Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From The Dispatch:
It's true that Perry works within a very specific formula, and most people already know whether they're going to like that formula. But if you're willing to go with it, you will find yourself in capable hands. Perry knows what he's doing, he knows what buttons to push and when, and he handles it all with supreme confidence. 
Click here to read my full review.
After Harvey Weinstein's much publicized battle with the MPAA over the R rating for his new documentary, Bully, a young girl named Katy Butler has started an online petition on to try and persuade them to overturn the rating to a more teen friendly PG-13.

While normally I would say that all of this was one big publicity stunt, and it may still be, but the fact is that an R-rating is restricting the film from the very audience who needs to see it the most. With bullying being such a problem and receiving so much national attention, I think it's an issue worth looking at. The R-rating, which is for strong language, would keep the film from being screened in schools, where it really needs to be shown. The language being used by the bullies is understandably course, but this is what these bullied teens hear every day. It shouldn't be hidden from teens, it should be shown for the ugliness that it is.

Weinstein understandably does not want to cut the film, although he could probably release a version with the language bleeped that could be shown in schools. That seems a bit silly though since the kids know exactly what is being said and probably heard worse in the hallway before class anyway.

I'm never sure what good, if any, these things do. But if you're interested you can sign the petition by clicking here, or you can watch the trailer for the film below.

Bully opens March 30 in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

From the Front Row has welcomed several new writers in the past few months, but I am especially pleased to welcome my friend, C.A. "Weasel" Rubino to the crew. C.A. and I have been friends for a few years, and have been on stage together many times. We were even roommates for a while, so we know each other pretty well. Since he is almost as pretentious as I am, and shares a similarly warped sense of humor, he's a natural fit to write for From the Front Row.

C.A. is a freelance writer, actor, and crazy person who currently lives in Hollywood, California. For the past few years he has made a living writing for various online publications on a variety of subjects, none of which are interesting. C.A. is a huge fan of both cinema and being opinionated, so the jump to film critiques was a natural one.

Originally from the east coast, specifically not Florida, C.A. wandered out west on a whim one day and never looked back. When he isn't hammering away at a keyboard and arguing about movies, C.A. spends his time reading poetry, drinking wine, and avoiding going on auditions. He has also recently discovered the Twitter machine (@WeaselTea) and the world was never the same.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best Picture: The Artist
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist 
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners 
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help 
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris 
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, The Descendants 
Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation (Iran)
Best Documentary Feature: Undefeated 
Best Animated Feature: Rango 
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, Hugo 
Best Film Editing: Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Best Art Direction: Dante Ferretti & Francesca Lo Schiavo, Hugo 
Best Costume Design: Mark Bridges, The Artist 
Best Original Score: Ludovic Bource, The Artist 
Best Original Song: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet," The Muppets
Best Sound Editing: Philip Stockton & Eugene Gearty, Hugo
Best Sound Mixing: Tom Fleischman & John Midgley, Hugo 
Best Visual Effects: Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman & Alex Henning, Hugo 
Best Makeup: Mark Coulier & J. Roy Helland, The Iron Lady
Best Documentary Short: Saving Face
Best Animated Short: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore 
Best Live Action Short: The Shore 
NOTE: This is a repost of my original review, posted on July 15, 2011, with a postscript regarding the DVD release.

The titular five elephants of Vadim Jendreyko's elegant and lovely new documentary, The Woman with the Five Elephants, refers to the five works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky translated by renowned translator, Svetlana Geier.

Born in Ukraine in 1923, Geier grew up under the reign of Josef Stalin,who had her father arrested as a political prisoner. Her father, however, became one of the lucky few who were actually released from such imprisonment, but he died a little over a year after his release from injuries caused by the torture he endured behind bars.

However, when the Nazis invaded in 1941, Geier found herself living under a different sort of regime, one that scorned her non-Aryan roots, but one that also respected her intelligence, and she found work as a translator for various German military commanders, whom she defends to this day as being separate from the heinous crimes of Adolf Hitler. One even put his military career on the line to see that she got out safely and received a good education, resulting in his being shipped off to the Eastern front.

