Thursday, March 31, 2011

There is a hypnotic, Terrence Malick-like quality to Alistair Banks Griffin's debut feature, Two Gates of Sleep, a haunting, Southern Gothic riff on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Rarely are debut features so assured as this, to feel l
ike the work of a strong, established director with such clear and masterful direction. Hardly a word is spoken for the film's entire running time. Griffin creates drama and atmosphere almost exclusively through sound and imagery, displaying a mastery of visual narrative that hasn't been seen often since the silent era.

For some, comparing something to a silent film might be a bac
khanded compliment. But I'm one of those who think cinematic art peaked during the silent era, and when your film is emulating the likes of Dreyer and Kirsanoff and not looking like a half-assed parody, then you must be doing something right. And in Two Gates of Sleep, Griffin gets in very, very right.

There is little here in the way of plot. It's a simple conceit. Two brothers in the rural South are tasked with the difficult task of burying their own mother. The two strike out into the forest, embarking on a journey that will lead them deep into the heart of dar
kness, and more importantly, the darkness within. It is a task that will test them, that will challenge them, and that will ultimately change them forever. Because their journey into the forest isn't just about burying their mother, it's about burying the past, about coming to terms with their own relationship with each other, and grappling with their own mortality. The forest for them becomes a reckoning, for unbeknownst to either one of them, they are taking a spiritual journey into their own souls.

Griffin deftly creates an eerie and enthralling atmosphere through
his use of nearly heartbreaking imagery. But he isn't just displaying pretty pictures for beauty's sake. He's developing an abstract and elliptical narrative that says far more in what it doesn't say than what it does. There is hardly any dialogue to speak of, and what little dialogue there is is either mumbled or whispered. These are men of few words, and their journey is within. But Griffin skillfully offers a window into each man without a word of unnecessary dialogue.

It's a pretty staggering feat, considering that the art of the silent film is nearly lost. And while it isn't really a silent film, there is some music and sounds of nature are ever present, Griffin is obviously adept at telling a story without words as a narrative guide. It's a quality shared by Dimitri Kirsanoff, whose 1926 silent masterpiece Menilmontant bravely refused to even use intertitles, instead choosing to tell its story in a completely visual manner. While Two Gates of Sleep doesn't quite reach those heights, it's occasionally a bit heavy-handed in its execution, it's hard to deny the impressive suggestive skill that Griffin displays.

To even be able to mention names like Malick, Dreyer, and Kirsanoff in a review of a debut feature is impressive in and of itself. And while I'm not quite ready to canonize him just yet, Griffin is off to a very strong start. This is compelling stuff, a lyrical and evocative tale of familial bonds and brotherly rivalry that leaves a lasting and resonant impression. If this is what Griffin has up his sleeve the first time out of the gate, I can't wait to see what he delivers next.

★★★½ (out of four)

TWO GATES OF SLEEP | Directed by Alistair Banks Griffin | Stars Brady Corbett, David Call, Karen Young | Not rated | Opens Friday, April 1, in NYC.
There is no more intoxicating director working in the world today than Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known affectionately as Joe to his friends). His previous work has been on the radar of cinephiles for years (I still consider his 2005 masterpiece Tropical Malady to be one of the finest films of the last decade), but it wasn't until he took home the Palme D'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for his latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives that the rest of the world sat up and took notice.

There is a singular quality to Weerasethakul's work that cannot be mistaken. He is a man with a vision, a true auteur, each film bearing his indelible stamp, a kind of hushed beauty that seems transfixed in time, at once everywhere and nowhere, seemingly woven into the tapestry of life itself. The could exist at any time in any place, and Uncle Boonmee is no exception, which perhaps more so than any of his previous work, exists squarely in a metaphysical world of spirits, reincarnation, and fantastical creatures that coexist with humanity in a strange kind of harmony.

