Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From The Dispatch:
For her part, Saldana is a compelling screen presence and is compulsively watchable, but the film around her is a tired, hackneyed mess. Megaton's oversaturated, hyperkinetically edited style seems to ape Tony Scott, but without his dynamic flair, and quickly overstays its welcome. Even most of the actors seem bored. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

George Lucas just can't stop tinkering with the Star Wars films. Not only has he gone back and replaced the puppet Yoda with CGI in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (but then again, I doubt anything he does to the prequels will make them any worse) for the upcoming blu-ray release, it has now been revealed by io9 and confirmed by Badass Digest that Lucas has added Darth Vader yelling "nooooooooo!" as he hurls the Emperor down the shaft in Return of the Jedi. Supposed audio of the tweak has leaked, and Wide Asleep Film has synced it with the original film to get an idea of what the change will sound like. Warning: this may cause a piece of your soul to die.

At this point, I think Lucas has slipped so far into self parody that it's not even funny anymore. Having Vader yell "noooo!" while killing the Emperor sounds like a bad joke, especially after the extensive ridiculing that the similar exclamation in Revenge of the Sith received upon that film's release. I'm hoping this all turns out not to be true, but all signs are pointing in the wrong direction.
There are few events in cinema more tragic than the life of Jean Vigo. His father, a WWI pacifist, was strangled in prison where he was sent for treason when Jean was only 12. He was sent off to a boarding school under an assumed name (a period in his life that would later inform his third film, Zéro de conduit), and fought an eight year battle against tuberculosis. Vigo made four films, three shorts and a feature, before his death in 1934 at the age of 29. Yet despite Vigo's many misfortunes, his films, much like the man himself, remained upbeat and clever, filled with what would become a trademark wit and verve.

His life's work only adds up to less than three hours of screen time, and his films were either banned or flopped. Like many great artists, Vigo was a failure in his own time. It wasn't until a post-WWII reconsidering of his work that Vigo was recognized for what he was - a cinematic master. Those 163 minutes of celluloid represent one of the most staggeringly accomplished filmographies of all time, portraying an artist at the apex of his talents, cut down in his prime, who showed more promise, more range, and more raw talent than many filmmakers could ever achieve.

Dita Parlo as Juliette and Jean Dasté as Jean in L'ATALANTE.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The Criterion Collection, in collaboration with Gaumont, is releasing Vigo's complete filmography on DVD and blu-ray in one package for the first time. It's a staggering package, worthy of a consummate artist whose work, unfortunately, goes overlooked outside of cinephile circles. In the film world, however, Vigo is a legend, with a huge following of both filmmakers and actors. He has been cited as an influence by the likes of Bernado Bertolucci, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Lindsay Anderson, and many others, while references to Vigo's work continues to pop up.  Only recently, while accepting an Honorary Oscar, Sidney Lumet paid tribute to Vigo, while Helen Mirren named L'Atalante her favorite film in an Academy Award interview.

Criterion's set is a veritable cinematic treasure trove, and includes all four of Vigo's films - À propos de Nice, Taris, Zéro de conduite, and L'Atalante. His first film, the 23 minute long À propos de Nice (1930), is a sly silent documentary that is presented almost as a travelogue, a portrait of the beauty and opulence of the French Mediterranean city of Nice. However, instead of extolling its virtues (as it initially appear he will do), Vigo begins to peel back its classy veneer to reveal the economic ruin and social rot underneath. Through a series of symbolic, surrealistic images (a woman's clothes simply fade away, leaving her naked, as the city is 'laid bare'), Vigo throws back the curtain on the grim realities of Nice and the almost hedonistic excesses that dare to cover it up. It's an audacious debut, displaying Vigo's visual prowess before he moved on to more conventional narrative filmmaking.

Blanchar, a.k.a. du Verron, as Surveillant-Général Bec-de-Gaz ("Beanpole") in ZÉRO DE CONDUITE.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Vigo's second film is, by comparison, extremely minor. A nine minute tribute to Olympic swimming champion Jean Taris, Taris is a relatively straightforward documentary short, wherein Taris explains several of his strokes. The film does feature some of Vigo's visual wit, but is otherwise the only film in the director's canon that is otherwise non-essential. The real crown jewel, in my opinion, is his third film, the 44 minute long Zéro de conduite (1933), which in English means "Zero for Conduct." It is thrilling and rowdy tale of childhood set in a repressive boarding school, whose buffoonish caretakers (led by a comically diminutive headmaster, and a nosy housemaster the boys refer to only as 'Beanpole') delight in giving them a zero grade for conduct for every minor infraction. The boys soon become fed up with their teachers (save for one, the Chaplin-esque Huguet, who becomes a sort of benevolent encourager), and lead a rebellion against the school.

It's an exhilarating scene, shot like a WWI battle, with boys marching in slow motion, a naked body reveling in anarchic rebellion, flags proudly waving the jolly roger in an ecstatic display of childhood abandon. It is Vigo's most personal film, drawn from childhood experiences and fantasies that seems to sum up the subtly subversive aspects of his work (the film was banned in France until 1945 for being too anti-establishment), with surrealist touches that form a strange and compelling union with his more realist tendencies. It's a work that doggedly refuses to be categorized, seemingly existing within a child's imagination, both vibrantly youthful and disarmingly wise.

