Sunday, April 29, 2012

If the recent controversial comments by Rush Limbaugh about Sandra Fluke have taught us anything, it is that all a young woman has to do is publicly state her need for birth control in order to be labeled a slut.

We've seen countless films about horny teenage boys trying to get laid. It seems like a new one opens at the multiplex every weekend. And every time it is treated as something to be celebrated. However, any girl who acted the way those boys do would most likely be labeled a "loose woman."

That double standard has long existed inside Hollywood and out. In fact it wasn't that long ago that the female orgasm itself was thought to be a myth. Women's sexual enjoyment has always been more of a taboo than their male counterparts, and the fact that women like sex just as much as men, and are just as prone to sexual fantasies, is often ignored in movies. Now, Jannicke Systad Jacobsen Norwegian coming of age comedy, Turn Me On, Dammit! seeks to change all that.

Sara (Malin Bjørhovde), Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and Ingrid (Beate Støfring) in a scene from “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” a film by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. Photo courtesy of New Yorker Films.
Set in the tiny Norwegian town of Skoddeheimen, Turn Me On, Dammit! is the story of Alma (Helene Bergsholm), a 15 year old girl who just wants to have sex. When she's not fantasizing about just about everyone she comes in contact with, she's either having phone sex or masturbating in her room. The usual object of her fantasies is Artur (Matias Myren) a local boy she often spends the afternoons with. One day a local party, Artur approaches Alma, pulls his penis out of his pants, and presses it against her thigh. Thrilled and intrigued, Alma immediately confides in her best friend, Ingrid (Beate Støfring). Unbeknownst to Alma, Ingrid also has a crush on Artur, and is incredulous about Alma's claims. When Artur denies it, Ingrid turns against Alma and proceeds to tell the entire school that Alma is some kind of pervert.

Soon, Alma finds herself an outcast in her own town. And in a town as small as Skoddenheimen, everyone soon finds out about Alma's "abnormality." The kids at school start calling her "Dick Alma," Artur begins ignoring her existence, even her own mother thinks there's something wrong with her. All the while her sexual curiosity only grows, so does her frustration, with no one to tell her that what she is feeling is perfectly normal.

Alma (Helene Bergsholm) prepares for a party in “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” a film by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. Photo courtesy of New Yorker Films.
Jacobson clearly has a very keen understanding of teenage sexuality. While Turn Me On, Dammit! is clearly a comedy, its characters remain disarmingly, even painfully honest. There's Alma, the sexually curious one, Ingrid, the young queen bee, and Sara, the wannabe political activist who believes she can right all the world's wrongs by raising awareness and writing letters. Jacobson draws them all with both sensitivity and intelligence, getting down to the very essence of a young girl whose raging hormones are pushing her into territory she is not fully ready to explore. The entire film, however, seems to exude the same kind of reaction the public at large seems to have to a sexually liberated woman. Even Alma sees her sexual exploration as "misbehaving," when most of what she does is merely healthy exploration. Jacobson wants to hammer home the point that Alma has nothing to be ashamed of, even as the world around her seems unready and unwilling to embrace a girl exploring her sexuality, while the male instigator faces little to no ridicule.

The young cast of mostly non-professional actors are refreshingly real, untouched by the typical looks and attitudes of the stereotypical Hollywood  teenager. They fully commit themselves to tricky and potentially awkward territory with great aplomb, and the result is something wholly unique. Turn Me On, Dammit! is a comedy about real teenagers, not manufactured Calvin Klein models with fairy tale endings. It's a brash, insightful, and poignant film with a daring new perspective. As this strange national debate about birth control  as a sign of promiscuity rages on in America, Turn Me On, Dammit! has the chutzpah to present a young girl with an unabashed desire for sexual gratification without judging her, even treating her as perfectly normal - because that is exactly what she is. No matter what America's strange tradition of prudishness would have us believe, sex is nothing to be ashamed of, and Jacobson's altogether wonderful new film is a warm, witty, and hilarious celebration of healthy sexual desire in all its forms. It's one of the best coming of age comedies in years.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! | Directed by Jannike Systad Jacobsen | Stars Helene Bergholm, Malin Bjørhovde, Beate Støfring, Henriette Steenstrup, Matias Myren | Not rated | In Norwegian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Some eighty years ago, in the mountains of Taiwan, two races clashed in defense of their faiths. One race believed in rainbows, the other believed in the sun. Neither side realized that they both believed in the same sky."

Despite its lovely lyricism, the above quote doesn't appear anywhere in the film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale. It is, in fact, the short synopsis from the film's press notes. Whoever wrote those press notes should be commended, because they wrote a three sentence synopsis that's better than the 2.5 hour film it describes. If only the film itself had contained even half of that same poetic depth then it would have truly been something to treasure. There are glimmers of that potential here and there, but that's mostly all Warriors of the Rainbow is - potential. It has all the makings of a thundering epic, a kind of Braveheart meets The Mission, but the end result feels like director Wei Te-sheng threw all the right ingredients into a bowl, but forgot to mix them together. The final product is a disjointed collection of cliches and ideas that never jell together into a cohesive whole.

