Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From The Dispatch:
Ultimately what makes "Hugo" so special is that it is a heartfelt tribute to a time when films were truly special, when filmmakers were on the cusp of a brave new world filled with endless possibilities, where dreams could be realized in a way they never had before. Scorsese holds his audience in awe, reminding us of the real childlike wonder of cinema.
Click here to read my full review.
It's interesting that Steve McQueen's Shame opens with perhaps the sexiest single scene of the year, only to devolve to represent everything that is opposite of erotic. Michael Fassbender's Brandon, a successful businessman, sits on a subway, looking like any other New Yorker on his way home from work. He catches the eye of a lovely red headed woman across the aisle, and proceeds to engage in a seductive dance of sensuous glances, their eyes playing over each other, her shifting indicating her increased arousal. It's an undeniably passionate scene, but Harry Escott's haunting score driving underneath clues us in that something isn't quite right here. This is not a beautiful connection with a random stranger, there is a darkness here that we cannot yet detect. The woman stands up, she is wearing a wedding band. Brandon pursues her anyway.

For a film that is primarily about sex, Shame is remarkably un-sexy. And that is not without reason. Brandon is  a sex addict, a man whose life is filled with sex but devoid of intimacy, who pursues one night stand after one night stand in search of anonymous, loveless sex.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon on the set of SHAME. Photo by Abbot Genser.
Brandon's life of debauchery is interrupted, however, when his sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly arrives at his door (or his shower, in this case). And while her arrival disrupts Brandon's carefully hidden double life, it also dregs up painful memories. McQueen only ever gives us small glimpses into their past, but he never needs to for us to get the point. Fassbender and Mulligan's performances speak volumes, most notably in one key scene that is possibly the single best scene in any film this year (save for the creation of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life, but that's in a league of its own), as Sissy sings a pained rendition of "New York, New York" in a bar as her brother looks on. The intensity of their wordless performances is remarkable, suggesting a lifetime of pain whose source we can only guess.

Those memories, and her presence, as well as a close call at work, lead Brandon to try to overcome his addiction. He throws away his extensive collection of pornography, even throws away his laptop computer to avoid temptation, and tries to go on a real date for the first time in years. But his attempts at reformation only go so far before the dark call of the past beckons him once more, and Brandon embarks on a journey even more degrading and dehumanizing than ever before. This time, though, the stakes are much higher, as his path of self-destruction threatens to not only bring him down, but the only person in the world that he truly loves.

Carey Mulligan as Sissy on the set of SHAME. Photo by Abbot Genser.
McQueen, who bust onto the scene in 2008 with his remarkable debut feature, Hunger, has a keen insight into human behavior, especially of a self-destructive nature. In Hunger he explored the motives behind a hunger strike in Ireland, and we watched as Michael Fassbender painfully wasted away in one of the most stunning performances ever to go un-nominated for an Oscar. Here, Fassbender follows a similar path, but unlike in Hunger, it is almost involuntary. Brandon cannot help himself. He can't even perform with a woman in an intimate situation. He craves anonymity and depravity, and is completely incapable of forming normal human relationships, even with his own family. The roots aren't so much an issue here as the results, and McQueen wisely avoids psychoanalyzing his characters. Rather than saddle his characters with easy, pop psychology explanations for their behaviors, he simply follows their journey to the bitter end, letting the wounded expressions on their faces tell a story that words never could.

Brandon's sex addiction becomes self-destruction on a Shakespearean scale, but McQueen always plays it close to the chest. For all its inherent drama, Shame is a remarkably restrained film, atmospheric and often chilling. McQueen illustrates with a whisper rather than a shout, with faces rather than with dialogue. Fassbender and Mulligan are both stunning. Mulligan has an astonishing ability to communicate a lifetime's worth of pain for someone so young, and Fassbender, already having a terrific year, has never been better. Fox Searchlight's decision to release the film with an audience-limiting NC-17 rating has wisely allowed McQueen's powerful vision to remain intact. It isn't always an easy film to watch, but it is consistently engaging and even hypnotic. McQueen finds broken humanity amidst  the depths of despair, and emerges with an exceptional film whose effects are hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SHAME | Directed by Steve McQueen | Stars Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale | Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content | Opens Friday, December 2, in select cities.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

After a long, drawn out announcement process on Twitter, we now know all the winners of the NYFCC awards, the first critics group to announce this year. The winners are:

Best Picture: The Artist
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best Actor: Brad Pitt, Moneyball, The Tree of Life
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks, Drive
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter
Best Screenplay: Moneyball
Best Foreign Film: A Separation (Iran)
Best Nonfiction Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Best First Feature: Margin Call
2011 Special Award: Raul Ruiz
The Independent Spirit Awards are always so bizarre to me. Their definition of "independent" is consistently baffling, and some of their choices are always questionable. Such as nominating Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs but not star Glen Close, who is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod for her performance. The failure of Martha Marcy May Marlene to gain a nomination for Best Feature is also surprising, given that it seems like it would be right up the IFP's alley, but Harvey Weinstein managed to get a nod for The Artist, which hardly seems independent. I'm thrilled, however, to see some love for A Better Life's Demian Bichir, and I hope it translates into some buzz for him.


