Thursday, February 28, 2013

When Chilean director Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011, his epic, 5 hour masterpiece, Mysteries of Lisbon, had just been released in US theaters two weeks prior. It was a great, career capping masterwork that any filmmaker would have been proud to go out on. But Ruiz had one more film it him that was completed before his death, and while it may not be the masterpiece that his penultimate work is, Night Across the Street makes for a sublime swansong to an impressive career.

Smaller in scale and scope than Lisbon, Night Across the Street is a quieter, more unassuming farewell to be sure. But it is also a remarkably strong meditation on life and death, greeting death as an old friend rather than an enemy to be feared. The resulting film seems like a warm embrace, at times scattershot, at times involving, always fascinating - a prismatic stock of a life as viewed by a man in final stages of his life. Death is coming, one way or another. And here its arrival is fully accepted.

Sergio Hernandez in Raúl Ruiz's "Night Across the Street."
 Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Like fallen leaves caught in an autumn breeze, memories tumble through the mind of an elderly office worker who is facing a forced retirement after years of dedicated service. These memories, some real, some imagined, make up the picture of a life well lived, as he faces his own impending irrelevance. The memories range from bittersweet, to funny, to musings of a child living in his own rich fantasy world. He recalls meetings with historical figures such as Beethoven, a childhood hero, and fictional characters like Long John Silver. What's real and what's not is ultimately unimportant, what is important are the impressions that life has left behind. Night Across the Street plays like a lucid dream, an extraordinary walk through life that is both moving and amusing.

Based on a series of short stories by Chilean author Hernan del Solar, the film eschews typical narrative form  for something more impressionistic (reinforced by its dreamlike use of greenscreen). Del Solar belonged to a group of writers called the "Imaginists," who rebelled against naturalistic writing for something more imaginative and less formal. Ruiz' film captures that spirit without ever feeling as if its just being whimsical for whimsy's sake. It is a film that is both warm and cold, sweet and sour, loving and biting. Ruiz went out not with a bang, but with a whisper. But it is a gentle whisper, a finely tuned rumination on life and death, endings and beginnings, that proved remarkably prescient. As the great director's final statement to the world, Night Across the Street is a fond and fitting farewell.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET | Directed by Raul Ruiz | Stars  Christian Vadim, Sergio Hernandez, Valentina Vargad, Chamila Rodriguez | Not Rated | In Portuguese with English subtitles  | Now playing in select cities.
For all the jokes that are made at Arnold Schwarzenegger's expense, especially regarding his thick accent and occasionally wooden acting, the man has made some pretty good movies during his career.

He's made some stinkers too, to be sure. But from Terminator to Total Recall to The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger has actually made some pretty good career choices, give or take becoming governor of California (depending on your point of view). One of his strongest works of the 1980s was Paul Michael Glaser's The Running Man, which despite providing Schwarzenegger with one of his best roles, is often overlooked in favor of some of his more successful works of the decade. The Running Man is nevertheless a film ahead of its time, a futuristic riff on The Most Dangerous Game that would provide the template for many such books and films to come, right up to and including The Hunger Games.

Based on an early novel by Stephen King (when he was still writing under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman), The Running Man is set in a dystopian future where criminals are thrown into the middle of a vicious reality show where they are hunted down by trained gladiators for a cheering audience at home. Criminals, of course, is a loose term, because most of these contestants are actually political dissidents and other enemies of the state. In the case of Schwarzenegger's Ben Richards, a former police officer who is arrested for refusing to carry out orders to massacre a group of unarmed civilians.  He meets members of an underground resistance group while in prison, and plots a daring escape. But his physical prowess soon captures the attention of the producers of the "Running Man" TV show, and after he is caught, he is dragged into the game along with two of his resistance comrades and a former hostage he took during his escape that has learned the truth about Richards' arrest. They will live or die together as massive, highly trained killers, each with their own unique weapon, enter the arena determined to execute the prisoners in front of a national audience.

It's a remarkably prescient media satire, presaging the reality TV craze by almost 15 years and even went so far as to cast Family Feud's Richard Dawson as the show's egomaniacal host. The effects are a bit cheesy, even for the time (compare this to something like Blade Runner or Aliens), but it's still undeniably smart filmmaking. Even Schwarzenegger's endless parade of puns aren't as grating as they are in Batman & Robin. That's because Glaser (who is best known for play Starsky in the original Starsky and Hutch series) actually has something intelligent to say about a bloodthirsty public's desensitization to violence and increasing demand for death, turning their allegiance on a dime for whoever has the best chance of killing someone else at the time. The host handing out "The Running Man - Home Version" board game to spectators in the studio audience is an especially clever touch. On Blu-ray the film looks quite good, the vibrant 80s colors really pop in HD, although the film shows its age a bit in the darker moments. There are no special features other than a commentary with Glaser. It would have been nice to hear from Schwarzenegger, or even Stephen King, but the film remains a strong entry in the actor's filmography that stands along some of his very best work.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE RUNNING MAN | Directed by Paul Michael Glaser | Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse Ventura, Richard Dawson | Rated R | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time wandering around the horror section of my local video store, looking at the grotesque VHS cover art and wondering what horrors lurked within those tapes that I knew my parents would never let me rent.

