Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: "Prince of Broadway"

"It's a hard knock-off life" proclaims the advertising materials for Sean Baker's Prince of Broadway. And despite the obvious, admittedly goofy nod to the famous Broadway play, Annie, Prince of Broadway has absolutely nothing to do with musical theatre. Nor does it include any trace of the pun-y humor its tagline suggests.

No, Prince of Broadway is a raw, organic slice of neo-realism that seems as if it born naturally from real life, captured on camera as it happens by director Sean Baker (Take-Out). Not unlike Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) or even Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Baker has an unblinking eye for stark realism, painting a picture of New York from the street level that is at once vibrantly alive and sharply honest.

It is the story of two immigrants - Lucky (Prince Adu), an illegal immigrant from Ghana who makes money by hustling unsuspecting tourists on the streets with knock-off designer merchandise, and Levon (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian from Lebanon who runs the business Lucky works for. Levon maintains the false storefront while Lucky sells the illegal merchandise out of the hidden back room. Everything seems to be on an even keel, even if Lucky is barely scraping by while Levon lives in relative luxury. But their world is upset when Lucky's ex-girlfriend arrives with a baby (Aiden Noesi) she claims is his, and forces the baby on him while she goes away for two weeks.

Not even sure if the baby is his, and unable to go to the police because of his immigration status, Lucky has no choice but to take care of it, integrating it into every part of his life. He doesn't even know it's name, so he dubs it Prince. Suddenly Prince is with him everywhere he goes, hustling on the streets, while Lucky tries to deal with the repercussions of his new found fatherhood. To top it all off, Levon suddenly finds himself mired in a divorce from a woman he married in order to obtain US citizenship. It seems as if their lives are falling apart around them, but the introduction of Prince into both of their lives is about to change everything.

Baker deftly sidesteps any maudlin sentimentalism that could have sprung from his narrative, and instead places the film in the hands of his capable cast, who improvised most of the dialogue. Prince Adu gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as Lucky that is the very definition of awards-worthy, even though the film (which was nominated for the John Cassavetes award at least years Independent Spirit Awards) is likely too small to garner any real heat. It is a stunningly naturalistic evocation of a man just trying to get by on the mean streets of New York, and has come to the end of his rope after having the responsibilities of fatherhood suddenly thrust upon him. Baker wisely guides the narrative through tricky thematic waters and emerges triumphant with a powerfully understated tale of love and redemption, as Lucky learns what it really means to be a father.

Prince of Broadway never pushes its themes or states them in a grand way, it simply lets its story flow, content to observe its characters and let their story naturally unfold. It feels unflinchingly real, and never anything less than deeply felt. This is the real deal - an honest to goodness, bona fide work of art. It is the independent film every independent film wants to be. Baker says a lot in the lively undercurrents of these characters' lives, masterfully evoking the pulsating rhythms of the streets of New York. He is a filmmaker who clearly "gets it," an in his steady and assured hands Prince of Broadway becomes something thrilling and vivacious, a microcosm of New York teeming with life, as well as a portrait of the immigrant experience that is both timely and moving. These streets may not be paved with gold, but Baker's filmmaking is nothing short of golden, and his remarkable Prince of Broadway shines.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PRINCE OF BROADWAY; Directed by Sean Baker; Stars Prince Adu, Karren Karagulian, Aiden Noesi, Keyali Mayaga, Kat Sanchez, Victoria Tate; Not Rated; Opens Friday, September 3, at the Angelika in NYC, and September 24 at the Sunset 5 in LA.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: "My Dog Tulip"

There have come to be a set of expectations when it comes to movies about dogs. They usually involve children, the dog usually has some extraordinary qualities, and pretty much without fail, the dog dies in the end.

My Dog Tulip, the beguiling and kindhearted new animated film by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, is a completely different breed of dog film. Based on the acclaimed memoir by J.R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip is a deeply felt love letter from a man to his dog, tracing their 16 year relationship together in the twilight of his years.