Here is the complete list for your perusal:

Best Feature (Award given to the Producer)
Take Shelter
The Artist
The Descendants

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Mike Mills, Beginners
Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

Best First Feature (Award given to the director and producer)
Another Earth
In The Family
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Natural Selection

John Cassavetes Award
(Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)

Hello Lonseome
The Dynamiter

Best Screenplay
The Descendants
The Artist
Win Win

Best First Screenplay
Another Earth
Cedar Rapids
Margin Call

Best Female Lead
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Rachael Harris, Natural Selection
Adepero Oduye, Pariah
Lauren Ambrose, Think of Me

Best Male Lead
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Ryan Golsing, Drive
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Demian Bichir, A Better Life

Best Supporting Female
Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
Anjelica Huston, 50/50
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Harmony Santana, Gun Hill Road
Shailenne Woodley, The Descendants

Best Supporting Male
Albert Brooks, Driver
John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Corey Stahl, Midnight in Paris
John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids

Best Cinematography
Midnight in Paris
The Artist
The Off-Hours
The Dynamiter

Best Documentary (Award given to the director)
An African Election
Bill Cunningham New York
The Interrupters
We Were Here
The Redemption of General Butt Naked

Best Foreign Film (Award given to the director)
A Separation
The Kid With a Bike

Robert Altman Award
(Given to one film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast)

Margin Call

Piaget Producers Award
Chad Burris, Mosquito y Mari
Sophia Lynn, Take Shelter
Josh Bond, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Someone to Watch Award
Simon Arthur, Silver Tongues
Mark Jackson, Without
Nicholas Ozeki, Mamitas

Truer Than Fiction Award
Where Soldiers Come From
Hell and Back Again
Bombay Beach

Source: Indiewire

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I don't often review films that air exclusively on television, but as the advertisements say, "it's not TV, it's HBO."

The highly regarded network has become a go-to destination for cutting edge shows, but also for documentary films that may not have otherwise been seen. Two such recent films, The Bengali Detective and The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, are surprisingly good and honestly deserving of theatrical distribution.

Remake rights to The Bengali Detective have already been purchased by Fox Searchlight to be turned into a narrative film directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), and it will definitely make for an interesting feature, because this is one of those cases where reality truly is stranger than fiction.

The film centers around a group of private detectives in Kolkata, India, who pick up the slack of a police force in a country where 70% of murders go unsolved. Mostly, however, they spend their time chasing down counterfeiters on behalf of corporations, busting petty criminals selling fake merchandise. But the occasional murder case comes along, and the one that falls in their lap during the two years the film was shot is a doozy - three young men found dead on railroad tracks, their naked bodies mutilated almost beyond recognition. The police still have not classified the incident as a murder, but the Bengali Detectives are hot on the case, and the mystery provides the film with its central conflict. It's a frightening, crackling whodunit to rival any Hollywood thriller, but that's not all that makes it special. During filming, not only is one of their ranks dealing with family problems of his own, as his wife becomes gravely ill from complications arising from diabetes, but the detectives are rehearsing to audition for a television dance competition.

It's a strange mix - private detectives trying to bust counterfeiters, solve murder, and dance sounds like material for some sort of strange sitcom, but it works. It's a wonderfully idiosyncratic and the film is at times endearing and nail-biting in equal measure. I will be looking forward to seeing what kind of narrative film Frears will make of this, but you can't get much better than the real thing right here.

Almost equally charming is The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical, a completely joyful documentary about a children's choir out of Mumbai, India, and most specifically, three ambitious young kids' hopes and dreams. Focusing on their attempt to sing Rogers and Hammerstein's score from The Sound of Music, whose vibrant hills seem far removed from the slums of Mumbai, the film centers around Ashish, an 11 year old aspiring singer who writes "I will not be self conscious" in a notebook every single day. His passion and drive are the inspirational heart of the film, as he tries to catch the eye of a wealthy overachiever, and vies for solos against jealous rivals. It has all the usual ingredients of films like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, but there's almost something more beguiling about these young kids' adorable attempts to sing classic showtunes. More straightforward than the wholly unique Bengali Detective, The Sound of Mumbai is nevertheless an exemplary documentary, a kind of Young @ Heart with children that can't help but put a smile on your face.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