Lin Yuan-Joe and Lin Ching-Tai in Wei Te-Sheng’s WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE 
Courtesy of Well GO USA.
Based on a rather obscure piece of Taiwan's history (little known even in Taiwan), Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is the tale of the aboriginal Seediq tribe, which came under the rule of the Japanese when Taiwan was ceded by China in 1895. For over 30 years the island of Taiwan was under brutal Japanese rule, until Mouna Rudo, a chief of the Seediqs, united the tribes and led his people in a revolt against the far superior and more advanced forces of the Japanese. Rudo, a warrior who strictly adhered to the ancient teachings and beliefs of his people, has long accepted the rule of the Japanese with a brooding resign, resentment boiling beneath the surface but wisdom staying his hand.

But when the oppression becomes too much to bear, he begins to reflect on the potential lost souls of the young members of his tribe whose hands have never known battle and whose faces remain unadorned with the traditional tattoos signifying manhood. It soon becomes clear that the only way to save their souls is to give up their lives. Hopelessly outmatched and out gunned, Rudo leads his people into battle, fighting not for freedom, but for eternity.

Courtesy of Well GO USA.
It's all very familiar, as we've seen endless variations on this story before. But its truth lends a certain amount of interest that sets it apart somewhat. The biggest problem with Warriors of the Rainbow is that it feels just like all the other advanced empire versus scrappy natives films. At 2.5 hours long it's a bit of a slog, but it's beautifully filmed, and features some undeniably stirring moments. I only wish they weren't so few and far between. It also raises some inevitable questions about the allegiances it expects us to feel, when the Seediqs are actually just as brutal if not more so than the Japanese. Heads roll in this film frequently, flying through the air, rolling on the ground, always accompanied by spurting arterial sprays. We are automatically supposed to root for the Seediqs because they are the underdogs and pull against the Japanese because they are the occupiers. But when we play witness to the heroes chopping off head after head in the most brutal fashion, it becomes hard to accept them as the group to feel sympathy for.

Wei just doesn't spend enough time developing the history between these two peoples. Without the back story to provide some answers, it's almost easy to see why the Japanese were so disgusted by the Seediqs - they were every bit as brutal as the propaganda claimed (if the film is to be believed). Despite the film's ideological slippery slope, for his part, Lin Ching-Tai is excellent as Mouna Rudo. The non-professional actor simply exudes wisdom and courage, and he beings an anchoring quality to a film that often gets lost ferreting off on its own tangents. Beautiful cinematography can't mask a weak script, and despite some thrilling action sequences and moments of searing emotion, the script just doesn't do the story any justice. While Warriors of the Rainbow may have been a passion project for Wei that was years in the making, it never becomes the film one knows it can be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE | Directed by Wei Te-Sheng | Stars Ling Ching-Tai, Umin Boya, Ando Masanobu | Not rated | In Seediq w/English subtitlesNow playing in select cities.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

There are few other directors out there doing what Guy Maddin does. Long before The Artist swept the Oscars amid breathless praise for its supposedly unique embrace of silent-era styles, Maddin was making far better and more experimental silent films to critical acclaim and audience indifference.

While The Artist is clearly a more commercially viable work, as it was based on the most innocuous silent film tendencies, Maddin's films reflect the more avant-garde aspects of the medium. They are an extension of the work of filmmakers like Luis Bunuel (Un chien andalou), Germaine Dulac (The Seashell and the Clergyman), Man Ray (Emak-Bakia), and other early surrealist and dadaist filmmakers who challenged the medium of film, pushing it to its boundaries and beyond. Like the surrealists, Maddin's films follow a kind of dream logic, as if the audience is somehow trapped inside the characters' subconscious, their darkest secrets and sexual fantasies tumbling to the forefront.

Isabella Rossellini in Guy Maddin's "Keyhole."
While his latest film, Keyhole, may not be silent, it certainly adheres to his trademark silent era style. In fact, its lack of silence is perhaps its greatest drawback. It's not that Maddin is on completely unfamiliar territory, but sound seems almost out of place here, not to mention the often grating narration by the naked ghost of an old man chained to a bed, who serves as our guide. That ghost is the lingering spirit of the father of Hyacinth Pick (Isabella Rossellini) who has locked herself in a room in the center of her house surrounded by memories and spirits. Her husband, Ulysses (Jason Patric), is a gangster who has stormed the house in order  to reach his cloistered wife.

