Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On "Anna Karenina"


From The Dispatch:
The problem is that the film's glossy veneer is almost impossible to penetrate. It all looks gorgeous (the waltz sequence near the beginning is a showcase of virtuoso editing, music and design), but consistently holds the audience at arm's length. Even the screenplay by legendary playwright Tom Stoppard seems to be playing paint by numbers with a classic text rather than fully developing into an emotionally satisfying whole.
Click here to read my full review.

Review | "How to Survive a Plague"

In the 1980s, the gay community was devastated by the AIDS epidemic in a way that no one could have ever seen coming. Millions would die over the course of the decade and well into the 1990s before education and medication was able to put the breaks on the disease and slow the spread of the epidemic.

David France's How to Survive a Plague is a chronicle of those turbulent years through the eyes of Act Up, an organization dedicated to raising not just awareness, but funds for AIDS research and demanding that pharmaceutical companies and the United States government do more to stop the plague.

It's an admirable goal, to be sure. The AIDS epidemic was met with resounding indifference in many circles due to ignorance, a lack of understanding, and in some cases outright hate. Act Up strove to fight that indifference by being too loud and too aggressive to ignore. But therein lies the rub.


Peter Staley in a scene from David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE.
Photo by William Lucas Walker. A Sundance Selects release.
Act Up is often so loud, so disruptive, and so obnoxious that one can't help but wonder how they made a difference at all. They were in your face, intentionally crude and irreverent, and often downright antagonistic. One could certainly make the argument that they had every right to be angry, that they were being ignored by the establishment while millions died, but I can't help but wonder if different tactics might have actually proved more effective in the long run. Disrupting church services, covering Jesse Helms' home in a giant condom, declaring President George H.W. Bush a "murderer" for failing to do enough, and throwing the ashes of loved ones who died from AIDS over the White House fence in protest seem like the tactics of the bullies they so loudly protested. They may have made people sit up and take notice, but did they really change hearts and minds? Or did the establishment cave in and listen just to make them shut up and go away?

France never explores these questions, and instead exalts Act Up without ever questioning its tactics. In fact, How to Survive a Plague almost feels like an official advertisement for Act Up, trumpeting their accomplishments while refusing to hold them accountable. France never asks what kind of impact their more militant actions had on the public perception of the gay community at such a critical juncture in the gay rights movement. At a time when gay rights were severely unpopular while taking baby steps toward mainstream acceptance, it would seem that such radical tactics would do little to assuage the fears many had about LGBT people at the time. Who would want to sit down and listen to a group of people who is yelling at you so angrily?


A scene from David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE.
Copyright © Donna Binder. A Sundance Selects release.
Did the ends justify the means? Perhaps. But one can't help but wonder if things would have gotten better more quickly with a kinder and gentler approach. It's a question worth asking that How to Survive a Plague completely ignores. I found much more to like and identify with in David Weissman and Bill Weber's beautiful documentary, We Were Here, which examined the AIDS crisis on a very personal level from the point of view of those on the front lines. How to Survive a Plague has no such emotional hook, and its protagonists are much harder to identify with. One can see why they're angry, but it's hard to get past such obnoxious tactics.

Bill Clinton had it right when he confronted an angry activist by telling them that their hateful attacks made them no better than the agents of intolerance that they railed against. I wanted the film to explore that angle, but it is a stone that is left disappoingly unturned. France clearly has an agenda, and while there's nothing necessarily wrong with that (this is an advocacy doc, after all), I thnk it would have benefited from a more balanced approach. The AIDS epidemic was a huge crisis whose repercussions still echo today. But what of those people who fought for recognition when the crisis was just beginning. 30 years later, you would think that we would have reached a point where we can examine its roots from all sides, how it came to be and how it was stopped. Instead we are saddled with this one sided documentary that focuses very much on the how but not so much on the why. Was there a better way? Perhaps. But How to Survive a Plague is not the film to ask those questions, and as such feels like a far more shallow experience than it really should be.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE | Directed by David France | Not Rated | Now playin in select cities and On Demand.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Independent Spirit Award Nominations

Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom (last night's big winner at the Gotham Awards) led today's Independent Spirit Award nomination announcement with five nods each, including Best Feature.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.
This is usually the Oscar jumping off place for whatever happens to be the "it" indie (read - small budgeted by Hollywood standards) movie of the moment, and right now Silver Linings Playbook looks most likely to benefit from a win here, although Beasts of the Southern Wild is still a strong possibility.

Ava DuVernay's self-financed Middle of Nowhere continues its impressive success with a whopping four nominations, including the John Cassavetes award (which features an unusually strong lineup including Sean Baker's Starlet and Alex Ross Perry's The Color Wheel) and Emayatzy Corinealdi for Best Female Lead.

I'm also thrilled to see some love for Jonathan Lisecki's charming Gayby and Ira Sachs' moving Keep the Lights On, which scored nods for Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Male Lead. It's also good to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead's extraordinary performance in Smashed get recognized. I would love to see it translate into bigger buzz, but I kind of doubt it.

That being said, if they wanted to nominate REAL independents - they would be honoring stuff like Middle of Nowhere and Starlet for Best Feature. Just because Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom are specialty releases by major studios doesn't make them independent films. Sean Baker and Ava DuVernay represent the best in true American independent filmmaking, and are the very essence of what the Spirits should be honoring for Best Feature.

Here is the complete list of nominees:

BEST FEATURE
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Bernie
Keep the Lights On
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook

BEST DIRECTOR
Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom)
Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On)
Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

BEST FIRST FEATURE
Fill the Void
Gimme the Loot
Safety Not Guaranteed
Sound of My Voice
Perks of Being a Wallflower

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD
Breakfast With Curtis (Laura Colella)
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)
Mosquita y Mari (Aurora Guerrero)
Starlet (Sean Baker)
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)

BEST SCREENPLAY
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom)
Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks)
Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths)
David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias (Keep the Lights On)

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void)
Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed)
Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage)
Rashida Jones & Will McCormack (Celeste and Jesse Forever)
Jonathan Lisecki (Gayby)

BEST FEMALE LEAD
Linda Cardellini (Return)
Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere)
Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)
Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed)

BEST MALE LEAD
Jack Black (Bernie)
Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
John Hawkes (The Sessions)
Thure Lindhardt (Keep the Lights On)
Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe)
Wendell Pierce (Four)

BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister’s Sister)
Ann Dowd (Compliance)
Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
Brit Marling (Sound of My Voice)
Lorraine Toussaint (Middle of Nowhere)

BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike)
David Oyelowo (Middle of Nowhere)
Michael Pena (End of Watch)
Sam Rockwell (Seven Psychopaths)
Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Beasts of the Southern Wild
End of Watch
Here
Moonrise Kingdom
Valley of Saints

BEST DOCUMENTARY
The Central Park Five
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
The Waiting Room

BEST FOREIGN FILM
Amour
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Rust and Bone
Sister
War Witch

ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD
Starlet

PIAGET PRODUCERS AWARD
Alicia Van Couvering (Nobody Walks)
Mynette Louie (Stones in the Sun)
Derrick Tseng (Prince Avalanche)

SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD
David Fenster (Pincus)
Adam Leon (Gimme the Loot)
Rebecca Thomas (Electrick Children)

TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel)
Only the Young (Jasonyyee Tippet and Elizabeth Mimms)
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks)

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Moonrise Kingdom" Tops Gotham Awards

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom took home Best Feature at tonight's Gotham Awards, while Behn Zeitlin won Breakthrough Director for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which, strangely enough, wasn't nominated for Best Feature.