From The Dispatch:
The logic behind all of this never quite adds up, even as the film spirals into a truly insane finale that might possibly be the single most bizarre and surreal moment ever to come out of a major blockbuster film. Director Bill Condon (a franchise newcomer) directs it all very tastefully (this is a PG-13 film, after all), but when you actually think about what's going on here you realize just how ridiculous (and batty) it really is.
Click here to read my full review.
It takes a while to get used to Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. The over-innunciated cadences, the carefully controlled diction, it all seem like a put-on. It's almost presentational in its blatant theatricality. It's distracting, at first, because one could easily mistake it for a bad imitation. But as the film progresses, one realizes what a remarkable piece of acting it really is, because DiCaprio is playing a man whose entire life was a performance. Each meticulously crafted syllable, each exaggeratedly pronounced word, were all a real-life put on to hide the real man beneath.

DiCaprio's J. Edgar Hoover was not only a stutterer, prone to tongue tied fits in moments of extreme stress, but an extremely private man who spent most of his life trying to bury the man he truly was. His mother (Judi Dench), while not an overbearing woman, demanded greatness of her son, and had trained the stutter out of him, resulting in the peculiar speech patterns we recognize today. But if Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's vision of Hoover is to be believed, a stutter wasn't the only thing Hoover was trying to ignore.

In J. Edgar, Hoover is a man trying to live up to his mother's expectations of greatness, and despite his meteoric rise to power as the first director of the FBI, it never quite seemed like enough to a man whose own perfectionism rivaled that of his mother. What the film essentially is, is a love story. It's rarely spoken and hardly acknowledged, but is keenly felt between Hoover and his longtime companion, Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer), who spent their lives side by side without ever truly accepting the true nature of their relationship. In that regard, J. Edgar is an epic tragedy, a complex portrait of a complex man for whom power was the ultimate drug. Hellbent on serving his country and protecting it from its enemies, he became increasingly paranoid and overzealous, keeping damaging files on everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Martin Luther King. As his power increased, so too did his paranoia, and the man who was credited with founding many of the police procedures we know today that has helped solve countless crimes, became a symbol of the dangers of unlimited power.

Eastwood, however, never takes a firm stance on Hoover, eschewing typical negative and positive portrayals for something much more nuanced. Hoover was far too complicated a figure for that kind of black and white portrayal. J. Edgar is a complex portrait of a complex man, directed in Eastwood's trademark no nonsense, no frills style. This isn't a conventional Hollywood biopic either.  It flows in a non-linear style, like the recollections of an old man looking back on a full life. It provides an impression of the man rather than a simple timeline of events. However, perhaps most impressively, Eastwood masterfully blends fact with fiction, combining factual elements with Hoover's life with his own inflated view of himself. In that way, J. Edgar is both a historical portrait and a psychological exploration of the self-aggrandizement of a very small man living a very big life, and we never quite know where the historical Hoover ends and the fictional Hoover begins.

That's a very appropriate and smart approach, I think, because it is very likely Hoover couldn't differentiate between the two either. He saw himself as a hero defending liberty when he often did just the opposite. But Eastwood isn't interested in condemning the man, he's much more interested in what made him tick. This is not a judgemental film, it is a restrained and surprisingly human film, with such a heartbreaking relationship between two men at its core that its almost hard to believe it came from legendary tough-guy, Clint Eastwood. It is a very subdued and button-up love story, but it is a love story nonetheless. Hoover wasn't free to be his own man, and as such he created a larger than life persona that he lived in every day. J. Edgar exists in that place where the two men meet, the real Hoover and his heroic persona, crusading against evil wherever he saw it while his true self was cowering in the closet, scared and alone.

Even under pounds of old age makeup, DiCaprio still makes us feel for this man. Say what you will about Hoover as a historical figure, but in Eastwood's capable hands, we have a strong and evenhanded portrait of a man whose many facets can't be put in a simple box. It's a gripping and fascinating film, humming with an electric undercurrent of sexual tension that is something of a new territory for Eastwood, who at 81 years old continues to churn out strong, quality films, and J. Edgar is not only his best work since 2008's Gran Torino, but one of his strongest of the last decade.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

J. EDGAR | Directed by Clint Eastwood | Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench | Rated R for brief strong language | Now playing nationwide.

Monday, November 21, 2011

This being my first awards season as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, it's also my first year receiving For Your Consideration screeners. I'm not the kind of person that likes to brag about the kind of swag I receive from studios, but it has taught me one thing - I now fully understand how smaller films often get lost at the Oscars.

