Friday, September 28, 2012

Ask any film enthusiast what was Vittorio De Sica's best film, and more often than not the answer you will most likely hear is Bicycle Thieves.

It's easy to see why. Bicycle Thieves is an undeniably great film and one of the pinnacles of Italian Neorealism. Yet despite its impressive credentials and sterling reputation, I have always preferred his later work, Umberto D.

I've often wondered why Umberto D. tends to get overlooked in all the effusive praise foe Bicycle Thieves. It was a flop in its time, but that is a fate that has befallen many a masterpiece. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game was critically and popularly scorned upon its original release, and is now routinely listed as one of the top ten greatest films of all time on any list worth its salt. So why Bicycle Thieves and not Umberto D? The answer, I think, is simple - the dog.

Maria Pia Casilio as Maria, Napoleone as Flike, Umberto's dog
and Carlo Battisti as Umberto Domenico Ferrari. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Yes, the dog - Umberto's faithful companion, Flike. Using dogs to tug at audience's heartstrings is probably one of the most shameless of cinematic conventions, and here the use of a dog at the center of a Neorealist film seems far more sentimental than the sparse austerity of Bicycle Thieves. But upon closer inspection it becomes clear that De Sica isn't manipulating us with the dog in Umberto D. anymore than he was manipulating us with the child in Bicycle Thieves. It is merely the audience's expectations, and the hoary cliches often associated with dogs, that give it that appearance. The problem is with audience perspective rather than the film itself. Looking back through the haze of the 60 years that have passed since its original release, the use of an old man and his dog to illustrate his point may seem like the height of audience manipulation, when in reality it is anything but.

Umberto, the story's central figure, is an elderly pensioner who is struggling to make the rent. We are first introduced to Umberto in a protest march of retirees demanding higher benefits, a march that proves fruitless as the police become involved. De Sica quickly sets up the social commentary of the film, delving into not only the plight of the elderly, but of the poor everywhere, and all those that society has left behind. Faced with losing his home to a nasty landlady who wants to evict him so she can expand her own room, Umberto has only two things left in the world to hold on to, the building's kind hearted young maid, Maria, whom he is caring for through an unexpected pregnancy, and his adoring dog, Flike. But as his situation becomes more and more grim, he must face the harsh reality that if he can't even provide for himself, that he will be unable to provide for Flike as well.

Carlo Battisti as Umberto Domenico Ferrari.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
What follows are some of the most completely heartbreaking scenes in cinematic history. Umberto D. has a legitimate claim at being called the saddest film of all time, with the power to crack even the hardest of hearts. Here, De Sica's brand of Neorealist social commentary is at its most resonant, because there are few people on this earth whose hearts have not been touched by a dog at some point, or by that same measure, an older person like Umberto. De Sica knows his audience, and he hits us with something that is universally identifiable, our grandparents and our pets. When conditions are so harsh that even they, our most vulnerable citizens, are overlooked and suffering, then it strikes the audience in a much more immediate, personal way.

To that degree, De Sica did set out to manipulate the audience. At its core, Umberto D. is a guttural howl of outrage that someone like Umberto, who has worked for the state his entire life and always paid his debts, could be reduced to begging in the street, in what amounts to one of the film's most devastating scenes. But in true Neorealist fashion, De Sica never overplays his hand. He presents the world in all of its grim reality, paying inordinate amounts of attention to seemingly simple acts that make up every day life. His actors are all non-professionals, and that adds to the lived in, world weary feel of the film.

Umberto D. would be one of the last Neorealist films that De Sica would make before turning to frothier fare like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and Marriage, Italian Style, but what a wrenching vision, what a painful, impassioned plea for overlooked masses. For me, it represents the best of what Neorealism was all about, and what it was capable of doing. It pulls at the heartstrings without ever having to try. This simple tale of an old man and his dog remains just as resonant and relevant today as it was 60 years ago, and Criterion's vibrant new blu-ray upgrade reminds us with clear-eyed frankness just how important and powerful a film it still is.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

UMBERTO D. | Directed by Vittorio De Sica | Stars Carlo Battisti, Maria Pia Casilio | In Italian w/English subtitles | Not rated | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Movies that don't adhere to conventional, linear modes of storytelling aren't exactly anything new. Quentin Tarantino has made an entire career out of making non-linear films to the point that it almost seems like more of a habit than a necessity. But there is something fresh, even invigorating, about the way it is applied in Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Headshot.

I'll admit that Thai cinema is an area I'm not particularly familiar with outside of the films of the incomparable Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has a habit of knocking out a masterpiece every time he steps up to the plate. But what I like about these films is their knack for exploring what is going on beneath the surface. What is going on in front of our eyes is never what the film is really about, and even in an action film like Headshot, there are themes that are being explored beneath the obvious . That alone would be enough to make Headshot one of the finest action films I've seen this year, but Ratanaruang goes above and beyond, delivering a surprising and original police thriller that hits like a blow to the head.

