Monday, October 31, 2011

Five years ago tonight, From the Front Row was born.

It's been a long, strange journey, but a rewarding one. A lot has happened around here in the last year. The previous year saw an overall decrease in both posting and traffic, due mainly to my lack of attention to the site because of various factors. But I returned to posting with renewed vigor this year, and the site saw a rise in numbers across the board.

I've expanded my review coverage to include movie soundtracks, kicking things off with Alberto Iglesias' excellent work on The Skin I Live In (look for more coming later). Perhaps most notably, in the past year I joined the ranks of the Online Film Critics Society, a development of which I am most proud. It's been a good year here at From the Front Row, turning a come-back into a banner year. I hope the future can only hold good things.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Boxing seems to be one of those subjects that the movies just can't get enough of. In the last several years we have seen Million Dollar Baby (which went on to win four Academy Awards including Best Picture), Cinderella Man, The Fighter (which received seven Oscar nominations), and Warrior (whose Oscar prospects have yet to be seen), while films such as Rocky and Raging Bull have achieved classic status.

Audiences have long embraced boxing films for their underdog heroism, and Sebastian Dehnhardt's new documentary, Klitschko, embraces that triumphant spirit with soaring aplomb.

I'm no sports fan, but I defy anyone not to feel a rush of adrenaline while watching Klitschko, an extraordinary story of two brothers from Ukraine whose rise to prominence in the boxing world is fraught with hardship and setback, as they eventually emerge victorious as dual world champions, brothers on top of the world.

Utilizing some of the most dynamic cinematography I have ever seen in a documentary, Klitschko paints an intimate portrait of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, two brothers who share such a striking resemblance that they are often mistaken for twins. While their careers took different paths, they were always there for each other, even after a debilitating injury put Vitali permanently in Wladimir's corner. Through interviews with their family and crew, Dehnhardt pieces together the picture of who these men really are - brilliant (both hold PhDs), loyal (both have vowed never to fight each other), and completely dedicated (Vitali has gone on to found his own political party to fight corruption in Ukraine), these incredible men are champions both in and out of the ring.

While the film has a pretty typical structure, Dehnhardt tells the story so well that it's easy to forget you're watching a documentary. Klitschko has a distinctly narrative sensibility that puts it squarely in the realm of the great boxing films. He thrusts us into the ring with the athletes, building tension into a grand release. It is a film both epic and intimate, a rousing tribute to two incredible athletes who, upon closer inspection, are actually so much more.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

KLITSCHKO | Directed by Sebastian Dehnhardt | Not rated | In Russian w/English subtitles | Opens today, October 21, in NY & LA.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

NOTE: The following is a re-post of my original review, which was published on May 9, 2011, with an added post-script about the blu-ray release.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the blu-ray: Because of its controversial nature in its home country, City of Life and Death is an important release, and Kino has treated it as such, issuing a two disc special edition of this impressive film. While the second disc contains only one special feature, it's a doozy. The feature length documentary, Matters of Life and Death, takes an in-depth look at the making of the film from director Lu Chuan's meticulous process to the difficulties with the Chinese government. Fans of the film will find a lot to feast on here, and may even find themselves strangely moved by the dedication of the crew, fully aware of the gravity of the story they have set out to tell.

The high-def transfer is especially beautiful. Kino preserves some of the film's grain, lending it an atmospheric grittiness to compliment its black and white beauty. While not always pristine, it somehow works with the subject matter, almost making it more immediate. It's a gorgeous transfer of a gorgeous film that remains one of the year's finest achievements.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH | Directed by Lu Chuan | Stars Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, Jiang Yiyan, Ryu Kohata, Liu Bin, John Paisley | Not rated | In Mandarin, Japanese, English, and Shanghainese w/ English subtitles | On blu-ray and DVD Tuesday, October 21.
The Gotham Awards have never meant particularly much Oscar-wise, but they do serve to spotlight films that may have otherwise flown under the awards season radar. It's nice to see films like Meek's Cutoff and The Tree of Life here. We'll see if it turns into any kind of awards traction.

Best Feature:
Mike Mills, director; Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, producers (Focus Features)
The Descendants
Alexander Payne, director; Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, producers (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt, director; Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, producers (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Take Shelter
Jeff Nichols, director; Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, producers (Sony Pictures Classics)
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick, director; Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill, producers (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Best Documentary:
Better This World
Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, directors; Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega, Mike Nicholson, producers (Loteria Films, Picturebox, Motto Pictures and Passion Pictures; ITVS in association with American Documentary | POV)
Bill Cunningham New York
Richard Press, director; Philip Gefter, producer (Zeitgeist Films)
Hell and Back Again
Danfung Dennis, director; Mike Lerner, Martin Herring, producers (Docurama Films)
The Interrupters
Steve James, director; Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James, producers (The Cinema Guild)
The Woodmans
C. Scott Willis, director; Neil Barrett, Jeff Werner, C. Scott Willis, producers (Lorber Films; Kino Lorber, Inc.)

Best Ensemble Performance:
Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos (Focus Features)
The Descendants
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Margin Call
Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Aasif Mandvi (Roadside Attractions)
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Take Shelter
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker, Ray McKinnon, Lisagay Hamilton, Robert Longstreet (Sony Pictures Classics)

Breakthrough Director:
Mike Cahill for Another Earth (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Sean Durkin for Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Vera Farmiga for Higher Ground (Sony Pictures Classics)
Evan Glodell for Bellflower (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Dee Rees for Pariah (Focus Features)

Breakthrough Actor:
Felicity Jones in Like Crazy (Paramount Vantage)
Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Harmony Santana in Gun Hill Road (Motion Film Group)
Shailene Woodley in The Descendants (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Jacob Wysocki in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You:
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same
Madeleine Olnek, director; Laura Terruso, Madeleine Olnek, producers
Sophia Takal, director; Lawrence Michael Levine, producer
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion, directors and producers
Scenes of a Crime
Blue Hadaegh & Grover Babcock, directors and producers
Mark Jackson, director; Mark Jackson, Jessica Dimmock, Michael Requa, Jaime Keeling, producers

New this year, IFP will present a Calvin Klein Spotlight on Women Filmmakers ‘Live the Dream’ grant, a $25,000 cash award for an alumnus of IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs. This grant aims to further the careers of emerging women directors by supporting the completion, distribution and audience engagement strategies of their first feature film.
The nominees are:
Jenny Deller, director, FUTURE WEATHER
Lucy Mulloy, director, UNA NOCHE
Rola Nashef, director, DETROIT UNLEADED

Source: Indiewire
Few films ever achieve the level of complete and total immersion as Raúl Ruiz's staggering and wholly remarkable Mysteries of Lisbon.