Svetlana Geier in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Geier has led an eventful life, and grown into one of the most respected translators in the world, dedicating her life to translating Russian literature into German. Language and literature, once an escape, became a way of life. Her deep and abiding love of words gives way to a rich and keen appreciation of the nuances of language, and the film evokes her passion with great skill. Her wisdom and life experience seems to radiate out of every frame. In fact, The Woman with the Five Elephants is perhaps one of the most incredible films about the art of creation I have ever seen. Watching Geier in the heat of translation is disarmingly riveting - her friends that assist her with typing and proofreading almost becoming sparring partners in an intellectual game.

But it is certainly no game. Geier takes her work seriously, and she knows what she wants. To her, a translation is about seeing the big picture of the work, to capture the subtleties and cadence of the text, to be as true to the spirit of the author's intent as possible, while making the work her own. She is an artist unto herself, a brilliant craftsman whose work is every bit as original and powerful as the authors she translates. It is almost as if she distills a work down to its root and rebuilds it anew as a singular, even more impressive work of art.

Geier is clearly a remarkable woman. And while she may not have changed the world, Jendreyko was right to recognize her exceptional qualities. She is a woman who deserves her own film. Geier commands attention, and we hang on her every word like rapt pupils. Her eloquence extends not just to her writing, but her every day speech as well. Each sentence is like a poem, and it is clear she chooses her words carefully, crafting each sentence with great care and artistry, as if she is translating the novel of her own life.

Jendreyko wisely steps back and allows Geier to tell her own story with her own words, only occasionally stepping in to fill in necessary historical details. This is her story, and she tells it well, offering a very special insight into the ways of the world. For his part, Jendreyko turns academic pursuits into something truly electrifying, crafting a documentary on translating 19th century novels that is wholly compelling, and even thrilling. The creation of any great art is always an act of elation, but here it almost attains something divine. As Geier says, the goal of existence should not be mere existence, but to transcend one's existence. She transcends not only existence, but art itself, and The Woman with the Five Elephants transcends the documentary form and attains its own sort of artfulness - a quiet and lyrical study of a truly remarkable human being.

Svetlana Geier and friend Mr. Klondt in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
DVD addendum: For the inaugural releases of their new documentary label, Spark, the Cinema Guild turned to one of their own, The Woman with the Five Elephants, and Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, which they did not distribute theatrically. While the focus clearly went into Everyday Sunshine, which is heavier on the extras, the strongest of the two films is clearly The Woman with the Five Elephants, which went severely overlooked upon its theatrical release, despite being one of 2011's finest documentaries.

The extras are a bit sparse, and are made up of about 25 minutes of deleted scenes, which provide more of Geier at work. As some of the most fascinating aspects of the film, spending more time with Geier a welcome addition. The most notable extra, however, is the Sergei Loznitsa's short film, Portrait. While it is not directly connected to The Woman with the Five Elephants, it's an interesting artifact. Made up almost entirely of filmed tableaux, with subjects posed as if for a portrait, Portrait is a series of images frozen in time. It is not unlike Chris Marker's La Jetee, a film entirely composed of photographs. But Portrait does not tell a story, at least not a story in the traditional sense. Instead, it plays out like the photographic history of a people. While it feels more like an art installation than a film, Portrait is a lovely and evocative look at the Russian peasantry. The careworn faces of these farmers and laborers seem to speak from across the ages, their stillness inviting open interpretation of their individual stories. It's amazing how haunting such a simple film can be, but it works.

While the overall package may not be quite on par with some of the Cinema Guild's other releases (although the artwork is beautiful), it's great to have this lovely little gem on DVD. Any chance to collect more wisdom from the formidable Geier is something to be celebrated.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS | Directed by Vadim Jendreyko | Featuring Svetlana Geier | Not rated In German and Russian w/English subtitles | Now available on DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

It's that time of year again, and we here at From the Front Row have been eagerly awaiting this year's Oscar ceremony, despite not exactly being thrilled with many of the probable winners (then again, 2/3 of us are let's face it, we look forward to this all year no matter what).

So we put our heads together and came up with our own predictions and preferences for the 84th Annual Academy Awards. Many of our picks line up exactly. Some, however, do not. Check them out and see how we line up with your own pics! Our predictions are in red, and our preferences are in green.