It is in this haunting mystical realm that we are introduced to Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), who is dying of kidney failure. He requires dialysis several times a day, and knows in his bones that he only has 48 hours to live, realizing that his ailments are a result of bad karma. He has killed too many Communists in his life, he says, and nature has finally caught up with him. But the ghosts of the past still haunt him, and he is visited by the ghost of his dead wife, and his long lost son, who disappeared years ago and has returned as a bizarre half-man, half-animal. They have come to see him through his final hours as he reminisces about his past lives. But then on his last night he asks to be taken to a cave deep in the forest, a cave that feels eerily familiar, like something out of a dream; a cave he was once born in, many lives ago.

Uncle Boonmee is not a film concerned with narrative. Weerasethakul is a director of feelings and textures. You do not experience his films on a surface level, because to do so would be a bewildering folly. He wants you feel something, to sense something in your bones, something elusive, something familiar. His films play like a dream upon waking, a kind of hazy hallucination pregnant with great, almost unknowable meaning. He reaches out and shakes you to your very core, and you walk away knowing you have witnessed something awesome and profound, even if you're not exactly sure what it is you saw.

Weerasethakul incorporates a kind of magical realism in his filmmaking. Metaphysical manifestations of past lives appear like fragments of a dream, making us accept the impossible and perhaps even the ridiculous (monkey ghosts, amorous catfish) as something of great and powerful beauty. Uncle Boonmee's history is at once ancient, contemporary, and timeless. Like his best work, it exists outside of time and place and inside a world of dreamscapes both alien and familiar. Boonmee's head is full of stories of lives past, shards of memories collected into a foggy picture of time long gone, perhaps they are real, perhaps they are not. But upon his death, it all disappears, and his family is left almost detached from their own lives. Or is it the audience who is asked to step back and evaluate, transporting us away into a spiritual world all our own?

Uncle Boonmee asks far more questions than it answers. It's almost as if Weerasethakul designed it as a Rorschach blot to be interpreted differently by each viewer. That is the magic of his films, and especially this one, which doggedly defies any kind of pseudo-intellectual explanation. It exists as a mystery, and a beautiful one at that. It's a sublime and wholly entrancing head-trip that is impossible to shake whose depths will still be probed by film fans for years to come.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES | Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Stars Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram | Not rated | In Thai with English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.
There have been a lot of films in the past dealing with female sexual liberation, to the point where it has almost become a cliche - a woman, stuck in a dead-end marriage, meets a handsome stranger who loosens her up and teaches her how to love, showing her what she's been missing all these years and igniting her flame once again.

Caroline Bottaro's Queen to Play is not that film.

Instead, it's a new twist on an old formula. The woman in question here is Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a hotel maid who makes extra money cleaning private homes on the side. Her marriage isn't so much "dead-end" as it is stagnant, much like the rest of her life, trapped in a monotonous job that dampens her spirit.

Then one day while cleaning a room at the hotel, she sees a couple playing a game of chess together, and she is instantly fascinated. She has never played the game before, but something about it draws her in, and she finds herself returning to it in her mind as she cleans.

Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire in QUEEN TO PLAY, a film by Caroline Bottaro.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo by Patrick Glaize.

She finds herself daydreaming about chess at the home of one of her regular clients, Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a gruff expatriate American who values order as much as his alone time. One day, he catches her admiring his chess set rather than cleaning, which causes her to make a strange request - to be paid not in cash, but in chess lessons. Kröger grudgingly agrees, and the two set a weekly chess date, and quickly realize that Hélène has a natural talent, opening her mind to expansion and new possibilities. But her weekly visits to Kröger's cause whispers in their small town, rumors of an illicit affair, putting a strain on her marriage and her social life. Hélène soon finds herself a pariah in her own community, with a marriage and family life in serious jeopardy, and must make a painful decision - to save face in the midst of malicious gossip, or to pursue her life's one true passion.

Queen to Play is a romance without a romance, a kind of romance of the mind. It's not about sexual liberation, it's about mental liberation. Through chess, Hélène is set free from her banal existence. She and Kröger form a bond that transcends the usual shallow Hollywood ideas of love, it's something much more and unique. Hélène isn't interested in leaving her husband, all she wants is some spice in her life, to expand her mind in ways she never thought possible, and she finds that avenue in chess.

Sandrine Bonnaire in QUEEN TO PLAY, a film by Caroline Bottaro.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo by Patrick Glaize.

