Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Teasing "Les Misérables"

Chills.



Les Misérables opens December 14.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On "The Dictator"


From The Dispatch:
The problem with Cohen's characters is that they are more suited to a shorter, sketch format and feel strained when stretched over feature length. "Borat" was something akin to lightning in a bottle, and somehow sustained its comedic brilliance for its entire length, employing a brand of social satire that has been mostly missing from his subsequent features. "The Dictator" comments somewhat on current events, but in a much more heavy-handed way. That is not to say that it doesn't feature moments of comic inspiration, but it also drags due to its loose inclusion of a more typical plot structure. The pranks Cohen would pull on unsuspecting citizens were always a highlight of his films, and they seem sorely missing here.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Trailer: "The Great Gatsby"

I was hoping Baz Luhrmann would tone down his usual style somewhat for his big screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel, but it seems like he's done just the opposite.


I'm a bit skeptical of this project, but perhaps Luhrmann will be well suited for visualizing the garish, empty excesses of Gatsby's insular life. You can check out the trailer on Apple or watch it below.



The Great Gatsby will be released on December 25, 2012.

Soundtrack Spotlight: "Harry Potter" vs. "Twilight"

As a general rule, I'm not usually a big fan of re-recordings of scores I love. The original recordings are almost always superior, and the rerecordings often feel redundant and superfluous. Sometimes, however, a reinterpretation of a score can open it up, enhancing the experience that, while not necessarily better than the original, allows us to look at a beloved piece of music from a new angle.

The City of Prague Philharmonic excels at such recordings, and has recently released two excellent albums featuring music from two of the biggest franchises out there - Harry Potter and Twilight.


While I doubt many people would argue that the Harry Potter series has been stronger musically (and artistically), the music from the Twilight Saga has perhaps been its strongest asset.

The two disc Harry Potter collection features music from all 8 of the films, but skews most heavily to the franchise's first four entries, Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Goblet of Fire. The album begins with John Williams' iconic "Hedwig's Theme," which really doesn't sound all that different from its original film version. Ditto "Harry's Wondrous World," the joyful theme for Harry's newfound magical home. It isn't until the third track, "Nimbus 2000," that the music begins to diverge from its original counterpart. In "Nimbus 2000," the orchestra plays with Williams' Quidditch theme, interpreting it in a fresh, fun and playful new way.  The rest of the score, and indeed the entirety of "Chamber of Secrets" (which suffered from Williams' lack of involvement), sticks disappointingly close to the original recordings. They sound great, but if you already have the original soundtrack albums, then there is little need to add this CD to your collection.

Prisoner of Azkaban on the other hand, which is arguably the finest score of the franchise, is also the highlight of the album. The Prague Philharmonic's epic interpretation of the song "Double Trouble" (featuring lyrics from Shakespeare's Macbeth) is easily the album's highlight, soaring to heights that the original recorded never did (but had no reason to). Freed of the constraints of fitting onscreen action, the music has a chance to breathe, and it's a bit disappointing that the Philharmonic didn't take the opportunity to interpret the rest of the music in a similar way. The melancholy family theme, "A Window to the Past," sounds similarly gorgeous, featuring grand flourishes that punctuate it nicely.

Patrick Doyle's Goblet of Fire, perhaps the grandest score of the series, kicks off the second CD in style, combining the tracks "Quidditch World Cup" and "Foreign Visitors Arrive" into an epic introduction to the score. The rest of the score sticks disappointingly close to the original recording, slowing the action down in places but otherwise not leaving as unique an impression as Doyle's initial compositions. Surprisingly, the album then devotes five whole tracks to perhaps the franchise's weakest score, Nicholas Hooper's Order of the Phoenix, which remain as inconsequential here as they were in their original form (although they're actually a bit beefier here). It's a bit of a shock (and a bit disappointing) that there is only one cue from Hooper's far superior Half-Blood Prince included here, and it's not even the film's chilling central theme, "In Noctem." Instead, it's the mournful "Dumbledore's Farewell" cue, which doesn't really leave a lasting impression of what that score really was.

Likewise, there is only one piece from each half of the two part Deathly Hallows, closing the album out on Alexandre Desplat's "Lily's Theme." It would have been nice if they had used some of Desplat's excellent action material that he composed for the film, perhaps in lieu of some of the gratuitous cues from Order of the Phoenix.