Two of the covers that have stuck in my mind the most through the years were the covers of Night of the Demons and Night of the Demons 2. While I still have never seen the original film, which still has not been released on Blu-ray and is hard to find on DVD, its sequel has just been given a Blu-ray and DVD release from the folks at Olive Films.

Being much older (and hopefully wiser) than I was in the early 90s, I came to the film with a little more trepidation, and a little more discernment. How good could a movie called Night of the Demons 2 possibly be? The answer - pretty damn good.

It's actually quite a bit better than it has any right to be. Sure it has all the over the top gore, gratuitous nudity, and unintentional homo-eroticism we have come to expect from the genre films of the time, but there's something unexpectedly self aware about it that makes it a pleasure to watch. Taking its cues from the Nightmare on Elm Street series (director Brian Trenchard-Smith refers to its demonic antagonist, Angela, as the "female Freddy" in the commentary), Night of the Demons 2 never takes itself too seriously, although it more resembles the later, more campy entries in the Elm Street series than the more frightening original.  There's still a few scares to be had though, as a group of hormonal teenagers at a Catholic school head to the infamous Hull House on Halloween, home of a local urban legend about a monstrous demon named Angela who is said to roam its halls. Along for the ride is Mouse, Angela's soft spoken sister, who is horrified to learn that Angela is very much still alive, and in need of a human sacrifice. As the teens are possessed one by one, it is up to the school's severe headmistress, Sister Gloria, to do battle with Angela and send her back to Hell where she belongs.

With its tongue planted firmly in cheek, Night of the Demons 2 is a deliciously ridiculous ride. How many other movies can claim to have nuns battling demons with holy water guns and balloons? While a few of the performances may be a bit wooden, the special effects are actually pretty nifty (a girl's breasts turn into hands before reaching out and grabbing an unfortunate victim) and the makeup work is surprisingly strong. The new Blu-ray by Olive Films is surprisingly sharp given the film's age and budget, and while it is pretty bare bones features-wise, the commentary with director Trenchard-Smith and director of photography David Lewis is pretty entertaining. This is an overlooked gem of 90s horror, a fun, campy, self referential work of low budget excess that is almost impossible to resist. It may not have the same kind of following as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, but its actually better than some of that series' lesser sequels, and far more clever than its title and subject matter would suggest. Horror aficionados will find a lot to appreciate here, but even beyond the die-hard genre enthusiasts, Night of the Demons 2 will be a delightfully frightful discovery.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 | Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith | Stars Cristi Harris, Darin Heames, Robert Jayne, Merle Kennedy, Jennifer Rhodes | Rated R | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films.
I finally got the chance to watch Ava DuVernay's lovely short film, The Door, which is available in its entirety on YouTube.

DuVernay's last feature film, Middle of Nowhere, was one of the hidden gems of 2012, and deserves a second look. Her work on The Door, which stars Gabrielle Union, Adepero Oduye, Emayatzi Corinealdi, Goapele, and Alfre Woodard, is equally exquisite. Check it out!

From The Dispatch:
Unlike many of its ghostly brethren, "Dark Skies" is a genuinely creepy thriller that doesn't rely on cheap jump scares to frighten the audience. Director Scott Stewart builds a strong sense of suspense and dread, fraying the audience's nerves rather than merely jumping out and saying "boo!" That is something that is sorely missing in a lot of modern horror films, and while there are a few directors out there who are bucking the trend like Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") and Neil Marshall ("The Descent"), audiences are rarely won over by that kind of subtlety. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When I was around 13 or 14 years old, my parents got me a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. I was already interested in movies, but EW gave me a window into the world of film I had never had before, especially through the writing of critics Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman.

Their writing allowed me to discover films I would have never heard of otherwise, and being a young teen in the early 2000s the internet was not as big a part of my life as it is today. Their writing broadened my horizons, especially Schwarzbaum's, who I quickly realized more closely shared my tastes. I found myself nodding in agreement to her reviews as often as I found myself shaking my fist at Gleiberman's. It was Schwartzbaum who encouraged me to check out the lovely Israeli indie, Late Marriage (for which I am forever grateful), and whose praises for films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Talk to Her, Spirited Away, Lost in Translation, Mystic River, Adaptation, The Fast Runner and About Schmidt, as well as the Romanian cinema that I have come to love so dearly, encouraged me to look beyond the films that were playing at my local multiplex.

It was through Entertainment Weekly that I first heard of Gosford Park, the film I usually credit as the one that began my love affair with film. And while I can mostly thank Robert Altman for that,  I can never discount  the influence Schwarzbaum's writing had on this aspiring young film critic.