A scene from HEADSHOT. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Except this is no ordinary cop movie. Tul (Nopachai Jayanama) was once one of the most respected cops in Bangkok. The head investigator of a celebrated case, he has just busted a massive drug enterprise being housed in a warehouse belonging to a prominent political figure. When their attempts to bribe him to drop the case fail, Tul finds himself embroiled in a dangerous blackmail scandal, that eventually lands him in jail. It isn't long before he is approached by another organization that admires his unwillingness to compromise his principles, and wants to hire him as a hitman to go after other bigwigs whose high connections have helped them escape justice. But in one tragic moment, Tul is shot in the head, and when he awakes his entire world is literally upside down, leaving his vision inverted and his entire world topsy turvy. Now consumed by desire for revenge in an increasingly complex world, Tul must navigate the mean streets of Bangkok searching for a redemption that he may never find.

There's a certain element of early Christopher Nolan at work in Ratanaruang's sly reworking of Tul's upside down world, but the film ultimately has a seductive film noir quality. Ratanaruang uses the non-linear structure to his advantage. Just when you think character motivations don't make sense or plot points aren't adding up, he doubles back and reveals his narrative slowly and deliberately. There are a few loose ends here and there, but even when it doesn't add up its a fascinating work to contemplate. Ratanaruang takes what could have easily been a standard potboiler and turns it into something dark and gripping, This is top notch work, a gritty police melodrama whose ideas of justice and karma set it apart from the competition. As both a meditation on the nature of justice and a heart pounding action film, Headshot delivers on all fronts.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HEADSHOT | Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang | Stars  Nopachai Chaiyanam, Sirin Horwang, Chanokporn Sayoungkul, Apisit Opasaimlikit, Kiat Punpiputt | In Thai w/English subtitles | Not rated | Opens tomorrow, 9/28,  at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle. On blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand 10/2.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From The Dispatch:
It's also very clearly a major work, a film filled with ideas of such thematic grandeur that one must step back from it in order to truly view the full picture. Its prismatic structure looks at its subject as though through the lens of a diamond, splitting into fragments and congealing into a brilliant but fractured whole. It is left to us to reassemble the pieces. Such a work is bound to leave many audience members cold, and it's not difficult to see why. But it's also fascinating to contemplate. It is a film that is impossible to ignore; a bold, towering work that is as infuriating as it is masterful. 
Click here to read my full review.
As social mores began to shift in the 1960s and 70s, so too did the cinematic landscape, as filmmakers became more relaxed in their depictions of nudity and sexuality.

European directors were perhaps more adventurous in that regard, which helped lead to the reputation of foreign films as being naughty alternatives to tamer American fare, although by the end of the 1960s the restrictive Production Code had faded away and the sexual revolution came to Hollywood.

The ever stiff upper lipped English, on the other hand, weren't interested in jumping into straight pornography the way many of their mainland counterparts had, and instead came up with a series of sly sex comedies that poked fun at the new erotic trends while simultaneously being exactly the kind of thing they were making fun of. One such film was Val Guest's Au Pair Girls, a farcical, tongue in cheek tale of French foreign exchange girls and their sexcapades in England.

A scene from AU PAIR GIRLS. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Released in 1972, Au Pair Girls is a charmingly dated comedy about four French girls who come to Britain through an exchange program (known as "au pair") that will help them learn English by living with British families. Of course, the accented vixens have a much higher comfort level with displaying their bodies than their prim English hosts, and have a love of parading around naked and a willingness to bounce into bed with whoever casts them a second look. This naturally leads to a lot of tension between husbands and their wives, and some of the hosts' teenage boys who fall in love with their new au pair girls. And of course, hi-jinx ensue.

Au Pair Girls is undeniably goofy, and almost laughably dated, but that actually adds to its appeal. There's just something about its carefree 70s kitsch that is hard to resist. It's certainly a bit dippy, and Kino's blu-ray presentation is serviceable at best (there are no special features, and the image quality isn't anything to write home about), but there's just something inherently delightful about its winking innocence. Even in spite of its plentiful nudity, it seems oddly wholesome and quaint, a uniquely British trait that makes it more entertaining than it has any right to be. Fans of British comedy may also enjoy appearances by Are You Being Served alums Harold Bennett (Young Mr. Grace) as Lord Tryke and Trevor Bannister (Mr. Lucas) as an amorous photographer. It may be completely silly, but Au Pair Girls goes down surprisingly easy, avoiding becoming outright pornography through its use of broad slapstick and winking humor.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

AU PAIR GIRLS | Directed by Val Guest | Stars Astrid Franks, Johnny Briggs, Gabrielle Drakes, Me Me Lai, Nancie Wait | Rated R | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In an age of 3D and IMAX, modern audiences have become somewhat accustomed to cinematic gimmicks designed to boost ticket prices and draw in curiosity seekers. It's a trick nearly as old as the movies themselves, and in many ways that's exactly what the very first movies were - novelties flickering in the dark that curious thrill seekers could glimpse for a penny.