Because of that lack of equal representation, their "Music from the Twilight Saga" album actually fares better on the whole.Carter Burwell's work for the original Twilight actually sounds better here when separated from its more rock/electronic elements, but remains the weakest score of the bunch. The lovely "Edward at Her Bed/Bella's Lullaby" starts the album off nicely, but things don't really kick into high gear until track 8, which kicks off Alexandre Desplat's heartbreaking score for "New Moon." Far and away the best score of the series (and one of the strongest of Desplat's illustrious career), the music from "New Moon" is sweeping and romantic, and almost too good for the dismal film it accompanies. Unfortunately, the Prague Philharmonic doesn't really do much with it to stand apart from the original soundtrack album. I actually think the chamber music arrangements of the score from earlier this year were a much stronger re-interpretation than this overly faithful recreation. The inclusion of "The Meadow," a solo piano rendition of the main theme, is a welcome addition though, since it was not available on the soundtrack album (only as a part of the song-only album that accompanied the film's theatrical release).

Howard Shore's Eclipse attempted to marry the contemporary sounds of Burwell's work with Desplat's more classical sound. The result was a mixed bag with one stand out theme for Jacob that is given a full piano performance in "Jacob Black," while "Wedding Plans" sends the rather dreary affair out on a surprisingly high note.

Burwell returns for Breaking Dawn: Part 1, of which "Love Death Birth," and its grand statement of "Bella's Lullaby" is the definite highlight. The bouncy "A Nova Vida" breaks up the action with a bit of island flavor, before delving into the action-centric later tracks. There is not a strong ending, however, and it's a bit of a surprise that they didn't wait until the release of Breaking Dawn: Part 2 before releasing this collection. While there is a decided lack of new vision for these scores, this collection makes for a nice compilation of the best moments of these scores, faithfully recreated from their original versions. Those that already have the first four soundtrack albums may not find anything of interest here, but casual fans could certainly do worse. For a one CD "best of" collection of four different scores, "Music From the Twilight Saga" hits the mark.

THE COMPLETE HARRY POTTER SOUNDTRACK COLLECTION - ★★½ (out of four)
MUSIC FROM THE TWILIGHT SAGA - ★★★ (out of four)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Trailer: "Hyde Park on Hudson"

Go ahead and reserve a spot on your Oscar predictions for Bill Murray for Best Actor. This year's race could possibly come down to two of our greatest presidents - FDR (Bill Murray) vs. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis).


Hyde Park on Hudson opens December 7. Seriously.

Review | "Elena"

There is something deadly serious about Andrei Zvyagintsev's Elena that is evident right from the start.

It all begins as a somewhat straightforward domestic drama. Zvyagintsev introduces us to Elena (Nadezhda Markina), an aging housewife and former nurse, who is married to a wealthy, emotionally distant doctor named Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Both have children from previous marriages, and Elena's son is an unemployed ne'er-do-well who cannot support his own family. Vladimir has no such patience with such irresponsibility, much less when her son relies on his mother for support, and his financial dependence on Elena is a constant point of contention with Vladimir. However, Vladimir's sudden illness puts those concerns on the back burner, and the reappearance of his estranged daughter adds a whole new set of complications. Thrilled to be reunited with her after so many years, yet suddenly faced with his own mortality, Vladimir decides to rewrite his will - so that his daughter is the sole recipient of his wealth.

Nadezhda Markina as the title character in ELENA, a film by Andrei Zvyagintsev. 
A Zeitgeist Films release.
Now facing a lifetime of insecurity with a dependent son and his needy family, Elena is presented a nearly impossible situation - a situation that will lead her to an unthinkable decision that will test just how far she is willing to go to save herself, and her children.

