Friday, July 29, 2011

So much for those "smaller, more personal" films George Lucas has been talking about making ever since he finally finished his Star Wars films (but will he ever really be finished?).

The long in the works Tuskeegee Airmen adventure, Red Tails, now has a trailer, and after such a long, hard road to the screen it's hard not to feel a little trepidation. The production has been plagued by reshoots presided over by Lucas himself while director Anthony Hemingway worked on the HBO series, Treme. Not to mention the January release date raises all kinds of red flags.

Red Tails opens January 20, 2012.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What a world we live in. Not only do we have teaser trailers, but now we have teasers for the teasers.  This brief clip shows the ending of Captain America (so...yeah, spoiler alert) followed by some shots from the teaser for The Avengers that is the now requisite after credit surprise of the film. The teaser is only being shown in theaters with the film so don't expect to see a nice shiny HD copy showing up online anytime soon.

The Avengers opens May 4, 2012.
One of the most talked about and culturally relevant issues of our time is the decline of traditional media and the rise of newer, faster, and less expensive forms of information dissemination.

With an increasing number of daily newspapers shutting their doors or introducing major layoffs and cutbacks, it may look like the battle is already over. The digital age has finally won out over traditional media.

But many would argue that is not the case. And many of those people just happen to work at the New York Times. One of the most venerable and respected newspapers in the world, the NYT represents a bastion of journalistic integrity featuring "all the news that is fit to print." However, as one of the last remaining daily print periodicals, is it just a matter of time before the Times shuts down too? In an era where information comes fast and cheap (if not necessarily accurate), how can a newspaper compete against the world of blogs and social media?

David Carr in PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, a Magnolia Pictures release. 
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
That's where Andrew Rossi's engrossing new documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times comes in. Rossi spent a year behind the scenes at the New York Times, where he was granted unprecedented access to the daily goings on in the newsroom. The result is not only a document of a newspaper's daily operations, but a testament to why the newspaper is still essential. While social media sites such as Twitter and the blogosphere make the race to be first paramount, the New York Times still retains their dedication to being accurate before being first. But more than that, they still struggle with keeping up with the times - how do you evolve in a fast-paced modern world that is quickly leaving your medium in the dust?

Through interviews with NYT editors and reporters, Page One pieces together a portrait of an industry trying to find itself in a time of great internal upheaval. Film buffs may especially recognize David Carr, formerly known as The Carpetbagger, whose acerbic wit and blunt, tell-it-like-it-is attitude comes to represent the old guard, grudgingly transitioning into the future of news. His strong defense of the New York Times, however, also gives the film its strongest arguments for the necessity of the newspaper. Carr knows his stuff, and he understands the newspaper's place in a digital age.

A scene from PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, a Magnolia Pictures release. 
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
To Carr, the newspaper is not dead. Nor will it ever be. It is simply in transition. The film covers the Times' controversial recent decision to put up a paywall on its website, leading many to protest putting a price on information that is free elsewhere. But in a world where speed has replaced accuracy, and partisan punditry is masquerading as news, real, principled journalism is worth its weight in gold. Page One is clearly a film that favors print journalism. Yet it also understands its need to keep up with the digital age. In that regard the film is both a tribute and an elegy all in one.

This is not just a documentary about the workings of one newspaper. It is a snapshot of a very specific place and time, an engaging look at a changing world and an industry struggling to keep up. It invites its viewers into a kind of dialogue on the values of print vs. digital, of old media vs. new media, and how the two can perhaps find a way to coexist. The newspaper isn't dead. Not yet, anyway. And Page One reminds us why it is more vital today than ever. It's not just nostalgia, it's necessity.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES | Directed by Andrew Rossi | Rated R for language including some sexual references | Now playing in select theaters.
One's enjoyment of Michael Winterbottom's The Trip depends a lot on one's tolerance for droll British comedy, because the film is often so droll as to be nearly nonexistent. Reprising their roles as themselves from Winterbottom's 2006 comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set out on a cross country journey after Coogan is hired by the Observer to review fine restaurants.

Brydon, Coogan's best friend, is a last minute replacement for Coogan's girlfriend, much to Coogan's chagrin, who now has to listen to his endless nattering for miles on end.