Ever since, filmmakers have been looking for ways to make cinema bigger and better. From the dawn of the sound era, to Technicolor, to the eventual rise of the widescreen Cinemascope format that is still used to this day. But before Cinemascope there was Cinerama, a short lived technique that involved shooting with three cameras simultaneously, and then projecting the image on three wraparound screens that gave the audience the illusion of a panoramic view.

It wasn't exactly a new technique. Abel Gance had used something very similar in his silent epic, Napoleon, in 1927. But in 1952, cinematic pioneer/huckster Merian C. Cooper (perhaps best known for directing the original King Kong in 1933) took Fred Waller's invention (which was awarded a Scientific and Technical Oscar in 1953) on the road with This is Cinerama, a two hour travelogue that is essentially a collection of scenes meant to showcase the new technology. Coming at a time when television was beginning to draw audiences away from the multiplex, Cinerama was one of many ways studios tried to convince people that the theater experience was something superior that they couldn't get anywhere else. In that regard, it came along at a time when, much like today, new technology (television then the internet now) was keeping viewers at home, and like the 3D of today, it was an attempt to stave off the bleeding with something grand (and, counter-intuitively, a bit more expensive).

3D also debuted around this time but proved to be more of a gimmick. Cinerama was something far grander and more ambitious, and as such much more expensive, making it a very short lived phenomenon. Only a handful of Cinerama films were produced between the years of 1952 and 1962, and its demonstration reel, This is Cinerama, remains the most legendary. It must have been something spectacular indeed to have been witnessed in its original glory. After a 12 minute black and white standard format prologue, the curtains pull back on the surrounding screens to reveal a rip-roaring roller coaster sequence that sets the stage for the film to come. Taking us from stage performances of Aida, to a thrilling boat race through the Cyprus Gardens, to a sweeping aerial tour of the United States, This is Cinerama pulls out all the stops in its attempts to shock and awe.

Unfortunately that does not necessarily a good film make. That is not to say that This is Cinerama is a bad film, it's just hardly a film at all. It's a demonstration reel, meant to show what the new technology can do, and little else. As such, it's more of a historical curiosity, more notable for its place in cinema history than for its artistic merit. It's easy to see why such a film became so wildly popular, but like its opening sequence, it's basically a carnival ride. It's undeniably beautiful; even on a small screen the aerial photography remains stunning, and the curved "Smilebox" format (shown above) allows your television to recreate the panoramic effect as best as a small screen can. Still though, this is something that is meant to be seen not just on the big screen, but on three big screens, and while seeing it on blu-ray brings this legendary film home for the first time for a whole new audience to discover, it has to lose something in the transition from its original format to the very medium it was designed to trump.

That being said, the blu-ray presentation by Flicker Alley is second to none. Putting together a package to rival the Criterion Collection, Flicker Alley has given the film the impressive treatment that it deserves. They have not only preserved an important piece of cinema history, they have enhanced it through comprehensive supplements that place it in its proper historical context. From a recreation of the original program, to a commentary track by Cinerama historian David Strohmaier, as well as original crew members Randy Gitsch and Jim Morrison, and Cinerama rep John Sittig, to the curious short that would play if there was ever a problem with the projector, Flicker Alley has provided a stellar presentation that is a veritable feast for film enthusiasts. Also available is Louis de Rochemont's Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), a travelogue about a Norwegian square-rigged sailing ship, that was produced by Cinerama's competitor, Cinemiracle, which was later bought out by Cinerama and shown in the Cinerama format. Flicker Alley's treatment on both films is equally sumptuous, and actually eclipses the quality of the films they are showcasing. Cinerama may have long since fell by the wayside, but through this impressive blu-ray treatment, it lives on in much smaller form for a new generation. It's one of the most important home video releases of 2012.

FILM GRADE -★★★ (out of four)
BLU-RAY GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Available today on blu-ray and DVD from Flicker Alley.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Strippers vs. Werewolves is pretty much everything you would expect it to be just by looking at the title.

Those who enjoy this sort of thing know exactly what they're in for going in, and its doubtful anyone looking for quality cinema would ever expect this to be anything of real value. That being said, there is certainly a place for this kind of knowing trash. Strippers vs. Werewolves is not an unintentional crap-fest. Neither is it the kind of ironically bad faux-grindhouse film that have become so popular in the last few years. It is somehow simultaneously just as bad as one would expect it to be, and yet better than one could have hoped for.

I wish it had the gumption to fully embrace the insanity of its premise, but it doesn't. It doesn't even really deliver on its salacious promise of blood and boobs, because while it has both, it doesn't have either in enough quantities to satisfy its core audience.

