Friday, March 30, 2012

Review | "The Island President"

We've all heard the arguments over global warming (now typically referred to by the less politically charged moniker - climate change). We've marveled at how such seemingly innocuous, no-brainer issues such as this get turned into hot button partisan issues because one political party can't possibly be seen agreeing with something the other party believes in. But what we haven't seen is the true face of global warming.

No, it's not Al Gore. And as good as An Inconvenient Truth is, I can't help but wonder if that Oscar winning film hasn't done more harm than good in the long run. After it was released, climate change became a partisan issue more than ever before, because the science of global warming is now forever identified with a Democratic politician. And of course, if you're a Republican politician, anything put forth by a Democratic politician must be suspect, if not outright fabrication, and vice versa. It's a never ending, vicious cycle of partisan sniping that perhaps the key issue of our time has now become ensnared in, and with both sides digging in their heels and refusing to listen, it doesn't look like anything is going to change anytime soon.


Enter Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean whose very existence is threatened by the rising sea levels. A political crusader who was recently elected to his first term as president after the Maldives' first democratic elections ousted dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed is a natural fighter whose only concern is fighting for his people. The greatest threat to his nation isn't a hostile enemy, or economic ruin, or a faltering infrastructure, it's global warming. As the sea levels rise due to melting glaciers, the Maldives, which is made up of over 2,000 tiny islands, is slowly disappearing, with the Indian Ocean threatening to swallow whole islands, and eventually, the entire country.

Nasheed doesn't know how not to fight, and he has plead his case many times to his neighbors, especially India, who doesn't understand how its their problem if its not their emissions doing the harm. So it's up to Nasheed to plead has case on the world stage, to both the United Nations and an international climate change summit it Copenhagen, where his greatest opposition comes from China, the world's leading producer of carbon emissions. Armed with alarming statistics that show if carbon emissions are not reduced to a certain number, the Maldives will be swallowed by the sea, Nasheed sets about to change the hearts and minds of the world's great economies. There can be no compromises, because anything less means certain destruction for his nation. But the politics of climate change aren't so simple, and as Nasheed fights to get his message heard, even pledging to become the world's first carbon neutral country, the desires of far wealthier nations threaten to overshadow the needs of a tiny island nation whose very existence hangs in the balance.


Whereas An Inconvenient Truth focused on the scientific evidence supporting the existence of global warming, The Island President looks beyond the science to examine its immediate effects in a very urgent and personal way. In many ways, that makes The Island President a more compelling film, because it puts a human face on a very contentious issue that is often clouded by partisan rhetoric. Nasheed's crusade is both inspiring and heartbreaking, a noble cry for help in the face of massive global indifference. The film itself puts aside politics and lays bare the cold, hard facts - the Maldives, not only a sovereign nation but an exotic playground for the rich and famous, are in real danger, and its people soon to be refugees from a modern day Atlantis. Director John Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan) asks simply - if something, anything can be done to help these people, what's the harm in trying?

That is, perhaps, the greatest sticking point in the global warming debate. Whether it is caused by humans or not, how can it hurt to try to reverse such a clearly harmful trend? If it can be reversed, isn't it out duty to ensure the survival of our planet for future generations? That is exactly what President Nasheed is doing, and The Island President celebrates him as the hero that he is. His unique insight makes the political, personal, and the indifference of the first world more egregious than ever. It is a smart and engaging portrait of a man for whom this issue hits closer to home than anyone, illustrating a tremendous issue that is now too big, and no longer able, to be ignored.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE ISLAND PRESIDENT | Directed by John Shenk | Featuring Mohamed Nasheed | Rated PG for thematic elements, some violent content and smoking | Now showing at the Film Forum in NYC.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

First Quarter Report 2012

With 2012 1/4 of the way over, it's time to do a quick recap of the movie year so far.

Erika Bók (Ohlsdorfer's daughter) in THE TURIN HORSE. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Of course, the majority of the year is yet to come, it's never too late to take stock of what we've seen so far. While 2011 was already a tremendous year by this time, 2012 has been more of a slow burn. There have been some very strong films (and quite possibly what will end up the year's best film), but it looks like its highlights still lie ahead of us.

Here are my five favorites of 2012 so far:
  1. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
  2. The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
  3. The Miners' Hymns (Bill Morrison, UK)
  4. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  5. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, USA)
Two auteur pieces from Cinema Guild, two documentaries, and the latest from the ever reliable Dardennes. Strong films all, but will they remain so high by year's end? Mainstream releases have been the usual mixed bag, with Joe Carnahan's The Grey (a rare January release that was more than just above average) leading the pack, along with Disney's notorious but surprisingly top notch sci-fi epic, John Carter.

The year has had its share of stinkers too, the most egregious of which is arguably Relativity's feature length military recruitment ad, Act of Valor, as well as Niall MacCormick's bland coming of age drama Albatross and the latest incarnation of the "found footage" fad, Chronicle.

So the jury's still out on 2012. It's possible it could end up as strong as 2011, but it's going to have to do some catching up. By this time last year we already had three four-star films (Le Quattro Volte, Poetry, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and four films that went on to be on my 2011 top ten list (add Certified Copy).

The summer movie season is just starting, Cannes is just around the corner, and Oscar season is still a while away, so there's still plenty of time for some great films to come along, doubtless some we don't even know about yet. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On "The Hunger Games"

From The Dispatch:
Fans will certainly enjoy debating the merits of the changes made to their beloved book, but overall Ross (along with fellow screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray) stay true to the source material. The love triangle element between Katniss, Peeta and Katniss' childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), back in District 12 is a bit underplayed considering its importance to the rest of the series (especially "Catching Fire"), and the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic, but the film works on its own merits.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Win a Copy of "Tyrannosaur!"