Together, the two of them eat, bicker, and do dueling impersonations of celebrities such as Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Dustin Hoffman, and Sean Connery, while sampling some of the finest food in the country and lamenting about the state of their careers.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s THE TRIP. Photo by Phil Fisk.
An IFC Films release.
Brydon has achieved some level of success due to his somewhat obnoxious silly voices, a sticking point for Coogan whose career seems frustratingly stagnant. This creates an added layer to their relationship, as Coogan's fruitless attempts to be taken seriously as an actor provide some of the film's more interesting moments. In between the moments of clever, mostly improvised banter, The Trip becomes a somewhat melancholy exploration of loneliness and midlife angst. It is a more successful look at showbiz distress than say, Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, but the problem is it has a tendency to meander. The film has no real direction per se, and doesn't really add up to a satisfying whole despite some fine moments of acerbic wit and probing reflection.

The self reflexive nature of the film is admittedly attractive, it blurs the line between fiction and reality a decidedly witty air. But it just kind of exists, never really asserting its own unique personality. It sort of aimlessly floats along for nearly two hours with a pleasant sort of droll charm, but the final result lacks the punch that could have made it truly memorable.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

THE TRIP | Directed by Michael Winterbottom | Stars Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Ben Stiller | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

As insufferable as Kevin Smith's Twitter persona has become, I've got to say his latest film, Red State, a horror film about a Westboro Baptist Church-esque band of religious fanatics wreaking holy havoc on sinners, looks intriguing. Smith's immature anti-critic ravings have turned me off somewhat, but I've always liked his films.

Red State will premiere On Demand this Labor Day weekend, and will receive an unconventional release sometime October as Smith is self distributing with his new model of theatrical exhibition, featuring digital Q & As. You can read Smith's rambling, somewhat childish explanation here. It will also receive a somewhat rather Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles for one week, beginning August 19.
The latest film from George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who previously teamed up on Good Night, and Good Luck) has a brand new trailer and poster. I really liked Good Night, and Good Luck, and Clooney has a good eye for political drama so I have high hopes for this one - not to mention it has a stellar cast. Here is the official synopsis from the film's Facebook page:
The Ides of March takes place during the frantic last days before a heavily contested Ohio presidential primary, when an up-and-coming campaign press secretary (Ryan Gosling) finds himself involved in a political scandal that threatens to upend his candidate’s shot at the presidency. 
 Check out the trailer for yourself.

The Ides of March opens October 7, 2011.

From The Dispatch:
"Captain America" is a zippy, old-fashioned and appealingly naive superhero yarn that harkens back to a more innocent time when America still represented lofty idealism and a can-do heroic spirit, when our country was looked up to around the world rather than dismissed or scorned. It is a simple and ingenuous vision of an America that perhaps never existed outside of comic books or movies, but there's something charmingly quaint about such guileless sincerity in this day and age. 
Click here to read my full review.
Gary Marshall continues to try to make his own Love Actually with this star-studded follow up to last year's Valentine's Day. Whether that's a good thing or not depends on your point of view.

<a href='' target='_new' title=''New Year's Eve' movie trailer'>Video: 'New Year's Eve' movie trailer</a>

New Year's Eve opens December 9, 2011.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From The Dispatch:
Yates strikes a pitch-perfect balance between rousing action, pathos, tenderness and even humor. We've seen these young actors come a long way since the early films, and here they've never been better as the film contains some of the series' most overwhelmingly emotional moments. When paired with "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," it is perhaps the series' most satisfying entry, as everything comes full circle. 
Click here to read my full review.
James Marsh doesn't make documentaries. He makes art out of real life.

Like his last film, the Academy Award winning Man on Wire, Project Nim is a film infused with a deep sense of wonder, except this time instead of at the achievements of a man with a dream, Marsh turns his sense of awe at the natural world - more specifically, the relationship between animal and man.

Our subject is Nim, a chimpanzee who is at the center of a scientific experiment begun in 1973 by a psychology professor from Columbia University. The goal - to raise him from infancy as if he were a human child with a human family, to study a chimpanzee's ability to pick up human communication and mannerisms. The film begins with the newborn Nim's harrowing removal from his screaming, tranquilized mother, and his insertion into a new life with a new, human family. Nim's life will never be the same, and not necessarily for the better.

Laura-Ann Petitto teaching Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen in
PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Susan Kuklin.
At first, Nim fits right in with his new family. But he soon begins to drive a wedge between his human mother and his human father, as he grows angry at signs of affection and begins purposely targeting his father out of jealousy. It soon becomes clear, however, that his unstructured home life is not conducive to scientific study, with no real routine or record keeping, Nim's progress goes largely uncharted. So he is removed from yet another mother and put in a more structured environment in a home owned by the university.

