Thursday, April 28, 2011

Win a Copy of "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench!"

To celebrate the DVD release of Damien Chazelle's sublime black and white musical, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench on May 3, From the Front Row will be giving away a copy of the film to one lucky reader courtesy of The Cinema Guild!

There are two ways to win - head over to my Twitter account and retweet the contest message, or send an email to contests.fromthefrontrow@gmail.com with the subject heading "Guy and Madeline."

As always the contest is open to US residents only, and will close Monday, May 2. It's a wonderful film, so get your entries in now!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New on Blu-ray | 4/26/11

It is somewhat serendipitous that both Betty Blue (37°2 le matin) and The Scent of Green Papaya should find their way onto Blu-ray for the first time on the same day. While the two films may not seem to readily share many similarities, upon closer inspection they are much more alike than they are at first glance.

Both films received Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film (France's Betty Blue in 1986, and Vietnam's Green Papaya in 1993). While neither film took home the statuette, (those honors went to The Netherlands' The Assault and Spain's Belle Epoch, respectively), both films have faded somewhat into cinematic history. A fate that is unfair in both cases.
That is where the surface similarities end. But both films center around a female protagonist in love. While the two women approach love in vastly different ways, both of these films are emotional journeys of self discovery.

In Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya, 10 year old Mui is given away into servitude by her impoverished family. The family she goes to serve, while wealthy, is fraught with problems of their own. Their youngest son is an antagonistic brat who enjoys tormenting Mui at every turn. The father has an unfortunate habit of abandoning his family, and does so once again, leaving them struggling just to buy rice. Their youngest daughter had passed away years before, and Mui fills a void in the mother's heart. Mui's finds escape in the every day beauty around her. She keeps a pet cricket and relishes examining water droplets on leaves. She especially fascinated with papaya, a favorite dish of the family, and its texture and scent come to define her childhood, a memory she often revisits later in life.

A scene from Tran Anh Hung's THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA.

The family's economic hardships begin to weight on them, however, and they are forced to send Mui away. Now a grown woman, she takes up residence with a young pianist and his fiance. The two begin to form a tentative relationship, as he teaches her to read and write. Under his tutelage she grows as a woman, and soon their relationship becomes something much deeper.

Tran Anh Hung steeps the film in the atmosphere of pre-war Vietnam. And even though it was filmed entirely on a Parisian soundstage, it evokes a rich feeling of time and place. The sound of unseen jets suggest the oncoming war encroaching on a society on the brink of destruction. Hung's use of sound in the film is of particular note, as it is key to the film's tone, yet often greatly symbolic and presented without visual context. The planes, for instance, are never seen yet the audience instantly realizes what they mean. They are the only suggestion of the looming Vietnam war, but their presence is keenly felt.

The Scent of Green Papaya is an unusual and evocative film punctuated by lush cinematography sound design. It's a strangely intoxicating work, often wordless, and characterized by an oddly entrancing score. Hung creates a singularly enchanting atmosphere, as delicate and mysterious as the smoke of incense. It's a strange beauty of a film, and Kino Lorber's gorgeous new blu-ray transfer only enhances it. From the lovely box art to the film itself, the film bursts with startling clarity.

Betty Blue, on the other hand, while not presented in such an elaborate package, packs a pretty big visual wallop as well. A part of a wave of French filmmaking in the 1980s dubbed Cinéma du look by French critic Raphaël Bassan in 1989. These films tended to favor style over substance, containing often conventional plots while focusing on a strong sense of visual style. Jean-Jacques Beineix was one of the key directors to follow this trend (in fact, some would say he started the movement with his 1981 film, Diva), and in 1986 he was awarded with an Oscar nomination for Betty Blue.
Here, love turns into obsession for a troubled young woman named Betty, who moves in with her handyman boyfriend, and changes his life forever.

Betty and Zorg had only slept together a few times before she showed up on his doorstep looking for a place to stay. He accepts her, but soon discovers she has deep seeded issues he had never seen before. One day, while tearing through his apartment in a fit of anger, she discovers a novel he had written and becomes convinced he is a brilliant writer, and is determined to get his novel published. It is the beginning of a long journey for the two of them, as they move away to Paris to start a new life together. And while Zorg only falls deeper in love with Betty, Betty only slips deeper into insanity - a tumultuous free spirit whose unbridled enthusiasm for life is matched only by her fiery self destruction.