It's over four hours long, spans decades and continents, and layers stories within stories, and yet never once feels overlong or ponderous. It feels gloriously lived in, like a great novel unfolding on screen, stately and astonishingly assured in its craft. It's the Gone with the Wind of the 21st century. And while it is perhaps more reminiscent of Luchino Visconti's 1963 Italian masterpiece, The Leopard, than the 1939 David O. Selznick Americana spectacle, Mysteries of Lisbon is fully and completely its own film.

Ruiz, who tragically passed away earlier this year at the age of 70, has crafted something both sumptuous and intimate, a sprawling, labyrinthine epic that centers around young boy known only as João, living in an orphanage with no knowledge of who his parents were.

Young Pedro Da Silva (João Luis Arrais) in MYSTERIES OF LISBON. 
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
When he discovers that his mother is, in fact, still alive, he becomes fascinated by his life story, and sets out to get to know her. His mother is a withdrawn, wounded woman, forever in love with a man she could never have. Forced to marry a man she did not love by her father, she saw João's father in secret, until he is shot one night after one of their secret rendezvous, leaving her forever scarred. João's journey of self discovery will lead him down multiple paths, as his mentor, Father Dinis, travels across the continent to disparate characters who flit in and out of each others lives, weaving the tapestry of the man João will one day become.

Ruiz weaves each thread with such grace and precision that they never become overwhelming. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, tales within tales, and yet under Ruiz's confident direction it all fits together perfectly. It may be appear to be a grand costume drama (or soap opera, at times), but it also feels disarmingly immediate. Mysteries of Lisbon is, above all, impressions of an entire lifetime, unfolding like the memories of an old man recalling a life's worth of adventures. There's a Dickensian quality to its depth and breadth, and it never fails to hold the audience in its thrall. Ruiz is a born storyteller, and he grips us from the first frame to the last.

Blanche de Montfort (Léa Seydoux) and Benôit (Julien Alluguette) in MYSTERIES OF LISBON. 
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
It's certainly a lot of information to absorb in one sitting, and indeed the film benefits from multiple viewings, continuing to reward the viewer with new, deeper facets. Taking its literary structure from the Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco on which it is based, the film yields its rewards slowly and deliberately, and as such its all but impossible not to hang on every word. It's a world that's hard to leave, harder still to stay away from, because it sticks with you, beckoning us back to continue unraveling its deeply pleasurable mysteries. It has everything - romance, exotic locales, pirates, duels, battles, intrigue, revenge...what more can one ask for in a film?

This is filmmaking on a rare and breathtaking scale. It's length is admittedly daunting, but you'll find that once it gets its hooks in you, you won't want it to end. Films like this don't come along very often, and that alone would make it something worth celebrating. But Mysteries of Lisbon is epic in more than just scope. This is an engrossing family drama, a heartbreaking romance, and an engaging mystery all wrapped into one. Through Ruiz's keen eye for storytelling and magnificent framing, the story of a generation seems to spring to life, distilled through one man's universal quest to discover who he truly is. The answer, of course, lies not just in a name, but in a journey of decades, of generations, factors beyond his control and even far removed from his experience. In Ruiz's capable hands, that journey becomes an unforgettable experience, a sweeping masterwork that stands as a fitting final testament to a towering career.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

MYSTERIES OF LISBON | Directed by Raúl Ruiz | Stars Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, Afonso Pimentel, João Luis Arrais, Albano Jerónimo | Not rated | In Portuguese & French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nikki Fenke is reporting that Sony Pictures has pulled a last minute switcheroo on the release of Roland Emmerich's Shakespeare conspiracy thriller, Anonymous, which was set to open wide on October 28.

The film will now open on the 28th in select cities, followed by a platform roll-out through November. It's a strange move so late in the game, but it's not unheard of (20th Century Fox had similar last minute cold feet with Borat in 2006, before realizing they had a monster hit on their hands). I wonder if this shows a lack of faith in the commercial prospects of the film, or a lack of faith in the film itself? It was due to go up against Puss in Boots, the Justin Timberlake vehicle, In Time, and The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp, so it doubtless would have been buried. While such an 11th hour release change may signal trouble, it actually may turn out to be a shrewd business move. Time will tell.

Milestone Films, the company who brought us the restoration of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep in 2007, has released yet another restored film about the African American experience in the form of Lucy Massie Phenix's 1985 documentary, You Got to Move.

Subtitled "Stories of Change in the South," You Got to Move focuses not only on the Civil Rights movement, but other forms of activism that have changed the face of the American south as we know it.

The main focus of the film, which dominates its first half, is the story of the Highland Folk School in Tennessee. Established in 1932, the school was open to anyone who wanted to learn, and has given rise to a generation of social activists and civil rights leaders, until it was shutdown by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1961 for suspected Communist activities, and reopened in Knoxville as the Highlander Research and Education Center, where it still exists today.

It's intriguing looking at the parallels between the rhetoric used against the issues in this film an the rhetoric used against progressive ideas today, although the word has changed from communism to socialism, and it's a point that is brought up even in 1985, that anything anyone disagrees with is often labeled as communist. Phenix interviews people whose lives were forever altered by the school, and that is the film's real strength. When it focuses on the personal stories associated with the school, it's a fascinating historical document of life in the south during a very specific time.