There are such an enormous and overwhelming amount of screeners flowing in at such a steady pace that it's almost impossible to get around to watching all of them. As a result, the major titles with a lot of buzz like The Descendants go to the top of the pile, while the movies that people aren't talking about as much end up on the bottom.

It's a sad truth but it is true. And while trying to keep up with screeners I'm still trying to keep on top of new theatrical releases, and current DVD and blu-rays, so I know industry folks like actors and directors don't have time to watch them all either. Screeners are a terrific way to catch up on things you may have missed, as well as a great marketing tool for studios, especially if you get them out there early. They want their movies out there and talked about by the movers and shakers, and especially winning awards. But from now on I'll be less quick to criticize the Academy for their nomination choices, as I understand how hard it is to see everything, and seeing everything is my job.

Now once they make the nominations they're fair game. There's no longer any excuse for not seeing all the nominees. But in this last run up to nominations time, you're doing good just to keep your head above water, and now I understand how easy it is for smaller films to get lost in the mix.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

There are few films throughout history that have been the cause of such impassioned debate and controversy as D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation.

It's difficult to judge the film objectively because of its blatantly racist content and the passionate condemnation that it inspires. The NAACP has spoken out against it repeatedly, and many have sought to have it banned. Even the American Film Institute distanced themselves from it after naming it one of the 100 greatest American films in 1997. When they re-did the list for its 10th anniversary, the film was conspicuously absent, having been replaced by Griffith's 1916 follow-up, Intolerance, which was meant as an atonement for the sins of his previous feature, which had gained not only widespread popularity, but widespread anger and vilification. Intolerance is doubtless a masterpiece, but to back away from Birth, which was the true trailblazer and the greater film, is an injustice of overly sensitive political correctness.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
That's not to say that the film isn't highly offensive, because it most certainly is. And any person of any moral character whatsoever should be offended by it, because it is by all accounts an extremely racist film. It is a testament to the Confederacy, and a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic liberating force riding to the rescue of helpless whites against lawless African American hordes in the Reconstruction era American South. Its portrayal of African Americans, often as uncivilized barbarians, is shamelessly stereotypical at best, completely abhorrent at worst (one of its principle villains is a scheming mulatto politician), and it's hard not to cringe as leering escaped slaves try to rape white women, or as the KKK mount their horses, don their hoods, and ride into battle as conquering heroes. Griffith never saw himself as a racist however. He simply thought he was portraying history as accurately as possible. That doesn't excuse the doggedly wrong-headed point of view, but he never intended The Birth of a Nation to be a mean-spirited screed against black people that in many ways it turned out to be.

There is no denying, however, that The Birth of a Nation is a masterful piece of filmmaking. President Woodrow Wilson himself said, upon seeing the film, that it was "like history written by lightning." And indeed it often feels as if Griffith was actually there filming Civil War battles as they happened. The film's historical facsimiles, some featuring Abraham Lincoln, feel as if we are watching Lincoln himself on screen, perhaps partially due to the film's age but mostly due to Griffith's painstaking attention to detail. Griffith's use of cross-cutting between three different locations and three different conflicts in the film's dizzying climax was pioneering at the time. There was no guarantee that audiences in 1915 would accept that these three battles were happening simultaneously as Griffith cuts in and out of the action in the three locales rather than showing the action linearly as many other filmmakers of the era would have done.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
As it turned out, audiences loved it, making it not only the first blockbuster, but the first "respectable" film. Before Birth of a Nation, film was considered a lower form of art, and was relegated mostly to nickelodeons and frequent haunts of the lower classes. But Birth of a Nation brought cinema into the mainstream in a way no other film had. Feature length films were extremely rare in 1915, let alone one that clocks in at nearly three hours long. But the epic melodrama of two families divided by war appealed to a mass audience, and was screened in opera houses, respectable theaters, and was the first film screened at the White House, prompting President Wilson to issue his now famous (and soon after recanted) declaration about its historical accuracy.