Want to win a copy of Paddy Considine's acclaimed film, Tyrannosaur, courtesy of Strand Releasing?

All you have to do is head over to my Twitter page and retweet this message. Five winners will be chosen and announced on April 2nd. Winners must be residents of the United States to be eligible.

Here is the official synopsis of the film:
Tyrannosaur follows the story of two lonely, damaged people brought together by circumstance. Joseph (Peter Mullan) is an unemployed widower, drinker, and a man crippled by his own volatile temperament and furious anger. Hannah (Olivia Colman) is a Christian worker at a charity shop, a respectable woman who appears wholesome and happy. When the pair is brought together, Hannah appears as Joseph’s potential savior, someone who can temper his fury and offer him warmth, kindness and acceptance. As their story develops, Hannah’s own secrets are revealed — her relationship with husband James (Eddie Marsan) is violent and abusive — and as events spiral out of control, Joseph becomes her source of succor and comfort.
Special features include a commentary by director Paddy Considine, Dog Together, Considine's short film that inspired Tyrannosaur, deleted scenes, and more. The DVD will be released on April 3rd from Strand Releasing.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review | "Shakespeare High"

Alex Rotaru's new documentary, Shakespeare High, could not have been released at a better time. As the election year heats up, especially with the economy in the forefront (when we aren't being distracted by contraception), debates over budget cuts are always very heated. With schools feeling the crunch, one of the first things to go always seem to be the arts.

Not so at a group of high schools in California, that compete in an annual Shakespeare competition, staging scenes from some of the Bard's most famous works in a showcase of some of the region's strongest talent.

Shakespeare High has all the ingredients of other such docs as Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, in which kids go toe to toe in various competitions. But there is something else at work here as well - something more illuminating and more urgent. This is absolutely essential stuff that simply cannot be ignored.

LACHSA Drama Team rehearsal (L.A. Country High School for the Arts) in SHAKESPEARE HIGH.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
From wealthy private schools to poor rural ones, these kids come from all over from all walks of life. One school has such famous alumni as Kevin Spacey and Val Kilmer, others have never turned out anyone you've ever heard of. But after seeing Shakespeare High you won't soon forget these faces. The film bears witness to former gang members, kids whose families were murdered,  former bullies, and kids from low income families band together to create something extraordinary. Theater saved these kids, literally, and Shakespeare High bears witness to the power of the arts. That's what sets it apart from other films of its type. It's not just showing us a charming or unusual event we've never heard of, it's promoting something fundamental.

As school arts programs get cut, so too do these kids' opportunities. Theater provides an outlet, a sense of community, teamwork, and responsibility just like sports. But sports aren't for everyone, and while schools focus all their energy on sports, thousands of students go overlooked If we truly want to leave no child behind, then we shouldn't be cutting school art programs. That is the vital lifeblood coursing through this film. And while Rotaru thankfully doesn't treat it as a piece of activism, its very existence certainly is. It is an educational piece that is compelling, funny, and moving. There's no finger pointing, guilt tripping, or cries for help. But one can't help but come away from it with the sense that we can't let this get away from us. What theater has done for these students is something that can't be lost. The need for the arts in schools as never been greater, and Shakespeare High reminds us all just how high the stakes are.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SHAKESPEARE HIGH | Directed by Alex Rotaru | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review | "4:44 Last Day on Earth"

The end is near.

That much is clear right from the beginning of Abel Ferrara's new film, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. The powers that be have not heeded the warnings of scientists, whose predictions of certain doom if the effects of global warming are not reversed have now come true. At 4:44 AM, give or take a few seconds, the world will end.

Some panic and take to the streets. Other gather at the Vatican to spend their last moments in prayer. Others commit suicide, unable to take the tension and uncertainty of Earth's final hours. The citizens of New York, however, soldier on. There is the occasional suicide, but as in the wake of 9/11, New Yorkers band together to face the end, spending their last moments with family and friends, saying goodbye to life as they know it.

In the case of Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), they have chosen to face death just as they have lived their life - together in their apartment, continuing life as usual.

Willem Dafoe as Cisco and Shanyn Leigh as Skye embrace on the floor in Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH. Copyright: So Suave LLC, an IFC Films release.
Skye paints and listens to Buddhist philosophy. Cisco talks to friends and relatives on Skype and orders Chinese food, often musing to himself about the almost absurd predicament in which the world finds itself. They do their best to continue on as before, even in the face of death. Ferrara keeps the action focused on this one apartment, living out the end of the world through the final hours of one couple. Anything we see of the outside world, the riots, the vigils, are seen through the television. It is a self-contained apocalypse, the exact opposite of the lavish, CG visions of Armageddon of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. It's a strong concept, an intimate take on a global disaster. Ferrara attempts to make the universal personal, but he only half succeeds.

It is never revealed how anyone knows that the world will end at 4:44, nor how scientists were able to pinpoint such a specific time. But the details aren't as important as the relationship between the two main characters, which remains woefully underdeveloped. Skye has two modes; crazy and crazier, occasionally taking a break from painting to have a breakdown before returning to her work. Cisco wanders around talking to himself like a schizophrenic, mumbling random thoughts and philosophies that are frequently indecipherable. For a film that asks us to spend an hour and a half with these two characters alone in an apartment for the end of the world, it keeps us frustratingly at arm's length.