There's something refreshingly charming about Bottaro's avoidance of the torrid. In her capable hands, Queen to Play is a sophisticated and warm hearted new kind of romance. It's about mental bonds rather than physical bonds, an unexpected quality in today's world. It's clear Bottaro favors intelligence over physicality, and that intellectual quality carries over into the film. This is smart, beautifully constructed filmmaking where chess is almost a sport, a thrilling mind game that Bottaro imbues with a surprising amount of suspense, as Hélène enters a chess tournament that becomes a climactic showdown.

Kline (in his first all French speaking role) and Bonnaire are in fine form here. Their chemistry drives the film, but what they manage to say without talking speaks the loudest. Queen to Play is a lovely and beguiling platonic romance, a smart and thoroughly engaging drama that makes chess look thrilling, and intellectual pursuits look sexy. That's no easy feat, but Bottaro handles it with great wit and charm. This one's a winner.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

QUEEN TO PLAY | Directed by Caroline Bottaro | Stars Kevin Kline, Sandrine Bonnaire, Francis Renaud, Valérie Lagrange, Alexandra Gentil | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, April 1, in NYC and LA.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

To many, especially in the United States, the history of the Soviet Union remains a very confusing (and confused) topic, muddled by decades of Cold War era propaganda, misinformation, and paranoia.

We all know about Stalin, the KGB, the gulags, the nuclear arms race, but what we missed amid all the anti-Communist sentiment was the story of the Soviet people themselves. Russia may still be considered America's greatest enemy of the 20th century, but what of its people? The ordinary citizens who were just as afraid of the United States as we were of the USSR? As our two governments stared each other down on the brink of nuclear war, Russia's people went about their every day lives, much like their American peers. In a different world, yes, but not so different from us as we would have liked to think. And as the Soviet Union came to its end in the late 1980s, an entire generation of Russian citizens was coming of age, and about to have their lives changed forever as the iron curtain disappeared before their very eyes.

Young Soviet Pioneers on Red Square during a May Day demonstration, Moscow, 1977 – from the documentary film MY PERESTROIKA by Robin Hessman.
Courtesy of Red Square Productions

Those young people who grew up under Communist rule, only to have the rug yanked out from under them just as they became adults, are the subject of Robin Hessman's remarkable documentary, My Perestroika. It's an intimate and revealing look at the lives of five schoolmates from Moscow who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, all now parents themselves and reflecting upon the events that shaped (or didn't shape) who they are today.

There's Borya and Lyuba, two married history teachers who once saw the USSR in very different lights. Borya, a nonconformist who enjoyed sticking it to "The Man," and Lyuba, a former Soviet Pioneer and Russian patriot whose heart would swell with pride at the strains of the national anthem, have made a life together in a world neither really recognizes. There is Ruslan, a former punk musician whose music is still raging against the same injustices. There is Andrei, whom Capitalism has given the chance to open up his own chain of apparel stores for men. And then there is Olga, a single mother, whose life took a surprising twist after the Soviet Union's collapse.

Borya and son Mark watching home movies of Borya’s childhood during the 1970s in the USSR — from the documentary film MY PERESTROIKA by Robin Hessman.
Courtesy of Red Square Productions

Each has gone on to have families and build lives in the new Russia, as Hessman juxtaposes their own childhood with that of their children, drawing haunting parallels between modern Russia and the Russia their parents knew. It's a personal history of the Soviet Union, a look at historical events not through the great governmental machinations or political events, but through the people who actually lived it - it's man on the street history. My Perestroika looks at what the Russian restructuring meant not in the grand scheme of world history, but for the individual people who were actually there.

