Saturday, February 27, 2010

They're here! The 2009 Front Row Award nominations are up and running over at

Please visit the website for the full list of nominations and leave your feedback here. In the meantime, here are the majors:

  • Antichrist
  • Goodbye Solo
  • Munyurangabo
  • Still Walking
  • 35 Shots of Rum

  • Ramin Bahrani, Goodbye Solo
  • Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum
  • Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
  • Kore-Eda Hirokazu, Still Walking
  • Lars Von Trier, Antichrist

  • Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
  • Nicholas Cage, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
  • George Clooney, Up in the Air
  • Colin Firth, A Single Man
  • Ben Foster, The Messenger

  • Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
  • Carey Mulligan, An Education
  • Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
  • Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
  • Tilda Swinton, Julia

  • Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
  • Alfred Molina, An Education
  • Paul Schneider, Bright Star
  • Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
  • Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

  • Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
  • Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
  • Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds
  • Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
  • Samantha Morton, The Messenger

  • Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer
  • Adam Elliot, Mary and Max
  • Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
  • Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum
  • Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon


  • Jane Campion, Bright Star
  • Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Tom Ford, A Single Man
  • Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
  • Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, Where the Wild Things Are

Friday, February 26, 2010

During this past awards season, and especially since last year's Cannes Film Festival, there has seemed to be a match-up between Jacques Audiard's Grand Prix winning A Prophet (Un Prophète) and Michael Haneke's Palme D'Or winning The White Ribbon, as the two films raked in most of the year's Best Foreign Language Film awards. Many people seemed to fall into one camp or the other, those that supported A Prophet, and those who supported The White Ribbon.

I know which camp I fall into, as a strong supporter of Haneke's brilliant Ribbon. However, the comparison is ultimately an unfair one, because you would be hard pressed to find two more disparate films than these. The White Ribbon is a dark, formalist allegory, whereas A Prophet is a much more modern prison drama. Pitting the two against each other does neither any favors, and is a false comparison to begin with. They were thrown together by circumstance not by any actual similarity. It is possible to actually like and appreciate both on their own merits.

Left to Right: Niels Arestrup as Cesar and Tahar Rahim as Malik
Photo taken by Roger Arpajou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

What is immediately evident is Audiard's storytelling prowess, as he draws us in early on into the frighteningly real prison world he creates. It is into this hard-knock world that 19 year old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) enters for a five year term. Arabic, but not Muslim, Malik really doesn't fit in anywhere, until one day he is approached by members of the Corsican mob, led by César (Niels Arestrup), to kill a snitch being housed in the prison before a high profile trial against one of their own. If he succeeds, he will have protection. If he fails, he will have made some powerful enemies. Soon enough, Malik finds himself under the wing of César, but always as a second class citizen, an "other" because of his Arab background. But Malik is street smart enough to use this to his advantage, gaining the trust the Muslims in the prison while starting his own drug operation outside the prison walls.

Before long, Malik has worked his way up through the ranks of multiple organizations, but never ceases to be haunted by his past, represented by the ever present spirit of his first kill, who refuses to let him forget.

Left to Right: Hichem Yacoubi as Reyeb, Tahar Rahim as Malik
Photo taken by Roger Arpajou © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

And that is precisely where A Prophet falters. It is not a literal haunting, of course. But Audiard's vision of Malik is that of a different and new kind of person, something special. This quality is manifested in a mysterious dream that seems to foretell the future, and allows Malik to warn of disaster. It is an instance that is never brought up again, and seems strangely out of place with its surrounded. Did Malik actually see the future? Was it just a coincidence? We never find out, and the story angle is never elaborated on or revisited, which is strange considering that it is the basis for the film's title. If Audiard intended to suggest some kind of extrasensory or even supernatural about Malik, why not go for it full force, rather than leave it to such a random, inconsequential occurrence? It just seems out of place and unnecessary to the rest of the story, and feels like the kind of thing that should have been either explored more deeply, or scrapped altogether.

There's no denying, however, that Tahar Rahim is something special. He holds the film as Malik, and even when the film runs long, his presence remains magnetic. Ignoring the "prophet" angle, A Prophet is a taut, solidly crafted drama. Audiard's world is both fully realized and compelling, even if its consideration of Malik as some sort of modern day prophet seems halfhearted and ultimately beside the point. It is his street smarts that get him where he is, not some sort of extra sensory perception, and as a tough, gritty prison drama, A Prophet works just fine. There's just not as much to work with here as it feels like there should be.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A PROPHET (UN PROPHÈTE); Directed by Jacques Audiard; Stars Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi; Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language and drug material. In French w/English subtitles. Opens today, 2.26, in limited release.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Movies, much like life, don't always turn out the way you planned. That much, and more, is true of Kimberly Reed's fascinating and surprising documentary, Prodigal Sons. What started out as a document of her adopted brother Marc McKerrow's quest to discover his roots, instead became a searing portrait of an unconventional family, where sibling rivalry, mental illness, and old wounds threaten to tear them all apart.

Kimberly was once Marc's younger brother, Paul, before moving away from home and undergoing a sex change operation after she graduated high school. In the ensuing years, their youngest brother, Todd, would come out as gay, and Marc would deal with a brain problem that resulted in having to be partially lobotomized. While the procedure cured him of his seizures, it changed his personality forever, resulting in everything from general obnoxiousness to violent mood swings, as Marc continues to live in the past, a time where he was well liked, popular, and part of a seemingly idyllic family.

Years later, Kimberly, former Valedictorian and football player, is returning to the small Montana town where she grew up for the first time since her transformation to attend her high school reunion, and also to try to repair her relationship with Marc. It is during this trip that Marc discovers he is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, a revelation that at long last provides him with his own history away from his sister's shadow. So Kimberly follows follows Marc to Croatia where they will meet with Oja Kodar, Welles' longtime companion, collaborator, and star of the director's F for Fake.

