Monday, May 30, 2011

Longtime readers know of my affinity for Romanian cinema. I have long been a champion of the Romanian New Wave, but even I will admit that the movement has been coasting somewhat since 2008. There have been some good films to come out of the country since then - California Dreamin', If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, and Police, Adjective just to name a few. But none have quite had the power of those first few films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days that initially heralded Romania as a new leader in world cinema.

However, one shouldn't be so quick as to declare the movement dead just yet. Because just as the movement seemed to be fading from the forefront of critical consciousness, along comes Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, seemingly asserting that Romanian cinema is here to stay.

While it may be hard to define the Romanian New Wave as a movement (if you could call it that at all), as there is no collaboration between filmmakers or a certain unified cinematic goal like there was with the French New Wave or the Dogme 95 movement, it's hard to deny that the recent spat of films to come from the country have all shared a very similar, grim aesthetic.

Like so many of its predecessors, Tuesday, After Christmas is composed long, static shots with few edits and no music, a hallmark of the movement that has remained mostly consistent. Its opening shot lasts nearly ten minutes without so much as a tilt or a pan, almost as if it is a window through which the audience is invited to look. The camera doesn't judge the characters or push the audience, it simply presents the story as an impartial, if unblinking, observer.

For its central character, Paul (Mimi Brănescu), escape from his transgressions is impossible. A middle aged banker, Paul has fallen in love with his young daughter's dentist, Raluca (Maria Popistaș), and has embarked upon a steamy love affair, totally unbeknownst to his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprișor). They have only been together for six months, but Paul can no longer deny the obvious - he no longer loves his wife, and must leave her for Raluca if he is to ever be happy. But doing so would destroy his family and hurt his daughter, leaving him with a painful decision that will change them all forever.

Unlike many infedelity dramas, Tuesday, After Christmas keeps it simple and to the point. When the adulterous revelation finally comes, there is a decided lack of histrionics and melodrama. Instead, Muntean chooses to focus on the intimate details - how the affair affects its most innocent victims, namely, Paul's wife and daughter. We never actually see Paul reveal the dissolution of his marriage to his daughter, but we know its coming. That's part of this film's brilliance - its emotions, its nuances, are all felt rather than spelled out. Rather than teary monologues we get glances, gestures, parents on Christmas trying to maintain normalcy in the face of great heartbreak. It is the little things that make up this austere narrative, creating an emotional tension almost akin to a thriller.

While it may not have the same kind of gravity as Mr. Lazarescu or 4 Months, Tuesday, After Christmas is nonetheless a film that is hard to ignore. Like the best of the Romanian New Wave, it says so much while saying so little, turning a very simple and straightfoward story into something of great emotional power. It's a slow burner, but the final payoff is extraordinary, leaving the characters before grappling with their inner turmoils before embarking on a very tough road. The film ends at such a point as if to say "Enough. This is too private, it's time to leave." And it leaves a lasting impression. Adultery has rarely felt this painful, or this honest. Tuesday, After Christmas is a raw and candid examination of the end of a family, leaving questions hanging in the air that linger in the mind like cobwebs in the corner of a dusty room. Romanian cinema is far from dead, and Muntean's film is here to show us that it never went anywhere in the first place.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS | Directed by Radu Muntean | Stars Mimi Brănescu, Mirela Oprișor, Maria Popistaș | Not rated | In Romanian w/English subtitles | Now playing at the Film Forum in NYC.
Joan of Arc was martyred on this day in 1431. To commemorate her death, here is a clip of Carl Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, the film I consider to be the greatest of all time, featuring Maria Falconetti's immortal performance and Richard Einhorn's transcendent choral work, "Voices of Light."

The titles for Peter Jackson's two Hobbit films were announced today via the film's official Facebook page.

The first film will be titled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and will be released on December 14, 2012. The second film will be called The Hobbit: There and Back Again and will be released on December 13, 2013.

I'm still not sure if splitting J.R.R. Tolkein's prelude to The Lord of the Rings is the best idea, but if it works out like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows then I'll be satisfied. I like the title for the second film. The first is a little weak. Neither has quite the oomph of the Lord of the Rings titles, but then The Hobbit never had a subtitle as it was only one book.

It will have been 11 years since the release of The Two Towers when An Unexpected Journey opens. Hopefully it will be worth the wait.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

It is generally frowned upon by film critics to describe a movie by declaring it to be a mix of two different movies. "Movie A is like Movie B meets Movie C," and things of that nature.

But sometimes the comparisons are so striking that they are hard to ignore. And while Giuseppe Capotondi's riveting debut feature doesn't necessarily demand comparisons to other specific films, it does beg comparisons between the work of two well-known directors, each great in their own way - Alfred Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan.

It's as if Capotondi channeled Hitchcock's style of suspense and revelation and combined it with Nolan's flair for labyrinthine psychological drama.

To his credit, it's almost unintentional. He's not mimicking their styles so much as he calling to mind their talents. No easy feat, especially for a first time director, but his inexperience makes it all the more impressive.