Elena is a slow burner. Zvyagintsev allows the tension to simmer over the course of the two hour running time, running on undercurrents of familial strain and fabulous selections from Phillip Glass' "Symphony No. 3." It's almost so understated as to be nonexistent, which is part of what makes it so effective. Zvyagintsev expertly evokes  the naturalistic drudgery of life in the Russian bourgeoisie. Elena herself is caught between two world, the lower class world of her roots and the upper class world she married into, bridging the gap over a nonexistent middle class. In a post-Communist Russia, Elena represents a kind of social Darwinism of a country in transition. In that regard it's a deeply cynical film, an austere commentary on what happens when upper class coldness meets lower class desperation. Zvyagintsev's grim vision of human nature is certainly tough, and requires some patience to dig into, but it's a compelling journey. Markina's performance as the titular character is a remarkable study in understatement and unspoken pain, much like the film as a whole. Just when it feels like the film is going nowhere, Zvyagintsev hits us with a punch to the gut that is hard to shake.

The questions Elena raises linger long after the final shot, a haunting mirror of its opening that paints a bleak picture of the future. While its outlook may be pessimistic, there's something strangely alluring about its chilly, graceful darkness. Its meticulous construction accompanied by Markina's performance make Elena a riveting domestic thriller, an elegantly crafted glimpse into modern Russian life that speaks volumes while barely saying a word.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ELENA | Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev | Stars Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Yelena Lyadova, Alexey Rozin | Not rated | In Russian with English subtitles | Now playing at the Film Forum in NYC. Opens in LA May 25.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On "Dark Shadows"


From The Dispatch:
The film as a whole is a hit or miss affair, with occasional flashes of inspiration. Mostly, however, it’s a bland, mostly unmemorable affair that never commits to being a comedy or a horror film, and is instead an odd mix of both that doesn’t quite work 
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review | "Patience (After Sebald)"

Grant Gee's documentary, Patience (After Sebald), may be the most aptly named film of the year. It is a film that requires a great deal of patience in order to enjoy, but it is not without its rewards.

Although one's enjoyment of Patience may stem from one's appreciation of writer W.G. Max Sebald, whose book, "The Rings of Saturn," provides the inspiration for the film. A meandering collection of observations about the landscape and people of Europe, "The Rings of Saturn" is a lyrical and rambling account of Sebald's journeys through the countryside. In Patience, Gee attempts to recreate that journey through observations by authors and scholars, as well as excerpts from Sebald's work hauntingly read by Jonathan Pryce. The result is a film as frustrating as it is beautiful, as aimless as it is searing.

A still from Grant Gee’s PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD).
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
It's intentionally aimless, of course. That is, after all, part of the appeal of Sebald's stream of consciousness writing, which has been compared to that of Virginia Woolf, whose writing often evoked the seemingly random, breathless ramblings of a mind in motion.

Not so much a typical documentary, Patience (After Sebald) is an impressionistic tour through a work of great literature, retracing Sebald's steps to recapture the textures and feelings of "The Rings of Saturn." Filmed in striking black and white that recaptures the grainy photographs that Sebald was so fond of, the film  acts like a kind of tour through Sebald's mind. It is at once an appreciation of his work and an exploration of its meanings, digging deep into its origins and the history that informed it. For those who knew little of Sebald before coming to this film (a group of which I am admittedly a member), Patience will perhaps be something of an enigma. But it is an enchanting enigma nonetheless. The uninitiated are likely to come out knowing just as little about Sebald as they did when they went in, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. This isn't a biographical or historical documentary, it's a poetic one - a free form think piece that is often just as impenetrable as it is enrapturing.

By pairing Sebald's words with such gorgeous imagery, Gee creates something deeply sublime.  It is a beautiful puzzle, this poem on film, and while its aimless structure may not be fully avant garde enough to justify its own lack of direction, it consistently engages the audience to explore its hidden treasures. For those with the patience to seek its treasures, Patience will be something special indeed. It pushes the documentary structure into a whole new form, something thought provoking and cerebral, baffling and transcendent, and ultimately an artistic journey worth taking.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD) | Directed by Grant Gee | Not rated | Now showing in NYC.

Review | "Whores' Glory"

The term "whore" is perhaps one of the most confrontational and even derogatory descriptions of practitioners of the world's oldest profession. Pairing the term with the word "glory" is an even more jarring combination, suggesting something seedy, even perverse. The title, Whores' Glory, is a seemingly incongruous one, and indeed it is not without its ironies.