What ensues is a deeply personal and intimate look at one family's quest to bury the hatchet and heal old wounds. As Marc's mood swings continue to worsen, the whole family is faced with hard choices, and the strain becomes even greater. He continues to perpetuate a sibling rivalry with a brother who no longer exists as Marc knew him in their childhood, and who is now his sister that has long since put the past behind her. As these two forces collide, the family is shaken to its very core, and Kimberly's unique perspective gives Prodigal Sons a riveting immediacy.

As such, this is nowhere near the film Kimberly set out to make. In fact it is quite a bit more. What she has captured is a shocking and moving family portrait, a bittersweet look at sibling rivalries and how they can affect a family years after the children have grown up. Marc is a man, through no fault of his own, perpetually stuck in the past, unable to accept his sister for who she is or to let go of who she was. Kimberly is the opposite, living only for the here and now and for the future, putting the past behind her as if it never existed. The challenge is meeting Marc somewhere in the middle, and that's where the real conflict of Prodigal Sons lies.

It makes for what is often a frustrating viewing experience, but a rewarding one. Reed's cameras seem ever present, capturing the family at its most vulnerable to the point that one almost feels as if they're intruding, that we are privy to something deeply private, that shouldn't be aired in public. But Reed has a lot to say here, not just about family relations but about LGBT issues and the continuing struggle for acceptance not in the political arena, but on the home front, in one's own backyard. The McKerrows may not be a conventional family, but they are a loving one, and Prodigal Sons' warts and all take on their personal travails make for something both painful, heart wrenching, and ultimately quite beautiful.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PRODIGAL SONS; Directed by Kimberly Reed; Featuring Kimberly Reed, Marc McKerrow, Todd McKerrow, Carol McKerrow, Oja Kodar; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 2.26, at the Cinema Village in NYC.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From The Dispatch:

Scorsese is in full-fledged homage mode, directing a movie that is more about movies than anything else, referencing everything from Robert Wiene's 1920 German Expressionist classic, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." It is not surprising, then, given its reliance on filmic references, that it often feels too careful, too calculated and ultimately too entrapped by its own construct. Scorsese seems to have settled into a safer, slicker, more Hollywood-esque aesthetic in his later years, a long way from his gritty beginnings. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it feels counter-intuitive to the subject at hand.

Click here to read my full review.
Can this get made into a movie, please?

Spanish photographer Fernando Bayona's photo series entitled Circus Christi which imagines a gay Jesus was shut down in Spain after complaints by enraged Catholic groups. Still, it's an intriguing concept. I've been hoping someone would do a film that imagines what it would be like if Jesus had arrived today, and this adds an interesting, if unconventional (not to mention hot), twist to it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An oldie, but a goodie. The Devil Wears Prada is showing on FX right now, and I was reminded of how brilliant Meryl Streep's takedown of Anne Hathaway's laughing at fashion "stuff."
"This... 'stuff'? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff. "
Love it.
Seeing this For Your Consideration ad for Peru's Best Foreign Language Film nominee The Milk of Sorrow just reminds me of how ridiculous, and how heavy handed, its symbolism is.

Source: Awards Daily

Anyone who has seen the film knows what I'm talking about. The main character (who was said to have drank the 'milk of sorrow,' breast milk from women who endured great stress, ensuring the same for her) puts a potato in her vagina to keep from getting raped as a child, and it begins to sprout and cause problems later in life, as her mother dies and the ramifications of her troubled childhood begin to catch up with her (Get it? GET IT!?), and each time she makes some forward progress, she trims a sprout (SYMBOLISM!). And now we have this poster of her...buried in potatoes. Yeah...

The film, which follows her quest to give her mother a proper burial at all costs, is beautifully shot, and is reasonably engaging, but the symbolism is borderline silly, often coming off as some sort of parody of a dour, pretentious art film. It took the spot that should have gone to Bulgaria's wonderful The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner. And don't even get me started on Argentina's bland El Secreto de sus Ojos...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I see no wrongdoing here on Penn's part. These paparazzi types are the scum of the earth.

The fact that he is potentially facing jail time for is laughable, and the paparazzo pressing charges on him has a lot of gall after that kind of obnoxious invasion of privacy. What a douche.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I'll be writing a full review of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island for The Dispatch next week, but I figured I may as well enter the conversation since the movie is being released in theaters nationwide today.

I have mixed feelings about about the film. There are some great moments here, especially near the end, and Leonardo DiCaprio has honestly never been better. But the film as a whole is very uneven and awkwardly structured, with flashbacks that seem to stifle the natural flow of the story by their length and dream sequences that seem to stop the story cold. The overbearing use of music is also distracting, if appropriately ominous. It may be the kind of film that takes multiple viewings to really appreciate what Scorsese is going for, but on initial viewing, Shutter Island left me cold.

Scorsese seems to have settled into a slicker, more Hollywood-esque aesthetic in his later years that seems to go against the subject at hand. Everything about Shutter Island seems over produced and overly calculated. Part of that comes from an intentional, Hitchcockian feel, but in the end it just doesn't feel right.

Sharp eyed readers will notice the two and a half star grade I assigned it on the sidebar. This is not a bad film, and there are good things to be found here, but it left me underwhelmed. Approach with tempered expectations.
This doesn't have anything to do with movies, but since US Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir has starred in the documentary, Pop Star On Ice, I'll say it does and talk about it anyway.