Matthew Lucas: Prediction - The Artist | Preference - The Tree of Life
Charles Lyons: Prediction - The Artist | Preference - The Tree of Life
Jesse Taylor: Prediction - The Artist | Preference - The Tree of Life

Matt:  Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist |  Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Charles:  Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist | Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Jesse: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist | Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Matt: Jean Dujardin, The Artist | Demian Bichir, A Better Life
Charles: Jean Dujardin, The Artist | Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Jesse: Jean Dujardin, The Artist | Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Matt: Viola Davis, The Help | Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Charles: Viola Davis, The Help Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Jesse: Viola Davis, The Help Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Matt: Christopher Plummer, Beginners | Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Charles: Christopher Plummer, Beginners | Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Jesse: Christopher Plummer, Beginners | Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Matt: Octavia Spencer, The Help | Octavia Spencer, The Help
Charles: Octavia Spencer, The Help | Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Jesse: Octavia Spencer, The Help | Jessica Chastain, The Help

Matt: Midnight in Paris | A Separation
Charles: Midnight in Paris | A Separation
Jesse: Midnight in Paris | A Separation

Matt: The Descendents | Moneyball
Charles: The Descendants | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Jesse: The Descendants | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Matt: A Separation | A Separation
Charles: In Darkness | A Separation
Jesse: A Separation | A Separation

Matt: Rango | Kung Fu Panda 2
Charles: Rango | A Cat in Paris
Jesse: Rango | Rango

Matt: Hell and Back Again | Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Charles: Undefeated | N/A
Jesse: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory | Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Matt: The Tree of Life | The Tree of Life
Charles: Hugo | The Tree of Life
Jesse: The Tree of Life | The Tree of Life 

Matt: Hugo | Hugo
Charles: Hugo | Hugo
Jesse: Hugo | Hugo

Matt: Hugo | Hugo
Charles: Hugo | Jane Eyre
Jesse: Jane Eyre | W.E.

Matt: The Artist | The Artist
Charles: The Artist | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Jesse: The Artist | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Matt: "Man or Muppet," The Muppets | "Man or Muppet," The Muppets
Charles:  "Man or Muppet," The Muppets | "Man or Muppet," The Muppets
Jesse:  "Man or Muppet," The Muppets | "Man or Muppet," The Muppets

Matt: The Iron Lady | The Iron Lady
Charles: The Iron Lady | The Iron Lady
Jesse: The Iron Lady | The Iron Lady

Matt: The Artist | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Charles: Hugo | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Jesse: The Artist | Moneyball

Matt: Rise of the Planet of the Apes | Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Charles: Rise of the Planet of the Apes | Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Jesse: Rise of the Planet of the Apes | Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Matt: War Horse | Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Charles: Hugo | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Jesse: Hugo | Hugo

Matt: War Horse | Drive
Charles: Hugo | The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Jesse: Hugo | Drive

Matt: Raju | Tuba Atlantic
Charles: Raju | The Shore
Jesse: Tuba Atlantic | Tuba Atlantic

Matt: The Incredible Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore | The Incredible Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Charles: The Incredible Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore  | N/A
Jesse: The Incredible Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore  | Wild Life

Matt: God is the Bigger Elvis | The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Charles: Saving Face | N/A
Jesse: Saving Face | The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

To read Matt's full write-up from The Dispatch, including commentary, click here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

As a fan of Bruno Romy, Dominique Abel, and Fiona Gordon's Rumba, I was thrilled to learn that Kino Lorber would be releasing their latest film, The Fairy.

There's just something special about these three talents that cannot be ignored. Their films are the epitome of collaborative filmmaking, with the two leads, Abel and Gordon, sharing directing credit with Romy (who also cameos in the film), yet never feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen with differing, incongruous styles. Their brand of droll, physical comedy recalls Buster Keaton and especially Jacques Tati, who shared their decidedly French sensibilities. Like Rumba before it, The Fairy often borders on the absurd, with characters taking breaks in the action for seemingly random dance scenes and other moments of surrealism (a man flies from building to building, a dog in a suitcase walks around as if the suitcase is possessed). But in its strangeness lies its charm. It doesn't have to make sense that a dog in a suitcase can walk if its legs aren't sticking through, and those looking for logic are best suited to look elsewhere, because The Fairy is all charm and heart and little else.

