Thursday, January 31, 2013


ADAM AND DOG (Minkyu Lee, 16 min.)

Adam and Dog is the story of how the dog became man’s best friend. Taking place in the Garden of Eden, Dog discovers Adam and they quickly form a tight bond. When Eve appears, Adam’s attention drifts away from Dog and his unconditional love and devotion. It’s an incredibly moving film especially for the dog lovers out there. Director Minkyu Lee is a former animator for Disney who worked on their 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. This is his debut and even though the animators involved are from Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, this is a completely independent production with no major studio involvement whatsoever and I find that so very refreshing. Lee crafts such a beautiful atmosphere and it’s all done in hand-drawn animation. It’s the longest of the nominees in this category, but there is a lot going on here. These are the first days of Earth, and Dog is seeing the sky for the first time, grass for the first time, a squirrel, a hippopotamus, water, and finally Man, whose first encounter is an indelible moment. It just has an otherworldly charm to it and an innocent childlike quality. This animated dog is so loveable and when Adam turns his shoulder on him, it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut. I got very attached to this one because it’s easily the best of the bunch.


FRESH GUACAMOLE (Adam Pesapane, 2 min.)

Director Adam Pesapane – known as PES to most people, especially on the internet – delivers yet another wildly inventive short film. “Short” is most definitely the key word in that sentence because Fresh Guacamole barely runs for a whole two minutes, but inside those two minutes is an array of genius animation techniques. It’s short, funny, incredibly memorable, and I could have watched this go on for hours. It’s vastly different from the other films in this group because there isn’t a story or characters, it’s just a quick exercise in quirky animation. Guacamole is another installment in PES’ short film series in which he utilizes household objects that bare an uncanny likeliness to certain foods and turns them into ready-to-eat dishes. In 2008, PES made the short film Western Spaghetti (using the same animation style as Guacamole) which has now reached more than 10 million views on YouTube. Starting out as an internet sensation, PES is now an Academy Award nominated filmmaker and a great success story.


HEAD OVER HEELS (Timothy Reckart, 11 min.)

Considering this is a student film from the UK’s National Film & Television School, it’s an amazing accomplishment. The film deals with an older couple living their lives in a house that is traveling through the air. They have grown apart so much that one lives on the floor and the other on the ceiling. The man tries to mend their relationship one day, but is unsuccessful in his attempts and sends their whole universe off-kilter. It’s an incredibly emotional domestic drama that shows how hard it can be to live with the same person, but how much you learn to appreciate their company. The major standout here is the incredible set design. The house they live in is incredibly realized with so much detail going into every corner. The way they navigate on separate planes, the way the furniture is laid out on the floor and ceiling, the way the mechanics of the house work - it’s all so very clever. The film also has an incredible emotional ending that kicked me in the gut it was so touching. I won’t lie, I shed a few tears. Reckart took a page from Pixar’s books and gave us an tearjerker involving a senior couple. I dare you to not get choked up at the end. A beautiful film.



This cute little Simpsons short – which appeared alongside Ice Age 4: Continental Drift in theaters – follows Maggie Simpson’s afternoon at daycare. It’s simple fluff, but when you think about it, there’s actually quite a bit going on here that is smarter than its surface image implies. I’m not surprised that there’s a lot of smart references in this, it is The Simpsons after all, but I am amazed that they tried to fit so much in a four minute short. This is all fun in the end – especially with that super cute final scene – but there’s a lot being said (or at least alluded to) about the education system, intellectual progress, and evolution. I could be giving this film too much credit, but there is more I disliked about it. For instance, I found the animation a little off-putting. Everything seemed out of proportion and not scaled properly. I know we’re in a baby’s world and it’s supposed to seem like a big, scary place around her, but it felt sloppy. Ultimately, I think this one is the least memorable of the bunch that is nominated. It’s cute, but the ideas it has went unexplored and would perhaps better suit a full episode of the television show.


PAPERMAN (John Kahrs, 7 min.)

Paperman is the first short from Disney to accompany a feature film theatrically since 1990. A long wait, but they managed to produce a charming little film. Originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph, the film runs a mere six minutes, but manages to elicit a big emotional response. However, I am convinced Disney took the idea for this from a short film I saw a couple years back called Signs by Patrick Hughes. Nevertheless, it’s still a great achievement in animation. The story deals with an office worker who notices an attractive woman at the train station, but before he gets the chance to speak to her she disappears. When he gets to work he notices the same woman in the building across from his and tries to get her attention by throwing paper planes to her. It employs the classic boy-meets-girl / chance encounter formula, but with an enjoyable ending that puts faith in fate and chance. The entirety of the film is in black and white and done in pantomime giving a classic feel to the picture which marvelously blends 2D hand-drawn animation and 3D computer-generated animation. If it wasn’t for that live-action short I saw a few years back, I would say this is incredibly inventive, but the similarities deter me from higher praise.


The Oscar Nominated Shorts open Friday, 2/1, in select cities. 

From The Dispatch:
While other films last year like "Argo" and "Lincoln" have perhaps boasted larger ensembles, and in "Lincoln's" case, meatier roles, no other film featured the same kind of deeply impressive ensemble work as "Silver Linings Playbook." It is a perfect storm of great writing and expert performances working in tandem, a rare romantic comedy with both a heart and a brain that rings painfully and beautifully true. 
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray release of Victor Halperin's White Zombie has been the cause of some minor controversy among cinephiles for its use of digital image correction to clean up the badly degraded print from which it was taken.

Known as digital noise reduction, or DNR, Kino has effectively erased the film grain for a smoother, sharper image, which in my opinion is what Blu-ray is all about (Kino has used the technique before, most prominently in the Buster Keaton Shorts Collection). But grain purists have been crying bloody murder over what they consider to be the white washing of the film, and this time I can actually see their point.

There are times where the film looks completely washed out, the boosting of the brightness somehow  reducing the film's chilling use of shadow. However, there are also times when the clarity of the picture is almost breathtaking. It's rare to see a film this old, especially one that is in the public domain, look so pristine. So I can see both sides of the argument here.

If I wanted film to look grainy, I'd watch a DVD, or a film print. But for me anyway, I want my Blu-rays to look as flawless as possible, even if it means digitally cleaning up the image and fixing scratches and blemishes (which weren't intended to be there anyway). That may be considered blasphemous by some, but for the purists, Kino also included a "raw" untouched cut of the film that, to be fair, actually preserves the film's use of lighting better than the DNR version.

All controversy aside, White Zombie is a pretty important film, cinematically speaking. It was, after all, the very first zombie film. And with zombies occupying such a prominent place in our popular culture, White Zombie occupies a very special place in film history, introducing the world to the Haitian legend that would one day take on a life of its own.