Nim continues to grow up, getting bigger and stronger by the day. And while his sign language skills grow exponentially, so does his aggression. He may be smarter than your average chimp, but he's still a wild animal at heart, and despite the scientists' best efforts to tame him, Nim still retains a wild, unpredictable rage, seriously injuring several handlers. His caretakers soon realize that he has outgrown them, and find other, far less favorable living conditions to send him to. And so begins Nim's  tragic downward spiral, being transferred from place to place, each a brand new hardship he isn't ready to face. The chimp who thinks he's a human is soon going to face the harsh reality that to most of humanity he is just another animal.

Nim Chimpsky, as seen in PROJECT NIM. 
Photo credit: Harry Benson.
Despite what the adorable marketing campaign would suggest, Project Nim is not a feel-good film. It is, at its heart, a tale of abandonment, betrayal, and human failure. Nim was raised as a human by humans, only to find himself thrown in with the rest of the chimpanzees when he is too big to handle. Nim is essentially a child ripped from his mother and abandoned by his captors. His story is a heartbreaking one, and Marsh tells it with a compelling sense of reverence. Project Nim is, in a sense, a tribute to Nim, a respectful celebration of his unique talents, and a mournful atonement for the sins of his fathers.

Nim's tragic life was a product of the failures of nearly everyone around him - those he loved, and those who loved him. Was he really the person many believed him to be? Or was he just another science experiment to be tossed aside like so much dispassionate data? Marsh explores the question of what defines our humanity with great tenderness, turning Nim's story into a representation of grander questions, closely examining the relationship between man and animal. It's an enthralling story in and of itself, but its implications are even more fascinating to contemplate. Project Nim is an extraordinary documentary about an extraordinary creature. It's a harrowing and intensely powerful tale of an animal who was perhaps more human than the actual humans around him. To meet Nim is to never forget him. And Marsh ensures that no one who does will ever be the same.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

PROJECT NIM | Directed by James Marsh | Rated PG-13 for Some Strong Language, Drug Content, Thematic Elements and Disturbing Images | Now playing in select cities.
The forthcoming restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 silent epic, Napoleon, is obviously big news for cinephiles. The film hasn't been seen in complete form for decades, and has never been made available on DVD.

Abel Gance's Napoleon from San Francisco Silent Film Festiv on Vimeo.

The new restoration by Kevin Brownlow will premiere at the Oakland Paramount Theater on March 24, 2012, accompanied by a live orchestra.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The official Hobbit Facebook page has posted 4 new stills from the film, including one of Bilbo in a familiar Hobbit hole in the company of a band of dwarves.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.
Opening December 14, 2012

There are also two stills of Ian McKellan reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey. You can see all of the stills here.
I've never been a big fan of this series. The first one had an interesting concept but I found the characters unbearable. The second one was a moderate improvement in that regard. This third entry promises to answer the question of why this entity is targeting this family.

A Bloody Mary movie is intriguing...but in this context? They're really going to blame all this demonic activity on a childhood game of Bloody Mary? We'll see...

Paranormal Activity 3 opens October 21, 2011.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

There's really not much to go on here. Lots of recycled footage intercut with a couple of shots of Tom Hardy's Bane and Commissioner Gordon lying in a hospital bed. They're obviously trying to make things look bad for Batman, but like the teaser for The Dark Knight, it's really puts the 'tease' in teaser.

The Dark Knight Rises opens July 20, 2012.
Variety is reporting that 102 year old Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, has signed on to direct O Gebo e a Sombra (Gebo and the Shadow), a French-language period piece based on the novel, "The EUR" by Raul Brandao.

De Oliveira, who also penned the script, also directed two of last year's finest films, Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl and The Strange Case of Angelica, both of which made my year-end top ten list. Gebo and the Shadow continues the centenarian director's astonishing late career prolificacy, who directs with the energy of a man a third of his age.

The film is set to start shooting later this year.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is breaking records left and right. Not only did it score the highest grossing opening weekend of all time domestically this weekend with a $168.6 million haul, but worldwide as well, selling $475.6 million after only 3 days in theaters.

Granted, the film had already grossed a record $43.5 million before it even opened, breaking records for midnight screenings in the process, but this is still impressive. It beat out the previous record holder, The Dark Knight's, opening gross by a solid $10 million.

This will doubtless be the year's top grosser, but the final question remains - how high will it go? Will it ultimately pull in Dark Knight numbers when all is said and done?