MOONRISE KINGDOM.
Middle of Nowhere's Emayatzy Corinealdi also upset presumed frontrunner Quevenzhané Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is worth noting because Wallis is heavilly favored to be nominated for Best Actress at this year's Oscars. Although historically the Gothams have done little to predict the coming Oscar nominations.

And as much as I enjoyed Wallis' performance, Corinealdi is in another league entirely. It's one thing to be a cute kid doing cute and precocious things, but Corinealdi's work in Middle of Nowhere is just stunning.

Here is the complete list of winners:

Best Feature
"Bernie"
"The Loneliest Planet"
"The Master"
"Middle of Nowhere"
"Moonrise Kingdom" 

Best Documentary
"Detropia"
"How to Survive a Plague"
"Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present"
"Room 237"
"The Waiting Room"

Best Ensemble Performance
"Bernie"
"Moonrise Kingdom"
"Safety Not Guaranteed"
"Silver Linings Playbook"
"Your Sister's Sister"

Breakthrough Director
Antonio Méndez Esparza, "Aquí y Allá (Here and There)"
Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Brian M. Cassidey, Melanie Shatzky, "Francine"
Jason Corlund, Julia Halperin, "Now, Forager"
Zal Batmanglij, "Sound of My Voice"

Breakthrough Actor
Mike Birbiglia, "Sleepwalk with Me"
Emayatzy Corinealdi, "Middle of Nowhere"
Thure Lindhardt, "Keep the Lights On"
Melanie Lynskey, "Hello, I Must Be Going"
Quevenzhané Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You
"Kid-Thing"
"An Oversimplification of Her Beauty"
"Red Flag"
"Sun Don't Shine"
"Tiger Tall in Blue"

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review | "The Sessions"

The Sessions might as well be subtitled: John Hawkes really, really wants an Oscar.

That's not to say that Hawkes isn't good in the film, but as Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed poet who is unable to move anything from the neck down, he seems (literally) trapped in a role that is tailor made as a valentine to Academy voters.

Then comes the twist - O'Brien isn't out to change the world. He isn't heroically trying to overcome his illness or so something great with his life. He just wants to have sex before he dies.

So he turns to his priest (William H. Macy), who concludes that God will look the other way just this once, leading O'Brien to seek out a sex surrogate since his he has had little luck in finding any kind of real romantic connection with a woman - his one rebuffed attempt left him heartbroken and in need of a new attendant.

John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

His new caretaker, along with some of his more sexually liberated friends, help set him up with a sex therapist named Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Cheryl lays down the rules very quickly - she is not a prostitute, her sexual therapy is meant only as a learning tool for future partners (no romantic connections), and they are limited to six sessions together. As a 36 year old virgin who has never known the touch of his own hand, let alone a woman's, he finds it hard to control himself at first, but each session leads him closer to his ultimate goal. Along the way, however, he begins to have feelings for the married Cheryl, complicating what was once a very straightforward professional relationship.

It's all based on a true story, as O'Brien wrote it in his article "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." The film, however, feels like someone watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and misinterpreted it as a comedy. Other than Hawkes and Hunt, the characters around them seem to be paint-by-numbers filler. Hawkes is limited, of course, by the very nature of his role, but the film around him just rings false. There's just not enough here for a film, so writer/director Ben Lewin inserts a lot of filler with O'Brien's X-rated confessions to Macy's Father Brendan.

Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene” and John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien.”
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The real highlight here is Helen Hunt, whose performance as Cheryl feels like the only part of the film with any truth in it. It's become a cliche to refer to any performance by an A-list actress that features nudity to be
"fearless," but Hunt truly is. She has never seemed so confident, so fresh, and so effortlessly sexy as she does here. It's a terrific turn in a film that otherwise seems lost. Is it a sex comedy? Is it an inspiring tale of overcoming adversity? In the end it's a strange mix of both. The Sessions is occasionally charming, but mostly it's just awkward, and not just because of the subject matter. It feels stagnant and hackneyed, and undeveloped anecdote rather than a fully realized film.

That's not really surprising given that it's based on an article. Not a novel. An article. And Lewin has to do some narrative acrobatics in order to stretch this into a feature length film. Perhaps it would have made a better short film. Paring away all the filler might have made for a more streamlined experience, because outside of Hawkes and Hunt, it really doesn't know what to do with itself. It's a muddled, scattershot film of hollow platitudes anchored by two exceptional performances. See it for Hawkes, but stay for Hunt. It's been too long since we've seen her on screen in a role this good, and she single-handedly buoys an otherwise bland film. Make no mistake, The Sessions may be Hawkes' showcase, but it's Hunt's show all the way.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE SESSIONS | Directed by Ben Lewin | Stars John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin, Rhea Pearlman | Rated R for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review | "Middle of Nowhere"

2012 has seemingly been a banner year for indie success stories.

As Patrick Wang's brilliant In the Family made its triumphant return to theaters fueled by strong word of mouth and rapturous reviews, Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere became a model for DIY distribution, carried along by grassroots support and an endorsement from Oprah herself.

Middle of Nowhere is the latest from the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a coalition of organizations dedicated to supporting black filmmakers and advancing black cinema as a whole. DuVernay's first film, I Will Follow (a film I admittedly did not give the consideration it deserved at the time) was also AaFFRM's first release, and it exemplified the can-do indie aesthetic of this scrappy young organization. DuVernay has clearly graduated from her more humble beginnings, however. Her budget may still be modest, but she has proven  you need neither a big budget or the support of a well known distributor in order to make a successful film. All you really need is determination and talent, both of which she has in spades.

David Oyelowo as “Brian” and Emayatzy Corinealdi as "Ruby" in Ava DuVernay's Sundance award winning MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Courtesy of AAFFRM.
DuVernay became the first black woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere, and it's easy to see why she won. It's a remarkable example of understated emotion and unspoken grace. The central character is Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi, in a revelatory performance), once a career driven woman, who drops out of medical school when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is sent to jail in order to fight his conviction and secure his early release. Their relationship takes on a new timbre, and endless parade of bus anonymous bus rides and colorless cinder block walls. With a table permanently between them and a guard at the door, they become lovers from a distance, once a week.