Willem Dafoe as Cisco and Shanyn Leigh as Skye on the roof in Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH.
Copyright: So Suave LLC, an IFC Films release.
4:44 actually succeeds in creating a palpable atmosphere of impending doom near the beginning. The juxtaposition of news commentary and scenes of global panic offer glimpses into the world outside the apartment walls, but the film loses that quality about midway through and replaces it with a meandering sense of ennui. While it was clearly Ferrrara's intention, it doesn't exactly make for riveting viewing. It feels like a film without an identity, an interesting concept that never got out of development. There is certainly potential there for a powerful character study, wherein facing mortality forces the characters to face their true selves. But the script lacks tension, and honestly Dafoe and Leigh lack chemistry, even in their awkwardly prolonged sex scene at the beginning.

It's a shame because the film is rife with promise. It's build around a solid, relevant idea that plays off audience expectations and our national fascination with the end of times. Unfortunately it just doesn't add up to a satisfying whole. It remains frustratingly inert, every bit as trapped in its own lack of directions as its characters are within their four walls. It's attempts at philosophizing fall flat, and are more muddled and opaque that profound and revelatory. There is a lot of territory to be covered in the end of the world, lots of emotional layers to be explored and and examined. 4:44 doesn't do that. It coasts along on an undercooked idea that never gets off the ground. It's hard to imagine the real end of the world being this dull.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH | Directed by Abel Ferrara | Stars Willam Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh, Natasha Lyonne | Not rated | Opens today, 3/23, in New York and Los Angeles.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Review | "21 Jump Street"

From The Dispatch:
It's clear that the creative team behind "21 Jump Street" wasn't just content to slap something up on screen and call it a day. It's actually a surprisingly strong film with a solid balance of humor and heart, actually making us feel for and identify with the characters rather than just go through the usual paces of an R-rated comedy. While it doesn't always work and there are a few missteps along the way, "21 Jump Street" is something of an unexpected pleasure, a character-driven comedy that actually seems concerned with giving the audience some fresh and original laughs rather than simply recycling old material. 
Click here to read my full review.

"Bring Me My Legs"

I was a fan of Alexandre Aja's Piranha remake, but I had no hopes for its sequel, Piranha 3DD, but this trailer looks kind of amazing. It may be even more wonderfully ridiculous than the last one.



Piranha 3DD opens June 1, 2012.

DVD Spotlight 3/21/12

Playing a little catch up with some recent DVD releases.

THE DESCENDANTS (★★★½)

Alexander Payne's Oscar winning film may have not ended up the frontrunner it was once thought to be, but its in good company with other Best Picture also rans that lost to The Artist. From my original review:
It’s a veritable showcase for Clooney, who has honestly never been better than he is here. His final, tearful farewell to his wife is one of the most deeply moving scenes to come out of any film this year; he demonstrates without a doubt why he is one of the biggest stars in the world today. He’s not just a persona; he’s the real deal and an immense talent. 
Not surprisingly, the blu-ray has quite a bit of requisite gushing over Clooney, but it's clearly not undeserved. It's not the kind of film that people will be using as a

FROM TIME TO TIME (★★½)

From Julian Fellowes, the writer of Gosford Park and the creator of Downton Abbey comes this charming tale of a young boy during WWII who is sent to live with his grandmother (Maggie Smith), where he discovers ghosts that are actually shadows from the past, allowing him to move from the present to the past to discover family secrets.

Even as a fan of both Gosford Park and Downton Abbey I found the film to be a bit underwhelming (it did go direct to DVD in the US, after all), the cast makes it worth a watch. It's a bit simplistic, but earnest and beguiling in its own way. Cast and crew interviews round out a rather bare bones DVD.


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (★★★)

It may not be popular in cinephile circles to like Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn, but I'll admit to finding it to be perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait entertainment. Not a great film, perhaps, but an immensely likeable one, and Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are both fantastic. From my original review:
It's an instantly entrancing romance that will be a delight for both fans of Marilyn and lovers of old Hollywood, for its behind the scenes look at the filmmaking process of the time is wholly entertaining.
I still stand by those words. It's an enjoyable film, and sometimes that's all we really need. In this case, it absolutely hits the spot. Don't go looking for many special features (some more background on The Prince and the Showgirl might have been nice), but the film looks great on blu-ray.

THE SITTER (★★½)

While I wish David Gordon Green would return to directing smart, understated indie dramas, I'll admit he has a strange talent for gloriously inappropriate comedy. His latest effort, The Sitter, about the world's worst babysitter who takes three kids along with him on a drug run for his girlfriend, is a surprisingly uproarious and agreeably cringe-inducing comedy romp.

The blu-ray also includes some brief but worthwhile gag reels  that are almost as funny as the movie itself, as we watch the cast improv their way through different moments in the film. It actually gives a deeper appreciation for what the cast did to get this film made, and just how much of funniest lines were ad libbed on the spot. These are some special features that are actually worth a look.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Virgin Witch"/"Killer's Moon"

Taking a brief detour from the films of Jean Rollin, Kino Lorber's latest blu-ray releases from the Redemption Films catalogue focus represent two lesser known British exploitation films from the 1970s.

Whereas Rollin was best known for vampire erotica, Virgin Witch (1972) and Killer's Moon (1978) are a bit of a change of pace, although both represent very different types of horror exploitation.

Ray Austin's Virgin Witch is basically soft-core porn dressed up as a horror film. Rollin, whose films such The Nude Vampire and Lips of Blood actually aspired to be something more, despite studio imposed sexual elements, Austin fully embraced exploitation erotica to the point where it almost completely forsakes plot and scares in favor of nubile female bodies writing for the camera.