Bela Lugosi was fresh off the success of Tod Browning's Dracula when he accepted the role of Murder Legendre, a mysterious aristocrat living in Haiti who commands an army of zombies, corpses reanimated through voodoo rituals, to work as slaves on his plantation. When a young couple arrives on the island to get married, their host, Mr. Beaumont, falls madly in love with the woman, and turns to Legendre to use his magic to make her love him instead. When she ends up as a zombie, both her husband and Beaumont are distraught, and set out to rescue her from Legendre's clutches.

The zombies of White Zombie barely resemble the vicious flesh eaters that we know today, and rely more on magic than the diseased based mythology of the creatures today. Legendre controls them with a form of mind control (transferred, of course, through Lugosi's intense eyes), using voodoo rites to transform them into the living dead. The film itself is a bit stiff at times, a product of a time that was still trying to find its footing in the transition from silent to sound pictures. It lacks the elegance of Dracula (whose opening sequence it blatantly rips off) or the emotional weight of Frankenstein, but nevertheless manages to conjure a palpable sense of dread. The finale atop Legendre's castle is expertly edited, and remains nail-biting even by today's standards. Halperin was no artist (despite some intriguing visual motifs at work), but he knew how to entertain an audience, and White Zombie is a perfect showcase of those talents. It's a B-picture, to be sure, but a surprisingly strong one.  Lugosi is always fun to watch, and he's at his hammy best here.

Kino's presentation may have a few issues, but it's certainly not the disaster that some purists are making it out to be. While the damage to the raw cut is a but heavy at times (clearly demonstrating the need for the DNR), there are pros and cons to both. Watch the main presentation to be impressed by how contemporary some of the shots look (especially in close up), watch the raw cut to marvel at Halperin's striking use of shadow and eerie atmosphere. Taken together, they are a satisfying presentation of one of Lugosi's most indelible roles, now saved from the public domain bargain bin by its clearest presentation ever.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.
Who would have guessed that the debut feature of Martin Campbell, director of Casino Royale, Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Green Lantern would be such a randy piece of work?

1974's The Sex Thief came along at a time when cheeky British sex comedies were in their prime. It was a genre created in response to the increasingly graphic films coming out of Europe, which gave foreign films the slightly risque reputation they sometimes still have today.

While Campbell would go on to direct two James Bond films (Goldeneye and Casino Royale), it was clear from the outset that he had a soft spot for the series, and imbued his hero, a swarthy jewel thief lothario, with a bit of Bond's trademark swagger and charm.

The film could have used a bit more of Bond's adventurous spirit, however, because it's little more than soft core pornography. The jewel thief breaks into women's houses, and rather than stealing jewels ends up ravishing them all night long. As his legend grows, women actually begin baiting him to sneak into their rooms for a night of unbridled passion. It's a pretty standard porn "plot," and Campbell attempts to add some decidedly British cheek to the affair, but the endless sex scenes become tiresome after a while. British sex comedies produced a few jewels at their height, Val Guest's Au Pair Girls (which was also given a Blu-ray release by Kino just last year) among them.  But The Sex Thief  quickly wears out its welcome.

There's simply too much sex and not enough wit. Campbell's light touch shines through at times, but he's basicially directing a porno, and porn was never meant to sustain a viewer over a full 90 minutes. David Warbeck does a fine job of channeling Sean Connery's Bond in the title role, but the film never rises above itself or musters enough wit to justify its running time. Campbell may have demonstrated a knack for lighthearted capers, but he's trapped here by the material. Kino's Blu-ray release (through its erotic Jezebel label) is passable if not spectacular (with quite a few scratches and imperfections still visible), and contains no special features. Those interested in Campbell's career or exploitation films in general may find something to like here, but like most exploitation films it promises much and delivers very little.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

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

Friday, January 25, 2013

As someone who has been fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic from a young age, Jean Negulesco's 1953, Academy Award winning Hollywood melodrama, Titanic, has always been a bit problematic for me.

One of the opening title cards claims that "all navigational details of this film - conversations, incidents, and general data - are taken verbatim from the published reports of inquiries held in 1912." But despite its claims of historical veracity, it's actually one of the most inaccurate depictions of the disaster ever put on screen. While not quite as bad as the 1943 Nazi propaganda film of the same name, historically speaking it's pretty close, especially when compared with the painstaking accuracy of Roy Ward Baker's A Night To Remember, which was released five years later in 1958 and offered the most complete cinematic portrait of the events of April 14th and 15th 1912 as it was understood at the time.

Perhaps the most glaring element of Titanic is its complete lack of understanding of Edwardian society. The upper class as depicted in the film is the upper class of the 1950s, not the upper class of the early 1900s. A respectable man like Clifton Webb's Richard Sturgess would never walk up to a man like Isidor Strauss in the dining saloon and suggest that he's "up to something" by serving his wife, Ida, alcohol, even if it was a joke. Not to mention the fact that the ship's band, which in reality was a string band, is made up mostly of trumpets and saxaphones and plays music that sounds more like big band than waltzes and ragtime, which would have been the musical style of the time. And while the band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship goes down is a big part of the mythology of the Titanic (a common and acceptable legend,  if most likely untrue), having the doomed passengers sing along as the ship slips quietly into the North Atlantic is about as far from history as you can get. It's pure Hollywood melodrama, and a pretty goofy one at that.

Nitpicks about the societal behavior and historical accuracy aside, the story itself is mostly soap opera fodder. Clifton Webb plays a wealthy American father who pursues his estranged wife, Julia (Barbra Stanwyck) onto the Titanic to persuade her to come home. Julia is tired of the high society of Paris, but their daughter, Annette (Audrey Dalton), longs for that life and wants to stay with her father. Julia thinks there is still time to save their son, Norman (Harper Carter), from the kind of arrogance she sees in his father. But the boy worships Richard, and refuses to be parted from him, even after a shocking revelation by Julia. It's a pulpy family drama played out against the backdrop of one of the greatest maritime disasters in history.

The thing is, the story itself really isn't the problem. It's standard Hollywood stuff, but Webb and Stanwyck are both in fine form, adding moments of humanity and emotional truth to the otherwise stilted surroundings.  The real issue is the complete mishandling of the actual disaster. Blaring alarms, exploding boilers, glaring anachronisms and other inaccuracies (the iceberg inexplicably rips a hole in the wrong side of the ship) plague the film despite its claims to the contrary. Granted, they won't be as big an issue to the uninitiated, but it's still surprising just how off base it is.

