Sunday, December 29, 2013

My annual top ten list was published in The Dispatch this past Thursday. Here is the full list:

(Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, UK)

"The cameras are even freed from the bounds of normal movement, thrown from the ship on tethers, skipping along the waves in ways that provide a truly unique and stunning visual experience that completely changes the cinematic paradigm. No other film this year approached its sheer formal audacity, and the result is a documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form."

(Joshua Oppenheimer, UK)

"It begins as a sobering look at what motivates and corrupts the human spirit to the point they could commit such atrocities, but when the murders put themselves in their victims’ shoes during the reenactments, becomes something even more profound; a look at a group of cold blooded killers coming to grips with the gravity of their sins. Watching that dawning realization of extreme guilt makes for an extraordinarily moving, and cathartic experience."

(Steve McQueen, USA)

"From the stunning performances by its tremendously talented cast (led by a jaw-dropping turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor), to the hauntingly observant direction by McQueen that finds beauty even in the ugliest of events, “12 Years a Slave” is a raw, unblinking look at one of the darkest chapters of American history that is destined to go down in history as a modern classic."

(Harmony Korine, USA)

"Director Harmony Korine assaults us over the top sex and violence, slyly playing on the demands of a hungry audience, turning their demands for more into a resounding, neon-lit condemnation of the culture of spring break hedonism. Are you not entertained?"

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

"Using gorgeous hand drawn animation (something all too rare these days), Miyazaki tells a tender story of a man who conceived something beautiful, only to see it used for death and destruction."

(Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

"At once feverish and elegant, debauched and spiritual, “The Great Beauty” is a gorgeous paean to artistic inspiration and societal decay masquerading as intellectualism and spirituality."

(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong)

"Gorgeously photographed, Wong creates an intoxicating exploration of love and honor with the grace and elegance of a ballet."

(Richard Linklater, USA)

"An honest, beautifully rendered portrait of true love, not in the cinematic fairy tale sense, but in the real sense, as their love settles into something more deeply felt than either realizes. Linklater reminds us why Celine and Jesse are perhaps the most real and meaningful couple ever to grace the silver screen."

(Keith Miller, USA)

"Simple, organic, and never manipulative, Miller's agreeably sparse style never veers into maudlin territory, creating a straightforward and quietly shattering experience. An incredible American indie."

(Abbas Kiarostami, France)

"Brilliantly assembled, Kiarostami constructs the film with the eye of a consummate craftsman, slowly, elegantly peeling back layers of identity, with haunting results. A beautiful enigma."

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria), Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA), Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France), At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA), Drug War (Johnnie To, Hong Kong), All is Lost (JC Chandor, USA), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, USA), Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA), Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton, USA)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

It is somehow fitting that director Clio Barnard would name the protagonist of her sophomore feature after her 2010 debut, The Arbor.

Like the lower class English neighborhood that lent the earlier film its name, young Arbor (an astonishingly believable Conner Chapman) comes to represent something much larger than himself.  He is at once his own person and a whole kind of person, making The Selfish Giant an illuminating and troubling window into the plight of impoverished Britons. Arbor is something of a troublemaker, to be sure. He gets into fights, skips school at will, and is openly defiant of teachers and authority figures. His best friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas), is a much calmer boy, but is swept up in Arbor's trouble making and soon the boys are both suspended from school. But idle hands are the devil's playground, as the saying goes, and soon Arbor and Swifty are looking for ways to occupy their time, and soon turn to stealing copper wire to help support their destitute families.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) and horse Tarmac Tommy (Ragdoll) in Clio Barnard’s SELFISH GIANT. 
Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka.
The film takes its title from a story by Oscar Wilde, about a giant who kicks all the children out of his garden, but when the garden falls into perpetual winter decides to allow the children to return and play. In the end, he discovers that one of the children was the Christ child, and is devastated by his death. As Barnard was making the film, however, she found that the story began to shift, so much so that she even considered changing the title. But there remains a "Selfish Giant" figure here in the form of the innocuously named Kitten (Sean Gilder), a brutal scrap yard owner and Dickensian profiteer of child labor who pays them low wages for dangerous work.

