Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review | "Blancanieves"

Snow White has been very in vogue over the past year or so. I feel like I've already written these words several times, either in reviews of Mirror, Mirror, or Snow White and the Huntsman, but the story doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

It is interesting then, that after the aforementioned Hollywood efforts, and the hit ABC television series, Once Upon a Time, that the best of the lot is far and away Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, which not only encompasses the recent popularity of the Snow White tale, but the rather surprising resurgence of silent film. I thought the critical and popular success of The Artist would be a one-off fluke, a novelty as quickly embraced as it would be forgotten. But something has taken hold in the minds of filmmakers, a reawakening perhaps of the freedom that silent film represents. Miguel Gomes embraced the medium in the second half of his remarkable film, Tabu, which while not fully silent, hearkened back to the pioneering spirit of the silent auteurs.


The Artist, on the other hand, felt more like imitation than emulation, a pleasant re-creation of a lost artform that felt completely false. As charming as it is, it felt like a gimmick, mimicking the style of silent comedies but failing to capture their essence. That is what is so refreshing about Blancanieves. Berger clearly gets it. He isn't just playing silent film dress up like a little kid putting on a Charlie Chaplin costume and dancing around with a cane. He takes the silent medium and uses its artistic possibilities to his advantage, growing within the medium and pushing it in new and thrilling directions. In so doing it feels more like an authentic silent film than anything else we've seen in quite some time (not counting the films of Guy Maddin, who will always be the undisputed modern silent master).

Blancanieves also updates the Snow White tale into something a bit unusual. Set in Spain during the 1920s, the film takes place in the world of bullfighting. Our Snow White is Carmen (Macarena García), whose father, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is the most famous matador in all of Spain. When he is paralyzed during his final fight, and his wife dies in childbirth soon after, he is seduced by a gold-digging nurse named Encarna (Maribel Verdu), eager to gain access to his vast fortune. She keeps the invalid Villalta secluded in his bedroom in his expansive mansion, and banishes young  Carmen to the stables, where she is little more than a servant in her own home, her father believing her dead along his with his late wife.


While Encarna busies herself spending Villalta's fortune on flashy clothes and wild flings with other men, Carmen sneaks into the house one day and discovers her father, whom she believed to be dead, is still alive, and the two form a strong bond together in secret. When Encarna learns of this she sets out to have them both killed. Carmen escapes, of course, and ends up with a traveling band of bullfighting dwarves, a novelty circus act that she is eager to join. Robbed of her memory, she no longer knows who she is. So the dwarves christen her Blancanieves (Snow White), after the legendary fairy tale. Soon the whole country has heard of the female matador, Blancanieves, carrying out the legacy of a father she can no longer remember. It isn't long before Encarna gets wind of this new bullfighting sensation, and becomes determined to do away with Carmen and seal her hold on the family fortune once and for all.

It's a refreshingly bold and unique take on a tale that has very nearly been run into the ground, but Berger makes it feel fresh and new again. Even with its silent surroundings, Blancanieves feels as vibrantly contemporary as much as something out of another era. It certainly captures the look and feel of the silent era, complete with gorgeous black and white cinematography by Kiko de la Rica and a lush score by Alfonso Vilallonga. Not to mention the fact that Maribel Verdu is far and away the most terrifying of the evil queens without ever saying a word. But like the very best silent films, it never feels confined by its lack of dialogue. Berger finds a kind of artistic liberation in the exploration of film as a purely visual medium, and the result is the kind of rare cinematic treat that makes the heart beat faster at the recognition of something truly magical in the way that only movies can provide.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BLANCANIEVES | Directed by Pablo Berger | Stars Maribel Verdu, Macarena Garcia, Daniel Giménez Cacho | Not rated | Opens tomorrow, 3/29, in NY and LA.