Source: Variety.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The titular five elephants of Vadim Jendreyko's elegant and lovely new documentary, The Woman with the Five Elephants, refers to the five works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky translated by renowned translator, Svetlana Geier.

Born in Ukraine in 1923, Geier grew up under the reign of Josef Stalin,who had her father arrested as a political prisoner. Her father, however, became one of the lucky few who were actually released from such imprisonment, but he died a little over a year after his release from injuries caused by the torture he endured behind bars.

However, when the Nazis invaded in 1941, Geier found herself living under a different sort of regime, one that scorned her non-Aryan roots, but one that also respected her intelligence, and she found work as a translator for various German military commanders, whom she defends to this day as being separate from the heinous crimes of Adolf Hitler. One even put his military career on the line to see that she got out safely and received a good education, resulting in his being shipped off to the Eastern front.

Svetlana Geier in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Geier has led an eventful life, and grown into one of the most respected translators in the world, dedicating her life to translating Russian literature into German. Language and literature, once an escape, became a way of life. Her deep and abiding love of words gives way to a rich and keen appreciation of the nuances of language, and the film evokes her passion with great skill. Her wisdom and life experience seems to radiate out of every frame. In fact, The Woman with the Five Elephants is perhaps one of the most incredible films about the art of creation I have ever seen. Watching Geier in the heat of translation is disarmingly riveting - her friends that assist her with typing and proofreading almost becoming sparring partners in an intellectual game.

But it is certainly no game. Geier takes her work seriously, and she knows what she wants. To her, a translation is about seeing the big picture of the work, to capture the subtleties and cadence of the text, to be as true to the spirit of the author's intent as possible, while making the work her own. She is an artist unto herself, a brilliant craftsman whose work is every bit as original and powerful as the authors she translates. It is almost as if she distills a work down to its root and rebuilds it anew as a singular, even more impressive work of art.

Svetlana Geier and friend Mr. Klondt in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Geier is clearly a remarkable woman. And while she may not have changed the world, Jendreyko was right to recognize her exceptional qualities. She is a woman who deserves her own film. Geier commands attention, and we hang on her every word like rapt pupils. Her eloquence extends not just to her writing, but her every day speech as well. Each sentence is like a poem, and it is clear she chooses her words carefully, crafting each sentence with great care and artistry, as if she is translating the novel of her own life.

Jendreyko wisely steps back and allows Geier to tell her own story with her own words, only occasionally stepping in to fill in necessary historical details. This is her story, and she tells it well, offering a very special insight into the ways of the world. For his part, Jendreyko turns academic pursuits into something truly electrifying, crafting a documentary on translating 19th century novels that is wholly compelling, and even thrilling. The creation of any great art is always an act of elation, but here it almost attains something divine. As Geier says, the goal of existence should not be mere existence, but to transcend one's existence. She transcends not only existence, but art itself, and The Woman with the Five Elephants transcends the documentary form and attains its own sort of artfulness - a quiet and lyrical study of a truly remarkable human being.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS | Directed by Vadim Jendreyko | Featuring Svetlana Geier | Not rated | In German and Russian w/English subtitles | Opens Wednesday, July 20, at the Film Forum in NYC.
I'm not going to post every single image from The Hobbit that comes out in the next few months, but this one features some important characters so I decided to share.

Time has this exclusive image of Ken Stott as Balin and Graham McTavish as Dwalin. Balin, you'll remember, is cousin of Gimli, and it is in his tomb in the Mines of Moria than Frodo and the Fellowship fight off an army of orcs and a cave troll in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Once again, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, opens December 14, 2012.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The trailer for Martin Scorsese's family adventure, Hugo, formerly Hugo Cabret, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, has arrived - and it looks nothing like a Martin Scorsese film. At. All.

It will be interesting to see how Scorsese works in a genre that is such a clear departure for him.

Hugo opens November 23, 2011.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Moviegoers who are only familiar with Disney's popular 1991 musical version of Beauty and the Beast may find themselves surprised or even confused by Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of the classic fairy tale.

A more direct adaptation of the original fairy tale by Mme. Leprince de Beaumont, Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bette) tells a vastly different story than the one members of the Disney generation have come to know and love. It's a darker tale, casting the Beast as perhaps an even more tragic hero, trapped in his castle through no fault of his own.

When we first meet Belle, she's an almost Cinderella-like figure, servant to her spoiled sisters, who refuse to lower their standard of living even after their family has fallen on hard times. So all the housework falls to the humble Belle, while her sisters go out the town, to much ridicule from the local villagers.