It almost seems a waste of space to bother with a plot synopsis, since the plot has already been summed up so succinctly by the film's title. What you see is what you get. After a stripper unknowingly kills a werewolf who gets a little too excited during a lapdance, she and her coworkers must fend off his bloodthirsty friends when they come back for revenge. That's it, really. No more, no less. And to be a goofy B-movie that's really all it needs. The problem is the film lacks bite. Unlike the grindhouse movies of yore, Strippers vs. Werewolves seems too timid to exploit the lurid possibilities inherent in its premise. A film like this should not be so strangely inoffensive. Even an extended cameo by Robert Englund as the Alpha of the werewolf clan fails to inject the film with the jolt of energy it so desperately needs. It's an exploitation film with nothing to exploit, a film that never delivers on its implied promise to titillate, shock, and amuse.

On the upside, its production values are much better than one would expect from a film like this. This is not some cheap, SyFy original movie (although the werewolf makeup effects are laughable at best). But that almost works to its detriment. I hesitate to accuse it of taking itself too seriously, because it clearly doesn't, but it's a drab, humorless affair nevertheless. Not silly enough to be an unintentional comedy and too downbeat to be a "so bad its good" midnight movie, Strippers vs. Werewolves never really justifies its reason for existing. It is too good to be the trash it wants to be and not nearly good enough to be anything of any real quality. Instead it seems caught in some sort of strange limbo, where something that should have been good exploitation fun turned out to be a bland, paint-by-numbers direct to DVD cash-grab.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

STRIPPERS VS. WEREWOLVES | Directed by Jonathan Glendening | Stars  Lee Asquith-Coe, Robert Englund, Steven Berkoff, Lysette Anthony, Billy Murray, Alan Ford | Not rated | On blu-ray and DVD September 25.
Watching Paul Fejos' Lonesome in 2012 is a fascinating and revelatory experience.

A charming and often overlooked gem of the silent era, Lonesome is a unique hybrid of silent and sound, bridging the gap between the two eras with surprising grace.

Fejos was all but finished with Lonesome when The Jazz Singer changed Hollywood, and it wasn't long before audiences were demanding more "talkies," and studios were in a rush to oblige.  That forced Fejos into reshoots to equip Lonesome with three sound sequences that, when coupled with its dazzling early technicolor scenes, make the film a rare and singular breed.

I've long asserted that the silent era was the most creatively rich period in cinematic history, fostering experimentation and testing the limits of the medium in ways that have never been equaled. The newness of the movies gave filmmakers the opportunity to explore their new-found artform, to push its boundaries, to write the language of cinema.

Barbara Kent as Mary and Glenn Tryon as Jim in LONESOME.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Coming at the end of the silent era and the beginning of the sound era, Lonesome is in the unique position of having one foot in both eras. Not quite a silent and not quite a talkie, Lonesome is in a category all its own. Granted, The Jazz Singer was also partially silent. But it's also not a very good movie, notable now only for being the first major sound film. What makes Lonesome so special is that the sound elements don't seem out of place. It's certainly a bit random that characters who have previously spoken only in printed intertitles are now suddenly talking, but it never feels awkward or out of place.

It is similar in theme to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which was released the year before. Two working stiffs, Jim (Glenn Tryon) and Mary (Barbara Kent) are tired of the day to day drudgery of their lives. Both dream of something beyond the monotony of their jobs. When the two meet, they initially try to impress each other by pretending to have yachts and other luxuries, but when the truth finally comes out, their sense of relief only adds to their attraction. The rest of the film follows their whirlwind romance on Coney Island (beautifully lit in dazzling early Technicolor), on long walks and roller coasters, the lights of New York painting a magnificent backdrop for a intimate love story unfolding on one unforgettable night on the town.

Barbara Kent as Mary and Glenn Tryon as Jim in LONESOME.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Fejos captures the vibrancy of New York and the teeming throngs on Coney Island in a way few filmmakers ever have. The film seems acutely tuned into the rhythms of the city, with its vibrant depictions of bustling New York life. It's also surprisingly naturalistic for what is essentially a fairly schematic Hollywood romance. It never feels as formulaic as it actually is. It feels fresh, fiery, and thrillingly alive. Fejos, a Hungarian doctor, painter, and documentarian, was a jack of many trades, and it is a bit surprising that he is perhaps more well known as an anthropologist than as a filmmaker. He is a fascinating figure whose time in Hollywood was unfortunately short lived. He found Hollywood "phony," and returned to Europe in 1931, where he mostly directed documentaries for the rest of his cinematic career (which ended in 1941).

The beautiful blu-ray from the Criterion Collection features two of Fejos' other films - The Last Performance (1929) starring Conrad Veidt, and Broadway (1929), an odd mix of a gangster movie and a musical that is most noteworthy for being the first "million dollar talkie." Neither live up to the charm and joie de vivre of Lonesome. It's an irresistible bon-bon of a movie, a lovely, effervescent celebration of love that is so refreshingly unironic that it may seem a bit naive to modern audiences, but that is merely part of its allure. It's a simpler film from a simpler time, and this terrific presentation is finally allowing it to be discovered  by a wider audience on home video for the first time ever. And that is an honor that it richly deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fox Searchlight shook up the Oscar race today when it announced that it would open Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins, on November 23.