On "Spring Breakers"


From The Dispatch:
"Spring Breakers" should not be mistaken for an empty exercise in excess; it is by no means a celebration of the lewdness it depicts. It is a sweeping condemnation of that very emptiness, of the soul-crushing effects of the "if it feels good, do it" lifestyle. Alien's eerie, oft-repeated voice-over mantra of "spring break … spring break forever" spoken over increasingly nasty provocations becomes its own kind of rebuke of a culture that has embraced extreme over indulgence and a chilling premonition of its lasting effects. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "Lincoln"

Years from now, people will look back on 2012 and wonder why Steven Spielberg's Lincoln didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture.

True, I was pulling for Michael Haneke's Amour to take home the gold, and I still think it was the "best" of the nine nominees. But Lincoln just feels like a classic, the kind of film that people will still be talking about and revering in the decades to come.

It's one of Spielberg's most grown-up films, a restrained film of language and ideas rather than action and emotions. Spielberg allows the emotion to flow from the dialogue, dialing back his instinct to overemphasize for something far more subtle and affecting. I've seen the film twice since my first screening back in October, and it has only grown in my estimation since. It's a film of great riches, with dialogue to be relished and mulled over, and it remains a staggeringly immersive experience. There is so much here to absorb that it demands repeat viewings.


The biggest story surrounding the film, of course, is Daniel Day-Lewis' Academy Award winning performance. In my original review I wrote:
The soft-spoken, slump-shouldered man we see in "Lincoln" is far more approachable, an affable man with a folksy charm and a love of rambling stories that would often send his aides and cabinet members running. When the film starts, Lincoln is already near the end of his life, but even so one can see Lincoln's evolution into a tired mane with sunken features, withered by the long years of war and the stress of governing a divided nation. It's a haunting performance that is one of Lewis' finest in a career filled with towering achievements, proving yet again that he is arguably our greatest living actor.
It's difficult to write about Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln without slipping into hyperbole, but it really is that kind of performance. Some of the best moments in the new Blu-ray come during the "Living with Lincoln" featurette, which explores the actors' process in surprising depth. While Day-Lewis' own, more mysterious process remains appropriately mythic and unexplored, the disc showcases Spielberg as something he hasn't really been known for as much throughout his career - a director of actors. While his filmography is littered with great performances throughout the years, one doesn't normally think of Spielberg as an actor's director as much as a populist entertainer, but here we see a new side of him. As an actor, I found the insights from Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and others to be particularly insightful, as they discuss how they researched their roles, got into character, and behaved on a set that discouraged talk of modern day trivialities in order to preserve a sense of reverence for the subject.


Also of interest is the "In Lincoln's Footsteps" featurette, which looks at the editing, sound design, and music of the film. Sound designer Bett Burtt discusses how he used actual sounds from a watch that once belonged to Lincoln and a clock that once adorned his office, giving the film a spiritual link to the president that actually adds a greater depth to the viewing experience. Those are the best kind of special features, the kind that deepen your appreciation of the film rather than acting as an extended advertisement for a film you've already bought, wherein the cast and crew throw hollow accolades at each other (admittedly a bit like the rather superfluous "A Journey to Lincoln" featurette on disc one).

The film looks gorgeous, of course. Janusz Kaminski's lovely cinematography, with its gas-lit interiors and natural, almost heavenly lighting, really pops on Blu-ray. It is a crisp, clear transfer that really highlights his expert use of light and shadow. While not as showy, perhaps, as has been some of Spielberg's other films, the work in in Lincoln is some of the best he has ever produced. This was clearly a labor of love for all involved, and its shows. The respect of the cast and crew for each other, for their director, and ultimately for their subject is evident at every turn, and I am confident that this film will live on much like the man himself.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Available today, March 26, on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"

Considered by some to be the greatest British film ever made, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has at long last been given the Blu-ray treatment it deserves by The Criterion Collection.

Known jointly as The Archers, Powell and Pressburger's filmography together is staggering, remaining nearly unparalleled in the history of cinema. The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going, A Canturbury Tale, its an impressive oeuvre that any filmmaker would be envious of. While I might personally give the edge to The Red Shoes, it would be hard to argue with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as their finest achievement.