Swifty is good with horses and therefore gains the favor of Kitten, who loans his horse for use in transporting their ill gotten gains. Arbor, however, is more impulsive, passionate, but volatile, and therefore not as trusted by Kitten. This puts a rift of sorts between the two boys, as Arbor begins to lash out for attention - from his parent, from Swifty, from Kitten, from anyone who will listen. It's a desperate cry for help that will eventually lead to tragic consequences that will change and define them all.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) in Clio Barnard’s SELFISH GIANT
Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka.
While not as formally daring as the narrative/documentary hybrid, The Arbor, which gained Barnard recognition for its audacious use of actors lip-syncing to pre-recorded interviews of actual participants in the subject, The Selfish Giant, with its keen sense of time and place (featuring accents so thick the film is shown with subtitles), has a kind of lived-in naturalism that calls to mind the work of Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). It's a kind of throwback to the British "kitchen sink" drama, whose stark realism reveals a social ill, in this case the dark underbelly of poverty. This is nothing new, of course, films that wallow in the miserablism of the poor for cheap emotional gain. Barnard never seems to be exploiting her subjects, even when the film veers into tragedy in the third act. What she conjures instead is real compassion rather than pity. The Selfish Giant isn't so much about the plight of the poor as it is about boyhood friendships, and their deep bond that takes on the air of a strange sort of platonic romance.

Barnard explores the depth of their bond, not just with each other, but with their families, becoming magnified in the film's heart-wrenching final act. Downton Abbey's Siobhan Finneran is especially heartbreaking as Swifty's beleaguered mother. Freed from the confines of the specific stylistic conceit of The Arbor, Barnard is able to stretch her legs explore her characters in a much deeper way. The Selfish Giant is an assured and disciplined work, raw like a festering wound, and devastatingly blunt, establishing Barnard as one of the strongest voices in British independent cinema.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE SELFISH GIANT | Directed by Clio Barnard | Stars Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Rebecca Manley, Siobhan Finneran | Not rated | Opens Friday, December 20, in NYC.

From The Dispatch:
The result is something beautifully nostalgic, unchallenging perhaps, but a lovely and satisfying crowd pleaser. Hancock displays a keen understanding of why "Mary Poppins" is so beloved, and pays loving tribute with consummate grace. Its portrayal of the artistic process is surprisingly adept, anchored by tremendous performances by Thompson (who turns the prickly Travers into a multidimensional character whose stern demeanor masks a deep pain) and Hanks, perfectly cast as Disney. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Specialty distributor GKIDS has quickly become the foremost purveyor of foreign animation in America. While Disney continues to distribute the works of Hayao Miyazaki (including his final masterpiece, The Wind Rises), GKIDS has been quietly bringing little-seen animated works from overseas that may not otherwise have found an American audience stateside, providing small scale, hand drawn alternatives to bigger, louder studio products.

GKIDS first gained recognition when The Secret of Kells scored a surprised Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2009. The distributor scored two more nominations in 2011 for A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita, and have several more chances to score nominations this year, where the major studios' animated projects have mostly proved disappointing.

Their best shot at Oscar glory is Ernest & Celestine, a lovely little French film directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, based on the Belgian book series by Gabrielle Vincent.

It's the story of a young mouse named Celestine who spends her days underground, training to be a dentist by sneaking into the world above populated by bears, and snatching young bears' teeth from under their pillows, leading to the bears' legend of the tooth fairy. The mice use the teeth to supplement their own, helping them build vast cities beneath the surface. Each night, Celestine lays in her bed doodling pictures while listening to stories about the "big bad bear," reinforcing the children's fear of the lupine citizens above. Celestine doesn't believe these horrific legends, and is determined to prove to her people that bears aren't as bad as they've been lead to believe.

Up above, Ernest is a destitute bear just trying to get by. Cold and hungry, he works as a street musician for change while avoiding the stern policemen who frown on panhandling. One morning, he finds Celestine sleeping in a trashcan after a tooth reconnaissance mission went terribly wrong. But instead of eating her (as was his first impulse), he befriends Celestine, and the two embark on a strange and remarkable journey, leading to a confrontation between the bears and the mice, but the unlikely friendship between Ernest and Celestine will force them all to examine their age old prejudices in ways they never expected.

It's essentially a parable about racism, but it's handled with such grace that it never feels heavy handed or preachy. The story is admittedly idiosyncratic, but that's part of its charm. It's something new and unique, yet charmingly old fashioned. The more organic watercolor animation is such a breath of fresh air in a world populated with CG animation. It feels like a storybook, and its hard not to get swept away in the gorgeous imagery. Ernest & Celestine is proof positive that you don't need flashy computer graphics to create a wholly immersive world. It is telling, I think, that the two best animated films I have seen this year, this and The Wind Rises, are both traditionally animated films. Computers are capable of creating some jaw dropping visual wonders like in Disney's Frozen, but there is just something special about hand drawn images.