It's a perfect position for a film with Academy aspirations, in this case most likely Hopkins' performance as Alfred Hitchcock. The film follows the making of Psycho, and also stars Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leigh and Helen Mirren as Hitchcock's wife, Alma.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In a groundbreaking move, 20th Century Fox released Ridley Scott's Prometheus on Digital HD yesterday, several weeks ahead of its October 9th blu-ray/DVD premiere.

The "Engineer" from Prometheus helps celebrate the launch of Prometheus on Digital HD, Tuesday Sept 18, 2012, at The Beats Store in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox)
It will be interesting to see how this affects the home video market, as physical media continues to be phased out. I'm personally a big fan of physical media and maintaining by blu-ray/DVD library so I've never been a big fan of digital downloads, but as technology continues to evolve they will probably be increasingly prevalent.

Prometheus, which will also be the studio's first UltraViolet title, will be followed similarly by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Ice Age: Continental Drift, The Watch, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. Click here to view the Digital HD release trailer.
In anticipation of the upcoming blu-ray release of American Horror Story Season 1, the folks at Fox have cooked up this intriguing new app that allows viewers to explore murder houses like the one from the show in their own neighborhood.

Always thought that house on the corner was creepy? Well now you can finally discover the untold history. Just enter you address to begin!

American Horror Story Season 1 arrives on blu-ray and DVD on September 25. Season 2, Asylum, premieres on October at 10 PM on FX. Check your local listings.
AMY ADAMS as Mickey and CLINT EASTWOOD as Gus in Warner Bros. Pictures' drama "TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE," a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
From The Dispatch:
A few script problems aside, "Trouble with the Curve" is a refreshingly old-fashioned crowd pleaser. It feels like something Eastwood himself would have directed back in the '90s. And while that may be because Lorenz has been Eastwood's assistant director since 1995's "The Bridges of Madison County," he has surrounded himself with other Eastwood regulars as well, including cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Joel Cox.
Click here to read my full review.
Buster Keaton fans have been waiting for this one for a long time. Having released several lesser known Keaton titles such as Go West, Battling Butler, and the non-canonical The Saphead, it was not uncommon to see Keaton fans consistently barraging Kino Lorber's Facebook page with inquiries of "what about The Navigator?"

Well the wait is finally over, and the product more than worth it. One of Keaton's best and most beloved films, The Navigator (1924) is, in many ways, a direct precursor to his masterpiece, The General (1926), in its themes of man versus machine. It is also an extension of creative ideas he had originally developed in some of his solo short films, most notably in 1921's The Boat, and would again revisit in his last great feature, the superior Steamboat Bill, Jr., in 1928. As such, The Navigator occupies an important and interesting place in Keaton's career.

Courtesy of Robert Arkus
As it is in most of his films, Keaton's character is basically the same, a good hearted but hopelessly inept heir who boards a ship at night so he doesn't have to get up early the next morning and run the risk of missing it. Unbeknownst to him, the ship is the target of some international spies, who board the ship before it is set adrift to by its government to keep it from falling into enemy hands. Alone with his sweetheart and cast out to sea with a band of villains, Keaton is left to fend for himself and navigate the ship and its newfound maze of dangers. And just when they think they're in the clear, they stumble upon an island filled with bloodthirsty cannibals.

The Navigator is perhaps best known for the sequence in which Keaton dons a massive metal diving suit to try and repair the ship underwater. The cannibal sequence might raise a few eyebrows in our more politically correct age, but it almost seems to be a direct inspiration on the natives in 1933's King Kong, although it was a very common portrayal for the time. While ultimately I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. is Keaton's most accomplished boat outing (its whirlwind finale is one of his most elaborate set pieces), The Navigator has plenty to love. Kino's presentation is, as usual, top notch, featuring a fine HD transfer as well as a documentary exploring Keaton's use of boats in his comedy featuring film historian Bruce Lawton. Keaton fans now have a reason to rejoice - The Navigator has finally been given the blu-ray treatment, and with only one more major Keaton work to go  (College is due sometime in 2013), the collection will at long last be complete.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on blu-ray and DVD.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

After today's strange Google+ hangout debut of the trailer for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, here it is at last, a mere 2 months before its release.

My first reaction is that Daniel Day Lewis' voice is strangely high, not the deep, authoritative voice we're used to hearing from Abraham Lincoln. But that seems to be historically accurate according to most records. We'll see how it ends up coming across onscreen, and I trust the judgement of Lewis and Spielberg.