Taken apart from the history, the film really isn't that bad. The always welcome Thelma Ritter provides some nice moments of levity in a role clearly inspired by the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, and Audrey Dalton and Robert Wagner make for an attractive couple. The actual sinking sequence is pretty harrowing, especially with the limited capability of the special effects, although the hymn singing in the ship's final moments is just too much to handle. It's all pretty standard stuff, unremarkable really except for the Titanic connection. It's likely that if the film were about a different ship that it would be barely remembered today. But fans of James Cameron's far more famous 1997 Titanic will probably enjoy spotting moments that inspired Cameron (Webb's exasperated proclamation that the "British always insist on announcing dinner like a cattle recharge" is echoed by Kathy Bates' Molly Brown in the ''97 film), while historians will probably cringe at the film's complete lack of historical accuracy. It clearly didn't get Edwardian society, but as a product of its time it works just fine, and Fox's new Blu-ray presentation is passable if not particularly spectacular, much like the film itself. Most notable is a commentary track featuring Audrey Dalton and Robert Wagner, as well as some Movietone news reels from the time that provide a small glimpse into the world it came from.  Titanic is very much a product of its time rather than the time it depicts, and one's enjoyment of the film will depend very much on one's tolerance for 1950s soap opera dramatics. Those looking for a great film about the Titanic rather than just a love story would be better served by sticking with Ward's far superior A Night to Remember.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

TITANIC | Directed by Jean Negulesco | Stars Clifton Webb, Barbra Stanwyck, Audrey Dalton, Robert Wagner, Thelma Ritter | Not rated | Now available on Blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment.
Daniel Barnz' Won't Back Down is the kind of earnest, "inspirational" drama that audiences tend to love and critics love to hate.

But it didn't really make a big splash with either group when it was released in theaters last fall, and it's not hard to see why. It may be inspired by actual events, but it's such a heavy handed mess that it's hard to get on board with the film's overt sermonizing and saccharine emotionalism.

There is a place in the world for this kind of sincere, unironic filmmaking, but despite some fine performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, Won't Back Down just feels sloppily thrown together. The biggest problem is the ham-fisted, Gandhi quoting script ("Be the change you want to see!"), which feels more like a letter to the editor from an irate parent than an anything that any real person would actually say. It's a film of bumper sticker emotions, rather than ideas that might actually be helpful.

Gyllenhaal and Davis make the most out of their one dimensional roles, though. Gyllenhaal as a crusading mother whose dyslexic daughter has been left behind by a failing public school, and Davis as a teacher being crushed under the weight of an unforgiving system. When the two team up to try and take the school back, they face almost impossible challenges, from cartoonishly evil teachers to vindictive administrators and teachers union goons. I think it's a bit irresponsible for the film to so brazenly lay the blame for the sad state of our public schools at the feet of substandard teachers and never-ending bureaucracy (which is admittedly a problem) rather than acknowledging the culpability micromanaging and overprotective parents in the equation. But the film clearly has a feel good message it wants to achieve and isn't particularly interested in any kind of thoughtful approach to a very real issue. It's all about emotional, gut reactions.

That's not even accounting for the sloppy construction. At one point, Holly Hunter is talking to Gyllenhaal with her back turned to the camera. She stops talking, but her head continues to move, and Gyllenhaal is clearly still listening to something, but the dialogue was removed in favor of a dramatic pause. There are a few shining moments here and there where the film really does have an impact - the opening and closing scenes featuring the young daughter of Gyllenhaal's character are especially moving in their simplicity. But otherwise the film is just trying way too hard. It lives up to its awkward title in terms of emotional shamelessness, and the disc adds insult to injury with some equally treacly, overly simplistic special features - "A Tribute to Teachers" and "The Importance of Education" that do little to illuminate the issues the film raises. Its characters deliver speeches and seem to be talking in political talking points, and only in the opening and closing does it ever achieve any kind of real human feeling. Education is an extremely important issue in America, and there is certainly a dialogue to be had about the causes and solutions for the problem. Unfortunately, Won't Back Down isn't it.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

WON'T BACK DOWN | Directed by Daniel Barnz | Stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Oscar Isaac | Rated PG for thematic elements and language | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mikael Buch's Let My People Go! doesn't exactly break any new ground in the world of gay comedy. Its hero, Reuben (Nicholas Maury), is a flaming stereotype, with an equally stereotypical Jewish family. But rather than lazily coasting on stereotypes substituting for character development, Buch lovingly embraces those stereotypes in a strangely personal way.

In Let My People Go!, stereotypes serve not to marginalize or ridicule the characters, but to embrace the idiosyncrasies of family, something clearly very near and dear to the director's heart. This is the kind of film that can only come from someone comes from its world to some degree.

Buch's own multicultural background informs the clear affection he has for these characters. Co-written by Christoph Honoré, Let My People Go! is the story of Reuben, a gay French postal worker living in Finland with his husband, Teemu, who is forced to return to France to live with his eccentric Jewish family after the two of them have a fight.

Nicolas Maury as Ruben and Carmen Maura as Rachel in LET MY PEOPLE GO!
A film by Mikael Buch. A Zeitgeist Films release.
This isn't your run of the mill lovers' quarrel either. On his daily mail route, an irate man refuses a package that contains nearly $200,000. He asks Reuben to keep it for himself, but when Reuben refuses, the man forcibly tries to reject the package, and has a heart attack in the process. Distraught that people will think he stole the money and killed the man (and refusing to call the police as Teemu demands before kicking him out), Reuben flees to France. His family is tradition, but not so much so that they don't accept Reuben for who he is. The lack of homophobia in the film is especially refreshing. Let My People Go! embraces everyone for who they are, quirks and all.

It's a bit too broad at times, and the outrageousness of the stereotypes are often so over the top as to be silly rather than truly funny, but there's a certain charm about it that is hard to resist. The presence of Almodovar regular Carmen Maura as Reuben's Jewish mother doesn't hurt either. It's a fabulously campy good time, the kind of film the feels like a non-stop party from start to finish. It's neither groundbreaking nor particularly deep, but it's certainly a lot of fun. It's nice to see a film embrace and use stereotypes to its advantage rather than coast on them out of laziness, and Let My People Go! is a winking lampoon of such preconceived notions that gets a lot of mileage out of sheer charm.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

LET MY PEOPLE GO! | Directed by Mikael Buch | Stars Nicholas Maury, Carmen Maura, Jean-François Stévenin, Amira Casar, Clément Sibony, Jarkko Niemi | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC and LA.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From The Dispatch:
Owens represents a classic western archetype of the lone lawman standing up against a band of outlaws, a more modern equivalent of John Wayne in "Rio Bravo" or Gary Cooper in "High Noon." It is this archetypal symbolism that Kim subverts so slyly, playing with our expectations and delivering a surprisingly brilliant action film that is something far better, and far deeper, than anyone could have anticipated. On the surface, "The Last Stand" looks like just another Schwarzenegger shoot 'em up, but it is so much more than that.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I haven't done my Front Row Awards since 2010, but I decided to resurrect them this year. I won't belabor the point with a rambling introduction. Here are my nominations for the best achievements in film in 2012.