You'll be hard pressed to find any glory in Michael Glawogger's eye opening documentary, but you won't find any judgement or false sentiment either. Whores' Glory is as clear-eyed and objective a film as we are likely to get. Unlike many contemporary documentaries, Glawogger doesn't approach his subject with a goal of social change - his purpose is to observe and document, allowing the stories of prostitutes from across the globe speak for themselves. The rest is up the audience, as it should be. The result is something at once disturbing, mesmerizing, and strangely moving, a mosaic of the modern state of the sex industry that makes impersonal, anonymous sex feel personal and even intimate.


Told in triptych style, and set to a fantastic soundtrack featuring artists such as PJ Harvey, Whores' Glory examines organized prostitution in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, taking us on a behind the scenes tour of an underground industry that outsiders are rarely privy to. In Thailand, girls line up behind a two-way mirror, and men choose them from the other side like pieces of meat. In Bangladesh, women refuse to perform oral sex because their mouths are used to recite the Qu'ran. And in Mexico, men cruise the streets of the red light district known as the Zone, where each prostitute has her own room in which to host clients. The contrast between the three locations is striking, but even more remarkable are their similarities. Glawogger digs deep into their hopes and dreams, creating a fascinating portrait of women who sell themselves, often because they have no other choice. One madame offers a bleak picture of life for her young daughter, who will likely be forced into prostitution because her family has no money and no one will want to marry her.

It's the moments like that that make Whores' Glory so compelling. It shows us a world where prostitution is not taboo, and is even treated as perfectly normal. We meet clients who candidly describe what they look for in a prostitute, and even observe a few of their trysts. From the high class brothels of Thailand to the slums of Mexico, Whore's Glory treats is subjects with a quiet dignity, never judging them for their actions while honoring the person beneath the surface. Some of its most intriguing moments come from interviews with the prostitutes who candidly reveal their hopes and dreams of escape, many of which we know will never be fulfilled. That is both the tragedy and the draw of Whores' Glory, a refreshingly frank and powerfully rendered documentary that probes the depths of a subject often swept under the rug. We are a fly on the wall to a world often discussed but rarely explored, as Glowagger shines a light in the darkness on the seedy,gritty, shocking world where sex is little more than a business.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WHORES' GLORY | Directed by Michael Glawogger | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "David Lean Directs Noël Coward"

There are few partnerships in the history of cinema quite like the brief but important collaboration between director David Lean and playwright Noël Coward. While legendary filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were already established as a winning team, and were embarking on what would be the richest period of their career (yielding a string of masterpieces such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes), another filmmaking pair entered the scene that would ultimately produce an arguably more famous pair.

The difference between the two teams is that Lean and Coward were perhaps more famous separately than together. Coward was already an established and successful playwright, and Lean would go on to be more well known for his legendary epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Lean's name has come to be synonymous with a certain kind of epic filmmaking, while Coward represents a very British brand of upper class wit. Their initial pairing was as unlikely as it was seminal, and their collaboration yielded four excellent films before they parted ways in 1945.

A scene from IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942). Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
In 1942, Britain was in the heat of World War II, and the Blitz was crumbling morale on the home front. Coward, who had long harbored a certain disdain for the cinema, decided to make a propaganda film to honor the soldiers and boost morale. Film, of course, could reach a much wider audience than could the theatre, but Coward had no cinematic experience, and therefore turned to Lean, then a young editor who was quietly making a name for himself as a go-to guy on the quota quickie circuit to fix problem films. Neither had never directed a film before, and planned to split directorial duties, with Lean in charge of composing the shots and directing Coward (who starred as Captain Kinross), while Coward would direct the rest of the cast. As it turned out, Coward was more than happy to step back and let Lean work his magic, and while the two share directing credit the resulting film was mostly the work of Lean.

In Which We Serve became the film that launched the career of one of the cinema's most legendary auteurs, and what an auspicious beginning it was. A stirring portrait of the crew of the Torrin, a British warship that is sunk in the Mediterranean whose survivors reflect upon their lives while floating in the ocean waiting to be rescued. The film actually spends much more time on the home front than in the war itself, and in so doing creates a portrait of British resilience as a reminder of what these men are fighting for. Unlike many of the propaganda films of the era, In Which We Serve displays remarkable restraint and subtlety, focusing on characters rather than broad archetypes and cheap sentiments. You'll find no anti-German sentiments or cloying nationalism here, just a quiet dignity in the face of overwhelming danger. That's what makes it so moving - it never feels as if it's trying too hard to push its audience too hard. It established Lean as the a director to watch, and foreshadowed his later prowess at focusing on intimate themes against a grand backdrop.