Lincoln opens November 16.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bradley Cooper and Zöe Saldana star in CBS Films' THE WORDS. 
Photo Credit: Jonathan Wenk. © 2012 CBS Films Inc. All Rights Reserved.
From The Dispatch:
Rarely have I seen such breathtaking self-importance in the face of so little substance. "The Words" takes itself so deathly serious, fancying itself some grandiose statement on the power of words and the line between truth and fiction. Instead it's a startling waste of talent and celluloid, a pretentious piece of cinematic claptrap that puts on airs with such shameless pomposity that one wonders how it gained a wide release in the first place. 
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, September 10, 2012

For the last few weeks, it has seemed that any discussion surrounding Universal's Snow White and the Huntsman was dominated by tabloid tittering over Kristen Stewart's much publicized affair with director Rupert Sanders.

While I still maintain that Stewart is the weakest link in an otherwise strong film, it's sad to see such fine work reduced to the subject of such meaningless gossip and its potential to effect the film's inevitable sequel.

In a summer typically dominated by sequels and franchise tentpoles, Snow White and the Huntsman offered a glimmer of originality, surprising many by becoming one of the summer's biggest hits without a built-in fanbase to support it. In the process it washed away any memory of Tarsem's bland take on the Snow White tale, Mirror, Mirror which was released only two months prior.

A much darker take on the classic fairy tale, Snow White and the Huntsman is first and foremost a visual feast, a fact made even more apparent by Universal's first rate blu-ray transfer. In my original review for The Dispatch I wrote:
It's a sumptuous visual feast, a refreshingly mature take on a story that has long been considered to be strictly children's territory. Sanders recaptures the story's dark roots and delivers a compelling and epic adventure that is a definite bright spot in a surprisingly dull summer movie season.
My opinion of the film hasn't changed, if anything it has grown. The "Extended Cut" on the blu-ray isn't noticeably different, the 12 minutes of new footage adding very little (and good luck noticing it). The extras are also pretty standard behind the scenes featurettes, but perhaps most fascinating is a mock up trailer that Sanders created in order to pitch the film to the studio. It's interesting to see how the film has evolved, but also how clearly some of the imagery he came up with so early on remains so intact. The supplements are unusually heavy on the filmmaking process rather than the usual shots of actors praising each other, and it's refreshing to see them focusing on how the film was made rather than empty platitudes. Fans of the film will certainly be pleased.

Just as the film itself was a bright spot in the summer movie going season, so too is the blu-ray release. While not quite Lord of the Rings level work, Snow White and the Huntsman is nevertheless one of the strongest and most entertaining fantasy epics to come along in quite sometime, and now one of the most beautiful films of 2012 has been given one of the most gorgeous blu-ray releases of the year.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Available on blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, September 11, 2012.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

One of the absolute cinematic pleasures I have had over the last year has been discovering the films of French horror auteur, Jean Rollin, thanks to Kino Lorber's excellent blu-ray treatments (10 of which have been released throughout 2012).

It's tempting to brand Rollin as a schlock-meister. But he's so much more than that. His often bizarre and surrealistic films, filled with producer imposed erotica and gratuitous nudity may appear, on the surface, to be little more than trashy European exploitation films. Yet when one digs a little deeper you find recurring themes, surprising intelligence of construction, and original form. Rollin toys with our expectations, subverting convention at every turn. Whether or not those experiments are successful or not is up for debate.

Sure there have been some duds among them, chiefly his first film, the utterly nonsensical The Rape of the Vampire (1968). But more often than not, even when they are buried beneath seemingly needless sex scenes and hampered by his lack of budgets, Rollin's films exude a kind of life and energy that is hard to ignore.

Image courtesy of Collections La Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
The first film in Kino's third wave of Rollin titles is his 1982 oddity, The Living Dead Girl. More violent and with a greater focus on gory makeup effects than his previous films, The Living Dead Girl offers a truncated  and compromised version of Rollin's vision, but its also one of his most straightfoward and accessible works. Made at a time when the slasher genre was at the height of its popularity (John Carpenter's Halloween had started the craze just five years prior, and the Friday the 13th franchise had already churned out three entries in the series by '82), the film was made to capitalize on a world where extreme violence was the new norm. What sets Rollin's films apart is that his "objectified" females are not the victims - they are the monsters. Yet he asks us to identify with them, to care for them. They are at once the bringers of death, and the picture of innocence; that dichotomy standing in stark contrast with the usual cliches of the genre.

The film centers around a young girl who is resurrected from the dead by a toxic spill, and is taken care of by a childhood friend in an old abandoned castle. The girl, Hélène (Marina Pierro), neither alive nor dead, must feed off the flesh of the living in order to endure, and her best friend, Catherine (Françoise Blanchard), must lure unsuspecting victims to the castle for Hélène to devour. While not twins, as is a recurring theme in Rollin's work (see Lips of Blood), the relationship between Hélène and Catherine provides the backbone for the film, something we see often throughout Rollin's filmography (Requiem for a VampireThe Demoniacs, Two Orphan Vampires). In The Living Dead Girl, unlike in, say, a film like Friday the 13th, the killer is not just a symbol of faceless evil. Whereas Hélène remains symbolically innocent, almost pure, it is her friend Catherine, and her entrapment of unsuspecting victims, who is the true monster. Hélène cannot help the way she is, and is therefore relieved of any culpability in her own actions. She did not ask to be brought back to life. Catherine, on the other hand, absolutely knows what she is doing, yet does none of the killing herself. Rollin invites us to consider which is worse.

