Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On "The Town"

From The Dispatch:
The performances are all uniformly excellent, despite some weaknesses in the script by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (“Gone Baby Gone”), based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by John Hogan. As a director, Affleck is still finding his voice. And while much of “The Town” is shaky ground for him, he mostly keeps a steady hand, delivering a well-honed heist thriller, even if it fails to fully engage the audience.
Click here to read my full review.

4 New Photos from "Deathly Hallows"

With the premiere of the final trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows less than 24 hours away, the film's official Facebook page has debuted 4 new photos to whet fans' appetites.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 will open nationwide on November 19.

Click here to view the entire photo gallery.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: "Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?"

There is something to be said for a straightforward documentary that doesn't unnecessarily sensationalize its subject or dilute it with heavy-handed directorial flourishes. However, when it comes to films like John Scheinfeld's Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, typical structure can be a detriment.

Through interviews with various celebrity friends and collaborators, as well as never before released audio clips from an oral autobiography, the film pieces together an intimate portrait of legendary singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, once credited by The Beatles as their favorite artist. It is genuinely admiring of Nilsson, despite self destructive behavior later in life that would eventually lead to his death. Everyone interviewed clearly has great respect for the man, but the film itself is strangely devoid of passion. Luminaries such as Randy Newman, Yoko Ono, Terry Gilliam, and Robin Williams endlessly gush over the man's talent, but the film never seems to rise above the level of a VH1 Behind the Music special.

The film follows a woefully conventional trajectory. It's a talking head documentary of the most mundane kind, despite amusing and even moving anecdotes by those being interviewed. The problem is they're all trapped in a very traditional and common-place film that seems beneath the talent of the man being exalted. Nilsson was an immense talent, both as a singer and as a songwriter, and some of his biggest hits included “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy “Without You,” “Coconut,” and “One," but Scheinfeld almost seems to gloss over the music, creating what feels like a perfunctory greatest hits reel, using the songs as background accompaniment or in brief clip montages that don't seem to lend the right sense of weight or reverence that the songs deserve.

Also, noticeably missing are Nilsson's two best friends, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Both are seen throughout the film, and Lennon (who many saw as a negative influence) gets a word in through some vintage interviews, but Starr, who many suggest was Nilsson's closest friend, is AWOL for most of the film. It leaves a hole in what seems like an otherwise thorough portrait of a beloved artist.

No one can fault Who is Harry Nilsson for not being exhaustive, because there is a lot of information and remembrances being expelled here. And to Scheinfeld's credit, the more unsavory aspects of his Nilsson's life aren't glossed over, nor are they dwelt upon, they are simply acknowledged as a part of him along with everything else. But a series of personal recollections of friends and family does not a great film make. Scheinfeld's straightforward style comes across more as plain and bland rather than simple and incisive. This isn't elegant simplicity, it's serviceable informational banality, nothing more.

It's a shame that, given Nilsson's musical stature, that the film about his life seems less like capturing his spirit than just dully tracing his life. The interviews give us insight into who he was, but it never gives us the feeling the way other similar documentaries this year have done, like Tamra Davis' vibrant Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. It is that extra mile that documentaries go to capture and emulate the soul of their subject that Who is Harry Nilsson seems to miss. So while the information is there, the soul is not, and what is left seems painfully ordinary. A disappointing tribute to a man who was anything but.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (AND WHY IS EVERYBODY TALKIN' ABOUT HIM)? | Directed by
John Scheinfeld | Not rated | Now showing at the Cinema Village in NYC and Laemmle Sunset 5 in LA.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: "The Temptation of St. Tony"

"Why does man exist?" a mourner ponders as he attends a funeral at the beginning of Veiko Õunpuu's The Temptation of St. Tony, cuing the audience in right from the get go that this isn't the kind of film that asks simple questions with easy answers.

On the contrary, The Temptation of St. Tony is a surreal, labyrinthine puzzle of a movie that plays like a collaboration between David Lynch and Luis Buñuel. There are no easy answers or even descriptions that can quite sum up the many layers and metaphorical digressions of Õunpuu's haunting dream world, and he lets us know immediately that he will be taking the road less traveled, beginning the film with a quote from Dante's Inferno: "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost."

It is an appropriate beginning, as the film is, in many ways, a psychological and emotional descent into Hell, tracing the evolution of one man's very bad day into an existential nightmare and descent into madness.

Taavi Eelmaa as Tony in THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY. An Olive Films release.

