Thursday, September 29, 2011

One of the biggest problems with many issue driven documentaries is that they often ignore the fact that their are two sides to every issue. And often, both sides have legitimate points.

Bill Haney's The Last Mountain takes a hard look at mountaintop removal coal mining and its effects on Appalachian communities in West Virginia. On one side, local families who have watched as their mountains have disappeared, sending harmful waste into their rivers and streams and causing massive flooding. On the other side, Big Coal and with its deep pockets and scorched earth policies. Or at least that's how its often portrayed. Haney is clearly against mountaintop removal, but unlike many other documentary filmmakers, Haney goes to those he opposes and asks for their side of the story, and he gets it. While I would have liked to have seen him go into more depth about how ending coal mining in West Virginia would harm the families of the coal miners who would find themselves without work, Haney actually represents the other side of the argument well, even if he uses his position as filmmaker to counter all of their points.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in THE LAST MOUNTAIN.
At the center of the debate is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has taken this on as his pet project, tirelessly lobbying on behalf of West Virginia families, many with children who have developed ailments from asthma to brain tumors as a result of pollution from the coal mines. There are plenty of heartbreaking stories, and while The Last Mountain stays mostly clear eyed, Haney makes a compelling case. And to his credit, Haney doesn't simply present a problem and lament it ad nauseum, he offers practical, constructive solutions that create jobs rather than cut them, offset the destructive nature of mountaintop removal.

This is an extremely emotional issue for the parties involved, even if it isn't one that is particularly well known on the national stage. Haney shows us, however, why this is an issue of national importance, and in doing so never comes off as some kind of left-wing extremist preaching to a drum circle, but a level-headed and well reasoned argument (Kennedy, naturally, lends some gravitas to the proceedings). And while he does come across the occasional earth-child oddball, The Last Mountain is actually a rare beast - it's a film with a clear agenda that is reasonable and moderate in its aims.  It's a refreshing approach to documentary filmmaking whose even tempered presentation might actually create real change.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LAST MOUNTAIN | Directed by Bill Haney | Rated PG for some thematic material and brief language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This looks a bit more sentimental than Stephen Daldry's other films, but I love his work so I'm definitely looking forward to this.

Here's the official synopsis:
Based on the acclaimed novel of the same name, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" tells the story of one young boy's journey from heartbreaking loss to the healing power of self-discovery, set against the backdrop of the tragicevents of September 11. Eleven-year-old Oskar Schell is an exceptional child: amateur inventor, Francophile, pacifist. And after finding a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11, he embarks on an exceptional journey--an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York. As Oskar roams the city, he encounters a motley assortment of humanity, who are all survivors in their own ways. Ultimately, Oskar's journey ends where it began, but with the solace of that most human experience: love.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close opens December 25, 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Herschell Gordon Lewis may have been the ultimate cinematic huckster hack, but he did at least give us one thing - the gore film. An exploitation filmmaker in the purest sense, Lewis cut his teeth on "nudie cuties," a bizarre subgenre of nudist camp films that circumvented censorship by portraying commonplace, non-sexual nudity but nevertheless drew in a crowd seeking titillating thrills.

The "nudie cutie" market eventually expanded, leaving Lewis to find some other kind of smut to peddle, which led him to the idea of gore, and Blood Feast was born in 1963, eventually earning Lewis the title of "Godfather of Gore" (a moniker he shares with Lucio Fulci, who he isn't even in the same league with).

Before Blood Feast, no one had seen that kind of graphic mutilation on screen before. What movies such as Psycho (1960) had merely hinted at, Blood Feast reveled in, although the bloody effects are hardly realistic and even by the standards of the time are pretty hokey.

A scene from BLOOD FEAST.
The film tells the story of an Egyptian cultist named Fuad Ramses, who makes sacrifices to ancient Egyptian gods by mutilating nubile young women. That's pretty much it, because Lewis never had any intention of anyone coming to see his film for the plot. He was a sensationalist, and little else. Watching Blood Feast today is actually pretty entertaining, in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of way, because it's often hilariously inept. The sound was recorded in-camera because they couldn't afford microphones, and as such tends to fade in and out. Not that you'll miss any important dialogue (delivered by some of the most laughable performances ever captured on film), but the script is its own unique brand of special. Nearly everything about Blood Feast is completely wrong - the blocky cinematography that never seems to capture what it's supposed to be looking at could almost be called avant-garde, while the acting almost makes Ed Wood films look like Academy Award winners. It's a strange choice for a blu-ray release, but it looks as good as an ugly movie can look in high definition.

Herschell's follow-up, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964),  is a bit more ambitious, conceptually, but the execution is perhaps even worse. Those who have seen Grindhouse will instantly recognize the bad splices and overlapping edits, where characters start a sentence, only to have Lewis cut to another shot of them saying nothing in middle of that sentence, and then start a completely new, unrelated sentence. In Two Thousand Maniacs, a group of northerners stumble upon a small southern town whose yokel citizens want to turn them into mincemeat in celebration of their town's centennial. Unlike Blood Feast, the actual concept has potential to make a good horror film, but under Lewis' direction the result is perhaps even more nonsensical and illogical than its predecessor.

The infamous 'barrel roll' scene in TWO THOUSAND MANIACS!
But just when you think it can't get any worse, along comes Color Me Blood Red (1965), which is perhaps the worst of the three films. The tale of a failed artist whose work is rejuvenated when he starts painting with human blood, Color Me Blood Red is filled with long spaces of filler (which, as Lewis explains in the commentary of Blood Feast, he used to inflate his films' running time), and ultimately leads nowhere. It actually looks the best on blu-ray of the three films, but it feels as if Lewis was running out of ideas by the time he got around to this one.

And while it may seem like I hate these films, I really don't. I appreciate their place in film history, even if as films they are undeniably horrible. Lewis is the cinematic equivalent of a sideshow carnie, an auteur of schlock who somehow stumbled his way into history by giving birth to a genre that would later spawn the likes of Saw and Hostel, not to mention countless films between. The blu-ray presentation is surprisingly good, despite the quality of the films, and the commentaries featuring Lewis and producer David F. Friedman are informative and entertaining (offering some fun anecdotes about the making and marketing of these anti-masterpieces). These films are a must for horror film collectors and and fans of grindhouse cinema. Students of film history will also find plenty to enjoy here, because no matter how bad these movies are, they're great fun to watch, if for no other reason than to laugh at their sheer ineptitude. The Blood Trilogy is a piece of cinema history that will never be remembered as a great contribution, but it;s an important contribution. Who would have thought that movies this bad would have such a resounding influence?