Adopted as an 18 month old puppy, the incorrigible Alsatian, Tulip is nothing particularly special, as dogs go. She barks constantly, gets into things she shouldn't, and generally causes trouble. But despite all her innocent transgressions, she is fiercely loyal to her master, and while she causes him embarrassment after embarrassment, his affection for her only grows.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Voice) as J.R. Ackerley with TULIP

Tulip isn't the kind of dog who is going to fetch the mail, rescue a child, or possess incredible senses. She is simply an old man's faithful dog, an unlikely best friend, and he treats her with the utmost affection, even in observing her toilet habits or trying in vain to breed her. Ackerley (voiced by the incomparable Christopher Plummer) serves as our narrator, almost as if he is a neighbor simply telling us about the antics of his beloved dog on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The droll wit and frankness of his words become a kind of poetry, especially when accompanied by the film's charmingly simple animation and stunning use of color.

The film's ending is never really in question, but the filmmakers wisely choose not to make it about the death. My Dog Tulip is, above all, a celebration of the life of a beloved friend. And when her time finally comes, the Ackerley barely makes a mention of it, treating it instead as a natural part of life and is grateful for the years they spent together. Thus the film becomes not another sad, weepy tale, but a warm and uplifting ode to friendship, choosing not to wallow in death and despair.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Voice) as J.R. Ackerley with TULIP

For all its potential as a heartbreaking weepy, My Dog Tulip buoys itself with a kind of timeless charm. Ackerley's love and adoration for Tulip is evident in every frame. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have lovingly brought Ackerley's memoir to the screen with the same kind of tenderness and humor that Ackerley himself might have done, and they have assembled a top notch voice cast to bring it to life. Plummer is joined by Isabella Rossellini the late Lynn Redgrave who each bring their own unique charisma.

My Dog Tulip takes a familiar sub-genre and turns it into something fresh and original. This is no typical "boy and his dog" movie, this is a joyous and warmhearted work of art. For those with open hearts and a love of animation, this will be a real treat, but for anyone who has ever had a dog in their life, My Dog Tulip will be a touching and life-affirming reminder of why dogs have earned the moniker of "man's best friend."

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MY DOG TULIP; Directed by Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger; Voices of Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini; Not Rated; Opens Wednesday, September 1, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Top Ten Movies of the Summer

With August coming to a close and most schools back in session, the 2010 summer movie season is officially over. So it's time to look back on what seemed like a particularly dull season at the ten best films of the summer.

Bear in mind I'm counting ALL films released during the summer months, not just typical Hollywood "summer" movies.

1
LEBANON
(Samuel Maoz, Israel)A powerful story of the madness of war as seen through the eyes of a frightened young tank crew in Israel's first Lebanon conflict.

2
DOGTOOTH

(Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)Yorgos Lanthimos' hauntingly surreal Greek allegory plays out like The Village as directed by Michael Haneke.

3
ALAMAR
(Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico)A warm hearted tale of a father's love for his son played out through tender vignettes as the two spend one last day out together before the son moves half a world away.

4
TOY STORY 3

(Lee Unkrich, USA)Pixar hits it out of the park again in this nostalgic ode to childhood and growing up.

5
WINNEBAGO MAN

(Ben Steinbauer, USA)
A hilarious and thought provoking examination of our culture of instant internet fame through a man who became the unwitting subject of a viral video sensation.

6
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
(Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg, USA)Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg go beneath the plastic surgery to discover the real Joan Rivers, and the result is disarmingly moving.

7
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD
(Tamra Davis, USA)A vibrant documentary about one of the towering figures of modern art that is a lively work of art all its own.

8
WILD GRASS
(Alain Resnais, France)
French New Wave master Alain Resnais proves he still has what it takes in this beguilingly odd romance.

9

LIFE DURING WARTIME
(Todd Solondz, USA)Todd Solondz returns to the characters he introduced in Happiness with this scalding portrait of forgiveness and regret amidst a cast of deeply wounded characters.

10
SOUTH OF THE BORDER

(Oliver Stone, USA)Ever the firebrand, Oliver Stone travels to South America to get the real picture of Venezuela's controversial socialist president, Hugo Chavez, and traces the roots of the new leftist movement that is sweeping the continent.