Released in 1943 at the height of World War II, the film very nearly didn't get made at all. The British war office refused to release Powell and Pressburger's first choice for the title role, Laurence Olivier, which lead them to Roger Livesey, who was something of a rival of Olivier's at the time.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
The film is loosely based on an old British cartoon character, an aging, rotund military brass with a giant gray walrus mustache who was always portrayed as a kind of buffoon, a clueless member of an aging high command with little grasp of how the modern word works. But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is no comedy, nor is it meant to be satirical in anyway. Certainly Major General Clive Candy, the Colonel Blimp of the story, looks the part, and has become disconnected to modernity in his old age, but rather than treat him as an object of ridicule, they treat him as a human being as deserving of respect and dignity. When the film begins, we are in the heat of WWII (which, at the time of the film's release, would have been the present day), and Candy has ordered a military drill for the home guard to begin at midnight. Against orders, they invade his headquarters and take him prisoner, claiming that the enemy wouldn't wait until midnight, so why should they? Candy is aghast at such insolence and disregard for the rules of war.

The film then flashes back 40 years. It is 1902, and Candy has just returned from the Boer War. No longer the spluttering old man pontificating about the rules of war, Candy is a dashing young war hero who doesn't have much use for authority himself. He's a fun loving prankster, whose jokes eventually lead him into a duel with a German soldier, Theo (Anton Walbrook), ends up becoming a lifelong friend (a thinly veiled representation of Powell's own friendship with the German Pressburger). It is in that duel that Candy gets a scar on his upper lip, leading him to grow the iconic mustache to cover it up. What follows is 40 years in the life of a soldier. His friendship with Theo, and his love for a woman he can't have (represented by three different women, all played by the ravishing Deborah Kerr). Along the way we discover how he became this cartoonish character, and find humanity deep within a man that the younger generation has failed to appreciate. He was, after all, just like them once upon a time. And The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp honors his lifetime of dedicated service.

Blu-ray capture courtesy of DVD Beaver.
There's something decidedly elegiac about the film. It's a heartbreaking study of aging and obsolescence in the face of modernity, but also a paean to a generation of heroes. Candy is facing an enemy he doesn't understand, an enemy that refuses to play by the rules and threatens to engulf the world. The world has indeed changed, but not for the better. Candy is a relic from a simpler time, but here he is not a man to be put out to pasture, he is a man to be honored and thanked, even as the world marches on. It is said that the film's view that strict adherence to traditional warfare would lose Britain the war cost Powell and Pressburger their knighthood. While not forbidden to make the film, they were strongly encouraged not to. It's interesting watching the film now, knowing that the British government considered the film unpatriotic, when nothing could be further than the truth. Candy's methods may be outdated but the film itself is a celebration of the British spirit.

Criterion's gorgeous Blu-ray presentation is absolutely stunning. They did a brilliant job with The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, and Colonel Blimp is no different. In fact it's so clear that some of the excellent makeup work has become more apparent than it was on the DVD release. Powell and Pressburger have long been an inspiration to Martin Scorsese, who provides a loving introduction here, as well as a demonstration of the film's meticulous restoration. Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's widow and Scorsese's longterm editor, also appears in a 2012 interview called "Optimism and Sheer Will." While most of the features are repeats from the original Criterion DVD release, the HD transfer is such a marked improvement that this is a must have disc. It's a sprawling and magisterial look at all of life's great loves, adventures, and follies. Old age awaits us all, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a deeply moving look at the experiences that make us who we are.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features: 
  • New digital master from the Film Foundation’s 2012 4K restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • Audio commentary featuring director Michael Powell and filmmaker Martin Scorsese 
  • New video introduction by Scorsese A Profile of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” a documentary from 2000 Restoration demonstration, hosted by Scorsese 
  • Optimism and Sheer Will, a 2012 interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, Michael Powell’s widow 
  • Gallery featuring rare behind-the-scenes production stills 
  • Gallery tracing the history of David Low’s original Colonel Blimp cartoons 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Molly Haskell

On "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"


From The Dispatch:
If you know many magicians (which, strangely enough, I do), then "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" may produce a few knowing chuckles, but the film itself is less than the sum of its parts. It fails to leave an impression, fading instead into a sea of similar comedies whose names I can barely remember. And like Burt himself, it's doubtful this will be remembered for very long either. 
Click here to read my full review.