And so it goes for four years, day to day, just trying to get by. But something changes as Derek's parole hearing approaches - a shocking revelation that not only changes how she sees Derek, but how she views their entire relationship. Pulling away from Derek to reassess the direction of her life, she finds herself drawn to Brian (David Oyelowo), a kind hearted bus driver whose quiet masculinity could not be more different than the more testosterone fueled Derek. As Ruby finds herself caught between two men and the paths the represent, she is forced to make a choice between a new life and her old one. "There are no easy answers," she says. And the direction she chooses will change her life forever.

Omari Hardwick as “Derek” and Emayatzy Corinealdi as "Ruby" in Ava DuVernay's Sundance award-winning MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Courtesy of AAFRM.
It may sound a bit like a soap opera when spelled out on paper, but under DuVernay's sensitive direction it is anything but. It's a soulful, lyrical film that explores the vast gulfs that exist between people, even those we think we are closest to. Her script seems to exist in the silences, in the words left unsaid, the glances and the distant memories that flutter to the surface when they are least expected. The real heart and soul of the film, however, is found in Emayatzy Corinealdi's tender performance. Her face conveys such pain yet such resilience that you can't take your eyes off her. Corinealdi, whose biggest previous role was a recurring character on The Young and the Restless, is something truly special. The film is as much her's as it is DuVernay's, and the result is utterly mesmerizing to watch.

As an African American woman, DuVernay's perspective is sadly something rare in film, which is part of what makes her such a unique voice. She takes black cinema in a direction that completely eschews the feel-good sermonizing and stock characters of Tyler Perry (who I have always been a fan of, but DuVernay aims higher and goes deeper) and the broad, lowbrow comedy that black actors are so often relegated to in Hollywood. But more than that, Middle of Nowhere transcends race. It is clearly made from a unapologetically African American (and female) perspective, but it strives for something beyond racial divisions. I know what you're thinking - it's easy for a white, male critic to anoint a film as post-racial, to say that race doesn't matter in the Obama era when it clearly still does to a great many people. But love is universal. It is not uniquely black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. And DuVernay is clearly not just making films for African Americans alone. She is speaking to everyone informed by her own deeply personal perspective. That makes Middle of Nowhere something exciting indeed. In an industry that is still overwhelmingly white and male, despite the rapidly changing demographics of America (a lesson the Republican party learned the hard way this past election), the film feels like a quiet roar of defiance; a haunting and exhilarating new direction for cinema, boldly exploring people and themes left untouched by the mainstream establishment, with DuVernay as its powerful new voice. Middle of Nowhere is a film to be celebrated.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE | Directed by Ava DuVernay | Stars Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Tossaint, Dondre Whitfield, Maya Gilbert | Rated R for some language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On "Life of Pi"


From The Dispatch:
It's telling, I think, that the strongest moments in "Life of Pi" all come from the modern-day setting, where an older Pi is relating the story to an author who wants to write a book about it. The great Irrfan Khan is fantastic as the older Pi, and he gives the story an emotional anchor that no amount of computer-generated beauty ever could. It is a film filled with indelible images (the floating island of meerkats is unforgettable), but what sticks with us the most are the small moments, and Khan's quietly revelatory performance that serves as a reminder that he is one of the most talented actors working in film today. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Weekend"

Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend marked a critical turning point in his career. It was the last film Godard would make before descending into his underground Maoist period that lasted until 1972, but from which he never fully recovered. There would be bright spots and and there, but the Marxist naval gazing became a dominant theme in his later work.

Released in 1967 to resounding indifference, Weekend was a film ahead of its time; an angry, revolutionary work that seemingly presaged France's political upheaval of May, 1968. Godard always had a political stream in him, but never had it come so ferociously to the fore as it did in Weekend.

It isn't so much a film as it is an angry screed, a political tract filled with rambling philosophies and didactic proclamations. But it is always, wildly, deliriously, thrillingly brilliant - a mad fever dream of ideas and Brechtian alienation that is as searing as it is unforgettable.

A scene from WEEKEND. Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Our guides through Godard's bourgeois hell are Roland and Connie, an aloof upper-middle class couple who are planning on leaving their respective spouses for each other. But all is not as it seems with Connie. After confessing to a bizarre three-way sexual encounter to Roland (in an extended, passion-less monologue), the two head out on a road trip into the country, but not before having a violent confrontation with their next door neighbor over a small bump-up. On their way out of the city they encounter a traffic jam, and one of cinema's most incredible sequences - an extended tracking shot along a congested highway that lasts for over 10 minutes. It's a striking evocation of Godard's view of suburban French life, a neverending traffic jam of flaring tempers and glaring indifference. Roland and Connie drive right through the traffic jam, even nonchalantly rolling through the spilled blood of the accident victims that caused the traffic jam in the first place. They have no compassion and no time for anyone else but themselves.

The French countryside is littered with flaming wrecks and wandering philosophers, often historical figures like Emily Bronte (whom they casually set on fire). Amid all the death an destruction, they remain doggedly, almost blissfully self centered, more concerned with the loss of a Hermes handbag than the human toll of a fiery car wreck. As their journey becomes more and more savage, Roland and Connie become more disconnected from the world around them, eventually joining a marauding band of guerrilla fighters, further descending into this world of death and cannibalism.

A scene from WEEKEND. Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
The cannibalism is perhaps Godard's most explicit condemnation of capitalism, something he clearly holds in the highest contempt. What is often missed about Weekend, however, is its wicked sense of humor. It's sheer absurdity, from the non-diegetic music to the almost sarcastic title cards (at one point Godard throws up a card that reads simply "jump cut," a nod the element he had become famous for), Godard is not only lashing out at his audiences, his critics, and the world at large, he is offering up an absurdist comedy on a grand scale. "What a rotten film." Roland gripes at one point. "All we meet are crazy people." In true Brechtian fashion, the characters are completely aware that they are in a film, and Godard spends no time trying to provide any illusion. It is a political statement, first and foremost, but an endlessly gripping one.

Few but Godard could get away with placing a camera in front of someone eating a sandwich while someone off camera reads philosophy and the history of oppressed peoples. And while such tactics would not always serve Godard well in later films, they strike a chord here. Godard is experimenting fast and loose with the cinematic medium, and the result is a guttural howl of a film. Criterion's new blu-ray makes it look sharper than ever, while maintaining that very specific grunge that gives it such an earthy, rough-hewn quality. After all, it does tout itself as "a film found in dumpster," after all. While many will doubtlessly point to an earlier work as Godard's masterpiece, this for me will always be the pinnacle of his career. Here Godard stood on the precipice of a revolution, surrounded by a world gone mad in which he saw capitalism and imperialism run amok. The result is a towering and exhilarating piece of work that seems to embody the social upheaval of the 1960s in one bracing, often shocking, cinematic experience. It is the purest expression of Godard's worldview, and for one shining moment, he spoke for an entire generation.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • New video essay by writer and filmmaker Kent Jones Archival interviews with actors Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne, cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and assistant director Claude Miller 
  • Excerpt from a French television program on director Jean-Luc Godard, featuring on-set footage from Weekend shot by filmmaker Philippe Garrel Trailers 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic and novelist Gary Indiana, selections from Alain Bergala’s book Godard au travail: Les années 60, and an excerpt from a 1969 interview with Godard

Monday, November 19, 2012

Blu-ray Review | "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure"

"Strange things are afoot at the Circle K."