Weir was fabulous during his long program last night, just as he was during his short program on Tuesday, and each time his score was appallingly low. The Olympic judges should really be ashamed. Weir is a consummate artist and entertainer, and no one showed as much flair or personality on the ice as he did. He may not have deserved gold over eventual winner Evan Lysacek, but he should have been standing up there on that medal podium with him. Sixth place is just a travesty. The way the NBC commentators peppered their comments with backhanded compliments and condescension, as if they don't take him seriously, was also appalling.

Rock that tassel, Johnny! We all know just how good you really were.

You can view his entire, beautiful short program routine here.

Weir's reality show, Be Good, Johnny Weir, airs Monday nights at 10:30 PM on the Sundance Channel.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The very idea of Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open is rife with material to turn into a cosmic joke. Set in a conservative, Jewish Orthodox community in Jerusalem, the film tells the story of Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss), a married butcher and father of four whose father has just passed away. His father's death has left a void at the family butcher shop, which Aaron must now run on his own. So he puts out a help wanted sign hoping to attract a new employee to help lighten his work load, attracting the attention of a young student named Ezri (Ran Danker), who ducks into the shop one evening to get out of the rain.

Aaron offers the young man a job, and his father's old room in the butcher shop while he looks for a new school and more permanent lodgings. But it soon becomes clear that Ezri comes with some baggage, and an unknown troubled past. Aaron recognizes his talent and promise, however, and takes an interest in him, an interest that soon turns to desire. But soon neighbors begin to learn of Ezri's past, leading to suspicions about Aaron, scandalizing the small, Orthodox community and causing them to begin a campaign of ostracism and intervention born out of religious intolerance.

Like Brokeback Mountain before it, Eyes Wide Open takes a gay love story and places it the most unlikely of places. It's the kind of thing that almost has Saturday Night Live parody written all over it, with Orthodox Jewish men with their trademark hats and long beards making out and endless references to meat in the butcher shop. In the wrong hands, this could have been an epic disaster. Instead, Tabakman treats it with dignity and respect, even tenderness.

It would be hard to classify it as a love story, however. It is ultimately a rather stark examination of the effects of the suppression of desire due to religion. Aaron is a family man, with a strong faith in God, a pillar of his community. He is routinely called upon for the kind of intervention that he himself is eventually subjected to, bullying other community members into compliance with religious law. But his tentative and awkward relationship with Ezri awakens something in him. He tells a rabbi that until he met Ezri, he had been dead. Now he is alive, and his eyes are wide open.

It is a quietly powerful look at a love that defies tradition and place, surfacing amidst strong religious and social opposition. This is no fairy tale love, though. Eyes Wide Open is not a "love overcomes all obstacles" kind of story. It is a dark, almost tragic tale, but deftly avoids many forbidden gay love cliches. It's biggest flaw is its lack of development of the relationship between Aaron and his wife. His dalliance with another man doesn't seem to affect his family much. His wife, Rivka, merely suffers in private. The ramifications of his relationship with Ezri are mostly social and internal. It is no less devastating for that, but it is definitely an aspect in which Eyes Wide Open lacks.

Despite those imperfections, Tabakman gracefully delivers something both unusual and powerful, an austere cultural portrait of suffocating religious adherence, and its effects not just on the community and people's relationships, but on the soul itself. Aaron's eyes may be open, but his heart is forever scarred by a culture that insists his desires are wrong, unnatural, and an abomination, while Ezri, who has learned to accept himself, lives as an outsider. It is the film's unadorned simplicity that sticks in the memory, distilling complex social and religious prejudices without judgment or condescension, and with just a little more development, it would truly soar.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

EYES WIDE OPEN; Directed by Haim Tabakman; Stars Zohar Shtrauss, Ran Danker, Tinkerbell; Not Rated; In Hebrew and Yiddish w/English subtitles.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From The Dispatch:
Everything about "The Wolfman" just screams missed opportunity. There are elements here that seem to have been on the right track - the visual design and Danny Elfman's score are all excellent - but it is all completely mishandled on nearly every conceivable level. Its parts never come together, and the result is a complete mess that should be ignored in favor of the 1941 original. You can never go wrong with the classics.
Click here to read my full review.
The less one knows about Jessica Hausner's Lourdes before seeing it, the better. I knew next to nothing about the film or its story going in, and recommend that anyone else approaching it should do the same to appreciate the full power of the experience. So I issue fair warning before reading on.

Lourdes is a kind of intelligent, transcendent film rarely seen in modern cinema. If cinema is the supreme medium in which to express all feelings through a combination of all the fine arts, then Hausner uses all the resources the form allows to craft something that engages both the heart and the mind, at once cerebral, emotional, and spiritual.

It is not a religious film, although it could easily be read as one. Just as it could be read as the exact opposite. It is a film of mysteries and questions, centered around a paraplegic woman named Christine (Sylvie Testud), paralyzed from the waist down, on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, revered by Catholics as the site of many miraculous healings.

Accompanied by nuns, volunteers, and others seeking healing, both spiritual and physical, Christine seeks healing more out of casual healing than religious devotion. The pilgrimages she takes are more an excuse to get out and see the world from her wheelchair than any real hope of a miracle. While those around her devote themselves to being healed, beseeching God to hear their prayers, or questioning the validity of the entire affair, Christine simply observes, a casual participant in the sacred rituals. But something will happen that will shake the skeptics and challenge the believers, something unexplainable that will touch them all. Some will feel doubt, others jealousy, and still others deep exultation.

Hausner provides to answers, nor does she lead her audience to any one conclusion. Each audience member is left to their own interpretation based on their own experiences and viewpoints. Is it a stinging indictment of peddling faith as commodity? Is Lourdes merely a tourist trap set up to rob the faithful of their money by offering cheap statues of the virgin Mary, bottled Lourdes water, and false hope of being healed of their afflictions? Is it a meditation on the nature of miracles, be they medical or metaphysical? Are they mental constructs sprung from a mixture of practical reasons and wishful thinking? Or do they truly come from the hand of God? In fact Lourdes is all of these things, and more.