The film falters, however, when it shifts gears to tell the stories of protest against mountaintop removal coal mining, which just doesn't fit. While the film aspires to be a patchwork quilt of social change, the environmental activism seems like it belongs in a different film. It's interesting coming out so soon after the theatrical release of the similarly themed The Last Mountain, but the two halves of the film just don't feel like they belong together. Thankfully, the school is rightfully the film's focus, and it's a moving mosaic of southern life. Milestone has delivered yet another fascinating historical document that deserves to be considered not only by documentary fans, but by students of history as well. There's a lot to love here, even if the film's structure doesn't always work.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

YOU GOT TO MOVE | Directed by Lucy Massie Phenix | Not rated | Now available on DVD from Milestone Films.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

This afternoon I participated in a chat room style Q & A with the director and producer/star of Margin Call, J.C. Chandor and Zachary Quinto following a screening of the film. While none of my questions got answered (although a few very similar ones did), here is a transcript of our discussion.

Producer, Zachary Quinto, and Writer/Director, J.C. Chandor on the set of MARGIN CALL. 
Photo Credit: Walter Thomson.
Do you think that the film opening on a week when Occupy Wall Street is all over the news helps your marketing efforts?

J.C Chandor: I'm not sure. We'll have to see. It's certainly rewarding - it takes many years to make a film. I started writing about 3 years ago today. To be able to introduce a film into that environment is very rewarding. Whether it will help from a box office standpoint, we will have to wait and see. We wanted to give the viewer an entertaining look into this field. Hopefully it will give the viewer a greater understanding of who we're protesting against.

Did you have a specific article or incident that inspired you to create this film?

J.C Chandor: No, there were several incidents that came together throughout late 2006, into 2007 and then into 2008. It wasn't only one article. We were trying to make a somewhat universal bank in the film - so it was representative of many banks. That also goes for many of the characters. None of them were based on one particular person.

Zachary, why did you pick this film as your first feature film as a producer?

Zachary Quinto: I started a production company three years ago and I thought the script was fantastic.

Zachary, to prepare for your role in the film, I heard you spent a few weeks shadowing a few Wall Street workers at Citibank. Were they initially skeptical or hesitant to allow you to do that?

Zachary Quinto: The Citibank workers were really supportive and really available. They were able to help myself and the other actors.

Zachary is this the first film your production company has produced? Do you think this film talks down to it's audience too much? I'm citing the line "Speak to me as you would a young child or a golden retriever."

Zachary Quinto: Jason: I like how it handled the subject matter; I liked how it drew me in. I thought it was really compelling material. And I don't think the film talks down to the audience at all. It's to great effect that the characters are less adept at understanding the complexity of the financial models that they're talking about.

What would you tell a person the reason to see Margin Call?

J.C Chandor: I would say a reason to see Margin Call is hopefully it entertains you for an hour and a half. We tried to make a compelling drama. The second thing is we tried to do is give the viewer insight into a world they are not normally privy. A world not normally available to them.

What are the challenges of marketing a film about an unsympathetic company taking advantage of people?

J.C Chandor: You don't have to like everyone in the movie. This is about coming into a world where you really aren't supposed to like everyone in it.

Tuld's speech about winners/losers, that the percentages stay the same. Given the current climate (even though it's Tuld's statement), can you still attest to that rationale?

J.C Chandor: Every character is human. In the same way a horror movie can be entertaining and fun, you are with these people in their every day professional lives. You see it from a different point of view. The fun thing about writing a film is you don't have to agree with everything every one of your characters says.

The budget posted on Wikipedia seems quite small for the talent on the project; if so, did the actors participate because they believe so much in this project?

J.C Chandor: The cast was an unbelievably great surprise. I sat down and wrote this script with the idea of directing it myself. I wrote it with a tentative budget in mind of under $1M. After Zachary's production company got involved, we started to send it out to actors and the response was overwhelming. The challenge of getting all these people to show up to make the movie, we one by one locked people in after they responded to the script and agreed to work with us. It was a 17 day shoot, which was very very short in the world of filmmaking. This allowed us to not have to require the actors to be with us for an extended period of time. This also helped us in landing actors with very busy schedules. These actors really believed in the project. It made it that much more rewarding.

What about the GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS comparison with the movie?

J.C Chandor: Not so many Glengarry Glen Ross comparisons. The film seems to be taking on a life of it's own.

Do either of you plan on visiting any of the Occupy movements around the country?

J.C Chandor: I have gone and visited the NY Occupy site. It's very inspiring that people are actually out in the street having their opinions be heard.

Jeremy Irons acting alongside Spacey was magnificent. What specifically about both of those actors played a part in casting them?

J.C Chandor: I believe both of those actors turned in performances that as a writer and director are all you could ever dream of. To think back, before we shot the movie, it was actually a bit of a risk at the time to cast Kevin in a role that is essentially for much of the film supposed to be quite empathetic with the audience. In the past, it might have been more typical to cast him as the CEO. But Kevin came in and inhabited that character and made it his own.

I heard that you wrote a first draft of the script in just 4 days, between job interviews. That's pretty impressive, can you talk about that?
J.C Chandor: Yes, I had the idea for the script and had been working through it for over a year.

But the way I like to write is have an idea not fully formed, but fully researched and thought through before I sit down to actually write it. In this case, I had been working on the story off and on in my mind for over a year and finally sat down and wrote the line by line script in just 4 days. I then went back and made many additions and revisions but for the most part, almost all of that 81 page draft is in the final product. I’ve never written anything else that quickly before and probably won't again. But this was a script that at that time, I was clearly ready to write.

Did the short shoot also help the actors not know each other so well which fits because Zachary's character and the other young guy did not know the heads of the company that well?

J.C Chandor: Absolutely. Whenever you're shooting a low budget film, by it's very nature, there are going to be many hurdles and barriers due to limited resources. What I always try to do as a filmmaker or writer, no matter the budget, is to use your weaknesses and try and turn them into strengths. In this case, I had a story about very intelligent, Type A people who are trained to never show panic. I was working with highly intelligent, very accomplished actors who also rarely ever panic on a job at this point in their careers. But the pace and scope we were having to shoot in such a limited time period, created an environment that at times even put these accomplished actors through what I later realized was a mild, low-level sense of panic under their performances. Which are used, hopefully, to great effect to express what their characters were feeling as well.

Margin Call is one of several films recently being released on VOD; what are your thoughts on the importance of a film such as this reaching as much of the American population as possible?