Betty and Zorg in love in Jean-Jacques Beineix's BETTY BLUE.

Betty Blue is a wildly erotic excercise in pure cinema, and the blu-ray presentation by Cinema Libre enhances Beineix's striking color palate. The technical aspects of the disc, however, leave something to be desired. The subtitles are a hard to read yellow tint with an annoying back shadow that is completely unnecessary and often frustrating. The menus are also not easy to navigate, and since the disc automatically starts playing, it is only accessible over trailers or the film itself. Still, it doesn't detract from Beineix naturally involving story. It's a vibrant and messy tale of doomed love that, while occasionally over the top, is a quintessential piece of mid-80s arthouse cinema.

THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA - ★★★½ (out of four)
BETTY BLUE - ★★★ (out of four)

ALSO ON DVD TUESDAY | LOOKING FOR FIDEL (★★★), Oliver Stone's intriguing look at Cuba's notorious leader, Fidel Castro. Stone was granted unprecedented access not only to Castro himself, but to political prisoners and dissidents as well. Castro proves himself a lucid and intelligent man in this surprisingly balanced, if brief, portrait of one of the world's most controversial figures. Brian De Palma's BLOWOUT, a reworking of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, arrives on Criterion disc for the first time, while Terry Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS makes its Criterion Blu-ray debut.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Review | "Armadillo"

War is hell. We know that. It's been a common theme in cinema all the way back to Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front. However in recent years it has become a message often lost in the fog of politics, and perhaps even overexposure.

It is easy, as a culture, to become desensitized to war. After all, we are currently involved in two wars and a third major conflict, and have been for nearly 10 years. America is tired of war. But they are even more tired of war films. Movies dealing with Iraq have flopped one right after the other, while an endless parade of documentaries has flooded the specialty marketplace, with mixed results. Audiences are always suspicious of having agendas pushed on them, whether they agree with them or not. And while there have been some very strong ones (Why We Fight, No End in Sight), the actual act of combat often remains an abstract concept reserved for narrative filmmaking.

Michael receiving medical attention after being shot in the arm in Janus Metz's ARMADILLO.
Photo by Lars Skree, courtesy of Lorber films.

Just last year, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo spent one year with a platoon in one of Afghanistan's deadliest valleys, observing wars effects on a group of courageous young men. This year, Janus Metz's extraordinary Armadillo takes it one step further, plunging the audience into a harrowing barrage of real life combat in one of the most unforgettable documentaries to come along in years. Metz and his crew follow a Danish platoon in Afghanistan for one six-month tour of duty. During that time, we follow the soldiers from their homes to the front lines, getting to know them before plunging into the heat of battle. The cameras accompany them on routine patrols, where they are ambushed by Taliban fighters.

It's a frightening, wholly immersive experience. Cameras mounted on the helmets of the soldiers give us a first hand look at real modern combat in a way no film has ever done before. This is powerful, visceral filmmaking. Metz allows the audience to look at warfare in a completely new way. Once it dawns on you that you are watching real soldiers fight real Taliban insurgents, often merely a few feet in front of the camera, Armadillo becomes something of a transformative experience.

Soldiers at forward operating base ARMADILLO, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Photo by Lars Skree, courtesy of Lorber films.

It is often said that one cannot go to war without coming back changed. By the same token, I would say that it would be nearly impossible not to be somehow changed by Armadillo. That is not to say that it in any way compares with the experience of actually being in combat, but for those of us who will never see it, it's something of a shock. Films like Black Hawk Down have taken us into the thick of battle, but never has real war felt so devastatingly immediate. Metz presents his film without agenda and with great empathy. By the film's end, the audience feels as though we have gone through this with the soldiers. We have felt their pain. We have watched their families' pain on the home front. This is real. This is happening. This is now.