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel in THE FAIRY, directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy. 
A Kino Lorber release. Photo by Laurent Thurin-Nal.
It may seem unbearably twee to more cynical personalities, because The Fairy is the kind of film that is almost incessantly cheerful from start to finish. Rumba was a somewhat darker comedy that nevertheless kept an upbeat tone throughout all the misfortunes that befell its characters. This time around, Abel and Gordon star as characters with their own names as two awkward people who meet and fall in love in a very unusual way. Abel, who is referred to as Dom in the film, is a hotel clerk who cares very little about his job, and even less for his overbearing boss. One evening, a young woman named Fiona (Gordon) walks into the lobby and announces that she is a fairy and offers him three wishes.

Incredulous, Dom asks for a scooter and free gas for life. When he awakes the next morning to discover that his wishes have come true, he realizes there is more to Fiona than meets the eye. The two quickly become inseparable, but when Fiona is captured and put in a mental hospital, Dom sets out to rescue her. The ensuing madness involves mental patients, the police, illegal immigrants, and one adventurous newborn baby, all thrown into one wildly entertaining French souffle of a movie.

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel in THE FAIRY, directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy. 
A Kino Lorber release. Photo by Laurent Thurin-Nal.
While overall I think Rumba was a stronger film, with its almost complete lack of dialogue and stronger emotional center, The Fairy is nevertheless a wonderfully droll comedy, showcasing the filmmakers' strong visual sensibilities. From the spot-on comedic framing to the precise physical comedy, Abel, Gordon, and Romy are perhaps the heirs apparent to Jacques Tati's legacy (along with animator Sylvain Chomet, whose film, The Illusionist is probably the best Tati film Tati never made). And yes, it is a fairy tale in its own strange way. Fiona may or may not be an actual fairy, and Dom is hardly a handsome prince, but these two kindred spirits form a kind of inexplicably perfect union who find absolute bliss even while running from the police for stealing gas (among other accidental catastrophes).

Abel and Gordon have great on-screen chemistry (probably due to their own off-screen relationship), and it is clear that their strong creative energy translates behind the camera as well. Their films create singularly peculiar worlds with their own strange sense of reality that are endlessly beguiling without coming across as trying too hard to be cute. It's a difficult balance to walk, but The Fairy hits all the right notes. It's a little bitty movie with a great big heart that is nearly impossible to resist, and Abel and Gordon are quickly establishing themselves as some of world cinema's most nimble comedians.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE FAIRY | Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy | Stars Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Philippe Martz, Bruno Romy, Didier Armbuster | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens today, February 24, in NYC.
Sacha Baron Cohen took to the Today Show in character as The Dictator's Admiral General Aladeen to protest his ridiculous banning by AMPAS after he requested to show up to the red carpet as the outlandish character from his new film. Check it out below.

It remains to be seen if Cohen will still attend the Oscars, but I think this is a major overreaction on the part of the Academy. A simple "no" would have sufficed.

The Dictator opens May 11.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Of all the awards that will be presented on Sunday at the 84th annual Academy Awards, no category is so up in the air as the race for Best Documentary. Of the four nominees I've seen (a scheduling conflict left me unable to attend my press screening of Pina), I can honestly see the award going to any of them.With all the pundits seemingly predicting a different winner, I decided to run down the pros and cons of each film on their own to try and get a better picture of the race.

(Dir. Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman)

This remarkably even-handed documentary profiles the Earth Liberation Front, a group of radical environmental activists, through the lens of one of their members on trial for arson. Raises interesting questions about what makes a terrorist, questioning whether someone who purposefully targets empty buildings so as not to harm anyone should be branded a terrorist and tried under post-9/11 anti-terrorism laws.  Curry and Cullman keep a pretty even hand throughout, neither siding with the ELF or condemning them for their actions. Given the controversial nature of the subject, it's a pretty remarkable achievement.