BLOOD FEAST - ★ (out of four) 
TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! - ★ (out of four)
COLOR ME BLOOD RED - ½ (out of four)
BLU-RAY GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Out today on blu-ray from Image Entertainment.
My boyfriend and I went out for a rare non-review related trip to the movies this afternoon to see Disney's The Lion King 3D. I've made it pretty clear I am no fan of 3D. To me it is still an overdone gimmick, but I have made certain exceptions in the past, and honestly, movies like The Lion King are what this technology was made for.

Did the 3D make that much of a difference in the movie? No, it didn't. But it made the film an event. By releasing the film in theaters for two weeks only before its blu-ray premiere next week, Disney turned their film into a must-see for children of the 90s. I was eight years old when The Lion King was first released in 1994, and I didn't mind a bit shelling out the inflated 3D ticket price to see it again and relive my childhood.

And therein lies the secret to the continued success of the movie theater. It's no secret that exhibitors have been fighting to find new ways to attract audiences to leave their living rooms to pay jacked up prices to see movies on a big screen. But home video and increasingly inexpensive methods of renting movies, such as Redbox and Netflix (not to mention piracy, but that's a different story), have put a dent in people's desire to go to the movies when they can just wait three months and see it in the comfort of their own home.

Disney brilliantly played off of the nostalgia of the children of the 90s, many of whom now have children of their own, to introduce the film to a new generation, coming in at #1 at the box office for both weeks of its release, even though it has been available on various home video formats for 17 years.

Before home video, re-releases were commonplace, and  often the only way for people to see older films. There are plenty of movies from my childhood I would gladly pay to see on a big screen again, not to mention films from before my time that I've never had a chance to see in a theater. This is a huge untapped market that Disney has discovered, and while some may chalk it up to another sign that Hollywood has lost its creative drive, I would much rather Hollywood re-release films than remake them.

Let this be a signal to studios - we don't want to see remakes, we want to see the originals. Re-release them, limit the run, make them an event, give us a reason to shell out our hard-earned cash and we will gladly show up. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia. There's a gold mine to be had here, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot of familiar titles coming to a theater near you very soon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ingmar Bergman was barely three years old when Victor Sjöström made The Phantom Carriage in 1921, but the influence Sjöström had on Bergman cannot be overstated. Bergman claimed to have seen The Phantom Carriage at least once a year, and the film had a profound impact on him as a teenager.

Prior to Bergman's arrival on the international scene with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries in 1957, Sjöström was the greatest of the Swedish directors, and while his output has since been surpassed by Bergman, he remains one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the silent era, and a huge influence on generations who came after him.

While Bergman (would later use Sjöström as the lead in Wild Strawberries) may be the most notable of his successors, his influence can be seen in the work of multiple directors. A scene where an enraged father beats down a door with an axe to get to his wife and children mirrors the famous sequence with Jack Nicholson from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, while the plot itself is a direct precursor to Frank Capra's perennial holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Fellow European auteur Carl Dreyer was also clearly influenced by the film's haunting imagery for his own 1932 supernatural thriller, Vampyr.

Hilda Borgström as Mrs. Holm and Olof Ås as the first driver of the chariot in THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. 
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
In the film, Sjöström himself plays David Holm, a drunken lout who has sworn off good behavior, vowing to track down his wife after she leaves him for his drunken behavior after he is sent off to jail. Along the way he meets Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who takes him in one cold New Year's Eve and shows him kindness, only to have it thrown back in her face by a cruel and ungrateful Holm. Nonplussed, Sister Edit says a prayer for him, asking God to grant him a good new year, and she asks him to return one year later to let her know if her prayer was answered.

Sister Edit, however, contracts consumption and falls deathly ill, while David Holm sits in a graveyard one year later relating ghost stories to his fellow revelers, remembering a friend who had died one year ago that very night. According to legend, the last person who dies on New Year's Eve is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the next year. But before the night is out, David finds himself in a fight, and he passes away just before the stroke of midnight, and just as the legend says, Death's carriage comes for him, and the driver is none other than his old friend who had died the year before. In a Dickensian twist, before he hands David the reigns, the carriage driver takes him on a tour of his life. Through a series of flashbacks, David's story unfolds, and he sees how his actions have destroyed not only Sister Edit's life, but the lives of his wife and children as well.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
The Phantom Carriage is perhaps one of the most beautiful films of the silent era, and that beauty is reflected in Criterion's gorgeous transfer. The primitive special effects, which were achieved in-camera, are surprisingly impressive, even today. The transparent carriage and driver are convincingly realized using double exposure, a technique pioneered by Sjöström. His layering of flashbacks within flashbacks is also revolutionary for its time, creating a non-linear narrative that was almost unheard of. The film brought Sjöström international notoriety, and he was subsequently invited to Hollywood, where his name was changed to Seastrom to sound more American.

The special features on the blu-ray tend to focus on Sjöström's connection to Bergman, and while I would have liked to have seen more focus on the particular historical importance of the film itself, the Bergman connection will be especially interesting to film fans, and those who are more familiar with Bergman's work than Sjöström's. The disc also includes two musical scores to choose from - a more classical score by Matti Bye, which enhances the film's eerie beauty, and a modern score by experimental group, KTL, which focuses more on the film's supernatural dissonance. While I prefer Bye's more lyrical work, KTL's horror tinged experimentalism provides a completely different viewing experience, and works well depending on what one is in the mood to see. No matter which score one chooses, one thing remains clear - The Phantom Carriage is a masterpiece, and is easily one of the most accessible silent films for modern audiences. Filled with images both chilling and entrancing, Sjöström's masterwork is an unforgettable work of art.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE | Directed by Victor Sjöström | Stars Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander | Not rated | Silent, Swedish intertitles w/English subtitles | Available on blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, September 27, from the Criterion Collection.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I've always had a soft spot for Soviet films, so Flicker Alley's new eight film box set, Landmarks of Early Soviet Film was like a little slice of heaven for me. Collecting four narrative films and four documentaries from some of Russia's most renowned directors, the set is a godsend for fans of Soviet cinema and cinephiles of all stripes.

There are some real gems of the period here that have long been unavailable on DVD. One of the most notable inclusions is the first film to come out of Lev Kuleshov's Cine-lab, The Extraodinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), a buoyant satire about an American businessman who comes to Russia with his trigger happy cowboy bodyguard in tow, expecting the Bolsheviks to be bloodthirsty barbarians. When a group of fallen aristocrats learn of his arrival, they pose as proletarians and kidnap him, in hopes of getting ransom money that will return them to their former lavish lifestyle. They are, of course, defeated by real Bolsheviks, and Mr. West learns that they aren't the monsters they have been portrayed as. It's clearly a propaganda piece (as were most Soviet films of the period), simultaneously poking fun at Americans and glorifying the Soviet ideal.