Despite great initial changes - food shortages and the like, everyday life went on as normal for the most part, post-Iron Curtain. Hessman paints a compelling portrait of epic history as personal drama. As its tagline states, "a nation's history is personal," the film captures that sense that real history isn't found in history books, it's found in home movies and personal stories of tragedies and triumphs by real people, not larger than life figures who are little more than distant legends. Everything comes full circle, and as the children of the last Soviet generation grow up in a new and different world, and we are left wondering just how much has changed. It's an engaging look at a world still foreign to most Westerners, that may not quite be as foreign as we expected.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MY PERESTROIKA | Directed by Robin Hessman | Not Rated | In Russian with English subtitles | Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC, opens April 15 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in LA.
From The Dispatch:
In “Sucker Punch,” Snyder attempts to “sucker punch” the audience with a blatant misdirection that is likely to have the Internet buzzing for quite a while, picking apart its layers and debating whose story the film really is. But really, it’s a twist that doesn’t feel earned, a misdirection that doesn’t really work and, ultimately, a film whose layers don’t connect like they should.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

There is something intensely primordial about Semih Kaplanoğlu's Turkish drama, Bal (Honey), the third in the director's "Yusuf Trilogy," following Yumurta (Egg), and Sut (Milk). Each film has followed the events in the life of a man named Yusuf, once as a man in his middle years (Yumurta), once as a recent college graduate (Sut), and in his most recent incarnation in Bal, a young boy just starting school. By telling Yusuf's story in reverse, Kaplanoğlu aims to deconstruct the character, to peel back the layers to the core of who he is. The director has remained mum on if the character of Yusuf is even meant to be the same person in each film, preferring instead for Yusuf to be a more universal and open character through which the audience is allowed to live.

In Bal, Yusuf is only a child just starting school who is having to deal with an embarrassing stutter. Each day the students are asked to read aloud in class, their success rewarded with a small red badge of honor.

Yusuf greatly covets one of these visual symbols of achievement, but his nervous stutter is holding him back, causing laughter and derision amongst his classmates. However, when he is at home with his father, his stutter goes away, and he finds himself able to read everything from his calendar to the Qu'ran with ease. In fact, everything seems better with his father. Yusuf and his father share a very close bond, often traveling into the forests together to tend to the family beehives. In Yusuf's world, the forests are mystical places, filled with magic and infinite possibilities, lending the film an ancient sort of wisdom that seems to permeate every frame.

When he and his father are in the forest together, everything is perfect. But that idyllic spirituality is endangered when the bees suddenly stop producing honey and disappear altogether, threatening his family's livelihood. So Yusuf's father sets out into the mountains alone in search of the bees and their life-giving honey, while Yusuf remains behind to struggle with the every day challenges of childhood. But as the days go by and his father has not returned, Yusuf begins to sense that his life is about to change, and he makes a decision that could change the course of his life forever.

There is something both hauntingly primeval and laboriously academic about the film that is at once compelling and frustrating. Kaplanoğlu once worked as a film critic, and it becomes obvious in his often pedantic attention to detail. It's all so precise and well planned that it's almost too planned out, an over-thought piece of intellectualism that is often too stuck in its own mind. But when Yusuf and his father are in the forest something else emerges - an evocative and lyrical journey into the unknown that becomes something of a spiritual experience. Kaplanoğlu skillfully pares down Yusuf's journey into the essence of the human soul, and it's nearly impossible not to be touched by the hushed and reverent connections to the natural world.

It makes for a fascinating mix of the studious and the artful, a strange amalgam of left and right brained filmmaking. Kaplanoğlu may overthink his analytical machinations, but he companies it with such primal wonder that it attains something much greater. If it could get out of its head, Bal would be a truly great film. Instead there is a seed of an idea planted deep within its mysterious forests, waiting for the patient and the brave to come and find it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BAL (HONEY) | Directed by Semih Kaplanoğlu | Stars Bora Altas, Erdal Besikçioglu, Tülin Özen | Not rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, March 25, in New York.
Can't wait to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives? Whet your appetite with his haunting prelude, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, completely free and legal courtesy of Animate Projects, which "explores and champions artists’ animation, supporting the production, exhibition and development of this artistic field."
From The Dispatch:
Aliens aside, the film is a pretty straightforward combat thriller, offering nonstop gunfire and explosions as the Marines take on the alien forces. The problem is that there is just so much gunfire that it becomes numbing. There is little suspense here as director Jonathan Liebesman clubs us over the head with nonstop action, complete with frenetic handheld camera work and jarringly fast editing. It strives to be a kind of “Black Hawk Down” with aliens, but instead it’s mostly a pile of worn out sci-fi/war movie cliches.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, March 11, 2011

While its official sounding title may not suggest it, Abbas Kiarostami's is one of the most romantic films to come along in years. It's a love story without an actual couple, an imagined relationship that takes on unexpected qualities of reality.