Why it could win: The Academy loves issue docs, and If a Tree Falls deals with both environmentalism and post-9/11 paranoia with surprising impartiality.
Why it might not win: The Academy also loves their docs to have an emotional hook, which If a Tree Falls really doesn't. The subject isn't particularly likable and it's hard to connect with or feel sorry for a guy who only got seven years for burning down buildings, which doesn't really seem like overkill.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

(Dir. Danfung Dennis)

Director Danfung Dennis goes from the front lines to the home front in this startling documentary about a wounded Afghanistan vet suffering from PTSD. Dennis juxtaposes his experiences on the battlefield with his increasing stress at home, creating a poignant and disturbing portrait of psychological duress under extreme pressure. It's a powerful exploration of modern warfare, and its harrowing battle scenes (in which soldiers are actually killed) make for wrenching viewing.

Why it could win: It's a war doc with a strong emotional hook. It's topical and current, which is often a recipe for success at the Oscars.
Why it might not win: Could the Academy be suffering from war fatigue? Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's similarly themed Restrepo lost the award last year to Charles Ferguson's financial crisis doc, Inside Job.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

(Dir. Joe Berlinger)

This fascinating and disturbing documentary is the culmination of one of the most remarkable pieces of journalistic advocacy in recent memory. Detailing the startling new evidence in the case of the "West Memphis 3," accused of murdering three 8 year old boys, the film is a shocking and surprisingly even handed exploration of an egregious failure of the American justice system, for both the victims and the accused.

Why it could win: The Academy famously ignored the original Paradise Lost back in 1996, which had no small part in turning public opinion on this case, resulting in the release of three innocent men, one of whom was on death row. Awarding the final installment, which was preparing for release right before the men were finally freed (an epilogue was added to update the film), would be a great way to make up for it. It's also ripped-from-the-headlines current, which doesn't hurt.
Why it might not win: It's undeniably disturbing, and its graphic detail about the murders (including horrific images of the murdered children's bodies), may turn voters off.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

(Dir. Wim Wenders)

Why it could win: While I haven't seen Pina, it's beautiful, 3D visuals may win over voters. Awarding it will also be an award for legendary German director, Wim Wenders, who has never won an Oscar.
Why it might not win: It's a movie about dance, which might not be substantial enough to inspire voters to check their ballots. Also - it's in 3D.

(Dir. Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin)

No, not the Sarah Palin movie, just another underdog football story. This unremarkable documentary tells the story of a ragtag football team from Tennessee comprised of mostly inner city kids that was the laughing stock of the state until a determined coach turned the program around into a winning season. We've seen this movie before many times in many other forms, and there's nothing new here.

Why it could win: The Academy loves their feel-good underdog stories, and this one has a strong emotional hook. It's not an "important" issue doc necessarily, but fluff has won before (see March of the Penguins). Plus it was distributed by the Weinstein Company. Never count out Harvey.
Why it might not win: If you don't like football, forget it. And its storyline is very familiar for anyone who has ever watched a movie. Ever. There's nothing here to distinguish it from the crowd.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

PROJECTED WINNER - Hell and Back Again
PREFERENCE - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Selected for the National Film Registry in 2008, Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery is a seminal work of documentary filmmaking. Presented on DVD and blu-ray for the first time by Milestone Films, from a restoration by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, On the Bowery is a remarkable film, from an aesthetic as well as a historical standpoint.

The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1958, but in subsequent years has not only faded from the public consciousness, but from critical consciousness as well. One person for whom it made a huge impact, however, was Martin Scorsese, who provides a video introduction for this new release. Watching the film now, it's easy to see why it so spoke to Scorsese, and also just how important it is to the history of documentary filmmaking.

Calling it a documentary as actually a bit of  misnomer, as parts of it are clearly staged, albeit by nonprofessional actors. But that doesn't hamper its authenticity, which is consistently raw and immediate.

The film centers around New York's Bowery, home to drunkards, thieves, and hardscabble men just trying to get by in the world. Poverty is keenly felt here, and many of its citizens are just passing through on their way to another job in some other far flung corner of the country. One such drifter is Ray, a transient railroad worker just looking for an honest days work. The film follows him as he navigates the bowery, from having drinks with new acquaintances in a bar, to getting robbed after passing out on the street, to finding (or not finding) a new job. Rogosin's camera lingers on the craggy, careworn faces of the Bowery's disparate citizens, exploring the streets and alleys with a roving, unblinking eye.