There's just something special about Stephen Herek's endlessly charming cult classic, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, that can't quite be put into words. It certainly helps to have a nostalgic connection to it, because watching it today it may come off as dated and goofy to the uninitiated  I was only two years old when it was first released in 1988, but I certainly grew up in its shadow, watching it on a rented VHS for the first time sometime in the early 90s when it was still a relevant icon in pop culture, and its 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey was a little more fresh in everyone's mind.

The original is still the standard bearer when it comes to Bill and Ted, and it has managed to endure in the public consciousness enough to inspired talk of a third film starring Keanu Reeves (Ted) and Alex Winter (Bill).


Of course, Reeves and Winter are really too old to be returning to the roles of Bill and Ted, the two airheaded "dudes" who find themselves in danger of flunking their history class because they're too busy practicing for their band, the Wyld Stallyns. But the new blu-ray release from Fox Home Entertainment reminds us all why we fell in love with these two endearing bros in the first place. It's hard to watch the film now without reflecting on what a great talent we lost when George Carlin passed away in 2008. His performance as Rufus, Bill and Ted's futuristic guide through history, is one of his most fun roles. It many ways, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is the quintessential 80s sci-fi comedy, following these two lovable idiots on a journey through time as they meet such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, and Billy the Kid, and return them to 1988 to help give a history presentation to their school.

It's an inspired bit of silliness, and one of the best of its kind. It's the kind of film that Hot Tub Time Machine attempted to pay homage to with only middling success. This is the real deal, and while Winter has all but disappeared from film and Reeves has become an object of parody all his own, they were perfect here, and remain icons of 80's film. The new blu-ray release cleans the film up nicely, and adds some special features including an interview with the inspirations for the film. Sadly we don't get to hear from Winter and Reeves, the two fans care most about, but the film looks good without sacrificing its 1980's look. Bill and Ted are back in the most excellent way possible, let's not sully it with an unnecessary sequel. Pick up the original, and party on dudes!

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE | Directed by Stephen Herek | Stars Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin | Rated PG | Now available on blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment.

Review | "In the Family"

Patrick Wang's striking directorial debut, In the Family, has perhaps one of the strangest and most unique release patterns of any film in the past year.

Originally given a miniscule release in New York City in November of 2011, In the Family was barely noticed save for a few very passionate reviews. That prompted a slow, wider release that allowed the film to pick up an ever growing group of fans and supporters, leading to its triumphant return to New York's Cinema Village on November 16, more than a year after its initial release, now newly heralded by a much larger group of critics and audiences.

The unusual release pattern, while demonstrating an exceptional faith in a film that is an admittedly difficult sell, has also put it in a strange limbo for critics just now coming to this brilliant film. While most people didn't discover it until 2012, and indeed it is one of 2012's most remarkable cinematic success stories, it is technically a 2011 release, and therefore ineligible for many year end top ten lists, something that no doubt would have helped it along the way.

Joey (Patrick Wang) and Cody (Trevor St. John) in IN THE FAMILY.
Courtesy of In the Family, LLC.
Wang himself stars as Joey, an Asian gay man from Tennessee in a loving long term partnership with white high school teacher Cody (Trevor St. John). Together they are raising Cody's biological son, Chip. When Cody dies suddenly of an unexpected illness, Joey and Chip find themselves alone for the first time, trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. Things get complicated, however, when Joey discovers that Cody left sole custody of Chip to his sister, Sally, in a six year old will. Devastated, Joey is left to wonder what happened, and as he grows more and more estranged from a family that had once accepted him, he is left with nothing but his memories for company. When he decides to fight for his son, it becomes clear that even the law is against him. In a world that doesn't even recognize his relationship as legitimate, his entire family as he knows it is about to be torn apart.

It's an especially timely film, as public opinion continues to shift in favor of gay marriage and becomes ever more accepting of gay families, most recently with the historic victory for gay marriage at the polls and the election of a president that publically supports it. But In the Family is not a political film. Quite the contrary, actually, it's almost anti-political. While it is set in Tennessee, and ignorant opinions clearly rear their ugly head during Joey's climactic deposition at the custody hearing (more out of lawyerly convenience than real hate, it would seem), the film deftly avoids politics by simply treating its characters as human beings. Wang clearly has the plight of gay families close to heart, but the fact that Joey is a homosexual almost seems like a non-issue. He is simply a father fighting for the custody of a son in a legal system that is woefully behind the times.

Chip (Sebastian Brodziak) and Joey (Patrick Wang) in IN THE FAMILY.
Courtesy of In the Family, LLC.
At nearly three hours long, In the Family may seem a bit daunting, and even self-indulgent for a first time writer/director. But the film never once feels like it's as long as it actually is. Wang never wastes a shot, and each moment is imbued with a kind of quiet dignity. It is a film made up of moments, and these are the moments make up a life. So often the film focuses on what may seem like trivialities, but these small moments create a big picture that is simply stunning. In the days following Cody's death, Wang spends quite a bit of time just observing Joey and Chip silently going through the motions of their life as if in a trance, lost without the missing piece of their family. It is as heartbreaking as it is riveting, and it never feels gratuitous.

In the Family is an extraordinarily assured debut, both as a directorial achievement, and as a triumph of acting and writing for Wang. Joey's final deposition, shot in medium close-up in one marathon take, is simply stunning, made even more so by its hushed understatement. You'll find no over the top histrionics here, no shouting or crying or unnecessary melodrama, just a quiet sense of justice. It's so subtle that the final shot hits like a bomb. It is an emotionally shattering denouement to one of the year's most truly special debuts, heralding the arrival of a thrilling new cinematic voice. There's really nothing else quite like it, and as it continues its slow journey across the country, the number of hearts it has touched will only continue to grow. Make sure yours is one of them.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IN THE FAMILY | Directed by Patrick Wang | Stars Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John, Sebastian Brodziak, Park Overall, Brian Murray | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review | "Starlet"

With only three feature films under his belt, Sean Baker has already established himself as one of the strongest directorial voices working in film today. Those who have seen his films can't help but fall in love with his endearing, relatable characters and his exhilarating neorealist style. The problem is that so few people have seen his films, even among film critics. It's a real shame, because it is our job as critics to recognize and spotlight talents like Baker, yet he remains mostly an unknown.

While a bigger budget would most likely dilute the shoe string budget aesthetic of Baker's work, which is one of its strongest assets in the first place, he deserves to be recognized more than he has been. And his latest film, Starlet, simply cements what a talented craftsman he really is.

In the hands of a lesser director, Starlet could have easily been a treacly mess, a sentimental feel-good pat on the back but without any real soul. That's what Baker brings to the table, a hard won sense of reality and depth that brings the film's characters to life.

Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway) in STARLET.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
Dree Hemingway, great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and daughter of Mariel Hemingway, stars as Jane, a 21 year old aspiring actress who is doing porn with her troubled roommate, Melissa (Stella Maeve), and Melissa's irresponsible amateur director boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone). After purchasing a thermos from an old woman at a yard sale, Jane discovers thousands of dollars hidden inside, and finds herself in the middle of a moral conundrum. She decides to return the money, but the old woman, Sadie (Besedka Johnson), angrily turns her away from her door without even listening to what she has to say. So Jane decides to get to know her a little better, superstitiously finding ways to cross paths with the crotchety Sadie.

Sadie at first rebuffs Jane's seemingly overbearing attempts at friendship, but eventually gives in. Jane drives her to the grocery store, accompanies her to bingo, and eventually to weekly trips to the cemetery to visit the grave of her late husband. All the while Jane continues to wrestle with (and spend), Sadie's money, a stash she didn't even know existed in the first place. But eventually their friendship transcends the original reason for their meeting, even as Sadie's life begins to deteriorate at home, her friendship with Sadie becomes something far deeper than either could have ever imagined.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Melissa (Stella Maeve) in STARLET.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
It's a premise rife with potential for overstatement and schmaltz, but under Baker's steady hand it becomes something truly powerful. Baker is a kind of spiritual successor to the work of Vittorio De Sica, whose neorealist masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. took similarly sentimental stories and told them unblinking, naturalistic tenacity. Baker's handheld, improvisational style creates a kind of cinema verite authenticity that is hard to shake. The performances feel equally lived in - Hemingway is a star in the making and Johnson, who at 86 years old is making her acting debut after 71 years of living in Los Angeles, is a revelation. The title Starlet, surprisingly, directly refers to Jane's dog (who gives the finest canine performance since The Artist's Uggie). But it also refers to Jane as well. Jane desires something more, and what fulfillment she doesn't find in her pornographic career she finds in Sadie, to whom there is much more than meets the eye.

Baker directs with such sensitivity and grace, allowing the story to reveal itself in a disarmingly moving way. Starlet is the kind of film that sneaks up on you, taking us to surprising and unexpected places. It has the ability to explore dark places without feeling ponderous or heavy handed. It is a wholly organic experience, never overplaying its hand or pushing past the point of believability. From Take-Out, to Prince of Broadway, and now to Starlet, Sean Baker has proven himself again and again as one of cinema's most promising new talents. After three films, he's no longer just a promising talent. He's one of our most impressive independent voices. It's time for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice. Hopefully Starlet will be the film to make everyone do just that.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

STARLET | Directed by Sean Baker | Stars Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, James Ransone, Stella Maeve | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review | "A Late Quartet"

Everything about Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet exudes taste and prestige. Inspired by Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor, the film not only incorporates the piece into its plot, it completely structures itself around the movements of the music. The result is a somewhat unique ensemble drama that is ultimately takes itself a bit too seriously.

A Late Quartet centers around a famed string quartet whose future is threatened when its founding member, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), discovers that he has Parkinson's Disease, and that his days of playing the cello are numbered. This opens up a Pandora's box of issues for the group, as old wounds and unspoken rivalries begin to rear their ugly heads, adding rifts to already strained relationships. Married couple Juliet (Catherine Keener) and Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) find their relationship put to the test by Robert's infedilty, while lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) begins a relationship with their daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots).

Mark Ivanir (left) stars as "Daniel" Christopher Walken (center/left) stars as “Peter” Catherine Keener (center/right) stars as "Juliette" and Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) stars as “Robert” in Entertainment One's A LATE QUARTET.
©2012 Entertainment One Films US and Opening Night Productions

It's a bit of a soap opera, yes, but a classy one. The real highlight is the performances, especially Walken's. Walken has become such a parody of himself later in his career that it's completely disarming to see him in such a serious role. It's a nice reminder of what a fantastic actor he really is. Walken nails the sad resign of a man bidding farewell to the career he loves and the legacy that he built from nothing. It's a beautiful, even haunting performance that gives a soul to an otherwise restricted film. The film is almost held captive by its good taste. It's so precise, so carefully planned, that it almost comes off as unnatural. Zilberman's adherence to the premise, and by default the mathematical purity of musical composition leaves little room for exploration.

By the time the quartet takes the stage for their final performance, the harmony each player brings to the piece is stunning. A little more of that kind of restrained elegance and musical beauty may have freed the film from its somewhat stifling atmosphere. It's almost too perfectly constructed for its own good, so much so that the story is unable to breathe. The characters are interesting in and of themselves, but the narrative lacks fire and energy, displaying none of the passion Beethoven poured into his work. Perhaps Zimberman should have looked more to the passion of the composer than to the notes on the page for inspiration. With that kind of power, A Late Quartet might have been something special indeed.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

A LATE QUARTET | Directed by Yaron Zilberman | Stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir, Imogen Poots | Rated R for language and some sexuality | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 11/16, at the Park Terrace in Charlotte, NC, and the a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC.

Review | "Smashed"

Alcoholism is one of those subjects that is difficult to film without veering into treacly territory. Robert Zemeckis managed to do it with both humor and pathos in Flight with the aid of Denzel Washington's extraordinary performance, but Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are hard to take seriously on the big screen, especially when they have been so often parodied.

That's part of what makes James Ponsoldt's Smashed so refreshing. Make no mistake, this is a Sundance film up one side and down the other, with all the quirky interludes with dippy folk tunes one would expect. But what separates Smashed from the chafe is how well it works around those interludes to create something that is actually emotionally fulfilling.

While it may seem like it's trying to be a one of those quirky indie comedies we see so many of, Smashed is surprisingly serious, and doesn't pull its punches in its depiction of the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Hannah and Aaron Paul as Charlie Hannah in SMASHED.
Photo by Oana Marian, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Even when the time comes to go to AA meetings, Ponsoldt doesn't hit us over the head with manipulative platitudes. It is a disarmingly sensitive and earnest portrayal of a woman at the end of her rope, anchored by a stunning turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose performance as an elementary school teacher whose hard drinking ways lead her into a web of lies from which she can't seem to escape. Her equally hard drinking husband (played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), however, doesn't share her desire to get their lives back on track, and it soon becomes clear that their lives are moving down very different paths. Octavia Spencer also shows up in an underdeveloped role as a fellow alcoholic who agrees to be her sponsor.