A scene from Sergei Eisenstein's OLD AND NEW.
Kuleshov was actually a fan of American film, and the style of The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks was patterned after American action films of the period, particularly the work of D.W. Griffith, whose influence can be seen in the cross cutting near the film's climax. Kuleshov is perhaps known for his "Kuleshov effect," in which he discovered that he could manipulate an audience by placing two completely non-related shots together that come together to suggest new meaning. He took the same shot of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin, and intercut it with various clips, causing the audience's interpretation of his emotions to vary wildly from shot to shot, even though his expression remained the same each time. Interestingly, Kuleshov didn't use his eponymous editing technique as much as his protege, Sergei Eisenstein, perhaps the greatest Russian director and the father of Soviet Montage. The Soviets championed the idea that editing was the most important aspect of filmmaking because it is what separated it from the other arts.

Eisenstein's particular embracing of the technique is on full display in Old and New (1929), the director's last silent film before his Siberian exile. The now famous scene in which Eisenstein juxtaposes footage of a newly working milk machine with a gushing water fountain is a kind of visual symbolism that Eisenstein employs frequently throughout his films, even if the overall effect here seems almost truncated when compared to his more passionate films like Battleship Potemkin and Strike. Originally conceived as an exultant demonstration of the Communist Party's plans for modernizing country life, Old and New began shooting in 1926 under the name The General Line, but was put on hold when Eisenstein was commissioned to direct October: Ten Days that Shook the World to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. When he finally returned, the Party's policy was beginning to shift, and Eisenstein's grand vision of communal living was no longer in step with the government's vision, which was shifting away from revolutionary politics. Eisenstein was ordered to re-edit the film, and the result focuses more on the act of industrial progress, although communes still play a major role, which resulted in the film being booed by the press upon its release.

A scene from Boris Barnet's THE HOUSE ON TRUBNAYA.
It is a theme that would pop up again in Dziga Vertov's Stride, Soviet! (1926), an early documentary that was made to demonstrate the achievements of the Moscow Municipal Council in the lead-up to the elections in 1926. More straightforward than his more experimental work, like his most famous film, Man with a Movie Camera, Stride, Soviet! is more overtly propagandist, contrasting old hardships with new social progress It is effective in its aims, but it makes for less interesting cinema since Vertov isn't so much interested in pushing cinematic bounds as he is drumming up votes. Which is perhaps why out of the four documentaries presented with this set, I enjoyed Mikhail Kalatozov's Salt for Svanetia (1930) the most. A glorious examination of the rural village of Svanetia, Salt for Svanetia is essentially a call for provential peoples to be brought into modernity and out from under the domination of local land barons and backward religious practices that waste their precious resources. But more importantly, it's a fascinating window into a vanished culture that no modern documentary could ever replicate. While it's clear than many of the situations in this "documentary" are staged, Kalatozov (who would later go on to direct such classics as The Cranes are Flying) handles the propagandist elements with greater subtlety than many of his contemporaries, summing up everything that I adore about these films - the rousing beauty, the almost naive passion; it's hard not to get swept up in it.

Even in Viktor Turin's Turksib (1929), the propagandist elements feel less overt even while hitting on the common Soviet theme of technological progress. A direct precursor to the muckracking documentaries we know today, Turksib focuses on the need for a railroad traversing the desert between the resource rich Siberia and the impoverished regions of Turkistan (a project that was a part of Stalin's first Five Year Plan). Turin is clearly influenced by the editing techniques of Eisenstein and Vertov, but he is less interested in grand political statements as he is a more personal look at the effect the railroad will have on the people, something that Eisenstein often missed in revolutionary fervor, where characters were often more symbols than people. The result was a surprise hit around the world, one of the few Soviet films that was greeted with praise by both critics and audiences.

A scene from Mikhail Kalatozov's SALT FOR SVANETIA.
On the opposite end of the documentary spectrum is Esfir Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, which forsakes the on the scene immediacy of Turksib and Salt for Svanetia for a found-footage, newsreel style. Shub compiled footage from various sources (none of which was shot for the film itself) to chronicle the lead-up to WWI and the final straws that brought down the czarist government of Russia and led to the Bolshevik Revolution. Shub's work is perhaps the purest form of Soviet Montage, because it's all about the editing. Since Shub didn't originate any of the footage, editing was the only tool in her directorial arsenal, and she uses it to her ideological advantage. Shub uses juxtaposition to lay blame for the horrors of WWI at the feet of Czar Nicholas II, his government, and the religious leaders, while exalting the efforts of the Bolsheviks who overthrew them. Shub tells such a compelling story that it's almost hard to tell that she didn't shoot the footage herself. It all feels like it was meant to be together, and it makes for a fascinating viewing experience today, if for nothing else than as a historical document, even if it leaves out key details, such as the murder of the Czar's family by the Bolsheviks.

Shub's film is the ultimate form of realism, albeit with an editorial slant. By the time he made By the Law (1926), Kuleshov had put aside the affectations of American films for something more naturalistic. An adaptation of Jack London's short story, "The Unexpected," By the Law tells the story of five prospectors in the Yukon whose isolation leads to madness and eventually murder. While the surviving members of the team try to deal with the murderer according to the law (an ideal held to a high standard, even in the remote Yukon), they descend into paranoia and hysteria. While the film contains some of the more exaggerated performances that were a staple of Kuleshov's work, it's a remarkably grim and naturalistic work, dealing in a haunting sense of lonely dread. The score by Robert Israel included on the DVD release, however, is completely incongruous with the film, which is a shame, because Kuleshov's craft is impeccable.

A scene from Lev Kuleshov's BY THE LAW.
My favorite film on this release, however, is Boris Barnet's The House on Trubnaya (1928), a delightful comedy about a young woman who, through a series of mix ups, ends up working as a maid in an apartment building whose owners refuse to treat her fairly, even after she joins a union. Barnet deftly mixes social commentary with farcical elements, making it less overtly propagandist than many of its contemporaries. It still retains some of the experimental elements of Soviet Montage mixed with a charming and humane comedy with an unmistakably socialist conscience. It is, in many ways, the perfect marriage of everything the Soviets did best, never overstating any of its elements. It's political without being outright propagandist, it's funny without being overly bizarre. It's simply a lovely film, and perhaps the finest Soviet silent comedy (an admittedly small genre).