Not only are they more personal because of the work that goes into them, but they are also more expressive, more tangible, more relatable. As CG animation becomes more and more realistic, hand drawn animation feels more and more like works of art. What once was the norm has become a specialty, a rare breed, and films like this should be cherished. While foreign films like this are really more targeted to adults and art house audiences in the States because of their subtitles despite the GKIDS label, there is an agreeable innocence to Ernest & Celestine that should appeal to everyone. It takes an admittedly strange tale and turns into something wonderful, an utterly delightful tale of two misfits who find common ground through their mutual friendship. It's a simple message, beautifully conveyed without pretense, wrapped up in one of this year's animated treasures.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

ERNEST & CELESTINE | Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner | Voices of Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Patrice Melennec | Rated PG for some scary moments | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It feels bloated, packed with too many characters and plot threads, many of which are not in the book on which it is based. Jackson and his team have taken from Tolkien's apocryphal works and volumes of Middle Earth history to pad out his "Hobbit" trilogy, and "Desolation" nearly buckles under the weight.
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a voting member, released the nominations for its 17th annual awards. 12 Years a Slave  led the nominations with 8, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. followed by Inside Llewyn Davis with 6. Hayao Miyazaki's final animated film, The Wind Rises, received 5 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. The Best Picture nominees included some outside the box choices that haven't been as prevalent this awards season, such as Johnnie To's Drug War and Short Term 12, and lifted Blue is the Warmest Color and The Wind Rises out of the Foreign Language and Animated ghettos, respectively, and also gave some love Frederick Wiseman's expansive documentary, At Berkeley. Jem Cohen's Mueseum Hours showed up in Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, and Mads Mikkelson scored a surprise Best Actor nomination for The Hunt. This year's nominees are:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Before Midnight
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis
Short Term 12
The Wind Rises

Best Animated Feature
Despicable Me 2
From Up on Poppy Hill
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

Best Film Not in the English Language
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Drug War
Museum Hours
The Wind Rises

Best Documentary
56 Up
The Act of Killing
At Berkeley
Stories We Tell

Best Director
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Spike Jonze – Her
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Hayao Miyazaki – The Wind Rises

Best Actor
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Joaquin Phoenix – Her

Best Actress
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Adèle Exarchopoulos – Blue Is the Warmest Color
Brie Larsen – Short Term 12

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey – Mud
Sam Rockwell – The Way, Way Back

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Scarlett Johansson – Her
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Léa Seydoux – Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Inside Llewyn Davis
Museum Hours

Best Adapted Screenplay
12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
In the House
Short Term 12
The Wind Rises

Best Editing
12 Years a Slave
Drug War
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Cinematography
12 Years a Slave
The Grandmaster
The Great Beauty
Inside Llewyn Davis

Winners will be announced Monday, Dec. 16.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It’s also perhaps one of Disney’s most beautiful films. The design of Elsa’s icy powers is absolutely breathtaking, and the Broadway ready songs are some of the most memorable since their impressive successes of the 1990's, when “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin” all brought Disney out their doldrums of the 1980's.
Click here to read my full review.

From The Dispatch:
It is a thoughtful blockbuster, a young adult film with a heart and a brain, and it's also a crackerjack sequel that is a perfect set-up for its two-part sequel, "Mockingjay." Fans will be begging for more while series newcomers will find themselves pleasantly surprised by a film that doesn't pander. It is a blockbuster worthy of its hype.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

From The Dispatch:
“12 Years a Slave” almost seems like a never ending parade of human atrocities, and indeed it is almost unrelenting in its depiction of perhaps the darkest period of American history. It is brutal, unblinking, unsparing, almost to the point of being oppressive. But therein lies its brilliance. Northup went on to write the book on which the film is based, but for those 12 years had no respite from the cruelty of his plight, and so McQueen in turn allows his audience no room to breathe, even when he finds beauty in the turning of a riverboat wheel or the slow spread of blackberry juice on a dirty metal plate. The effect is painful, jarring, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

From The Dispatch:
You can feel the heat radiating off this thing, and the passion between Adéle and Emma is almost tangible. But it’s that strong undercurrent of emotion that makes the film so extraordinary. “Blue is the Warmest Color” is an incisive look at the burning fire of first love, and the ache and devastation of its fading.
Click here to read my full review.
There are few screen romances as beautiful and timeless as Charlie Chaplin's legendary City Lights.

Made in 1931, City Lights is sometimes referred to as Chaplin's final silent film, although it did use sound effects to comedic effect, and 1936's Modern Times was essentially a silent film as well. Sound film was in its infancy when Chaplin began work on City Lights in 1928 (Chaplin was a perfectionist with notoriously long shooting schedules). Having begun his career as a pantomime artist, Chaplin refused to give into pressure to change his methodology, even as the public embraced the new technology.