The very existence of Armadillo is an act of heroism in itself. All debate about the righteousness of this war, or any war at all, falls by the wayside here, and even seems woefully beside the point. This is about the soldiers - their struggles and their triumphs, their joys and their pain, their life and their fear. It is a searing and unforgettable portrait of a modern warfare, a clear eyed exploration of the motivations and the drive of the modern soldier. But above all it is perhaps the greatest combat documentary ever made.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

ARMADILLO | Directed by Janus Metz | Not rated | Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

River Run Announces Award Winners

The 2011 River Run Film Festival has come to a close. With one of the strongest lineups in their history, this one was truly one for the books. The jury and audience award winners were announced yesterday evening in a ceremony at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Here is the complete list of winners:

Erdal Besikcioglu in BAL (Honey). An Olive Films release.

BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE
Bal (Honey)
, dir. Semih Kaplanoglu

PETER BRUNETTE AWARD FOR BEST DIRECTOR

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

BEST ACTOR

Mathieu Amalric, On Tour

BEST ACTRESS

Djeneba Kone, A Screaming Man

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Baris Ozbicer, Bal (Honey)

SPECIAL JURY PRIZE FOR BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

Crab Trap

Mads in a shot from Janus Metz's ARMADILLO.
Photo by Lars Skree. Courtesy of Lorber Films.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Armadillo, dir. Janus Metz

BEST DIRECTOR
Nicolas Philibert, Nenette

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Naomi Kawase, Genpin

AUDIENCE AWARDS

KILPATRICK TOWNSEND & STOCKTON LLP AWARD FOR BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE
Home For Christmas, dir. Bent Hamer

KILPATRICK TOWNSEND & STOCKTON LLP AWARD FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Kinshasa Symphony, dir. Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer

ALTERED STATES AWARD FOR BEST AMERICAN INDIE
to.get.her, dir. Erica Dunton

NARRATIVE SHORT BEST NARRATIVE SHORT
The Award (El Premio), dir. Leon Siminiani

HONORABLE MENTION
You Too (Na Wewe), dir. Ivan Goldschmidt

DOCUMENTARY SHORT BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Surpriseville, dir. Tim Travers Hawkins

HONORABLE MENTION
Bathing Micky, dir. Frida Kempff

HONORABLE MENTION
Mr. Hypnotism, dir. Bradley Beesley

ANIMATED SHORT BEST ANIMATED SHORT
The Eagleman Stag, dir. Mike Please

HONORABLE MENTION FOR ARTISTIC TECHNIQUE
Madagascar, A Journey Diary (Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage), dir. Bastien Dubois

STUDENT SHORT BEST STUDENT SHORT
The Eagleman Stag, dir. Mike Please

BEST STUDENT SHORT– HONORABLE MENTION
Flip, dir. Jill Hackett

BEST STUDENT SHORT– HONORABLE MENTION
Traumdeutung, dir. Lauri Warsta

Source: www.riverrunfilm.com

On "Arthur"

From The Dispatch:
It’s zanier in tone than the original, which makes its sudden turn into seriousness in the home stretch seem disingenuous. It’s a tonal switch that rings false, and while it goes in a direction that the audience wants, it never quite feels like it is a resolution that is earned. But that is almost to be expected in a comedy such as this, and while it is essentially a one-joke comedy, it is buoyed by likable performances by its capable cast, keeping it afloat despite its shortcomings.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review | "A Screaming Man"

While the current political situation in Africa may be dominating the 24 hour news cycle, it is also having a huge impact on African filmmaking. And while the tragedies born out of the continent's social unrest are devastating, the effects they have had on its films have been incredible.


Tragedy and heartache can have tremendous impact on the artistic expression of a nation or region, and while it may sound crass to extoll the virtures of art created out of such pain, its hard to deny the power of such filmmaking and their importance in telling the stories of the downtrodden.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's A Screaming Man is very much a product of the social turmoil in Chad, and Haroun conveys the plight of the common citizen caught in an overwhelming political and societal upheaval, as rebel forces seek to overthrow an oppressive regime, the result of which may not necessarily be an improvement.


Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) is an aging former swimming champion who has settled into his twilight years as a pool attendent at an upscale hotel. The pool is his life, and he is thrilled to be able to share his life's passion with his son, Abdel (Diouc Koma). But economic and political changes in Chad, brought on by a growing threat of civil war, have forced the hotel owners to make drastic changes, and they do so by downsizing their staff, forcing out old timers to make room for newer, cheaper labor. Suddenly, Adam finds his life ripped away from him as he finds himself moved away from his beloved pool and replaced by his own son.