A scene from VIRGIN WITCH, directed by Ray Austin.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Even the plot synopsis reeks of exploitation. Two young women are tricked by a lesbian witch into coming out to an isolated country estate under the pretense of being nude models for a very special client. Instead, they are to be sacrifices for a secret witches coven. The plan goes awry, however, when one of the girls is revealed to have greater supernatural powers than even the high priestess, and the tables are completely turned. Yes it's trash, and most of the film exists solely as an excuse to get naked girls on screen and push the boundaries of relaxed British censorship standards, but it's actually pretty visual inventive. Kino's high-def transfer is the best of any of their Redemption titles so far, with the vibrant, contrasting red and greens almost popping off the screen. It's a shame the movie isn't better, but it's not surprising that the disc is completely devoid of special features outside of a requisite trailer and a photo gallery.

Faring a little better is Alan Birkinshaw's Killer's Moon, which despite coming off like a low rent slasher knock off, is actually pretty good. Sure the painted backdrops are a bit obvious and the acting at times wooden, but coming out around the same time as John Carpenter's iconic Halloween, Killer's Moon is surprisingly effective.

The plot is pretty much standard slasher fare - a young womens' chorus becomes stranded at an old estate out in the woods, where four escaped asylum inmates are on the loose. The four psychopaths are under an experimental treatment that has led them to believe that they are in a dream, completely destroying their inhibitions as they slash their way through everything they encounter. It's actually an interesting early twist on a burgeoning new genre (Friday the 13th and others had not yet been released) that works well despite its exploitation roots.

A scene from KILLER'S MOON, directed by Alan Birkinshaw.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Whereas Virgin Witch focused on sexuality and nudity, Killer's Moon actually feels as if its trying to be a good film, and most surprisingly of all, trying to scare the audience. Birkinshaw succeeds in delivering a palpable atmosphere, as well as a few (intentional) laughs. While it may not look as good as Virgin Witch, what it lacks in production values it makes up for in earnestness. It's clear that the filmmakers believed in what they were making, and it shows. This isn't just something that was thrown together for a quick buck - Birkinshaw wanted to make something worthwhile, and not only does that set him apart from most of his exploitation brethren, he actually succeeds in doing so.

The blu-ray disc also includes some illuminating interviews with director Alan Birkinshaw and actress Joanne Good, as well as an audio commentary, making it not only a better film than Virgin Witch but a more thorough disc presentation as well. It's clear why Kino spent more time on Killer's Moon - it's an obviously better film, although I would have liked to have seen a little more historical background on Virgin Witch. Still, to fans of Redemption and of exploitation horror, both films are gems that deserve their day in the sun, or in the darkness, whatever the case may be.

VIRGIN WITCH - ★★ (out of four)
KILLER'S MOON - ★★★

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

Blu-ray Review | "Battle Royale"

The long awaited US release of Kinji Fukusaku's Battle Royale could not have come at a better time. With the hugely anticipated release of The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy based on the young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, coming up this Friday, Battle Royale's arrival on US shores is perfectly timed. It is, in many ways, the original Hunger Games, although most Americans have probably never heard of it, let alone The Hunger Games' legions of young fans.

After all, Battle Royale was restricted even from the young audiences of Japan, which has a notoriously lenient rating system, and the film wears its R-15 like a badge of honor, constantly reminding us as the film is starting that if you are under 15 - get out.

It's all a bunch of marketing bluster of course, the film clearly wants to be seen as the epitome of cinematic carnage. And while it is certainly violent, there have been plenty of rougher films that have come out since.

Image courtesy of DVD Beaver.
What makes Battle Royale so different and sets it apart from the genre film pack is that its violence involves children. Fans of The Hunger Games will find its plot eerily similar, although Collins claims to have never heard of the film until after she had written the book. Which is a believable story, given that Battle Royale, which was released in Japan in 2000, has never officially made it to the US outside of film festivals and bootleg copies until now. Set in Japan, the film takes place at a time when unemployment and rampant youth angst have nearly ruined the country. Employment as skyrocketed and delinquency is out of control. So the Japanese government passes a law requiring one 9th grade class a year to participate in a "battle royale," where the entire class is taken to a remote island and forced to kill each other off with various weapons until only one victor remains.

Children die left and right while a select few try desperately to cling to their humanity. But while some refuse to kill, others embrace their new Darwinian challenge wholeheartedly, and soon no one is to be trusted. Two lovers take center stage in this epic bloodbath, and form a tentative and unlikely alliance with a deadly exchange student. As they and several other students try to subvert the system and beat the game on their own terms, others embrace it as a kill or be killed free for all from which they refuse to be eliminated. In a world where only one can survive, even your best friend becomes a potential target, or a potential threat.

Image courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Yes, it's remarkably similar to The Hunger Games. It basically is The Hunger Games, albeit with a much a much darker vision. It's true that The Hunger Games is surprisingly dark for a book aimed at younger audiences, but Battle Royale is downright twisted, and fantastically so. Not only is it gruesome and shocking, it's also disarmingly funny. Fukusaku balances gut wrenching action, emotional pathos, and a pitch black sense of absurdity. It's both deliciously over the top and yet deeply personal. It draws us into the world of these children and makes us care about their struggles, even the villains that pose a threat to our heroes. It's certainly a strange beast, but it works, and it works very well. It's not a face value film, it leaves its audience questioning, reflecting, and debating its hauntingly resonant implications.

It's blu-ray release by Anchor Bay is certainly something to be celebrated, despite its complete lack of special features (a box set that includes Battle Royale 2 is also available, and contains an extra disc of features). Long unavailable to general audiences in the US, the film now has the chance to expand its audience to fans who may have otherwise overlooked it. Of course, some Hunger Games fans will likely accuse it of ripping off their beloved franchise, while hipsters will doubtlessly taut their foreknowledge of the film, and that Battle Royale did it first and better. The fact is, Battle Royale deserves to be considered apart from The Hunger Games, because as similar as they are, they are both different animals with different fanbases, although fans of one should certainly explore the other, as both certainly have their merits. Now, thanks to this new blu-ray release, everyone will have the chance to judge for themselves.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BATTLE ROYALE | Directed by Kinji Fukusaku | Stars  Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Tarô Yamamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama | Not rated | Out today, 3/20, on Blu-ray and DVD.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

DVD Review | "Pola Negri: The Iconic Collection"

The name Pola Negri may not ring many bells with a lot of cinephiles, much less anyone in the general public. But while she may not exactly be a household name, Negri is nonetheless a legend of the silver screen.