Two Orphan Vampires is, in some ways, an extension of the themes of The Living Dead Girl. Whereas Living Dead Girl is a more straightforward gore film (and is therefore more well known among horror fans), Two Orphan Vampires marked something of a return to Rollin's surrealistic form. It's strange, however, that a film released in 1997 is more dated than his work from the 1970s and 80s, but it feels like something of a relic. Even its transfer is subpar, surprising considering that the blu-ray of The Living Dead Girl is perhaps Kino's best work of the Redemption titles.

As one of Rollin's late period films, Two Orphan Vampires marked not only a return to form for the auteur, but a return to the vampire genre, which he had not worked in for over two decades since the release of Lips of Blood in 1974.

Rollin was in failing health when he made this "come back" film, often directing some scenes while laying down, and passing off the New York shoots to a second unit director. And indeed the film itself seems tired, more like an afterthought to an illustrious career.

Inspired by the classic French novel, "Les Deux Orphelines" by Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery and Eugène Cormon (which also served as the basis for D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm in 1921), Two Orphan Vampires follows two orphan girls who pretend to be blind during the day, but at night steal away from the orphanage to prey on the blood of the living. It's a relatively unremarkable film, both in terms of the genre and in Rollin's personal canon. In fact it is the weakest of the 10 Rollin titles that Kino has released by far. While there is a certain dreamlike quality to it that recalls Rollin's earlier work, it seems faded and lacking in that certain joie de vivre that seemed to mark his earlier work. Rollin, it seems, had lost his touch.

Image courtesy of Collections La Cinémathèque de Toulouse.
However, in the film's final moments, Two Orphan Vampires suddenly becomes something remarkable. It is not enough to make up for the rather dull 90 minutes that preceded it (which is filled with bizarre references linking vampirism to Aztec mythology), but Rollin subtly subverts everything we have just seen with the suggestion that everything up until the end was just part of an elaborate fantasy constructed by two lost and troubled little girls, who built their own world where they have all the power as a way of dealing with the misery of reality. Or perhaps it wasn't. Who knows? It is an unexpected emotional sucker punch in a film that heretofore had shown no glimmer of humanity. It is, perhaps, one of the most mature and beautiful moments in the Rollin canon (rivaling the blistering coda of The Living Dead Girl), made even more poignant by the fact that this was one of the last films Rollin would ever make before his death in 2010. In fact it seems to sum up the full thematic spectrum of his filmography in one, wrenching moment, when fantasy and reality finally collide in a moment of haunting nostalgia for a reality that perhaps never existed.

That makes Two Orphan Vampires a fitting companion for The Living Dead Girl. Whereas The Living Dead Girl is perhaps the most un-Rollin like of his horror films (not counting 1981's Zombie Lake, which has yet to be released by Kino), it still finds a way of subverting our expectations even in the face of crippling studio demands. Two Orphan Vampires, on the other hand, is a much more pure Rollin experiment. One that perhaps does not work as well as some of his earlier triumphs such as The Iron Rose or Fascination, but even his failures contained something special. Rollin was a unique talent, an artist working at the behest of smut peddlers (not unlike Val Lewton, who often elevated low budget schlock like I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People into a higher form of art) whose work, at long last, is finally being appreciated thanks to the miracle of home video, and can now be seen in their most stunning quality ever thanks to the folks at Kino Lorber.

THE LIVING DEAD GIRL -  ★★★ (out of four)

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

Friday, September 07, 2012

If you've ever seen a documentary, chances are you've seen a film like Wild Horse, Wild Ride. It's a competition doc, much like Spellbound, or Mad Hot Ballroom, or Wordplay, wherein a group of people from disparate backgrounds come together to compete in an unusual competition.

Unlike the aforementioned films, these people aren't in a spelling bee, or a dancing or crossword puzzle competition, they are part of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual gathering of horse trainers that prepares newly captured wild horses for adoption.

Every year the United States government rounds up thousands of wild mustangs, and every year 100 people are chosen to compete. They are given 100 days to turn a wild horse that has never been touched by a human into a fully trained show horse ready for adoption into a new home. It is a grueling, often dangerous challenge that will push both man and horse to the limit. Sadly, the film itself doesn't convey any of that energy.

Alex Dawson and Greg Gricus's debut film follows six different teams on the way to the challenge, but it lacks the urgency one would expect from a film about training wild horses. The characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds, there are the teenage brothers, the cowgirl with attitude, the old cowhand, the Navajo father and son, but as the film spends so much time chronicling their backgrounds the actual horse training seems to take a back seat. It is important to get to know your protagonists, yes, to know who you're rooting for and why. But if the goal of a documentary is to illuminate the audience to a world we never knew existed (as is the goal of any good documentary), then Wild Horse, Wild Ride never quite measures up.