For his part, Chaplin sniffed at the new cinematic frontier, even going so far to as to satirize it in the opening scene of City Lights, where self important city officials pontificate from a podium, accompanied my droning nonsense noises simulating speech. To Chaplin, a consummate physical comedian, words were unnecessary, and here he deftly demonstrates why.

Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character had been well established by 1931, having been a cinematic staple throughout the teens and twenties. The character had certainly evolved over time, from something expressly comedic to a mix of comedy and sentimentality, not necessarily something audiences were willing to accept at the time. But audiences embraced Chaplin all the way, even as the sound era threatened to make him irrelevant, and other silent comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd fell by the wayside.

City Lights is both an uproarious comedy and a tender romance, in which Chaplin's Tramp finds himself mistaken for a millionaire when he climbs through a limousine by a lovely, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). He is immediately smitten with her, and buys a flower from her. But when the limosuine's owner returns and drives away, she thinks he has left her. But he remains behind, watching from a distance. And continues to find reasons to bump into her. The ruse of his identity, however, becomes harder and harder to continue, as the Tramp sets about trying to find money to help her keep her small apartment before she is evicted, leading to increasingly wild circumstances and one of the most beautiful denouements in the history of cinema.

In fact, that final moment, when the flower girl, able to see for the first time, realizes that the Tramp in front of her is really the man who has been taking care of her all along, is perhaps the image that Chaplin remains the most famous for. That look of guileless glee in his eyes as she sees him for the first time is pure movie magic, and perfectly sums up what has made Chaplin so appealing for generations of movie goers. Chaplin had an innate ability  to mix deep emotions with bawdy slapstick comedy. Whereas Keaton had a more cynical edge to his work (although I still believe Keaton's The General is the greatest silent comedy), Chaplin's were more sentimental, and in that regard, more balanced. They took audiences on a journey, the comedy stemming from our investment in the protagonist's plight rather from the technical skill of the gags, something at which Keaton consistently excelled.

It is no wonder, then, that City Lights is often regarded as Chaplin's masterpiece. It is perhaps the quintessential Chaplin film, with images that have come to define modern audiences perceptions of him. It is magical film, as brilliant and majestic as the city lights from which it gleans its title. The Criterion Collection, having already released The Great Dictator, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and Monsieur Verdoux, has pulled out all the stops for their release of his most iconic work. One of the company's first dual format releases, combining both Blu-ray and DVD, City Lights features a wealth of supplemental materials that are all available on both discs, including archival behind-the-scenes footage (which is of particular interest for Chaplin fans), and a documentary called "Chaplin Today: 'City Lights,'" which follows Chaplin's methods with Wallace & Gromit creator Peter Lord. This is Criterion's most essential Chaplin release yet, and one of the top Blu-ray releases of the year - a fitting tribute to one of the greatest comedies, and the greatest films, of all time.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on dual format Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Monday, October 28, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It's an urgent, riveting look at a post-9/11 world where our enemy no longer has a face. The pirates continually insist to the Navy that they are "not al-Qaida," as if that is some sort of signal that they mean no harm and shouldn't be treated as hostile. What they are, however, is the product of an unfamiliar and increasingly volatile world. Greengrass explores this new world of enemies, in this case, four armed teenagers who managed to cause a standoff with three American warships. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda is a landmark film for myriad reasons; not only is it the first film ever completely shot in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned, it was also directed by a woman.

Living under strict Sharia law, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to be seen or even heard by men, and Al Mansour often had to direct street scenes via walkie talkie while hiding in a van. That makes Wadjda the most bravely defiant film of the year, even more so than the petulant and childish Escape From Tomorrow, which was covertly filmed in Disney World without permission.

Unlike that film, Wadjda means something, carrying a much greater cultural significance. It is an unassuming film, a charming tale of a young Saudi girl who simply dreams of having a bicycle.

From left to right: Waad Mohammed as Wadjda and Abdullrahman Al Gohani as Abdullah
Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
We know young Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is different right from the start. Instead of the conservative black shoes the other girls in her school wear under their hijabs, she wears Chuck Taylors, and surreptitiously sells football trading cards under the teacher's noses. On her way home one day, she has a run in with Abdullah, the young neighbor boy, whom she beats at a foot race after he swipes her sandwich. When he returns with a bicycle and makes off with her headscarf, Wadjda becomes determined to get a bicycle of her own to show him up.