As the marketing materials proclaim - "Before Garbo or Dietrich, there was Pola Negri." And indeed, Negri could stake a claim as the original femme fatale. While her earliest screen credit was 1914's Slave of Passion, Slave of Vice, the new three disc set put out by Bright Shining City Productions collects four of her earliest works, beginning with 1917's The Polish Dancer.

Directed by Aleksander Hertz, The Polish Dancer is the oldest surviving film from Poland, and it's lucky to exist at all. While it may have been restored, it's clear that the negative was in bad shape, with some sequences nearly beyond repair.
Pola Negri in THE YELLOW TICKET.
The film itself isn't anything remarkable, it's a relatively standard melodrama about a wild young woman who runs away from her shamed parents and becomes the object of affection to a married man, that neither breaks any ground nor pushed the medium in any revolutionary direction. What makes it significant isn't so much its style or content - but its place in history as the oldest Polish film. There's nothing particularly unique about it to set it apart, it was clearly influenced by Hollywood melodramas of the same period, but its place in history makes it a film worthy of consideration.

It is the second film in the collection, however, that is the true gem of the set. 1918's The Yellow Ticket, which was given a more famous remake in 1931, stands out from the other three films as an important early work. Directed by Victor Janson and Eugen Illés, The Yellow Ticket stars Negri as a young Jewish woman who moves to Russia and faces great prejudice as she attempts to earn a degree. One of the first films to deal directly with antisemitism in Czarist Russia, the film also features extensive use of flashback, which was almost unheard of in 1918. Film historians tend to credit D.W. Griffith with the earliest uses of flashbacks in film, but information remains sparse until the 1930s. Their use in The Yellow Ticket indicate an aesthetic experimentalism that really puts it a cut above the rest.

Emil Jannings and Pola Negri in EYES OF THE MUMMY MA.
The same cannot be said of 1918's Eyes of the Mummy Ma, which is surprising since it was directed by renowned director Ernst Lubitsch. One of Lubitsch's early works, it's clear this was made a long time before he had developed his signature "Lubitsch touch" later seen in such films as The Love Parade and The Shop Around the Corner. Not quite the horror film that its title implies, Eyes of the Mummy Ma is the story of a young woman held captive in a mummy's tomb, who after being rescued by an enterprising young artist, ascends through society while being relentlessly pursued by her captor (played by a hammy Emil Jannings, who would go on to be the first Oscar winner for Best Actor a decade later). While not quite in as bad a shape as The Polish Dancer, there was clearly a lot of damage to the negative over the years, resulting in a washed out image that is often difficult to discern, especially in the over-lit desert sequences.

Faring a bit better is 1921's Sappho, directed by Dimitri Buchowetski, which finds Negri right at home as a femme fatale whose beauty drives men to madness. Pursued by both the brother of a man who was committed to an asylum out of his love for her, and her employer who pays her in exchange for sexual favors, Negri is faced with nearly impossible choices, trapped by her own secrets. Originally released in censored form, the version presented here is from an uncut negative from the MGM vaults. Of all the films presented in this set, Sappho perhaps most strongly demonstrates Negri's smoldering sexuality. From those trademark piercing eyes with their pitch black eye shadow to her fluid, sensual movements, Negri was clearly a born star, and the camera loved her. Her films may not be masterpieces, but they provide a fascinating look at one of the very first movie stars at the height of her powers. Now, thanks to Bright Shining City, Pola Negri lives on for new generations to discover. While not really for casual movie-watchers, this Iconic Collection will provide cinephiles a unique opportunity to discover one of cinema's earliest, and often overlooked, legends.

THE POLISH DANCER - ★★½ (out of four)
THE YELLOW TICKET - ★★★½
EYES OF THE MUMMY MA - ★★
SAPPHO - ★★★

POLA NEGRI: THE ICONIC COLLECTION is now available on DVD from Bright Shining City Productions.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Prometheus" Has Landed

The final trailer gives us a better idea of what's going on here without revealing too much.



Prometheus opens June 8, 2012.

Review | "The Kid with a Bike"

On paper, The Kid with a Bike doesn't sound like something that the directing duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne would typically tackle. The plot synopsis sounds deceptively cloying - a young boy, abandoned by his father in an orphanage, gets a new lease on life through the love of a stranger who takes him under her wing. This doesn't sound like the typical fare of the directors behind L'enfant (in which a man sells his newborn son for money) and Lorna's Silence (where a woman marries a man to gain citizenship, with dangerous consequences).

But if the Dardennes have taught us anything, it is to constantly expect the unexpected. Their films often play out like complex morality plays, with deeply wounded characters who make bad decisions, and must face the inevitable consequences. In that regard, The Kid with a Bike fits comfortably into their oeuvre, despite its (sparing) use of music, which is something of a departure for the Brothers Dardenne. But even at just a few notes long, the one piece of music that repeats itself occasionally throughout the film adds just the right amount of devastating punctuation without pushing or manipulating the audience with any unnecessary sentimentality.