J.C Chandor: I'm very excited to see where this experiment ends up. No one quite knows in this current market/environment what the best way is to distribute the film. But we are getting a 60/70 city release theatrically. For a small budget film, that is a very exciting release. To add to that, most major markets and many smaller markets can view the film on VOD. That's exciting to get the film out to the widest audience. I always believe the best experience is in a theater, but I also have 2 small children and know going to the movies can be a complicated and expensive endeavor so it's nice to know this film is going to get it's widest audience possible.

MARGIN CALL opens Friday, October 21, in select cities and On Demand.
It's particularly good timing that a drama dealing with the 2008 financial crisis should come out now, as thousands of protesters gather not only on Wall Street, but in cities across the world to protest unfair business practices by multinational corporations and corporate bankers.

J.C. Chandor's new film, Margin Call, examines the roots of the financial crisis from the point of view of those who were on the front lines, in the hallways and boardrooms of a never-named corporation based in New York City.

The film begins with a scene that has become an all too familiar one in this day and age. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is brought into an office to be informed that his position has been cut after 19 years of service with the company, along with the majority of the other positions on his floor. He is given his severance package, and told that he must leave the premises immediately, and that his access to the building and cell phone were revoked effective immediately.  Before he leaves, he hands a flash-drive containing his current project to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), one of his hotshot young employees, and asks him to take a look at it, with the cryptic warning, "be careful."

Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan in MARGIN CALL, written and directed by J.C. Chandor. 
Photo Credit: Walter Thomson.
When Sullivan puts together the data and crunches the numbers, he realizes why his superior told him to be careful, and he goes to his bosses, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) who understand the magnitude of the data before them. The formula that traders have used for years is no longer valid, and that if trading continues to go over a certain point, then the losses to the company will be more than the company is worth. And it's not just them, it's global. After an emergency session with the executive board (including Simon Baker and Demi Moore), the CEO (Jeremy Irons) is called in, and makes a desperate decision in the name of self-preservation that will seal the fate of the impending economic collapse.

Clearly the cast is the selling point here, and indeed it is a staggering ensemble. I just wish the film around them had been more deserving of their talents. Margin Call is billed as a thriller, but it's really anything but. It's bland and wordy and relies too much on complicated financial jargon to tell its story. Irons' CEO instructs Sullivan at one point to describe to him the situation to him as he would a child or a dog (a clear attempt at simplification for the audience's sake), but the ins and outs of the situation remain frustratingly obtuse and abstract.

Simon Baker as Jared Cohen in MARGIN CALL , written and directed by J.C. Chandor. 
Photo Credit: Walter Thomson.
Chandor wrote the script in a matter of days, and it shows. He never infuses the film with the drama or tension one feels that a crisis of this magnitude requires. Instead it remains strangely cold and distant, despite the best efforts of a more than capable cast. There's just no real human angle here (other than a strange subplot involving Spacey's dying dog). Sure, it's timely, but that doesn't mean it has anything particularly new or profound to say about the crisis that hasn't been said more eloquently or more dramatically elsewhere. Whether one agrees with the Occupy Wall Street protesters or not, it would have been nice to have seen some of that passion in the film. Even with its mostly even handed approach it remains mostly dry and clinical, lacking in fire and directorial spark.

It feels like a rush job, a forgettable TV movie with an amazing cast. It's a surface film, a fictionalized account of a true story that hits all the historical points but forgets that its characters are human rather than pieces of a historical puzzle. There is a great film to be found somewhere in this financial crisis, but Margin Call isn't it.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MARGIN CALL | Directed by J.C. Chandor | Stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci | Rated R for language | Opens Friday, October 21 in select theaters and On Demand.

Monday, October 17, 2011

NOTE: This is a repost of my original review that was published on August 31, 2010, with an added postscript about the DVD release.

"It's a hard knock-off life" proclaims the advertising materials for Sean Baker's Prince of Broadway. And despite the obvious, admittedly goofy nod to the famous Broadway play, Annie, Prince of Broadway has absolutely nothing to do with musical theatre. Nor does it include any trace of the pun-y humor its tagline suggests.

No, Prince of Broadway is a raw, organic slice of neo-realism that seems as if it born naturally from real life, captured on camera as it happens by director Sean Baker (Take-Out). Not unlike Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) or even Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Baker has an unblinking eye for stark realism, painting a picture of New York from the street level that is at once vibrantly alive and sharply honest.

It is the story of two immigrants - Lucky (Prince Adu), an illegal immigrant from Ghana who makes money by hustling unsuspecting tourists on the streets with knock-off designer merchandise, and Levon (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian from Lebanon who runs the business Lucky works for. Levon maintains the false storefront while Lucky sells the illegal merchandise out of the hidden back room. Everything seems to be on an even keel, even if Lucky is barely scraping by while Levon lives in relative luxury. But their world is upset when Lucky's ex-girlfriend arrives with a baby (Aiden Noesi) she claims is his, and forces the baby on him while she goes away for two weeks.

Not even sure if the baby is his, and unable to go to the police because of his immigration status, Lucky has no choice but to take care of it, integrating it into every part of his life. He doesn't even know it's name, so he dubs it Prince. Suddenly Prince is with him everywhere he goes, hustling on the streets, while Lucky tries to deal with the repercussions of his new found fatherhood. To top it all off, Levon suddenly finds himself mired in a divorce from a woman he married in order to obtain US citizenship. It seems as if their lives are falling apart around them, but the introduction of Prince into both of their lives is about to change everything.

Baker deftly sidesteps any maudlin sentimentalism that could have sprung from his narrative, and instead places the film in the hands of his capable cast, who improvised most of the dialogue. Prince Adu gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as Lucky that is the very definition of awards-worthy, even though the film (which was nominated for the John Cassavetes award at last years Independent Spirit Awards) is likely too small to garner any real heat. It is a stunningly naturalistic evocation of a man just trying to get by on the mean streets of New York, and has come to the end of his rope after having the responsibilities of fatherhood suddenly thrust upon him. Baker wisely guides the narrative through tricky thematic waters and emerges triumphant with a powerfully understated tale of love and redemption, as Lucky learns what it really means to be a father.