There is something truly haunting about the way it seems to exist in a kind of in-between place, between faith and reason. Hausner directs with a kind of tremulous beauty, every frame, every nuance has a kind of gossamer perfection, luring the audience into a kind of spiritual experience all its own. There is an intelligence in its construction, a probing sort of wisdom intent on exploring the deep seeded human desire to see the divine, to make the intangible somehow tangible, or to make apologies and explanations for that which cannot be seen or proven.

The power of great art comes from its ability to be interpreted by the beholder. Each viewer brings to the table a set of viewpoints and life experiences that make up who they are and inform how they will see a film. Hausner knows and embraces this, offering up a film that defies easy categorization and simplistic descriptions. It exists squarely in a world of mystery and uncertainty, deftly avoiding political hot buttons in favor of something much more profound. 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.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

LOURDES; Directed by Jennifer Hausner; Stars Sylvie Testud, Léa Sedoux, Gilette Barbier, Elina Löwensohn, Katharina Flicker; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles; Opens today, 2.17, at the Film Forum in Manhattan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I'm not going to lie, the more I hear about what telecast director Adam Shankman is doing to the Oscar ceremony this year, the more annoyed I become. I was excited at first at the prospect of having the director of Hairspray behind the telecast, but this latest tidbit of information from Nikki Finke seems to confirm my greatest fears:
Oscarcast executive producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic have dropped a bombshell, telling artists nominated for Best Original Song that they won’t be invited to perform the usual big production number. The decision has hit a sour note for the nominated performers. Instead of the Academy Awards' long-held tradition of staged musical performances of the five nominated songs, the music from those songs will be interspersed with footage from each movie to provide more context. I’m told that some of the nominees and filmmakers are outraged, feeling that the Oscar producers are tossing aside tradition and costing musical artists their well-deserved moment of global TV glory. What the Academy Awards telecast producers will certainly do is shave time that can be spent doting on twice as many Best Picture nominees as in years past. And this year in particular, that is a big priority. Never mind that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences already decided this year to limit the number of Original Song nominees to speed up the Oscar broadcast.
Yep, the Best Song performances are out. Shankman has invited dancers from So You Think You Can Dance and has promised lots of dancing and other such trappings, and in the process it seems as if he's steamrolling the dignity of the event in favor of a more reality show styled show. Saying things about how the songs have never delivered ratings, which is the point, gives me great pause. It would be naive of me to say it's not about the ratings, but the trend over the last few years, especially with the inclusion of 10 Best Picture nominees this year, has been to get ratings, when it should be about honoring the films and the artists who make them. The more populist the Oscars try to become, the more irrelevant they eventually become. History won't remember them well for this.

I'll reserve judgment until I've seen it. But right now, I'm worried.
Chris Jones has written a beautiful and moving profile of Roger Ebert since the surgeries on his jaw that have left him without a voice, in the latest issue of Esquire magazine. I honestly had no idea the surgeries had gone as far and were as dire as this, and Jones provides some graphic insight into Ebert's current health struggles.

It's probably the best piece of its kind of read in a long time, absolutely essential reading for fans of Ebert and fans of film in general. The man is a legend, and Jones' tribute is clear eyed and often very sad, yet strangely hopeful. Here's a brief excerpt:
Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can't remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn't happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory — it wasn't as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into Chaz's ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink, and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren't they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word.
Ebert has done a lot of living on the internet in the time since the surgery, both on his blog and on his prolific Twitter page, showing off not just his knowledge of film but politics and other issues as well. His unapologetic liberalism may have earned him a few enemies in certain circles, but Jones' article reminds us why we loved Ebert to begin with, and chances are, after this, we will never look at him the same way again.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cell 211 and Agora were the big winners at Spain's Goya Awards last night, taking home 9 and 7 awards, respectively, with Cell 211 walking away with Best Film.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in AGORA.

I have mixed feelings about Agora, Alejandro Amenabar's historical epic about Hypatia, the noted philosopher and astronomer, who was executed by Christians in Alexandria for her heretical ideas about heliocentricity and the like. On the one hand it's an epic tragedy about knowledge standing up in the face of ignorance, as the unstoppable tide of Christianity rises up in the ancient world, destroying most of the collected knowledge of man in the famed library at Alexandria. I found it interesting from a historical point of view. But as a film it's only middling.

Agora is a film that is inherently academic by the very nature of its story. It is a film about an ancient philosopher trying to discover the truth about the cosmos, which I personally found interesting but cinematically speaking it isn't portrayed with much flair or personality. The film is often painfully straightforward, playing out more like a history lesson than a film, with two undercooked love stories providing emotional framework. Max Minghella's storyline, as a slave who falls for Hypatia is especially underwritten.

I get the feeling that this is the kind of thing that will become a staple in high school history and science classes. It has yet to receive a US release date, but I don't think it will play particularly well here. This was not a pretty event for Christianity. Agora is a paean to reason and thought standing against ignorance and religious intolerance, a kind of thinking man's Passion of the Christ. The problem is that it lacks The Passion's personal fire. It is cool and often distant, as one would expect from the subject matter. Amenabar does a good job of placing the religious conflicts in context with Hypatia's reality that Earth is "just another wonderer," a speck of dust in the heavens. But ultimately the film is just a well produced history lesson with some unnecessary romantic conflicts thrown in to add emotional weight. It's a History Channel special, one that succeeds and holding interest but lacks that passionate spark to make it truly soar.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The story of André Téchiné's The Girl on the Train is one of those outlandish tales that would almost be too far-fetched to be believed were it not based on fact. Based on the play R.E.R by Jean-Marie Besset, which was in turn inspired by a real life scandal the rocked France in July of 2004, The Girl on the Train centers around Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), a seemingly normal, twenty-something girl living at home with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), who one day files a false police report claiming to have been the target of an anti-Semitic attack on a train. This sends the entire country into a frenzy. Attacks against Jewish people had already been on the rise, and her story becomes an unexpected lightning rod for anti-Semitic awareness, even attracting the attention of the President himself.