But with great popularity came great controversy. Even in 1915 its casual racism was not particularly well received, and it has remained an object of controversy to this day. It's easy to see why. It's a difficult film to get behind, let alone praise, without appearing to support its contemptible worldview. It is essential then, when considering Birth of a Nation, to separate its content from its construction, which is undeniably brilliant. What Griffith achieved here is nothing short of the birth of film as we know it, pioneering cinematic techniques that are still being used today, laying the groundwork for the modern epic film as we know it. And now, thanks to Kino Classics, it looks better than it ever has on blu-ray. The film is 96 years old, so it can only so clear, but Kino has given it the clearest presentation it has ever had, reducing the fuzz and sharpening the contrast. It still the typical scratches and imperfections, but it's still remarkably clean for a film that's almost a century old. The only issue for me is the new score, which doesn't work as well as the score on Kino's previous DVD edition, which is included in the package on a separate disc. The new score never really seems to fit the action on screen, while the previous edition's score fit it like a glove, blaring out "Ride of the Valkyries" in during the film's climax. Still, for the best presentation of it available, the blu-ray is second to none. It's a worthy upgrade of one of the greatest films of all time, that despite reprehensible racial content remains one of the most impressive and jaw-dropping achievements in film history.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE BIRTH OF  A NATION | Directed by D.W. Griffith | Stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis | Not rated | Silent, w/English intertitles | Available on 3 disc blu-ray from Kino Classics 11.22.
Fox Searchlight sent over this lovely FYC booklet yesterday and I felt the need to share.

It's pretty clear that they're pushing Elizabeth Olsen for Best Actress over anything else, as the booklet mostly focuses on her, and lists her, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, and Sarah Paulson over Best Picture on the FYC list on the back. The film's best shot at an Oscar does lie in its performances, but its dark horse status in the race can't be denied.
AMPAS released its list of 15 documentaries that will be eligible to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Award ceremony. They are:

Project Nim

  • "Battle for Brooklyn" (RUMER Inc.) 
  • "Bill Cunningham New York" (First Thought Films)
  • "Buck" (Cedar Creek Productions) 
  • "Hell and Back Again" (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
  • "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
  • "Jane's Journey" (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
  • "The Loving Story" (Augusta Films)
  • "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" (
  • "Pina" (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
  • "Project Nim" (Red Box Films)
  • "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
  • "Sing Your Song" (S2BN Belafonte Productions, LLC)
  • "Undefeated" (Spitfire Pictures)
  • "Under Fire: Journalists in Combat" (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
  • "We Were Here" (Weissman Projects, LLC)
I'm a particular fan of  Project Nim and We Were Here, but I'm sad to see that The Interrupters (which seems like the kind of thing the Academy would love) and Armadillo (my favorite documentary of the year) were omitted. Two of my other favorites of the year, The Woman with the Five Elephants and The Swell Season were also overlooked, and Where Soldiers Come From should also probably be on this list. Buck and If a Tree Falls are both just OK, but neither are extraordinary. I enjoyed Bill Cunningham New York quite a bit, but it may be too light for the Academy. They like their documentaries issue-driven for the most part, and a lighthearted doc about a fashion reporter may not be what they're looking for. I'm not sure if the Academy can ignore Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory given the immediacy of what happened with the West Memphis 3 this year. I'm going to say Project Nim and We Were Here are locks, followed by Hell and Back Again. But what fills out the other two spots? Any thoughts?
Last month I started what I hoped would become a new series of feature reviews spotlighting soundtrack albums. As you may know, I have long been a fan and collector of film scores, but have never directly reviewed them before until now. But with this being such a busy time of year I haven't been able to review them as often as I would like.

The fact of the matter is, that no matter how much I love film scores, I don't have the musical knowledge that many other excellent soundtrack reviewers such as Christian Clemmensen and Jon Broxton do. Film is my medium and I can discuss it backwards and forwards, but I just don't know the musical terminology to really discuss it as in depth as I would like. Still, I would like to indulge my passion for film scores here at From the Front Row, and have devised what I think is a better method for me to review upcoming scores. So I am proud to introduce The Cue Sheet, a new feature that will spotlight notable upcoming soundtrack releases. I hope these are as helpful for you as they are fun for me.

HUGO (composed by Howard Shore)

Hugo marks something of a departure for both director Martin Scorsese and its composer, Howard Shore. Neither have been known for their light fantasy work for kids, with Scorsese being most famous for his gangster films such Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, and Shore for his horror work for David Cronenberg as well as his Oscar winning Lord of the Rings scores.

The result of this unusual pairing of composer and material, however, is nothing short of magical. It is a light score, to be sure, but one that remains recognizably Shore's work, going off in new directions while maintaining his unique compositional personality.

Shore introduces his main theme quickly in the opening cue, "The Thief," a wondrous and decidedly French sounding melody that is reminiscent of Michael Giacchino's work on Ratatouille. Shore very distinctly conjures images of 1930s Paris to compliment the film's setting through liberal use of jaunty accordions, which are put to work with some of Shore's recognizable staggered rhythms in "The Chase."