The presentation by Flicker Alley is stellar, even if some of the films are a little worse for wear. The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty especially looks like it was transferred from VHS and the intertitles look like Jeopardy questions.  While several of the films would benefit from a full-on restoration, we're lucky to have them on DVD at all, and this set is a veritable treasure trove for movie lovers. Included with the set is a highly informative booklet that details the history and production of each film, providing each of them with their proper historical context. While the DVDs themselves have no special features, it's serendipitous that this set was released so soon after Kino's excellent blu-ray release of Eisenstein's Strike, as the special features there spend quite a bit of time discussing some of the films included here. It's a stellar and essential release, offering a tantalizing glimpse into an exciting era of film history that has paved the way for many of the techniques we take for granted today. This is truly a release to be celebrated.

BY THE LAW - ★★★½
OLD AND NEW - ★★★½

Landmarks of Early Soviet Film is now available from Flicker Alley.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Slashfilm has the exclusive poster premiere of Tom Six's The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (IFC, 10.7).

I've been covering the film out of morbid curiosity, but I actually saw the film this evening and wasn't particularly impressed with what I saw. The original film had some merit - was well composed and reasonably well executed, even if I never felt it branched out beyond its gruesome premise.

The sequel, however, simply wallows in its own filth. I'll be posting a full review in the coming weeks before the film is released. But for now, check out the admittedly creepy new poster that was released yesterday ahead of its premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) opens in select cities nationwide on October 7, and will premiere On Demand on October 12.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Names of Love is one of those French comedies that wears its intentions on its sleeve. It wants to be Amelie but comes off more like Micmacs - strained, false, and completely lacking its own personality.

It's really one of the most bizarre viewing experiences I've had in a while. One gets the feeling that director Michel Leclerc never quite knew what to do with the film, whether it's a comedy, a social commentary, a serious exploration of racial politics in modern France, or a strange amalgam of all of the above.

At its core it's a pretty typical opposites attract romantic comedy wherein a young, left wing activist named Baya (Sara Forestier) who spends her time sleeping with right-wing men in an effort to convert them to her cause. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), a white bread lover of the status quo who pays lip service to liberal causes by supporting left wing presidential candidates without a prayer of actually being elected ( while Baya has a rather irritating habit of accidentally voting for the wrong candidate).

Baya (Sara Forestier) and Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) in THE NAMES OF LOVE.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Baya comes from a mixed background, with a firebrand French left winger for a mother and an Algerian refugee for a father, while Arthur's mother is a Holocaust survivor and his father is a nuclear engineer. Baya embraces her "otherness," Arthur tries to hide it, preferring instead to fade into the background of French society. It's an odd mix, but the two find a way to make it work, and in the process run up against cultural prejudices and racial identity as they try to navigate the waters of an ever changing France.

The problem is, those themes get muddled in a banal, faux-quirky comedy that never figures out what it wants to be. The Names of Love has no personality of its own, favoring instead an incongruous pastiche of styles and ideas that never quite mesh. Stylistically, the film is mostly anonymous, striking a problematic and even schizophrenic tone that lurches between dippy comedy and serious cultural commentary.

Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya (Sara Forestier) in THE NAMES OF LOVE. 
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
The characters are also wildly inconsistent, despite fine performances, especially by Forestier (who received a Cesar Award for her work here), who is wholly believable as a naive political activist who lets blind dogma blind her to reality. She's a perfect parody of the kind of blind, idealistic young liberal who is just as close minded as the conservatives she rails against, and I wish the film had spent more time showing that dichotomy between people of two extremes who are both in fact everything they claim to hate in the other side. Sadly, Arthur is far too bland of a character for that. He's a milquetoast bureaucrat with no real ideas of his own, sort of like this film, whose message is lost amongst a sea of conflicting and half-developed ideas.

It's a mildly enjoyable film in the moment, but that's all it is - a film of surface pleasures. When one looks more closely, the gaping holes begin to show, and they're hard to look past. I wanted more from this film. The potential is there, but the underdeveloped plot never lives up to it. The script is riddled with narrative shortcuts and nonsensical changes of character that, while convenient for the story, never quite make sense. The Names of Love is every bit as anonymous and lost as its cartoonish, cookie cutter characters, who whittle down the cultural complexities of a diverse France into a stale and toothless romantic comedy.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE NAMES OF LOVE | Directed by Michel Leclerc | Stars Jacques Gamblin, Sara Forstier, Carole Franck, Zinedine Soualem, Michèle Moretti, Jacques Boudet | Rated R for sexual content including graphic nudity, and some language | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities, opens Friday, 9/23, in Cary, Chapel Hill, & Raleigh, NC.
Having released such excellent blu-rays of Buster Keaton's most well known films, such as The General, Sherlock, Jr., and Our Hospitality, not to mention a stellar box set of all of Keaton's solo short films, Kino International has moved on to some of the silent comedian's lesser known works.

In the latest release from Kino Classics, the company's newly minted classic film label, we get a dual release of two admittedly minor Keaton films, Go West and Battling Butler. While both may be lesser films in Keaton's canon, cinephiles will likely find each one interesting in their own right, if for no other reason than their historical value and place in Keaton's oeuvre.

The "feature presentation" here is clearly meant to be Go West, a 1925 Western spoof that fits in more comfortably with Keaton's other work.

Keaton stars as Friendless, a young man with no prospects who decides to hop a train and head out west to make his living. Along the way, he ends up at a dude ranch where he decides to stay and work, both based on his affection for the boss' daughter, and his newfound friendship with a cow named Brown Eyes. Lots of hijinx naturally ensue as Friendless haplessly bumbles his way through ranch life, accidentally becoming a star cattle rustler and using his wits to save Brown Eyes from branding. But when she is shipped off to be butchered, he springs into action to save his new best friend, culminating in a cattle stampede through the streets of Los Angeles.

Brown Eyes and Buster Keaton in a scene from GO WEST.
The film has a certain charm about it, but it lacks the sustained energy of Keaton's better work. The climactic cattle stampede is impressive, but still not as outrageous as some of his other finale set pieces like The General's train crash/Civil War battle or Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s jaw dropping squall. It's a strangely mundane film. Friendless' friendship with Brown Eyes is sweet and amusing, but it almost seems as if Keaton is coasting. Go West arrived in the mid period of Keaton's feature career, after Sherlock Jr. and Our Hospitality, but before his masterpiece The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr (Seven Chances, which was released the same  year, is also similarly slight). It's almost as if Keaton was gearing up for that one last hurrah in the form of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. before beginning the inevitable decline that came with the sound era in 1927. 1928 saw Keaton's last great film before slipping into obscurity, and his greatest film, The General, was a box office failure.  Still, Go West shows brief glimpses of his genius, even if it seems a bit tired when compared to his other films.