The plot seems straightforward enough at first. A lonely woman named Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport), recently marred by a shocking tragedy, attends a speed dating session, where she meets Guido (Filippo Timi), a handsome, widowed ex-cop who has been attending these sessions regularly for years in hopes of finding the right woman. The two hit it off almost immediately, and embark on a whirlwind romance that seems almost too good to be true for both of them.

Their happiness takes a sudden, tragic turn, however, when Guido takes Sonia to the mansion where he works as a high tech security guard, and become the victims of a robbery. When Guido tries to be a hero, he is shot and killed, the bullet grazing Sonia's head. Miraculously, she survives, but finds it difficult to cope in a world without Guido. Soon, however, she finds herself haunted by Guido wherever she goes, hearing his voice whisper her name, seeing his form standing in the shadows. She even receives mysterious phone calls that seem to be from him. Did the bullet do more damage to her brain than she realized? Or is Guido really still alive?

Capotondi sets up his conceit quickly, delivering what initially appears to be a clever little thriller about a grieving woman haunted by her past. But then he pulls the rug out from under us, and the game changes completely. In fact, this happens several times. The film switches gears several times, constantly reinventing itself and letting us know that this was not the film we thought we were watching at all. And Capotondi manages to keep the plot's integrity intact through each shift. Often, such rug-pulling tactics come off as cheesy or forced, insulting the audience's intelligence and destroying the film. Here, their fidelity remains solid, with its human elements remaining honest at each turn. The twists never feel cheap or tired, they feel bracingly fresh and surprisingly real.

The Double Hour is a taut and twisty thriller whose surprises genuinely surprise and whose shocks genuinely shock. Just when you think you have it figured out, it changes its game again, plunging its audience into a mind-bending rabbit hole where nothing is what it seems. Capotondi has no pretensions or lofty goals, he just delivers a solid, endlessly engaging thriller every bit as unconventional and entertaining as Nolan's Memento. It's only a matter of time before someone tries to lure him to Hollywood, my only hope is that he keeps his integrity. The Double Hour shows he's got the chops to do great things, here's hoping he continues to live up to it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE DOUBLE HOUR | Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi | Stars Kseniya Rappoport, Filippo Timi and Antonia Truppo | Not rated | In Italian w/English subtitles.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

In today's episode of "You're Not Helping," director Lars Von Trier, whose controversial remarks about sympathizing with Adolf Hitler at this year's Cannes Film Festival, has found an unlikely ally in...the Iranian government.

According to the USA Today, Iranian deputy culture minister, Javad Shamaqdari, wrote to the festival president saying that the festival had "smirched its history" with their decision to ban Von Trier.

I was against banning Von Trier from the start. I think it's a ridiculous overreaction to remarks that, however inappropriate, were clearly designed to provoke the kind of reaction that they ultimately did. This is, after all, Lars Von Trier. Provocation is what he does. And while I think it's pretty clear he didn't actually mean the things he said, having Iran step in to back you up doesn't exactly look good.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

From The Dispatch:
While the plot is pretty much straightforward, it is riddled with holes and shameless screenwriting shortcuts. And like its immediate predecessors, it still has too many subplots. The Spanish serve little purpose in the film, and an aimless romance between a missionary and a mermaid even less so. But at least this film’s unnecessary distractions are connected to the main thread of the plot, unlike the last two films, which weren’t exactly sure what their plots were.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For those unfamiliar with New York's fashion scene, the name Bill Cunningham may not mean anything. But after seeing Richard Press' remarkable new documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, even those with absolutely no interest in fashion will find it hard not to come away with a smile on their face.

Cunningham is the octogenarian fashion photographer for the New York Times, whose columns, "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" have providing a fascinating anthropological study of fashion trends for years. Armed with his bicycle, his trusty camera, and his trademark blue jacket, Cunningham has traveled the streets of Manhattan for years looking for fashion trends that even the titans of the industry have overlooked, keeping a sharp eye out not only for the looks that interest him, but what the common man is wearing. Cunningham isn't interested so much in models and what the industry says is in style, but real people are actually wearing. That's where the real trendsetters are.

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street, in BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.
A film by Richard Press. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Photo credit: First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

It's enough to have made the biggest names in fashion take notice. "We all get dressed for Bill" said famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whose magazine and personal taste has come to define the industry. And indeed it seems that everyone does get dressed for Bill. The film interviews various fashionistas who never go out of the house without being dressed in something worthy of Cunningham's photography, just in case. If he photographs you, you know you've put together something really interesting or original. If he doesn't, then you're just fading into the background.

It's interesting that a man as interested in fashion as Cunningham has such little interest in style himself. Instead he's content to document the looks of others, dutifully chronicling the trends and fads of New York fashion as worn by real people. He's not a designer, he's not a tastemaker - as he likes to put it, he's "just an observer." The real charm of the film, however, is Cunningham himself, whose boundless enthusiasm for his work is nothing short of infectious. It's nearly impossible not to get swept up in his sheer joy at what he does. Everyone and everything is greeted with a smile and a laugh, and the film simply effuses Cunningham's inexhaustible passion.