And, well, just because, here are my top ten mainstream summer releases. Bear in mind several of these are only 2.5 star films, if that gives you any idea what kind of summer this was.
  1. Toy Story 3
  2. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
  3. Inception
  4. Predators
  5. Iron Man 2
  6. The A-Team
  7. Kick-Ass
  8. Salt
  9. Piranha 3D
  10. Knight & Day

On "The Girl Who Played With Fire"

From The Dispatch:
Salander is a much less interesting figure here than in "Dragon Tattoo," mostly because she and Blomkvist hardly share any screen time together, making their relationship much more abstract. It doesn't wallow in its salaciousness like its predecessor, but it's also much more straightforward. Part of "Dragon Tattoo's" draw came from its sanguine sensationalism while "Played with Fire" is more dour, and as such it's less fun.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

If I Taught a Film Class (Part 1)

I was watching some early silent short films the other day, and I began to wonder what films I would show if I were to teach a class on the history of film. Where would I begin? What trends would I want to highlight? How could I possibly give a good overview in one semester? I'll admit much of the structure would be inspired by my own World Cinema professor, who did a fantastic job over the course of two semesters laying out a comprehensive overview of the history of film. But for my purposes here, I'm condensing it down to one semester only.

WORKERS LEAVING THE LUMIÈRE FACTORY (Louis Lumière, 1895).

I would start, of course, with the Lumière brothers' Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), the first commercially exhibited film ever made. I would probably show a few more early shorts - Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902) is a must, as well as the Lumières' The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1896), perhaps the earliest attempt at using film to tell a story. I would also show a few "actualities" such as San Francisco: Aftermath of an Earthquake (1906), to give an idea of what early audiences expected from films. One last early narrative short, Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) would pave the way for D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Without Griffith and especially without Birth of a Nation, there would be no modern cinema as we know it. He pioneered many of the cinematographic and editing techniques that are still used today, basically writing the book on how stories are told through film.

The problem, of course, is that the c
ontent of the film is reprehensibly racist, portraying the Ku Klux Klan as heroic and African Americans savage and animalistic. I could easily cop out and show Griffith's more socially acceptable follow-up, Intolerance (1916), which helped pioneer the overlapping/interconnected storyline technique a la Crash, but Birth of a Nation is the real groundbreaker and cannot be ignored, despite its problematic and offensive content.

A shot from the famous Odessa steps sequence in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Eisenstein, 1925).

After a discussion of the editing techniques in Birth of a Nation, I'd move right along to Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and his Soviet Montage theories, as we discuss the importance of editing in effective cinematic storytelling. There would also have to be a brief introduction into surrealism and Dada, with Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Man Ray's Le Retour à la raison (1923) serving as a fitting overview.

Maria Falconetti in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Dreyer, 1928).

I would round out the silent era with two of its supreme masterpieces, showcasing the medium at the height of its form - Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926), and The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928). Ménilmontant is a perfect example of how to tell a story without words. It is a completely visual film, with no dialogue or intertitles to guide the audience, and Joan of Arc is, in my opinion, the greatest film ever made - a brilliant work utilizing mostly close-ups and the power of Maria Falconetti's legendary performance to create as close to a spiritual experience as the movies have ever come. Norma Desmond's immortal assertion in Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950), that "we didn't need dialogue, we had faces" never rang so true as it does in Dreyer's immortal masterpiece.

There are many movements within the silent era, such as German Expressionism, that would probably have to be skipped due to time constraints (I could do an entire class just on the silent era), so it's time to move on (sharp eyed viewers will spot influences of German Expressionism in Joan of Arc's art direction). As much as it pains me to do so, I would probably have to at least show a clip of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) to introduce students to the sound era, but I would transition into talkies as quickly as possible, perhaps with a few early sound films like Fritz Lang's M (1931), which not not only features a fantastic performance by Peter Lorre, but is an excellent showcase for how sound was often used in those early days, especially by a master of silent film like Lang. It's also one of the all time great thrillers, and is a textbook on creating and maintaining suspense.