Zéro de conduite is, in many ways, the spiritual antithesis to Vigo's last film, the feature length L'Atalante (1934). It was as if all his previous work was leading up to this. While each of Vigo's films stands starkly apart from the others, L'Atalante is, for many, Vigo's masterwork. It's interesting coming so soon after Zéro de conduite; L'Atalante was a director-for-hire project, not one of Vigo's originals. Where Zéro de conduite is messy and vivacious, L'Atalante is measured and mature. It feels like the work of a more mature filmmaker, even if I prefer the deeply personal energy of Zéro de conduite, which feels like the work of a young hot shot at the height of his career. One may watch L'Atalante and mistake it for the swan song of an old master at the end of his career. And indeed, it would be the last film Vigo would make before his death in that same year.

A carnival scene in À PROPOS DE NICE. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
It's the story of a newlywed couple embarking on their honeymoon on board an old river barge called the L'Atalante (home of an eccentric crew and a host of free roaming cats), of which the husband is the skipper. As the two try to adjust themselves to the routine of married life, they soon run into problems, as she finds herself the object of attraction to other men, and his jealousy is aroused by her even talking to any other member of the crew. Eventually the strain becomes too much, and they find themselves apart, before finding a way to reconcile their differences and reunite.

L'Atalante is a disarmingly wise look at the daily trials of married life. Less surrealistic than his other works, the film is warm-hearted and sublime, a tender relationship study that focuses more on character than plot. Vigo makes great use of locations, shooting the film on an actual barge in French canals, using unfavorable conditions in his favor to craft a film that feels startlingly immediate, even contemporary, in its thematic construction and realism. His usual wit, humor, and visual inventiveness are there (a scene in which the protagonists make love while in completely separate locations, their movements and the lighting lyrically informing the action, is especially stunning), but L'Atalante feels like a kind of summation of his work. Vigo knew he didn't have long to live, and he threw himself into his art with all the more relish. He completed a lifetime's worth of work in four years, and it's especially fascinating watching the films in succession. Criterion's set is a rare opportunity to watch the progression and growth of an artist, and it can be done in a running time that's shorter than Titanic.

The blu-ray also features an illuminating conversation between Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer about Vigo, which is especially interesting for cinephiles as we watch two cinematic giants paying tribute to another. Les voyages de 'L'Atalante' traces the various incarnations the film has gone through throughout the years during its many reedits and restorations, while Michel Gondry pays tribute to Vigo in an animated short. The disc is chock full of material on Vigo, placing the films in the proper historical context while paying tribute to one of cinema's greatest unheralded giants, while the extensive liner notes provide the necessary background on each film that read like an engrossing crash course in the history of early French cinema. The Complete Jean Vigo is a veritable masterclass in cinema history, and one of the most important blu-ray releases of the year. It belongs on the shelf of every cinephile, where thanks to the Criterion Collection, the name of Jean Vigo won't be forgotten any time soon.

A PROPOS DE NICE - ★★★½ (out of four)
TARIS - ★★½ (out of four)
ZERO DE CONDUIT - ★★★★ (out of four)
L'ATALANTE - ★★★★ (out of four)

The Complete Jean Vigo is out today, 8/30, on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Here we have the new trailer for Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.

Here is the official synopsis:
In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth… Melancholia is a psychological disaster film from director Lars von Trier.
Melancholia premieres On Demand on October 7, and opens in theaters November 11.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Yahoo! Movies has the new American trailer for Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, as well as a brand new US poster.

Here is the official synopsis:
Ever since his wife was burned in a car crash, Dr. Robert Ledgard, an eminent plastic surgeon, has been interested in creating a new skin with which he could have saved her. After twelve years, he manages to cultivate a skin that is a real shield against every assault. In addition to years of study and experimentation, Robert needed three more things: no scruples, an accomplice and a human guinea pig. Scruples were never a problem. Marilia, the woman who looked after him from the day he was born, is his most faithful accomplice. And as for the human guinea pig…

It has that unique brand of Almodovar theatricality, and it will be interesting to see how he handles this more thriller-like territory, which he has only touched on previously in Live Flesh and Bad Education.

The Skin I Live In opens in the US on November 18.
While he is perhaps more widely known for his  lovely 1946 adaptation Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau's finest achievement is arguably Orpheus, a 1950 update on the Greek myth of the same name.

In mythology, Orpheus was a great musician who became so enamored with his art that he completely ignores his wife, who dies without his knowledge. Grief stricken, he follows her into the underworld to reclaim her. Touched by his show of devotion, Hades agrees to return his wife to him, on the condition that he not look back at her until he has left his kingdom.

The temptation, however, proves too much for Orpheus, who turns around to gaze on his beloved wife, and she vanishes forever, and he is torn apart by the Furies. It's an archetypal Greek tragedy that has seen many variations throughout history in different cultures (the myth is strikingly similar to the Biblical story of Lot in Sodom), and Cocteau gives it a mostly faithful modern iteration here.