While most of the score remains light and breezy, Shore conjures a sense of childlike wonder and grandeur in cues like "The Movies" and "The Message," which are clearly meant to invoke the magic of the movies, which is a key theme in the film. Similarly, in "The Invention of Dreams," Shore conjures up such a frenzied evocation of sheer joy and wonderment that it's hard not to be swept away by its buoyant optimism. In fact the entire score sends the listener off on a cloud. It's an easy but rewarding listen, a lovely score with a light comedic touch that adds a new and successful dimension to the composer's career.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HUGO will be released on CD and digital download November 22

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (Composed by Alberto Iglesias)

Alberto Iglesias is already having a strong year, coming off his haunting work for Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In. His latest work in Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Solder Spy goes in a completely different direction from his more classically minded ideas in The Skin I Live In, but it's no less effective, and perhaps even stronger in its construction.

It is, if nothing else, a more consistent listen than Skin, which tended to switch modes quite quickly, whereas here Iglesias is working toward a very specific mood. There is something decidedly old fashioned about his work here, evoking the jazzy scores of film film noir and the spy thrillers of the 1970s. A mournful saxophone greets us in the opening track, "George Smiley," setting the tone for the dark, often lonely score to come. The sax solos, especially when accompanied by solo piano, are the film's strongest feature, creating a certain mood and sense of time and place.

Iglesias incorporates more electronic sounding elements in tracks such as "Anything Else," and has some moments of genuine emotional pathos in tracks like "Tarr and Irina," which borders on deeply restrained tragedy. However, as can be expected with scores for films such as these, much of the album delves into atmospheric rambling. Iglesias incorporates some of the dissonance heard in his Oscar nominated score for The Constant Gardener and turns it into a rumbling underscore that, while effective, is a bit of a rambling listening experience on album. There are some definite highlights however, in the aforementioned tracks and in the final suite, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which recaps the score's main ideas. Casual fans of the score may be best served by downloading that final track. It's a fine score, but as a CD experience without context it tends to get lost in the background.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY will be available on CD November 21.

WAR HORSE (Composed by John Williams)

There are few events that cause more excitement in me than the release of a new John Williams score. A lifelong fan of the maestro's work, I have eagerly awaited each new release for years. Williams is my favorite composer, and I hold even his lesser scores in very high regard.

The once prolific 79 year old composer's output has declined significantly in the last decade. Whereas once upon a time Williams had at least one new score a year, only taking a break once every four years, War Horse marks the first Williams score since 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which itself was his first effort since 2005, which saw the composer write music for 4 different films, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Munich. I stand by Munich as perhaps Williams' masterpiece of the decade, but we have reached a point in his career where each new score is more of a cause for celebration than ever. And Williams has delivered on every level.

War Horse is a grand return for the composer, recalling some of his sweeping epic works of yesteryear. While Williams is perhaps best known for his blockbuster scores to films like Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Superman, it is the dramatic Williams of Schindler's List, Angela's Ashes, and Munich that I have always appreciated the most, and War Horse is Williams in full on dramatic mode.

The composer wastes no time in introducing his main theme in the opening cue, "Dartmoor, 1912," which recalls his work on Ron Howard's Far and Away. As its title suggests, the theme conjures images of galloping horses and the sheer freedom of horseback riding, building to a grand crescendo as only Williams can do them.

The secondary theme, which appears in the film's trailer, is first introduced in "Bringing Joey Home, and Bonding," and is, I think, an even more stand-out thematic idea than the main theme, but Williams uses it far less, probably reserving it for very specific moments in the film. It's a noble, almost militaristic theme for brass that would have been right at home in Saving Private Ryan, and mostly likely represents the WWI side of the story.

Williams gives the main theme its most grand workouts in "Seeding, and Horse vs. Car," and most especially in "Plowing," which gives us our first full on statement of the secondary theme, and it really is a goosebump raising moment in classic Williams fashion. After that the score turns dark, with the heavy and militaristic cue, "The Charge and Capture," which builds to a payoff that we never receive. "The Desertion" continues the darker mode with more tense battle music, but none of these action cues ever last for long, even in the climactic "No Man's Land," wherein Williams actually sounds as if hes emulating Hans Zimmer's Pirates of the Caribbean scores.

The real meat of the score is in the last two tracks, "Remembering Emilie, and Finale" and "The Homecoming." Together they make up a truly breathtaking 13 minutes of music that are probably the best moments of film music this year. The solo piano in "Remembering Emilie" is especially heartbreaking, as Williams closes out the score on a reflective yet optimistic note, before launching into an 8 minute recap of the film's major thematic ideas. Surprisingly, neither the main theme or the secondary theme receive full-on suites the way Williams often does in his scores, and its a shame because the secondary theme seems almost underused and begging for a fully fleshed out performance.