To put the era in a hist
orical perspective, I would then show Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933). The Busby Berkeley musicals are a perfect example of what audiences of the time wanted to see to escape from the realities of the Great Depression, and the carefree exuberance and breathtaking precision of Berkeley's glorious dance numbers set the tone for an entire era of film.

Special effects also grew by leaps and bounds thanks to films like King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933), which also has the benefit of being accompanied by one of the first symphonic scores, not something people were used to in 1933. And even though the silent era may be over, Charlie Chaplin still specialized in making the best in silent comedy, and his Modern Times (1936) represents the best in what the medium could do. The thirties also saw the rise of Disney, who released their first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937) to widespread critical and popular acclaim. A look at that film is a splendid introduction to what would be come a multi-billion dollar empire and the birth of a new branch of the industry.

"There's no place like home." A scene from THE WIZARD OF OZ (Fleming, 1939).

While most will have probably seen it already, it's hard to beat the glorious Technicolor spectacle that is The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). While Gone with the Wind is often rated higher, no movie better represents grand Hollywood myth making like The Wizard of Oz. It's the perfect end to the more carefree movie making of the 1930s before reality, and World War II, sat in.

No film class would be complete, of course, without Orson Welles' revered Citizen Kane (1941). The film is often considered the greatest film of all time, and indeed its contribution to film language cannot be overstated. From its deep focus shots to its haunting portrayal of corruptive power, Welles' masterpiece remains a towering and influential cinematic landmark.

The 1940s was the time when film noir became popular, a change from the lighter entertainments of the 1930s. To represent the genre, Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) can't be missed.

As color began become more and more common in film, an introduc
tion to the Archers seems in order - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who turned color and lighting into an art form all its own. The Red Shoes (1948) may have been their crowning achievement, but no film demonstrates the power of lighting and understated sexual tension as Black Narcissus (1947).

"I'm ready for my close up." Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD (Wilder, 1950).

Hopefully this should bring us to the end of the first half of the semester, at which point a good summation of what has been covered up until this point would be Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), which serves as a dark satire of Hollywood as well as an elegy for the silent era.

We've covered more than 50 years of cinema so far, and we've got about that much more to go. To sum up, here are the list of films I would show so far in the period from 1895 - 1950. Bear in mind many of the earlier films are only minutes long.
  1. Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)
  2. The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1896)
  3. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  4. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
  5. San Francisco: Aftermath of an Earthquake (1906)
  6. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
  7. Le Retour à la raison (1923)
  8. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  9. Ménilmontant (1926)
  10. The Jazz Singer (1927)
  11. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
  12. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
  13. M (1931)
  14. Footlight Parade (1933)
  15. King Kong (1933)
  16. Modern Times (1936)
  17. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  18. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  19. Citizen Kane (1941)
  20. Double Indemnity (1944)
  21. Black Narcissus (1947)
  22. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Keep an eye out for the rest of the semester, coming soon.

Review: "The Milk of Sorrow"

Of all the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards, the most surprising inclusion was Claudia Llosa's culturally esoteric Peruvian oddity, The Milk of Sorrow.

It's not your typical Oscar nominated foreign film by any means, and even managed to trump more traditionally Academy friendly films on the shortlist like The Netherlands' Winter in Wartime and Bulgaria's The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner.

On the surface, The Milk of Sorrow seems like one of those painfully slow art house films that give foreign films a bad name, often playing out like a parody of such films, filled with long silences and with few cuts, wallowing in miserablism and the extreme misfortunes of its characters. Even the title seems to suggest a cartoonish obsession with all things bleak and melancholy.

Magaly Solier as Fausta and Barbara Lazon as her mother Perpetua in THE MILK OF SORROW.
An Olive Films release.


But a closer look at the film reveals aspects that are more Academy friendly than initially meets the eye. Heavy handed symbolism? Check. Characters overcoming impossible hardships? Check. Characters overcoming impossible hardships through heavy handed symbolism? Check, check. It may all come in a slightly more inscrutable package than the type of films that generally dominate this category, but the elements are still there.