Jean Marais as Orpheus. Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Jean Marais, who portrayed the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, brings a fiery intensity to the titular role, cast here as a self absorbed poet who has a brush with death when she comes to spirit away a rival poet. The encounter leaves him shaken and intrigued, and he becomes obsessed with finding her again, constantly monitoring radio broadcasts of poetic snippets that he believes are meant especially for him. He stays so glued to the radio, afraid of missing any of the broadcasts, that he stops paying attention to his wife, who despite her strongest attempts to get his attention, begins to fade from his life. He even pushes her away as she tries to join him by the radio, rebuffing her advances.

It is here where Cocteau deviates from the classic myth. In his re-imagining, Death is in love with Orpheus, and while he is distracted by the broadcasts, she visits his wife and steals her away out of jealousy. One of her minions alerts Orpheus, and he pursues them into the underworld, where he appears before a disciplinary tribunal, who in light of the circumstances allows him to return to the surface with his wife on the condition that he never look at her again. It is, of course, an impossible task, but in Cocteau's Orpheus, his relationship with his wife isn't nearly as important as his relationship with death.

María Casares as The Princess and 
Marie Déa as Eurydice. 
Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
For Orpheus, his wife represents a sort of living death, a type of stagnant domestication that is less desirable than death itself. Death herself is mysterious, vivacious, a lofty ideal that appeals to the poet within. It is part of Cocteau's grand statement of artistic purpose in what is perhaps his most personal film. "It is much less a film than it is myself," he is quoted as saying, and indeed Orpheus is an incredibly self-reflexive work - from the none-too-subtle casting of his then lover, Edouard Dermithe as a young poet who has displaced Orpheus in the public eye, opposite his former lover, Jean Marais, to the patterning of the character of Orpheus after himself, the film is thoroughly infused with Cocteau's own embracing of poetry as film form. It's a fascinating window into an artist's soul, and a wrenching testament to longing and unrequited love.

Cocteau saw film as a kind of poetry on celluloid, and never is that more clear than in Orpheus, which is the director's ultimate statement of his own artistic philosophies. Criterion's blu-ray presentation opens up its exquisite mysteries in a way never before seen. Its liner notes alone read like a mini dissertation on what is essentially Cocteau's artistic manifesto, deepening ones appreciation of the film and for the director's fine craft. Like Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus broke new ground for cinematic fantasy, and while Cocteau is clearly going for a more adult audience here, it is almost even more magical. Cocteau was a master of cinematic fantasy, and the special effects here, while primitive by today's standards, are surprisingly effective, and look terrific in HD. Criterion's transfer is simply gorgeous, preserving the film's grain while making it look sharper than ever without compromising the film's visual integrity.

The disc also includes the 1984 feature length documentary, Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, as well as "Jean Cocteau and His Tricks," a 2008 interview with Cocteau's assistant director on the film, Claude Pinoteau. It's a fabulous presentation of not only one of the great achievements in fantasy, but one of the landmarks of French cinema.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Orpheus will be released on DVD and blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on Tuesday, August 30.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Here is the first look at Lionsgate's The Hunger Games from tonight's MTV Video Music Awards.

Get More: 2011 VMA, Music

Hype is starting to build for what I'm sure Lionsgate is hoping will be the next Twilight or Harry Potter. The novels on which the series is based are excellent, so I have high hopes, even if this teaser very much lives up to its name.

The Hunger Games opens March 23, 2012.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On August 30, Kino Classics, the new banner of Kino International devoted to releasing classic films, will release its inaugural discs in the form of two silent Soviet films making their home video debut - Sergei Eisenstein's debut feature, Strike, and Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky's rare romantic comedy, The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom.

Released in 1925, right before his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin made its debut, Strike is a fevered and impassioned tale of a group of factory workers revolting against their oppressive bosses. Set off by the suicide of a worker falsely accused of stealing who can't bear being labeled a thief, the workers take over the factory, and make a series of demands of their employers - including an eight hour workday (six for minors), a 30% wage increase, and fair treatment by their managers.

A scene from Sergei Eisenstein's STRIKE.
Eisenstein tends to paint in broad stokes (he was, after all, a propagandist), with almost cartoonishly evil Capitalist bosses as his villains, who callously toss aside the workers' demands while laughing over cigars and brandy in a smoke filled room. Strike, perhaps more so than any of Eisenstein's other work, relies heavily on eccentric performances to accentuate the grotesque nature of its antagonists. It is, perhaps, an even less subtle form of Eisenstein's usual brand of agitprop, but that doesn't mean it's any less effective (and it's not quite as goofy as his shamelessly grand 1938 Stalin commissioned epic, Alexander Nevsky). The factory owners try every trick in the book in order to end the strike, including planting troublemakers in their midst to goad them to violence (one wonders if Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, took cues from this film in dealing with the unions in his state).

The conflict continues to escalate before the police are finally called in, leading to a massacre of the workers that stands as one of the finest sequences Eisenstein ever directed. Intercut with symbolic images of a bull being slaughtered (a technique of drawing parallels between two unrelated images through editing pioneered by Eisenstein's contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, for whom it was named), the final massacre is a wrenching cinematic set-piece, ending the film with a simple yet powerful admonishment by Eisenstein - "Proletarians...remember."