Longtime fans of Williams will find lots of recognizable moments here, as he recalls pieces from scores like Harry Potter and Star Wars Episode I, but on the whole it's another brilliant work from a true master. It feels a bit like Williams on autopilot, certainly, and feels a bit anonymous in the middle stretch, but Williams' autopilot is better than most composers' best work. The last two tracks are worth the price of the album alone. I've missed the experience of sitting down with a new John Williams album greatly, and War Horse satisfied my hunger. It's a grand and gorgeous score that recalls some of his earlier triumphs, proving that Williams can still move an audience like no other. Welcome back, Maestro. We missed you.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WAR HORSE will be available on CD and digital download November 21.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

For fans of Fritz Lang's science fiction masterpiece, Metropolis, Giorgio Moroder's 1984 modern retooling will either be something of a strange curiosity, or a monstrous sacrilege. As something of a purist myself, I would normally be more inclined to go with the latter, but as patently ridiculous as the final result of it is, it's far too goofy and campy to be of any real offense. It's more of a sideshow act that any real affront to the film's legacy, a strange relic of the 1980s that may be of interest to cinephiles and those who have a nostalgic connection to it, but otherwise this oddity feels like an object out of time.

Credited as having introduced silent film to the MTV generation, Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis dared to take the groundbreaking 1927 epic and replace its grand score by Gottfried Huppertz with modern (for the time) rock songs. Featuring new music by Moroder himself, performed by artists such as Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, and Bonny Tyler, Morodor's version of Metropolis set out to make the film accessible to a younger audiences who previously had no interest in silent film.

The problem is, of course, that Metropolis was already probably the most easily accessible to modern audiences of all silent films. A grand science fiction epic and clear precurser to films such as Blade Runner (whose production design owes a great debt to Metropolis' towering cityscapes), Metropolis is disarmingly modern, with special effects that are still pretty impressive today, let alone 84 years ago. Set in the dystopian future, the film tells the story of a society divided into the wealthy ruling class who lives above ground, and the poor laborers who live below ground, slaves to a never-ending cycle of monotonous work on a constant 10 hour cycle. But a young woman named Maria seeks to end this class division and bring the workers up into the daylight. A peaceful messiah, she preaches that "there can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

One day, while leading a group of poor children into one of the city's lavish pleasure gardens, Maria meets the son of the city's ruler, a kind of CEO in chief. He becomes fascinated by her, and follows her into the depths of the city, and is so moved by the workers' plight he decided to join them and fight for their freedom. But two other men are deeply infatuated with her as well, one a mad scientist who has created a robot in her image, one that will be sent by its comissioner, the ruler of Metropolis, to create a violent rebellion that will put down the masses for good.

It's all very intense and remains surprisingly timely in its depiction of income inequality (a theme we see played out on the news every day), but when companied with the cheesy 80s rock songs, its hard to take seriously. Moroder's version is notable for having incorporated newly discovered footage for the time that had never been seen before, but in light of Kino's excellent re-release of the complete cut of Metropolis, which is over an hour longer than this cut, it really renders this version, while notable for its time, moot. Without that extra hour of footage, the plot feels truncated and rushed, and lacking in the nuances that the complete cut has. Not to mention the fact that the music makes it feel more dated than the fact that it's a silent film.

You can't fault Kino's presentation, which is typcailly excellent, but the film is more of a novelty than anything else. While Metropolis itself remains a masterpiece, Moroder's version is little more than an artifact, a curiosity of another time that just doesn't quite translate the way it may once have. Metropolis is a timeless work, Moroder's Metropolis is fully trapped in 1984. That's probably the most damning aspect of this version. It improves nothing, adds nothing, and ultimately dates a once ageless film in a time that's not its own. Chalk this one up as another cinematic sideshow that's worth a look once, but little more than that.

GRADE - ★★½  (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from Kino Classics.

From The Dispatch:
It is filled with pathos and painful truths, strikingly captured by unsuspecting filmmakers who stumbled into a veritable gold mine of emotional riches. You're unlikely to find a documentary so immediate and so emotionally honest as this, which is fitting, I think, coming on the heels of a fictional film with similar qualities. "The Swell Season" is every bit as beautiful and moving as the film that inspired it, and that's saying quite a bit.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I first saw Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game very early in my college career, and admittedly my initial response was "what's the big deal?" I was able to appreciate its craft, but it never captured my interest the way I felt like it should have. I found myself at a loss as to why this film was often spoken of in the same breath with Citizen Kane, as not just one of the greatest films of all time, but the greatest film of all time. For me, it was one of those classic films that felt more like eating your vegetables, they're good for you, but you don't necessarily enjoy them.