The luminous as always Juliette Binoche stars as a nameless art gallery owner, who meets James Miller (William Shimell) an author she enjoys, and offers to take him on a tour of the city while he is on tour with his book. The offer at first seems innocent enough, but as their conversation turns to his book, it becomes clear that she isn't one to just accept what she reads. In fact she has issues with his central thesis - that a copy of an artwork has just as much intrinsic value as the original artwork. That the copy is, in fact, a work of art in itself.

The two begin a very heated debate until they stop off at a small cafe for a bite to eat, where the waitress mistakes the two of them for husband and wife. She does not correct the waitress, in fact she begins to create a fantasy of how they met and what their life is like together, charming the waitress and inviting her into her little ruse.

Juliette Binoche as “She” in CERTIFIED COPY directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
Photo Credit: Laurent Thurin Nal.

An IFC Films release.

And so begins their romantic Tuscan adventure. After the story is told, She and James' relationship suddenly begins to mirror that of a married couple. And as their journey continues, so too does their relationship, as each acts at their role it becomes an improvisational exercise taken to a much deeper level. They are no longer acting the relationship, they are living it. Together the two of them live out an entire marriage in one day. They go from courtship, to marriage, to estrangement, to reconciliation and beyond, blurring the line between fantasy and reality in one of the most keenly insightful studies into relationship dynamics to come along in years.

I was reminded in some ways of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but unlike that film, which chronicled one night in the life of two young people meeting and falling in love, there is a lot more going on here than just two people falling for each other. Linklater's Before Sunset followed the same two people, ten years later and ten years wiser, reconnecting, and Certified Copy has more of that air. It's a bit of a mix between the two. Both people are inching past middle age and are a bit jaded in the ways of love. But in each other they find a kind of catharsis, as if they are making up for lost time, living out a fantasy (or is it reality?) that ends up swallowing them whole.

William Shimell as “James Miller” and Juliette Binoche as “She” in CERTIFIED COPY directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
Photo Credit: Laurent Thurin Nal
An IFC Films release

Kiarostami's screenplay is both whip-smart and deeply insightful. He manages to encapsule an entire relationship in a single day, and does so without feeling rushed. He takes his time, building each nuance and earning each emotional payoff, one leading logically to the other, and finally leaving the question of its reality up in the air. Have we just witnessed a couple falling in love by pretending to fall in love? Or have we watched them fall apart by pretending to be married. Their marital troubles are completely of their own make-up, but their arguing over them makes them, in essence, real. Is a copy of a marriage the same thing as one? Does imitation of love lead to the real thing? Kiarostami beautifully ties in his conceit with Miller's own thesis, creating something that is instantly beguiling and perfectly modulated.

Certified Copy is a love story for adults. It's a lovely, haunting thing that asks lingering questions that send a shiver of pleasure up the spine. It's the kind of film that causes skin to turn to goosebumps out of the sheer pleasure of great cinema. To watch it is to rest confidently in the hands of a master, transporting us on a romantic and devastating journey that treats love and marriage with maturity and honesty. Like Mrs. Dalloway before her, Juliette Binoche's She experiences a lifetime in a single day, and takes the audience along for a deeply compelling emotional ride, whose delicate musings linger in the mind like memories of a love long lost. For the loved, for the lost, for the wounded, Certified Copy is a cathartic and rapturous journey of the heart that won't soon be forgotten.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CERTIFIED COPY | Directed by Abbas Kiarostami | Stars Juliette Binoche, William Shimell | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens today, March 11, in select cities.
When I first reviewed Jacques Rivette's Around a Small Mountain, my reaction was rather mixed. It just didn't hit me the way I thought it should. I gave it 2.5 stars and moved on.

Months later, as it came time to put together my top list list for 2010, I felt that maybe there was something about it I missed. So I revisited it, and saw a completely different film from the one I saw the first time. Suddenly it opened up to me, and I lost myself in Rivette's delicate and tentative romance.