Best Picture

Best Director
  • Paul Thomas Anderson, THE MASTER
  • Leos Carax, HOLY MOTORS
  • Michael Haneke, AMOUR
  • Jafar Panahi, THIS IS NOT A FILM
  • Bela Tarr, THE TURIN HORSE

Best Actor
  • Denis Lavant, HOLY MOTORS
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, LINCOLN
  • Joaquin Phoenix, THE MASTER
  • Jean-Louis Trintignant, AMOUR
  • Denzel Washington, FLIGHT

Best Actress
  • Jessica Chastain, ZERO DARK THIRTY
  • Emayatzi Corinealdi, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
  • Jennifer Lawrence, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
  • Emmanuelle Riva, AMOUR
  • Rachel Weisz, THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Best Supporting Actor
  • James Badge Dale, FLIGHT
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, THE MASTER
  • Christopher Walken, A LATE QUARTET
  • Christoph Waltz, DJANGO UNCHAINED

Best Supporting Actress
  • Ann Dowd, COMPLIANCE
  • Sally Field, LINCOLN
  • Anne Hathaway, LES MISERABLES
  • Lorraine Toussaint, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

Best Ensemble Cast
  • ARGO

Best Original Screenplay
  • Michael Haneke, AMOUR
  • Quentin Tarantino, DJANGO UNCHAINED
  • Don Hertzfeldt, IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY
  • Paul Thomas Anderson, THE MASTER

Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Terrence Davies, THE DEEP BLUE SEA
  • Tony Kushner, LINCOLN
  • Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt, OSLO, AUGUST 31ST

Best Original Score
  • Dan Romer, Ben Zeitlin, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
  • John Williams, LINCOLN
  • Jonny Greenwood, THE MASTER
  • Jóhann Jóhannsson, THE MINERS' HYMNS

Best Original Song
  • "Learn Me Right," BRAVE
  • "Song of the Lonely Mountain," THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
  • "Abraham's Daughter," THE HUNGER GAMES
  • "Safe & Sound," THE HUNGER GAMES
  • "Skyfall," SKYFALL

Best Cinematography

Best Art Direction

Best Costume Design

Best Makeup & Hair

Best Film Editing
  • ARGO

Best Visual Effects

Best Sound Mixing

Best Sound Editing

Best Animated Feature

Best Foreign Language Film
  • AMOUR (Austria)
  • BARBARA (Germany)
  • HOLY MOTORS (France)
  • THE TURIN HORSE (Hungary)

Best Documentary
Winners will be announced next week. Check out for more.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The spirit of Carl Th. Dreyer seems to hover over Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan. From its almost eerie calm to its lingering spiritual implications, there were times when I felt as if Dumont were actually channeling Dreyer himself. He even pays direct homage to Dreyer's Ordet in a clear visual nod near the film's end (which, in turn, inadvertently evokes Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light).

Hors Satan is a much more opaque film than Ordet, but that's not without reason. Dumont's films are less overtly spiritual than the work of Dreyer, but no less profound for that. As such, Hors Satan plays its cards close to the vest. It is a deeply introspective film, a kind of puzzle of the soul, a film with multiple interpretations that depends largely on the eye of the beholder and their perception of its central character; a nameless drifter who wanders into a provincial town in the French countryside and forges and unusual friendship with a troubled young girl.

On the surface the man is devoutly religious, kneeling to pray, palms outstretched, every day to the rising sun. It is as if he is thanking God for the very day itself, and his existence is the most precious gift of all. But all is not as it seems with this stranger, who very early on brutally guns down the girl's abusive stepfather in an act of protection. The girl is grateful, and, as it turns out, the kind of person who feels more pain at the death of an animal than the death of a person. When the man accidentally shoots a deer, the girl is distraught and lashes out at him. When he attacks people who are somehow bothering her, however, she barely bats an eye, and embraces him as a protector. But is he a savior, or a devil? That is the central conundrum of Hors Satan, and a question that is never fully answered.

In English the title means Outside Satan, which hints at a darker motive behind the stranger's actions, and his murderous tendencies seem to indicate something evil indeed. But he counters them with something strangely pure, even miraculous. The girl is drawn in, seduced by his mystery. When she makes passes at him, she is instantly rejected. He is almost asexual, despite her advances, and yet he displays a jealousy like that of an angry lover. Locals are also drawn to him, including a widow whose sick daughter he cares for on a regular basis. But even this has its dark undertones. Sometimes evil presents itself to us in innocuous packages, and that I think is key to Dumont's enigmatic film.

The world is not black and white, and Hors Satan exists squarely in a world of shades of gray. We are at first appalled by what appears to be a cold blooded murder of an innocent man, only to discover he was an abusive father, and the murder seems somehow justified. Each act of evil from the stranger could be explained away somehow. We as the audience, much like the girl, find ourselves at constant odds over his actions. That's the most dangerous form of evil, the kind that isn't obvious, the kind that could be somehow justified from a certain point of view. These ambiguities can often mask true evil, and this lost girl, alone and looking for something to hold on to,is the perfect for a devil looking to lead someone astray, no matter how imperceptibly.

Shot on the Côte d’Opale in the French countryside near the English Channel, Hors Satan has an almost otherworldly, even divine beauty. Dumont, with the help of cinematographer Yves Cape creates some indelible images that stand in stark contrast to the stranger's deeds. But evil, as we all know, is sometimes deceptively attractive. Dumont draws us in with long, languid takes, unblinking, all seeing, yet completely unyielding. The film is a neverending series of mysteries that even with its uninterrupted, Dreyer-like camera movements, reveals so little while hiding nothing. He allows us to see the full picture, but the full picture is rarely ever the whole story. The devil is in the details, and in this case the devil may not be the devil at all. That's the fascinating question that drives Hors Satan - if we met Satan face to face, would we recognize him? The implications linger long after the film is over, and while it occasionally seems to be doing more meandering than exploring, Dumont provides us with much to contemplate, a hallmark of any great film. Evil is often so pronounced in cinema that it is unnerving to confront something so ambiguous. And while it may not deal in the same kind of direct spirituality for which Dreyer was known, I think he would be proud.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

HORS SATAN | Directed by Bruno Dumont | Stars David Dewaele, Alexanda Lemarte | In French w/English subtitles | Not rated | Opens Friday, 1/18, in NYC.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From The Dispatch:
"Zero Dark Thirty" never gives us a moment of triumph per se, just another ambiguity in a never-ending line, but there is something strangely cathartic about its steely distillation of the first 10 years of the new American century, and what would become, as some would argue, the rotting of its soul. 
Click here to read my full review.
There's nothing quite like watching Liam Neeson running around the world killing people.  No one does it quite like Neeson, who has become something of our modern day version of a 1980s action hero, blasting his way out of any sticky situation with a scowl and witty retort.

Neeson's steely presence was the main reason for the surprise success and continued endurance of Luc Besson's 2008 hit, Taken. It should come as no surprise then, that someone somewhere would try to cash in on the original's success, hence the completely needless existence of Taken 2.