Bill Cunningham at his desk at The New York Times, in BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.
A film by Richard Press. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Photo credit: First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

Cunningham himself, however, remains a guarded and enigmatic figure. He may be a delightful and well known eccentric, but few if any know very much about his personal life. When Press' questions turn personal near the film's end, Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable, hesitant to discuss topics such as sexuality and religion, a subject that obviously means a lot to him. One could say that Press doesn't try very hard to dig beneath the surface, but I was reminded of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird - dragging Cunningham's personal life out into the open would be kind of like killing a mockingbird, whose song is only meant for the delight of others.

I rather prefer Cunningham as he is - a grinning beacon of light in an industry often guilty of taking itself way too seriously. His friendly demeanor and gracious nature make the film a charming and easy-going experience, a casual observer in a high-strung, self conscious world. Cunningham is a man completely free of pretension, a welcome and refreshing change of pace, a kind of throwback to a gentler, less harried era - and one of the most indelible characters to come from a documentary in a long time.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK | Directed by Richard Press | Featuring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Annette de la Renta, Iris Apfel | Not rated
Francois Ozon's Potiche (Trophy Wife) opens with a soaring romantic theme, whistled like a merry tune one might sing in the kitchen while cooking breakfast, accompanied by opening credits that are straight out of the 1970s. We are instantly transported back to another time, a different era of filmmaking that has all but disappeared. Potiche a throwback, and while there is a knowing wink to its retro feel, it is completely free of the irony that often accompanies such homages. Beneath its glossy veneer, there is a wholly honest and sincere film.

As the credits roll, we are introduced to Suzanne Pujol (a luminous Catherine Deneuve), wife of Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy umbrella magnate whose factory has provided them with a high standard of living on the backs of ordinary workers. Suzanne is running through the woods, dressed in a sensible red sweatsuit, and she takes the time to stop and observe the woodland creatures around her, even going so far as to write a poem about a squirrel she sees climbing a tree. She doesn't have a care in the world, and life is simple and easy.

Joelle (Judith Godrèche) and Suzanne Pujol (Catherine Deneuve).
Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Suzanne is a trophy wife. A beautiful "kept woman" whose only purpose in life is to appear beside her husband. She doesn't work, she doesn't cook, she doesn't clean, she mostly just exists for her husband and her family, a woman of luxury in a mostly loveless marriage of convenience. But when her husband's workers get sick of his tyrannical ways, they go on strike and take over the factory for themselves. When it becomes clear that a settlement will not be reached while her husband is still in the picture, an old flame and former union leader, Babin (Gérard Depardieu), now a Communist politician, suggests that Suzanne take over the company temporarily until things settle down.

But things don't just settle down, they improve. Suzanne proves herself to be a fair and capable leader, and is beloved by all the workers. The factory is running as never before, and when her husband wants his position back, Suzanne isn't sure she's ready to give it up. After all, the workers love her, and for the first time in her life she truly matters. Suzanne is now a strong, empowered, modern woman, and things are about to get very awkward at home as the two of them begin an all-out war for control of the Pujol umbrella company.

The Pujols, Nadège and Maurice Babin.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.

With its smart blend of farcical comedy and sharp social commentary, Potiche nimbly recreates not only the 1970s, but the look and feel of a movie from the era as well. It's like stepping into a time warp, but it never feels outdated. Ozon directs with a light and glamorous touch, creating a lush and sumptuous look, from the impeccable costumes to the gorgeous score by Philippe Rombe. Catherine Deneuve is radiant as always, and much like the character she plays, her considerable charm holds the film together with a sure and steady hand, with Fabrice Luchini and Gerard Depardieu providing perfect comic foils for her newly empowered woman on the go.

It would be easy to dismiss the film as an insignificant trifle, but that is precisely what makes it so delightful. While it undeniably has a social conscience, Ozon isn't trying to make the film anything more than what it is - a fun and frothy lark. Potiche is the kind of brightly colored, smartly directed comedies that don't come along often anymore. It's sophisticated without being stuffy and witty without being pretentious - an utterly enchanting homage to the great comedies of yesteryear.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

POTICHE | Directed by Francois Ozon | Stars Catherine Deneuve, Fabrice Luchini, Gerard Depardieu, Karin Viard, Judith Godrèche, Jérémie Renier | Rated R for some sexuality | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday, May 27, at the a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Four years after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and three years after its American theatrical release, Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia is finally coming to DVD from the Cinema Guild.

While the Cinema Guild has established itself as one of the strongest independent distributors in recent years, they have also started acquiring DVD rights to films they didn't distribute theatrically, such as Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien. In the City of Sylvia was given a very small theatrical release in the United States in 2008 to a smattering of effusive critical acclaim, but then seemingly disappeared, with no sign of it on home video.

But now Guerin's sublime meditation on memory and missed connections has been given the DVD treatment it deserves, and is available to a much wider audience than it ever was before.

There's something reminiscent of the work of Manoel de Oliveira at work here, except in place of de Oliveira's characteristic formalism, there is a kind of fluid formlessness - a plotless but engaging drive toward feeling and emotion rather than a conventional story or specific idea. In the City of Sylvia unfolds like something out of a hazy memory; faded, sun-dappled recollections revisited on a warm summer day.