Today Schwarzbaum penned her farewell letter as she plans to retire from Entertainment Weekly. I haven't had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly in years, having moved on to publications like Film Comment, and trusted online sources for thoughts on the current cinema, I have to thank Lisa Schwarzbaum for the inspiration that she has been in my life. Her voice will be sorely missed in the world of film criticism, and I am forever thankful to her for helping shape me into the critic that I am today.
Revisiting Skyfall on Blu-ray only deepens the appreciation for Sam Mendes' stunning achievement. It's been a long time since a James Bond film stirred something in me quite like this. Not even Martin Campbell's Casino Royale, which introduced us to Daniel Craig's younger, edgier Bond, quite reached these heights. Under the direction of Sam Mendes, Skyfall achieves a level of artfulness that has been rare for the series as a whole.

While I'm pulling for the more audacious lensing of Anna Karenina to win the Oscar on Sunday, Roger Deakins' work on Skyfall is truly fantastic. And in high definition, Deakins' achievement becomes all the more impressive. The fiery climax, lit only by the burning rubble of Bond's childhood home, is one of last year's most striking sequences, and it looks even more amazing on Blu-ray.

Strangely enough, Deakins has never won an Oscar, despite being nominated 11 times, for such films as FargoKundun, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and True Grit. It would be nice to see him finally take home the Oscar, but the more showy Life of Pi seems a more likely bet. The rest of the film is pretty top notch as well. In my original review of the film, I referred to it as "the Wrath of Khan of the James Bond movies." And in revisiting the film on Blu-ray, I found that to be doubly true. There is an elegiac quality to Skyfall that is hard to miss. The younger, more brash bond of Casino Royale has been replaced by a Bond facing his own obsolescence. He is a relic of an old way of doing things in a dark new world where the enemy isn't so black and white. It's a bracingly modern post-modern take on Bond, that also pays homage to the series' roots as well.

Longtime fans will love the references to earlier films that bring Bond full circle after 50 years of sequels and reboot, and these references are detailed throughout the extensive special features available on the Blu-ray. The HD picture quality is stellar, and the film itself remains a blast. As I said in my review:
Mendes certainly brings his own unique sensibilities to the project, with a greater emphasis on character to compliment the relentless action sequences. Skyfall opens with a bang, a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase on the rooftop of Turkey's Grand Bazaar that is reminiscent of a similarly over-the-top sequence in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin.
I would have liked to have seen Javier Bardem's deliciously evil performance as Silva get some awards traction, but it was probably a bit too close to his Oscar winning work in No Country for Old Men. Judi Dench is also reliably great, adding gravity to an already emotionally weighty film. Mendes balances thematic weight with thrilling action in a way few modern action films ever do. One hopes that the franchise will be able to sustain this level of quality, and that instead of following current cinematic trends as the series has tended to do, Skyfall will become a trendsetter, leading the way for modern action like it did at its height.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Blu-ray Special Features:
·         Shooting Bond
o   Intro
o   Opening Sequence
o   The Title Sequence
o   007
o   Q
o   DB5
o   Women
o   Villains
o   Action
o   Locations
o   Music
o   End Sequence
o   M
o   The Future
·         Skyfall Premiere
·         Commentaries
o   Director Sam Mendes
o   Producers Michael G. Wilson & Barbara Broccoli; Production Designer Dennis Gassner
·         Theatrical Trailer

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Fox Home Entertainment.

Monday, February 18, 2013

This is the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing feature here at From the Front Row. While the main focus of the site will continue to be film, I've decided to expand its focus a bit to spotlight some local theatre productions here in North Carolina. While I have probably devoted more time and energy in my life to studying and writing about film, my actual career is in theatre, so why not shine a spotlight on some of the wonderful stage venues here in NC?

Triad Stage's production of Tennessee Williams' little-seen Kingdom of Earth is the perfect place to start. While not as well known as Williams' more iconic plays like A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Kingdom of Earth is nevertheless a vivid and nuanced work. Triad's production, which was directed by theatre co-founder Preston Lane, is filled with the gritty essence of Williams' hard boiled southern language, from the sweet smell of bacon and tobacco that occasionally wafts through the theater to the evocative set design by Anya Klepikov.

Ryah Nixon, Philippe Bowgen and Clayton Fox. Photo by VanderVeen Photographers.
The first thing you notice upon entering the theater is the massive wall of water that serves as a backdrop for the set. Using dripping water against a large, backlit scrim, the waterfall  gives the show a very particular atmosphere, representing the almost supernatural rain storm that surrounds its characters, threatening to flood the house of Lot (Clayton Fox), an aloof, sexually ambiguous Southern aristocrat who has returned to his ancestral home with his new wife, Myrtle (Ryah Nixon). Myrtle, a former showgirl, seems like a crass force of nature amid the delicate furnishings of the house, which seems overshadowed by the spirit of Lot's overbearing late mother, whose dress sits perched atop a staircase overlooking the set.

It is a marriage of convenience, we discover, a contract forged in order to insure that Lot's half brother, Chicken (Philippe Bowgen), will not inherit the house. Chicken is quite literally the black sheep of his family, whose partial African American ancestry has caused him to be an outcast among the genteel southern society. As the rains fall and the flood waters rise, tempers will flare, secrets will be revealed, and the last gasp of an old family's fierce traditions will be played out among these three lost souls, who may as well be the last people in this kingdom of Earth.