Director Oliver Megaton (Transporter 3) steps in for Luc Besson, and despite lots of flashy cinematography and frenetic editing, Megaton is just not the action craftsman that Besson is, and it shows in this film's disappointingly rote action sequences, that range from ridiculous to just plain silly. A rooftop chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of a similar, and altogether superior, sequence in Skyfall, which is almost a textbook on how to do modern action correctly.

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) shoots his way out of another dire situation.
© 2012 EUROPACORP Ð M6 FILMS - GRIVE PRODUCTIONS. All rights reserved. 
Taken 2 opens on the funeral of all the people that ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills (Neeson) killed in the original film, as some new sneering villain vows revenge for family members he is burying. This time it's personal, and the target isn't just the daughter, but Mills' entire family. And despite Mills' very specific set of deadly skills, he finds himself and his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen) taken and held captive by a gang of vengeful thugs. He has a few tricks up his sleeve of course, and with the help of his daughter (taking his instructions over the phone, of course), escapes the clutches of the evil doers but is forced to leave the injured Lenore behind. In one of the film's most ridiculous scenes, Mills has his daughter set off grenades at their hotel so he can get his directional bearings during his escape, yet the consequences of randomly setting of grenades in a populated hotel for no good reason are completely ignored.

It is a scene that is completely indicative of Taken 2's absolute disregard of any kind of narrative logic. By the time Mills returns to rescue Lenore and dish out justice of the Neeson kind, the film has forfeited all credibility in favor of incoherently edited shoot-em-up fireworks. Megaton has visual flair to spare, but even Neeson's charisma seems dampened by the relative pointlessness of this film. It is the epitome of a soulless cash grab, and offers to real reason for existing other than watching Neeson shoot people. Alas, even that has lost some of its luster amid Megaton's hectic style, making me long for the relative subtlety of Dirty Harry. The Blu-ray presentation is handsome enough, and Megaton does give us some gorgeous wideshots, but they are in service of such an insufferable film that it all adds up to naught. Stick with the original. It's really all we needed in the first place.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Before Alfred Hitchcock was "Alfred Hitchcock," the master of suspense as we know him in America, he was a director of smart British thrillers that would eventually pique the interest of Hollywood. The best of Hitchcock's British productions is arguably The Lady Vanishes (which Criterion also released on Blu-ray for the first time last year), although a defense could certainly be mounted for The 39 Steps as well. Lesser known, perhaps, is his 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

It's a famous title, certainly, but more so for Hitchcock's own 1956 American remake starring James Stewart and Doris Day (with its Oscar winning song, "Que Sera Sera"). The original, starring Peter Lorre in his first English speaking role, is a lesser known effort, but a superior one - an often overlooked jewel from Hitchcock's early days.

Leslie Banks as Bob Lawrence and Peter Lorre as Abbott.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes (in contrast to the remake's more inflated 120 minutes), The Man Who Knew to Much is a lean and efficient thriller, showcasing Hitchcock's mastery of narrative economy. Not unlike The Manchurian Candidate, which wasn't released until 28 years later, the film is a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a couple who accidentally stumbles upon a clue to an elaborate assassination plot, only to find their young daughter kidnapped to keep them silent. Peter Lorre makes for a great villain, and his performance is even more extraordinary considering he barely spoke English at the time and learned his lines phonetically. In the annals of great Hitchcock set pieces, the climactic theater assassination sequence, and the prolonged shoot-out that ensues, is one of the master's most expertly crafted scenes. The build up to the assassination, accompanied by an original aria by Arthur Benjamin, is pure Hitchcock, and may be the best single moment in any of his early British sound productions.

The Blu-ray from Criterion, featuring a brand new, much needed digital restoration, is crisp and clear, a vast improvement over the many sub-par public domain copies that have dominated Hitchcock bargain bin collections. The most notable extra are audio excerpts from Francois Truffaut's famous interview with Hitchcock, which are absolutely essential for both casual fans of the director and hardcore cinephiles alike. It's an impressive set for one of Hitchcock's most unfairly overlooked accomplishments - a hidden gem in one of the cinema's most legendary careers.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:
  • New digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • New audio commentary featuring film historian Philip Kemp 
  • New interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro 
  • The Illustrated Hitchcock, an extensive interview with director Alfred Hitchcock from 1972, conducted by journalist Pia Lindstrom and film historian William K. Everson 
  • Audio excerpts from filmmaker François Truffaut’s legendary 1962 interviews with Hitchcock 
  • Restoration demonstration 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My girlfriend and I went to see Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty tonight. It was the first time I had been to a commercial film screening in months, having spent so much time in press screenings over awards season.  But I missed my screening of ZDT, so I was anxious to finally catch up with it.

It wasn't until we settled down in our seats that we realized we were sitting next to a kid who was around eight years old. Eight. Years. Old. There's really no excuse for a parent to bring a kid that young to an R-rated film, especially one of such moral complexity as Zero Dark Thirty, let along a whole brood of them, because clearly this family couldn't find a babysitter and brought all three of their young children.

Of course, the children were very confused by much of it, asking questions occasionally, but were surprisingly well behaved for most of it. But how is a child supposed to process the events of that film? I can't help but think, though, that their view of it will probably be more developed than those critics who have ridiculously claimed that the film is pro-torture for its honest depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques during the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

We do not live in a black and white world, we live in a world colored in shades of gray, and the film's clear eyed exploration of the circumstances that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden exemplifies that. Glossing over the film's moral ambiguities indicates a narrow worldview and a complete misunderstanding of the cinematic language. The world isn't that simple, and neither is this story.

Although there aren't many gray areas when it comes to bringing eight year olds to movies like this. Thank you, random guy in Boone, NC for reminding me why I avoid commercial screenings whenever possible. I have an alternate choice, but it's easy to see why so many people who don't have the access to screeners and press screenings that I do are staying home rather than going to the movies. When you pay $10.50 for a ticket, you don't expect to be sitting next to a chattering child in a movie clearly made for grown-ups.

Friday, January 11, 2013

There are few films in the history of cinema more infamously bad than Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Made famous by Mystery Science Theater 3000, the film has managed to endure since its release in 1964 due to its sheer awfulness. From the cardboard sets, to the threadbare costumes, to the patchy makeup, to the campy performances, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians somehow manages to get every element of production hilariously wrong.

Even the story is a mess, which even if taken as a children's fantasy wouldn't make much sense (one wonders why the makers of the similarly themed Mars Needs Moms didn't see this as a red flag).

Something is wrong with the children of Mars. All they do is sit around watching television broadcasts from Earth. Perplexed, the Martians ask an elder how to lift their spirits, and are told about the joy of Christmas that Santa Claus spreads on Earth.

So the aliens do the most logical thing they can think of - head to Earth to kidnap Santa. If Santa can bring Christmas cheer to the children of Earth, why not Mars? Armed with the world's clunkiest space ship that makes the effects in the original Star Trek TV series look like Avatar, the Martians descend on Earth, causing mass panic, and take Santa along with two children back to Mars. While most of the Martians are friendly, one in particular, Voldar, thinks the children of Mars are just fine thank you very much, and sets out to put an end to Santa forever. But the jolly old elf has a few tricks up his sleeve, and along with his newfound friends, puts an end to the Martians' plot just in time to save Christmas for both planets.