Jeanne herself is not Jewish. She claims a case of mistaken identi
ty because of a business card the supposed attackers found in her purse for a noted Jewish lawyer, an old friend of her family's who has been very active in anti-discrimination activism.

Téchiné balances his story between Jeanne and her mother, and the family of the Jewish lawyer. He isn't interested in portraying the story as any kind of historical document of the event, he is interested in something far more probing. The Girl on the Train is an exploration of Jeanne's motives, her reasoning for concocting such a harmful lie. The film is divided into two segments - Circumstances and Consequences, each one examining the background and aftermath of the incident.

It would have been very easy to try to make this film into some grand political or societal statement, but Téchiné is far to shrewd a craftsman for that. He keeps the focus intimate, allowing these two families who are inexorably intertwined by Jeanne's lie to provide the conflict and insight, allowing the event, and each character's reaction, to speak for itself. Jeanne is neither a sympathetic nor villainous character. Téchiné never passes judgment on her, even when other characters do, nor does he treat her like a victim. Jeanne is a girl crying out for help and attention who did a terrible thing, making it even harder for victims of discrimination to claim such after her tale is proven to be false.

What could possibly lead someone to do such a selfish and mean-spirited thing, to seek out and exploit the victim-hood of others? Jeanne had no aspirations of making a social statement or causing a political firestorm, and never really expected it to gain such prominent national attention. But that one decision had powerful ramifications on her life, and the lives of those around her. The film isn't always successful in distilling that, its fractured structure often seems like more of a hindrance to its ultimate goal than an asset. Still though, credit must be given to Téchiné for not pushing the audience in one direction or another, which may contribute to the film's occasional lack of focus. In its quest to provide a free-flowing portrait of the circumstances surrounding Jeanne and the Jewish family that acts as her foil and parallel that is open to the interpretation of the audience, it seems to wonder a bit from its strongest material. Téchiné provides a wide canvas of ideas, but not all of them congeal into a satisfying whole.

Nevertheless, The Girl on the Train is an engaging and often riveting viewing experience. With Emilie Dequenne giving a strong central performance as Jeanne, and the always welcome Catherine Deneuve and Ronit Elkabetz providing solid support. There is a lot to process here, and a film of ideas is always commendable, and even if its parts don't always add up, Téchiné imbues it with a wise and lyrical grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN; Directed by André Téchiné; Stars Emilie Dequenne, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc, Ronit Elkabetz, Mathieu Demy, Nicholas Duvauchelle; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles.
Finally got around to doing my annual mix CD of selections from my favorite soundtracks and films (and a few important musical moments I would be remiss not to include) from 2009. Here's the track list:

1. "The Green Leaves of Summer" - Nick Perito, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
2. "District 9" - Clinton Shorter, DISTRICT 9
3. "End Credits" - Bruno Coulais, CORALINE
4. "All is Love" - Karen O. and the Kids, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
5. "Perpetuum Mobile" - Dale Cornelius, MARY & MAX
6. "Enterprising Young Men" - Michael Giacchino, STAR TREK
7. "Be Italian" - Fergie, NINE
8. "Ave Maria - Okuribito" - Joe Hisaishi, DEPARTURES
9. "Stillness of the Mind" - Abel Korzeniowski, A SINGLE MAN
10. "Married Life" - Michael Giacchino, UP
11. "Colorblind" - Overtone, INVICTUS
12. "The Road" - Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, THE ROAD
13. "Bright Star" - Mark Bradshaw, BRIGHT STAR
14. "Stunt Expo 2004" - Alexandre Desplat, FANTASTIC MR. FOX
15. "Gathering All the Na'Vi Clans for Battle" - James Horner, AVATAR
16. "New Moon (The Meadow)" - Alexandre Desplat, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON
17. "Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte" - Georg Friederich Händel, ANTICHRIST
18. "Us" - Regina Spektor, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
19. "Someone to Fall Back On" - I Can't Go On, I'll Go On feat. Aly Michalka, BANDSLAM
20. "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" - Ryan Bingham, CRAZY HEART

I think it's a pretty good overview of the year. I used to do these as Oscar mixes - the Best Song nominees, selections from the Best Original Score nominees, selections from Best Picture nominees and other big Oscar players, but eventually it got to the point that just limiting it to Oscar nominees left good stuff off. There are a few things I wish I could have included (I try to keep it down to the length of a CD), and I allowed a few more non-originals on here than usual, but they were so integral to their respective films I felt the need to include them. Is there anything you think I should have included or left off?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

From The Dispatch:
The whole reason to watch the film is Gibson, of course. And while ultimately the film may be standard revenge/conspiracy fare, it does the job. This is solid, no-nonsense filmmaking. There is not a wasted shot in the whole film, with director Martin Campbell ("Casino Royale") dispensing with the frills to deliver a strong, on-point action thriller. It occasionally becomes a bit convoluted, as many conspiracy films of this sort have a tendency to do, but for the most part Campbell keeps the proceedings straightforward and efficient.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

This tribute to the films of the 2000s by Paul Proulx is kind of perfect. The timing, the choice of film clips and music, it all fits.

the films of the 2000s from Paul Proulx on Vimeo.