He is accompanied by his right hand man, the boy who killed his son before being adopted by Ulysses to take his place, a girl who seems trapped between the real world and the spirit world (Brooke Palsson), and a hostage, his youngest son, Manners (David Wontner), whom he no longer remembers. As he attempts to reach his wife, he encounters the spirits of the past trapped within the walls of his home, some vengeful, others benign. Along the way, all of them will make discoveries about themselves as they become increasingly lost in their own phantasmagorical world of shadows and desires.

Brooke Palsson and David Wontner in Guy Maddin's "Keyhole."
Creating a plot summary of a Guy Maddin film is basically an exercise in futility, and one that is ultimately beside the point. I use the term "plot" loosely because Maddin isn't interested in telling a story so much as he is exploring the subconscious. His characters' psychosexual issues and repressed desires make up most of the action rather than any kind of superfluous story. What he has done instead is peer through the keyhole of their minds, past the barriers we create around ourselves, into the darkest recesses of our subconscious mind. Hyacinth is a character consumed by grief and has walled herself off from the world. Her husband is trying to reach her by any means necessary, but first he must tackle his own demons in order to get through to her.

The original surrealists purposely resisted any kind of interpretation, so referring to Maddin simply as a surrealist isn't completely accurate. While he does create the feeling of being inside a dream, which is one of the key tenets of surrealism, Maddin does not adhere to any kind of aesthetic dogma. He is in a class by himself. Keyhole may not represent his very best work, but it is certainly fascinating to explore and contemplate. It is a richly layered ghostly funhouse that, while not as profound or as powerfully rendered as his masterpieces The Heart of the World and Cowards Bend the Knee, is a singularly bizarre experience all its own. Maddin continually pushes the boundaries of cinema in consistently striking directions, and in the case of Keyhole, he has created something as disturbing as it is hilarious, as serious as it is absurd, showing us what so few filmmakers ever really do - something we have truly never seen before.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KEYHOLE | Directed by Guy Maddin | Stars Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Brooke Palsson, David Wontner | Rated R for graphic nudity, sexuality, violent content and some language | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Conclave, the process by which the Cardinals of the Catholic Church select a new Pope, is a tradition that is as steeped in history as it is shrouded in secrecy. Outsiders know very little about the specifics of the process, and the Cardinals' notes are always burned once a Pope is selected. What actually goes on behind closed doors is left up to inference and conjecture. It is only when the smoke rising from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel changes from black to white that the outside world learns that a new Pope has indeed been chosen.

But what if the Cardinal chosen to be Pope doesn't want the job? It is that unthinkable situation that serves as the hook for Nanni Moretti's comedic drama, We Have a Pope.

As the film opens, the former Pope has just died, and the College of Cardinals has cloistered itself to elect the new Pontiff. Three names have come forward as possible frontrunners for the leader of the Catholic Church, and media speculation has reached a fever pitch (an all too familiar lunacy that Moretti mocks with special glee), and indeed those three Cardinals dominate the early rounds of voting.

Michel Piccoli in WE HAVE A POPE, directed by Nanni Moretti. 
A Sundance Selects Release. Photo by Philippe Antonello.
However, as the voting progresses and no consensus is met, a new name emerges as the overwhelming favorite - Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). Stunned, Melville accepts his new title. But just as he is to address the faithful from the balcony of the Sistine Chapel, he suffers a breakdown and retreats back into the conclave room. Thinking quickly, the Cardinals inform the world that the new Pope has secluded himself in prayer, but the truth is that he is simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of his newfound responsibilities. As his advisors seek psychological help for the increasingly withdrawn Pontiff, he escapes from the Vatican and sets out on his own.

While the faithful wait with bated breath, his psychoanalyst informs him that he has "parental deficit," and he becomes determined to get to the root of his fear and reluctance to fulfill the role he believes God has asked him to fill. In his absence, the Cardinals remain in conclave with an unwitting participant, a non-believing psychoanalyst (played by Moretti himself) who isn't allowed to leave the chapel until the new Pope is announced. While they are cut off from the outside world, they find new ways to amuse themselves, as the Pope continues his soul searching, trying to find the strength to bear the burden of being God's infallible representative on Earth.

Nanni Moretti in WE HAVE A POPE, directed by Nanni Moretti. 
A Sundance Selects Release. Photo by Philippe Antonello.
There is an undeniable charm about the film that is hard to resist. Moretti directs with a kind of understated whimsy, both bemused and in awe of such an ancient and magisterial process. He pokes gentle fun at the process and its inherent absurdities, but it is neither pointed enough nor consistent enough to make much of an impact. Once the Pope is out on his own, Moretti completely misses an opportunity for greater thematic exploration. The people he meets during his time of introspection have seemingly little impact, although his rekindling of his old passion for acting and theatre offer a glimmer of what the film could have been.