While parts of the film were scripted it maintains an immediate, unflinching honesty. Rogosin was inspired by the cinema verite and neo-realist styles coming out of Europe, and he spent a great deal of time on the Bowery, getting to know the men and even living their life alongside them. It's that familiarity that gives On the Bowery its power of authenticity. It feels real, even amid the sometimes awkward non-professional performances. Rogosin masterfully tells the untold stories of the people society left behind, and Ray makes a fantastic "everyman" character, his non-expressive face serving as a kind of blank canvas. He isn't so much an individual as he is a representative of an entire class of honest men (many of whom were veterans) just looking for honest work in the years following World War II and the Korean War.

The aftermath of war was clearly something very close to Rogosin's heart, and comes to the fore in his 1966 documentary, Good Times, Wonderful Times, which is also included in Milestone's blu-ray set.  Completely rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s, for good or ill, depending on your point of view, Good Times, Wonderful Times is a much more overtly political work than On the Bowery. Juxtaposing the ramblings of the faux-intellectual, effete bourgeoisie with images of wartime atrocities, the film paints a grim picture of the disconnect between the upper classes and the real world. It clearly wears its anti-war heart on its sleeve, but in some ways its naivete as well. While the party-goers it follows certainly say some reprehensible things, Rogosin falters somewhat when he tries to compare any army with fascism, missing the fact that it is because of people like Hitler that armies are a necessary evil. But what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer conviction. The film may be flawed in its ideological zeal but it's undeniably thought provoking , which was the whole point to begin with. Rogosin often paints with as broad and as black and white a brush as his subjects do, but he does it with great power and skill.

Milestone's presentation is a veritable treasure trove for film historians, with a wealth of Criterion level extras. This is a fine set indeed, and the folks at Milestone have outdone themselves, not only with the sumptuous extras (which also include Rogosin's short film, Out, and in-depth looks at the making of the film), but in the impressive HD transfers of these films, which are as flawless as they can be without compromising their scrappy personalities. From the hard scrabble streets of New York to the Jewish ghettos of WWII, Rogosin's films take us on a tour of hard knock reality with a striking eye for time and place rarely equaled in documentary filmmaking. Rogosin redifined the boundaries of the medium and in the process laid down a definitive history of not only New York, but of America itself. In short - On the Bowery is something quite special indeed.

ON THE BOWERY -  ★★★★ (out of four)
GOOD TIMES, WONDERFUL TIMES - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from Milestone Films.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fresh off a string of British successes, culminating with the most accomplished film of his early period, The Lady Vanishes (1938), followed by Jamaica Inn (1939), it was only natural that Hollywood would come calling for this English wunderkind. That call came in the form of mega-producer David O. Selznick, for whom Hitchcock made his first American film, Rebecca (1940), starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Rebecca is an interesting entry in Hitchcock's canon. At once a gothic departure for the director and yet something uniquely Hitchcockian, Rebecca has the distinction of being the only Best Picture Oscar winner in Hitchcock's illustrious career. And it's easy to see why. Of all Hitchcock's films, Rebecca is the most clear "prestige picture." Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier's novel, the film is of Hitchcock's most lushly romantic works, but it's also one of his darkest and most atmospheric films. Hitch was known for his suspenseful thrillers and mysteries, and while Rebecca certainly contains those elements, there's something clearly different about this one.

It may be due to the constant interference of Selznick, who was often regarded as an overbearing, meddling producer, and his films (such as Gone with the Wind, Dinner at Eight, and A Star is Born) always had an air of prestige and class. Rebecca is something of the perfect marriage of their two distinct styles, and despite the often contentious nature of their relationship, especially in the making of this film, the result is something truly spectacular. It's a haunting tale of a young bride (Fontaine) living in the shadow of her husband, Maxim de Winter's (Olivier) first wife, Rebecca, who died, tragically, at a young age. Her maid, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), remains devoted to Rebecca, and seems determined to undermine the new Mrs. de Winter by any means possible. But her greatest enemy seems to be Rebecca herself, whose reputation and lingering presence seem to overshadow her at every turn.

Rebecca is essentially a ghost story without a ghost, and Hitchcock directs it as such, like a supernatural thriller without any actual supernatural goings on. The filmed is steeped in eerie atmosphere and dread, reflecting both Mrs. de Winter's increasing paranoia and the dark circumstances surrounding her. The massive drawing rooms seem to engulf her, and Fontaine's intimidation is certainly palpable (most likely due to Olivier's widely known dislike of her, and Hitchcock's mischievous fanning of the flames).