It is beautifully filmed, and agreeable enough to be mildly entertaining. But it never really delves very deep into its subject. It never makes it past the "oh, that's interesting" phase. Unlike Cindy Meehl's Buck, Wild Horse, Wild Ride is more of a surface film, a feel-good "look at the pretty horses" diversion that never really achieves any kind of emotional resonance or suspense of any kind. Especially during the actual competition. With a little more narrative structure there is certainly a compelling subject here. But there is no sense of urgency, no immediacy to keep it going. It just is. And in a movie about wild horses in a breakneck competition, that is a fatal flaw indeed.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WILD HORSE, WILD RIDE | Directed by Alex Dawson, Greg Gricus | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.
The films of Christophe Honoré exist on a very special plane of reality. At once stylized, romantic, and yet bracingly immediate, they feel like something out of another time, incorporating elements of the French New Wave (especially in his 2008 film, Love Songs), and French musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

His latest film, Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés), is something of a different animal. Longer and perhaps more unwieldy than his previous work, the film is a love story that spans generations, from the 1950s to today. Following the romantic travails of a mother and daughter, and how they reflect and compliment each other, Beloved winds its way through the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Madeline (Ludivine Sagnier as a young woman, Catherine Deneuve in her later years) stops to change shoes one day, when she is propositioned by a man on the street. It is there that she decides to become a part time prostitute for some extra money.

Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni in BELOVED, directed by Christophe Honoré.
Photo by Jean-Claude Lother. A Sundance Selects release.
Her life changes, however, when a Czech doctor named Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic as a young man, director Milos Forman as an old man) picks her up and then never leaves her life. The two fall in love, and she moves to Czechoslovakia just in time for the Russian invasion of Prague. The pair have a daughter, Vera (Chiara Mastroianni), and Madeline returns to France where she marries a Frenchman and attempts to live happily ever after. Those attempts are short lived, however, when Jaromil returns from Czechoslovakia to pursue her once again, starting what will become a decades long love affair held under her husband's unsuspecting nose.

Vera's story is no less complicated. Already in a relationship with Clément (Louis Garrel), she begins to fall for an American ex-pat named Henderson (Paul Schneider), who, as it turns out, is gay. But this being a  Honoré film, it doesn't stop there. Henderson slowly begins to develop feelings of his own for Vera. But the complications of their situations and the distance between them may be too much for them to bear. Yet despite their differences, and Henderson's sexuality, it soon becomes clear that maybe they are meant for each other after all.

Ludivine Sagnier and Rasha Bukvic in BELOVED, directed by Christophe Honoré.
Photo by Jean-Claude Lother. A Sundance Selects release.
That's one of the things I respect and appreciate the most about  Honoré's films. In Honoré's world, sexuality doesn't really matter all that much. That's not to say his characters are promiscuous or unscrupulous (although that is sometimes the case), rather love tends to be bottom line rather than the label one ascribes to themselves. It's a bit idealistic, one might even say it's naive, but Honoré's films tend to exist in their own kind of unique reality. It isn't that he views the world through rose-colored glasses; not everything turns out the ways its characters want or envision, but there is an undeniable romanticism to his work, and Beloved is no different.

The problem here is that Alex Beaupain's music isn't as memorable as it was in the superior Love Songs, and at 134 minutes it's his longest work to date. While the songs flow naturally out of the situations rather than causing awkward breaks in the action, Beloved tends to meander rather than congealing into a satisfying whole. It never justifies that running time, losing focus between its four love stories to the point where none of them really get the attention they deserve. It spends far too long away from its most interesting elements (namely the relationship between Vera and Henderson) to the point where it is unable to sustain the kind of audience engagement it needs to keep going. Honoré once again nails the atmosphere, leading to an enjoyable if somewhat disconnected viewing experience. He stimulates our eyes and our emotions, but the film's lack of focus keeps us from really getting to know these characters. The Honoré elements his fans have come to love are all here, but the package is somewhat bloated and lacking that extra spark he needed to make the magic truly come to life.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

BELOVED | Directed by Christoph Honoré | Stars Ludivine Sagnier, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Rasha Bukvic, Milos Forman, Louis Garrel, Paul Schneider | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

No, my blog hasn't been hijacked by spammers. You can actually watch Mads Brugger's controversial new documentary, The Ambassador, right here via Distrify and Drafthouse Films.

It's completely legal (and therefore not free), and of course, it doesn't hurt that I make commission every time someone watches it from my link, but hey it's worth checking out for yourself. And while you're at it, you can read my review of the film right here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

From The Dispatch:
The film itself is a surprisingly mature take on relationships and the little details that make them work. Frankel, who also directed Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” balances comedy and drama with a steady hand, never letting one overwhelm the other. The result is an utterly beguiling and even moving experience, a romantic comedy aimed squarely at adults that doesn’t waste any time pandering to younger audiences.
Click here to read my full review.