Filmed in striking black and white, the stark contrast suggesting the title character's inner struggle of light and dark, The Temptation of St. Tony is a deeply metaphorical trip down the proverbial rabbit hole for one man whose life begins to lose its meaning. Tony (Taavi Eelmaa, whose face recalls that of a silent film star) is a mid-level executive mourning the death of his father who is about to experience the worst day of his life. A series of chance encounters set events into a downward spiral, as runs over a dog in his car, and accidentally discovers a field full of severed hands as he drags the dog's body off the road. Frightened and perplexed, he goes directly to the police, only to discover that they are less than helpful. While at the police station, he meets a kidnapped girl on the run, and discovers that his wife is cheating on him, but his trials and tribulations are just beginning.

Along his travels, he encounters a priest, and begins to question the benefits of being good. Why be good if it will only bring misfortune and suffering? Tony is like a modern-day Job, trying desperately to be good in an increasingly dark world, only to have his efforts thrown back into his face, or forced to do something against his conscience, such as close his boss' factory and lay off the entire staff who are all struggling to make ends meet. The bizarre encounter with the priest shakes Tony to his core, and opens the door for a nightmarish flood of tribulation that will change Tony forever.

A scene from THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY. An Olive Films release.

Õunpuu creates a compelling and memorable atmosphere, in large part due to the masterful work of cinematographer Mart Taniel who gives the film its surreal, dreamlike quality. However the film's avant-garde tendencies are often as much of a hindrance as a positive. For a film whose entire reality is hinged on the audience's acceptance of its inherent absurdity, it is often a bit too symbolically dense for its own good, piling on metaphor after metaphor and chasing aimless digressions that may or may not have any meaning whatsoever. It is intentionally disorienting, often in the tradition of the early surrealists, creating dream imagery that feels like an actual dream. We become just as lost in Tony's world as he does, which is both richly compelling head-scratchingly frustrating. It's lack of narrative form (despite a powerful formal visual aesthetic) ultimately bewilders as much as it enthralls.

There is a lot to feast upon in Õunpuu's nightmarish vision. It is a layered and lyrical film, both drolly funny and eminently disturbing, and demands repeat viewings to fully appreciate. There is so much here to untangle in Tony's unhinged world as he grapples with some of the biggest questions man has to ask. Credit must be given to Õunpuu for daring to tackle such massive and important questions, but one must wonder how much of the result is as deep as it thinks it is. Still, The Temptation of St. Tony is a staggering and enthralling work that finds profundity in absurdity, suggesting that man's questioning of the cosmic scheme is ultimately folly, and in many ways meaningless. Whether or not the film is similarly meaningless is in the eye of the beholder, but Õunpuu ensures that the quest for answers, whether they exist or are simply hollow projections, will be anything but boring.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY | Directed by Veiko Õunpuu | Stars Taavi Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Taurate, Sten Ljunggren, Denis Lavant, Rain Tolk | Not rated | In Estonian, Russian, English & French with English Subtitles | Opens Friday, 9.17, in NYC, and 10.1 in LA.

On "Winnebago Man"

From The Dispatch:
The resulting interviews are both sidesplittingly hilarious and strangely poignant. In his quest to find out who Jack Rebney really is, Steinbauer stumbled across something much deeper. "Winnebago Man" goes from a wacky documentary about a viral video to a bittersweet and insightful exploration of the cult of personality and a world of instant celebrity.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl"

On the surface, Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl seems like an odd trifle of a film. At barely over an hour long, the film barely seems to get started before it's over - a small whisper of a doomed romance caught in the conflicted social mores of a bygone era.

De Oliveira, who was 101 years old when he made this film and is still going strong (his newest film, The Strange Case of Angelica, just had its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival), filters this tale (based on the 19th century short story by Eça de Queirós) through the lens of another time. While set in present day, the characters seem caught in a time warp, citizens of the past doggedly trying to make it in a modern world, each one trapped by their devotion to outdated social mores. That is the magic of Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. It's an old story, almost Shakespearean in portrayal of family relations and tragic romance, but set almost idiosyncratically in a distinctly current time - the story told by our protagonist to a complete stranger while commuting on an electric train.

It is that jarring juxtaposition of the modern and the antiquated that gives the film its elegantly strange charm. Our storyteller and guide into this world is Macário (de Oliveira's grandson, Ricardo Trêpa), a lowly accountant at his uncle's textile shop, who one day spies a beautiful young woman (Catarina Wallenstein) at the window across the street. He is immediately drawn to her, with her long flowing blonde hair and delicate Chinese fan she carries with her everywhere she goes. She is an enigma, an unattainable object, until one day she and her mother walk into his uncle's store.

It's a storybook love at first sight moment, and their first meeting, framed by de Oliveira as a long, lingering close-up, is a striking moment of understated fire. Macário becomes consumed by a desire to know her, and finally gets his chance at a posh dinner party, which becomes a kind of lovely digression as de Oliveira takes the time to allow a poetry reading to provide a quiet backdrop to a seemingly mundane scene of unspoken attraction. But that is de Oliveira's great genius - his knack for finding power in what is left unspoken. He takes seemingly ordinary occurrences and imbues them with an almost imperceptible weight. On second viewing, the scene totally transforms into a haunting instance of foreshadowing that hints at the titular "eccentricities" that will play a major roll later in the film.