It's easy to see why his films were so effective rallying tools. Eisenstein's devotion to Soviet Montage, the idea that editing was the chief tool in a filmmaker's arsenal with which to tell a story through suggestion and rhythm, is clear even in his first feature, whose dynamic cutting remains thrilling even today. The blu-ray set also includes Eisenstein's long lost first film, the four minute short, Glumov's Diary, filmed for a friend's stage production of "Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man," which is more interesting as a historical artifact than anything else. A short documentary, "Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit," featuring film historian Natacha Laurent, is actually a very informative overview of the Soviet Montage movement, covering Eisenstein's contemporaries as well as the master himself, from his cinematic beginnings in the 1920s to his tragic end under Stalin, where he faded away, barred from filmmaking, after criticizing the dictator in Ivan the Terrible: Part 2.

A scene from Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky's THE CIGARETTE GIRL OF MOSSELPROM.
Zhelyabuzhsky's The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom is a different animal altogether. A little seen effort from 1924, the film is a surprisingly light romantic comedy, completely dispelling the misconception that all early Soviet films were Communist propaganda. In fact, the word 'comrade' is only mentioned once in Mosselprom, and it is in a completely non-political context. While it passed the Soviet censors, Zhelyabuzhsky had no political agenda - he simply wanted to entertain. And entertain he does. Mosselprom bears little resemblance to many other Soviet films of the time, eschewing the radical editing and photographic tricks favored by his contemporaries, and instead delivers a rather straightfoward screwball comedy about a young cigarette girl who becomes the object of affection of three different men - a lonely clerk, a charismatic cameraman, and a ruthless American businessman.

While hardly groundbreaking or revolutionary, The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom is a real charmer, but perhaps most important for cinephiles, it offers a rare glance behind the scenes of Russia's Mezhrabpom-Rus Studios, before turning into an oddly self-reflexive meta movie within a movie that feels like a very early precursor to the work of Charlie Kaufman. The DVD is completely devoid of extras, but films like this are lucky to be on DVD at all, and are honestly a special feature unto themselves. And while these two films could not be more different, they offer a window into early Soviet life that is both fascinating and compelling. Mosselprom is an interesting time capsule, but Strike is essential viewing for cinephiles, and Kino's presentation here is terrific and should not be missed.

STRIKE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Strike will be released on DVD and blu-ray on August 30.
The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom will be released on DVD only on August 30.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I've always thought it's a shame that no one makes silent films anymore. They may seem passe now, but without words it took more to effort to engage an audience. They are, in my opinion, the purest form of cinema because it becomes a purely visual medium.

It appears that Michel Hazanavicius is trying to remedy that with his new silent film, The Artist. Here's the official synopsis from The Weinstein Company:
Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him fall into oblivion. For young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), it seems the sky's the limit - major movie stardom awaits. The Artist tells the story of their interlinked destinies.

The Artist opens November 23.
On Tuesday, August 30, the Cinema Guild will release two documentaries - one, a new work by a revered modern auteur, the other an older work by a venerable master being released in the United States for the first time.

The two films could not be more different, and yet they are alike in one very important aspect - they are unique in their interpretation of what a documentary is.

Pedro Costa's sublime and mysterious Ne Change Rien (2010) is less a documentary than it is an impressionistic portrait of an artist. Costa introduces us to the enigmatic French chanteuse, Jeanne Balibar, an actress turned singer whose music provides the backbone of the film. You'll find no talking heads or even interviews here, Costa simply allows his cameras to observe her creative process.

Jeanne Balibar in Pedro Costa's NE CHANGE RIEN.
Shot in striking, dreamy black and white, Ne Change Rien allows us to watch the evolution of Balibar's art as she hones and perfects each song. Costa uses few cuts, instead choosing just place the camera and let the magic happen. It almost feels as if its unfolding in real time, and we are a fly on the wall as Balibar cultivates the jazzy sultriness of her music. On paper it almost sounds dull, but in reality it's completely enthralling. Balibar's charisma easily enchants without the help of any cinematic tricks. This is a haunting and soulful film, and while it may occasionally seem repetitive, it's hard to ignore the awe at its atmospheric and evocative craft as we witness nothing short of the birth of a work of art.

The DVD extras include some deleted scenes featuring more of Balibar's exquisite music. The End of a Love Affair, a short film by Costa, which is little more than a man staring at a window for eight minutes, is regrettably mystifying, and not in a good way.

Agnes Varda's Daguerréotypes (1976), on the other hand, is a bit more traditional in its documentary structure, but, like Ne Change Rien is an observational slice of life that provides a window into everyday existence.

After years of living on Rue Daguerre in Paris' 14th arrondissement, Varda sent out to pay tribute to the street she called home. Its influence had been felt in many of her films up until that point, as she drew inspiration and locations from its quaint shops and quainter residents, infusing her art with the familiar textures and feelings of home.

The resulting film is a loving tribute to the people who made Varda's life what it is, to the shop owners whose stores she frequented, to the faces she saw on the streets every day. It's a remarkable reflection by an artist on the root of her art, of the minutiae that has turned her into the artist she is today.