I will always have great nostalgia for the 2000s. They may not have been the best decade for film, but they are the decade that shaped me. I began the decade at 13 and ended it at 23, so the films of this decade had a great impact on many of my formative years, from the first time I ever really payed attention to the Oscars in 2000 (I watched Titanic sweep in 1997, but for wholly different reasons), to the films that began to open my eyes to the world of cinema in 2001, I grew a lot during the last decade, and the 2000s will always hold a special place in my heart. Well done, Mr. Proulx.
I woke up this morning and picked up my Blackberry to check my messages, and the first thing I see is an email press release announcing the return of New Yorker Films.

Not a bad way to wake up, I must say.

The New Yorker Films name and library of over 400 films has been acquired by Aladdin Distribution LLC, according to this article from IndieWire.

This is, of course, great news for all lovers of independent and foreign films. New Yorker Films has long been a staple of the art film community since its creation in 1965. The company plans to acquire 6 to 8 films a year for theatrical release. In today's economy, it is getting harder and harder for distributors of films like this to get by, so the return of New Yorker Films is an encouraging development indeed. It may even be the light at the end of a tunnel. Only time will tell, but it's definitely cause for hope and celebration.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I have a strange cinematic fixation with puddles. I'm not sure why, maybe it's because the opening shot of Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the film I credit with beginning my serious love of cinema, is a puddle that I have always found very beautiful.

So it stands to reason that I should count Joris Ivens' 1929 experimental short, Regen (Rain) among my favorite films. It is a strikingly beautiful and charming little film that chronicles a brief rain storm in Amsterdam. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Friday, February 05, 2010

This quote by Jeff Wells is EXACTLY why Bill Condon's HBO movie-blogger series, Tilda, needs to become a reality:
If Condon and co-writer Cynthia Mort base their character too closely on Finke they'll be stuck with a hugely unappealing character, to say the least -- thorny, indifferent to the Catholic-church aspect of movie-watching, vindictive tendencies, curiously hermetic, cut off from the Seinfeld-like aroma of average human experience, etc.
You cannot make up the kind of ridiculous drama that goes on in this little world. Remember the time Finke revealed that Wells had emailed director asking for nude pics of Vinessa Shaw from the outtakes of 3:10 to Yuma and nearly started a blog war? There is great satire material here. This is a brilliant idea.
Call me crazy, but this /Film story about Dreamgirls director Bill Condon developing a comedy series for HBO about a Nikki Finke-esque movie blogger called Tilda (Toldja?) has gotten me ridiculously excited.

An entire series devoted to the world I inhabit every day sounds fantastic to me, but I do forsee problems. How much will be just inside jokes that only we will get, and how much will the general public get? Movie bloggers don't exactly make up a huge segment of the population. And who outside the industry/blogosphere actually knows who Nikki Finke is?

They will have to walk a fine line not to make it too esoteric, but there is a goldmine of comedy to be had here. All you would have to do is visit Hollywood-Elsewhere on a daily basis for story ideas. Will most people think it's all too crazy to be true? Probably. Seeing caricatured representations of people like Finke or Jeff Wells to lesser known upstarts just trying to get noticed, or the other larger than life personalities that populate our insular little world. I just don't know if enough people even know it exists for it to really catch on. As for me, it may turn out to be the one TV show I will watch religiously.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

From the very first frame, it is readily apparent things aren't quite right in the world of Terribly Happy. Henrik Ruben Genz's thrillingly off-kilter modern noir wastes no time putting the audience on edge with a mysterious voice-over story about a swamp that swallows a small provencial town's dirty little secrets, in this case, a legend that left the town quite mad.

It is into this world that policeman Robert Hansen arrives from Copenhagen, assigned to be the rural town's new marshal as his first assignment after a nervous breakdown that put him out of commission. From the moment he arrives, he is greeted with suspicion by the locals, who are very set in their often odd ways. Hansen finds it hard to adjust, as locals expect him to beat child offenders rather than arresting them, and other things that the old marshal used to do that go against police protocol. As he tries to get used to the town's quirks, he soon discovers its dark underbelly. People have been mysteriously disappearing here, but most people treat it like business as usual. That is except for Ingerlise, a local woman seen as a crackpot by most people in the town. Known for constantly accusing her husband of domestic abuse, an accusation often dismissed by the old marshal, Ingelise approaches Hanson with distressing news.

Soon Hanson is caught in an uncomfortable position, between his newfound feelings for the beautiful and mysterious Ingerlise, the will of the people of the town, and her volatile husband Jørgen, a well respected father and member of the community. But when a shocking murder rocks the little town, everything begins to change, and Hanson finds himself in an increasingly desperate situation in a town whose dark secrets are always swallowed by that mysterious bog.

The title of Terribly Happy is ironic of course. It's a small town paradise straight out of David Lynch, a model of small town perfection barely masking the rot underneath. Genz directs like a Danish member of the Coen brothers, often times recalling Fargo in its portrait of strange small town citizens. The film is nothing if not darkly funny, using the unnerving situations to find humor in the characters' bizarre actions and personalities Genz wisely uses that subtle blend of humor to create something truly disquieting. Hanson feels it and the audience feels it, this town is just wrong, even though concrete proof of anything is hard to come by, other than just a creepy feeling.

There is a greeting in this town that sets the tone for his experience - mojn, which means both hello, and goodbye. Its use in the film becomes a sort of eerie calling card, the town's way of warning newcomers to "do things our way, or face the consequences." When even the sound of a cat's meow begins to resemble the word, we know we've gone way off the beaten track. Is the town mad? Is Ingerlise? Is Hanson? What of the old marshal? Genz uses these questions to craft a haunting and compelling narrative, one of the finest examples of film noir in recent years. His sense of style and pacing is fantastic, ratcheting up the tension without pushing his boundaries.