Smashed treats its characters with dignity and respect, rather than as tools to manipulate the audience or as cartoonish figures to be laughed at. Nor does it take itself too seriously, so it doesn't completely disappear into the inherent sadness of its story. While it has an unfortunate tendency to short change its supporting cast, Winstead's performance is so fully developed and real that the film comes alive through her. She's magnetic even when the film veers into  Sundance territory, which to its credit it doesn't do too often. It takes on familiar trappings and techniques of the typical Sundance comedy and pushes them farther, into something more cohesive and satisfying. It overcomes its clumsiness with moments of such grace that its easy to forgive its occasional shortcomings. This may be Winstead's show, but Ponsoldt displays a remarkable restraint that demonstrates a keen directorial instinct. He may only have one other feature under his belt (the 2006 film, Off the Black, starring Nick Nolte as...an alcoholic), but Smashed positions him as a talent to watch.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SMASHED | Directed by James Ponsoldt | Stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally | Rated R for alcohol abuse, language, some sexual content and brief drug use | Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday, 11/16, at the Park Terrace in Charlotte, NC, and the a/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review | "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2"

Jean-Luc Godard famously declared the "end of cinema" at the end of his 1967 masterpiece, Weekend. History will note that Godard had not yet seen the Twilight films.

The inexplicably popular series of vampire love stories aimed squarely at  teenage girls (and their mothers) has produced four books, five films, and millions of dollars in box office grosses and merchandising revenue, capturing the heart of countless fans around the globe. Yet despite its widespread popularity, it remains one of the most flagrantly pandering pieces of nonsense I have ever seen on the big screen. From the awkward Twilight the completely absurd Breaking Dawn - Part 1, the Twilight Saga has made a fortune off of catering to the lowest possible instincts and desires of its audience so egregiously that it makes Godard's proclamation of the "end of cinema" seem a few decades too early. These aren't films so much as carefully calculated products meant to stimulate raging hormones. Forget making any kind of sense or actually attempting anything resembling real emotion. The Twilight films are as cold as Edward Cullen's sparkly skin. And about as colorful too.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart star in THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN-PART 2.
Photo by Doane Gregory, © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Things actually start off on a high note in the latest installment, Breaking Dawn - Part 2. The opening titles are a gorgeous mix of snow covered images and blood red lettering, recapping Bella's transformation into a vampire at the end of Breaking Dawn - Part 1, and set to a lovely medley of Carter Burwell's "Bella's Lullaby" mixed with snippets of Alexandre Desplat's beautiful theme music from New Moon. But then the movie starts and it's all downhill from there. Bella, now a vampire, must learn to hunt and ignore her hunger for human blood. Her daughter, the ridiculously named Renesmee (sure to be popular for a whole new generation of unfortunate babies in the coming years), is growing at an alarming rate with the help of some creepy looking CG effects that are unnerving in all the wrong ways. This alarms the Volturi, the sinister vampire governing body from Italy, who decide they finally have enough evidence of wrong doing to swoop in and wipe out the Cullens for good.

Determined to prove their innocence, the Cullens set out to recruit witnesses to attest that Renesmee is in fact a human child, not the demon spawn of ancient legend that the Volturi fear. Meanwhile, Jacob has imprinted on young Renesmee (a not-supposed-to-be-icky-but-totally-is version of werewolf romance), and has appointed himself her guardian. It all leads up to a (literally) earth-shattering climax that could destroy them all, that is if you can actually follow the action of the chaotic and incoherently edited final battle.

Taylor Lautner, Mackenzie Foy and Kristen Stewart star in THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN-PART 2.
Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP, © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
It is a testament either to the power of Summit's marketing team or the blind allegiance of its fans that the films have become so hugely successful while seemingly having so little regard for the quality of their product. For a while, Breaking Dawn - Part 2 actually threatens to be the best film in the series, even if "best" here is sort of like being the least rancid carton of spoiled milk, but it ultimately falls short of David Slade's not completely terrible Eclipse. To his credit, director Bill Condon actually seems to be trying to elevate the material into something more than it actually is, but he is thwarted at every turn by a story line that is impossible to take seriously and characters who are the very definition of uninteresting, leaving his more inspired directorial choices (Bella's heightened vampire senses are a nice touch) to be lost amid their increasingly dreary surroundings. This series has just never really translated well to film, and elements such as the vampires' lightning fast movements, while fine on the page, seem goofy on the big screen. Kristen Stewart's Bella, newly freed of her gawky human self to become a fierce and deadly vampire, still manages to spend most of the movie moping around, even if she's now doing it with redder eyes and a penchant for accidentally destroying things rather than biting her lip.

There is even surprisingly little resolution to the story, as the film crescendos in a "gotcha" moment that is as maddening as it is ludicrous (and had fans in my screening literally shouting at the screen), before simply refusing to end, passing by ending after ending in a way that makes The Return of the King look positively modest. When Edward talks so lovingly to Bella of "forever," I didn't think he was actually talking about how long the movie lasts. Breaking Dawn - Part 2 is less silly, perhaps, than its immediate predecessor, which may have been one of the most truly wacky mainstream films I've ever seen, but it isn't necessarily better. Just when you think the film is finally finding its footing, it hits another narrative roadblock. It's as if this series can't go 30 minutes without falling into some sort of unintentionally hilarious pothole. Its own internal logic is so scatterbrained and disjointed that it simply refuses to be taken seriously on its own terms. Nor should it, really. No film series with such a simplistic and borderline backwards view of love and relationships should be given nearly the consideration that this series is. The all-encompassing love of the emotionally abusive Edward and the passive, totally accepting Bella is not something for young girls to look up to, but here it is, served up on a golden pedestal as something to be striven for and celebrated. That makes the Twilight series not just inane and turgid, but dangerous. This isn't love, it's co-dependency, and Bella is willing to die for it. If this is the relationship model for a generation, then we really are screwed. Fans are certainly going to love this final chapter of their beloved series, and I freely admit to not being in its target audience. But when all the excitement has finally faded, the Twilight Saga is something best left in the dustbin of history.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2 | Directed by Bill Condon | Stars Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Dakota Fanning | Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity | Opens Friday, November 16, in theaters everywhere.

On "Lincoln"


From The Dispatch:
While it is unmistakably a Spielberg film (his handling of the assassination, through the eyes of his youngest son, Tadd, is pure Spielberg), it is one of his most mature efforts to date. "Lincoln" is not the historical epic we expected, it is an ensemble piece, an almost theatrical exploration of moral gray areas that brings history to life and humanizes larger-than-life figures who have been so lionized by time that we have almost forgotten who they really were. In "Lincoln," Spielberg brings them to startling, powerful life.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Blu-Ray Review | "Abraham Lincoln"

Arriving just in time to coincide with the release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Kino Lorber's new blu-ray of D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln couldn't be farther both tonally and thematically from Spielberg's film.

It's certainly interesting to have such a reverential biopic of the 16th president directed by a man who had directed the unabashedly pro-Confederacy The Birth of a Nation just 15 years prior. But for his very first sound film, Griffith chose to return to the era that had afforded him his greatest success. However, the lightning with which Woodrow Wilson so famously Griffith had written history with did not strike twice.

Elements of The Birth of a Nation are clearly evident in the film's climactic Civil War battle scenes, but here they seem like tired retreads, a master resting on his laurels. In some cases, Griffith doesn't even bother to change the camera angles or movements, simply recreating shots from a greater film made years before and adding sound.