Me and my girlfriend, Anna, converse with Cardboard Williams after "Kingdom of Earth."
Strangely enough, the play's thematic significance reminded me a bit of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse, with its isolated characters surrounded by an apocalyptic gale (chillingly rendered through Phillip Owen's terrific sound design, as well as eerie lighting work by Jesse Belsky). The set even recalls a sort of Noah's Arc, reinforcing the underlying theme of apocalyptic imagery. The play is billed as "a southern gothic," which it absolutely is, but it isn't without its humorous moments. Ryah Nixon's larger than life performance as Myrtle steals the show, and Philippe Bowgen's Chicken proves more than her match when the sparks begin to fly. And while Clayton Fox's Lot isn't given that much to do, especially in the second act, he makes an impression nonetheless.

Tennessee Williams has long been a favorite of Triad Stage, which opened in 2002 with a performance of Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. Since then, Triad has mounted 4 more productions of Williams' plays, including Kingdom of Earth, which remains one of his more obscure works. It's surprising given its intensity - Williams pulls out all the stops here, delivering an entertaining ride that is hard to shake. To celebrate Williams' return, Triad has placed a cardboard figure of the famed playwright in its lobby (pictured above), encouraging patrons to have their pictures taken with it, and to post them on Twitter with the hashtag #cardboardwilliams. It's a clever promotion showcasing Triad's continued dedication to the spirit of the South, and its most revered playwright. In Kingdom of Earth, they deliver a refined mint julep of a production with a decidedly sharp twist.

Kingdom of Earth runs through Sunday, March 3, at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC. For more information, visit Student rush tickets are available for $10.

Friday, February 15, 2013

In Keisuke Kinoshita's audaciously experimental The Ballad of Narayama (1958), artifice becomes a vessel of truth, turning theatrical illusion into something boldly cinematic. I was struck, watching the film in 2013, 55 years after its release, by how much it reminded me of Joe Wright's much more flawed adaptation of Anna Karenina. Seeing Narayama in such close proximity to Wright's film makes the shortcomings of Karenina seem all the more glaring.

Inspired by traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, The Ballad of Narayama makes no effort to disguise its artificiality. Shot almost completely on soundstages, the film retains the theatricality of Kabuki, transitioning its characters between scenes and locations with the drop of a scrim or a shift in the lighting. It's a dazzling effect, the stunning backdrops and set design inviting the audience into its world rather than keeping them at arm's length through the exploration of essential human truths.

Danshi Ichikawa as Kesakichi and Keiko Ogasawara as Matsuyan.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
The story revolves around the Japanese legend of Obasute, the practice of sending the village elders out to die when they reach the age of 70 so they will not be a burden on their family. In this case, the elder is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has quietly accepted her fate as part of her duty to her family and her village. Not wanting to be a burden in a destitute village that can barely sustain its citizens, Orin constantly plans for the time that she must leave to climb Mount Narayama, where she will die of exposure like so many elders before her. So determined is she to uphold tradition, she bashes her own teeth in so she can better fit the gossiping villagers' prejudices, who see good teeth at her age as a sign of greed and vanity.

Her son does not want to lose her, but her doltish grandson and his piggish wife are more than happy to see her go, making up insulting rhymes about her which they sing constantly. All the while a plaintive narrator sings the titular ballad, keeping the audience abreast of the action and the characters feelings. It's a bit alienating at first, Westerners may have some trouble adjusting to the very particular timbre of Kabuki. But Kinoshita uses the language of theatre to find a deep resonance in this tale of conscience clashing with tradition.

Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin and Teiji Takahashi as Tatsuhei.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Nowhere is this more poignantly demonstrated than in the plight of an old man in the village refuses to go quietly to Narayama, and is shunned by his family for being too big of a burden.  Orin feeds him, but tries to convince him to join her own her journey. In The Ballad of Narayama, tradition is everything, held up above even morality. The film is enamored by the cycle of life as seen through a woman who is at peace with her lot, selflessly sacrificing herself on the altar of a selfish younger generation. Only at the end, when the film finally leaves its sumptuously designed sound stages, is there any hint of eventual progress for post-war Japan, in which a train barrels inexorably toward a place called Obasute - the train of life hurtling toward death.

In Japan during WWII, morality took a back seat to tradition, and The Ballad of Narayama is a haunting reminder of the consequences. Its gorgeous sets and backdrops, awash with vivid color, remain as false as the useless traditions that its characters cling to. There is beauty in tradition, but not at the expense of essential human goodness. While the new Blu-ray release by Criterion is disappointingly bare-bones by the boutique label's usual standards (a lone theatrical trailer serves as its special feature), the transfer is absolutely stunning. As one of the most beautiful, and most overlooked, films of Japan's golden age, The Ballad of Narayama is a fascinating find - a moving portrait of aging and loss that uses theatre as a weapon for truth.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

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

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The title of Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love is key to understanding its nuanced intentions. Not only the title of an Ella Fitzgerald song which Kiarostami uses to haunting, almost ironic effect in the film, Like Someone in Love refers the characters that form the film's heart - who have all the pretenses and assumptions of people who are in love, but none of the feeling or emotion that goes along with it. They are like people in love, but they are not, in fact, in love.