It all revolves around a young artist who has returned to Strasbourg six years after meeting a young woman who changed his life forever. Determined to find her and reconnect with her, he spends his days languidly lounging around cafes and wandering around the city hoping for a glimpse of his long lost love. The film takes its time observing its surroundings, as the young artists hopes to spy the mysterious Sylvie, sketching the women he sees in hopes that one of them might be her. Who are these women? What are their stories? We only catch snippets of their conversations (dialogue is kept to a minimum), instead their stories are told through their faces, as the young artist studies each one, their mannerisms, their smiles, the emotions behind their eyes. Each one is a story unto themselves.

Then, as if by magic, his eyes light up. We know immediately that he has spotted Sylvie before we even see her. His face tells us all we need to know. He follows her, and unwittingly embarks on a journey that will take him through the streets and back alleys of Strasbourg, chasing a shadow in order to recapture a dream.

Like its protagonist, In the City of Sylvia ferrets off down back alleys and unturned corners, following paths that may or may not lead anywhere, not interested in the destination as much as the journey. Guerin is content to simply sit back and observe. And while the film's middle section is perhaps more driven by a specific story element than the rest of the film, it doesn't lead to where we thought it was going to go. Guerin nimbly avoids putting any kind of narrative form on his film - it's the world around the film where the real story lies; in the eyes of a stranger, an offhand gesture, always lurking just around the corner.

For our young artist, happiness is always just around the corner, but it always presents itself as something abstract, a concept rather than a story, an idea rather than a plot. It's there, but it is felt rather than seen. The effect is strangely hypnotic. We are given little plot, little history, and yet the plight of the protagonist remains endlessly compelling and lushly romantic. Our artist is chasing a dream, and his singular determination is both beautiful and endearing. Guerin draws the audience in with an intoxicating simplicity, linking together images, sounds, and music that add up to something uniquely magical.

As usual, Cinema Guild's presentation doesn't just add throwaway extras for the sake of padding. The extras enhance the film, and include Guerin's 2007 film Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, which strings together photos from the director's own trip to Strasbourg that provides a sketch of the film that would eventually become In the City of Sylvia. Like the drawings in the young artist's book, the extras open up a window into the artistic process. It's a fascinating insight into the evolution and inspiration for the film. It's a fitting package for one of the hidden gems of the last decade - a beautiful and poetic paean to youthful love and second chances that stands tall as one of the most significant DVD releases of the year.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA | Directed by Jose Luis Guerin | Stars Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte, Michael Balerdi, Laurence Cordier | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Available on DVD from the Cinema Guild on Tuesday, May 24.
One of the great joys of being a film critic is discovering hidden gems that go unnoticed by the majority of moviegoers. Some even escape the notice of most critics, and that is often where you find some of the most remarkable films. One of my favorite such discoveries of 2011 is Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes' extraordinary Brazilian oddity I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You.

It is a rare thing indeed to find a film that can be called wholly original, but I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like it before.

Filmed like a first person travelogue, I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You is the story of a never seen narrator (Irandhir Santos) on a business trip to survey land that will be flooded to build a new canal. He has just gone through a painful breakup with a woman he loved deeply, and is finding it difficult to get her off his mind. He buries himself in his work, scouting out the best location for the canal and meeting with villagers whose lives would be forever altered by its construction.

Soon the gravity of their situation begins to weigh on him. The haunted eyes of elderly villagers who have lived their entire lives in the same modest hut, only to see it washed away by a new canal in their twilight years, pierce his soul. He begins to identify with their loneliness, their desperation, and slowly but surely he begins to move on and recover from his own personal wounds, the plight of the villagers and the freedom of the open road setting him on the path to emotional healing.

Shot in grainy digital video, the film takes on the personality of personal slideshow, a document of our narrator's journey made by the narrator himself. We never see his face, he is always behind the camera, commenting on what he sees, and it gives him a strange sense of anonymous universality. He could be anyone, and the first person cinematography allows the audience to put itself into his position - to in essence become the narrator.

The raw, unpolished look of the film gives it an unusual and often breathtaking beauty. The grainy visuals and shaky style that could be a hindrance to some films, is here an extension of its lyrical personality. At only 75 minutes long it may seem short, but it's actually a perfect length to achieve its goals. It's a breathless whisper, a hushed and powerful cinematic poem culled from rough-hewn elements into a disarming piece of cinematic art.

Films like this don't come along very often, and that is part of its strength. It is a genuine, honest and even cathartic work, a unique and singular take on love and healing that is also a wrenching portrait of the often unseen human toll of technological progress. It is a favorite theme of Chinese director Jia Zhangke (Still Life, 24 City), but Aïnouz and Gomes dig deep an emerge with a completely original and evocative film that is unlike anything we've seen before. I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You may have an unusual title, but this deeply personal paean to the broken hearted is a thing of true and rare beauty that leaves a lasting impression.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

I TRAVEL BECAUSE I HAVE TO, I COME BACK BECAUSE I LOVE YOU | Directed by Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes | Stars Irandhir Santos | Not rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

When it comes to great movie stars, few hold a candle to the luminous Sophia Loren, whose fiery presence has been an asset to Italian filmmaking for decades. To celebrate this legendary actress, Kino Lorber is releasing three of the actress' greatest triumphs on Blu-ray and DVD, all directed by the renowned Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves).