Review | "I Killed My Mother"

It seems strange to be reviewing a film as a new release nearly 3 years after I originally saw it. 20 year old Canadian director Xavier Dolan's debut feature, I Killed My Mother, made the festival rounds back in 2009 and 2010, garnering quite a bit of attention for the up and coming filmmaker before being picked up for American distribution by Regent Releasing.

When financial problems hit Regent, I Killed My Mother became caught in a kind of distribution limbo, unreleased in the United States outside of festivals while Dolan's sophomore effort, Heartbeats, was released by IFC in 2011 and his third film, Laurence Anyways, prepares for US release this year from Breaking Glass Pictures.

Now, at long last, Dolan's first film comes to American screens thanks to the folks at Kino Lorber, who snatched up the rights from Regent after languishing for years in their back catalogue.

Xavier Dolan in I KILLED MY MOTHER.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.
Revisiting the film three years later, having seen the films Dolan has made since, I was still bothered by some of the problems I had with it when I first saw it as part of the RiverRun Film Festival in 2010. I Killed My Mother is obviously a first feature, one that is beholden to its inspirations to an almost self-conscious degree. It is clear that Dolan took a great deal of inspiration from the work of directors like Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodovar, whose distinctive styles are written all over the film. Watching the film again, I came out humming the theme music from Wong's In the Mood for Love, which I'm sure is not the effect that Dolan intended. It is as if Dolan didn't quite trust his own style and voice enough yet to step away from the styles of his cinematic idols. Characters frequently walk in slow motion to the same driving waltz, a hallmark of Wong's most famous work, as well as its sequel, 2046. The vibrant color scheme invokes the less campy Almodovar of Talk to Her, and the formalist mise-en-scene even recalls Wes Anderson at times.

In fact, the mise-en-scene was perhaps my biggest initial issue with the film. Dolan's framing, so fussily formal in places, seems strangely sloppy in others. The dinner scenes between Dolan and his mother are especially off kilter, neither centered nor artfully asymmetrical, especially when compared to the style of the rest of the picture. All those criticisms aside, it is hard to ignore the raw urgency of this work. It is a guttural howl of a film, an anguished and deeply personal exploration of the complex relationship between  gay teenager Antonin, (Dolan) and his loving but overbearing mother, Hélène (Anne Dorval). Dolan may not have fully developed his own directorial voice yet, but he uses the language of his forebears to convey a something starkly and disarmingly honest.

Xavier Dolan in I KILLED MY MOTHER.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.
At 16, Antonin finds himself hating his mother. He hates the way she looks, the way she eats, the way she talks, everything about her irritates him. The two find themselves at odds about almost every single issue, few conversations go by that don't devolve into a shouting match. It would be easy to write of Antonin as just a spoiled kid, but there's a lot more going on here than that. Hélène clearly loves him, but is also unknowingly selfish in her own way. Neither seem to be willing to compromise, and so the love/hate relationship grows. After accidentally discovering that her son is gay before he has a chance to come out to her himself, she packs him off to boarding school, causing him to resent her even more. So deep seeded is his dislike for her, that when he is assigned to do a report for school on his parents' profession, he lies to the teacher, saying that his mother is dead.