Bicycles, however, are not something a respectable Saudi woman should have, her mother tells her. So she must find other ways of achieving her dream. When the school religious club announces a Koran contest, Wadjda decides to join up to win the prize money and buy the bike herself. Thrilled that she seems to be turning over a new leaf, the school's stern headmistress welcomes her with open arms, and all the while Wadjda is forging a secret friendship with Abdullah and plotting to finally buy the bike of her dreams.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda
Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Wadjda doesn't feel like a work of activism, nothing about it suggests it is the revolutionary work that it actually is. It is a gentle act of defiance, a film about women by women in a country that completely devalues female worth, where women are only objects for men to control. That makes Wadjda something kind of radical, a quiet rebuke of repressive religious values that make no sense in a modern world. It seems odd somehow that such a simple, endearing film could be so subversive, and coming from anywhere else in the world it might not seem so, but as a Saudi film, by a woman no less, Wadjda represents something extraordinary indeed.

On its own, the film is a lovely story, a film about individual perseverance in the face of repression. But in the larger context it becomes something much greater because of what it represents. Al Mansour directs with a remarkable sensitivity, and young Mohammed is an exceptional and charismatic find. Their courageousness has given us something truly special - a beautifully modest act of rebellion that stands up to its country's patriarchal society simply by existing rather than preaching. And that makes Wadjda one of the most important films of 2013.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WADJDA | Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour | Stars Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman al Gohani, Ahd | Rated PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking | In Arabic w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters. Opens today, 10/25, at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

Monday, October 21, 2013

While perhaps best known for her acting career, which included roles in such films as The Sea Wolf, High Sierra, and The Man I Love, as well as television appearances on shows like The Twilight Zone and Barnaby Jones, Ida Lupino is perhaps most notable for being the only widely viewed female director of the 1950's.

In fact her work as a director, which she cultivated while on contract suspension by Warner Brothers for stubbornly refusing Bette Davis' hand-me-down roles, is perhaps even more accomplished than her acting career. Besides directing countless TV episodes of Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, The Twilight Zone, and The Fugitive, Lupino also helmed the feature films like On Dangerous Ground (for which she didn't receive credit) and The Bigamist.

It would be hard to argue, however, against her best film being The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a feverish, 70 minute nightmare about two unsuspecting travelers (Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who pick up a murderous fugitive (William Talman) who has left a string of dead motorists in his wake. The film has that unmistakable 1950's ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism about it, and was indeed inspired by an actual event. But Lupino directs with a sparse, pared down style that emphasizes suspense over the usual social warnings of such films. At a little over an hour, the film moves at a breakneck pace, but never feels rushed or frenetic. It's a taut, tense thriller that makes the most out of its film noir atmosphere and simple, horrific concept.

In fact the concept was so horrific for the time that major studios refused to film it, paving the way for Lupino and her screenwriting partner/ex-husband Collier Young to work with blacklisted screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring. 

There have been plenty of hitchhiker movies since The Hitch-Hiker, from Hitch-Hike starring Rutger Hauer, to The Hitcher and its subsequent remake, but none of them have quite tapped into that primal fear of "this could happen to anyone" quite like this one. The Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber may be bare bones, but it certainly looks great, and credit must be awarded for restoring and releasing this all but forgotten genre classic. It's a lean, mean, nasty piece of work that deserves to be rediscovered.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

You are not likely to see a more ballsy film released in 2013 than Randy Moore's Escape From Tomorrow.

By all accounts it is a film that shouldn't even exist. Filmed on location at Walt Disney World without permission from the Disney company, Escape From Tomorrow is an outright act of defiance, a shot-on-the-fly, guerrilla style assault on one of America's most iconic sacred cows. After making a splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival, there were many who wondered if it would even be released at all.

There is a lot to be said for its sheer chutzpa, unfortunately big balls alone do not a great film make. Once you get past the initial shock of seeing such an edgy film shot in Disney World, complete with demonic automatons in "It's a Small World," Disney Princess hookers, and naked evil queens seducing horny dads, there just really isn't much there.

The film centers around a typical American family on vacation at Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. Everything seems normal - a mom, a dad, two cherubic children - the absolute picture of the American dream. But the dad, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), has just found out that he has lost his job, and chooses not to tell his wife so as not to ruin their vacation. The news weighs hard on him, however, and he finds it hard to concentrate as a dark pall has suddenly been cast over the idyllic vacation. That's when he spots two young French Lolita's on the monorail headed to the Magic Kingdom, and finds himself becoming increasingly lost in a fantasy world of his own devising.