A scene from BLITHE SPIRIT. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
1944's This Happy Breed served a very similar purpose as In Which We Serve, although without the overt wartime plot. A kind of suburban variation on Coward's upper class family drama, Cavalcade (which had been adapted into an Academy Award winning film 11 years prior), This Happy Breed follows a middle class family from the end of WWI to the beginning of WWII, beginning with the triumph of victory and ending on a note of uncertainty as the clouds of war once again cast their shadow over Europe. Opening with a sweeping shot of endless rows of identical houses, the film quickly establishes its protagonists as a kind of archetypal British family. They could be anyone, and were specifically crafted to be readily identifiable to the majority of contemporary British citizens. They grow up before our eyes, have personal triumps and suffer painful setbacks. But despite their problems they represented exactly what was being fought for overseas - the very existence of the British way of life. It's a powerful piece that hammers its message home without any kind of overt propagandizing. It may not be set during the war, but it is unmistakably a work of wartime angst.

By contrast, 1945's Blithe Spirit is a work of pure escapism. For a Blitz-weary nation, a surprisingly dark comedy that makes light of death may seem like a hard sell, but the film was a hit and went on to win an Academy Award for its ghostly special effects. Coward believed Blithe Spirit to be the best thing he had ever written, and it certainly is a sprightly, witty thing. Rex Harrison stars a Charles Condomine, a wealthy author who arranges for a medium to entertain his guests at a dinner party in order to conduct research for his latest novel. But when the bumbling medium accidentally conjures up the ghost of his dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), Charles finds his life, and his relationship with his second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings) thrown into disarray. Blithe Spirit may be a trifle, but it's a glorious trifle, and features one of the great comedic roles in English theatre - the medium Madame Arcati, here memorably embodied by a deliciously batty Margaret Rutherford. It may be a minor entry in Lean's canon (comedy was not his strongest suit), but it remains a strong adaptation of Coward's most enduring work.

A scene from BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The real jewel of this collection, however, is 1945's Brief Encounter. Based on Coward's one act play, "Still Life," Brief Encounter is the heartrending story of two married people whose chance meeting on a train platform turns into a fleeting and ultimately doomed love affair. Celia Johnson (who would later be so memorable opposite Maggie Smith as the dour headmistress in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, directed by Lean's frequent cinematographer, Ronald Neame) gives a remarkable performance as Laura Jesson, the lovelorn protagonist who meets Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) while waiting for a train, and is never the same. The first time we see them is actually the last time they meet, and the rest of the film shows us how they came to that moment. By the time we finally realize what the first scene actually was, Lean has drawn us in and shattered our hearts. Yes it is ultimately a film about two adulterers, but Lean treats it with such sensitivity and the performances are so earnest and authentic that its nearly impossible not to become wrapped up in their plight. Johnson is quoted as saying that acting in Brief Encounter was almost like being in a silent film, as much of the dialogue is in her head. But what she does is far more subtle that silent film acting. She says so much with her eyes, and Lean takes us to a place of deep introspection, saying a great deal with very little. Here, Lean solidified his mastery of emotional intimacy even without the epic scope, and crafted what many consider to be one of his finest achievements.

Brief Encounter would be his last collaboration with Coward, before he moved on to his own solo career, and Coward went back to the theatre. But they left behind four indelible films that launched the career of one of cinema's great masters and offer a window into the artistic evolution of two legends. Criterion's box set is a sumptuous presentation of these films in their finest quality. The gorgeous Technicolor photography of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit really pops on blu-ray, but it is the smoky black and white of Brief Encounter that leaves the strongest impression. Its aching beauty is something to be cherished, and Criterion has gone out of its way to honor all four of these classic films as they have never been seen before.

