a behind the scenes look at professional lobbying and just how powerful it has become. It's a relatively new phenomenon, and one that few people know much about. Megahy's goal is to pull back the curtain on lobbying and find the truth about just how much of our government is based on monetary contributions.


In that regard he only half succeeds. It's hard to see the full picture of lobbying when all you are doing is interviewing professional lobbyists. There is little in the way of new information here. It's more of a civics class overview of lobbying. It provides plenty of food for thought, and indeed embodies an essential question of our time - just how much say-so do we have in our own government when such powerful special interests are pouring money into politician's coffers? The rudimentary nature of the film prevents it from being the hard hitting expose that it really should have been, but it's a start.

In a time when these questions are more important than ever, The Best Government Money Can Buy asks the right questions, but doesn't have the investigative tenacity to dig below the surface.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE BEST GOVERNMENT MONEY CAN BUY is now available on DVD from Cinema Libre.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

There are few subjects that have been covered as much or as often in film as World War II. In fact, there is such a wealth of material available on the subject that finding films that approach it from a new or unique angle is rare. That is part of what makes Robert Young's Eichmann so interesting, it looks at the aftermath of WWII through the eyes of one of its most infamous figures - Adolf Eichmann, the orchestrator of Hitler's "final solution."

Based on transcripts of Eichmann's final interrogations in Israel after his capture in Argentina in 1960, Eichmann is a game of intellectual cat-and-mouse between Eichmann (Thomas Kretschman) and Avner Less (Troy Garity), the man chosen to carry out the interrogation, with orders to extract a confession with which the Israeli government can justify an execution.

The Holocaust and WWII are only seen through brief flashbacks, while the film focuses mainly on the interviews with Eichmann, contrasting his version of the Holocaust through his own words with the horrible reality.

Thomas Kretschmann as Adolf Eichmann Alexis Latham as Dubois.

Kretschmann is terrific as Eichmann, portraying a man who is essentially a wolf in sheep's clothing, but humanizes him without letting him off the hook for his crimes. The film, much like Less, attempts to extend to Eichmann the courtesy that he refused to give so many - humanity. While Eichmann's family isn't given much screen time, their presence is keenly felt through Kretschmann's performance. Less' family, on the other hand, feel like an afterthought in the script, and remain underdeveloped in favor of the central two characters.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is rather run of the mill. The scenes between Eichmann and Less have a strong energy about them, but the rest of the film feels like a well intentioned but rather rote history lesson. It's all appropriately somber, but almost strenuously so - the use of audio excerpts from an interview with the real Avner Less over the end credits demonstrates the film's admirable sincerity, but one can't help but feel that the film is overestimating its own importance, especially when other, far better films have covered this territory before.

GRADE - ★★½

EICHMANN | Directed by Robert Young | Stars Thomas Kretschmann, Troy Garity, Franka Potente, Stephen Fry | Not rated | Now playing in select theaters.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

From The Dispatch:
“It's Kind of a Funny Story” seems unnecessarily treacly and lightweight, teetering oddly between comedy and drama and never really being particularly solid in either department. It has moments of comedic inspiration, but more often than not the quirk is almost painfully self-conscious, and it reaches for emotional payoffs that it hasn't earned.

Still though, Boden and Fleck's gentle direction keeps the film moderately likable even when the story threatens to veer off track, and it's never what one would call bad. But its “grass is always greener” theme is pretty simplistic, driving home a point that most of us learned (far more memorably) in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Click here to read my full review.