As rifts begin to form in his perfect family unit, Jim obsessively follows the girls around the park, and suddenly the Happiest Place on Earth takes on a much darker form. Happy go lucky children's rides no longer seem like safe havens of childhood dreams, but sinister representations of corporate evil. As Jim gets closer and closer to the truth behind these eerie visions, he finds himself disappearing down a rabbit hole of madness from which there might be no escape.

Moore is clearly going for a sort of David Lynch brand of surrealism as he builds his Disney-fied nightmare, but the film feels more like a random nonsensical mess bordering on Dada than anything resembling surrealism. The fact that not all of the scenes were actually filmed at Disney World, but in front of a very obvious green screen only hampers the film's strange verisimilitude. There is so much potential here for an actual critique of consumerist culture, and Disney is a huge target, but Moore seems to have wasted a golden opportunity on something that feels like a cheap student film.

The idea is certainly there, but it never goes that extra step to transcend the shock factor for which it so clearly strives. There some striking images to be found here, and Abel Korzeniowski's lush score is one of the year's best, but the film itself is something of a slow motion train wreck. Escape From Tomorrow is a film full of promise that never delivers. A messy, unfocused conglomeration of concepts that is hampered not only by the limitations under which it was shot, but by its fatal lack of cohesion. It's a surreal world when you really think about it, where people dress up like movie characters and dreams seemingly come to life in what is essentially an elaborate lie. But what does that say about us and our culture? I don't know, and I'm not sure Escape from Tomorrow does either. It never asks those questions, content instead to shock the audience by raising its proverbial middle finger at a legendary brand that prides itself at being squeaky clean. And rather than winning some decisive philosophical victory, the film comes off looking like a child saying a curse word in church just to see people gasp rather than a serious work of art with something relevant to say.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW | Directed by Randy Moore | Stars Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady | Not rated | Opens tomorrow, 10/11, in select cities and on VOD.
It's always amazing how much information director Jia Zhang-Ke can fit into his expansive mid shots, his subjects dwarfed by towering mountains or sky scrapers as if they are going to be swallowed up by their oversized surroundings - in this case, a China that has become much too big and unwieldy for its own good.

The title of A Touch of Sin is a somewhat ironic play off of King Hu's 1971 film, A Touch of Zen, but the world Jia depicts is a long way from Zen. Here we are introduced to four different people living in modern day China, each feeling overwhelmed, abused, or otherwise trapped in a world of corruption and sin, and each in their own way resort to violence to regain their dignity. There's a disgruntled miner, frustrated that money once promised to the workers has gone to the corporate bigwigs through bribes and underhanded deals. There's a migrant worker drifting by the Yangtze River who finds newfound pleasure in owning a gun. There's an adulterous receptionist who is taken advantage of by an unruly client, and finally a young factory worker who jumps from job to job, never quite able to fit in.

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A TOUCH OF SIN, a film by Jia Zhang-Ke.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Each one finds themselves caught in their own personal hell, overwhelmed by a China that has grown so exponentially that it has lost its own identity. The Chinese economic boom has increased the wealth gap to the point that it has changed the very landscape of the country, as Jia has so memorably chronicled in films like Still Life and 24 City. Jia is, perhaps, the foremost chronicler of modern Chinese life, which is impressive considering the amount of control the government often exercises over its film makers. Jia's China is one of great economic process, but plagued by cultural rot lurking just beneath the surface. As the rich get richer off of unfair dealings, the rest are being increasingly left behind, victims of unfair circumstances from which they cannot escape, to the point that violence seems the only solution.

But Jia isn't just holding a mirror up to his own country, he's holding a mirror up to America as well. There's something startlingly universal about A Touch of Sin that should give us all pause to reflect on why this all seems so familiar. The world of the film doesn't seem so foreign, which is troubling in and of itself. In an America where violence is commonplace and mass shootings are the norm  rather than the exception, what does this film say about us? What have we as a society created when violence has become so ingrained in our culture?