Josette Day as Belle and Jean Marais as the Beast in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.
Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
However when Belle's father finds out this his fortunes may have changed, he sets out to collect his fortune, asking his three daughters what gifts they would like him to bring back from the city. Belle's sisters ask for countless extravagant gifts, but Belle simply asks for a single rose. It turns out that her father's creditors have already beaten him to his newfound wealth, so he heads back home, defeated. But along the way he becomes lost, and finds his way into a mysterious and enchanted castle, where statues come to life and candelabras are held by seemingly real, animate arms coming out of the walls.

Determined not to return home empty handed, he plucks a rose from the castle's garden to bring back to Belle, only to be confronted by the monstrous Beast. The Beast tells him the penalty for stealing one of his roses is death, but he offers him a reprieve - if he can convince one of his daughters to take his place, he will allowed to live. The Beast then sends him on his way, with his promise to return in three days. Not wanting his daughters to die in his stead, he plans to return as the Beast requested, but Belle steals away on the Beast's enchanted horse, Magnificent, and vows to stay with the him in order to save her father. The Beast is instantly enamored with her, and gives her the run of the castle, with the promise that she will only see him once a day, at 7 PM, when he will come to dinner in the Great Hall and ask the same question - "will you be my wife?"

Josette Day as Belle in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.
Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver
In the eyes of today's audiences, Beauty and the Beast may seem a bit quaint, even naive. Cocteau's opening written introduction, imploring audiences to suspend their disbelief and look at the film with the eyes of a child, looks strangely innocent by today's standards. But there is an underlying darkness at work here despite its almost childlike simplicity. The Beast is a far more tragic figure here, cursed with his hideous looks, (rendered by still impressive makeup effects by Hagop Arakelian) through no fault of his own, by vengeful spirits seeking revenge upon his parents for not believing in them. His constant pining for Belle borders on the pathetic, and Cocteau makes sure to keep the Beast in a sympathetic light. Even in the end, when he takes human form, Belle is disappointed by his looks, realizing that she had fallen in love with the Beast as he was (not to mention the fact that he took on the human form of her brother's best friend, who is killed in his efforts to raid the Beast's castle).

The film's focus stays on the romantic interplay between Belle and the Beast, and Cocteau conjures up a palpable sense of magic. Criterion's blu-ray treatment impressively captures the film's dreamlike atmosphere, each sparkle of Magnificent's mane seems to pop off the screen, and Belle's now iconic entrance into the Beast's castle is more breathtaking than ever. The extras are all repeats from the original Criterion release, and while they don't really do much to place the film in its historical context (outside of the two commentary tracks), they do provide some interesting, vintage insight into the production of the film (including its excellent makeup). There is also an option to view the film with Philip Glass' opera based on the film as the soundtrack, but the original score is really the way to go. The real star of the show here is the film itself, which remains not only a landmark children's film, but a landmark in fantasy filmmaking as well. Coming out of France just after the end of WWII, Beauty and the Beast is the purest form of escapism. Innocent, yes, but beautifully so. Cocteau's enduring fable remains just as enchanting and charming as it ever was, and now thanks to the Criterion Collection, it has never looked better.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST | Directed by Jean Cocteau | Stars Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Marcel André | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | On DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, July 19.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The new teaser poster for The Dark Knight Rises has made its internet debut.

Thoughts? The falling buildings seem to indicate a massive devastation of Gotham City. Perhaps the teaser trailer debuting in front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 on Friday will shed some more light on the proceedings.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sunday, July 10, 2011

One of the things I've learned in my years as a film critic is that sometimes first impressions aren't always right. I first saw Robert Persons' documentary, General Orders No. 9, in 2010 when it showed at the River Run Film Festival, and I left admittedly a bit baffled by it. It seemed to just be an exceptionally pretty slide show, a borderline pretentious collection of photographs and poetic musings that, on first glance, just didn't connect with me.

It's easy, in a film festival setting, to miss a film's subtleties sometimes, when you're trying to watch as many films in a day as you can. If it doesn't grab you right off the bat, it's going to fall through the cracks.

So when I sat down to watch General Orders No. 9 for a second time for review purposes, I was surprised just how differently I felt about it by the time it was over. Even with a scant running time of 72 minutes, there is a lot to chew on here.