In the Iranian director's last film, the gorgeously enigmatic, Italy-set Certified Copy, truth was obscured behind pretense and language, with a couple whose true relationship remains hidden beneath an artificial facade. In Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami moves to Japan, slowly peeling back the layers of his characters relationships, eschewing back story in favor of slowly developing characterization. It remains very much in the moment, only revealing what we need to know at any given time. This makes for a singularly compelling experience, turning a tale of lost souls who find a unique connection into something mysterious and beautiful.

Akiko (Rin Takanashi) in Abbas Kiarostami’s LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE.
Copyright Eurospace. A Sundance Selects release.
It begins with Akiko (Rin Takanashi) a young prostitute at a high end brothel. Kiarostami never uses the word "prostitute," however. Nor "whore" or "call girl" or any other names associated with the world's oldest profession. When we first meet her, she is just a girl having a fight with her boyfriend over the phone, an argument that takes place almost entirely off screen. Her boyfriend is suspicious, ordering her to  prove her whereabouts in increasingly ridiculous ways. Akiko's grandmother is visiting Tokyo for the first time, but she has been ordered out to a very special client. There is a sequence early on in the film where Akiko listens to a series of unreturned voicemails from her grandmother who is alone in Tokyo hoping to meet up with her granddaughter that is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in recent memory. Kiarostami stages it brilliantly, one voicemail after another, no music or other cues to how the audience should feel, just stark, slowly building emotion. It's a beautiful sequence, that perfectly sums up the quiet power of Like Someone in Love.

The client Akiko is sent to meet is an elderly retired professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who welcomes Akiko into his home with music and food. Something is amiss here, however. While the two discuss art and Akiko struggles to stay awake, offering her body in an increasingly awkward way, it appears as if Takashi isn't interested in Akiko for the reasons she anticaptes. The two form a strange and unusual bond, Takashi almost becoming another grandfather to her as she tries to navigate a difficult life. But when her jealous, possessive boyfriend becomes involved, the trio move inexorably toward a dramatic conclusion born out of the struggles of Akiko's chosen lifestyle. His brand of love for Akiko isn't love, but rather a desire to marry out of desire to control - once they are married, he reasons, she will have no choice but to obey him. Over the course of 24 hours, all three of their lives will change forever.

Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) and Akiko (Rin Takanashi) in Abbas Kiarostami’s LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE.
Copyright Eurospace. A Sundance Selects release.
Like Someone in Love is not a film of answers, it is a film of questions. Kiarostami never really reveals the motivations behind his characters actions, what matters here are the consequences of those actions. Identity is irrevocably bound to perception, and no one is who they seem to be on the outside. We only know as much about the characters as they know about each other. This is further reinforced by Kiarostami's peculiar mise-en-scene, which often keeps the subject and the main action just out of frame. It's almost a type of formal naturalism, very specific in its style and what it does not reveal, but strangely true to life in that we often miss that which is most important. I think it's more symbolic, though, of the character's motivations always staying just out of reach. Truth skirts around the edges of the film, fleeting, teasing, like the promise of something greater always eluding Akiko's grasp.

It's an exhilarating experience, discovering these characters as they discover each other, and more importantly, themselves. It is a film about discovery that is not about the discoveries themselves, but the process by which the discoveries are made. Kiarostami weaves the lives of these three disparate people together with an expert hand, creating something both recognizable and unknowable. It is a brilliant examination of relationship dynamics and unspoken perceptions that may not provide us, and by proxy, the characters, with the answers we seek, but then again neither does life.  Like Someone in Love  is a beautiful mystery, a haunting enigma whose pleasures slowly unfold under a master's expert eye. This is essential cinema, the kind of stirring, intelligent filmmaking that restores one's faith in movies.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE | Directed by Abbas Kiarostami | Stars Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase | Not rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Opens tomorrow, 2/15, in NYC and LA.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From The Dispatch:
Soderbergh does things his own way, from big budget ("Ocean's 11") to small budget ("The Girlfriend Experience"), from sprawling ("Che") to intimate ("And Everything is Going Fine"), always experimenting, always changing, always fascinating. If "Side Effects" truly is his cinematic swan song, he will have gone out on a high note, delivering an engaging and deeply pleasurable nail-biter done without compromises, reminding us all just what a great loss to cinema his retirement will be.
Click here to read my full review.
I first saw Yi Seungjun's lovely documentary, Planet of Snail, when it was released in theaters back in July. But as is sometimes unfortunately the case, it got lost in the shuffle and I never got around to reviewing it.

I admired it though, and found myself revisiting it in my mind often in the days that followed. There's really nothing else out there like it. It's a truly unique love story that, if it were the subject of a fiction film, might come off as treacly or too far fetched to be believed. But sometimes there is nothing more beautiful than real life.

Planet of Snail is the story of Young Chan, a Korean poet who lost his sight and hearing at a young age. His wife, Soon Ho, suffers from a spinal disorder, but is his constant companion, communicating with him through a form of finger braille, in which they speak through tapping on each others hands. He has never seen or heard her, but her love is keenly felt every step of the way.