Two shopkeepers from Rue Daguerre in Agnes Varda's DAGUERRÉOTYPES.
The result is something wholly magical. Magical, not in the metaphysical sense, but in the personal sense. It's an unexpected charmer, a light and warmhearted homage to the common man, to small business owners, to home. In Daguerréotypes, Varda captures what so many filmmakers strive for but few rarely capture - life. This is life as it truly is, simple, lived in, real. Even though the film is 35 years old, it feels surprisingly immediate, even contemporary. Its themes are timeless, even if some of it feels like distant memories of a time long past. The DVD includes a bittersweet update of what Rue Daguerre looks like in 2005, and while a lot of the older shops have gone away (the old perfume shop, whose elderly proprietors once mixed their own perfumes, is now home to a Lebanese hookah shop), it's surprising just how much of it is still the same. Home, as they say, is where the heart is. But even if you have never visited Rue Daguerre, even if you have never been to Paris, Varda still makes it feel like home, and after seeing Daguerréotypes, you may never want to leave.

NE CHANGE RIEN - ★★★ (out of four)
DAGUERRÉOTYPES - ★★★½ (out of four)

Ne Change Rien and Daguerréotypes will both be released on DVD from the Cinema Guild on Tuesday, August 30.
Sam Shepard stars in Blackthorn, a new film that supposes Butch Cassidy survived his shootout with the Bolivian army and lived out a quiet life as James Blackthorn, before being called into one last adventure.

Blackthorn will premiere On Demand on September 2, before opening in theaters October 7, 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vulture has the new US poster for Lars von Trier's Melancholia, as well as information on its upcoming US release.

Magnolia will premiere the film On Demand on October 7, over a month before its theatrical release on November 11. The film stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kiefer Sutherland.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It is serendipitous that both Secret Sunshine (IFC, 2010) and Poetry (Kino, 2011) should be released on DVD and Blu-ray on the same day. After all, both films were directed by Lee Chang-dong, and both are among the very best films of their respective years.

While they are separate works, they are inexorably connected not only by director, but by tone and thematic content. They make great companion pieces, each film standing on its own while simultaneously complimenting the other.

Both films center around strong female characters whose lives are altered by unspeakable tragedy. In Secret Sunshine, we are introduced to Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a widow who moves from Seoul with her young son to Miryang, her husband's small home town, where she is immediately the topic of all the gossip. Her one friend is Jong Chan (The Host's Kang-ho Song), a lonely and somewhat bumbling mechanic who takes an immediate interest in her after helping repair her car.

Jeon Do-Yeon as Lee Shin-Ae in SECRET SUNSHINE
Photo Credit: Ida. An IFC Films Release.
Shin-ae immediately begins searching for an investment property, giving the appearance to the villagers that she is a woman of means, which causes even more talk amongst the locals in the sleepy little town. It turns into major trouble, however, when Shin-ae returns home to find that her son, Jun, has disappeared, and that an unknown kidnapper is demanding an impossible sum for his return. Devastated and desperate, Shin-ae turns to religion. In perhaps the film's most powerful scene, Shin-ae wanders into the Koren equivalent of an old-time tent revival, filled with prostrate worshippers. Numb to the world, Shin-ae sits amongst them in silent shock, but their fervor begins to wear on her, and her pitiful wailing soon cuts through the entire room, nearly drowning out the sound of their hymn. She is comforted only by the hand of the kindly pastor on her head. Shin-ae is home.

For a while it seems as though she has found the answer to her grief in God. She throws herself into her newfound religion with the zeal of a child with a new toy. It soon becomes clear, however, that religion does not heal all wounds. When she comes face to face with her son's abductor, she is enraged to learn that he has already found absolution from God, that her moment of righteous forgiveness has been upstaged by the Almighty. Through Shin-ae, Lee explores the simple platitudes and contradictions of Christianity - why its teachings are so comforting to many and so hollow to others. Are its teachings merely pacifying comforts to a wounded human race? Or are they a charlatan's trick distracting people from truly confronting their pain? Or is there, perhaps, something there that only true believers can see? The film is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of religion (though it is clear where Lee's own beliefs lie), instead it searches for answers, questioning and seeking through the eyes of its heroine. In the end he leaves the answer up the audience, in the eye of the beholder, as it were, turning a keen reversal of perception on the audience - the film can be different things to different people and be equally effective in any of its interpretations.

Poetry (click here to read my original review), on the other hand, uses its eponymous literary art as a means of solace in the face of tragedy. Its heroine is Mija (the extraordinary Yun Jung-hee), an elderly cleaning lady on the cusp of Alzheimer's who discovers that her loutish grandson has committed an unspeakable crime. As in Secret Sunshine, Mija is told by the parents of his partners in crime that she must pay up in order to keep their transgression out of the public eye and out of police hands in order to protect their children from what would be a life-destroying prison sentence. It is a sum that Mija could never hope to raise, and she finds her escape in a poetry class that is teaching her to look at the world through fresh eyes.

Mija is at first baffled by her teacher's instruction. After all, an apple is an apple, and nothing else. So she goes about her day writing down observations about the world around her, unknowingly creating poetry all along, even as her mind slowly slips away from her.

Yun Jung-hee in Lee Chang-dong's POETRY. 
Image courtesy of Kino International.
This is, perhaps, the greatest shared theme between Poetry and Secret Sunshine. As Mija discovers her unknown poetic talents, she finds something of the divine within, not unlike Shin-ae's own discovery after the denial of her grief eventually leads her away from the well-intentioned self-deception of religion. Though their paths are different, their ultimate revelations are strikingly similar, as if Poetry is somehow a thematic continuation of the ideas begun in Secret Sunshine. In fact, as a film, I actually prefer Poetry, so in that regard it is as if that film is a refinement and perfection of an idea hatched in Secret Sunshine.