The title refers to the breast milk of women who were raped and beaten by terrorists in Peru during a time of great national stress. According to local superstitions, the women passed their sorrows to their children through breastfeeding, causing them to become sullen, soulless people who exist as constant reminders of their mother's pain. Fausta (Magaly Solier) is one such victim of the "milk of sorrow," who was so distraught by her mother's stories of the troubles that she put a potato in her vagina to protect from potential attackers and never removed it. As the years go by the potato begins causing health problems for Fausta as it begins sprouting and festering, but it is such a sense of comfort to her fears that she refuses to take it out, choosing instead to keep trimming it back, in essence holding in her pain and keeping herself locked in the past.

Magaly Solier as Fausta and Barbara Lazon as her mother Perpetua in THE MILK OF SORROW.
An Olive Films release.

When her mother dies suddenly, Fausta finds herself alone, and forced to find a way to make money in order to pay to give her a proper burial before her cousin's wedding. So she takes a job as a maid in the home of a famous pianist, but as time wears on it seems as if she will never be able to escape from her curse and put the past behind her once and for all.

The Milk of Sorrow is a film steeped in the local traditions and culture of Peru, but it's often so obscure that it's completely arcane, hinging its rather profound emotional revelations on superstitions that, to those unfamiliar with them, seem completely ridiculous and often hard to take seriously. Fausta's trimming of the potato sprouts from between her legs, which is meant to be deeply symbolic, comes across instead as indefatigably bizarre and heavy handed, obscuring any meaning Llosa may be trying to convey. Without a doubt the film is beautifully observed and oddly compelling, a poetic meditation on female suffering and moving on from great trauma, but Fausta remains a cold and distant figure - a blank picture of mournfulness that is hard to relate to, despite a fine performance by Solier. It's readily apparent that Llosa is onto something here, and her skill as a filmmaker is hardly in question, but the film's subject is so stubbornly strange and enigmatic that there is little there to hold onto. It is well put together, but ultimately it feels underdeveloped, done in by its own latent impenetrability, doggedly holding its audience at arms length, much like Fausta herself.

GRADE -★★½ (out of four)

THE MILK OF SORROW; Directed by Claudia Llosa; Stars Magaly Solier, Susi Sanchez, Efrain Solis, Marrino Ballon; Not rated, In Spanish and Quechua w/ English subtitles. Opens Friday, 8.27, in NYC.

Monday, August 23, 2010

DVD Spotlight: "For My Wife" & "Water Wars"

The sad reality for many documentary filmmakers is that having their films released theatrically is not always feasible, given their generally low box office potential . But thanks to the good folks at Cinema Libre and other independent studios, documentaries can find new audiences through DVD releases and grassroots educational campaigns.

Two such films, For My Wife and Water Wars will have their DVD premieres on August 31, 2010 from Cinema Libre, the studio that brought The End of Poverty and Oliver Stone's South of the Border to the big screen.

FOR MY WIFE (David Rothmiller & LD Thompson, Not Rated)

For My Wife is an especially timely doc about Charlene Strong, a woman who lost her partner, Kate, in a tragic flood, and faced many challenges, heartache, and discrimination by hospital employees and funeral directors because they were not legally married or related by blood. But instead of sitting idly by, Charlene took matters into her own hands and joined the crusade to bring benefits to same sex partners that would make sure that no one would have to suffer as she did again.

Charlene Strong with WA Governor Chris Gregoire as she signs the Domestic Partnership Registry Bill into law in “for my wife…”

In light of the recent Proposition 8 ruling in California, For My Wife feels like it comes along at the perfect moment, as LGBT issues are taking the forefront in the national spotlight, especially concerning same sex marriage. Charlene makes a passionate case and puts a human face on the debate that is undeniably moving. The climactic debate on the floor of the Washington state Senate is especially powerful, but the film sort of loses its way after that. It sets out to make the key point that the battle is far from over and the story continues, but it feels as if it has no definitive ending, following Charlene's crusade after her victory in her home state of Washington, but there just isn't that much to cover. It's clear that it would have made a better documentary short than a feature, but it's hard to deny its subject's timely power. This is a story that needs to be told as much as it needs to be heard. And as long as people like Charlene Strong keeps speaking up and putting forward an identifiable and human face on the challenges faced by LGBT Americans, then hearts and minds will continue to be changed, and as such For My Wife demands to be seen.