Young Chan sees the world in words through his beautiful poetry. Deprived of visual and aural senses, his vision becomes internal, his surroundings informed by tactile sensations, his relationship with his beloved Soon Ho communicated and felt through the tips of his fingers. Planet of Snail celebrates love in its most basic and essential form. Its two subjects form an inseparable and symbiotic bond, each filling in the gaps in the other. It is a deeply humane film in that way, relatively straightforward in structure and style but its story is one that is both timeless and moving.

The DVD release by the Cinema Guild comes just in time for Valentine's Day, and while it may not be the most swooningly romantic or exciting choice for Valentine's Day  viewing, there are few films out there that capture the essence of love so tenderly or memorably. Like the best documentaries, Planet of Snail introduces us to a world like no other, where poetry and touch overcome the most incredible of circumstances, and love may be the most tangible feeling of all.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PLANET OF SNAIL | Directed by Yi Seungjun | Not rated | In Korean w/English subtitles | Now available on DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

There's something about the voice of Werner Herzog that could turn even the most mundane of moments into the most profound poetry.

In his latest documentary, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Herzog, along with co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, explores a year in the life of the people of the Taiga region of Siberia, a remote area surrounded by hundreds of miles of wilderness only accessible by helicopter or boat.

These people lead a simple life, living off the land, trapping, hunting, fishing, and fending for themselves alongside their faithful dogs. It is at once a close knit community and a exemplar of self reliance, each person pulling their weight in a world devoid of modern convenience and technology. It is especially interesting that this stellar example of the American ideal of self reliance and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps was born out of Communism, the first Russian settlers being assigned to the region by the government back in the 1970s.

HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.
I'm sure that would come as a shock those American partisans who espouse such values, but the citizens of the Taiga (one of whom is a descendant of legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky) have little time for politics. When a campaigning politician shows up in the village with food and singers to attract a crowd,  the villagers all but ignoring him, leaving the young people to stand by as excited onlookers. There is something inherently romantic about this life, a kind of real life Jack London tale where the gratification of hard work in the frozen wastelands becomes the business of living, and mere existence in the most beautiful gift of all. The advertising art rapturously compares the film to Henry David Thoreau's seminal work of transcendentalism, "Walden." But Herzog's meditative narration seems to eschew the Emmerson/Thoreau daydreaming for something more simple and streamlined.

These people are at one with nature, yes. But they don't have time to sit around and wax philosophical about it, and Herzog's thoughtful musings take on a more observational tone. Happy People finds beauty in the simplicity. It may not be as profound as some of Herzog's greater works, like The White Diamond or Grizzly Man, but there is something undeniably powerful at work here. These people are truly happy. They live in perhaps some of the harshest conditions on Earth, working from sunrise to sundown without a day off, and yet are completely satisfied with their lot. It seems we Westerners could learn a lot from the people of the Taiga. And while I wish Herzog had either elaborated or cut out an all too brief segment about the indigenous people of the Taiga, whose traditions have largely disappeared due to rampant alcoholism and the effects of colonialism, the film is still a mesmerizing work of sparse beauty and quiet power. Herzog's voice alone has a kind of meditative quality, and in Happy People it puts things in perspective, offering a welcome respite from a world of hustle and bustle that has become all too superficial.

GRADE -  ★★★ (out of four)

HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA | Directed by Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyokov | Not Rated | In English & Russian w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC. Opens Friday, February 15, in LA.

From The Dispatch:
What makes it a lesser film than "The Last Stand," however, is that it doesn't quite explore its themes with the same kind of depth of form and content. Hill certainly has a background as a genre deconstructionalist, but Kim's modern-day Western outpaces him here. "Bullet to the Head" is less a formal experiment or genre subversion as it is a throwback, a scrappy B-picture with ice water in its veins. 
Click here to read my full review.
Andrei Tarkovsky once said that he made Ivan's Childhood "to establish whether or not I had it in me to be a director."

As it turns out, he did. And more. Tarkovsky would go on to become one of the key figures in Russian cinema and one of greatest directors in cinematic history, directing such films as Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, and The Sacrifice. Tarkovsky left an indelible imprint on the cinematic landscape, and it all began with Ivan's Childhood.

While it was not as sweeping or profound perhaps as some of his later works (his final film, The Sacrifice, is the stunning work of a dying filmmaker coming to terms with his own mortality), but his brilliance was on full display right from the outset. Ivan's Childhood would be the first masterpiece in a career full of them, and its influence can be felt throughout all of Tarkovsky's filmography.

D. Miliutenko as Old man and Nikolai Burlyaev as Ivan.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Released in 1962, Ivan's Childhood arrived at an interesting time for Russian cinema. While World War II still dominated the national consciousness, filmmakers had begun tackling the war from a darker, less propagandistic angle that the Communist censors had previously allowed. From the early days of film, Soviet cinema had long served to first glorify the workers (as in Eisentsein's Strike and Kalatozov's Salt for Svanetia) or as straight propaganda (Dziga Vertov's documentary Stride Soviet! and Lev Kuleshov's satirical The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks), then as a glorification of the Soviet ideal by way of established Communist party (Eisenstein's Stalin-commissioned work, Alexander Nevsky). It was a brief window that gave rise to such films as Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying and Letter Never Sent, two films that had a clear influence on young Tarkovsky.