Antonin does not literally kill his mother. The title is a figurative reference to his lie about her death. But perhaps because he was only 4 years older than his character at the time, Dolan delivers a remarkably nuanced exploration of the relationship between a boy and his mother. Right off the bat, he established himself as a talent to watch, displaying a wisdom and an instinct far greater than many directors who've had many more years of experience. There's something disarmingly true about I Killed My Mother, beneath the references to Wong and Almodovar, beneath its almost self-consciously stylish surface, that resonates beyond its characters' histrionics. Both boy and mother are deeply misunderstood. Both remain caught in a strange place between childhood and maturity, unable to live with each other, but yet needing each other more than they know. Dolan navigates tricky emotional waters with a wisdom beyond his years. It's a strong debut from one of cinema's most exciting young talents, and the chance to finally see where it all started shouldn't be missed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

I KILLED MY MOTHER | Directed by Xavier Dolan | Stars Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Francois Arnaud, Jun-Sang Yu | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "This is 40"

It still surprises me a bit that Judd Apatow's This is 40 got such mixed reviews. Many reviewers found it obnoxious and shrill. I thought that's what made it so beautifully human. It's messy, yes, but earnestly so. This is clearly a deeply personal work for Apatow, and it shows.

It my original review I said:
It's true that the characters can be shrill, whiny, selfish, and often just willfully ignorant of the other characters' problems and points of view. But so can anyone, and therein lies the beauty of Apatow's work. He makes raunchy comedies, certainly, but there is always something deeper at work in them that is exceedingly rare in this type of film. Critics often demand smarter comedies, but when one like this falls in our laps, why do we turn up our noses? This is 40 is an intelligently written, readily identifiable comedy that holds a mirror up to its audience in a way that could easily make many a little uncomfortable, and that's what makes it so terrific.

In revisiting the film, I have discovered that all of that remains true. This is 40 isn't the kind of comedy that loses its luster after all the laughs have been had, its the kind of film that continues to reveal itself in repeat viewings. Sure it's a bit too long, sure the daughters' performances aren't as polished as they could be. But that's part of what makes the film so vibrant. This is Apatow's life, a paean to all the things that make this life so gloriously messed up. Once you're past the laughs, you're free to explore the film's nuances, and there are certainly plenty. It is very easy for critics to sit back and pass judgement on Apatow and his family, but he's really wearing his heart on his sleeve here, and I find it very arrogant to look down on these people whose problems may hit too close to the mark. From my original review:
First world problems? Absolutely. But these are the kind of things people face every day, the natural ebb and flow of relationships that may seem trivial to the outside world, but make up the core of every day existence. Apatow has a keen eye for this sort of thing, and has established himself as a kind of voice of his generation. This is 40 cuts to the quick, but it's also very, very funny. Apatow manages to find humor in the stress and awkwardness of every day life, but he also finds the tenderness of familial love in a way that is free of cynicism or irony. I can see how some accuse it of being whiny or fixated on trivialities, but we're all guilty of such things. What This is 40 is, is brutally honest.

Universal's Blu-ray release treats the film pretty much like any other comedy. There are the standard gag reels (which, given this cast, are pretty funny), and line-o-ramas, in which the cast ad-libs endless variations of the same moment in the script. There's even a segment in which Triumph the Insult Comic Dog insults the cast, and gets in a few choice zingers. But the highlight is a line-o-rama that Albert Books gets all to himself. His deadpan improv delivery is jaw-dropping, and he spins out line after line of impressive comedy gold that one wonders how Apatow chose which ones to include in the final cut. Brooks is a comedic genius, and watching him work his magic is a pleasure.

There are actually a surprising amount of extras crammed into this 2 disc set, which also includes a DVD copy and a wholly unnecessary extended cut. It's been slammed for being too long as it is, let's not feed the sharks by making it longer. Still though, it's a fine film, and one of last year's best comedies. I hope it finds the audience on home video that it struggled to in theaters. It may be the sort-of sequel to the far more successful Knocked Up, but it's a much better film. Don't miss it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THIS IS 40 | Directed by Judd Apatow | Stars Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy | Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material | Available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday, March 22.

Blu-ray Review | "College"

Sandwiched in his filmography between The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., arguably the largest scale and most accomplished comedies of his career, Buster Keaton's College has the unenviable position of sitting in the shadows of his two greatest masterpieces.

While it is certainly a much lower key film than either of those two, College actually holds up remarkably well, showcasing Keaton's more subtle brand of humor, and standing out as one of his most accomplished smaller scale comedies.