Special features include:
  • New high-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archive’s 2008 restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray editions 
  • Audio commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder 
  • New interviews with Noël Coward scholar Barry Day on all of the films 
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010 
  • Short documentaries from 2000 on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter 
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary on Lean’s career Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward 
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre Trailers 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow
IN WHICH WE SERVE - ★★★★ (out of four)
THIS HAPPY BREED - ★★★½
BLITHE SPIRIT - ★★★
BRIEF ENCOUNTER - ★★★★

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

Friday, May 11, 2012

Warner's Blu-ray Elite

A few months ago I was contacted by a Warner representative about a new home video program called Blu-ray Elite. I indicated my interest, but when I didn't hear back for a while, I assumed that the program had either fallen through or been shelved.


So I was delighted to learn a few weeks ago that the program was indeed close to realization. The concept is simple - Warner chose a select group of bloggers and fans to send periodic blu-ray discs to as a kind of home video social network marketing program - get the discs out there and get the conversation started.

Yes, I am a critic, and I value critical integrity above all. If I don't like a film or something about the presentation I will say so. I've bee receiving screeners and promo discs long enough that I won't gush over a movie just because I got a free copy of it. But I certainly appreciate being included in this new program, and am excited about its future. Anything I post about the films on Twitter will be accompanied by #blurayelite and #sp (sponsored post) to keep everything transparent and separate from my critical work.

The first round of discs came today, and included The Matrix, Contagion, and Inception. An eclectic mix, but all worthy of revisiting (coincidentally, I didn't already own any of them). I'll be reporting from time to time on the progress of the program and the movies that I watch, so stay tuned. You'll be hearing about this a lot around the blogosphere for the next few months.

Review | "The Deep Blue Sea"

It is clear right from the start of Terrence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea that something remarkable is in store. With a swell of Samuel Barber's "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra," Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) takes a handful of pills, opens up the gas in the fireplace, and lays down on the floor to die.

Opening with a sweeping tracking shot of a quiet, ramshackle British street, The Deep Blue Sea seems to be channeling the great Douglas Sirk, and the similarities don't stop there. The film is drenched in Sirkian flair from the first moment to the last, awash in a kind of exquisite sadness embodied by the inner pain of its lovelorn protagonist.

"Beware of passion, Hester." Her mother in law admonishes her. "It always leads to something ugly." Those words, spoken to her at an awkward weekend getaway (in which she and her husband must sleep in separate beds and his mother's prudish request), seemingly hammer the last nail in the coffin to her loveless marriage to the respectable but bland Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Little more than an arranged marriage, Hester has instead found passion in the arms of former WWII pilot, Freddie Paige (Tom Hiddleston), something she craves above the "guarded enthusiasm" prescribed by her mother in law and embodied by her husband.

Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in Terrence Davies' THE DEEP BLUE SEA.
Photo by Liam Daniel. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
The passion she shares with Freddie, however, is extremely volatile, ranging from heated romance to drunken fights. Caught between a dull, predictable existence with her husband, or a life of fiery unpredictability with Freddie, Hester attempts to take her own life. When Freddie learns of her failed suicide, he is enraged and breaks off the relationship. It is then when her husband walks back into her life, a bland but steady rock of strength in a time of great difficulty. Hester is once again faced with an impossible choice, choose the unexciting reliability of the man she married, or continue to pursue an uncertain future with a man whose lust for life makes him as unreliable as he is exciting. She is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and no matter what she chooses, happiness may remain forever out of her reach.

Based on the play of the same name by Terrence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea is a deeply perceptive exploration of grief and sadness as seen through prismatic reflections of memory. Shot through a kind of smoky haze, the film itself seems to be filtered through Hester's own recollections of a lifetime of regret. Not only is Davies channeling Sirk in his beautifully melancholy depiction of romantic angst, but there are elements of David Lean's masterpiece, Brief Encounter, here as well. Davies says so much by saying so little, and like Lean's towering work, The Deep Blue Sea explores romantic angst of the married middle class in deeply introspective ways.

Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) and Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in Terrence Davies' THE DEEP BLUE SEA.
Photo credit: Liam Daniel. Courtesy of Music Box Films.
But perhaps even more so than Sirk and Lean, Davies owes a great debt to Rachel Weisz, whose extraordinary performance is truly something to be celebrated. Weisz embodies such a painful sense of internalized anguish that it's almost palpable, her eyes conveying such uncertainty and sorrow with heartbreaking subtlety. While Weisz may be the glue that holds Davies' tale together, his powerful screenplay and assured direction smartly stay out of the way, never calling unnecessary attention to themselves while enhancing the film at every turn. Davies has crafted something truly outstanding, an evocative and perceptive exploration of the conflicting desires of the human heart and the consequences of the choices we make.