Now a mere doorman, the passion Adam has devoted his entire life to seems lost, and he becomes resentful of Abdel, who has inherited his father's job. But when the rebels come calling, Adam is forced to make a difficult choice, and the choice he makes will change the lives of his family forever. In a world turned upside down, families will be ripped apart, father will turn against son, and choices will be made that go against every instinct they have ever had. In the name of self preservation, lives will be destroyed.


At its heart, A Screaming Man is about a man facing his own irrelevance, put out to pasture before his time, watching a younger generation, symbolised by a volatile and uncertain rebellion, rise up and change what was once a familiar world. But more than that, it demonstrates the horrors of war in a shockingly intimate way. While it focuses squarely on the home front, it explores the terrible things people do during wartime to save themselves. Haroun infuses the film with the powerful weight of the cry of an anguished people. It's a quietly devastating and elegant film, haunted by the tragedies of the people it depicts.

Despite it's title, there is a melancholy stoicism at work here. There are no over the top histrionics to be found, just an achingly devastating work of grim introspection. It's a story of sprawling scope on a deeply personal scale, using the family at its core as a microcosm for greater societal tragedy. The story of this family could be anyone, and Haroun is a naturally engaging director, conveying his themes with graceful restraint. The power of A Screaming Man comes from its delicate handling of a dark and volatile situation. Its screaming comes not from without from within, a quiet cry of anguish that radiates from every frame, the sound of a screaming man whose pain speaks for a nation.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A SCREAMING MAN | Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun | Stars Youssouf Djaoro, Diouc Koma | Not rated | In French & Arabic w/English subtitles Opens Wednesday, April 13, at the Film Forum in NYC.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review | "Le Quattro Volte"

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

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

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

A goat, in a scene from Michelangelo Frammartino's LE QUATTRO VOLTE.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.

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

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

Giuseppe Fuda as the shepherd in a scene from Michelangelo Frammartino's LE QUATTRO VOLTE.
Courtesy of Lorber Films.


Like the great silent directors, Frammartino conveys the story through images of often profound beauty. An early shot of dust floating in a ray of light in the church the shepherd visits for medicine foreshadows a later stage in his soul's earthly odyssey, and suggests the fate of others like him from time long past. There is not a wasted shot to be seen here, each is pregnant with possibility and teeming with an inner life; mostly consisting of long, seemingly effortless takes. Despite its wordlessness, or perhaps because of it, Le Quattro Volte enraptures its audience, holding us in its grasp with bated breath, enthralled in each delectable moment and spellbound by its haunting stillness. It is as if Frammartino has stumbled upon a deeply profound truth, something filmmakers so rarely hit upon. His film seems to embody life itself, a feat made even more impressive by its brief running time.

This is powerful and confident filmmaking, a kind of cinematic poem that stares deep into the human soul and emerges with a quietly moving and deeply meaningful experience. I so rarely use the word 'masterpiece' in reviews for fear of unearned hyperbole, but that is exactly what Le Quattro Volte is - a masterpiece. It's a brilliant work of art, a staggeringly masterful and evocative film whose power transcends mere words and enters the realm of the spiritual. No matter one's religious beliefs, there is something of the divine to be found Le Quattro Volte, a whispered hint of the soul's immortality that lingers like a wisp of smoke on a mountain. This is what great cinema is all about.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

LE QUATTRO VOLTE | Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino | Stars Giuseppe Fuda | Not rated | Now showing at the Film Forum in NYC.

Blu-ray Review | "Marwencol"

There has been quite a bit of excitement about the Cinema Guild's inaugural blu-ray release of Jeff Malmberg's remarkable documentary, Marwencol. Cinema Guild has been one of the strongest up and coming specialty distributors of the last few years, releasing such films as Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes, and Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica. So for the company to be dipping its toes into the Blu-ray business for the first time is something to be celebrated. And boy have they done it right.