Prince of Broadway never pushes its themes or states them in a grand way, it simply lets its story flow, content to observe its characters and let their story naturally unfold. It feels unflinchingly real, and never anything less than deeply felt. This is the real deal - an honest to goodness, bona fide work of art. It is the independent film every independent film wants to be. Baker says a lot in the lively undercurrents of these characters' lives, masterfully evoking the pulsating rhythms of the streets of New York. He is a filmmaker who clearly "gets it," an in his steady and assured hands Prince of Broadway becomes something thrilling and vivacious, a microcosm of New York teeming with life, as well as a portrait of the immigrant experience that is both timely and moving. These streets may not be paved with gold, but Baker's filmmaking is nothing short of golden, and his remarkable Prince of Broadway shines.

DVD addendum: True to its low budget origins, the Prince of Broadway DVD is predictably bare-bones. There's nothing particularly remarkable here outside of a commentary by Sean Baker, producer Darren Dean, and two of the film's stars, Karren Karagulian and Victoria Tate, and a behind the scenes featurette called "Meet the Hustlers." The hour long featurette, however, is surprisingly comprehensive, and while the voice of Prince Adu is sorely missing, it covers a lot of ground, from the film's conception to its construction. As minimalist and sparse as the feature film that inspired it, "Meet the Hustlers" nevertheless provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at low-budget, almost guerrilla style filmmaking (I especially loved the anecdote about the first time Adu met 18 month old Aiden Noesi, who immediately bonded with him). Baker is as enthusiastic in front of the camera as he is behind it, and it's interesting to hear him talk about something he clearly cares a lot about. Even with such a sparse presentation, it's worth buying just to support such strong independent filmmaking that is truly independent in every sense of the word. It's one of last year's hidden gems. Don't miss it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PRINCE OF BROADWAY; Directed by Sean Baker; Stars Prince Adu, Karren Karagulian, Aiden Noesi, Keyali Mayaga, Kat Sanchez, Victoria Tate; Not Rated; On DVD Tuesday, October 18.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ever since 2001, it seems like every French comedy wants to be Amelie. That kind of beautiful whimsy has been inspiring French films (and a few American ones) for the last decade, but no one has yet to match it (not even Jean-Pierre Jeunet himself, who tried to recapture lightning in a bottle with the sadly misguided Micmacs). The result has been a lot of faux-quirky films that are trying way too hard to be charming, but instead come across as forced and contrived.

Mona Achache's The Hedgehog is somewhere in between. Freely adapted from the novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery, the film tells the story of Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a depressed, precocious 11 year old girl who is both fascinated and exasperated with the world around her. To her, the world of adults is both absurd and pointless, so she decides that on her 12th birthday she will kill herself.

Sounds like a pretty dark concept for a film as lighthearted as this, but Achache handles it well. As Paloma plans her imminent demise, slowly stealing a pill a week from her mother's cabinet, she befriends her apartment building's lonely janitor, Renée (Josiane Balasko), whom her well-to-do family has barely noticed. Behind her prickly veneer, Paloma discovers a tender soul who likes cats and Tolstoy, and she is the hedgehog of the film's title.

When a new neighbor, Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa), moves into the building, he immediately takes a shine to Renée, and along with Paloma he sets out to bring her out of her shell, and in the process introduces Paloma to the world in a way she never thought possible. And even though she continues to plan her own death as if it were inevitable, she soon learns the meaning of death and love, and that perhaps life isn't quite as absurd as she once believed.

It's hard to deny there's a certain charm here. The characters are mostly broad caricatures who are never really more than the sum of their quirks, but the central relationship between Renée and Kakuro is surprisingly moving, even in the rather contrived finale, which takes a twist I always find a bit annoying. If I sound conflicted, it's because I am. There are lots of problems to pick apart in The Hedgehog, but there's something inherently likeable about it. Its themes of judging books by covers are nothing particularly new, but Achache gives the Amelie model just enough of a dark twist to make it unique. It walks a fine line between sentimentality and cynicism, and emerges as a lovely and modern fable.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)
AMPAS announced the full list of 63 films that will be competing for nine spots on the shortlist, and then for the final five nominations.

Erika Bók (Ohlsdorfer's daughter) in "The Turin Horse." Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
They are:

Albania, "Amnesty," Bujar Alimani, director;
Argentina, "Aballay," Fernando Spiner, director;
Austria, "Breathing," Karl Markovics, director;
Belgium, "Bullhead," Michael R. Roskam, director;
Bosnia and Herzegovina,"Belvedere," Ahmed Imamovic, director;
Brazil, "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," José Padilha, director;
Bulgaria, "Tilt," Viktor Chouchkov, Jr., director;
Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar," Philippe Falardeau, director;
Chile, "Violeta Went to Heaven," Andrés Wood, director;
China, "The Flowers of War," Zhang Yimou, director;
Colombia, "The Colors of the Mountain," Carlos César Arbeláez, director;
Croatia, "72 Days," Danilo Serbedzija, director;
Cuba, "Havanastation," Ian Padrón, director;
Czech Republic,"Alois Nebel," Tomás Lunák, director;
Denmark, "Superclásico," Ole Christian Madsen, director;
Dominican Republic,"Love Child," Leticia Tonos, director;
Egypt, "Lust," Khaled el Hagar, director;
Estonia, "Letters to Angel," Sulev Keedus, director;
Finland, "Le Havre," Aki Kaurismäki, director;
France, "Declaration of War," Valérie Donzelli, director;
Georgia, "Chantrapas," Otar Iosseliani, director;
Germany, "Pina," Wim Wenders, director;
Greece, "Attenberg," Athina Rachel Tsangari, director;
Hong Kong,"A Simple Life," Ann Hui, director;
Hungary, "The Turin Horse," Béela Tarr, director;
Iceland, "Volcano," Rúnar Rúnarsson, director;
India, "Abu, Son of Adam," Salim Ahamed, director;
Indonesia, "Under the Protection of Ka'Bah," Hanny R. Saputra, director;
Iran, "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi, director;
Ireland, "As If I Am Not There," Juanita Wilson, director;
Israel, "Footnote," Joseph Cedar, director;
Italy, "Terraferma," Emanuele Crialese, director;
Japan, "Postcard," Kaneto Shindo, director;
Kazakhstan, "Returning to the ‘A,’" Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, director;
Lebanon, "Where Do We Go Now?" Nadine Labaki, director;
Lithuania, "Back to Your Arms," Kristijonas Vildziunas, director;
Macedonia, "Punk Is Not Dead," Vladimir Blazevski, director;
Mexico, "Miss Bala," Gerardo Naranjo, director;
Morocco, "Omar Killed Me," Roschdy Zem, director;
Netherlands, "Sonny Boy," Maria Peters, director;
New Zealand,"The Orator," Tusi Tamasese, director;
Norway, "Happy, Happy," Anne Sewitsky, director;
Peru, "October," Diego Vega and Daniel Vega, directors;
Philippines, "The Woman in the Septic Tank," Marlon N. Rivera, director;
Poland, "In Darkness," Agnieszka Holland, director;
Portugal, "José and Pilar," Miguel Gonçalves Mendes, director;
Romania, "Morgen," Marian Crisan, director;
Russia, "Burnt by the Sun 2: The Citadel," Nikita Mikhalkov, director;
Serbia, "Montevideo: Taste of a Dream," Dragan Bjelogrlić, director;
Singapore, "Tatsumi," Eric Khoo, director;
Slovak Republic,"Gypsy," Martin Sulík, director;
South Africa,"Beauty," Oliver Hermanus, director;
South Korea,"The Front Line," Jang Hun, director;
Spain, "Black Bread," Agusti Villaronga, director;
Sweden, "Beyond," Pernilla August, director;
Switzerland, "Summer Games," Rolando Colla, director;
Taiwan, "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," Wei Te-sheng, director;
Thailand, "Kon Khon," Sarunyu Wongkrachang, director;
Turkey, "Once upon a Time in Anatolia," Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director;
United Kingdom,"Patagonia," Marc Evans, director;
Uruguay, "The Silent House," Gustavo Hernández, director;
Venezuela, "Rumble of the Stones," Alejandro Bellame Palacios, director;
Vietnam, "The Prince and the Pagoda Boy," Luu Trong Ninh, director.
One of the things that has often bothered me about gay cinema is that all too frequently they end in tragedy. There is usually a gay bashing, everyone turns against them and they have to conduct their love affair in secret, one is usually more open than the other, and in the end one of the pair is usually killed by homophobes. In doing so, these films make themselves completely about the couple's sexuality, and when that's all they're about, they marginalize themselves. Sometimes these stories are legitimate stories with legitimate things to say about homosexual love in our society. Brokeback Mountain is a shining example of that. But in films like Watercolors and Dream Boy, the film becomes solely about the characters' sexuality, and misses out on the essential quality of their love - that it is just love. Love is universal, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, and these niche films often overlook that simple fact. You don't see love stories about straight couples dwelling on their heterosexuality. Thankfully, I think we are finally moving into what some are calling a "post-gay" period, in which a person's sexuality is not seen as their defining characteristic, and as such homosexuality is now being increasingly accepted as a normal part of life. And it seems that our films are beginning to reflect that as well.

Tom Cullen as “Russel” and Chris New as “Glen” in WEEKEND, directed by Andrew Haigh. 
Photo by Quinnford & Scout. © Glendale Picture Company. A Sundance Selects release.
Andrew Haigh's Weekend is perhaps the first "post-gay" film. Its protagonists are homosexual, but Haigh treats their sexuality as beside the point. They are simply two people who forge a connection, and in this case, that's all that matters. Russel (Tom Cullen), is a rather shy young man, who after a party at a friend's house, decides to stop by a gay bar on his way home. There he picks up Glen (Chris New), a young artist with some uniqueviews on love and relationships. But what should have been a one night stand turns into something more, as the two share a spark that neither one of them could have expected. Their relationship takes on a new urgency, however, when Glen reveals that he is moving to America for two years at the end of the weekend, giving them just two days together. While Glen dismisses the idea of romance, Russel realizes he may have found and lost his soul mate in one whirlwind weekend he will never forget.

Part of what makes Weekend so remarkable is that you could easily replace the gay couple with a straight couple and it would work just as well. It's not a film about politics. And while politics is certainly one of the topics discussed by Russel and Glen, it's not the centerpiece of the film at all. Weekend is a film about fleeting love and brief connections, where two people forge an unforgettable bond that will resonate for the rest of their lives.

Tom Cullen as “Russel” and Chris New as “Glen” in WEEKEND, directed by Andrew Haigh. 
Photo by Quinnford & Scout. © Glendale Picture Company. A Sundance Selects release.
Haigh directs with a strikingly naturalistic eye, giving the film the feel of an actual relationship lived and developed in real time. It's reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say it's as good as that film, there's definitely something special at work here. Its seeming aimlessness makes it that much more real, deftly avoiding romantic cliches and sentimentality, thereby creating something infinitely more beautiful and moving. Haigh has no interest in fairy tale endings or cutesy "Notting Hill" moments as Glen calls them, he's a realist. But there's a certain tremulous beauty in his unsentimental frankness. It's romance without pandering, and that's a refreshing development for any love story, gay or straight.

One hopes that Weekend is a harbinger of films to come - real stories about the real gay experience, not a continued dwelling on oppression and repression. And while it may seem counterproductive to make such a big deal over a film for whom sexuality is no big deal, it's a development in gay cinema that has been a long time coming. "It gets better" we continually tell the young victims of anti-gay bullying, but our films continue to reflect tragedy, and as a result, hopelessness. We're here, we lead normal lives, and it's high time cinema catch up with us. In fact, labeling Weekend "gay cinema" at all is almost a misnomer, since it is not a film about sexuality but a film about love, no matter the form. I want to see more films like this. And with talented young filmmakers like Haigh creating fresh, honest films about gay relationships that aren't sensationalistic or reductive, the future seems especially bright.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WEEKEND | Directed by Andrew Haigh | Stars Tom Cullen, Chris New | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

 "Someday you will fall down and weep, and you will understand it all. All things." - The Tree of Life

It's hard to speak about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life without sounding as if you're descending into overly gushing hyperbole. But if ever there was a film that deserves it, it's this one. The above quote, as spoken by Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien, almost seems as if it is describing the film itself, because The Tree of Life is as close as it is possible to get to having a religious experience in a movie theater.