WATER WARS (Jim Burroughs, Not Rated)

Documentaries often fall into the trap of being all information and no flair, and Water Wars is one of those films. It's a rather straightforward educational doc about the water crisis in Bangladesh, whose rivers are being dammed up in India, causing widespread drought in the dry season and flooding in the rainy season. What water they have is often poisoned with arsenic. The film examines the political standoffs caused by access to water in Asia, which is a conflict many believe will be the cause of World War III.

For such a potentially impactful topic, one might expect a film with a little more tension or a dramatic call to action, but instead it feels rather mundane, even with narration by Martin Sheen. It's the kind of informational doc that would be right at home in a high school world politics or science class, and as such will serve its purpose well. It's an important topic, and while it deserves a documentary that isn't this dry, it will do in the absence of more widespread coverage.

Both For My Wife and Water Wars will be available on DVD August 31 from Cinema Libre and are now available for pre-order.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: "Lebanon"

"War is hell" is a mantra that has lost much of its power, cinematically speaking, mostly due to the ubiquity of the subject. It's not a new idea by any means, but especially since the release of Steven Spielberg's infamously graphic Saving Private Ryan in 1998, the sheer number of war films that have been released is enough to make audiences go numb to the carnage.

More than that, it is enough to make the message get lost amid the noise. War is hell, everyone knows that. But for movie audiences, the message has been heard so many times that its impact has been dulled. That is why Samuel Maoz's Israeli war drama, Lebanon, feels like such a kick in the gut. Rather than bludgeon the audience to death with images of carnage and destruction (although there is plenty of it), Maoz plunges us directly into the heat of the action, forcing us to see war through the eyes of the soldiers by completely confining the camera's point of view to inside the belly of a tank.

Left to Right: Yoav Donat as Shmulik and Zohar Strauss as Jamil
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Not unlike Wolfgang Petersen's seminal 1981 submarine thriller, Das Boot, the audience only sees what this small tank crew is able to see, our only window to what is going on outside is through a periscope. The film chronicles the first day in Israel's 1982 Lebanon war through the eyes of a single tank crew, whose mission is to venture into a Lebanese town already bombarded by the Israeli air force. But what at first seems to be a routine mission quickly devolves into a nightmare, as it soon becomes clear that the air force's earlier attack has done little to dissuade the opposition.

Trapped in a hostile city and cut off from their own men, the crew find themselves in a veritable hornet's nest, but the enemy on the outside isn't nearly as dangerous as the one on the inside, as the claustrophobia of the tiny tank cab begins to take its toll on their minds. These four men, who have never seen war, are suddenly thrust together in the most hellish environment imaginable, with not only their sanity, but their lives on the line.

Oshri Cohen as Hertzel and Zohar Strauss as Jamil Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Maoz masterfully uses POV to create a fifth crew member inside the tank - the audience itself, conjuring a powerfully suffocating atmosphere. The only respite comes in the form of two bookending shots of a field of sunflowers, the latter which has become the film's most recognizable image. It is a startling contrast - the ugly metal killing machine set amid such natural serenity. That kind of juxtaposition drives home Maoz' central thesis of war's essential absurdity. It's not a new idea by any means, but so brilliantly designed and sharply edited is this film that it takes an old theme and breathes into it a new life.