Criterion's blu-ray treatment of Secret Sunshine is just as flawless as we have come to expect from the boutique label, even if its extras are a bit sparse. A video interview with Lee Chang-Dong and a behind the scenes featurette seem strangely slight for a Criterion release, even if its liner notes by Dennis Lim are thorough and informative. Its seeming dearth of supplements shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, however, since the film isn't one of their classic releases, and comes as part of their partnership with IFC Films. Kino's blu-ray treatment of Poetry is similarly sparse (if beautifully packaged), featuring a very brief behind the scenes featurette and an interview with actor Ahn Nae-sang, who played Kibum's father in the film. It's a bit disappointing considering the quality of the film, and since it lacks the in-depth liner notes of Secret Sunshine, Criterion gets the edge for its disc presentation, while Kino gets the edge for the film itself. Both films, however, are easily recommendable regardless of their blu-ray supplements. Sometimes the films themselves are the ultimate special feature, and that is absolutely true in both cases. Lee Chang-dong is not only one of the most important voices in Korean cinema, he's one of the most important voices in world cinema period. See these movies and find out why.

SECRET SUNSHINE - ★★★½ (out of four)
POETRY - ★★★★ (out of four)

Secret Sunshine will be released on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, August 23.

Poetry will be released on blu-ray and DVD from Kino International on Tuesday, August 23.
From The Dispatch:
The film tends to deal in broad strokes, its characters either saintly or monstrous, which plays right into its crowd-pleasing tendencies. What makes it so special is its cast, each of whom is a highlight unto themselves. It's a true ensemble piece, and their clear passion for their roles is infectious. It's a summer movie for soccer moms, about as deep as its blockbuster summer brethren, but just as shamelessly entertaining. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fans of Michael Stephenson's fantastic documentary, Best Worst Movie, and by proxy, its infamous subject, Troll 2, will recognize Deborah Reed as the deliciously evil troll queen, Creedence Leonore Gielgud (of ancient Druid origins).

What is less known is that her son, Gavin, also had a small role in the film, and that he has grown up to pursue a passion for animation. You can check out some of his work in the music video for Novie's "Funk 3 (Get Next to You)." He has an interesting style (and it looks better than anything in Troll 2...Claudio Fragrasso should take note), so give it a look if you get a chance.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NOTE: The following is a re-post of my original review, from May 5, 2011, with an added post-script about the blu-ray release.

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.

Blu-ray addendum: After the rather disappointing blu-ray treatment of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Strand has followed it up with a spiffy new blu-ray of Cameraman. It's a logical choice, given the beauty of Cardiff's work, and here it would seem that Strand has improved upon its previous effort the second time around.

The transfer is pristine, enhancing the natural beauty of Cardiff's work. Snippets of films such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes may not quite match Criterion's blu-ray presentation of those films, but they're still striking, and clear example of Cardiff's peerless talent.

The special features are not only plentiful, but more in depth as well. The highlight is a look at some of Cardiff's home movies, shot on a 16 mm camera, of behind the scenes going on during the filming of films like The African Queen and his unfinished directorial debut, William Tell. While they are without sound, watching John Huston at work with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn is a rare thrill for cinephiles. There is also a requisite interview with director Craig McCall, which offers a few interesting tidbits, and a further exploration of Cardiff's actress portraits. A featurette about the three-strip color process offers a brief technical overview of the in-camera process, but the real special feature here is the film itself, which remains a jewel for all students of film history.

The blu-ray still retains a few of the weaknesses from the Uncle Boonmee disc, namely the lack of pop-up menus. Pressing the 'menu' button still navigates back to the main menu rather than bringing them up in-picture, which is a bit of a frustration for those who have grown accustomed to the more convenient blu-ray format. Still, it's a stronger, more well-rounded disc than their last effort, showing that they are indeed learning and growing in their sophomore effort. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, fans of Cardiff and film enthusiasts shouldn't hesitate to pick up this disc. Cardiff's work deserves the best showcase possible, and Strand's HD presentation is definitely the way to go.

FILM GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)
BLU-RAY GRADE - ★★½ (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 | Now on DVD and Blu-ray from Strand Releasing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

If there was an award for most unintentionally literal abstract title of the year, Sophie Fiennes' new documentary, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, would take it in a walk.

While the title may symbolically refer to the post-apocalyptic nature of its subject's art, it also serves as a rather ironic reminder that watching this film may feel a bit like watching grass grow.

I've always found "boring" to be a lazy criticism, but it's possibly the film's most critical sin. There are undeniably moments of great beauty and even awe here, but it's strung together in such a seemingly arbitrary, stream of consciousness style that it never picks up any kind of narrative or cognitive power.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a strange, modernist appreciation of strange, modernist artist Anselm Kiefer, who in 1993 moved from Buchen, Germany to La Ribaute, an abandoned silk factory in Barjac, France.

Anselm Kiefer in Sophie Fiennes' OVER YOUR CITIES GRASS WILL GROW.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.