Hitchcock made several other successful American films, including Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Lifeboat, before turning to Spellbound in 1945. While Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to purchase the rights to it, it seems that their often stormy relationship had not really cooled.

Conceived as a whodunit steeped in the world of psychoanalysis, Spellbound starred Ingrid Bergman as a psychologist whose new colleague (Gregory Peck) may not be who he says he is. Together, the two of them set out to discover his true identity, only to discover that he may be responsible for a horrible crime that he doesn't remember committing.

Spellbound is a twisty thriller in the best Hitchcockian tradition, even if it may be a minor work in comparison to some of his more popular successes. Still, Spellbound is notable for two things - the dream sequence designed by artist Salvador Dali, and the memorable climactic shot, featuring a flash of red in the otherwise black and white film.

Hitchcock wanted Dali, who was on the vanguard of the surrealist movement (having collaborated with Luis Bunuel on the surrealist classic, Un Chien Andalou, in 1929) to create the sequence, which takes us inside Peck's troubled mind. But a combination of Selznick's displeasure and studio interference caused the scene to be cut and reworked until it was almost unrecognizable, leaving us with the truncated version we see now. It's still a terrific sequence (and includes a none-to-subtle reference to Un Chien Andalou's most famous shot), but it also feels restrained, and its obvious the powers that be didn't want it to veer too far into the avant-garde.

Still, Hitchcock's mastery of the medium is readily apparent here, even if the film itself almost feels like the product of too many cooks in the kitchen. This is the kind of thing Hitchcock excelled at, but he certainly did it better, and more memorably, in other films.

One such example would be his very next film, Notorious (1946). With Selznick distracted by his passion project, Duel in the Sun, starring his lover, Jennifer Jones, Hitchcock was able to make the film without his interference.

The result is a film more distinctly Hitchcockian, and perhaps the strongest of his early Hollywood films. Notorious combines  all the elements at which Hitchcock was so adept; intrigue, suspense, romance, Notorious has it all.

Ingrid Bergman returned, this time as the daughter of a convicted Nazi sympathizer in the days after WWII, who is recruited by an American intelligence officer (Cary Grant) to seduce a German operative (Claude Rains) living in South America. Bergman is great as a kind of fallen woman whose drinking and perceived loose ways make her, well, notorious Grant is magnetic as always as the agent who falls in love with her.

One of the film's great pleasures, however, is Claude Rains as the conflicted Alexander Sebastian, who falls for Bergman until he discovers her true identity. Their relationship, and Bergman's fantastic dual performance (as a woman living in a performance) provides for some great drama as well as some of Hitchcock's most intensely suspenseful sequences. It's Hitchcock at his clever best, building suspense with pinpoint precision and creating sympathy even for the most dastardly of characters. The duality of Bergman's character makes up the backbone of the film, and the star for her part turns in one of her finest performances. The sequence where Grant and Bergman discover Rains' secret in the wine cellar is textbook suspense, and it's easy to see why Hitchcock was the master at this kind of filmmaking. No one did it better, before or since, and Notorious is one of the finest showcases of his skills.

While the cover art of the three new blu-ray releases of these films may lack imagination and spark, the content is uniformly fantastic. Each film has been cleaned up and given superior high def transfers, and the extras are more than just the usual perfunctory trailers and still galleries. Each disc is packed with documentaries and commentaries featuring the likes of Peter Bogdanovich and even Hitchcock himself, as well as vintage radio adaptations of the films often featuring the original casts. There are also in depth looks at the relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, which was just about as dramatic as the films themselves.

These three discs are veritable treasure troves for Hitchcock fans, and while Fox may have dropped the ball on their recent Woody Allen releases (which had no extras whatsoever), they came through with flying colors with their Hitchcock discs. Each one is a must-own not just for fans of the master's work, but for newcomers as well. They may not be as well known as his late period masterworks such as Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho, but they nevertheless showcase Hitchcock working at the peak of his considerable talents.

REBECCA -  ★★★★ (out of four)
SPELLBOUND -  ★★★½ (out of four)
NOTORIOUS -  ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray from 20th Century Fox and MGM.