Based on a true story, Terribly Happy remains grounded in reality while still maintaining just a touch of the surreal, keeping the atmosphere just off-balance enough to keep the audience in a perpetual state of unease. In an interview, Genz said the story reminded him of a Western, in which "a foreigner comes to town and all hell breaks loose." And that makes sense, it's a noir-ish Western set in Denmark, a film of delicious moral ambiguity and complexity that lures the audience in with its strange and terrible beauty. This is the kind of exciting and original filmmaking we need more of, and to see such a thrilling example so early in the year means that the rest of 2010 has a tough act to follow, because Terribly Happy has set a very high bar.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TERRIBLY HAPPY; Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz; Stars Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Kim Bodnia, Lars Brygmann; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 2/5, in select theaters.
There has been an ongoing trend over the last decade or so of television reaching for, and often surpassing, the quality of many current films. Networks like HBO and Showtime have consistently offered cutting edge programming and films that often rival their big screen counterparts.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that the British miniseries Red Riding was good enough to receive a theatrical release in the United States. Made up of three feature length films by three different directors, Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (Man on Wire), and Anand Tucker (Shopgirl), Red Riding chronicles police corruption in Yorkshire, England over the course of nearly a decade, covering the crimes of two serial killers and the massive cover ups and case mishandlings that were the result.

The first film, Red Riding: 1974, sets it all in motion with the story of Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield), an intrepid young reporter (is there any other kind?) who becomes fascinated and later obsessed with the case of a young girl who was kidnapped and later found brutally murdered with swan wings stitched into her back to give her the appearance of an angel.

Andrew Garfield as Eddie Dunford in RED RIDING 1974 directed by Julian Jarrold.
Photo credit: Phil Fisk. An IFC Films release.

As Eddie begins making advances and discoveries about the case, police resistance increases. Soon he finds himself the target of police harassment and brutality, which only gets worse the closer he gets to answers, connecting the murder to a string of similar disappearances that begin to point in a surprising and dangerous direction.

Of all the films in the Red Riding trilogy, 1974 has the greatest cinematic staying power, encompassing a greater whole and offering a more satisfyingly complete experience. Beautifully directed by Jarrold, 1974 is a haunting and frightening portrait of a man willing to find the answers at all costs that approaches Zodiac in its quality. It paints an extremely grim picture of a lone man against the system, where those who are meant to serve and protect are the very thing to be feared. Garfield makes for a strong and appealing lead, a principled level head in a sea of insanity and evil. Jarrold perfectly captures that sense of unnerving paranoia that no one can be trusted and danger lurks around every corner. It's fascinating, and indeed quite distrurbing, that a film so aesthetically beautiful could contain such breathtaking horrors, and even worse, that such horrors could be true.

Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter and Tony Fitts as John Nolan in RED RIDING 1980 directed by James Marsh.
Photo credit: Phil Fisk. An IFC Films release.

By the time we get to Red Riding: 1980, six years have passed and the cases have changed, but some of the faces remain the same. With the case of the missing girl behind them, the Yorkshire police have moved on to the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, who is murdering prostitutes Jack the Ripper style and holding the region in a grip of fear. Paddy Considine stars as Peter Hunter, an internal police investigator sent to Yorkshire to try and solve the problem away from the public eye. But like Eddie Dunford before him, he uncovers a web of cover-ups and lies that goes further up the chain than he could have ever imagined, finding police obstruction and dark secrets at every turn.

1980 is connected to its predecessor mostly through minor characters, illustrating just how widespread the corruption was and how deep it went. The film has a more documentary-like feel to it thanks to Man on Wire director James Marsh, who peppers it with newsreel footage giving 1980 a more immediate and gritty feel. It is also the most dense and frustrating of the films, and sandwiched between 1974 and 1983, which connects back to the case of the first film, 1980 sticks out from the pack a bit. It has an interesting and compelling atmosphere, and a stronger sense of human relationships than its counterparts, but it's also much more cold and impenetrable. While it serves to further illustrate the corruption of the Yorkshire police, it doesn't seem to have as much to offer in the grand scheme of the Red Riding arc.

The third film in the trilogy, 1983, like its two predecessors, has its own unique atmosphere. Much slicker and more conventional in its structure under the direction of Anand Tucker, 1983 ties up the loose ends left hanging by the previous films and gives us the answers we have been looking for. When a little girl goes missing under similar circumstances as the girl who was murdered nine years before in 1974, Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a policeman with a conscience realizes what so many are unwilling to admit, that the boy in jail for the crime is not the real criminal. After more than a decade of corrupt police rule, Maurice has had enough, and along with John Piggot (Mark Addy), a lawyer who has been hired by the boy's mother to appeal his case, sets out to try to find the real culprit before the corruption of the Yorkshire police department and their unwillingness to admit they were wrong condemns his latest victim to death.

David Morrissey as Maurice Jobson in RED RIDING 1983 directed by Anand Tucker.
Photo credit: Phil Fisk. An IFC Films release.

1983 is a much more leisurely paced and less intricate film than the other two films in the trilogy, but that's partially due to the fact that it is answering more questions than it is raising. It is beautifully filmed, and is more satisfying in its connection to the first film, providing much needed closure to a series marked by its stubborn refusal to offer any such comforting affectations. But by splitting the main thread between two (and in some ways three) main characters(neither as compelling as the protagonists of 1974 or 1980), it falters a bit. Each film is only around an hour and a half long, so a lot of ground must be covered in very little time, and in 1983, everything must be resolved, and quickly. The final installment is a more complete viewing experience overall than 1980, and it's hard to deny the beauty of its composition, but it never escapes the feeling of being just a bit too tidy. When viewed as part of the narrative arc, however, 1983 is the catharsis it needed to be.