Ivan's Childhood paints a grim picture of war through the eyes of a child, young Ivan, a nine year old boy who has been enlisted by the Russian army as a scout on the front lines against the Germans. Ivan's size makes him ideal for the job as he is able to remain hidden, but the danger inherent to his missions gives pause to his commanding officers, who decide to send him off to military school instead. The headstrong Ivan refuses, running away instead to join a group of partisans, determined to do his part at all costs.

Nikolai Burlyaev as Ivan, Valentin Zubkov as Captain Kholin and E. Zharikov as Lieutenant Galtsev.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
It is ultimately a film about the destruction of childhood, and in a broader sense, the destruction of national innocence. Tarkovsky's sharp, angular mise-en-scene is almost reminiscent of German Expressionism, framing the film in the destruction of a burned out landscape and creating an ever increasing fear of madness in a world that has descended into chaos. Although it's doubtful Tarkovsky ever saw the film, I was struck by just how much it reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's debut film, Fear and Desire in its depiction of wartime unease. Tarkovsky's effort ends up being more successful than Kubrick's more scrappy production, however. The striking use of light and shadow, a visual aesthetic inspired by the work of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wadja. The beams of light streaming through windows and slats of wood cast on almost unearthly light in the darkness, made even more indelible through Criterion's stunning new Blu-ray transfer. Tarkovsky also uses stirring visual metaphors and even film negative to create the jarring effects of war on the psyche of its soldiers. Ivan's dream sequences recall the montage work of Eisenstein in their occasionally frenzied evocation of madness, but while Tarkovsky clearly had many influences that can be keenly felt here, he combined them into something uniquely his own.

That's part of the remarkable power of the film. It's familiar yet unique (also recalling another harrowing anti-war film from the time, Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain), an amalgam of inspirations coalesced into something both thrilling and devastating. Tarkovsky would continue to develop his own unique style in subsequent films, a style that would be just as influential to a whole generation of filmmakers as Eisenstein, Kalatozov Wadja, and Mizoguchi were to him. Ivan's Childhood remains one of the most remarkable debuts in all of cinema, and one of the most indelible portraits of war and childhood ever made.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:
  • High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • Interview with film scholar Vida T. Johnson, coauthor of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue 
  • Interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova; “Between Two Films,” an essay by Tarkovsky on Ivan’s Childhood; and “Ivan’s Willow,” a poem by the director’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky

Monday, February 04, 2013

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment are partnering with Operation Gratitude to launch the care package initiative “Operation SKYFALL” in honor of the February 12 Blu-ray and DVD release of 007’s latest adventure.

Beginning at 10:00am Feb. 12 at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, California, volunteers including Military families, war Veterans, fans and more will be on hand to assemble up to 7,000 SKYFALL branded care packages to be sent to active duty soldiers overseas. The packages will include personal care items such as body wash, deodorant, shaving cream and other toiletries and will feature a DVD copy of the explosive 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise, SKYFALL.

 “SKYFALL is the most popular Bond film ever made and an action-packed film like this can really boost morale with our troops overseas,” said Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek. “Operation Gratitude has been supporting our servicemen and women for 10 years and this partnership was a great opportunity to provide some much needed entertainment along with toiletries and personal letters that our Military heroes greatly enjoy.”

Bond fans in Southern California are encouraged to come out and support “Operation SKYFALL” by helping assemble the packages the morning of February 12 in Van Nuys. For more information on how to volunteer please contact OpGratVolunteer1 (at)

Fans can also send donations in the name of “Operation SKYFALL” directly to Operation Gratitude by visiting

Friday, February 01, 2013

ASAD (Bryan Buckley/South Africa/18 mins)

There is a vibrant sense of authenticity to Bryan Buckley's Asad that transcends the abilities of its non-professional cast. Set in Somalia, Asad follows the adventures of a young boy of the same name who dreams of being a Somali pirate like his friends and relatives. He befriends an old fisherman who encourages him to choose a different path. Rogue soldiers from Mogadishu begin to change the face of the town, however, and soon Asad is faced with a difficult choice, a choice that could finally lead him to becoming a man. It's a bit too schematic perhaps in its coming of age symbolism, but that's mostly due to the time constraints of being a short film. The actors are all actual Somali refugees, which adds an extra level of emotional depth to the film. Asad is meant as a beacon of hope for a better Somalia, which the end credits clearly state in a way that feels a bit hokey, but it's earnest, which goes a long way.

Director Bryan Buckley was dubbed the "King of the Super Bowl by the New York Times for having directed more than 40 Super Bowl commercials. Here he demonstrates a sharp eye for drama deserving of a larger canvas than this. Asad isn't a great film on its own, but it's a promising work with a lot of heart.