It almost plays out like a documentary by way of Terrence Malick, an abstract, impressionistic meditation on the American South, and more specifically, Persons' home state of Georgia. It's clearly a deeply personal film. Persons, through folksy narration by William Davidson, explores feelings and emotions evoked by his wistful nostalgia for a time long past. General Orders No. 9 unfolds like a series of hazy memories, a stream of consciousness reflection on Georgia's rich history and natural beauty. He seems enamored with symmetry, and the simple order of small town structure - the courthouse at the center, with the rest of the town spreading out around it.

It turns elegiac, however, as Persons turns to the urban development that has forever changed the face of the South. The interstate is viewed as a blight upon the landscape, a jagged scar that divides rather than unites, destroying the fragile order of the old ways. Here, the old South is elevated to the status of myth, a bygone memory lost amid faceless, soulless urban sprawl.

General Orders No. 9 is anything but a conventional documentary. Those going in looking for a documentary on the history of Georgia will be sorely disappointed. Instead, it's an almost avant-garde, experimental reflection on a dying way of life. Persons saw the world changing around him and put his feelings on film. And while the final result has a tendency to wander, and much of it is comprised on photographs overlayed with music and narration, it's an undeniably enthralling experience. It's clearly a passion project, a deeply personal and vibrant work of art that deftly captures textures and atmosphere on a South that only exists now in very special places.

"It exists as a world entire," Davidson often intones throughout the film, and indeed the film itself invokes the feeling of an entire world seen through the eyes of a man who has been deeply immersed in it since childhood. The South of General Orders No. 9 may not exist anymore, and while Persons memorably mourns its passing, he has ensured that it will not soon be forgotten through this unique and inspired ode to Dixie.

GRADE - ★ (out of four) 

GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 | Directed by Robert Persons | Narrated by William Davidson | Not rated | Now showing in select cities.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

When it comes to classic comedy, no one stands above Buster Keaton. Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd make up the titans of silent era comedy, and while Chaplin's Little Tramp character is probably the most famous comedic icon to emerge from the silent era, Keaton was arguably the more innovative (and subversive) artist.

A protege of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton took over Arbuckle's film production company after Arbuckle transitioned to making feature films in 1920, signing a contract to direct and star in 20 two-reel short films. Keaton only made 19 of the 20 shorts before moving into feature films himself in 1924 with The Navigator, and it's easy to see that Keaton's ideas were bursting at the seams of the two-reel format by 1923 when the last film was released (that film, The Love Nest, was the only short for which Keaton received sole writing and directing credit).

Buster Keaton in THE GOAT. Courtesy of Kino International.
Now, for the first time, all 19 of Keaton's solo shorts are available on DVD and Blu-ray in one three disc set from Kino International. It's arguably the most comprehensive and lavish release of Keaton's work to date, featuring informative visual essays detailing the history of selected films, as well as detailed liner notes by Keaton biographer Jeffrey Vance, which provides a brief back story of each film, deepening the viewer's appreciation for then prior to viewing. Kino has really outdone themselves here, providing not only digital restorations of some of Keaton's best films, but also preserving the integrity of the films, using the best materials available. While HD might not be necessary on films that are this degraded by time, some of the transfers are truly stunning. Keaton's catelogue is one of the most complete of the silent era, but some of the shorts do feature missing footage, most notably 1922's Day Dreams (which was co-directed by Arbuckle, right before his third manslaughter trial came to an end), and 1921's Hard Luck, which barely survives at all.

Hard Luck may be a minor entry in Keaton's canon (made even more so by its severely downgraded condition), but Keaton himself considered it his favorite, because it contained the biggest laugh of his career. Sadly, that scene no longer survives, and is presented here simply as a photograph with a caption describing the action. There are some real jewels here, however. One Week, which was his first solo short to be commercially released (The "High Sign" was actually the first produced, but Keaton delayed its release because he felt it was too similar to Arbuckle's style rather than his own), is a comedic masterpiece, showcasing Keaton's prowess for outrageous set pieces - in this case a house that he attempts to build using out of order directions, resulting in a bizarre madhouse that foreshadows some visual gags that he would later reuse in some of his more famous features.