Lebanon is a war film that comes by its message honestly. You will find no flag waving here, no political grandstanding or needless pontificating, just the ugly, messy reality of grunts in war. One can almost smell the blood, sweat, and urine in the heat of the tank cab amid the crew's fear and panic. Every frame is saturated with a palpable sense of anxiety, turning the screws of tension as the crew descends slowly into madness. It's an intelligent and compelling war film, one that defies its genre's conventions and gives way to something that is both viscerally thrilling and spiritually transcendent. Maoz deftly hits all the right notes and delivers a haunting work that stands as an essential piece of Israeli cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LEBANON; Directed by Samuel Maoz; Stars Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa; Rated R for disturbing bloody war violence, language including sexual references, and some nudity; In Hebrew and Arabic w/English subtitles.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Review: "Brotherhood"

The idea of gay Nazis is about as strange and foreign as the idea of gay cowboys, if not more so. While the image of the cowboy as presented in Ang Lee's tenderly subversive Brokeback Mountain has long been equated as the ultimate symbol of masculinity in American culture, the image of the Nazi stands at an even greater opposition to the idea of homosexuality. Not only did the most infamous hate group of all time hunt and kill Jews, but they also actively went after homosexuals, destroying anything that did not fit their insidious ideal.

Therefore the idea of a gay Nazi seems even more implausible than the idea of a gay cowboy. But as Brokeback so memorably demonstrated before, sometimes love can be found in the most unlikely of places - in the case of Nicolo Donato's Brotherhood, right in the middle of a violent neo-Nazi group in Denmark.

To show what is at stake, the film opens with the brutal beating of a young gay man, the victim of a set up by the group designed lure him with the promise of sex. As we learn later, the group preys on the young ones who are not yet out of the closet so they are less likely to go to the police for fear of exposing their sexuality. This is the oppressive world in which the story takes place, where any hint of homosexuality is attacked swiftly and violently.

Our guide into this world is Lars (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish soldier who is denied a promotion after accusations by some of his men that he made unwanted advances on them. Depressed and adrift without direction, Lars falls in with a small group of neo-Nazis, led by their charismatic and persuasive pied piper, Michael ‘Fatso’ (Nicolas Bro). His intelligence and well spoken manner endear him to the membership, where he quickly rises through the ranks, and is eventually offered full membership in the group, much to the chagrin of another more senior member, Patrick (Morten Holst). Still living with his disapproving parents and with nowhere else to go, Lars is offered lodging at the group's safe house, which is under the care of Patrick's older brother, Jimmy (David Dencik). Jimmy is at first distrusting of Lars, still bitter over his brother's being passed over for membership in favor of this young upstart. But living in close quarters together, the two discover common ground. So much common ground in fact that their friendship becomes something much deeper, romantic even. Soon, Lars and Jimmy have given into their undeniable attraction for each other, but as they do, they must come to terms with their own bigoted beliefs, as well as the dangerous repercussions from their peers. Because in their world, their love isn't only a crime - it's a capital offense.

There's plenty room for treacle here, but Donato walks a very fine line between tenderness and danger. Brotherhood offers its characters no easy solution nor does it pander to its audience. In fact is a gritty and incisive examination of the inherent homoeroticism of close all-male organizations, especially hate groups - hence the title, Brotherhood. In any exclusively one gender group there is always a chance for same sex relationships or sexual tension, but there is something especially deep and primal about male bonding, especially since the emotions and feelings of men are much more buried than those of their female counterparts. Donato gets right to the bottom of this, using the relationship between Lars and Jimmy to explore much larger themes of how personal feelings clash with deeply held beliefs, even those that are imposed by close friends or family, as well as preconceived notions of masculinity.

Make no mistake, Brotherhood is a melodrama, but it's a skillfully executed one. The relationship between Lars and Jimmy never feels forced, but rather an organic extension of the situation in which they find themselves. It is an alternately delicate and edgy drama, finely acted and hauntingly realized. Donato finds great beauty in a very dark and dangerous world, unearthing something honest and real in the shadow of great evil. Brotherhood is a shining and unironic example of love overcoming all obstacles that never feels manipulative or goofy, and one of finest works of queer cinema to come along in quite some time.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BROTHERHOOD; Directed by Nicolo Donato; Stars Thure Lindhardt, David Dencik, Nicolas Bro, Morten Holst; Not rated; In Danish w/English subtitles; Opens Friday, 8.6, at the Cinema Village in NYC.