1926's Battling Butler is an interesting anomaly in Keaton's career, and surprisingly, a superior effort to Go West. Released the same year as The General, Battling Butler is an adaptation of a musical play by Stanley Brightman and Austin Melford, which is in and of itself unusual for Keaton. Even more unusual is his character, a spoiled wealthy playboy named Alfred Butler who goes out in the wilderness to make a man out of himself. The only problem is he brings his trusty butler along for the trip, as well as a luxury tent with all the amenities. While he is on his luxury vacation in the woods, he meets a young woman and falls head over heels in love. The only problem is that her tough, mountain men brothers think he's too soft, so his butler convinces them that he is actually Battling Butler, the lightweight boxing champion of the world, leaving Butler to live up to his newfound alter-ego and convince them of his identity.

Buster Keaton and Mickey Walter in BATTLING BUTLER.
More of a melodrama than a comedy, Battling Butler is more subtle and understated than most of Keaton's work. It feels less like a Keaton film and more like a play from the era, and that's no coincidence. Both a departure in form and character for Keaton, Battling Butler is a charming work with some surprisingly dynamic boxing scenes that escehews Keaton's usual brand of physical comedy for something more subdued, even if it isn't always as successful. However, Keaton demonstrates a performance range here, putting aside his usual bumbling innocence for something more aloof and even serious.

Both films have been well preserved by the Library of Congress, so the blu-ray presentation is especially impressive. The extras will also be of special interest to both Keaton fans and students of the silent era, especially an hour long audio recording of Buster Keaton brainstorming a script proposal for the TV show, Wagon Train and excerpts from an unproduced screenplay for a Go West remake from 1947. Also included is an amusing Hal Roach short from 1923 also called Go West starring the Dippy Do Dads, a troupe of trained monkeys who take on human roles. The plot doesn't matter here as much as watching cute monkeys do funny, anthropomorphic things, which goes a long way in a silent short like this, and their skill is admittedly impressive.

Clearly, both Go West and Battling Butler are non-essential Keaton films, but Kino does an excellent job of presenting them nevertheless. Keaton fans will find plenty to enjoy here, but those new to his work would be better served starting with one of his more well known films. Keaton was one of the greatest comedians of the silent era, but even the masters can't hit a home run every time they go to bat.

GO WEST - ★★½ (out of four)
BATTLING BUTLER - ★★★ (out of four)

Go West/Battling Butler will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, September 27.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From The Dispatch:
"Drive" is perhaps the finest action film in a decade, maybe more; it's a brutal, finely tuned thrill machine that is also a deeply impressive work of art. Few films ever work so perfectly as both, but "Drive" is that rarest of the rare — an intelligent and emotional action film that stands tall as one of the finest films of the year.
 Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Criterion Collection will be releasing Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (1921) on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday September 27th. The Blu-ray disc has s suggested retail price of $39.95, but one lucky reader of From the Front Row will be getting it for free.

All you have to do is head on over to my Twitter page and retweet this message by September 27th, and you will be automatically entered to win. That's all you have to do.

The contest is open to residents of the United States 18+. This is a great opportunity for film fans, so head on over to Twitter and enter the contest today.

Monday, September 19, 2011

It's interesting looking at the learning curve between Cinema Guild's inaugural blu ray release, Marwencol (an admittedly unusual, but highly successful choice), from this past April, to their sophomore release, Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, one of the finest films of 2010.

Marwencol was an excellent first foray into the blu-ray format, but Angelica takes the game to a whole new level. The attention to detail on this disc, and the wealth and quality of the extras nearly rival that of the Criterion Collection. Of greatest note to de Oliveira fans (and cinephiles in general), is the inclusion of the 102 year old director's first film, the 1931 silent short, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro River), a chronicle of life on Portugal's Douro river. It's fascinating to watch the origins of the artist that we know today, especially coming at the tail end of the silent era (Portugal's fledgling film industry was late in catching up with sound).

Pilar López de Ayala in THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA. 
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Douro, Faina Fluvial is clearly the work of a much younger man than the more seasoned de Oliveira we know today. It's an energetic work, teeming with life and cut in an almost Soviet Montage style the recalls the work of Dziga Vertov and Jean Vigo (de Oliveira almost certainly saw Vigo's A propos de Nice before making this film). The new 2K restoration of Douro, Faina Fluvial is staggeringly pristine, especially for a film of its age. It's surprisingly well preserved, and the 1080p presentation is astounding, completely lacking the dirt and scratches often associated with other films of the era. It's a wholly different work from The Strange Case of Angelica, which is quiet and measured, a film that evokes the still photography that informs its thematic substance. It seems that de Oliveira in his later years has settled down (not to be mistaken with mellowed out) into someone more comfortable and confident in his craft (although his first film is an undeniably thrilling work), who isn't afraid to let his camera simply observe. The aesthetic experimentalism of his youth (clearly embracing his influences) has given way to a calm sort of assurance, replaced with a strict adherence to cinematic formalism. As I said in my original review:
Isaac's landlord chides him for photographing field workers across the street, saying that no one does it by hand anymore, that it is all done by machines now. "Old fashioned work interests me." He replies. One can almost hear the words being uttered by de Oliveira himself, who is obviously far more fascinated by old fashioned societal constructs and cinematic formalism than the modern world. Except his work never feels outdated - it feels timeless, almost as if his characters exist within their own temporal reality. Much like in Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, the characters seem almost displaced in time, but feel less like inhabitants of a bygone era than citizens of their own private world, trapped in a pristine snow globe.
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
The disc also includes a 1992 documentary, Oliveira, L'Architecte by Paulo Rocha, as well as an illuminating 35 minute conversation with de Oliveira himself. It's fascinating watching the centenarian master singing the praises of James Cameron's Avatar while chiding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to bestow a posthumous award upon the father of cinematic fantasy, Georges Méliès.

As for the film itself - it's simply breathtaking. De Oliveira's imagery has never looked better - it's a crystal clear evocation of the director's photographic intent. From my original review:
Like the photographs of the dead Angelica, every shot of The Strange Case of Angelica is framed like a photograph of its own. De Oliveira deliberately frames each shot with a photographer's eye, giving the audience a small window into the peculiar lives of his protagonists as if thumbing through an especially exquisite family album. If Eccentricities is the work of a master painter, then Angelica is the work of a master photographer for whom every picture is a glimpse into its subject's soul.
De Oliveira's sly and haunting exploration of perception through art feels even more potent on blu-ray, even if the film's content hasn't changed. There's just something about the perfect images that enhance the director's vision and turn them into something almost transcendent. The Strange Case of Angelica isn't just one of the finest films of 2010, it's one of the must-own blu-rays of 2011. Kudos, Cinema Guild. This one is a home run.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA | Directed by Manoel de Oliveira | Stars Ricardo Trêpa, Pilar López de Ayala, Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra, Ana Maria Magalhães, Isabel Ruth | Not Rated | In Portuguese w/English subtitles | On DVD and blu-ray September 20.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Film is perhaps the greatest tool we have for keeping cultures alive. The history books are littered with people and cultures that time has forgotten, their memories washed away and scattered to the wind; some without so much as leaving a trace. There are surely countless examples of cultures still unknown to history who have simply vanished, leaving behind no record of their existence for future generations. Their culture, their history, their oral record - all lost.

