Monday, October 28, 2013

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

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

From The Dispatch:
Rarely does the big screen see such powerful exercises in pure cinema. CuarĂ³n is a visionary director, and here he unleashes all of his skill to deliver one of the most awe inspiring entertainments to come along in years. It is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, one where the price of the 3D upgrade is actually worth it. This is the kind of film for which 3D was made, and lest anyone think this is just a throwaway piece of sci-fi fluff, Sandra Bullock delivers the performance of her career, adding emotional heft to the jaw dropping special effects. 
Click here to read my full review.

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