On "Dinner for Schmucks"

From The Dispatch:
The character interactions are the highlight here, courtesy of the more than capable cast. The film itself is problematic, featuring an often forced and awkward narrative that is occasionally overcome by the performances, but even they can't mask what is ultimately a weak script and ultimately sterile comedy.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Review: "The Sicilian Girl"

The story of Marco Amenta's Italian mafia thriller, The Sicilian Girl, has the makings of the kind of sprawling crime drama that we so rarely see anymore - an epic tale of one woman taking on the entire Italian mafia to avenge the deaths of her beloved father and brother. And to top it all off, it's all true. It's a fascinating story, filled with tension and natural suspense. It's too bad that the film itself shares none of these traits.

The Sicilian Girl is the story of 17 year old
Rita Atria (Veronica D’Agostino), the daughter of a Mafia bigwig who, as a child, witnesses her father's murder at the hands of others within the "family," led by the man she once called "uncle." Filled with rage and seeking to enact vengeance upon her father's killers, young Rita and her brother vow to bring justice in his name. But this only leads to the death of her brother, leaving Rita alone with a bitter and disapproving mother. Rita grows up with her family in shambles, and when she gets old enough realizes that the only way to bring justice to her father's murderers may be to collaborate with the very people she was raised to hate - the police.

Rita seeks out a prosecutor who once had a run-in with her father years ago, and provides him with a diary she has kept since she was a girl, watching and documenting the movements of the Mafia from within. Her diary provides an unprecedented eye witness account of top secret Mafia information, making Rita an unknowing mole since she was a young girl, and an invaluable resource for the police in making a case against many of the Mafia's top figures. So Rita is placed in protective custody for her own safety, assuming a new identity as the prosecution's star witness in a vast legal war against the heart of the Italian Mafia.

Despite her desire for revenge, however, Rita is still very much a product of the mob, her mentality often at odds with that of the prosecutor and the police she often finds herself surrounded by. Her life is further complicated when she falls in love with a young man who is completely unaware of her past. As the pressures of being the lynch-pin in such a massive campaign against the Mafia, as well as living under constant threat of being murdered by increasingly desperate mobsters, Rita becomes increasingly fearful, and the entire case threatens to collapse around her.

There is plenty of material here for a great mob film. This is some truly epic stuff. But the film completely misses the gravity of the story it depicts. It's almost painfully melodramatic, filled with over the top performances and hammy over-emoting. The film often appears to be the work of an amateur who has no idea how to create dramatic tension or convey any kind of weight or importance. The effort is readily apparent, many of its shots seem designed to mimic dramatic shots from other, better, films, but the attempts at importance fall flat. Amenta's insistence on speeding up the action seems an old hat trick here, and completely out of place, quickly wearing out its welcome. It also suffers from some blatantly bad dubbing, especially in the case of the prosecutor, who is played by French actor Gérard Jugnot. All of his lines are dubbed over, and nothing he says ever fits the movements of his mouth. It's an almost laughably bad effect, further cementing the feel of The Sicilian Girl as a strictly amateur affair.

This is a film that is never as important or weighty as it thinks it is or wants to be. Its inflated sense of historical import isn't backed up by filmmaking prowess. In fact the filmmaking is often so clumsy that even the story's inherent tension is rendered dramatically inert, a victim of its own awkward staging and misguided attempts at emotional posturing. This story deserves a good film, even a great one. Unfortunately, The Sicilian Girl isn't that film. Not even close. This is a strictly second rate failure whose heart may in the right place, but whose head misses the mark completely.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE SICILIAN GIRL; Directed by Marco Amenta; Stars Veronica D'Agostino, Gérard Jugnot, Francesco Casisa, Marcello Mazzarella, Mario Pupella, Paolo Briguglia; Not rated; In Italian w/English subtitles; opens tomorrow, 8.4, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Black Narcissus"/"Inception" Trailer Mash-Up

I'm a little late in posting this, but this trailer for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 masterpiece, Black Narcissus, which was just given a magnificent Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection last Tuesday, is absolutely pitch perfect, capturing its intense eroticism.



It combines the music from the Inception trailer with scenes from Black Narcissus, which I think is the most brilliantly lit film of all time. If you haven't seen Black Narcissus then this trailer should convince you that you need to see it immediately.