Buster Keaton in THE ELECTRIC HOUSE. Courtesy of Kino International.
The trick photography of 1921's The Play House is still pretty impressive today, as the showpiece of the film is a dream sequence in which Keaton plays a hapless stage hand at an opera house who imagines that he is every member of the cast, audience, and orchestra.  He also showed a surprising penchant for dark comedy, most notably in 1922's The Frozen North, which was conceived as a spoof of Western melodramas that were in vogue as a result of a national fascination with Alaska and the Klondike. While it is works almost as well as an action/adventure film as it does a comedy, it was made right in the middle of the infamous Fatty Arbuckle murder trial that rocked Hollywood. Keaton, who was one of Arbuckle's closest friends, clearly took his dark mood out on the film (watch for satirical jabs at Western star William S. Hart and director Erich von Stroheim, who would later co-star  in the pitch-black silent era satire, Sunset Boulevard, in which Keaton makes a cameo appearance). It does, however, contain perhaps my favorite moment from any of Keaton's shorts, as Keaton catches his wife cheating with another man and guns them both down, only to casually realize it is neither his house nor his wife.

Not all of them are winners, however. Despite Keaton's mastery, the speed at which these films were made results in a few duds. Besides the aforementioned Hard Luck, Keaton seems to be coasting in films like The Haunted House and The Scarecrow. But those early misfires still contain moments of comedic inspiration, and eventually give way to Keaton's flourishing talent, which continues to grow as the shorts progress.  By the time we enter the sets third disc, Keaton is in full bloom, crafting ever grander set pieces (on increasingly ambitious outdoor locations), clearly ready to shake of the confines of the two-reeler and transition into feature length filmmaking. The 19 Keaton shorts (which span from 1920 to 1923), represent a fascinating body of work, and a rare chance to witness the complete evolution of not only a great silent era artist, but a great artist, period. Keaton's influence has radiated through the generations, from Jacques Tati to Mr. Bean (check out 1922's The Blacksmith for a hilarious precursor to Rowan Atkinson's bumbling doofus), and Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection is an essential addition to any serious cinephile's shelf, or for that matter, any fan of great comedy. Because when it comes to comedy, it just doesn't get any better than this.

Films included in this set - The "High Sign" (1921, ), One Week (1920, ), Convict 13 (1920, ), The Scarecrow (1920, ½), Neighbors (1921, ½), The Haunted House (1921, ), Hard Luck (1921, ), The Goat (1921, ), The Play House (1921, ), The Boat (1921, ½), The Paleface (1922, ½), Cops (1922, ½), My Wife's Relations (1922, ½), The Blacksmith (1922, ), The Frozen North (1922, ), Day Dreams (1922, ), The Electric House (1922, ½), The Balloonatic (1923, ), The Love Nest (1923, ½).

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 12.

Friday, July 08, 2011

My acting has required me to work a lot around horses for the last several years, and while I'm certainly no expert (far from it), it has given me many chances to observe these majestic creatures in action. I've also gotten to see first hand many of the ideas put forth by renowned horse trainer, Buck Brannaman, whose legendary skill with difficult horses helped inspire the novel, The Horse Whisperer (he also served as an adviser and double for director/star Robert Redford).

"Your horse is a mirror to your soul," Brannaman says, "and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will." The horse, you see, reflects the rider riding it, and that has been central to Buck's philosophy for many years. In Cindy Meehl's lovely new documentary, Buck, we explore not only the roots of that philosophy, but also what makes Brannaman tick as a man, from his troubled childhood to his current travels across the United States.

Buck Brannaman as himself in BUCK, directed by Cindy Meehl.
Photo Credit: Emily Knight. A Sundance Selects Releas

Brannaman is the product of an abusive home, where his tyrannical father, who ran a trick roping show, pushed his two sons to unattainable standards of perfection, beating them whenever they made even the slightest mistake. After the death of his mother, the abuse only got worse, until finally someone noticed and intervened, landing him in the foster care of a woman who became like a second mother to him. Instead of letting it bring him down and wallowing in his own misfortunes, Brannaman used it as a driving force behind his success, determined to overcome the darkness of his past. He took his love of horses and his skills he learned from his father to become one of the most influential horse trainers working today, revolutionizing the way people care for and train their horses.

Today he travels all across the United States, holding clinics for horse owners, many of whom are having behavioral problems with their horses. However, Brannaman points out that it's usually not people with horse problems, it's horses with people problems, and that most issues can be corrected by fixing how the person deals with their horse. It is a deeply personal brand of animal training, one that takes patience and skill, something that Brannaman displays in spades.

Buck Brannaman as himself in BUCK, directed by Cindy Meehl.
Photo Credit: Ezra D. Olsen. A Sundance Selects Release.