Watching the film, it is as if you are viewing the world through new eyes, as if you have never fully understood the beauty of the world until that moment. It was so on the big screen, and it is almost even more so on the small screen. The images may be big and grandiose, but high definition brings them to life like never before.

What Fox Searchlight has delivered is perhaps the most beautiful blu-ray I have ever seen. Sure there have been more sumptuous packages, more comprehensive bonus features, but the clarity and the beauty of Malick's imagery is so powerful and so primal that they burst from the screen as if they were alive. In my original review I wrote for The Dispatch I said of the film:
This is not a movie that is watched, it is a movie that is felt. "The Tree of Life" is like a prayer on film, a breathless whisper, a burning bush on a mountaintop, an intensely moving and heartbreakingly beautiful masterpiece that may come to define Malick's career as a filmmaker. One almost wonders while watching the film if, just perhaps, ingrained somewhere deep in its celluloid, Malick has captured a spark of the divine.
Watching the film again at home on blu-ray I was struck by the same feeling. Even on a second viewing, Malick holds us in such a powerful thrall that he brings tears to the eyes just through the perfect marriage of images and music.

It's a remarkable transfer, and it makes an already beautiful film that much more beautiful. This is Malick's magnum opus, a summation of themes he has touched on his entire career. But here it is as if his imagination has been unleashed on a grand canvas both epic and intimate, following the trials of a suburban family from the Midwest with the same skill as it displays the creation of the universe. The blu-ray's lone special feature, "Exploring The Tree of Life," goes deeper than your average obligatory behind-the-scenes featurette, detailing Malick's almost stream-of-consciousness directorial process, as well as the casting of the three kids and origins of the film from dating back to Malick's early days as a filmmaker. While the set itself may be sparse on features, the featurette is surprisingly in-depth and enlightening.

But let's face it, the film itself is the real special feature. The headline of my original review was "The Tree of Life is a masterpiece like no other." I stand by that, and perhaps even more now than I did at first. This isn't a film that yields all its rewards upon first viewing, it's a film of boundless riches that continue to reveal themselves with each viewing. If it is possible to capture God on film, then Malick has done it. Believe the hype. The Tree of Life is everything you've heard, and so much more.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE TREE OF LIFE | Directed by Terrence Malick | Stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Fiona Shaw | Rated PG-13 for some thematic material | Now available on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Fox Searchlight.
2011 has been a year of great change here at From the Front Row. There have been lots of new developments, a new design, and a new focus on current DVD and blu-ray releases, especially of classic films. So I've decided to try something else a little different around here. I've always been an avid fan of film scores, and have amassed several hundred in my collection over the years, and have decided to review the occasional soundtrack here at From the Front Row from here on out.

For the first in this new series of reviews, I have chosen Alberto Iglesias' score to Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In. A longtime collaborator of Almodovar's, Iglesias has also provided excellent scores to the director's other films, including Talk to Her and Volver, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007 for his work on The Kite Runner (which, while lovely, wasn't the score I would have chosen for him to finally get Oscar recognition).

Iglesias stars things off simple, with a mournful violin solo in "Los Vestidos Desgarrados" (in the process evoking James Newton Howard's work for The Village), slowly building in intensity, setting the tone for what is essentially Almodovar's first horror film. The violin motif returns in "La Convivencia," "Una Patada en los Huevos," and "Tributo a Cormac McCarthy" in different variations and tones.

The piano also figures prominently in the score, especially in tracks like "Tema de Vera" (where he combines it with a haunting cello melody) and "Prometeo Encadenado" (where it is ominously combined with some low register strings and a reprise of the more frantic passages of the main violin motif). Since this is a horror score, Iglesias plugs in some more dissonant elements, either through more traditional minor piano cues or in more modern pieces like the electronica "Shades of Marble," which almost sounds like something out of a Tarantino film, as well as the frantic tension of cues like the climactic "Rojo y Negro," which sounds like a more traditional horror cue than we're used to hearing from an Almodovar film.

There are flashes of familiarity in cues like "El Cigarral," which features the driving strings and tinkling piano we have come to expect in Almodovar/Iglesias collaborations. He even incorporates some jazz in "Pequeña Flor," whose lonely saxophone evokes a film noir-like atmosphere, which is certainly no mistake, and there are also several songs included thank thankfully don't distract from the score, and fit right in with its mood.

The constant variations in style may not make for a consistent a listen as some of their previous collaborations, most notably Volver, but it's hard to deny the skill and craft at work here. Almodovar has a keen understanding of how to use music in his films, and Iglesias is a perfect collaborator, infusing the score with a specific identity even as it changes modes and styles. It's a gorgeous and classically minded work, and while the violin cues are a standout, the score as a whole deserves recognition for not only its intelligent construction, but for its haunting beauty. Fans of Iglesias and Almodovar both will doubtless be pleased with yet another fine entry in one of cinema's best director/composer relationships.


01. Los Vestidos Desgarrados
02. Tema de Vera
03. El Cigarral
04. La Convivencia
05. El Asalto del Hombre Tigre
06. Between the Bars
07. Shades of Marble
08. Por el Amor de Amar
09. Una Patada en los Huevos
10. Prometeo Encadenado
11. La Pared Transparente
12. En el Calor de la Noche
13. Libertad Vigilada
14. Pequeña Flor
15. Se Me Hizo Fácil
16. Duelo Final
17. Tributo a Cormac McCarthy
18. Rojo y Negro
19. La Pared-diario
20. Créditos - La Identidad Inaccesible

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

The Skin I Live In (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) will be available for digital download on October 18, and in stores on November 29 from Lakeshore Records.
Movie theater PSAs. We've all seen them. Today they're usually reminding us to turn off our cell phones, or to not talk during the movie. But it 1909 there was a much different problem, and D.W. Griffith himself, the father of modern cinema, directs this amusing short to remind ladies to take off their hats.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Flicker Alley has uploaded the famous "cream separator" sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's final silent film, Old & New (1929), which is now available on DVD as part of their excellent Landmarks of Early Soviet Film box set.