Marwencol isn't necessarily a film that benefits from an HD presentation, but the transfer is nonetheless pristine, despite being presented in 1080i rather than 1080p, with pop-up menus and all the trappings that we have come to expect from the Blu-ray format.

They don't skimp on the extras either, which in addition to an introductory essay by critic Elvis Mitchell, includes a limited edition print by the film's subject, Mark Hogancamp, as well as the usual deleted scenes.

Hogie marries Anna in front of the SS soldiers who captured him.
Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Unlike most perfunctory deleted scenes, however, these take us deeper into the world of Marwencol, the fictional town created by Hogancamp as an escape from his own troubled world. The deleted scenes are less essential, but the lost stories of Marwencol are each fascinating in their own right.

Also of interest is a short video of Hogancamp watching the film for the first time, and his immediate reaction. Hogancamp remains an engaging and enigmatic figure, and the Blu-ray actually expands on this intriguing and talented man.

From my original review:
In the end, Hogancamp is still something of an enigma. But that's kind of the point. How much can one person truly know another, especially someone as reserved as Hogancamp, whose personality is poured day after day into his art? Marwencol is a fascinating portrait of an artist who didn't even know he was one that challenges its audiences' notions of art and reality by confronting them with a man who refuses to be pigeonholed. Thankfully, Malmberg doesn't try, and the result is a truly compelling and insightful documentary.
Marwencol is one of the most original and entertaining documentaries of the last few years, and while its release on Blu-ray may seem an unusual choice for the Cinema Guild's first foray into the format, it brings with it promise of great things to come, including a Blu-ray release of The Strange Case of Angelica on August 2nd.

Don't miss this alluring and unusual gem.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MARWENCOL | Directed by Jeff Malmberg | Featuring Mark Hogancamp | Not rated | On DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, April 12.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The 5 Must-Sees of the 2011 River Run Film Festival

My full coverage of the River Run International Film Festival was published in today's Dispatch - including capsule reviews of 29 of the feature films playing in competition or as part of the festival's special programming. I labeled 15 of those films as "critic's picks" to denote the best films playing at the festival. But for the cash and time strapped movie buff, here is my guide to the five films you MUST see at this year's River Run. If you have to choose - choose one of these.

1. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

No one else in the world today makes films quite like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (known affectionately as "Joe" to his friends), and his latest film is a magisterial Rubick's Cube that transports its audience into a realm of dreams unlike any other. Showing April 13, 8 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 16, 1 p.m. at UNCSA Gold, April 17, 2:45 p.m. at UNCSA Gold. Click here to purchase tickets.

2. ARMADILLO (Denmark, Janus Metz)

The war in Afghanistan comes to startling life in this harrowing documentary following a six month tour of a Danish platoon. Never before has modern warfare been seen in such shocking detail, as the cameras follow these Danes into real battles with the Taliban. Essential viewing. Showing April 9, 4 p.m. at UNCSA Gold, April 10, 4 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 14, 3 p.m. at Hanesbrands Theatre. Click here to purchase tickets.

3. THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Thomas Bornot, Gilles Amado, and Alain-Michel Blanc)

This frightening documentary turns a withering eye on modern reality show culture, testing subjects to see just how far they are willing to go in the name of money and good TV, asking them to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity to a fellow contestant with each incorrect answer. The results are sobering, raising important questions about our culture and our capacity for obedience of those with the appearance of power. Showing April 9, 7 p.m. at UNCSA Gold, April 11, 2 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 12, 7:30 p.m. at a/perture cinema. Click here to purchase tickets.

4. TWO GATES OF SLEEP (USA, Alistair Banks Griffin)

A haunting riff on William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying, " Alistair Banks Griffin's remarkable debut feature follows two brothers tasked with burying their mother on an ethereal odyssey into the unknown. Part Terrence Malick, part Carl Dreyer, part Dimitri Kirsanoff, this nearly wordless film is a completely spellbinding experience. Showing April 9, 12:30 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 10, 6:30 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 12, 11:30 a.m. at a/perture cinema. Click here to purchase tickets.