There is something strangely moving about watching Brannaman work with a horse. It's almost magical - a deep connection between man and animal that is almost breathtaking to behold. Brannaman is a real American cowboy, but just about as unassuming as it is possible to be. He's humble, and completely devoid of the brash bravado that has become such a cowboy cliche. He's as real as they come, and Buck captures his kind, quiet spirit, placing it against a sprawling natural backdrop, as if Brannaman himself embodies the soul of the American cowboy.

Brannaman would never claim such a thing, of course. And those who aren't particularly interested in horse may find it a tough slog, as it tends to drag in the middle. First time director Meehl has an almost awe-struck reverence for Brannaman, which seems to run contrary to his "aw shucks" demeanor, but it's hard to deny the mysterious, almost ancient connection he shares with the horses. When focusing solely on him, the film is a fascinating character study. When it focuses on his training it tends to wander a bit, getting bogged down in the details when the real star is Brannaman himself. It's difficult  not to come away from Buck feeling somewhat in awe. It has a strange and enigmatic beauty, bringing the myth of the American cowboy to startling and compelling life.

GRADE - ½ (out of four)

BUCK | Directed by Cindy Meehl | Featuring Buck Brannaman | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.
Yahoo has some exclusive stills from Peter Jackson's upcoming The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The photos reveal for the first time several of Bilbo's dwarf companions.

L-R: Jed Brophy as Nori, Adam Brown as Ori and Mark Hadlow as Dori.
L-R: John Callen as Oin and Peter Hambleton as Gloin.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens December 14, 2012.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Andrei Tarkovsky was dying of cancer when he made his final masterpiece, The Sacrifice, in 1986 - and it is a film that only a dying man could have made. Every frame of the film is etched with the wisdom and the reflection of a man who has stared into the face of death. It is the work of a man coming to terms with his own mortality, cycling through the stages of grief as if Tarkovsky himself used the film a kind of personal therapy, of dealing with his own impending death.

Just in time for the film's 25th anniversary, Kino International is releasing The Sacrifice on Blu-ray for the first time, fully restored and remastered and more beautiful than ever. DVD Beaver has an excellent comparison of the new Blu against older releases of the film, and it's a vast improvement. Sven Nykvist's breathtaking images have never looked better, popping off the screen even at their most muted.

Despite the fact that The Sacrifice is a film deeply rooted in the social climate of its time, it still feels as timely and as relevant as it ever did. The film centers around an aging philosopher named Alexander (Erland Josephson), who is spending his birthday surrounded by friends and family, engaged in deep conversation and bonding with his young son. Gifts are exchanged and deep questions probed, when out of the blue the world descends into nuclear war around them, cutting them off from the outside world.

Alexander realizes that, with World War III upon them, that the world will never be the same again, and no one will ever again experience the beauty that he himself experienced throughout life. So he makes a deal with God, offering up the ultimate sacrifice in exchange for returning the world to its pre-war state, free of the nuclear holocaust that has ravaged the land. The film plays out like a sort of parable, a deeply introspective and philosophical work whose questions have nagged humankind since the beginning of time. Some may find Tarkovsky's style wordy or even overly theatrical, but here takes on an almost Bergman-esque level of lyrical contemplation (aided by the haunting imagery of Bergman's frequent cinematographer, Nyqvist). Every word means something, each lingering shot, each cry of anguish. But exactly what they mean is left almost entirely up to the audience.

This was obviously a deeply personal film for Tarkovsky. When Alexander falls to his knees, pleading with God, desperately trying to bargain his way out of a cosmic cataclysm that is out of his hands, it is almost as if Tarkovsky himself is making a similar deal with the almighty. The Sacrifice is essentially Tarkovsky's final manifesto, the testament with which he wanted to leave the world about,, the universe, and everything. It is a stunning and brilliant summation of a legendary career, and Kino's sumptuous treatment of it is befitting of its stature in cinema history.

It may not be loaded with extras (although the two disc set includes the feature documentary, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, by his frequent editor, Michal Leszczylowski), but the packaging is gorgeous. The most important aspect of this release, however, is the impeccable transfer. The Sacrifice is a film that demands to be seen in HD, and the 1080p presentation is simply astonishing. From the eerily muted colors that mark their post-apocalyptic world, to the striking black and whites, The Sacrifice remains one of the most beautiful films of all time whose release on Blu-ray should be celebrated by cinephiles everywhere.

GRADE - (out of four)

THE SACRIFICE | Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky | Stars Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist, Allan Edwall, Guðrún Gísladóttir | Not rated | In Swedish w/English subtitles | Premieres on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino International, Tuesday, July 5.