Samantha (Cécile de France) and Cyril (Thomas Doret) in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s THE KID WITH A BIKE. Photo by Christine Plenus. A Sundance Selects release.
That has always been something of a Dardenne trademark, but here the feat seems almost more remarkable. After all, films dealing with orphaned children, especially when the film completely centers around one, can very easily fall into the trap of blatant audience manipulation. Children are in many ways the ultimate cinematic manipulation tool, but true to form, the Dardennes deftly avoid any such pitfall with seemingly effortless grace. The entire film rests on the shoulders of young Thomas Doret as Cyril Catoul, a young boy who has been abandoned by his deadbeat father (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) in a children's home. Cyril believes that it is only for a short time, but after not hearing from his father for a while, he tries to contact him in order to retrieve his beloved bicycle.

Unable to reach him, Cyril constantly runs away from his keepers at the home, trying to find his dad by any means necessary. Instead, he discovers the hard truth that his father has moved without leaving a forwarding address, and that he sold his beloved bike. In a random act of kindness, a woman who witnessed Cyril's meltdown (Cécile De France) tracks down his bike and buys it back for him. Cyril immediately feels a connection with her and asks if he can stay with her on weekends. She agrees, and the two form a tremulous bond, and a shared determination to reunite him with his father. But when circumstances suddenly change, Cyril begins acting out, and as the wrong crowd beckons to pull the troubled boy in a dangerous direction, Samantha's love for him may be the only thing that can save him from the edge.

Guy Catoul (Jérémie Renier) and Cyril (Thomas Doret) in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s THE KID WITH A BIKE. Photo by Christine Plenus. A Sundance Selects release.
In the hands of lesser directors, The Kid with the Bike could easily have become one big saccharine coated schmaltz-fest. But under the careful control of the Dardennes, the film becomes something wholly remarkable. It's an impressively restrained portrait of a troubled young boy trying to navigate his way through an increasingly complicated world. Cyril's relationship with Samantha feels completely natural, never forced or overly coincidental. The Dardennes are adept at allowing their characters to just be, and the story develops without unnecessary frills or fanfare.

None of it would have been possible, of course, without a strong central performance, and Doret is uncommonly good as Cyril. Child performances are always a gamble, especially when they have to carry an entire film on their shoulders, but Doret proves himself more than capable, appearing in nearly every frame of the film, more than holding his own beside veterans Renier and de France. Without him, one imagines the film would not be the success that it is. The Dardennes' tender and deeply human vision is perfectly summed up in the film's final shot, which may seem a bit abrupt but upon reflection one comes to see that it really couldn't have ended any other way. It is a symbolic summation of the entire film, crafted in the Dardennes' typically unassuming way. In fact, "unassuming" is probably the best word to describe The Kid with a Bike. It's a devastating film told with great emotional economy and quiet dignity. The Dardennes say so much using so little, and just as its brief musical theme only appears during fleeting moments of thematic import, the auteurist brothers consistently play their cards close to the chest, resulting in a huge emotional payoff that resonates more deeply than its sparse elements might suggest. It is perhaps their most accessible film, but that shouldn't deter their more ardent, art house fans - The Kid with a Bike is something very special indeed.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE KID WITH A BIKE | Directed by Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne | Stars Cécile De France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione | Not rated | Now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Wizards"

Ralph Bakshi's Wizards is one strange animal.

The first animated film made by 20th Century Fox, Wizards was made concurrently with Fox's other 1977 sci-fi epic, Star Wars, and even changed its name at the request of George Lucas from War Wizards to simply Wizards in order to avoid any potential confusion.

While it's hard to imagine anyone confusing the two films now, the parallels between the two projects are certainly there (and not just because both have Mark Hamill).

Before he made Wizards, Bakshi became famous (infamous?) for directing Fritz the Cat, which became the first animated film to ever be slapped with an X rating from the MPAA. Coming after Fritz, Wizards was something of a change of pace for Bakshi, while still retaining that same revolutionary spirit. On the one hand, it is an old fashioned tale of good and evil in a land populated by elves and fairies, on the other hand it is a dark allegory for the destructive nature of technology and the rise of Nazism.


The result is a strange hybrid of childlike and grownup sensibilities. The story, set on post-apocalyptic Earth millions of years after it was obliterated in a nuclear holocaust, centers around two brothers, both wizards, one good and one evil. Avatar is the good brother, who rules over the good peoples of Montagar, while his evil brother, Blackwolf, rules over Scortch, a dark world made from the twisted ruins of human civilization. For thousands of years the two brothers have coexisted, with Blackwolf occasionally invading Montagar to no avail. But when Blackwolf discovers ancient footage of Adolf Hitler and his fearsome war machine, he decides to take up Hitler's mantle and enact a new final solution on the people of Montagar, using the footage of Hitler to strike fear in the hearts of the opposing armies.

While Blackwolf's armies use ancient Earth technology, Avatar's people have shunned it, avoiding any technology at all costs in an attempt to escape the fate of the humans millions of years before. But as Blackwolf's armies descend on Montagar, the war between technology and magic will at long last come to a head, and decide the fate of the Earth once again.


It's clear from the film's anti-technology themes (one character refers to it as a "perversion") that the film is very much rooted in the counterculture ideology of the 1960s (nature = good, technology = bad). And indeed the animation style has an almost psychedelic quality. Even though it was released in 1977, the film feels like something of a relic, an almost dogmatic political allegory that often feels uncomfortably simplistic, even for a children's film. The unrelenting Nazi imagery is also surprising (Blackwolf adopts the swastika as his personal symbol, and a mutant devours a pig marked with a Jewish Star of David), as are the hyper-sexualized fairies. The heroic Avatar is portrayed as something of a lech, a lewd old man with a much younger, scantily clad lover. It's all part of the almost schizophrenic nature of the film. Bakshi clearly had a unique vision, using animation over live action footage to create an unsettling visual effect for Blackwolf's dark armies, but the incongruity between the adult themes shoehorned into a children's fable is awkward at best, downright uncomfortable at worst. The wholly inappropriate, jazzy score is also a problem, pulling the audience out of the film with the dated wailing of its saxophones.