In 2000, Kiefer began transforming the factory into a sprawling work of architectural art. Using discarded metal and other remnants of human activity, Kiefer creates a man-made labyrinth of twisted steal and broken concrete that resembles some kind of dystopian nightmare. Towers of boxes jut from broken earth, dimly lit tunnels stretch on like ancient mineshafts - everything about Kiefer's work reeks of crumbling modernity. Fiennes' camera plays lovingly over his work, taking long, observant tracking shots through Kiefer's stark landscapes, often accompanied by a droning, industrial, Kubrick-esque score. These forays into the art itself highlight the film. When it comes to showcasing art, the film soars, achieving a kind of transcendental trance state that is completely ethralling.

The problem is that Fiennes never places Kiefer's work in any kind of tangible context. While it is clear her goal lies in a more abstract realm of senses and feelings, it is frustrating that the film doggedly refuses to offer any kind of real insight into his art. It offers a fly on the wall look at Kiefer's process, quietly observing his artistic process, but it's all surprisingly mundane. It never feels like watching creation, it feels like watching work. And incredibly slow, dull work at that.

A scene from Sophie Fiennes' OVER YOUR CITIES GRASS WILL GROW.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.
The film only allows Kiefer to speak about his art during an extended interview with an art critic that is so statically shot and rambling that it offers no more insight than the seemingly endless passages of wordless observation. It's a strangely inert and lifeless film, an overly self-serious, and dare I say it, pretentious work that never seems to coalesce into a satisfying whole. It takes a legitimate approach - to feel the work rather than explain it, but rather than conjure any sense of wonder, it seems stuck running in place, never quite sure what it wants to be or where it wants to go. Watching an artist at work can be fascinating, but Fiennes seems more interested in showing the most mundane, random details. It all seems so technical rather than fluid, a strange hybrid of the analytical and the lyrical that never really meshes.

Fiennes wants to enthrall us, but the film loses its way rather quickly. It meanders and coasts without any real direction, and while Kiefer's work is doubtlessly beautiful and even haunting, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is a bland and listless art gallery tour that never quite does it justice.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

OVER YOUR CITIES GRASS WILL GROW | Directed by Sophie Fiennes | Not rated | In French and German w/English subtitles | Opens today at the Film Forum in NYC.

Friday, August 05, 2011

In light of several leaked photos from the set of The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. has released its own, official first look at Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

It's interesting that Warner continues to refer to Hathaway's character as Selina Kyle rather than her alter-ego, Catwoman. From the looks of the decidedly un-catlike suit, it could be that Nolan and company are going for a kind of cat burglar aesthetic, in keeping with their more realistic take on the Batman universe. It could be that the name Catwoman might not come up at all. It will be interesting to see where Nolan takes it.

The Dark Knight Rises opens July 20, 2012.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Today's WTF news story comes courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter, who is reporting that in light of Tarsem's Snow White project (starring Lily Collins and Julia Roberts), and Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman (starring Kristen Stewart), Disney is moving forward with it's own Snow White project, The Order of the Seven (formerly known as Snow and the Seven).

Focusing primarily on the dwarfs, the film will be a live-action epic set in China, directed by commercial director Michael Gracey and written by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3).

The project has apparently been kicking around since 2002, only recently moving ahead with Arndt being brought on board to clean up the script. As to why it's being set in China...well...your guess is as good as mine.

From The Dispatch:
It is strange that a film whose concept seems so fresh turned out so painfully ordinary. Rather than creating something new from its genre mashup, it simply relies on their old cliches. It's an approach that could have its charms — the homages to old Westerns in Gore Verbinski's animated comedy, "Rango," actually worked in the film's favor. But here they just seem tired and unextraordinary.
Click here to read my full review.
James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey, and makeup artist Dick Smith were announced as the recipients of this year's Governor's Awards today by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jones and Smith will both be receiving Honorary Oscars, which are presented for a life's work, while Winfrey will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarin Award for her philanthropic contributions.

Jones is best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy, but has also appeared in such films as Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Lion King, Conan the Barbarian, and Field of Dreams.

Smith's credits include The Exorcist, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver. He received an Oscar for his work on Amadeus in 1984.

Winfrey received an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple, but it is her humanitarian work with such organizations as Oprah’s Angel Network, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls,that led to her award here.

All three awards will be presented at the Governors Awards dinner on Saturday, November 12, at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

In one of the most heartbreaking moments from Steve James' harrowing new documentary, The Interrupters, a young girl sits in a classroom, recounting an altercation in her neighborhood that led to deadly violence. Her voice begins to crack, and tears begin to flow. She chokes up, and is unable to finish her story. The wound is too raw, the memory too painful.

For far too many children in Chicago's south side, this is a common occurrence as gang violence has reached near epidemic performances. Chicago's problem with violent crime gained national attention in 2009 when 16 year old Derrion Albert was brutally beaten in the streets during a brawl that was recorded and posted on YouTube. The video caused mass outrage from citizens, and lots of pontification from politician about saving America's youth and cleaning up our streets. But while the politicians wagged their fingers and preened in front of the camera, one group had the courage to stand up and do something, and that group is the subject of The Interrupters.