5. A SCREAMING MAN (Chad, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

A man faces his own irrelevance in the face of encroaching modernity and civil unrest in this powerful African drama. Haroun examines the horrors of war on the home front, as it tears apart families miles from the front lines through difficult choices that threaten to tear them apart forever. A subtle and beautifully realized work. Showing April 15, 6:30 p.m. at a/perture cinema, April 16, 10 a.m. at a/perture cinema, April 17, 12:30 p.m. at a/perture cinema. Click here to purchase tickets.

AND IF YOU HAVE TIME - Don't miss the closing night film, Potiche (France, Francois Ozon), a delightful comedy starring Catherine Deneuve that is perhaps the most fun film playing at River Run this year. Showing April 17, 7 p.m. at UNCSA Main.

ALSO WORTH A LOOK - Queen to Play (France, Caroline Bottaro), Home for Christmas (Norway, Bent Hamer), Genpin (Japan, Naomi Kawase), The Robber (Germany, Benjamin Heisenberg), We Were Here (USA, David Weissman and Bill Weber), An African Election (Ghana/Sweden, Jarreth Merz), The Day Carl Sandburg Died (USA, Paul Bonesteel), Gabi on the Roof in July (USA, Lawrence Michael Levine).

For more information, visit www.riverrunfilm.com.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Review | "To Die Like a Man"

There is something sublimely magical in the way João Pedro Rodrigues' To Die Like a Man gleefully contradicts itself. It is often simultaneously subtle and melodramatic, playful and serious, presentation and yet wholly real.

One would almost have to have tongue planted firmly in cheek to make a film about drag queens, since the very idea of a drag queen is situated squarely in the world of camp. But Rodrigues finds surprising pathos in the world of Tonia, an aging queen who is nearing the end of her career and moving ahead with gender reassignment surgery, a move meant more for her boyfriend than for her. All her life she has created a character, a facade of a woman, and now she is taking the step to become that character forever.

Tonia's boyfriend, Rosário, is a junkie, a shiftless lout who is young enough to be her son and takes advantage of her generosity. It is an abusive relationship, but Tonia's love for him gives her the will to carry on taking care of him, even when his withdrawals make him violent and suicidal.

Just when Tonia thought she had enough trouble, her long lost son, Zé Maria, shows up at her doorstep, bitter and angry. He has gone AWOL from the army after killing another soldier, and has returned to seek refuge with the father he resents. Angry about his father's sex change, Zé Maria lashes out, concealing what are perhaps his own conflicted desires that have led him down a dark path of self loathing.

Stifled and at her wits end, Tonia wants to escape. So with Rosário and her beloved dog, Agustina, in tow, she heads off to visit Rosário's brother. But the two of them will never make it there. They become waylaid by an adventure into the woods that will bring them to new friends and mysterious experiences. And when it becomes clear that Tonia's body is rejecting her breast implants, she is forced to make some difficult decisions that could change the direction of her life forever.

To Die Like a Man is, in some ways, the best Almodovar film Pedro Almodovar never made. There is a glossy, camp element present of course. We are dealing with drag queens after all, but it's also disarmingly sincere. Tonia exists in a world of artifice, of distance between persona and identity. For most of her life she has been a larger than life projection of someone else, and it isn't she is actually starts to become someone else that she discovers who she truly is. Make no mistake, this is not a film about judging transsexuals, or somehow suggesting that transexuality is to deny one's true self. Quite the opposite, actually. At its heart it's a celebration of humanity, a probing exploration of self-identity and image, of personal desires versus expectations.

Rodrigues uses long, fluid takes and vibrant color filters to create a slightly off-kilter world where almost anything is possible, each moment pregnant with possibility. It's a shimmering oddity of a film, a wholly unique and lively experience unlike anything we've really seen before. Rodrigues enthralls us and surprises us, creating something memorable and achingly beautiful, while striking a note that is so very, very true. To Die Like a Man, like its indomitable protagonist, refuses to be put in a box.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

TO DIE LIKE A MAN | Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues | Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida, Chandra Malatitch | Not rated | Opens Friday, April 8, in NYC.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Win a Copy of "Marwencol" on Blu-ray!

To celebrate the release of Jeff Malmberg's extraordinary documentary, Marwencol, on DVD and blu-ray on April 12, From the Front Row will be giving away a copy of the film on blu-ray to one lucky reader courtesy of The Cinema Guild!