It's a perfect example of Eisenstein's theories of montage put into practice, using non-diegetic inserts to give added meaning to a seemingly mundane event (often referred to as the Kuleshov Effect, after Lev Kuleshov, who pioneered the technique), turning into a flurry of cinematic ecstasy.  Simply brilliant.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The original Human Centipede is one of those films whose notorious reputation is actually much worse than the film itself. While I was no big fan of Tom Six's highly original horror film, I thought it was effective enough, even if it never really expanded beyond its outrageous premise, which was its strongest selling point. The idea of attaching people together, mouth to anus, to form one long digestive tract and the anonymous centipede is admittedly ghastly, and Six maximized the horror by showing relatively little. He allowed the idea itself to get under your skin, and it was that idea that audiences found so disturbing rather than the actual content. I've encountered many people who either refuse to see it or talk about it in hushed tones, as if it were the epitome of cinematic depravity, like the mere mention of its name is unspeakably dirty.

But The Human Centipede is not the film they say it is. The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is that film, and more.

Laurence R. Harvey as Martin in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), directed by Tom Six. 
©2011 Six Entertainment. An IFC Midnight Release.
I would like to say that Human Centipede 2 at least has a unique premise like its predecessor, but it doesn't, because anyone who has seen Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 will instantly recognize it.  The Human Centipede actually exists in the world of this new film as the object of obsession to a lonely security guard named Martin, who spends his nights pleasuring himself to its lurid images. At home, his overbearing mother criticizes his every move, and plans their own murder suicide when psychiatric help seems to do little to bring Martin out of his shell. He is haunted by the abusive voice of his imprisoned father, whose specter is still inflecting psychological harm on him even from his jail cell. Yes, Martin has one of those awful home lives directors often mistake for character development, and he escapes by watching The Human Centipede over and over again, keeping a scrapbook of all his favorite moments.

But just watching the film isn't enough for Martin. He wants to live the film. And not only live it, he wants to outdo it. So he sets about kidnapping victims in preparation to make his own human centipede. Unlike the villainous Dr. Heiter from the first film, however, Martin has no medical experience, so the resulting 12 person creature is even more grotesque than the original, as Martin slices, dices, and staples the people together  in one of the most horrific displays of sheer tastelessness the cinema has ever seen.

Laurence R. Harvey as Martin and Ashlynn Yennie in THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), directed by Tom Six. ©2011 Six Entertainment. An IFC Midnight Release.
Clearly, Six's intention here was to pull out all the stops and deliver the film that The Human Centipede's notorious reputation led people to believe it was. Shot in grim black and white (except for the human excrement...that's still brown), The Human Centipede 2 replaces the original film's quiet menace with relentless graphic violence, and squanders any chance for legitimate social commentary by wallowing in its own filth. Six seems almost as obsessed with his own perversion as his protagonist, and he bathes nearly every moment of the film with increasingly disgusting horrors, which some critics have misguidedly compared to the eating of human excrement in Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamous 1975 masterpiece, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. The difference is that Pasolini had a point. He was railing against Fascism and neocapitalism. Six is just laughing at us, taunting the audience for having dared to demand more. If he is satirizing human lust for cinematic blood, then his satire is displaced, having disappeared firmly up its own ass. He isn't satirizing, he's fetishizing, and that's more disturbing than any of the mindnumbing terrors in the  film.

There is clearly a statement to be made here. Joe Berlinger made it in the severely underrated (and studio neutered) Blair Witch 2, about the effect of media consumption in an increasingly media saturated world. There is also a statement to be made about fanboy culture's increasingly blurred line between fantasy and reality. But Six clearly has no interest in social commentary or making any kind of statement of any kind, other than to send audiences running out of the theater and straight to the bathroom (or the shower). He's a cheap sensationalist, a sideshow carny peddling naughty thrills without the decency to include the thrills. There is no message here, it's useless and repulsive without meaning, a psychotic circus of grotesque imagery. If Six intended a message here, it's buried under a pile stinking, rotting shit.

GRADE - zero stars (out of four)

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE) | Directed by Tom Six | Laurence R. Harvey, Ashlynn Yennie, Dominic Borrelli, Georgia Goodrick, Lucas Hansen, Emma Lock | Not rated | Opens Friday, October 7.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In response to a plan by Universal to make Brett Ratner's upcoming film, Tower Heist (11.4), available On Demand just three weeks after its theatrical premiere, Cinemark has declared that it will not screen the film in any of its nearly 300 theaters nationwide unless the studio backs down on its plan.

While Cinemark has been a harsh opponent of studio day and date VOD release plans, this is a bit of an overreaction on their part. Tower Heist will available for $59.99 in the Atlanta and Portland markets, which according to the LA Times is only about 500,000 homes. No one is going to pay $60 to see Tower Heist, so I doubt it will affect the film's box office, despite what the theater chain would have us believe. I imagine it's more of a principled stand than anything else, but I do believe a shrinking VOD/DVD window will be in studios' best interest in the long-run, especially in efforts to curb piracy. A $60 price tag, however, is probably going to send more people to the theater (or to piracy), rather than inspiring them to stay home and watch the film On Demand.
The full trailer for Happy Feet Two has landed, and while I adored the first one, this trailer shows no signs of the original's emotional resonance. But then again, they're trying to attract the kid audience right now, and are going heavy on the slapstick.

Here is the official synopsis:
The sequel to “Happy Feet,” the Academy Award®-winning animated smash hit, “Happy Feet Two” returns audiences to the magnificent landscape of Antarctica in superb 3D.

Mumble, The Master of Tap, has a problem because his tiny son, Erik, is choreo-phobic. Reluctant to dance, Erik runs away and encounters The Mighty Sven—a penguin who can fly! Mumble has no hope of competing with this charismatic new role model. 

But things get worse when the world is shaken by powerful forces. 

Erik learns of his father’s “guts and grit” as Mumble brings together the penguin nations and all manner of fabulous creatures—from tiny Krill to giant Elephant Seals—to put things right.

Happy Feet Two opens November 18.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011