Still though, if Wizards is a failure, then it's a fascinating failure. The story may have been better served by a different director with a less conflicted vision, who could better balance its themes into something more universal. But Fox clearly believes in this film, judging by the surprisingly first class blu-ray release. It may have been (rightfully) overshadowed by Star Wars upon its initial release, but its fantastical tale of good versus evil seems very familiar, and the similarities are made even more striking by the proximity of their release. There is a reason, however, why Star Wars is remembered and Wizards remains something of a peculiar artifact - one is a great and timeless film, while the other remains frustratingly trapped in its own time.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

WIZARDS | Directed by Ralph Bakshi | Voices of Bob Holt, Jesse Welles, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Steve Gravers, Mark Hamill | Rated PG | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On "John Carter"

From The Dispatch:
Like the stories that inspired it, "John Carter" is an unabashedly and agreeably old-fashioned epic, featuring archetypal characters and a grand, sweeping score by Michael Giacchino ("Star Trek," "Up"). Despite its dazzling special effects, it feels like something from another era, a simple tale of heroism from a simpler time. It may occasionally get bogged down in overly complicated sci-fi jargon (good luck keeping all the alien names and terms straight), but no one was as surprised as me that "John Carter" is actually a very good film.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review | "The Spiders"/"Scarlet Street"

Having recently released the astounding restoration of Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis, on blu-ray Kino Lorber has now set its sights on two of Lang's lesser known work, that span his career from its early period (1919) to its later period (1945).

Watching these two films in close proximity to one another is a fascinating experience, as we are essentially witnessing the complete evolution of an artist, from the birth to the final maturation of his craft. While neither film represents his best work (that would come along in his mid-period from 1927-1931), they are both great films in their own right.

1919's The Spiders is, in many ways, the quintessential silent adventure serial. Originally shown in two parts, The Spiders: The Golden Sea (1919), and The Spiders: The Diamond Ship (1920), the film is a clear forerunner of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, following the adventures of Kay Hoog, an athlete and amateur sleuth who discovers a mysterious message in a bottle while sailing the ocean.


Determined to find out the source of the message, and the treasure hinted at in its pages, Hoog sets off on a whirlwind adventure that will lead him to exotic islands and underground cities in search of a lost diamond. But he isn't the only one searching for this treasure - a ruthless criminal organization known as The Spiders is also in hot pursuit, and they are willing to do anything to get it. However, when their leader, Lio Sha, falls in love with Hoog, it opens up a whole new set of problems that could end in tragedy for both of them, and when Lio Sha sets her sights on something, she always gets what she wants, be it a lost treasure, or a man.

What is so striking about watching The Spiders today, some 93 years after its initial release, is how thrilling it still is. Even in 1919, Lang's mastery of the medium was clearly visible. Its depiction of racial minorities may raise some eyebrows today, but otherwise the film is strikingly modern. Lang's use of shadow foreshadows his work in German Expressionism and later film noir, and his fluid camera movements recall D.W. Griffith's sweeping cinematography. Lang clearly took a cue from Griffith in his cutting of the action sequences, but he created something wholly his own. This is no jaunty, cheesy action film that one might expect The Artist's George Valentin to star in, this is a dark and twisty thriller. It's certainly a lot of fun, but it also offers an indication at some of the dark places Lang would explore later in his career.

26 years later in 1945, Lang may have matured as a filmmaker, turning his sights onto more grown up themes and away from the days of high adventure, but he's clearly still the same man with the same interests in the dark heart of man. Lang helped pioneer the German Expressionist movement in 1927 with Metropolis, before eventually moving to Hollywood where filmmakers were taking their cues from the movement to create American film noir. Lang was right at home with the genre, and went on to direct some of its greatest triumphs, from 1937s You Only Live Once to 1953's The Big Heat. In the middle there was Scarlet Street, lesser known perhaps but no less accomplished than some of his more famous works. Starring Edward G. Robinson as a henpecked husband who falls for a vivacious woman of the night, Scarlet Street was extremely controversial in its time, and even banned in several cities.


Robinson, a bank teller, naively represents himself to the girl as a wealthy and successful artist, who then hatches a plan with her boyfriend to extort thousands from him. The result is a neverending series of unfortunate events, snowballing into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Lang never lets the story get away from him, however, and Robinson keeps the proceedings grounded with a remarkably restrained performance.

Kino's blu-ray presentation is almost jaw-droppingly good. There are a few imperfections here and there, but looking back on some of the film's less auspicious public domain incarnations, the cleanup  they have done is simply extraordinary. While The Spiders doesn't have the benefit of a high-def transfer (it's a DVD only release), it certainly looks good for a film of its age, and really by the time a film reaches 93 years old a blu-ray isn't going to make that much difference (although it certainly did with 97 year old  Birth of a Nation). Both films are short on extras, but Scarlet Street's stunning transfer is special enough, while we're just lucky to have The Spiders on DVD at all. Both films are a tribute to one of cinema's grand masters at very different points in his career, and should really be appreciated together. The two films couldn't be more different, but on closer inspection, they're clearly cut from the same magnificent cloth.

THE SPIDERS - ★★★½ (out of four)
SCARLET STREET - ★★★½ (out of four)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "World on a Wire"

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 film, World on a Wire may have been made for West German television, but make no mistake, this is no typical made for TV film.

While the film may have that certain washed out, slightly bluish look one has come to expect from television shows from the era, but the HD transfer by the Criterion Collection is surprisingly sharp.