Flash forward to today, as I was revisiting the film on Criterion's sparkling new blu-ray edition for this review, and suddenly it all opened up for me. Everything fell into place at last. This is what everyone has been talking about all these years - this is why this film is so universally revered. Perhaps it took some historical context (watching the films of Jean Vigo certainly lay the groundwork for where Renoir was coming from), perhaps it took some additional maturity, but for whatever reason, at long last, I knew why The Rules of the Game is regarded as such a peerless masterpiece.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Like all great films, The Rules of the Game is filled with nearly boundless pleasures. It is a film to be savored, like a fine wine whose riches have only grown with age. After all, the film was a complete commercial flop upon its release, and subject to harsh cuts before finally being abandoned to WWII and a devastating fire after Renoir fled France. Reconstructed in 1959 in a slightly longer form under Renoir's supervision, the film has been awarded a second life, and a re-appreciation by filmmakers and critics for whom it has been hugely influential. Truly it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, it is a scathing and yet strangely warm-hearted satire on France's haute bourgeoisie, a complacent society standing on the precipice of a world war that in 1939 was only just beginning.

1939 is often cited as Hollywood's golden year; the year of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Young Mr. Lincoln. But in wasn't just Hollywood - Japan gave us Kenji Mizoguchi's The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Britain gave us Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Four Feathers, and of course, France gave us The Rules of the Game, which, along with The Wizard of Oz, is perhaps the year's crowning achievement. And while the American films have endured more in the minds of the public, few have aged as gracefully as The Rules of the Game. While Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are remembered for their timeless stories, The Rules of the Game is a different beast altogether. It's not a movie particularly concerned with plot, instead it is meant as a portrait of a very specific class at a very specific point in time. Its characters, all gathered at a posh estate for a weekend of hunting and merrymaking, all flit in and out of each others bedrooms like a bunch of horny teenagers, driven as much by hormones as they are false senses of love. Upstairs and downstairs mingle indiscriminately, blinded by passion and, perhaps more grandly, a complete lack of self awareness, only focused on the pleasures of the here and now.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
They are separated, however, by the "rules of the game," the societal dictations that rule their lives, but are more concerned with keeping up the appearance of dignity than with anything actually resembling propriety. Their entire lives are a farce, which Renoir demonstrates brilliantly in a masterfully constructed climax that has a jilted husband chasing his wife and her lover through the estate with a shotgun, turning the whole house upside down in a breathtaking homage to the ever popular bedroom door farce. But for a film that is so clearly a critique of a society that has lost its way, it never feels cynical or judgmental. Renoir clearly has a strange affection for his characters, and after the zaniness of the film's climax, Renoir switches gears into a more serious, reflective mode that demonstrates the tragic dangers of their complacent frivolity as the world lurches into the dark uncertainty of what would become WWII. It's a haunting change of pace, ending on a note of melancholy uncertainty that, in hindsight, signaled the end of an era. While Renoir certainly could not have imagined the full extent of the horror that was about to descend across Europe, it now feels eerily prescient.

Criterion's blu-ray transfer is unlikely to impress casual viewers, as it still contains quite a bit of grain, but for those familiar with the film it will be a welcome improvement. Blu-ray transfers of films like this can be tricky because the film can only be so clear due to age and wear. The image is cleaned up and as sharp as it has ever been, and the grain is warm and familiar rather than distracting. The film just feels right, and the folks at Criterion have captured it well. Many of the extras are repeats of the original DVD release, but they are a strong lot, including the original ending of the film and the first part of an excellent 1993 BBC documentary on Renoir by David Thompson. The set also includes a booklet with some excellent essays, and most notably, testimonials by filmmakers and critics about how The Rules of the Game inspired their careers. It's a fitting tribute to one of cinema's greatest achievements, and Criterion has given it the treatment it deserves. For longtime fans, the blu-ray will be an irresistible treat. For those just discovering its riches, a grand journey awaits them. The Rules of the Game is a film that truly deserves its reputation, and so much more, and deserves a special place on the shelf of every serious lover of film.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE RULES OF THE GAME | Directed by Jean Renoir | Stars Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio, Roland Tautain, Jean Renoir, Julien Carette | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Available 11/15 on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Friday, November 11, 2011

From The Dispatch:
I've always felt that Ratner was a director more interested in the glamorous, playboy aspects of being a big Hollywood director than he was in actually making movies, but he's squarely in his element here. "Tower Heist" is fun, fast-paced popcorn entertainment that works reasonably well as long as you avoid thinking about how patently ridiculous it is. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

From The Dispatch:
But I hope that for the next outing the filmmakers stop trying to outdo their predecessors and instead return the series to its roots. I don't want to see the ghost. I don't care where it comes from or why it's haunting them. The more you know about something the less scary it becomes. In "Paranormal Activity 3," perhaps we know too much.
Click here to read my full review.