Griffith's sensibilities are firmly rooted in 19th century melodrama, which was perfect for silent film. But Griffith seems baffled by the new sound medium, and the result is a stodgy, plodding, and episodic "greatest hits" reel of Lincoln's life, told in exaggerated purple prose and stiff pontificating. In an introduction to The Birth of a Nation that was made while Abraham Lincoln was being filmed (which is included on the blu-ray), Walter Huston recalls that Birth of a Nation "had the fury of life in it...it made your blood tingle." But Abraham Lincoln has none of that fire. It feels like the work of a man who is just going through the motions, with no real passion for his subject (and in light of Birth of a Nation, it's not hard to see why), just an obligatory sense of respect. Even in the Birth of a Nation introduction seen on the disc here, Griffith continues to defend the necessity of the Ku Klux Klan to protect the South and the glory of the old Confederacy. Despite making Intolerance in 1916 to atone for the sins of Birth, he clearly never quite understood why his film was viewed as racist. Huston's performance, much like the film itself, is earnest but distant, lacking the humanity that Daniel Day Lewis now so memorably brings to the role.

It's unfair, of course, to compare this film to Spielberg's Lincoln. They are vastly different films by vastly different filmmakers separated by more than 80 years. But it is especially disappointing when one looks at the heights Griffith achieved during the silent era. Griffith is the father of modern cinema, whose techniques and stylistic innovations are now the standard we have all come to recognize. He would only make one more film after Abraham Lincoln before his death in 1948 at the age of 73. He left behind a legacy of great films that are still studied and appreciated by filmmakers and film lovers the world over (many of whom will rightly still find the film fascinating from a historical standpoint). But despite a fine HD transfer by Kino, from a 35 mm restoration by the Museum of Modern Art, Abraham Lincoln feels like a relic, a sad, weak swan song from one of cinema's most legendary filmmakers.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

Available today on blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Blu-ray Review | "In the Mood for Love"

There were few films in the 2000s that proved to be as widely loved, as widely influential, or as widely imitated as Wong Kar Wai's intoxicating In the Mood for Love.

Set in Hong Kong in 1962, In the Mood for Love is a rapturously romantic ode to unrequited love and unspoken longing that follows two new neighbors,Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who meet as their moving crews simultaneously take over the same small apartment complex. Their spouses both have jobs that take them frequently overseas, and so the two often find themselves home alone. They begin meeting in the hallways, at first taking little notice of each other but soon finding kinship in their loneliness. Soon they discover a dark truth, that their spouses are actually having an affair with each other. This realization deepens their friendship and soon the two become all but inseparable, and it becomes clear that their friendship is really much deeper than it appears on the outside. But their moral fiber and determination not to become like their adulterous spouses keeps them from taking their relationship further, leaving it to be spoken merely in shared feelings, glances, in an achingly beautiful dance of glances and unspoken desire.

In the Mood for Love exists in a kind of dream state, an alternate reality where these two unrequited lovers exist apart from the real world. Lusciously photographed by Christoper Doyle and Mark Ping Lee-Bin, the film could make a legitimate claim to being one of the most gorgeous movies ever made, whose vibrant colors make it a kind of spiritual ancestor to the films of the Archers like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. The meetings in the hallway, shot in slow motion and always scored by the same haunting waltz by Shigeru Umebayashi, represent the film's wordless heart, the words left unspoken, always felt but never shared. This emotional tête-à-tête is the film's most blatant visual representation of its central theme, but so much lies beneath the surface. Like its hesitant lovers, and despite its lush visual aesthetic, In the Mood for Love plays it close to the vest, keeping its emotions below the surface. As such the film is a rich feast, at once hopelessly romantic and painfully tragic.


The look and feel of In the Mood for Love would go on to be imitated and copied throughout the ensuing decade, but never with quite the same verve with which it was employed by Wong. The blu-ray upgrade by the Criterion Collection is appropriately breathtaking and is the best possible presentation of Doyle and Ping's excellent (an inexplicably not Oscar nominated) work. It is interesting to see how the film has grown in critical estimation over the past 11. While Amelie was perhaps the most celebrated foreign language film of 2001, In the Mood for Love is now considered one of the best films of the decade. And while Amelie is certainly charming, there is just something about the emotional resonance of In the Mood for Love that has endured. It is a movie of feelings, of words left unsaid, a film that is vibrantly alive, a sensual experience like no other. It is one of the quintessential films of the 2000s, whose stature will only continue to grow as it is revisited again and again. And now thanks to Criterion, it has never looked better.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Mark Lee Ping-bin, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • @ “In the Mood for Love,” director Wong Kar-wai’s documentary on the making of the film
  • Deleted scenes, with commentary by Wong 
  • Hua yang de nian hua (2000), a short film by Wong 
  • Archival interview with Wong and a “cinema lesson” given by the director at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival
  • Toronto International Film Festival press conference from 2000, with stars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai 
  • Two new interviews with critic Tony Rayns, one about the film and the other about the soundtrack, featuring musical cues, on the Blu-ray edition 
  • Trailers and TV spots 
  • The music of In the Mood for Love, presented in an interactive essay, on the DVD edition 
  • Essay by film scholar Gina Marchetti illuminating the film’s unique setting on the DVD edition P
  • hoto gallery on the DVD edition Biographies of key cast and crew on the DVD edition 
  • Plus: A booklet featuring the Liu Yi-chang story that provided thematic inspiration for the film, an essay by film critic Li Cheuk-to, and a director’s statement (DVD edition); a booklet featuring an essay by novelist and film critic Steve Erickson and the Liu Yi-chang story that provided thematic inspiration for the film (Blu-ray edition)

Friday, November 09, 2012

Review | "In Another Country"

Comedy is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Korean director Hong Sang-soo. He has certainly had humorous elements in films such as On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, and his most recent work, The Day He Arrives. But the films themselves can't really be classified as comedies.

His second 2012 effort, In Another Country, very much earns that label. It is unmistakably a Hong work, bearing his own unique auteurist stamp, but it puts a different kind of spin on his favorite themes and techniques.

Hong has always been fascinated by elliptical narratives and cyclical storytelling, and has explored them time and time again throughout his career. He does so again here, but with a decidedly more comedic bent, highlighting not only the absurdity of the situation he presents but also its inherent universality, finding humor in the day to day mundanity that makes the world go round.

Isabelle Huppert and Yu Junsang in Hong Sang-soo's IN ANOTHER COUNTRY.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The old rule of theatre is that comedy comes in threes. In keeping with that tradition, the always luminous Isabelle Huppert stars as three different women (all named Anne), who visit the same Korean bed & breakfast for vastly different reasons. The first Anne is a French filmmaker who had a previous fling with the proprietor of the bed & breakfast, unbeknownst to his pregnant wife. The second is a woman having an affair with a Korean professor, and is on an illicit getaway to see him while her husband is away on business. The third is a French professor travelling with a friend, whose husband left her for a Korean woman leaving behind a general mistrust of Korean women in general.