Since the advent of film, those cultures can be captured and documented, even those who are in danger of fading away into oblivion, and as such can live forever

Such is the premise of Aleksei Fedorchenko's somber Russian drama, Silent Souls, a film as much about fading away as it is about asserting ones existence.

In this case we are introduced to the Merjans, a Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero in Western Russia. Long since disappeared, their traditions live on in their ancestors, and Miron has held on to his heritage fiercely. When his wife, Tanya, passes away, he reaches out to his best friend, Aist, to help bury her. The Merja burial ritual is long and complicated, but Aist agrees, and the two set out on a road trip with Tanya's body in tow, along with two birds in a cage as a kind of symbolic "canary in the coal mine."

In accordance with Merjan culture, the spouse of the deceased must share details of their love life while the body is still out of the ground as a way of keeping them alive, so Aist is forced to listen to uncomfortable stories of Miron and Tanya's sexual escapades. It is especially uncomfortable for Aist, as he was in love with Tanya too. And so these two men travel together, bound by the same woman, along with two birds and her dead body, to put the past behind them and keep traditions alive. It becomes a kind of surreal journey of the soul for both of them, and ultimately one of discovery.

Silent Souls runs a scant 75 minutes, but there is something strangely beguiling, even magical about it.  Fedorchenko pays homage to Tarkovsky with his slow pace and moody imagery, conjuring up a haunting sense of pathos and angst amidst a possibly futile attempt to keep lost traditions alive in a time when few care about where they really came from. That is essentially what this film is about - humanity's desperate and constant quest for immortality. But more intimately, connections across generations, across people, and sometimes to the person right next to you.

There is a poetic quality to the film that is hard to shake, even if the film itself never quite leaves a lasting impression. It's a film of great beauty, no doubt,  but it's never as profound as it seems to think it is, and the ending strikes a false note. It is one of those films that is fascinating, even gripping, in the moments, but fades quickly, much like the Merjans of the story. Perhaps that is what Fedorchenko intended, because Silent Souls is, in many ways, like the traditions and cultures whose virtues it extols - like a wisp of a memory just waiting to be discovered. It is a film worth revisiting, like a dream after waking, but an hour later you may not remember you ever had the dream at all.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

SILENT SOULS | Directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko | Stars Igor Sergeyev, Yuri Tsurilo, Yulia Aug | Not rated | In Russian w/English subtitles | Opens today at the Angelika Film Center in NYC, and 9/30 at the Laemmle Music Hall in LA.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Basing a film off of what is essentially a novel-length art  essay may sound like a strange, if not downright impossible idea. There are few propositions that sound less cinematic, but Polish director Lech Majewski took on the challenge and created something that combines art and cinema in ways we have never seen before.

That doesn't mean that it is entirely cinematic - it isn't. But it's still a fascinating experiment that invites audience members to literally step inside a painting, and observe the artist's artistic process from within his own mind.

The painting in question is Peter Bruegel's 1564 masterpiece "The Way to Calvary." Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) was a 14th century Flemish painter/philosopher who lived under the brutal rule of the Spanish, a theme very much at the forefront of "The Way to Calvary." What distinguished Bruegel, however, is that the subjects of his paintings were often hidden, lost amongst a teeming throng, illustrating the human tendency to overlook that which is most important. In this case, Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary.

Rutger Hauer as Peter Bruegel in Lech Majewski's THE MILL & THE CROSS. 
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The Mill & The Cross is something like a mashup of art history lesson and film, but it's the most immersive art history lesson you'll ever see. Through the use of blue screen, Majewski has painstakingly recreated "The Way to Calvary," inserting live actors into the painting itself. It's a technique that never quite looks real, but then again it's not supposed to. It's literally like watching a moving painting, and while the images often betray their blue screen roots, that element of unreality actually feels right.

Bruegel serves as our guide through his own imagination as he arranges each element. Majewski retains the essay-like qualities of his source material,  but he does so in a compelling and consistently entertaining way. The imagery alone is enough to keep the viewer entranced, but Majewski goes one step further, he invests the audience in the creation of the artwork. It is almost as if we are an active participant in Bruegel's craft. Majewski, who idolized Bruegel as  a teenager, clearly has a lot of love and respect for his work, and his passion is clearly evident on screen. His attention to detail mirrors Bruegel's, from the faithful recreation of the painting to his prominent use of sound, bring each and every aural element to the forefront. It is almost as if Majewski is enhancing that which the audience would often overlook, making a point similar to Bruegel's - that each element is important, but the most important things are often missed.

Charlotte Rampling as the Virgin Mary in Lech Majewski's THE MILL & THE CROSS. 
Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
It is that attention to detail that makes The Mill & The Cross such a fascinating work. It deftly bridges the gap between art and cinema (both mediums of which Majewski is familiar), enhancing the meaning of Bruegel's work and making it easily accessible to those who may not have previously been familiar with it. It's the next best thing to taking an art gallery tour, because it really feels like walking through history. While there is no real narrative to speak of, Majewski instead chooses to focus on telling the story of the painting. He brings the work to life as a person who sees what few others can see. Majewski is like the world's most engaging art gallery tour guide, breathing life into stillness with a exuberant prose and infectious passion.

There is nothing conventional about The Mill & The Cross, and to be quite honest, many viewers will most likely find it slow moving and dull. But Majewski paints images so breathtaking and haunting that it's hard not to be moved by it on some level. It's a compelling museum piece, an engaging piece of art history brought to vivid life by a man with a keen understanding of its roots and origins. For all those interested in art, or just in unconventional cinema, The Mill & The Cross will be a revelation.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE MILL & THE CROSS | Directed by Lech Majewski, Charlotte Rampling, Michael York | Not rated | Opens today, 9/14, at the Film Forum in NYC and runs through Tuesday September 27th.

From The Dispatch:
Soderbergh, the director behind "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," does an excellent job balancing emotional content with political intrigue, even if a few of its characters receive the short end of the stick (Marion Cotillard's WHO operative who gets kidnapped in Hong Kong is especially shortchanged). It's a razor sharp paranoid procedural that feels eerily real and, even more gnawingly, completely possible. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Watching Lech Majewski's The Mill & The Cross (Kino, 9.14), one is immediately struck by the fact that it actually feels as if you are watching a painting on film. It was a theme that continually popped up in our interview this afternoon as we discussed the Polish filmmaker/painter/composer's new film, which opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in NYC.