I began my review by saying:
Around a Small Mountain, like so many love stories, is a film about chance encounters. But it also isn't a typical love story. This is a film about a different kind of love, the kind of tentative romance that isn't necessarily destined to end in happily ever after, but the kind that comes along at just the right moment in time. It may not be permanent, but it helps at just the time it's needed.
Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto in Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain.”
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

At least that part I had right. But reading back over what I wrote afterward, I can hardly believe I'm talking about the same film. "There is a kind of effortless charm to Rivette's scenarios," I said. "But the film is awkwardly staged. It often has the feeling of a filmed play, the characters stiffly blocked as if arranged for an unseen live audience." But that is exactly the point. Around a Small Mountain is as much about the relationship between the spectator and the performer as it relates to film as it is how it relates to the circus. The "big top" here is actually very small, the audience right up on top of the performers, so close they could almost touch them. As a result, the acts take on a greater intimacy, inviting not just circus goers, but film viewers to lean forward, to be part of the action. As Film Quarterly's Rob White points out in an essay on the film included in the DVD booklet, the circus acts are always filmed from within the ring, never from outside it. In Rivette's circus, voyeurism is participation.

Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto in Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain.”
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

At the film's end, when the characters emerge from the tent and speak directly to the camera, they are speaking directly to us, the audience. By this time, Rivette has drawn us into his world, and rather than distancing the audience by breaking the fourth wall, he has invited us in. Around a Small Mountain is a much funnier, much more soulful film than I originally gave it credit for. Rivette is an old master whose consummate craft is alive and well in his latest film.

The Cinema Guild has once again done a lovely job on the DVD. And while it may seem a bit bare bones (White's essay seems to focus more on other circus films than it does the one at hand), the film here speaks for itself. It's one of the finest films of 2010.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN | Directed by Jacques Rivette | Stars Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellitto, André Marcon, Jacques Bonnaffé, Julie‐MarieParmentier | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles |Now available on DVD from the Cinema Guild.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

If the goal of the filmmakers behind Elektra Luxx was to make the least funny movie they possibly could, then they succeeded admirably. Unfortunately, I don't think that was their intention, despite the fact that Elektra Luxx is quite possibly the most painfully unfunny piece of cinematic swill that I have seen in a long time.

The result is surprising given the mostly capable cast, that includes Carla Gugino, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kathleen Quinlan, and Malin Ackerman. But something, somewhere, went horribly awry, and not even actors I generally like could save it.

Gugino stars in the title role as Elektra Luxx, a former porn mega star who is retiring from the business because she is (surprise!) pregnant. Now instead of porn, she is teaching a self help classed called "How to Have Sex Like a Porn Star" to repressed housewives and girlfriends.

Everything changes, however, when a young woman approaches Elektra with a proposition. Guilt-ridden over cheating on her boyfriend, she hires Elektra to seduce her boyfriend so she can catch them in the act, confess her transgressions, and clear her conscience. Elektra reluctantly agrees, only to set off a chain of events that will change her life forever.

In addition to Elektra's story, the film examines how Elektra's retirement affects everyone else, from sex bloggers (an amusing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, doubtless the film's bright spot) to fellow porn stars. It aims a satirical eye at the porn industry, but the satire is so limp and bloodless that it never really takes off. The same could be said for the film as a whole, which is a scattershot mess of a comedy with no real aim or cohesion. It darts off random tangents with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and in one of the most bizarre celebrity cameos of the year, features Julianne Moore as the Virgin Mary (don't ask).

I kept waiting for it all to come together, for something funny to happen, for it all to just make sense. But it never does. It even tries to take a serious turn in the final act, taking Elektra's transition from porn star to mother and trying to make it moving and emotional, but the tonal shift is so abrupt and the emotionalism so unearned that the effect is completely jarring. In fact that's one of Elektra Luxx's greatest problems - like the character at its core, it simply doesn't know what it wants to be. As a film, it is too schizophrenic, too frenetic, too desperate for laughs that it comes off shallow and limp. Poor writing and lackluster performances betray an overall sense of apathy and disorganization, leading to a film that is completely dead on arrival.