All three women share similar experiences, but never coexist within the same segment of the film. Each one meets the same charismatic young lifeguard, who becomes hopelessly enamored with the first Anne, mostly indifferent to the second, and romantically involved with the third. Are they all versions of the same person, each a kind of parallel universe echo of the other? A kind of 'what if' scenario based on small variations? Or are they simply three women visiting the same place at different times? These are questions that Hong never answers, and he does so with clear intent.

Yu Junsang and Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sang-soo's IN ANOTHER COUNTRY.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
One gets a feeling of deja-vu watching In Another Country, as the stories begin to overlap and repeat themselves. Hong essentially tells the same story three different times, but each time with a different result. The makers of Cloud Atlas would have been smart to study Hong's mastery of such overlapping narratives, because even though they are edited linearly, no one does it quite like Hong. There is a sort of distance to his intellectual exercises, but the constant repetition of the stories is used for a more comedic tone here than in his previous works. The three Annes represent three totally different people sharing similar experiences in a foreign land, evoking a kind of celebration of shared experiences and escape from the endless loops of life. When one of them exits, another takes the stage, and so the cycle continues.

That's one of the most fascinating aspects of Hong's films - their ability to grow in retrospect and reveal their treasures slowly. In Another Country, his first English language film, may not be as complex as some of his previous films (or as personal as The Day He Arrives), but it's a charming and entertaining work. Hong fiddles with some of his favorite narrative experiments and turns them into something we haven't seen from him before. In Another Country is a lovely and engaging look at people whose own lives have become prisons who find love and redemption through shared experiences in a foreign land, as well as one of Hong's most joyous and purely entertaining films.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

IN ANOTHER COUNTRY | Directed by Hong Sang-soo | Stars Isabelle Huppert, Yu Junsang, Jung Yumi, Youn Yuhjang | In English & Korean w/English subtitles Not rated | Opens today in NYC.

Irrfan Khan for Star of Everything

I attended an all-media screening of Ang Lee's Life of Pi in Charlotte this evening, and since all reviews of the film are under embargo by 20th Century Fox, I can't share my thoughts on the film just yet.

(L-R) Irrfan Khan, director Ang Lee, and Tabu. AFP.

But without commenting on the film, I couldn't help but think as I watched it what an underrated and underused actor Irrfan Khan is. I want to start a petition to have Khan in every film made from here on out. He elevates every movie he is in no matter how small the role (see The Amazing Spider-Man). If you haven't seen Mira Nair's The Namesake, seek it out, if for no other reason that to watch his magnificent performance. The man is a treasure, seriously.

Life of Pi opens Wednesday, November 21.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

"Jurassic Park" Returns in 3D

In celebration of the film's 20th anniversary (wow I feel old), Universal Pictures is bringing Steven Spielberg's modern classic, Jurassic Park, back to the big screen in 3D.


I'm actually pretty OK with all the 3D re-releasing going on. I'm not a huge fan of 3D, but re-releasing used to be a big thing before the advent of home video, and it plays well to the nostalgia of fans who want to see their favorite movies in a theater again, or for new fans who have never had the chance to experience it. You can check out the new trailer below.



Jurassic Park returns to theaters on April 5, 2013.

Trailer | "Les Miserables"

The full trailer for Tom Hooper's Les Miserables has finally arrived, and it looks pretty epic. Les Miz is my favorite musical, so I have high hopes.



Les Miserables opens Christmas Day.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On "Skyfall"


From The Dispatch:
For the first time, "Skyfall" paints Bond as something of a relic, a symbol of an old idea of espionage slowly being replaced by computers and more high-tech methods of surveillance. In fact the entire film is built around this idea of being old-fashioned tactics triumphing over modernity in the face of obsolescence. This is the "Wrath of Khan" of the James Bond movies and hits just the right notes with great dignity and grace.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Soundtrack Review | "Lincoln" (John Williams)

It's appropriate somehow that John Williams' Lincoln should be my soundtrack for election day 2012. The Steven Spielberg film chronicles the last few weeks in the life of Abraham Lincoln, who in the eyes of many (myself included) remains the greatest American president, and Williams' music pays loving tribute to a legendary man.

I had my reservations about the score early on. After the rather overbearing War Horse, I was afraid Williams and Spielberg would travel down that road of saccharine melodrama once again for Lincoln. My fears were assuaged, however, by my first listen to Williams' score, and finally in seeing the film itself last week. Both musically and aesthetically, Lincoln represents a complete turnaround from War Horse for both the director and the composer, and the result is something surprisingly restrained, lyrical, and heartfelt.

Williams introduces us to the noble main theme right out of the gate in The People's House. Starting out on solo oboe, the theme eventually swells to the rousing, Americana flavored hymn we first heard in the film's first trailer. Williams plays it closer to the vest, however, than this theme suggests, as this kind of grandiosity is rarely heard in the score outside of this initial performance and a reprise in the massive The Peterson House and Finale.

Track 3, Getting Out the Vote, is an interesting anomaly, a jaunty, Civil War-era type jig complete with dancing fiddles that lend a comedic tone to the characters played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as they try to drum up support for the 13th Amendment among less that receptive congressmen. Track 4, The Blue and the Gray, begins with a period sounding piano lament that would have been right at home in Ken Burns' The Civil War, before segueing into some low range dramatic underscore. Track 5, 'With Malice Toward None,' is one of the score's highlights, and serves as a theme for Lincoln himself. It's a gorgeous theme, restrained yet noble, an emotional tribute to a great man that transformed America forever. The theme reappears on solo violin in another album highlight, Freedom's Call.

Williams incorporates some actual period music in Call to Muster and Battle Cry of Freedom, the latter of which was Lincoln's campaign song, and accompanies the passage of the amendment in the film. Ominous underscore dominates The Southern Delegation and the Dream, recalling moments from Saving Private Ryan, while The Race to the House provides more bluegrass flavored comedic jaunt.

The real emotional meat of the score begins in track 14, Remembering Willie, which ends in a haunting performance of the solo piano "war theme" first introduced in The Blue and the Gray. The war comes to an end with a chilling choral performance in Appomattox, April 9, 1965, and The Peterson House and Finale encapsulates all the score's finest moments in one 11 minute long suite. Williams closes things out not with a crescendo, but with a thoughtful rendition of 'With Malice Toward None' on solo piano.

Like the film, which focuses on legislative process and backroom deals, Williams' is score is a remarkably understated effort, and all the more effective for it. It may not stand with the maestro's greatest works, but it is certainly one of his strongest works of the past decade, along with Munich, Memoirs of a Geisha, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even at 80 years old, Williams still has that magic touch that reminds us why he is the greatest living film composer. Lincoln is a gorgeous work that is certain to garner his 48th career Oscar nomination, and possibly his 6th win. 2012 has been a strong year for film scores, but Lincoln stands tall as one of its most towering achievements, and a tender, elegiac tribute to the man himself.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Available today from Sony Music.