The real highlight of the film, however, is Michel Piccoli's performance as the reluctant Pontiff. He embodies the inner conflict of being shouldered with expectations and responsibilities no mortal could ever hope to live up to in a way that the film itself never really does. It's never anything more than just a "nice little movie," which is a shame considering the abundant opportunities for thematic richness inherent to the story. We Have a Pope is a completely agreeable but exceedingly slight film that never seems to have progressed past the conceptual stage. Moretti states in the film's press notes that they started with the image of a new Pope being unable to address the faithful after his election and running away from the balcony. It's a powerful image that, sadly, never really blossoms into anything deeper. A film must be more than a concept alone, and even though it offers glimpses of something more, the final product seems only halfway there.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

WE HAVE A POPE | Directed by Nanni Moretti | Stars Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Jurzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa | Not rated | In Italian w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

And so the 14th Annual RiverRun International Film Festival has come to a close. After nine days and hundreds of films, here are the 2012 winners:

Best Narrative Feature Found Memories (Argentina/Brazil), directed by Júlia Murat
Peter Brunette Award for Best Director — Júlia Murat, Found Memories (Argentina/Brazil)
Best Actor — Mohamed Fellag in Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
Honorable Mention, Best Actor — Anders Danielsen Lie in Oslo, August 31st (Norway)
Best Actress — Nadezhda Markina, Elena (Russia)
Honorable Mention, Best Actress — Sonia Guedes, Found Memories (Argentina/Brazil)
Best Cinematography — Lucio Bonelli, Found Memories (Argentina/Brazil)
Best Screenplay — Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)

Best Documentary FeatureThe Boy Who Was a King (Bulgaria/Germany), directed by Andrey Paounov
Best Director — Lauren Greenfield, Queen of Versailles (USA)
Human Rights AwardLove Free or Die (USA), directed by Macky Alston

Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton, LLP Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature — Monsieur Lazhar (Canada), directed by Philippe Falardeau
Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton, LLP Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature — Chasing Ice (USA), directed by Jeff Orlowski
Altered States Audience Award for Best American Independent Film — Small, Beautifully Moving Parts (USA), directed by Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson

This was, in my opinion, perhaps the strongest lineup RiverRun has had yet. I'm a big fan of Found Memories so I was glad to see it do so well with the narrative jury. The film will be released on June 1 in NYC from Film Movement. The audience winner, Monsieur Lazhar, is currently playing in select cities.

For a complete list of winners, click here. To read my reviews of the films that played in competition, click here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Whenever a film comes along whose main protagonist is a filmmaker, it's a safe bet to say that we're on pretty personal ground for the real filmmaker behind the camera.

However, when that filmmaker is Hong Sangsoo, any assumption is made at one's own peril, because Hong is a filmmaker extraordinarily adept at manipulating the ideas of time and perception. In Hong's universe, nothing is ever what it seems on first glance.

In his perhaps his finest film, 2000's Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Hong tells essentially the same story from varying points of view, deftly articulating the notion of different perspectives on one single relationship. "What is truth?" He rhetorically asks, refusing to give an answer. It is that sly sense of subversion that Hong brings to each film, and he has brought it once again to his latest work, The Day He Arrives.

Song Sunmi (Boram), Kim Sangjoong (Youngho) and Yu Junsang (Seongjun) in "The Day He Arrives." 
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
This time, rather than taking on the ideas of truth and perspective Hong tackles the perception of time, yet The Day He Arrives feels, both aesthetically and thematically, like an extension of Virgin Stripped Bare. It's not just that they are both shot in black and white, or that they both feature filmmakers as characters, it's the way in which Hong constantly challenges the audience the question and examine what they are watching. The Day He Arrives takes place over the course of one day (or does it?), in which a filmmaker named Seongjun (Yu Junsang) travels to Seoul, South Korea to meet up with an old friend. When his friend doesn't show up on time, he begins to wander the streets, where he has a series of random encounters.

There is the plucky young actress who seems desperate to work with him. There is the group of young film students with whom he shares a drink. By the time finally meets up with his friend, Youngho (Kim Sangjoong), it might be the same day, it may be the next day. It doesn't matter. They meet up with a film teacher, Boram (Song Sunmi), and share drinks at a bar where the proprietor seems to be perpetually absent. Seongjun plays the piano and asks the bar proprietor out for a drink. As these seemingly mundane events take place, time seems to dissolve away and events begin to repeat themselves and blend together. Whether it is a day or the impression of a day no longer matter, as Seongjun begins to take stock of a life that isn't going quite the way he planned.

Yu Junsang (Seongjun) and Kim Bokyung (Yejeon) in "The Day He Arrives." 
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Having not made a film in several years, Seongjun is at a crossroads in his life, and the day he arrives in Seoul will make him take stock of where he has been and where he is going, of coincidences and fate, of the difference in stagnancy and motion. Hong skillfully weaves these themes together in a surprisingly light and humorous manner, punctuated by an inescapable feeling of melancholy and loss. Seongjun's piano interludes, in which he hammers out Chopin's "Nocturne in C-sharp Minor" on an out of tune piano, become a kind of stirring glimpse into his mind and his own sense of ennui. The film somehow seems to exist out of time, as if Seongjun has somehow stepped into a vortex where time no longer has any meaning. Time stands still just as much for the audience as it does for Seongjun. Has he only been in Seoul for a day? Or was he there for several days? Does it really matter? When his life has no direction, the days run together in a blur that seems to be caught in a neverending cycle.