BUZKASHI BOYS (Sam French/Afghanistan/28 mins)

Shot on location in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sam French's Buzkashi Boys is certainly the most pedigreed of the nominees. It's a handsomely shot coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a war-torn land. It's reminiscent of fellow nominee, Asad, in some ways, but feels like a more complete work. The film tells the story of two young boys - one, a street urchin, the other, the son of a blacksmith - who dream of one day becoming Buzkashi riders, participants in the national sport of Afghanistan in which horse riders fight over a dead goat to carry around a flag. One dreams big, the other resigns himself to work in his father's shop for the rest of his life. But an unexpected turn of events could finally inspire them to follow their dream.

It's a fairly typical coming of age story, recalling in some ways the popular novel, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. But the end result is something rather unexpected. French takes us on a surprising journey of self discovery that doesn't deal in the "follow your dreams" platitudes one would expect of this kind of film, resulting in something far more complex than it initially appears. It's certainly the prestige picture of the group, and I could easily see it coming away the winner on Oscar night. It has everything the Academy typically goes for, and as such will certainly be a formidable opponent. Being one of the first narrative films to be shot in Kabul doesn't hurt its chances either. It's a touching portrait of modern Afghanistan set among the bombed out ruin of a country still reeling from more than a decade of war. But French finds beauty in the rubble, and Buzkashi Boys is a haunting product of a misunderstood land.


CURFEW (Shawn Christensen/USA/19 mins)

When we first meet Richie, he's languishing in a bathtub filled with his own blood, in the middle of committing suicide. His death is interrupted by his estranged sister, begging him to come babysit his nine year old niece, Sophia. Intrigued, he postpones his suicide to oblige. The girl is precocious, presenting him with a list of appropriate places to take her and warning him if he doesn't return her home by 10:30, "there will be hell to pay." At first they have very little interest in each other, with Richie awkwardly trying to start conversations and Sophia far more interested in the games on her phone. But something spectacular will happen tonight; through this little girl Richie will find a new lease on life, and in Richie, Sophia will find a champion she never knew she had.

On paper it may sound a bit treacly, but Christensen (who also stars in the film as Richie) navigates tricky emotional waters with a deft hand. Curfew is the most fully realized of the nominees, and my personal favorite of the bunch. There is a lightness to Christensen's touch that is hard to resist. He imbues his film with a wit and a warmth, beautifully celebrating the strength of the ties that bind without pretense or false emotion. It's a vibrant film, pulsing with life and energy that refuses to put simple Band-Aids on complex problems, instead choosing to celebrate life in all of its messy glory. This one's a winner.


DEATH OF A SHADOW (Tom Van Avermaet/Belgium/20 mins)

If any of the Best Live Action Short nominees deserve to be turned into a feature film, it's Tom Van Avermaet's Death of a Shadow. Steampunk is a subgenre that has already worn out its welcome, but is use in this sci-fi drama is surprisingly effective. It tells the story of a mysterious photographer tasked with capturing people's shadows at the moment of their death in order to free his own shadow. During one of his missions, he encounters a woman he fell in love with during a chance meeting just before his own death years before. When he discovers that she has a boyfriend, he decides to do the unthinkable. Will he be able to redeem himself before it's too late? Or is the price of freedom in this strange netherworld too high a cost?

This is a film best come to knowing as little about its surprises as possible. It's an engagingly inventive work, and a world that I very much wanted to know more about. In its brief 20 minute running time, it drew me in and gave me a taste of what felt like something much larger. This is a story practically begging to be turned into a feature, and I hope it gets enough notice through its Oscar nomination to do just that. It transcends its steampunk roots and achieves something truly original. Visually inspired by the works of Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Death of a Shadow is a fascinating and unique work that ends far too quickly, through no fault of its own. Avermaet is a talent to watch.


HENRY (Yan England/Canada/21 mins)

Yan England's touching Henry plays like a companion piece to Michael Haneke's Amour. It could even be seen as a sequel of sorts to the Best Picture nominee, following an old man's fading memories of his wife. Both were musicians - Henry, a pianist, his wife - a violinist. They met during a rain in WWII, playing a duet together just before a German blitz. England unfolds the tale slowly, looking back at their meeting through the  deteriorating lens of Henry's memory. Lost in a fog of old age, Henry sees his existence in a nursing home as an attack by outside forces, and as the years go by, he finds that not only does he not recognize his own family, but he may be losing the only thing he has left of his wife - their memories.

It's a beautiful and heartbreaking tale, a film made in honor of England's grandfather, Maurice, whose moving quote brings the story to a close - "The worst thing about old age is the awareness of being an old man losing his memory." It's clearly a deeply personal film, and it's the most emotionally enriching of the nominees. England made the film without any funding with a cast of professional actors and crew who donated their time to the project. Henry is a wrenching work, and while it may not be quite on the same level as Amour (its paranoid thriller-like opening is a bit disingenuous), it is still a haunting portrait of old age and true love that manages to be deeply moving while dispensing with unnecessary sentimentality. England's evocation of memories slipping through one's fingers makes for truly powerful stuff.


The Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films open Friday, 2/1, in select cities.