As its title implies, College finds Buster Keaton graduating from high school and heading to college. A bookish nerd with no time for sports, Keaton's valedictorian address pooh-poohs the very idea of athletics, insisting that if young men wanted to make anything of themselves they should focus on developing their minds rather than their bodies.

Buster Keaton and Florence Turner as his mother in COLLEGE.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Unfortunately for him, the girl he loves wants an athlete, not a scholar. So Buster follows her off to college, determined to prove to her that he's not as arrogant as he seems by trying every sport he can possibly think of. The results are predictably hilarious, with Keaton trying everything from baseball to discus (the baseball scene is especially inspired), before finally bumbling into a position on the rowing team, where he is finally able to combine mental acumen with physical skill in a thrilling race to the finish line.

College is a veritable showcase of Keaton's deadpan sight gags, with each pratfall and mishap made all the more funny by the actor's constantly stony visage. Naturally, Keaton is just playing yet another variation on the same character he always played, the hapless mama's boy who just can't seem to catch a break, but he was the best at it, and this is why. Even though age-wise he's not convincing as a brand new high school graduate, his guileless, awkward charm makes up for it. Although he was much less sentimental than his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton displays an earnestness here that is possibly as close to sentimental as he ever got.

With the film's new Blu-ray release, Kino Lorber has finally finished out their impressive HD upgrades of Keaton's most famous features and shorts. It's truly an impressive collection, and the final installment doesn't disappoint. In addition to a strong, crisp image, the disc also includes a commentary track by historian Rob Farr, and most notably a 1966 industrial short film that is widely considered to be Keaton's final screen performance. The latter will be of special interest to Keaton's fans, even if the film itself is a bit of a sad farewell to one of the cinema's greatest icons. Kino has done a fantastic job with these films, and College is no exception. Keaton helped write the textbook on comedy, and in College he gives us a master class.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "Zombie Lake"

After directing 1981's Zombie Lake, it's pretty safe to say that Jean Rollin discovered that zombies just aren't as sexy as vampires.

Rollin's filmography has always been somewhat of a mixed bag, ranging from brilliant (The Iron Rose) to downright ghastly (Two Orphan Vampires), but his particular brand of erotic horror takes a major stumble here. His work always had a certain erotic element, mostly foisted on him by schlocky producers looking to make a quick buck. Often Rollin was able to rise above it with his sense of style, thematic maturity, and visual ingenuity, but in Zombie Lake, the entire affair feels like a quick, cheap, paycheck job. Even by Rollin's low-budget, high art standards, Zombie Lake marks one of his biggest detours into Z-grade territory, and despite a few weak efforts to elevate the material, it remains disappointingly limp.


It's clear even distributor Kino Lorber, who has done an excellent job releasing Rollin's filmography on blu-ray over the last year, doesn't particularly have a lot of faith in the film either. It's the first Rollin title not to include a booklet of liner notes by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, which have helped illuminate the often disarming depths of Rollin's work, which could easily be dismissed as nothing more than Eurotrash horror for those who aren't looking beneath the surface. There are a few extras here, mostly some alternate versions of scenes, but it lacks any kind of contextualization that has made these releases such a pleasure in the past.

Nazi zombies were a peculiar subgenre of the zombie films in the 1980s, and Zombie Lake might possibly be one of the strangest ones. It starts off, in typical Rollin fashion, with a naked woman going swimming in a cursed lake, only to be attacked by an underwater zombie. It's almost a direct rip-off of the opening of Jaws but with actual nudity. This sets off an investigation into the lake, which yields and extended flashback, telling of how members of the French Resistance once slaughtered a group of German soldiers during World War II and tossed their bodies in the lake. Now, they have returned from the dead for revenge. Oddly enough, one of the zombies comes across his young daughter, whom he fathered with a local woman after saving her life.