It is part of Hong's genius that The Day He Arrives doesn't really reveal itself in the moment. It is a film that reveals itself upon reflection, in hindsight. The cyclical events of the film play out life day-to-day trivialities, small talk and fleeting encounters. But when the sum of the film is totaled it becomes something far greater than its parts. Hong is beguiling us, lulling us into a kind of complacency akin to the character's own, before revealing its treasures in a revelation that its protagonist may or may not ever have. It handles a surprising amount of thematic richness in its bare bones structure, and Hong conveys it with both elegance and grace. On the surface it may seem like a trifle of a film, a throwaway exercise in naturalism that ultimately leads nowhere. But in true Hong fashion, its simplicity is the ultimate deception, and for those willing to take the challenge, exploring its riches yields great rewards.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DAY HE ARRIVES | Directed by Hong Sangsoo | Stars Yu Jungsang, Kim Sangjoon, Song Sunmi, Kim Bokyung | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, April 20, in New York City.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

By now you've probably heard about the controversy surrounding spoilers in reviews of Cabin in the Woods. It is, of course, like most controversies on the internet, much ado about nothing.

"OMG you guys! The twist is that there IS no twist!"

There are few groups more prone to getting their panties in a twist than movie geeks and bloggers (two groups which are often one and the same). The controversy first started with reviews by Esquire's Nick Pinkerton and the New York Observer's Rex Reed that seemingly lay bare the entire plot. You would think the fact that Pinkerton prefaces this discussion with "This is where, according to the degraded discourse of the twenty-first century, I'd normally be obliged to mar this paragraph with the all-caps SPOILER ALERT — but, well, forget it" would have been a clue to those wishing to go into the film blind, but this is a controversy characterized by righteous indignation. Not, you know, logic.

If people wanted to get outraged over something, why not the fact that Reed's review clearly reveals that either he didn't even see the film, walked out of it, or just didn't pay attention. His accusation that the trap the characters find themselves in is some kind of video game is so far off the mark it's laughable. But the fact remains that what these people are complaining about being revealed is, well, the plot itself.

It's pretty much impossible to discuss The Cabin in the Woods in a critical manner without discussing the plot in detail to explore its allegorical meaning. Any critic that doesn't at least touch on that is pretty much derelict in their duty as a critic. What's more is that there really is no big twist. I knew just from watching the trailer that the entire thing was a setup, and all of that is revealed in the opening scene of the movie. The pleasure is in the journey. It's the little things along the way that make Cabin in the Woods so much fun. The problem is with people being way too uptight about spoilers, when if they wanted to go into the film completely blind they shouldn't have been reading reviews or online discussions about it in the first place.

Therein lies the rub. If I don't want to know who went home on RuPaul's Drag Race last night, I avoid Twitter and Facebook until I have a chance to watch it. Simple. If I accidentally see something, it's my own fault. The same applies for movies. If you don't want to know anything about it, don't read the reviews or visit online forums that may be discussing it until after you've seen it.

Of course, there is such a thing as common courtesy. I'm not going to post something like HEY GUYS MALCOLM WAS THE DEAD PEOPLE HALEY JOEL OSMENT SAW because that pretty much negates the entire viewing experience, and is kind of a dick move. Knowing that the cabin in The Cabin in the Woods is run by a corporation setting the five kids up for sacrifice to ancient gods does not negate the viewing experience. It's what the movie is about. In fact it's pretty up front about its intentions from the get-go. Which is why I say is that the twist is that there is no twist. The people whining about spoilers are the kind of people who want to go into movies knowing nothing about them, which in today's culture of complete media saturation is all but impossible.

Yesterday, I posted this brief review of the film on MUBI:
Exceedingly clever meta-horror film lovingly sends up the genre while simultaneously indicting the audience as 5 stereotypical college kids head out into the woods, only to end up in a cabin controlled by an organization dedicated to making bloody sacrifices to ancient gods. Brilliantly conceived, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is the most wildly inventive and entertaining horror film since the original "Scream."
Naturally, the very first comment was "ummm... SPOILERS!!" No, those aren't spoilers. That's a plot summary. Knowing that before going into the theater doesn't change the viewing experience at all. I'm just sick of people like that whining about spoilers. I'm sick of the very term. If you don't want to know anything about the movie before seeing it, just stay off the internet and let me discuss the film in appropriate channels on my own terms. I shouldn't have to tiptoe around those who haven't seen it in a place where the film is being discussed by those who have. Stop whining, buy a ticket, and come back when you've seen the film. The world will be a happier place.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

100 years ago today, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank into the icy depths of the North Atlantic two and a half hours later at 2:20 AM on April 15.