Kino has a catalogue of classic foreign and independent film to rival that of Criterion, and while the Loren collection may not have Criterion-like extras, just having these films on Blu-ray is remarkable enough.

The earliest of the films is the 1964 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a light and frothy comedy that may come as a bit of a shock to those who only know De Sica for his gritty Neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.

A lavish Carlo Ponti production from De Sica's commedia all'italiana period, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is a comedy in three acts, casting Loren and frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni (8 1/2) in three different unconnected episodes as three completely different couples. In the first, Loren is a street vendor convicted of illegally selling cigarettes, and takes advantage of a law allowing for a 6 month maternity grace period by continually having kids to keep herself out of jail. In the second, she is a wealthy socialite having an affair with a working class stiff (Mastroianni) who begins to see her for the vain, shallow person that she is. And in the third, Loren is a prostitute whose beauty bewitches a young neighbor studying to become a priest, much to the chagrin of her most regular client as well as the young man's very traditional grandmother.

The third segment is the strongest and most compelling of the bunch. The middle one is much shorter and therefore less developed, but it makes its point in a strong and memorable manner. Loren and Mastroianni are a delight in all three, and De Sica demonstrates his considerable versatility by showing that he is just as adept at light comedy as he is at tragic social commentary. It's also easy to see why this was an easy film for Oscar voters to digest. And while it may not be the of the kind of weighty sentimentalism common of most modern foreign language winners, it's a real charmer that's hard not to like. Included with the 2-disc set is the 2009 documentary, Vittorio D., which chronicles the director's long and varied career, offering a deeper insight into his craft.

The real jewel of the collection, however, is 1964's Marriage Italian Style, which garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Loren, as well as yet another Best Foreign Language Film nomination for De Sica. It showcases a wacky screwball plot with Loren as the common longtime mistress of aristocrat Mastroianni who is furious when she finds out that he is marrying someone of higher status. So she devises a series of outlandish plans to try and win him back, including faking a life-threatening illness and claiming to have mothered a child he had no knowledge of.

It's a romantic comedy every bit as delicious as something Howard Hawks might have concocted, with Loren and Mastroianni proving fine rivals for the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The only problem is that the film stock has aged very badly, and even on Blu-ray it suffers from degraded image quality marked by intense grain and scratches. It's in bad need of a restoration, and of the three films in the collection it benefits the least from the Blu-ray treatment, the sharp HD almost making the grain worse.

That is not to suggest that older films must all be rendered grain-free by Blu-ray, but in the case of Marriage Italian Style, the grain is a result of badly aged film stock rather than an extension of its personality. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Sunflower both feature gorgeous transfers, with colors that pop and just the right amount of grain. It's a shame that the finest film of the bunch has aged the worst. Still, it doesn't take away from the film's inherent charms, which remains a comedic masterpiece every bit as funny and touching as it was nearly 50 years ago.

The most beautiful of the three films is 1970's Sunflower, a grand melodrama with Loren (in one of her most powerful performances) as a devoted Italian wife whose husband goes missing on the Russian front during WWII. With no news and little help, she sets out for the snow-swept fields of Russia to find her love and bring him back, even as time and fate work against her. The only film of the trio that isn't a comedy, Sunflower is a sweeping drama that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Henry Mancini's gorgeous score. De Sica's roots Neorealist roots show their face a little more here than in his comedies, but in this case there is a bit more of a decidedly Hollywood flair. Rather than a Neorealist social commentary, Sunflower is a grand, even pulpy entertainment, filled with underlined emotions and tragic romance. There's an almost David Lean quality at work here, even in the epic battle scenes that tell the story of the Italian army's ill fated excursion into Russia. It also features the most pristine transfer of the set, made even more impressive by the vibrant high definition of the Blu-ray.

In the three films presented here, Loren plays no less than five different characters, showcasing her considerable talent in three varied films from one of cinema's supreme artists demonstrating his considerable versatility. For newcomers to De Sica's work, these films will provide an easily digestible introductions to one of the medium's most revered auteurs. For his fans, it will open up a thrilling and lesser known chapter of his work. For Loren devotees, this is a must-have collection, a consummate set of some of her strongest work. Available either as a DVD box set or as individual Blu-rays, Kino's Sophia Loren Award Collection is yet another welcome addition to the company's considerable catalogue that continues to surprise and impress.

YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW - ★★★½ (out of four)
MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE - ★★★★ (out of four)
SUNFLOWER - ★★★ (out of four)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From The Dispatch:
“Thor” is a fun ride. It’s a surprisingly adept mixture of comic book goofiness and epic mythos, filled with bright colors and beautiful production design. Marvel’s insistence on connecting all of its films, however, is beginning to wear thin. It’s constant cross referencing with other franchises may please the fans and set up the coming “Avengers” film, but when it comes to individual films it tends to hurt more than help.
Click here to read my full review.
On first glance, the Topp Twins almost seem like a joke, an outlandish skit concocted by writers for SNL or Funny or Die. As one interviewee puts it - on paper they're "commercial death." But these twin yodeling lesbian comedians from New Zealand are as real, and as genuine, as they come. And in Leanne Pooley's altogether charming documentary, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, the twins' irrepressible spirit shines through.

Something akin to a Kiwi version of the Smothers Brothers, the Topp Twins, Jools and Linda, have been performing together since the early 1980s, where they often performed at political rallies and were very active in various causes, from gay rights to nuclear disarmament. And they always did it with their own unique brand of humor and heart.

While they are huge cultural icons in their native New Zealand, here in America they are relatively unknown. And even though some of their political efforts in their homeland may not necessarily translate to American audiences, their appeal is nevertheless universal.

Jools and Linda Topp. Photo by Sally Tagg.© Diva Productions, Courtesy of Argot Pictures.

Spreading their act and their message beyond New Zealand is one of the primary goals of Untouchable Girls, which sets itself up as an introduction to this cheerful comedy duo. Through extensive interviews with the Topps themselves, as well as friends, family, and even the characters that often show up in their act, such as Camp Mother and Camp Leader, the Kens, and the haughty society ladies, Prue and Dilly. Pooley provides a window not only into their lives, but into their creative process. The Topps speak candidly about their past and their sources of inspiration, guiding us through how they originated the characters they have become so loved for.

These ladies aren't just about the laughs, however, and their act often turns serious as they tackle issues near and dear to their hearts. The film also takes a dark turn when Jools is diagnosed with cancer, taking their relationship into a whole new realm of devotion. Pooley wisely avoids pushing the film into sentimentality, allowing the twins' indomitable character to carry the film, and it pays off in spades.

Jools and Linda Topp. Photo by Sally Tagg.
© Diva Productions, Courtesy of Argot Pictures.

It's difficult not to get swept up in their story and carried away by their effusive charm. They're raucous, good-hearted brand of humor washes over the audience in a warm embrace, a quality that is rare in a world where sarcasm and irony are often the driving force behind comedy. The Topps are a throwback, and Pooley's buoyant film celebrates them as a comedy act to treasure. It's the kind of film that lifts you out of the theater on a cloud, balancing humor and pathos with nimble aplomb.

You've never met anyone quite like the Topp Twins, and are unlikely to ever again. The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is a testament to their talent, and a vehicle to deliver their message to a whole new audience. It's a rare, purely fun documentary with a purely fun subject that reaches both the funny bone and the heart in equal measure. Sound corny? Perhaps. But Jools and Linda Topp are a special pair worthy of a special film, and Pooley delivers. No great issues here, no profound statements, just an oasis of joy in a sea of cynicism. The Topp Twins are here to stay.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE TOPP TWINS: UNTOUCHABLE GIRLS | Directed by Leanne Pooley | Featuring Jools Topp, Linda Topp | Not rated | Opens Friday, May 13, at Cinema Village in NYC.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Rape of Nanking is a piece of World War II history that, despite its massive importance in the Pacific Theater and its infamy to the Chinese people, is relatively obscure to most Americans.

The details of the massacre have been long contested by the Chinese and Japanese, but the fact remains that on December 9, 1937, Japan attacked the Chinese capitol of Nanking and began an occupation that would eventually result in the deaths of over 300,000 civilians. To the Chinese, it is a great event of national mourning, akin to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it still lingers in their collective memory today. So much so that when director Lu Chuan began making City of Life and Death, he stepped on more than a few toes.

While the film is supported by the Chinese government and approved by the Chinese censors, Lu set out to challenge the conventional narrative of the Rape of Nanking (as it was dubbed by the Chinese) and search for the humanity on both sides of the battle. Not content to make a mere propaganda piece, Lu instead sets out to find the terrible truth underneath the rubble of history.

Yuanyuan Gao in Lu Chuan's CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH.
Courtesy of Kino International.

Lu is able to breathe a surprising amount of humanity into the Japanese aggressors, even while depicting the terrors they wrought upon the citizens of Nanking. The film follows a number of real life characters as they try to navigate life in occupied Nanking. There is a ruthless Japanese commander, a Nazi representative who sets up a safe zone for Chinese refugees and his assistant, a Chinese collaborator willing to do anything to ensure his family's safety, a young Japanese officer who begins to question to righteousness of his country's actions, a Japanese girl working as a "comfort woman" to relieve soldiers' sexual tensions, a little boy who survives a horrific massacre - the list goes on.