Director Lech Majewski. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Majewski (who cites his greatest cinematic inspirations as Tarkovsky, Fellini, and Kubrick; the first of which is most clearly apparent here) likened his experience making the film to a chess game, painstakingly assembling the pieces of each shot as he recreated Peter Bruegel's painting, "The Way to Calvary." In the film, Rutger Hauer (who he says resembles Bruegel's self portrait, and interestingly enough, has Bruegel's "Way to Calvary" on his bedroom wall) plays Bruegel as he is painting his masterpiece, and the film dramatizes this by literally putting him inside his own painting. Majewski achieved this effect through extensive use of blue-screen. Each shot is composed of anywhere between 40 and 147 layers of action to achieve the look of the original artwork, each piece shot separately from the others. When asked if making the movie was akin to painting on film, Majewski responded that it very much was, and that he wanted to meet Bruegel on his territory.

Bruegel painted "The Way to Calvary" from seven different perspectives, and Majewski set out to recreate them as accurately as possible, but found in the beginning the results looked too much like film. After much tinkering and philosophical reflection about Brueger's approach, the result is the film we see today. The camera, Majewski says, is a false perspective. After all, humans have two eyes, while the camera only has one lens. The eye is alive, always moving and changing focus, and his goal was to somehow capture that, assembling the landscape so as to summarize our eye's perspective.

Peter Bruegel's "The Way to Calvary"

When asked how he came to direct this film, Majewski quickly replies that he has been fascinated with Bruegel since he was a teen, spending hours on end in Vienna sitting in front of his paintings. His work's visual power coupled with its philosophical nature drew Majewski to him. Bruegel had a way of hiding the subjects of his paintings. Whereas most painters put their subject right up front, Bruegel concealed them, suggesting that people often don't pay attention to the most important things. There is so much to look at one almost misses the main focus of the painting, in this case, Jesus carrying the cross to Calvary in a medieval setting, symbolically being guarded by Spanish soldiers.

The film is based on the book of the same title by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who sent Majewski a copy of the book, inspiring him to make the film. It is essentially a 300 page essay on "The Way to Calvary," and not very cinematic. No one had ever done a film based on an art essay before, but as Majewski says, "real gentlemen do the impossible."

And indeed he has achieved the impossible. The Mill & The Cross is a lovely film, the kind of rich and expressive film that continues to offer rewards upon each viewing, much as the painting offered Majewski something new each time he looked at it, even as he was making the film. Even today he is still discovering new aspects of Bruegel's work, and through The Mill & The Cross he invites us to do the same.

The Mill & The Cross opens September 14 at the Film Forum in NYC.

Find out more about Lech Majewski and his work
NOTE: The following is a repost of my original review from April 11, 2011, with a new post-script regarding the Blu-ray release.

There is something to be said for a film, in this age of bigger, faster, louder, that is able to convey itself completely without dialogue. Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is a film of feelings, of textures, a narrative journey that is more spiritual and abstract than grounded in the literal, more physical world of words.

Not unlike Apichatpong Weerasethakul's recent Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Le Quattro Volte is a meditation on reincarnation, an exploration of a soul's journey through different phases of life.

The film opens with an elderly shepherd nearing the end of his life in the medieval Italian village of Calabria. His only company are the faithful goats who serve as his constant companions. A nagging cough has driven him to seek medication, in the form of dust from a local church, which he trades for goat milk and mixes with his water every day.

A goat, in a scene from Michelangelo Frammartino's LE QUATTRO VOLTE.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.
His eventual death coincides with the birth of a baby goat (a remarkable and life-affirming scene in and of itself), and the film follows it as it embarks on its life, eager and curious about the world around it. But one day it becomes separated from the herd, and is left to wander the forest on its own, eventually coming to rest under a great fir tree. The next Spring, the tree is chosen by the villagers for their annual "Pita" celebration, and is chopped down and brought into the town. When the party is over and the villagers have returned to their homes, the tree is sold to coalmen, who break it down to be turned into charcoal, releasing its smoke into the air and continuing the life cycle from where it began.

The title, Le Quattro Volte, translates into "The Four Times," a reference to the four lives the soul of the old man lives in the course of the film. Frammartino isn't interested in creating a conventional narrative, but don't be fooled by its often highly metaphorical execution. There is a story here, and it's a deeply compelling one. It's the story of life, lived out in 88 minutes. Frammartino tells his story through images, completely sans dialogue, and does so with such a masterful hand that we almost don't notice that for the film's entire running time, no one speaks. We hear human voices, but they are often unintelligible, either off in the distance or as back ground noise. They are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant and inconsequential in the grander scheme. The film's real focus is a spiritual one. Words and human concerns fade in time, but this soul continues unabated, transitioning effortlessly in a never ending cycle.

Like the great silent directors, Frammartino conveys the story through images of often profound beauty. An early shot of dust floating in a ray of light in the church the shepherd visits for medicine foreshadows a later stage in his soul's earthly odyssey, and suggests the fate of others like him from time long past. There is not a wasted shot to be seen here, each is pregnant with possibility and teeming with an inner life; mostly consisting of long, seemingly effortless takes. Despite its wordlessness, or perhaps because of it, Le Quattro Volte enraptures its audience, holding us in its grasp with bated breath, enthralled in each delectable moment and spellbound by its haunting stillness. It is as if Frammartino has stumbled upon a deeply profound truth, something filmmakers so rarely hit upon. His film seems to embody life itself, a feat made even more impressive by its brief running time.
Giuseppe Fuda as the shepherd in a scene from Michelangelo Frammartino's LE QUATTRO VOLTE.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.
This is powerful and confident filmmaking, a kind of cinematic poem that stares deep into the human soul and emerges with a quietly moving and deeply meaningful experience. I so rarely use the word 'masterpiece' in reviews for fear of unearned hyperbole, but that is exactly what Le Quattro Volte is - a masterpiece. It's a brilliant work of art, a staggeringly masterful and evocative film whose power transcends mere words and enters the realm of the spiritual. No matter one's religious beliefs, there is something of the divine to be found Le Quattro Volte, a whispered hint of the soul's immortality that lingers like a wisp of smoke on a mountain. This is what great cinema is all about.