It's all patently ridiculous, made without any regard for basic story structure or narrative logic, resulting in an experience that is more akin to an acid trip than a movie.The presence of a truly bizarre "Hooray for Santa Claus!" jingle (complete with sing-a-long) doesn't help matters in that regard. Since it's in the public domain, the film has long been available on cheap, substandard DVD, and Kino has made the film available on Blu-ray for the first time through its Horizon label. The film still looks awful, because no amount of HD could ever make a film with such shoddy source elements look good, but the actual quality of the Blu-ray transfer is a a marked improvement from bargain bin DVDs made on the cheap. If there is such a thing as a definitive release of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, this is it. Although it does benefit considerably from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary, which is not included here, there's still quite a bit of campy entertainment value. For those with a taste for bad movies, especially unintentionally hilarious ones that take themselves completely seriously, you can't do much better than this.

FILM GRADE - zero stars

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Horizon Movies.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chris Colfer might well prove to be the biggest breakout from the Glee phenomenon. While the show isn't quite the event that it once was when it first started, Colfer has proven to be one of its strongest assets, racking up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his turn as gay high schooler Kurt Hummel.

As is often the case in Hollywood, gay actors tend to get pigeonholed into playing gay roles, but if his new film, Struck by Lightning, is any indication, Colfer is refusing to be put into a box. Not only does he star in the film, but he wrote the screenplay as well, showcasing a previously unseen side of the actor that cements him as a creative force to be reckoned with.

There is a wry quality to Colfer's writing that is reminiscent of Tina Fey. While the film's fledgling distributor, Tribeca Film, doesn't have the same resources for a wide release as the major studios, it's easy to see Struck by Lightning becoming a word of mouth hit on DVD as the next Mean Girls.

Rebel Wilson and Chris Colfer in “Struck by Lighting” distributed by Tribeca Film.
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film.
Like that film, Struck by Lightning is set square in the middle of a small high school in a small, dead end town. Colfer stars as Carson Phillips, who is struck dead by a freak bolt of lightning in the film’s opening minutes. Flashing back to the weeks leading up to his untimely death, we find that Carson is an ambitious senior whose position as the editor of the school newspaper and president of the journalism club hasn't gotten him anywhere with his shallow peers. Even his school guidance counselor (The Office's Angela Kinsey) doesn't quite know what to do with a student so driven to succeed. Armed with a dream to study at Northwestern and work for the New Yorker, Carson discovers that good grades and extracurricular activities just aren't cutting it for college admissions anymore. So he sets out to start a literary magazine that will help him to get into the college of his dreams.

Motivating his decidedly un-motivated peers, however, proves to be much easier said than done. But after discovering one of the school's most popular guys in a bathroom stall with the president of the drama club, Carson discovers his path to success - blackmail. Armed with dirt on almost the entire school, Carson starts putting together a literary magazine filled with the hopes and dreams of the entire student body - a task that will ultimately prove to be his greatest success, or his complete undoing.

Chris Colfer in "Struck by Lighting" distributed by Tribeca Film.
Photo Credit Suzanne Houchin.
Colfer's acerbic wit consistently buoys the film above the typical pitfalls of "quirky" indie comedies, but he also wisely surrounded himself with a terrific ensemble, including the always entertaining Rebel Wilson as Carson's awkward, plagiarist best friend, Malerie, Allison Janney as his pill popping mother, and Dermot Mulroney as his long absent father. It is that relationship with his mother that makes up the film's strangely affecting core. Even amid the plentiful humor and razor sharp, destined-to-be-quotable banter ("I hate you more than I hate the Holocaust!"), Struck by Lightning packs a surprising emotional punch.

There are certainly familiar elements at play here, but what makes the film such a breath of fresh air is how refreshingly not self absorbed it is. Colfer's writing displays a confidence that eschews the navel gazing irony that is so typical of his generation. The result is a completely winning film, the kind of smartly written indie comedy that so rarely separates itself from the self consciously quirky pack. Struck by Lightning is a film with genuine heart that has the potential to garner a new cult following. And as for Colfer, he's no longer just a talent to watch in front of the camera, but an imposing creative force behind it as well. There's clearly more to him than just "the kid from Glee."

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

STRUCK BY LIGHTNING | Directed by Brian Dannelly | Stars Chris Colfer, Rebel Wilson, Allison Janney, Dermot Mulroney, Christina Hendricks, Sarah Hyland | Not rated | Opens Friday, 1/11, in select cities.
Surprise was the key word at this morning's Academy Award nomination announcements. As expected, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln led the nominations with 12, but the films that were once considered its biggest competition - Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables failed to garner Best Director nominations, an almost essential piece of the Best Picture puzzle. Does that mean Lincoln is now undisputed? Or does the wide ranging love for Silver Linings Playbook indicate it's a bigger threat than we once thought?

I'm most thrilled for the love for Michael Haneke's Amour, which picked up nods for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, and Foreign Language Film. I would have loved to see The Painting get nominated for Best Animated Feature, but a surprise nod for The Pirates! Band of Misfits shut it out. I was also disappointed that Howard Shore's score for The Hobbit didn't get the recognition it so richly deserves, although he's already won three Oscars for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The bottom line is that the Academy through a lot of people for a loop, and several "locks" found themselves not nominated. So what surprises do they have in store when it comes to the winners? Is Lincoln as safe as we think? Is Silver Linings Playbook this year's Shakespeare in Love? This could still end up being one of the most exciting races in Oscar history.

Here is the full list of nominations:

Performance by an actor in a leading role
  • Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  • Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln"
  • Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables"
  • Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
  • Denzel Washington in "Flight"
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
  • Alan Arkin in "Argo"
  • Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"
  • Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"
  • Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
Performance by an actress in a leading role
  • Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
  • Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"
  • Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"
  • Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
  • Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
  • Amy Adams in "The Master"
  • Sally Field in "Lincoln"
  • Anne Hathaway in "Les Misérables"
  • Helen Hunt in "The Sessions"
  • Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best animated feature film of the year
  • "Brave" Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
  • "Frankenweenie" Tim Burton
  • "ParaNorman" Sam Fell and Chris Butler
  • "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" Peter Lord
  • "Wreck-It Ralph" Rich Moore
Achievement in cinematography
  • "Anna Karenina" Seamus McGarvey
  • "Django Unchained" Robert Richardson
  • "Life of Pi" Claudio Miranda
  • "Lincoln" Janusz Kaminski
  • "Skyfall" Roger Deakins
Achievement in costume design
  • "Anna Karenina" Jacqueline Durran
  • "Les Misérables" Paco Delgado
  • "Lincoln" Joanna Johnston
  • "Mirror Mirror" Eiko Ishioka
  • "Snow White and the Huntsman" Colleen Atwood
Achievement in directing
  • "Amour" Michael Haneke
  • "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Benh Zeitlin
  • "Life of Pi" Ang Lee
  • "Lincoln" Steven Spielberg
  • "Silver Linings Playbook" David O. Russell
Best documentary feature
  • "5 Broken Cameras" Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
  • "The Gatekeepers"
    Nominees to be determined
  • "How to Survive a Plague"
    Nominees to be determined
  • "The Invisible War"
    Nominees to be determined
  • "Searching for Sugar Man"
    Nominees to be determined
Best documentary short subject
  • "Inocente"
    Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
  • "Kings Point"
    Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider
  • "Mondays at Racine" Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan
  • "Open Heart"
    Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
  • "Redemption"
    Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill
Achievement in film editing
  • "Argo" William Goldenberg
  • "Life of Pi" Tim Squyres
  • "Lincoln" Michael Kahn
  • "Silver Linings Playbook" Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
  • "Zero Dark Thirty" Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg
Best foreign language film of the year
  • "Amour" Austria
  • "Kon-Tiki" Norway
  • "No" Chile
  • "A Royal Affair" Denmark
  • "War Witch" Canada
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
  • "Hitchcock"Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
  • "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
    Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
  • "Les Misérables" Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
  • "Anna Karenina" Dario Marianelli
  • "Argo" Alexandre Desplat
  • "Life of Pi" Mychael Danna
  • "Lincoln" John Williams
  • "Skyfall" Thomas Newman
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
  • "Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice"
    Music and Lyric by J. Ralph
  • "Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from "Ted"
    Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
  • "Pi's Lullaby" from "Life of Pi"
    Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
  • "Skyfall" from "Skyfall"
    Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
  • "Suddenly" from "Les Misérables"
    Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil
Best motion picture of the year
  • "Amour" Nominees to be determined
  • "Argo" Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
  • "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers
  • "Django Unchained" Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
  • "Les Misérables" Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
  • "Life of Pi" Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
  • "Lincoln" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
  • "Silver Linings Playbook" Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
  • "Zero Dark Thirty" Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
Achievement in production design
  • "Anna Karenina"
    Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
  • "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
    Production Design: Dan Hennah; Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
  • "Les Misérables"
    Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
  • "Life of Pi"
    Production Design: David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
  • "Lincoln"
    Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Best animated short film
  • "Adam and Dog" Minkyu Lee
  • "Fresh Guacamole" PES
  • "Head over Heels" Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
  • "Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"" David Silverman
  • "Paperman" John Kahrs
Best live action short film
  • "Asad" Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
  • "Buzkashi Boys" Sam French and Ariel Nasr
  • "Curfew" Shawn Christensen
  • "Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)" Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
  • "Henry" Yan England
Achievement in sound editing
  • "Argo" Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
  • "Django Unchained" Wylie Stateman
  • "Life of Pi" Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
  • "Skyfall" Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
  • "Zero Dark Thirty" Paul N.J. Ottosson
Achievement in sound mixing
  • "Argo"
    John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
  • "Les Misérables"
    Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
  • "Life of Pi"
    Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
  • "Lincoln"
    Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
  • "Skyfall" Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson
Achievement in visual effects
  • "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
    Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
  • "Life of Pi" Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
  • "Marvel's The Avengers"
    Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
  • "Prometheus" Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
  • "Snow White and the Huntsman"
    Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson
Adapted screenplay
  • "Argo" Screenplay by Chris Terrio
  • "Beasts of the Southern Wild" Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
  • "Life of Pi" Screenplay by David Magee
  • "Lincoln" Screenplay by Tony Kushner
  • "Silver Linings Playbook" Screenplay by David O. Russell
Original screenplay
  • "Amour" Written by Michael Haneke
  • "Django Unchained" Written by Quentin Tarantino
  • "Flight" Written by John Gatins
  • "Moonrise Kingdom" Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
  • "Zero Dark Thirty" Written by Mark Boal

The winners will be announced at the 85 Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 25.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

I haven't seen the first two Diary of a Wimpy Kid films. They just weren't on my radar, and I never saw much of a point in reviewing them. So I came to the series' third entry, Dog Days, with a completely clean slate. So despite the fact that I am nowhere near its target audience, and it's clearly not the kind of film critics were ever meant to pay attention to, I fell for it, and fell for it hard.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is the kind of film I would have loved as a kid, and to my great surprise, I loved it now. It's silly, the kids are occasionally awkward, it's completely outlandish, but then again so is childhood. And Dog Days absolutely exudes the strange, messy essence of childhood at every turn.

The wimpy kid of the title is Greg Heffly (Zachary Gordon), a kid faced with spending the summer with his dorky parents (a hilariously gung-ho Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris), and his antagonistic older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick).

Unwilling to face actually being seen in public with his embarrassing family, he cooks up a scheme with his best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), to pretend to have a job at the local country club (of which Rowley's family are members), while he tries to get  date with his crush, Holly Hills (Peyton List). When Rodrick gets wind of his plan, however, he blackmails Greg into bringing him along, causing all sorts of complications along the way. On top of all this, Greg's dad is constantly looking for bonding opportunities, and signs them up for a scouting trip that quickly devolves into a competition between dads.

It's not exactly a strong plot, and it covers familiar territory - familial bonding and things of that nature. But it's all done with such a refreshing sense of guileless innocence. It doesn't feel like the manufactured studio product it very well could have been. These kids clearly had the time of their lives making this, with its gee-whiz sense of humor and clever integration of animation connecting the characters to their hand drawn literary counterparts. Fox's Blu-ray treatment is pretty standard for this kind of kid fare, but really this is a perfect film for families to enjoy together. No great art, this. But it will almost certainly put a smile on your face.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: DOG DAYS | Directed by David Bowers | Stars Zachary Gordon, Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris, Devon Bostick, Robert Capron, Peyton List | Rated PG for some rude humor | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.
It probably goes without saying that this list is somewhat dominated by The Criterion Collection, but 2012 also saw some smaller specialty distributors stepping up to challenge the arthouse juggernaut. There was a wealth of great films making their way onto home video this year. Here are ten that really stood out.

(The Criterion Collection)

Godrey Reggio's visionary documentaries, wordlessly chronicling life on Earth set to Philip Glass' mesmerizing scores, get a magnificent treatment from the Criterion Collection, a year end jewel in a banner year for Criterion box sets. Koyaanisqatsi (1982) remains perhaps the definitive chronicle of human existence, as it explores the human race's impact in a once pristine landscape. If I were making a time capsule for a future alien race to discover long after humans have gone extinct, Koyaanisqatsi would be the first film I'd choose, and Criterion's gorgeous blu-ray transfer is the treatment it deserves, preserving it for future generations in all of its transcendent, spiritual glory.