World on a Wire may be one of the more obscure efforts in Fassbinder's career, but its inclusion in the collection isn't without reason. Fassbinder, who is probably most famous for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which was released the following year, was perhaps one of the greatest post-war German filmmakers. before his career was cut short by his death from an overdose of cocaine in 1982 at the age of 37. His work on World on a Wire is something quite extraordinary, especially when held against the effects-laden sci-fi epics of today. This is science fiction at its very best, distilling the genre down to its essence and emerging with something both thoughtful and thrilling.

Klaus Löwitsch as Fred Stiller in WORLD ON A WIRE.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Originally shown in 2 parts, the three and a half hour film is based on the novel "Simulacron-3" by Daniel F. Galouye, but it plays out like something by Philip K. Dick, whose work has inspired films such as Blade Runner and Minority Report. The central conceit focuses on a group of scientists who have created a virtual world in a computer, a "world on a wire," populated with virtual citizens who think and act like humans, without realizing that they are actually just a series of ones and zeroes. The creation of this world raises a series of ethical questions, as the scientists travel into it to observe their work, with the assistance of one "liason," who actually understands who and what he is.

When the co-creator of the world dies under mysterious circumstances, his partner, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), becomes determined to find out why. People around him begin to disappear without a trace, even those who once knew them seem to have no memory of their existence. As he gets deeper into the mystery, however, he begins to uncover disturbing truths that rock his world to its core, and he begins to suspect that the world he knows as real may not be so real after all.

Karl-Heinz Vosgerau as Herbert Siskins (L) and Kurt Raab as Mark Holm (R) in WORLD ON A WIRE.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
It's interesting having the release of World on a Wire coming so closely behind Criterion's blu-ray release of Chris Marker's La Jetée, which is a clear spiritual predecessor to this film. From the image of a man hooked up to wires to its themes of mental transportation into other worlds or places, the films share unmistakable common threads. While World on a Wire may not have the same kind of emotional depth as La Jetée, it is nevertheless a quintessential sci-fi tale. Part of what makes it so remarkable is that it doesn't have any special effects. The characters transition from one world to the other with only sound to signal the journey. There are no flashy transitions or anything that distinguishes the "fake" world from the "real" world. Instead, Fassbinder relies on solid storytelling and suspense. This is science-fiction that doesn't feel like science fiction. But I'm almost surprised that this hasn't been singled out for a Hollywood remake. It seems to have all the story elements of a big Hollywood blockbuster without being a big Hollywood blockbuster. But Fassbinder one-ups Hollywood and nearly every turn. He managed to make one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, and yet hardly anyone has ever heard of it.

Hopefully that will change with Criterion's typically stellar new blu-ray, and the transfer (supervised by the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) is surprisingly strong, given the film's television roots. In fact the film seems to transcend its television roots at every turn. Maybe its the strong story, maybe it's Fassbinder's tightly controlled direction, but most likely it's a mixture of both. World on a Wire is a sci-fi thriller for the ages. And now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, it can be seen by a wider audience than ever before.

Special features include:

  • New, restored digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire”: Looking Ahead to Today, a fifty-minute documentary about the making of the film by Juliane Lorenz
  • New interview with German-film scholar Gerd Gemünden
  • New English subtitles Trailer for the 2010 theatrical release
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Ed Halter
GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

World on a Wire is now available on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Soundtrack Review | "Being Flynn"

BY C.A. RUBINO

I'll admit it, when it comes to music I'm a particular brand of pretentious. If it was written before 1949, or is played inside hole-in-the-wall cafés with drawings of Audrey Hepburn on the wall, then I'll probably love it. That being said, the opening notes of Being Flynn - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack told me that I was in for a treat. However, those clean, simple, and vaguely intimate acoustic notes only hinted at the eclectic and unconventional journey ahead.

Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, reunites writer/director Paul Weitz with Damon Gough, better known as British singer/songwriter Badly Drawn Boy. The two first collaborated for Wietz's 2002 film About a Boy, and this latest project reaffirms that this paring is a good one. This isn't only because the soundtrack provides the film with humanity and soul, but also that it stands on it's own as a musical achievement. It is more than just a beautiful movie soundtrack, it is also a great album.

The strength of the soundtrack lies entirely in the hands of Gough's unique talent and sound. Those familiar with his other works will feel right at home here. The album is heavily string driven with deep and mournful vocals that often play contrast to often upbeat melodies. Each track dances delightfully between this contrast, and still manages to bring to the table a different sound and style.

The array of different sounds each track displays is partially what makes the album such an interesting listen. While some tracks pull heavily from their sensitive singer/songwriter motif, with piano and acoustic guitar leading the way, others toss in violins, saxophones, and in at least one case an electronic drum machine.

For the most part this hodgepodge of instrumental voices works quite well with only one notable exception. The mid album track "Priest" dives head first into a full orchestral score that swiftly builds into a disjointed mess that only serves to be entirely unsettling. It is unclear why this track was included on the soundtrack album. On the plus side, the offending track is little over a minute long and is typically finished by the time I manage to find the skip button.

This single minute long blemish aside, the album is indeed a treat. It can be enjoyed either for the emotional impact it lends to the film, or as an example of the musical talents of Damon Gough. Either way, for those who enjoy music with a little soulful punch hiding alongside upbeat melodies, there is more than enough here to satisfy.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BEING FLYNN: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK features original music by Damon Gough. It is available from Lakeshore Records digitally Feb 28th and in stores March 20th

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Live From the Front Row

Hopping on the "Oscar Bandwagon," here is the first episode of my new podcast, "Live From the Front Row," in which C.A. Rubino and I put the 2011 Oscars to bed.