The result is a stunning mosaic of the Nanking massacre that leaves almost no stone unturned. Lu examines it from every point of view, no matter how heinous. And in doing so he finds humanity amidst unspeakable tragedy. In one of the film's most wrenching scenes, Mr. Rabe, the Nazi representative, tearfully explains to a group of Chinese women that 100 of them must be taken to be used by the Japanese military for sexual gratification. In return, the Imperial Army would supply the refugees with food and warmth to last the winter. Slowly the gravity of the situation settles upon them, and one by one women begin volunteering. Lu films the scene primarily by showing hands slowing rising in the air. It is perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, and completely indicative of the film's devastating second half. The battle scenes in the film's first half are appropriately harrowing, but the second hour is where its real emotional power lies.

Ye Liu (and unidentified others) in Lu Chuan's CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH.
Courtesy of Kino International.

City of Life and Death begins with explosions and ends with the laughter of a child, making a complete emotional journey that puts the audience through the grueling experience of one of history's most appalling wartime atrocities. Shot in striking black and white, the film almost feels like a living war document, with a haunting immediacy and authenticity that seems completely organic. It is reminiscent Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, and not just for their obvious parallels in their use of black and white cinematography. Lu directs with a delicate, respectful grace, never pushing sentimentality or overemphasizing the story's natural emotion. Liu Tong delivers a beautifully restrained score that perfectly complements the action on screen but never draws undue attention to itself. Lu is also a smart enough director to know when music is unnecessary, and the film benefits from his intuitive direction.

The film is, at its heart, a sweeping war epic. But Lu keeps the focus intimate, following the personal pain and triumph that marked China's national tragedy - a wound that remains open to this day. Lu challenges long held beliefs about Nanking, looking on the massacre with fresh eyes while maintaining a sense of national pride. While the Japanese are at times portrayed as vicious monsters, this is no mere Chinese propaganda piece. It's not only an unforgettable portrait of the horrors of war, but an ultimately hopeful reminder of the small moments of goodness and humanity that can be found even in the darkest places. China may have never forgotten Nanking, but I guarantee anyone who sees City of Life and Death never will either.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH | Directed by Lu Chuan | Stars Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley | Not rated | In Mandarin, Japanese, English, and Shanghainese w/ English subtitles | Opens Wednesday, May 11, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Jack Cardiff is quite possibly one of the greatest unheralded giants of cinema of the last century. As a general rule, it is the actors and directors people tend to remember, while other talents just as worthy go unnoticed. Cardiff is perhaps one of the most lauded cinematographers to ever get behind the lens of a camera, and his influence is still felt in films today. People may not know his name, but if they have seen one of his films, chances are they have never forgotten it.

Cardiff is arguably most famous for his work on the Archers films of John Powell and Emeric Pressburger of the late 1940s, such as A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. He has lensed some of the most beautiful films of all time, pioneering camera techniques and modes of lighting that are still in use today.

Craig McCall's documentary, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, seeks to throw back the curtain on the life of a man who was a legend in his own time, even though he was never what one would call a household name.

The film opens with the presentation of Cardiff's lifetime achievement award at the 2001 Academy Award ceremony, which was given for "exceptional distinction in lifetime achievement; exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences; and for outstanding services to the Academy." Even the Academy's usual prim hyperbole can't quite do justice to the genius that was Cardiff, but McCall does his best to do just that.

Using interviews with other cinema giants such as Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Cardiff himself, McCall offers up what is essentially a master class in cinema art. Cardiff is a gentle and candid figure, recalling what it was like to work with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart, revealing photographic work he did for the stars on the side while he wasn't working on films. He seems eager to discuss his work, but also incredibly humble for a man of his vast achievements. It makes for a wholly fascinating viewing experience that is essential for any cinephile.

McCall obviously has a great deal of respect for Cardiff (who passed away in April of 2009), and it bleeds through every frame of Cameraman. It's not a gushing film, however. Like the man himself, it remains respectful, metered, and clear-eyed about his achievements. It's a historical document, yes, but it's also a passionate narrative. This is truly one from the heart, and McCall offers us a chance not only to appreciate Cardiff's work, but to get to know the man himself as he did as he was making the film.

In my opinion, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are the two most beautiful films of all time, and it's a privilege to get to see the man responsible for them explaining how he brought them to life. It's also fascinating to learn of his other experiences on films I didn't even realize he did, such as Rambo: First Blood Part II. Cardiff had a long and varied career, filming both classics like The African Queen and sequels that time forgot like Conan the Destroyer. For fans of Cardiff, for fans of the Archers, and for fans of all great cinema, Cameraman is a must-see.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF | Directed by Craig McCall | Featuring Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, John Mills, Thelma Schoonmaker, Kim Hunter | Not rated | Opens Friday, May 13, at the Quad Cinema in NYC, and June 3 at Laemmle's Music Hall in LA.
Winston-Salem's a/perture Cinema, in conjunction with the River Run Film Festival will present this month's Cineclub selection, Alexei Popogrebsky's How I Ended This Summer on Monday, May 9, at 8 PM.

Set on a remote island in the Arctic Ocean, How I Ended This Summer is a tense psychological thriller about a student named Pavel who is assigned to write a paper called "How I Ended This Summer," and decides to spend it at a lonely weather station taking readings for the meteorological service. The station is manned only by one attendant, a gruff and hard edged mane named Sergei, who prefers to be left alone.