While not one single release, perhaps, Kino's Redemption series of 10 erotic horror films by French exploitation auteur Jean Rollin represented the finest one of the finest extended releases of the year. Some good, some bad, all fascinating, these 10 films offer a glimpse into the mind of an artist often hampered by studio mandated eroticism in order to sell his strange and unique visions, which still managed to shine through the often laughably gratuitous sex. The best of the lot is 1973's The Iron Rose, a masterpiece in any genre, but the rest of the films, including The Nude Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), Lips of Blood (1975), Fascination (1979), The Demoniacs (1974), Requiem for a Vampire (1971), The Rape of the Vampire (1968), The Living Dead Girl (1982), and Two Orphan Vampires (1997) represent the core of a truly singular filmography. Kino's Blu-ray treatment of each title, along with thorough liner notes by Tim Lucas, is top notch.

(Flicker Alley)

While not necessarily a great film in and of itself (it's essentially an extended clip reel designed to showcase a new technology), This is Cinerama (1952) was nevertheless treated to a showcase blu-ray release by Flicker Alley (along with a separate release for the 1958 Cinerama title, Windjammer) that is perhaps the most impressive in the specialty label's history. Presented in "Smilebox," preserving the wrap around panoramic splendor of the three screen Cinerama medium, this Blu-ray set is the closest many of us will ever come to experiencing Merian C. Cooper's legendary roadshow. Cinerama may not have turned out to be the future of film, but Flicker Alley's exhaustive set rivals Criterion in its exploration  of the film's historical importance and legacy. One of the year's most essential discs.


There are few labels more dedicated to the preservation of film history than Milestone, and its president, Dennis Doros. 2012 was a strong year for Milestone, including an kid-friendly Blu-ray release of Mary Pickford films designed to introduce children to silent film, a unique and refreshing undertaking that brought some of Pickford's most beloved films to Blu-ray for the first time. Their flagship release of the year, however, was Lionel Rogosin's seminal 1956 chronicle of New York life, On the Bowery. Selected for the National Film Registry in 2008, On the Bowery mixes documentary footage with scenes featuring non-professional, real life Bowery residents, taking a hard look at the impoverished conditions of one of New York's overlooked districts. The lovingly produced Blu-ray set also includes Rogosin's Good Times, Wonderful Times and Out.

(The Criterion Collection)

Criterion really outdid itself when it came to box sets this year. This set, which includes In Which We Serve (Lean's directorial debut), This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and his masterpiece, Brief Encounter represents some of the most thoroughly entertaining films in the entire Criterion Collection. In Which We Serve showcases a thrilling young talent, This Happy Breed mourns a way of life in decline surrounded by war, Blithe Spirit provided supernatural escapism, and Brief Encounter would go down as one of the finest works Lean would ever produce. Criterion takes us on a grand tour of the birth of one of cinema's greatest artists.

(Cinema Guild)

Cinema Guild continues to impress more and more with each passing year. Not only in the quality of their theatrical releases (which this year included Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Turin Horse, and Neighboring Sounds), but in their home video acquisitions as well. What makes them so special is how they seemingly improve upon themselves with each release, gradually learning and expanding into one of the absolute best distributors on the market. 2012 was their finest year yet, culminating in an excellent box set release of early films by Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark). Sokurov's desaturated colors and hazy cinematography are especially impressive on Blu-ray in Whispering Pages, his 1994 distillation of Dostoevsky that never got released in the United States. It's a breathtakingly gorgeous work, slowly devolving into black and white, crowning a banner year for Cinema Guild in grand fashion.


Universal's year long 100th anniversary celebration got off to a fantastic start with a long awaited Blu-ray release of one of their most beloved films, To Kill a Mockingbird. While the rest of the year would see the likes of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Jaws finally making their way onto the HD format, but it is the quiet beauty of Mockingbird that I think impresses the most. Its gorgeous black and white images are more beautiful than ever in their crystal clear Blu-ray presentation. Robert Mulligan's classic adaptation of Harper Lee's immortal exploration of injustice and racism filtered through childhood innocence remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made.

(The Criterion Collection)

The premier release of Criterion's prestigious November slate, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, a trio of adaptations of medieval texts - The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights, represent the Italian director's slyly subversive examination of the relationship between sexuality and religion. The Trilogy of Life showcases a more innocent view of sex through Pasolini's idealistic vision that would soon give way to a more cynical outlook at a world in decline, later represented in his infamous masterpiece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Perhaps the most beautifully packaged of Criterion's 2012 releases, the Blu-ray set is a sumptuous feast for Pasolini fans and cineastes alike, looking to explore one of the most fascinating trilogies in cinema history. Pasolini infused his films with an earthy, naturalistic take on medieval life, rich in symbolism and period detail. Their gleefully blasphemous sense of humor is coupled by an almost naive simplicity that seems a world away from the degradation he would later showcase in Salo.


Once the highest grossing film of all time (until James Cameron's own Avatar knocked it off its throne), Titanic, the Gone with the Wind  of my generation, at long last arrived on Blu-ray in 2012. And what a glorious set it is. Cameron always uses the most state of the art technologies to make sure his films get the presentation they deserve, and Titanic is certainly no different. The picture is pristine, the sound is perfect, it is, in short, the very definition of a showcase disc. The epic glory of the 11 time Oscar winning film is preserved and even enhanced here, reminding us just what Blu-ray is really all about. 

(Kino Classics)

Kino did well by Fritz Lang this past year, also releasing the director's Scarlet Street on Blu-ray, as well as a set of three of the director's early works on DVD later in the year. The best of them all, however, was Lang's two part silent epic, Die Nibelungen. Released in 1924 as two films - Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, Die Nibelungen is based on the old German legend recounted in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, in which the hero, Siegfried, sets out to rescue his beloved Brunhild. A sweeping epic of the first order, Die Nibelungen presages the monumental brilliance of Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis, in its sheer scope and ambition. And while the effects may be somewhat hokey by today's standards, this really is everything we go to the movies for - heroes, damsels in distress, castles, dragons, epic battles - truly a film equal to the proportions of the legendary tale that inspired it. Kino's Blu-ray transfer is shockingly good for a film that is 89 years old, proving that even silent films can be as relevant and timeless to modern audiences as they were in their own time.

The gorgeous colors and long takes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's epic procedural come to thrilling life via a stunning HD transfer.

WEEKEND (The Criterion Collection)
Godard's messy, vibrant masterpiece finally comes to Blu-ray. His most brilliant achievement, and Criterion gives it the disc it deserves.

LONESOME (The Criterion Collection)
A lost gem that bridges the silent and sound eras, this is top notch work on all levels. The early color sequence especially dazzles.

A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY (The Criterion Collection)
An avant-garde master sees his work released in one comprehensive package. There are lots of treasures to be discovered here.

Kid friendly bookends introduce Pickford's films to young audiences of a generation with no connection to silent film. The acting is a bit hokey in the bookends, but it all works surprisingly well in context, and the films themselves are impeccably rendered (one often forgets just how good these films actually are).