People often say that drama is easy, comedy is hard. Elektra Luxx fails miserably at both. It just doesn't work on any conceivable level. Granted, I never saw Women in Trouble, the 2009 film it follows, but I can't imagine how knowledge of that film could possibly improve this one. It's an awful, incomprehensible mess that neither titillates or amuses. And for a comedy about porn, that's a fatal combination.

GRADE - ½ star (out of four)

ELEKTRA LUXX | Directed by Sebastian Gutierrez | Stars Carla Gugino, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Timothy Olyphant, Kathleen Quinlan, Malin Akerman, Marley Shelton, Adrianne Palicki, Emmanuelle Chiriqui, Vincent Kartheiser, Justin Kirk | Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity and language | Opens tomorrow, March 11, in select cities.
Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev's The Desert of Forbidden Art is the kind of documentary one might flip past on PBS or the History Channel that may seem a bit mundane at first, but before you hooks you before you change the channel and before long you can't look away.

Told through recollections by friends and family, as well as letters by the artists themselves, read by Ben Kingsley, Ed Asner, and Sally Field, The Desert of Forbidden Art is the story of Igor Savitsky, a failed artist turned museum curator who made it his life's work to horde and exhibit forbidden art in the Soviet Union that did not conform to the government sanctioned "Socialist Realism."

Stalin's regime consistently stamped out any free expression amongst artists, laying out very strict guidelines and policing every work that was publicly exhibited. As a result, many great Soviet artists went undiscovered for years as their artworks were deemed undesirable by the Russian government.

"Uzbekistan in the 1930s" photograph by Max Penson

In order to protect the art he collected, Savitsky founded a museum in a small town in Uzbekistan (then part of the USSR), unwittingly creating a hidden artistic Mecca in a backwater, forgotten corner of the world, exhibiting banned artwork right under Stalin's nose. Savitsky rescued over 40,000 works of art in his life, establishing a veritable treasure trove of art from what is essentially a lost generation of artists from that region of the world, whose work was suppressed for the better part of a century.

What Savitsky did is of immeasurable importance to the artistic community. Because of him, we now have a window into worlds and minds from voices that would have never otherwise been heard. He rescued a generation of artists from the oblivion of censorship, turning that provincial town in Western Uzbekistan into a goldmine that is now a destination for art collectors the world over.

Filmmakers Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev as well as cinematographer Gennadi Balitski at the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, photograph by Ernest Kurtveliev.

The filmmakers add a personal touch by using snippets from Savitsky's own writings, as well as letters and journals from artists whose work he preserved, to tell a more intimate story than a mere dry history lesson. The Desert of Forbidden Art is, above all, a testament to the triumph of freedom over repression, of expression over censorship, but Pope and Georgiev clearly understand what other filmmakers often overlook - these were real people. And rather than focus on some grand political statement, they choose instead to focus on the human side, the people who made this possible, and those who were rescued from obscurity by a man whose dedication has given voice to thousands.

Running a mere 80 minutes, the film may seem a bit scant, and indeed it does end rather abruptly, it feels just about right for what it is. It would be impossible to cover all 40,000 works preserved by Savitsky. Just the number alone is staggering. Instead, at about the length of your typical PBS or History Channel special, it remains engaging enough to provide a fascinating hour and a half crash course in Soviet history through a slightly different lens. And while using such TV comparisons may seem like an insult, it really isn't. Films like this exist for a reason. They may not always be the most thrilling or emotionally involving, but they preserve a moment in time. In the case of The Desert of Forbidden Art, it preserves not only Savitsky's achievement, but the work of thousands of artists who risked their lives just by painting. To that end, Savitsky's work can not have been in vain.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

THE DESERT OF FORBIDDEN ART | Directed by Amanda Pope, Tchavdar Georgiev | Voices of Ben Kingsley, Ed Asner, Sally Field, Igor Paramonov | Not rated | In English and Russian w/English subtitles | Opens tomorrow, Friday, March 11, at the Cinema Village in NYC, and March 18 at the Laemmle Music Hall in LA.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

From The Dispatch:
The questions it raises are universal ones, but thankfully the filmmakers never preach or proselytize. It’s not an overly deep or philosophical film, but it tackles the questions in ways that lend themselves well to an entertaining and well-oiled thriller, buoyed by the magnetism of its likeable stars and accomplished supporting cast (Terence Stamp as a ruthless Bureau agent is especially fun) and stellar storytelling.
Click here to read my full review.