Soon, Macário wants to marry the girl, whose name, it turns out, is Luísa. But his uncle forbids it, and when he refuses to give up his dream of marriage, he is fired from his job and thrown out of his house. Unable to provide for her the life he wants for her, Macário takes a mysterious job far away. But a series of misfortunes suggests darker things to come, and the difficulties of their innocent romance will soon lead them to unexpected places.

Each one of them seems to be living in a gilded cage, whether it be that of their own strenuously formal dialogue or suggested in de Oliveira's meticulous framing, these people are trapped in set of circumstances both of their own devising and out of their control. The outmoded societal conventions coupled with their own timidity and weakness conspires against them. What at first seems stilted and awkward reveals itself to be careful and deliberate, an assured master's exploration of craft and character using every trick in his artistic palate. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl is a kind of grown-up fairy tale, a very bleak fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless. De Oliveira is a kind of cinematic poet, a Portuguese bard whose film seems to defy time and place. It transcends the delicate intricacies of language by remaining fixed in its own sense of time while seeming effortlessly timeless. It is both of the past and the present, as if it could be anytime or anywhere or nowhere at all. It is of its own time and place, it is anywhere and everywhere, and de Oliveira beckons us into a peculiar and beguiling world whose treasures will continue to reveal themselves with repeated viewings. Like the pages of a great, well-worn book, the words and images of Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl are truly something to be savored, and will continue to reveal their riches to those with the patience to find them.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL | Directed by Manoel de Oliveira | Stars Ricardo Trêpa, Catarina Wallenstein, Diogo Dória, Júlia Buisel, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra | Not rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | Premieres on DVD from the Cinema Guild September 21.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Review: "The Girl (Flickan)"

There is a shimmering nostalgia that hangs over Fredrik Edfeldt's The Girl (Flickan), and depending on your point of view, that's either a major selling point or a complete turn-off. Having always been a sucker for some tasteful nostalgia (spare me your schmaltz, please), I'm probably more in the former category than the latter. But despite my admitted affinity for such films, The Girl isn't without its problems.

Set in 1981, The Girl centers around a never-named 9 year old girl (Blanca Engström, in a magnetic performance), whose family is planning to travel to Africa to help with an aid project. However, when it is discovered that she is too young to go on the trip, her parents decide to leave her with her aunt. As it turns out, her aunt is far more interested in reliving past loves and spends more of her time reminiscing about the past than looking after the girl. So the girl secretly mails a letter to the object of her aunt's affections, and upon receiving a reply, her aunt leaves "for a few days" to be with her man.

Blanca Engström as THE GIRL. An Olive Films release.

But when a few days becomes a few weeks, it soon becomes clear that her aunt isn't coming back, and the girl is left to fend for herself. Finding herself suddenly thrust into the grown-up world, the girl must navigate the tricky waters of adulthood while still trying to live the life of a child, whether it's a tentative flirtation with a shy classmate, or dealing with a delinquent neighbor and her older, more worldly cousin. By the end of the summer, the girl will have left her childhood behind, overcoming her fears and emerging from her cocoon a butterfly rather than a caterpillar. It's all rather thematically obvious, a similar story was told more effectively in So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain just last year. However, Edfeldt conveys the themes with such grace and often breathtaking beauty that it coalesces into a vibrant and lovely whole.

Again, it's all a matter of perspective. What one may see as graceful and moving another may see as ham-fisted and cloying, and The Girl definitely toes the line. But thanks to some truly gorgeous cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and a compelling central performance by
Engström, The Girl avoids overt sentimentality by the skin of its gossamer teeth.

A scene from THE GIRL. An Olive Films release.

There is never any question of where the film is going. The Girl charts a well worn and familiar path in its portrait of childhood. But so clear is Edfeldt's vision that his haunting evocation of a child's world is hard to shake. There is a quiet, heartfelt pathos at work here, creating a surprising resonance despite its familiarity. Every time the film threatens to veer into trite mawkishness, Edfeldt reels it back in with tenderness and dignity. While the thematic transparency and occasional aimlessness (especially near the end) of the narrative can be distracting, the film's aching beauty and Engström's extraordinary performance keep it compulsively watchable. It's also much darker than most films of its kind. While filmed like some kind of fairy tale, The Girl is more Grimm Brothers than Disney, entering into some surprisingly dark territory, even if it at times it never feels completely honest or earned.