At that moment, a legend was born, and the Titanic sailed into history as one of the most enduring and endlessly fascinating disasters of all time.

Perhaps it is the personal stories - the band playing until the very end, Ida Strauss refusing to leave her husband, Isidore, the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews, frantically throwing deck chairs into the sea to serve as flotation devices. Perhaps it is the neverending series of "if onlys" that surround its sinking - if only there had been enough lifeboats, if only the crew had heeded repeated ice warnings, if only the Californian hadn't shut off its wireless, if only the ship had rammed the iceberg head-on rather than grazing it, the list goes on and on. But whatever it is, the Titanic has carved out a permanent place in the popular consciousness, and nowhere is that popularity more apparent than in the multiple cinematic retellings of the story that have been appearing almost as soon as the great ship went down.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
The most famous of these is, of course, James Cameron's Titanic, a sweeping epic that focused on a fictional love story set against the backdrop of the disaster. Cameron's film was meticulously researched, and features quite a few real characters, but of all the Titanic films, perhaps none is so painstakingly accurate as Roy Ward Baker's 1958 docudrama A Night to Remember. Coming out several years after Fox's soapy Titanic, starring Clifton Webb and Barbra Stanwyk, A Night to Remember sought to offer a more realistic depiction of the event. Based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord, the film follows the Titanic's true stories, giving a blow by blow account of the sinking from the point of view of different passengers and crew members who are all based on real people.

There is no main character, per se, but the action does tend to center on 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth Moore), who was the highest ranking officer to survive the sinking, and it is his testimony that serves as the basis for much of what we know about the disaster. Baker deftly weaves these real life tales to provide as wide-ranging and complete a picture of the sinking as possible. Unlike most Titanic dramas, Baker wastes no time on the events leading up to the fateful collision with the iceberg. That event occurs 30 minutes into the film, and the rest of the running time is devoted almost entirely to the sinking.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
While Cameron may have had access to more facts and information regarding the sinking than Baker (the wreckage had not yet been discovered in 1958), Baker's adherence to fact is both a positive and a negative. It tends to lead to a more clinical, by the book, unmistakably British vision, but it also a more immersive experience. By dispensing with a fictional story to distract from the real life drama, A Night to Remember stands apart from its Titanic brethren by sticking solely to the facts. By the time the Titanic is in its death throes, the lack of a central character no longer matters, and the real human stories of the ship come to the fore. While the special effects may not hold a candle to the Academy Award winning work in Cameron's film, they're still quite impressive given the period, and Baker manages to infuse the film with an unflagging sense of authenticity.

Comparisons to Cameron's Titanic are naturally inevitable, but it all honestly it's a bit unfair. Both are very different films with very different goals, and both succeed on their own terms. For fans of Cameron's film, A Night to Remember may come as a bit of a jolt, considering just how much of the same ground is covered. It's clear Cameron drew some inspiration from Baker in regards to the look of his film, as well as the paintings of Ken Marschall. But Baker's fact based approach feels like as close as it is possible to get to the real thing. His sense of verisimilitude and the striking black and white cinematography (as well as the earnest performances) make for a memorable and moving experience. 100 years later, the Titanic disaster still continues to haunt a fascinate us, and for as long as it does, A Night  to Remember will endure as one of the quintessential Titanic films.

Special features include:
  • New digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, author and illustrator of “Titanic”: An Illustrated History
  • The Making of “A Night to Remember” (1993), a sixty-minute documentary featuring producer William MacQuitty’s rare behind-the-scenes footage
  • Archival interview with Titanic survivor Eva Hart
  • En natt att minnas (1962), a half-hour Swedish documentary featuring interviews with Titanic survivors
  • The Iceberg That Sank the “Titanic” (2006), a sixty-minute BBC documentary Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sragow and archival photographs
GRADE - ★★★½

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER | Directed by Roy Ward Baker | Stars  Kenneth More, Honor Blackman, Michael Goodliffe, Kenneth Griffith, David McCallum, Tucker McGuire | Not rated | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The "inspirational teacher" film has become one of those tired cliches that I suspect most of us are tired of seeing. From Dead Poets Society, to Mona Lisa Smile, to The Great Debaters, to The Emperor's Club, the idea has been done so much and the territory covered so often, that there seems to be very little left to bring to the table.

The genre has yielded some strong films of course. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a classic. Dead Poets Society isn't bad, Mr. Holland's Opus is near great, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is arguably the greatest (and darkest) of them all. But the very mention of another "inspirational teacher" drama is enough to illicit rolled eyes and groans of "here we go again."