That dichotomy between the heart and the head is an eternal human affliction, a constant battle between our own desires and our better judgement. The Deep Blue Sea manages to be both swooningly romantic and achingly sad, painful and cathartic, beautiful and devastating. Davies never exploits the tragic nature of the story, instead opting for something more soul stirring and even strangely uplifting. In the end he leaves us with a lingering sense of wistful regret, but also a glimmer of hope. It's an awful lot like life itself; hope tinged with regret,the constant cycle of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, that make up the seemingly endless game of human existence. The Deep Blue Sea is a rare breed, a haunting and intelligently drawn love story that lingers in the memory like a wisp of smoke caught in a sunbeam, powerfully embodying the labyrinthine complexities of the heart in something as deceptively simple as a glance.


GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DEEP BLUE SEA | Directed by Terrence Davies | Stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Ann Mitchell, Karl Johnson | Rated R for a scene of sexuality and nudity | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, May 11, in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Winston-Salem, NC.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

On "The Avengers"


From The Dispatch:
"The Avengers" is pure summer popcorn entertainment from start to finish. It is, in many ways, the perfect summer movie — a big, loud spectacle that is also sharply written and filled with lovable characters worth rooting for.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "The Girl on a Motorcycle"

When one thinks of Jack Cardiff, one immediately thinks of his great works of cinematography on films such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.  Few ever think of him as a director, although he had several directorial credits to his name.

For its inaugural release from its new Jezebel label (which specializes in erotic titles), Kino Lorber has chosen Cardiff's 1968 cult classic, The Girl on a Motorcycle to kick things off. Its an appropriate title to get things started (the film was known as Naked Under Leather for its American release), because unlike the films of Kino's Redemption label (the flagship of which is the erotic horror films of Jean Rollin), The Girl on a Motorcycle is mostly straight erotica, although it's pretty tame by today's standards.
Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Based on the novel, "La Motocyclette" by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, The Girl on a Motorcycle is a road movie of a different kind. In fact that's really all it is. Rebecca (Marianne Faithfull) is a nymphomaniac who sets out on a transcontinental journey across Europe to reunite with her lover, who provides her with far more excitement than her stuffy husband, a Swiss schoolteacher who is a constant object of ridicule for his young students. On her journey she looks back over the events that lead her to that moment, and the steamy affair that led to her love of motorcycles. The result is a wildly erotic and psychadelic head trip that ultimately leads nowhere, but fits right in with other such exploitation films of the era.

Cardiff photographed as well as shot the film, so it's filled with striking imagery and flashy colors (especially in its out of left field moments of acid-trip like insanity). Sadly the film itself leaves much to be desired. It is filled with long sequences of motorcycle driving where very little actually happens. Rebecca rambles on at length in her own mind, musing over events and narrating her actions with a kind of dreamy detachment. But for an exploitation film there is precious little sex. The exploitation elements seem to stem form the motorcycle itself, which represents the very image of 60s era rebellion.  It's almost a purely visual film without any real substance, even of the trashy kind one has come to expect of films of this kind. What makes it worth it is Cardiff's unmistakable visual sense (and a commentary track by Cardiff himself, which is a gem indeed). Fans of Cardiff's work may find The Girl on a Motorcycle to be an interesting, if hardly essential, facet of his career, but fans of exploitation cinema may find the film uneventful and ultimately rather bland.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE GIRL WITH A MOTORCYCLE | Directed by Jack Cardiff | Stars Alain Delon, Marianne Faithfull, Roger Mutton, Marius Goring, Jean Leduc | Rated R | Now available on blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

On "The Five-Year Engagement"


From The Dispatch:
First and foremost, "The Five-Year Engagement" is funny — very funny. But more than that, it's an unusually perceptive examination of modern relationships. Amid all the laughs, Segel and Stoller find something deeply human and surprisingly moving. This is a film populated by real characters, not just broad caricatures. 
Click here to read my full review.