Each film of the trilogy has its own strengths and weaknesses. Taken as a whole, Red Riding is an impressive achievement that deserves to be seen together, in order, to really appreciate its full impact. While 1980 falls a bit victim to middle child syndrome, and 1983 lacks the compelling forward motion of the first film, 1974 offers the most complete individual viewing experience. It sums up the very best of what this series is about, and is a great stand-alone film as well, something the other films really can't claim, although that is really out of necessity. Each of the three directors brings something new to the table in their respective films, which adds to the trilogy's consistently surprising and compelling verve. Taken individually, they are solid films, taken together, Red Riding is a major and unforgettable cinematic event. If this is the kind of quality that British television is offering now, then America has a long way to go.

RED RIDING: 1974 - ★★★½
RED RIDING: 1980 - ★★½
RED RIDING: 1983 - ★★★

RED RIDING; Directed by Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker; Stars Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine, Sean Bean, Mark Addy, David Morrissey; Not Rated; Opens tomorrow, 2/5, in New York.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

History was made today when James Cameron's Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time, grossing $601,142, 000 domestically as of this writing. It became the highest grossing film worldwide a while back, but there was just something about this milestone that struck a chord. Just a little more than 12 years ago, Cameron's other box office shattering epic, Titanic became the all time box office champion, capturing the hearts of moviegoers worldwide and becoming a pop culture touchstone.

In the ensuing years, it has became popular to make fun of Titanic, much as it has with Avatar. But no matter what anyone says, Titanic will always be dear to my heart. I was 11 years old when it hit theaters, and I still remember the feeling of seeing it in a theater for the first time. I had never seen anything like it. I was swept up, enraptured, transported by this tragic tale of star crossed lovers aboard the most famous doomed vessel of all time. The romance, the danger, it had everything, and my little 11 year old heart fell head over heels. I was most fascinated by the history, the real story of the Titanic and its people, and it was something of an obsession for me through my middle school years. But the movie was the focal point, the key that brought it all together.

I ended up seeing Titanic three times in theaters, and countless times on video. I still own the old two-tape VHS copy that I picked up on its first day of release, even though I have since upgraded to DVD. To this day I can still quote every line of dialogue, and each time I see it, I remember that old magic. It was my favorite film for many years, and while better films have come along and my tastes have grown and expanded, there will always be a special place in my heart for Titanic and what it meant to me. It is my generation's epic, our Gone with the Wind, a shared, collective experience that united us all. We went back again and again not because of the special effects, but because of the characters and their story. And while Avatar will never be able to claim that, if anyone was to claim Titanic's I'm glad it was Cameron. It's a bittersweet moment for me really. Nothing else will ever rival the spell it cast over the world. Titanic was something truly special and unique, a once in a lifetime moment. And as amazing as Avatar, it will never affect people the way its predecessor did. For me, for always, Titanic will remain the king of the world.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My first reaction is a resounding WHAT THE HELL? Of course, this happens every year, so let's get the positives out of the way before I start ranting.

"Hello Rabbi? I got nominated for an Oscar! Life doesn't suck so bad after all!"

I was thrilled that the Coen brothers' A Serious Man made the Best Picture cut, and is now the only nominee that really deserves to win. It won't. But it should.

And...that's all I've got really. I mean most of the acting categories went according to plan so I can't really get excited about those. For me, the biggest surprise (and disappointment) was the inclusion of The Blind Side in the Best Picture lineup. Never underestimate the Academy's love for films with themes about how all black people need to succeed is a rich white person to help them out. OK, so the film isn't THAT bad, but it's still a film with reductive, simplistic racial politics made safe for middle America.

"Pssst, grandma, I have a potato in my vagina."

The Best Foreign Language Film list is also a bit strange. I can't decide if the failure to nominate The Netherlands' WWII drama Winter in Wartime is a step in the right direction for the Academy or not. It's not a great film, pretty standard coming of age, WWII fare, but it's a better film than at least two of the films they did nominate - the bland crime procedural, El Secreto de sus Ojos, and The Milk of Sorrow, a film about a woman with a potato in her vagina. Milk of Sorrow is the kind of film that gives art house fare a bad name, and I can't help but feel that it's inclusion is an attempt to seem edgy and cool, instead it just seems annoyingly pretentious. I was most disappointed that Bulgaria's wonderful The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner failed to get a nomination. I'm not sure what that means for its chances of getting US distribution.

I'm also very disappointed that Abel Korzeniowski's gorgeous score to A Single Man, in my opinion the best score of the year, got snubbed. I thought for sure it would make it, but instead they nominated the score to The Hurt Locker. I mean really, who saw THAT coming?

Other bizarre occurrences - District 9 got nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but not Best Makeup, which was arguably one of its strongest assets. Even its detractors would acknowledge that.

"Hey, have you seen our movie, THE SECRET OF KELLS?"
"Me either."

I was very surprised to see The Secret of Kells nominated for Best Animated Feature, but since I haven't actually seen it, I can't complain. I wish it had been Mary & Max though.

I think at this point, with Avatar and The Hurt Locker tied for the most nominations with 9, with Avatar getting less than expected and The Hurt Locker getting more, that Hurt Locker is now the front runner to win Best Picture. The out of left field score nod indicates far reaching support.

Overall, I feel like this is the weakest slate of Best Picture nominees in a decade. The widening of the field to 10 nominees has severely diluted the pool and cheapened the brand. But it is what it is, and we'll just have to live with it this year. When they wanted to open up the field to more populist choices, I don't think The Blind Side was what they meant. District 9 maybe, but not The Blind Side.

But what is done is done, and there is no use in complaining about it now. But for the first time in a decade, I feel completely ambivalent about pretty much all of the nominees. Sorry Oscar, you finally lost me.