That is perhaps why some predicted that Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar would triumph over frontrunner (and eventual winner) A Separation for this past year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar sight unseen. After all, any film dealing with teachers must be the kind of easily digestible schmaltz that the Oscar foreign language committee usually falls all over themselves for, right?

Abdelmalek (Seddik Benslimane) and Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) in MONSIEUR LAZHAR
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Not necessarily. While Monsieur Lazhar may teeter dangerously close to sentimentality at times, Falardeau handily pulls it back, steadying the emotional ballast of this tricky and at times difficult film. It's certainly a much darker and serious minded take on a well worn forumla, dealing with much deeper and more painful issues than films of its type usually do. The teacher in question is Bashir Lazhar (Fellag), an Algerian refugee who has fled to Canada to escape his troubled past. He seeks a job at an elementary school, and is taken on as an emergency replacement for a teacher who committed suicide by hanging herself in the classroom. This shocking and ultimately selfish act immediately sets Monsieur Lazhar apart from its thematic brethren - this is serious stuff, and it addresses its issues with a quiet sense of wisdom and maturity.

The suicide rocks the school, of course, but it affects her students most severely, and Lazhar finds his work cut out for him. In his attempts to reach the students, he begins to understand the true depths of their pain and the roots of his predecessor's depression. As he peels back the layers of their emotions, he exposes a raw nerve at the heart of the problem that has yet to heal, and even as his own past begins to catch up with him, he becomes the strong role model these students need to begin the slow but ultimately cathartic path to healing.

Alice (Sophie Nélisse) in MONSIEUR LAZHAR
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Falardeu wisely chooses not to oversimplify the wounds of these children, and that's part of what makes Monsieur Lazhar so special. Falardeau isn't interested in playing psychiatrist or applying simplistic answers to complex problems. By the time the credits roll there are still questions left unanswered, still problems left unsolved. But these kids have found an advocate for life who will leave a lasting impact perhaps even greater than the trauma inflicted upon them by their previous teacher. It is somewhat refreshing that Lazhar himself is no saint. He has an old school style (which leads him at one point to smack an petulant student across the head), and a haunted past, but he cares about these kids even as they are in danger of becoming lost in an uncaring system that doesn't know how to address their inner turmoil.

The film hinges on the performances of the children, which can often spell trouble for films of this type. But they are universally remarkable, especially Émilien Néron as the troubled Simon, whose connection to his previous teacher ran deeper than anyone imagined, and Sophie Nélisse as the precocious Alice, who has a fine career ahead of her. Much like their performances, Falardeu handles their plight with maturity and sensitivity, walking a fine line between schmaltz and restraint. More often than not, he hits just the right note, gracefully balancing some very complicated emotional waters without overstatement or easy placation. Monsieur Lazhar cuts right to the heart of what a great teacher really is, not just preparing children to take tests but truly educating, helping them to grow both emotionally and academically. In that regard, it is a timely film indeed, a quietly moving paean to education that pulls no punches in its portrayal of childhood trauma and resilience in the face of darkness.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MONSIEUR LAZHAR | Directed by Philippe Falardeau | Stars Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart | Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image and brief language | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, April 13, in select theaters.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My full coverage of the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, went up in The Dispatch today. You can read the entire thing here, or check out the festival trailer below.

You can also read my piece on the five must see films of RiverRun here. For continuing updates on the festival, visit their website at, or visit their official Facebook and Twitter pages.

The festival kicks off on Friday, April 13 with a screening of One Night Stand at 7 PM at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem, and runs through April 22.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The 14th annual RiverRun International Film Festival is upon us, and while my full coverage won't go up at The Dispatch until tomorrow, here is a little preview of the best of best films that will be showing starting Friday, April 13.

(Joachim Trier, Norway)

From the acclaimed director of Reprise comes this remarkably assured sophomore feature about a former drug addict who is released from rehab to find a job, only to spend his time reconnecting with old friends, only to find that his life has somehow passed him by. With college behind him and the world seemingly moving on without him, he is forced to reassess his life in a world that no longer seems certain. No other film has dealt with Gen Y angst quite like Trier's wise, keenly observed film. He may just be the spiritual bard of my generation.

(Frederick Wiseman, USA)

No one else makes documentaries quite like Frederick Wiseman, and his latest effort, Crazy Horse, takes us behind the scenes of Paris' famous nude dance club, the Crazy Horse. As he did in La Danse, which followed the Paris Opera Ballet, Wiseman gives us a fly on the wall perspective of the behind the scenes workings of the club, as well as the stunning production numbers, whose quality could rival the best of Broadway. One need to be a straight male to appreciate the staggering beauty on display here.

(Júlia Murat, Brazil)

This small wonder from first time feature director, Júlia Murat, about a young photographer who visits a tiny Brazilian town populated almost entirely by the elderly, changing them forever as she discovers a new and more desirable way of life, is one of the biggest surprises of this year's festival. Beautifully composed and deeply moving, Found Memories sneaks up on you and moves in powerful and unexpected ways. A real treat.