Sergei is an all business, no nonsense sort who doesn't trust Pavel with the more important tasks at the station, so Pavel is often left alone with the menial tasks, trying his best to stay out of Sergei's way. One day, Sergei allows Pavel to take the readings for himself while he takes a short fishing trip. While he in on the radio, he receives tragic news about Sergei's family.

Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) in Alexei Popogrebsky's How I Ended This Summer.
Courtesy of Film Movement.

Frightened by the news, Pavel is unable to bring himself to tell Sergei about the tragedy, crafting one lie after another until he is caught in a web of his own deception where he is no longer able to hide the truth. When the terrible reality finally comes to light, Pavel has to face not only his own deception, but Sergei's rage. Alone in the Russian wilderness, surrounded by radioactivity, and isolated from the rest of the world, Pavel will face a fight survival that will change him forever, ensuring that the end to this summer will be the most unforgettable he has ever had.

Popogrebsky creates an atmosphere of palpable isolation and loneliness, which drives the film's almost unbearable tension. He expertly ratchets up the suspense with an overarching sense of dread, anchored by two terrific lead performances that make the perhaps far-fetched scenario seem hauntingly real. The motivations for both characters make complete sense in the moment, although their believability has been a point of division for critics who have been sharply divided over the film. Popogrebsky makes it work in context, however, and turns it into a fascinating and compelling story of the human capacity for deception and the affects of isolation. It's a top notch thriller.

Tickets are $6 for a/v members, and $10 for the general public. For more information, click here or call 336.722.8148.

GRADE -★★★½ (out of four)

HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER | Directed by Alexei Popogrebsky | Stars Grigoriy Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis | Not rated | In Russian w/English subtitles.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Kôji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar is the classy Human Centipede.

Got your attention yet?

While not necessarily as grotesque as Tom Six's infamous 2010 horror film about a mad doctor who attaches his victims mouth to anus to create one long digestive system, Caterpillar is still a rough sit. Messy, oppressive, and intentionally rough around the edges, it's a wrenching film in more ways than one.

In fact that may be its biggest problem. It is a film with a very clear symbolic goal, but it hammers at it with such singular ferocity that it makes its point quickly and then becomes overwhelming and ultimately redundant. Its central concept walks a fine line between the sordid and the tragic, but the final result is more off-putting than emotionally moving. Wakamatsu obviously has something very powerful at work here, but Caterpillar is one tough piece of work.

Actress Shinobu Terajima as Shigeko Kurokawa in CATERPILLAR, a film by Kôji Wakamatsu.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.

Set during World War II in Japan, Caterpillar is the story of Shigeko, a faithful military wife whose husband is returned from the war missing both arms and both legs. Saddled with taking care of her helpless husband (and tending to his sexual needs), Shigeko finds herself overwhelmed with the task at hand. To the entire nation, her husband is a war god, a living legend, a hero. But Shigeko knows the truth, and his demands become increasingly difficult, as all he does is eat, sleep, and have sex. As she struggles to support him, she also struggles to present a brave face to a world that considers her plight an honor, and an essential service to the nation and the Emperor, to care for his wounded "war god."

As her frustrations grow, so do her husband's demands, as the controlling and abusive man he once was begins to show even in his deaf and dumb state. But unbeknownst even to Shigeko, he hides a dark secret of terrible deeds done on the Chinese front lines. He is not the hero he has been celebrated as by the Japanese propaganda machines, and soon he will find the tables turned on him as karma finally catches up.

Actress Shinobu Terajima as Shigeko Kurokawa in CATERPILLAR, a film by Kôji Wakamatsu.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.

At the center of this tense drama is Shinobu Terajima's powerful performance as Shigeko. She holds the film together and is compulsively watchable, even when the film itself seems to veer into unnecessary histrionics near the end. For a film so shrouded in somber import, it seems strangely shrill, taking an in-your-face approach rather than a more subtle one. There is something to be said for that, of course. Wakamatsu has crafted a clear critique of blind nationalism and the right wing propaganda machine of WWII-era Japan, as a juxtaposition for his left wing critiques in United Red Army (Lorber, 5.27). Shigeko's husband is the very embodiment of such blind polices - deaf, dumb, and lame. Legless, armless, and ultimately useless, Wakamatsu delivers a raging blow against baseless militaristic patriotism.

Caterpillar isn't a whisper, it's a battle cry. It's deliberately rough and uncomfortable, but what it has in sheer thematic power it looses in subtlety. It throws so much at the audience that it becomes abrasive, and is ultimately less effective. Wakamatsu's insistence on reminding us of facts and figures from WWII suggests grander themes than the intimate focus of his film, but it also seems like an unnecessary distraction. It almost feels as if he's hammering his point home too hard, where a lighter touch would have been more effective. It's difficult not to admire the clarity of his vision, but in the end its over-the-top nature seems to undercut his message.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

CATERPILLAR | Directed by Kôji Wakamatsu | Stars Shinobu Terajima, Keigo Kasuya, Sabu Kawahara, Emi Masuda | Not rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, May 6, at the IFC Center in NYC.