Violence interrupter Ameena Matthews surrounded by crowd in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s THE INTERRUPTERS. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
They call themselves CeaseFire, an organization founded by Gary Slutkin whose mission is to mediate conflict and prevent urban violence. The volunteers are called "violence interrupters," and are made up of former gang members and street thugs who are no strangers to inner city violence. Each one has reformed their lives and now seek to stop others from making the same mistakes they did, hopefully saving lives in the process.

The film focuses on three such interrupters - there's the fiery and indomitable former gang enforcer Ameena Matthews, the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the most notorious gang leaders in Chicago's history. During the course of the film, Ameena mentors a troubled 18 year old girl whose struggles to stay out of trouble make up some of the film's most dramatic moments. There's Eddie Bocanegra, whose life behind bars for a murder he committed as a teenager has given him a new outlook on life. And then there's Cobe Williams, whose father was murdered when he was just a boy, leading him to a life of crime he put aside for his family, and now devotes himself to helping others.

Violence interrupter Cobe Williams (right) and Lil Mikey (left) in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s THE INTERRUPTERS. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Each interrupter is unique in their own way, but their dedication and and hard work are a true inspiration. Ameena is an especially engaging presence, commanding the screen whenever she is on camera. But she isn't a camera hog - she's a naturally domineering presence whose no nonsense attitude gives the film an unforgettable personality.  Filmed over the course of a year, The Interrupters goes to the front lines of the war against urban violence, where violence interrupters sometimes step into the middle of escalating conflict and try to diffuse tense situations at their source. As former offenders themselves, these interrupters carry a greater credibility than outside voices, and their work is invaluable. James rightly explores the roots of violence, and those who seek to put an end to its vicious cycle.

It's a compelling and ultimately redemptive documentary. James takes us into a world few outsiders ever get to see. These streets feel almost alien, like a war zone in a third world country. But this is no war zone - this is America, and the interrupters are a beacon of light in the darkness, a true voice of change and reason. The film deftly avoids manipulation and instead provides a clear eyed portrait of people whose lives have been forever changed by violence, trying to change the lives of others for the better. This is essential, issue-based documentary filmmaking without the usual ham-fisted histrionics. This is real, this is raw, this is compelling and ultimately deeply moving stuff. So many films try to be inspirational; The Interrupters actually is.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE INTERRUPTERS | Directed by Steve James | Not rated | Now playing in NYC.

Monday, August 01, 2011

NOTE: The following is a re-post of my original review of Uncle Boonmee from March 31, with an added postscript about the blu-ray release.

There is no more intoxicating director working in the world today than Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known affectionately as Joe to his friends). His previous work has been on the radar of cinephiles for years (I still consider his 2005 masterpiece Tropical Malady to be one of the finest films of the last decade), but it wasn't until he took home the Palme D'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for his latest film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives that the rest of the world sat up and took notice.

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

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

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

Weerasethakul incorporates a kind of magical realism in his filmmaking. Metaphysical manifestations of past lives appear like fragments of a dream, making us accept the impossible and perhaps even the ridiculous (monkey ghosts, amorous catfish) as something of great and powerful beauty. Uncle Boonmee's history is at once ancient, contemporary, and timeless. Like his best work, it exists outside of time and place and inside a world of dreamscapes both alien and familiar. Boonmee's head is full of stories of lives past, shards of memories collected into a foggy picture of time long gone, perhaps they are real, perhaps they are not. But upon his death, it all disappears, and his family is left almost detached from their own lives. Or is it the audience who is asked to step back and evaluate, transporting us away into a spiritual world all our own?
Uncle Boonmee asks far more questions than it answers. It's almost as if Weerasethakul designed it as a Rorschach blot to be interpreted differently by each viewer. That is the magic of his films, and especially this one, which doggedly defies any kind of pseudo-intellectual explanation. It exists as a mystery, and a beautiful one at that. It's a sublime and wholly entrancing head-trip that is impossible to shake whose depths will still be probed by film fans for years to come.

Blu-Ray Addendum: Strand Releasing is finally getting into the blu-ray market, and they couldn't have picked a better title to start with than Uncle Boonmee. However, the final product leaves much to be desired. Not only does it not have the typical pop-up menus we have come to expect from the format (clicking the menu button simply takes you back to the menu screen just like a DVD), but the extras are surprisingly sparse. Weerasethakul's mysterious 2009 short film, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is a welcome blu-ray exclusive, but beyond that we are treated to a few mildly interesting deleted scenes and an interview with the director. Anyone looking for any real insight into the film will be sorely disappointed.

The transfer, on the other hand, isn't bad, if not perfect. While not a pristine transfer, the film nevertheless retains a kind of grainy beauty, perfect for its air of mystery and intimate wonder. It actually looks like film, which should please film purists. It's a huge step up from the substandard image quality on the DVDs of Weerasethakul's previous films.

It's a shame, though that a Palme d'Or winner with such high critical adulation as Uncle Boonmee should be saddled with such a bare-bones blu-ray. It's Strand's first foray into the medium, so a certain learning period should be expected. But one hopes that their future releases will be have a little more effort put into them than this one.

FILM GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)
BLU-RAY GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES | Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Stars Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram | Not rated | In Thai with English subtitles | Now on DVD and Blu-Ray.