(David Gelb, USA)

Who would have thought that sushi could be so fascinating? In David Gelb's altogether marvelous documentary, renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono recalls a life dedicated to sushi, and he has since become perhaps the most revered sushi chef in the world. As Jiro's sushi is a work of art, so too is Gelb's documentary - a mesmerizing and endearing celebration of a remarkable man.

(Macky Alston, USA)

In every election year, gay rights seem to move once again to the forefront, as politicians use our right to marry as a scare tactic to frighten voters. That is why Alston's documentary is so important. It's a searing and deeply affecting work that explores the life and work of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, who continues to crusade for acceptance even within his own church. An extremely timely and wrenching exploration of love in all its forms, and its place in the faith community, even amid great resistance.

Also don't miss: Chasing Ice, Indie Game: The Movie, The Island President, Monsieur Lazhar, The Fairy.

For more information, visit

Thursday, April 05, 2012

It's hard to believe that it has been 15 years since James Cameron's Titanic was released in theaters. While it has become cool in subsequent years to make fun of the film by those who want to appear to have superior tastes, the film itself continues to stand the test of time.

It may be hard for younger audiences to grasp just what a huge cultural phenomenon Titanic really was, because nothing that has been released since has even come close to matching it, not even Cameron's own Avatar, which eclipsed Titanic's $600 million gross in 2009.

I was 11 years old when Titanic was first released in theaters. I saw it three times on the big screen, and countless times on my well worn VHS copy, which I picked up on the day it was released after having pre-ordered it weeks before. Titanic was my life. I could quote the entire film line by line. I studied everything there was to study about the actual event, reading every book I could get my hands on - history books, novels, cook books, if it had something to do with the Titanic I eagerly devoured it. For this prepubescent gay boy, Titanic was my first taste of sweeping epic romance, and I would never be the same. But more than that, it was about a world of opulence, elegance, and decorum that I completely fell in love with. I cannot possibly overstate the impact it had on my young life, and it resonates with me still today.

One cannot discuss the magnitude of Titanic's  success without mentioning its iconic, Oscar winning score by James Horner. It remains one of the top selling soundtracks of all time (and the top selling score album), and is perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable movie themes of all time. So it should come as no surprise that for the theatrical re-release, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, that Sony would rerelease the album with some added bells and whistles.

It's a shame that the added bells and whistles on this four disc set don't include any new score material, however. Included in the set are the original soundtrack album, the Back to Titanic album that included more music from the film as well as a few source cues, as well as I Salonisti: Gentlemen, It Has Been a Privilege Playing with You Tonight, which features period music recorded by I, Salonisti, the five piece orchestra from the movie, specifically for the film, and a bonus disc of popular songs from the period, none of which are featured in the film.

It would have been nice if instead of the 4th disc of mostly superfluous songs, if we had gotten a complete score release, featuring all of James Horner's music composed for the film, rather than this rather perfunctory repackaging of previously released material. The I, Salonisti disc is nice, and adds some stately period flavor that the bonus disc pretty much misses.

The score itself though, is every bit as powerful today as it was 15 years ago. While it may not be worth picking up the new release if you already have the original soundtrack, if you missed the out of print Back to Titanic then it comes highly recommended. More than just a cash-in, Back to Titanic features key music cues that were missing from the first album - including Horner's piano solo version of the main theme, "The Portrait," as well as "A Building Panic," an essential cue from the sinking sequence featuring some moments of choral beauty that were absent from the original soundtrack album. Also included is the massive "Titanic Suite," a 20 minute cue that rearranges some of the key moments from the score, and culminates a breathtakingly glorious choral statement of the main theme, which appears nowhere in the film itself.

I would imagine, however, that most fans already have the original soundtrack somewhere, and score collectors already have a copy of Back to Titanic on their shelves as well, so this new release smells like more of a cash grab from hardcore fans than anything else. And it's hard to recommend plunking down $25 for this set when the older releases are just as good and still readily available.

Listening to the score again took me back, as great music can, to another time - to 1997, to 1912, to a phenomenon that, despite detractors' best efforts, has stood the test of time. Horner composed some of the most deeply moving music ever composed for film in Titanic, and no matter how it's presented it remains an unqualified masterpiece.

GRADE (score) - ★★★★ (out of four)
GRADE (Collector's Anniversary Edition album) - ★★ (out of four)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

From The Dispatch:
It has the usual slapstick silliness one would expect from a film aimed at young audiences, but Tarsem feels woefully out of his element here. It's awkwardly paced and lacks energy, surprising considering Tarsem's knack for creating alternate realities. A last minute Bollywood-esque musical number offers a glimpse into what the film could have been, but it's too little, too late. 
Click here to read my full review.