From The Dispatch:
This is one of those films that is entertaining in the moment, but evaporate immediately upon leaving the theater. Director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the audience guessing and the suspense going, but the ultimate effect doesn’t leave much of an impression on the viewer. It’s a star vehicle to be sure, and Neeson does a fine job of holding it together, but it never asserts its own unique voice or personality.
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The central conceit of Sebastián Cordero's Rage (Rabia) may seem a bit far-fetched, but that is often one of the great things about movies. They make the implausible seem plausible, and often the unbelievable seem absolutely believable.
Such is the case with the best supernatural thrillers, and even though there is nothing supernatural about Rage, Cordero (along with producer Guillermo Del Toro), treats it as if it were a ghost story. And what a ghost story it is.

There are no actual ghosts in this haunted house thriller, but it's one of the most effective films of its kind to come along in years.

Rage is the story of two Colombian immigrants living in Spain - one, Rosa, is a maid in a cavernous, old fashioned mansion. The other, Jose Maria, is a construction worker with a vicious jealous streak. The two meet and fall quickly in love, but in a fit of jealous rage, Jose Maria accidentally kills a man, and must hide from the law to avoid being deported back to Colombia.

Rosa is heartbroken, and also pregnant with Jose Maria's child. What she doesn't know, however, is that Jose Maria has taken up hiding inside the very mansion she works in, haunting its halls and crawlspaces like a shadowy, restless spirit. As Rosa must deal with losing Jose Maria, her new baby, and the ever encroaching investigations by the police, not to mention her responsibility to her employers, Jose Maria grows ever bolder - a living ghost in an eerie mansion watching over his lost love - but as his rage grows, the spirit soon turns violent, and soon no one is safe.

It's a fresh, entertaining twist on an old genre. Cordero ramps up the spooky atmosphere, keeping the film on an even keel and consistently engaging. It's a moody Gothic thriller with a decidedly new fashioned sensibility, taking an outlandish premise and making it eerily believable.

The ending, on the other hand, is a bit of a letdown. Cordero expertly ratchets up tension and suspense until coming to a satisfying and natural conclusion about 10 minutes before it actually ends in what feels like a weak cop-out of an ending. While there is a beautifully orchestrated love story flowing throughout the film, the ending ties it in a cloying bow that feels tonally separated from what came before it. This is a ghost story, first and foremost, which makes it essentially a horror film, and as such the ending feels emotionally dishonest.

The lead-up, however, is a perfectly modulated thriller that relies on atmosphere and mood to set the audience on edge. Even though Guillermo Del Toro produced the film, it lacks his distinctive visual style, while still maintaining the feeling of one of his works. There is a haunting elegance at work here, a kind of sinister regality that keeps the film both interesting and engaging, even though it goes off the tracks a bit in the final act. There is a lot to respect here, though. Rage is a ghost story for the 21st century, a fine genre film with a truly original and surprising concept.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

RAGE (RABIA) | Directed by Sebastián Cordero | Stars Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Martina Garcia , Concha Velasco , Xavier Elorriaga , Iciar Bollain | Not rated | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Coming to DVD from Strand Releasing March 8.

Enter to win a copy of RAGE! Send an email with your name and address to for your chance to win. Winners announced March 8!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

To celebrate the release DVD release of the Spanish thriller Rage (Rabia) on March 8, Strand Releasing is providing 5 copies to give away to 5 lucky From the Front Row readers.

The film, which was produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) and directed by Sebastián Cordero, Rage is the story of two Colombian immigrants living in Spain whose lives are instantly changed by a brutal crime of passion. It's an eerie, gothic thriller with a unique twist on the classic haunted house tale. Look for my review later this week.

To enter, send your name and address to Winners will be announced on the DVD's release date, next Tuesday, March 8. Contest open to residents of the United States only.