Despite its weaknesses, there is a lot to like in The Girl. Edfeldt has a great eye for detail, and uses his camera to create a deeply poignant look at adulthood through the eyes of a young girl, abandoned and disillusioned by the world around her. It is a stylistic triumph that ultimately doesn't add up to more than the sum of its parts, but remains a lyrical and evocative mood piece that manages to resonate even when you know it shouldn't.

GRADE - ★★
½ (out of four)

THE GIRL (FLICKAN) | Directed by
Fredrik Edfeldt | Stars Blanca Engström, Shanti Roney, Annika Hallin, Calle Lindqvist, Tova Magnusson-Norling, Leif Andrée, Ia Langhammer, Emma Wigfeldt, Michelle Vistam, Vidar Fors | Not rated | In Swedish w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, 9.17, at the Cinema Village in NYC, and Friday, 10.1, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in LA.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Ones That Got Away

When you're as busy as I am, with upward of ten performances a day as well as multiple film openings to cover a week, sometimes there just isn't enough time to review everything and see, and some movies just fall through the cracks.

That's what happened with three films that opened in the last few weeks. I loved all three, and a some rank among the very best of the year. But somehow, through a combination of not being able to find the time, or just having seen them too long ago to do justice to them in a full review, I never got around to reviewing them. So to rectify that, here are three capsule reviews to help me play a little catch up.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD (★★★½)

Tamra Davis' vibrant, energetic documentary tells of the short, extraordinary, and ultimately tragic career of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned world renowned painter who shook up the art world in the 1980s before his untimely death at the age of 27. Through intimate interviews by Davis with Basquiat himself, and friends and colleagues who knew him, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child paints a fascinating portrait of an unlikely rise to stardom. The film traces his journey from graffiti artist on the streets of New York, to art world superstar, hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. It's a lively and powerful portrait of an artist as a young man who never became old. At the end, however, Basquiat remains the enigma he was at the beginning. But that, I think, is exactly how he would want it.


LAST TRAIN HOME (★★★½)

From the creators of the acclaimed Up the Yangtze comes another compelling portrait of modern China. This time they are examining the plight of Chinese migrant workers, whose annual journey home for Chinese New Year is the largest human migration in the world. The film follows a family of migrant workers - two parents who only see their children once a year to be able to support them, and their teenage daughter who rebels by dropping out of school and becoming a migrant worker herself. Uses this intimate portrait of family drama as a microcosm of greater societal issues, capturing a poignant image of the lengths poor Chinese families go to provide for their children, providing cheap labor to huge manufacturing plants exporting to Western countries.

Many moments in the film almost seem too intimate, as we play witness fights and arguments within the family that seem so private that we should look away. Yet director Lixin Fan refuses to let us look away in this haunting film that is just as powerful as any fictional drama. Just as Jia Zhang Ke's narrative films are capturing an unblinking and deeply moving portrait of modern China, so to are the documentaries of Lixin Fan and Yung Chang, who are piecing together a chronicle of the ever-changing face of China, as it lurches from ancient tradition to modernity.

SOUL KITCHEN (★★★)

Fatih Akin, director of Head-On and The Edge of Heaven isn't exactly known for comedy. But his latest film, Soul Kitchen, goes down easy. It's a
warmhearted, charming comedy about a young restaurateur whose restaurant, "Soul Kitchen," becomes a local hot spot filled with strange characters. But when his convict brother accidentally gambles it all away, he is forced to find a way to regain his livelihood and get his life back together.

It's a charming film, a kind of pure entertainment that seems to suit Akin very well. He directs with supreme confidence, and while it is indeed a stylistic departure for him, it would be impossible to tell without knowing his previous work.
It's head and shoulders above this summer's multiplex comedies. Soul Kitchen is a breezy, entertaining confection filled with heart and, yes, soul.

On "The American"

From The Dispatch:
"The American" is Corbijn's distillation of the archetype of the lone gunslinger through a very specific stylistic lens. Here, Clooney represents not just a person but an entire persona, examining the moral and personal toll of an image Hollywood has long glorified. There is a meditative quality to the film that some may find frustrating, but for those willing to surrender to it there is a lot to be discovered here. The long silences and lingering takes (not to mention the gorgeous cinematography by Martin Ruhe) provide a window into Jack's troubled soul. Clooney has never been better than he is here, his hangdog eyes betraying the weariness beneath his stone cold veneer.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

On "Piranha 3D"

From The Dispatch:
What sets "Piranha 3D" apart from other films of its ilk is that it knows exactly what it is and never tries to be anything more. There is a knowing wink behind its endless shots of graphic carnage and gratuitous shots of topless women (not to mention a few amusing cameos), and Aja knows just which buttons to push to give his audience a gory good time.
Click here to read my full review.