Jiang Wu as Dahai in A TOUCH OF SIN, a film by Jia Zhang-Ke.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
The violence in A Touch of Sin isn't pretty or glamorous. It's shocking, brutal, and difficult to watch. Jia uses it sparingly, so when the tension finally snaps it's like a punch in the gut. This is a deeply felt meditation on violence, its nature, its roots, its consequences. While the film's four vignettes don't really connect much beyond their common theme (all four incidents are based on real occurrences), and some are more compelling that others, but they add up to a powerful whole. The first segment could have made an excellent standalone film on its own, but when grouped with the other three tales, it becomes something more - a portrait of a dying culture, lost and floundering in a new and modern world. And when Jia turns the camera on the audience in the film's final moments and asks "do you understand your sin?" we forget we're watching a foreign film about a distant country, suddenly it becomes deeply personal. Jia hits us where it hurts, and it's impossible to look away.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

A TOUCH OF SIN | Directed by Jia Zhang Ke | Stars Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Wang Baogiang, Luo Lanshan | In Mandarin w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

From The Dispatch:
Rarely does the big screen see such powerful exercises in pure cinema. Cuarón is a visionary director, and here he unleashes all of his skill to deliver one of the most awe inspiring entertainments to come along in years. It is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, one where the price of the 3D upgrade is actually worth it. This is the kind of film for which 3D was made, and lest anyone think this is just a throwaway piece of sci-fi fluff, Sandra Bullock delivers the performance of her career, adding emotional heft to the jaw dropping special effects. 
Click here to read my full review.

From The Dispatch:
The film exists in a world of "what ifs," what if I'm wrong, what if I'm right, never really giving us the payoff or release we might expect in a film of its type. This isn't "Taken," where bloody vengeance is taken against the girl's captors to cheers from the audience, this is something far more thoughtful. It's "Taken" with the pacing and sensibilities of David Fincher's "Zodiac."
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Are you afraid of the dark?

The folks at Triad Stage in Greensboro are hoping that the answer is "yes" as they kick of their 13th season with Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark.

Dubbed "the lucky season," this year Triad will feature performances of such wide-ranging fare as Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, as well as new plays The Mountaintop and Snow Queen.

If the season opener is any indication, we're in for a fantastic year of theatre in downtown Greensboro. Audiences may already be familiar with the story of Wait Until Dark through the 1967 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, but you haven't truly experienced Knott's story until you've experienced it up close and personal.

Mickey Solis, Laurence Lau, Rob Kahn and Cheryl Koski.
Photo by VanderVeen Photographers.
The senses play a huge role in this tale of Susy Hendrix (Cheryl Koski), a blind woman who accidentally and unwittingly comes into possession of a doll filled with heroin. Three dangerous con men want the doll, and they want it badly. One in particular, Mr. Roat (Laurence Lau), is a seasoned gangster who plays the other two into his own sadistic game. Determined to get the doll for themselves, the three concoct an elaborate plot to fool Susy into giving up the doll. But as Susy begins to get wise to their game, they are forced to take a more drastic approach, leaving Susy defenseless against their scheme. Or is she? Suddenly on her home turf, the con men find themselves locked in a battle of wits against a woman who lives her life in darkness, and where your most valued senses can't be trusted.

Director Preston Lane uses all the theatrical techniques at his disposal to ratchet up the tension to a shattering climax played out in a pitch black theater. The use of lighting by Norman Coates, even at its most bare minimum, is absolutely stunning, accentuating the importance of the play's excellent and wickedly effective sound design by Jonathan Fredette. The play is a true sensory experience, reminding us how we often take our senses for granted until we are deprived of them. Thrust right into the middle of the action, the audience becomes a part of Susy's ordeal, which makes it all the more suspenseful. It doesn't hurt that Koski's performance is so devastatingly believable; an appealing mix of sprightly charm and emotional heft. Pitted against Lau's coolly detestable villain, along with a more sympathetic Mike Talman (Mickey Solis) and his somewhat bumbling cohort, Carlino (Rob Kahn), Koski shines amid an enormously talented cast.

Whereas most theatrical productions emphasize what you see, Wait Until Dark often deprives us of that which we often take for granted, giving the audience a wholly unique and terrifying experience. There's something almost cinematic, even Hitchcockian, about its marriage of sound and visuals to tell a story, allowing the audience to see that which the protagonist cannot. But when we are all plunged into darkness and placed in her shoes, it makes for some truly thrilling theatre.

Wait Until Dark runs from Sept. 6 through Sept. 22. For more information or to purchase tickets visit, or call the box office at 336.272.0160.

From The Dispatch:
While Wilson Yip's "Ip Man" films are excellent in their own right, "The Grandmaster" is a more lyrical, perhaps even more abstract take with a much different focus. It is an intoxicating exploration of love and honor, and Wong's finest film since his 2001 masterpiece, "In the Mood for Love." This is cinema on a grand scale. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, September 06, 2013

When the legendary Ingrid Bergman first swoops into Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978), she brings with her a whirlwind of energy, that kind of unique spark that accompanied the great actresses of Old Hollywood.