From my review:
Marwencol is a completely disarming and utterly unique look at an artist who represents one of the most unusual and remarkable artistic discoveries of the decade...a fascinating portrait of an artist who didn't even know he was one that challenges its audiences' notions of art and reality by confronting them with a man who refuses to be pigeonholed.
There are two ways to win.

1) Simply send an email with your name and address to contests.fromthefrontrow@gmail.com with the subject "Marwencol."

OR

2) Head on over to my Twitter page and retweet the contest message.

Only one entry per person. Those who enter through both methods will have only one entry counted. The winner will be picked at random. You must be at least 18 to enter and a resident of the United States.

The contest closes on Monday, April 11, so get your entries in now!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

"Inside Job" Online

The Internet Archive now has Charles Ferguson's Oscar winning documentary, Inside Job, available to watch online, completely free and completely legal.

Check it out here, but if you like the film, don't forget to support the filmmakers by buying your own copy. Don't miss this one.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Review | "In a Better World"

There is a longstanding cliche amongst cinephiles and Oscar watchers that the Best Foreign Language Film winner is usually the most sentimental, the easiest to digest, and lets face it, the worst nominee of the bunch. The Counterfeiters over Beaufort, The Secret in Their Eyes over The White Ribbon, Departures over, well, any of the other nominees that year. Even though I actually liked Departures, I don't think anyone would claim it was the best foreign film of its year. The Academy just doesn't really have the knack for picking them.

So when once again the Academy snubbed far more deserving films such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Of Gods and Men, I immediately assumed this year's crop of films just wasn't going to measure up once again (despite the surprising inclusion of the excellent Dogtooth).

The eventual winner, Denmark's In a Better World, is at once exactly the kind of film the Academy loves to honor, and yet better than the typical foreign language winner, making it one of the strongest recipients of the award of the past decade.

Mikael Persbrandt as Anton. Photo by Morten Søborg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Directed by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire), In a Better World is the story of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who travels back and forth between a refugee camp in a wartorn African nation to his home in Denmark, splitting his time between helping victims of a brutal warlord with his family at home. His life away from the refugee camp, while far from the hard conditions of Africa, is strained. He is going through a tough divorce with his wife of many years, and his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) has grown distant, becoming a target of schoolyard bullies.

But then a new boy arrives in town, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). Having just suffered the death of his mother, Christian has moved from England with his father to live with his grandmother, and when Christian helps Elias stand up to the bully, the two become fast friends. Christian, however, is harboring deep seeded bitterness and rage, and is not content with merely standing up to bullies. He wants revenge. As Christian's lust for vengeance becomes greater and more dangerous, Elias becomes more and more worried, especially where his father is concerned, who became the target of a bully of his own. Now, Anton begins to see parallels in his two worlds, and is forced to make hard choices - does he take the easy path of vengeance preferred by Christian, or turn the other cheek? The answers may not be as easy as he once thought.

Left to Right: Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Trine Dyrholm as Marianne
Photo by Per Arnesen, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Bier weaves an intricate and sensitive portrait of masculinity and the complexities of male bravado. At what point must you stand up and protect yourself, and what does it mean to stand up and be there better man? And more importantly, what are the dangers of unbridled machismo? Bier explores here themes with dignity and grace, even if they're often a bit too tidy and well defined. The film exists squarely in a world gone mad, but the surroundings almost seem too precise. It's undoubtedly a beautiful film, impeccably crafted and executed, but at times it's almost to a fault.

Nevertheless, Bier handles tricky emotional territory with great skill, creating a solid drama with the heart of a great thriller. Her young stars are astonishingly good, and bear the brunt of the film's considerable emotional weight as it builds to a shattering climax. While it may lose a bit of steam afterward, it skillfully juxtaposes outdated masculine ideas versus contemporary societal responsibilities in a consistently engaging way. Bier's bow may be a bit too neatly tied where it should be ragged around the edges, but this is really compelling, and ultimately thought provoking stuff.

GRADE -
★★★ (out of four)

IN A BETTER WORLD | Directed by Susanne Bier | Stars Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard | Rated R for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language | In Danish, Swedish, and English w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC and LA.