Blu-ray addendum: Five months on, Le Quattro Volte is still my favorite film of the year, even after the release of Terrence Malick's magisterial The Tree of Life. It's interesting now comparing the two films and their vastly different approaches to similar subjects. While I still think Malick's grandiose vision is masterful and awe-inspiring, I actually prefer Frammartino's simplicity. Where Malick has poetic dialogue and soaring choirs, Frammartino has silence, and in the hands of the right director, silence can be even more powerful.

 I'll admit to being slightly disappointed in Kino's Blu-ray release of the film. There are no special features to speak of (save for a lone trailer and photo gallery), and the image quality is surprisingly grainy. But, much like Uncle Boonmee, the grain of the film actually works in its favor. There is a more real, earthy quality to it, bucking the usual trend of pristine images on Blu-ray.

The lack of special features isn't surprising, and in the end it's almost preferable. Le Quattro Volte is a beautiful mystery, and it remains so on Blu-ray, without in depth documentaries and commentaries explaining every little detail. It is simply presented as it is - a haunting, quietly soulful film that seems to carry with it a spark of the divine. And really, what more can you ask for?

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

LE QUATTRO VOLTE | Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino | Stars Giuseppe Fuda | Not rated | On DVD and Blu-ray today from Kino Lorber.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The September 9 release date of Heather Courtney's haunting new documentary, Where Soldiers Come From, is no coincidence. Here on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the film takes a hard look at its continuing legacy, as young men and women continue to go overseas to fight in wars that are a direct result of that horrific day ten years ago.

Specifically, Where Soldiers Come From follows a group of five friends, each one 18 or 19 years old, who sign up for the National Guard as a way to help pay for their education, only to find themselves shipped off to Afghanistan, where they spend their time hunting for IEDs to clear the way for the convoys behind them.

They are the children of 9/11, who would have been eight or nine when the planes slammed into the World Trade Center. They have barely known a world where the words "war on terror" haven't been played on the news every day. This is the world they grew up in, the world they know, and the film is every bit as much a tribute to them as it is a requiem for a lost generation.

Friends Dom and Cole
Photo credit: Heather Courtney
Where Soldiers Come From has all the makings of a Hollywood war drama; five childhood friends all make a pact to enlist together, and end up getting shipped out to a war zone at the same time, while their families and lovers wait behind and worry on the home front, banding together for comfort and support. But this isn't a Hollywood fantasy, this is reality, and that makes it all the more poignant. Courtney introduces us to these young men before they ship out. They are young, carefree, innocent, even; the naive glow of childhood still hangs around them. At home, they are protected. Fresh out of high school, the world is their oyster - instead, they give it all up to serve their country.

When they return, they are haunted shells of the boys they once were. They are dark, brooding men, damaged both physically and psychologically by the trials of war. Some suffer from PTSD, others from traumatic brain injuries from multiple explosions of roadside bombs. It's a heartbreaking transformation, and by following their story from the beginning, it makes their evolution even more wrenching. We watch them change before our eyes, as the light in their eyes slowly fades away, replaced by the world weary, blank stare of a shell shocked soldier.

Dominic in Afghanistan
Photo credit: Heather Courtney
There is no political grandstanding here, no preaching or manipulation, just simple observation. Courtney films with the objective eye of a true documentarian and a genuine sense of earnestness. If there was any justice in the world, this film would be required viewing for all members of Congress, not necessarily to prevent war, but to remind them of the true stakes. There are plenty of anti-war docs out there, but this isn't one of them. Instead, it's a clear-eyed portrait of the true losses of war, and its effects on its most basic component - the enlisted man and the people that love them.

Where Soldiers Come From isn't necessarily comprehensive. Its scope is both limited and intimate, a quality that is both to its credit and its detriment. But it is very much an essential document of the times we live in. These boys could be from anywhere. They are our sons and our daughters, our brothers and our lovers. They fight for our freedom and pay for our mistakes, and not always out of patriotism or love of country, but to pave the way for a better life for themselves and the ones they love. It is a powerful reminder of what we've lost and what's at stake. This is their story, and Courtney makes sure that we won't soon forget it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM | Directed by Heather Courtney | Not rated | Opens Friday, September 9, in NYC, and October 7 in LA.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

From The Dispatch:
There are bad movies, there are terrible movies, and then there is "Apollo 18," a movie so abysmal it's almost in its own category of awful. We're not talking "so bad it's good" like "Troll 2" or "Plan 9 From Outer Space." "Apollo 18" is a complete and utter disaster, the absolute worst kind of quickie cash-in dreck that represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Today marks the 90th anniversary of Hollywood's first, and perhaps greatest, scandal.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the great silent comedians, and one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. He discovered Buster Keaton, who apprenticed under him before embarking on a hugely successful solo career, and mentored Charlie Chaplin while he was with Keystone Studios.

On Labor Day, 1921, Arbuckle checked the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco with two friends, actor/director Lowell Sherman and cameraman Fred Fischbach. One of their rooms was booked as a party room, and several women were invited, including 26 year old aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe, who was later found seriously ill in Arbuckle's room by hotel patrons who heard screams. Arbuckle, the only other person in the room, claimed she had fallen ill. Rappe claimed "he did this to me."

What followed was a media circus that rocked Hollywood and destroyed Arbuckle's career, despite being acquitted of the crime three times. Most of the lurid details of the crime, such as Arbuckle raping Rappe with a Coke bottle, were completely fabricated by a sensationalistic media, which came to define the trial in the eyes of the public. It helped perpetrate Hollywood's reputation as a den of iniquity for many, and in some ways destroyed its sparkling illusion of perfection and glamor, leading to the establishment of a Hollywood censorship board, who blacklisted Arbuckle (a blacklist that Buster Keaton would later help surreptitiously undermine). BBC News has a terrific retrospective on the scandal, offering a fascinating portrait on one of Hollywood's most infamous scandals.
Arbuckle was charged with first-degree murder, eventually reduced to manslaughter.
With morality groups demanding he face the death penalty, movie moguls ordered Arbuckle's industry friends to disown him.

Los Angeles-based film historian Cari Beauchamp says: "This was the first scandal in Hollywood with box office implications.

"Everyone had believed the stars were covered in fairy dust. Now that illusion was shattered and studio bosses were terrified it would destroy Hollywood itself."

With no concern for prejudicing the trial, the sensationalist "yellow journalism" Press churned out lurid stories of Tinseltown's depravity alongside coverage of the case.

Although Arbuckle was never tried for sexual assault, this notion has endured, largely because of how the trial was reported at the time. 
90 years on, and despite countless scandals and uproars, Hollywood has yet to see a scandal that rivals the sheer insanity, and tragedy, of the Arbuckle trial. Arbuckle is the subject of an upcoming (and overdue) HBO biopic starring Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet.

Read the BBC's full story here.