Ingmar, however, downplays Ingrid's stature. He knew, instinctively, how the audience would be drawn to her, so when she arrives in the film, the great Swedish director holds back, not allowing her the grand entrance she so deserves. The camera seems hesitant to show her face at first, but not to build up the anticipation of her reveal, but simply to treat her arrival as something wholly mundane. Her presence electrifies the film, but Bergman treats her like just another character making just another entrance.

Ingrid Bergman's presence in Autumn Sonata is not a mistake. For his quietly engrossing tale of an estranged mother and daughter coming to grips with old wounds and grievances, Ingmar turned to an actress who knew something about old familial pain.

Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman in AUTUMN SONATA.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
After leaving her husband for director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman didn't see her own daughter for several years, and caused a Hollywood scandal from which she never quite recovered. Autumn Sonata feels like something of a mea culpa, and while Ingmar famously complained that she had rehearsed every facial expression in the mirror and seemed "stuck in the 1940s," her raw, intimate performance here is a career crowning achievement, perhaps one of the greatest screen performances of all time. There is something about her that seems haunted by a past at the culmination of an illustrious career. As her character, Charlotte, a renowned concert pianist, sits down at a piano with her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullman, Ingmar's own wife), one can almost hear the strains of "As Time Goes By" wafting through Rick's Cafe Americain as the camera lingers on Bergman's pained eyes.

Those eyes saw a lot in the years between Casablanca and Autumn Sonata, which would end up being Bergman's final big screen performance before her death in 1982. A lifetime of pent up emotion seems to be flowing out of her, and the result is absolutely devastating. Here she is, one of cinema's great icons, playing a woman for whom everything is a performance, who neglected her children, even skipping the funeral of her four year old grandson because she was too busy recording a new album. She says these things as if they're perfectly justifiable, never seeing the fault in her own actions. She takes the place among cinema's great monster mothers, but Ingmar never treats her as unworthy of sympathy. We feel for both these women.

Ingrid Bergman in AUTUMN SONATA.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The extended final confrontation between mother and daughter, shot almost exclusively in intimate close-ups, lays bare a lifetime of grievances. Bergman's camera, with its warm, autumn colors courtesy of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, lingers on the women's faces to the point that the audience almost wants to turn away. We can't, however, because the performances on screen are so mesmerizing. There are times when the intensity of the close-ups recalls Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, as Bergman lets the beauty and the pain in his subject's faces tell an unspoken story all their own.

As it turned out, Autumn Sonata would also be Ingmar Bergman's final film made for the big screen. While later films like Fanny and Alexander and Saraband opened theatrically in the United States, they were made for Swedish television. Ingrid Bergman would go on to make A Woman Called Golda for TV in the final year of their life, but Autumn Sonata represented something of a swan song for them both, and a what a glorious swan song it is. It's a painful film, to be a sure, but a rewarding one. The new Blu-ray upgrade from The Criterion Collection is crisp and warm, while still retaining a decidedly film-like look. It's a gorgeous transfer, and also includes a three and a half hour "making of" documentary that's nearly as long as the TV cut of Fanny and Alexander. There is also an introduction by Bergman himself that details some of the tensions that arose on set with his star. Those tensions clearly paid off, because both Bergmans turned in some of the best work of their careers here. There's something breathtaking about watching these two legends unite for the first and only time, but even with such depressing subject matter, the energy simply crackles on screen. For fans of either Bergman, or just for students of great acting, Autumn Sonata is absolutely essential viewing.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • Introduction by director Ingmar Bergman from 2003 Audio commentary featuring Bergman expert Peter Cowie 
  • The Making of “Autumn Sonata,” a three-and-a-half-hour program examining every aspect of the production 
  • New interview with actor Liv Ullmann 
  • A 1981 conversation between actor Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor at the National Film Theatre in London Trailer 
  • English-dubbed track New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
On Blu-ray and DVD 9/17 from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

From The Dispatch:
As Allen switches back and forth between Jasmine's present and her former life, we play witness to an incredible transformation — from self-absorbed woman of the world to a pill-popping, booze-swilling train wreck of a human being. It's the kind of performance Oscars are made of, but beyond any thought of awards or accolades, Blanchett delivers a once-in-a-lifetime kind of achievement. 
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From The Dispatch:
It mostly feels like a lot of stunt casting, which is part of what makes "The Butler" so hard to take seriously, but it's just so earnest, so completely invested in its story, that it's hard not to get caught up in it. This is a film with a huge heart, and while it may seem a bit like "Forrest Gump," Daniels and his sprawling cast throw themselves into it with such conviction that it works in spite of itself. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, August 17, 2013