You have to give Rollin credit for trying something new here, but the zombie with a heart of gold angle just seems like an ill-advised detour, zapping any of the horror the film might have otherwise conjured up.. Rollin's typical eroticism seems completely at odds with the subject matter, and seems even more gratuitous that usual. The green zombies just aren't sexy, even if the makeup effects are pretty laughable. They just don't lend themselves to a naturally erotic story, whereas vampires, Rollin's usual ghoul of choice, are generally viewed as much more sexy creatures.

The transfer looks fine, but isn't anything spectacular. Not as good as some of ther Rollin releases, anyway, which have provided some rather strong HD upgrades.  There are a few interesting visual ideas at work here, but the story is just too silly to be saved. There are plenty of bad horror movies out there, Rollin even made quite a few himself. But Zombie Lake lacks that certain spark that makes even bad films entertaining. Rollin made much stronger, and much more frightening films in his career, to which Zombie Lake is little more than an unfortunate footnote.

GRADE - ½ star (out of four)

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

On "Oz: The Great and Powerful"


From The Dispatch:
The story nearly drowns beneath the heavy-handed, cartoonish special effects, which are more off putting than involving. The characters leap from one dangerous situation to another with no real sense of humanity or even danger. What distinguished "The Wizard of Oz," and why it endures to this day, was its sense of wonder. "Oz: The Great and Powerful" never achieves that, or its sense of simple humanity.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Review | "Beyond the Hills"

Near the end of Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills, a policeman looks at a colleague and asks "when will this winter end?"

It is clear that while the policeman may be referring to the weather, Mungiu certainly is not. Never one to bash us over the head with metaphor, he nevertheless underlines his point in the film's chilling final shot, a haunting, slow zoom long take that lingers long after it fades.

The best films of the Romanian New Wave have a way of getting under one's skin, gnawing and penetrating with a slow-burn intensity. When the renaissance of Romanian filmmaking first announced itself to the world sometime around 2005-2006, with the release of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Radu Muntean's The Paper Will Be Blue, it was clear that something major was going on in the former Communist nation. The movement peaked in 2008 with the release of Mungiu's masterpiece, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which remains its strongest and most widely acclaimed achievement, and is notable for helping to revise the foreign language film rules at the Academy Awards after it was infamously left off of the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist in 2008.

Cosmina Stratan in Cristian Mungiu's BEYOND THE HILLS.
A Mobra films/Why Not Productions/Les films Du Fleuve/France 3Cinéma, Mandragora Movies co-production.
There have been some strong Romanian films since then, most notably Porumboiu's Police, Adjective, Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, and Puiu's Aurora. But Mungiu had perhaps the highest expectations riding on him to carry the movement's torch after establishing himself as its standard bearer. His omnibus film, Tales from the Golden Age, was never released in the United States, and received mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival. But Beyond the Hills is the strongest Romanian film since Mungiu's own 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. In that film, Mungiu tackled the thorny issue of abortion in a stark and clear-eyed way. Not one to avoid hot button topics, Mungiu turns his eyes to religious orthodoxy in Beyond the Hills, setting the film in a remote convent in the hills of Romania.

Shades of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus haunt the isolated monastery, drained of color and music, perhaps, but not necessarily in intensity. Mungiu takes the trademark Romanian austerity and takes it a step further, infusing it with an electrifying undercurrent of creeping madness, as a young woman named Alina visits her childhood friend, Voichita, at the convent who has dedicated her life to becoming a nun. It is clear from the start that this was no ordinary friendship. While it is never explicitly stated, it becomes clear the two shared a special and unique bond that might have even been a romance. But Voichita has turned from that life, even as Alina begs her to leave the convent and return with her to Germany.

 Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur in Cristian Mungiu's BEYOND THE HILLS. © Sebastian Enache.
A Mobra films/Why Not Productions/Les films Du Fleuve/France 3Cinéma, Mandragora Movies co-production.
Having grown accustomed to monastic life, Voichita refuses. Tormented by memories and unwilling to give up on what they had, Alina slowly begins to lose her grip on her sanity. The nuns try to intervene, accusing her of a multitude of sins, demanding confession and penance. When that doesn't work, they turn to medical help. When that doesn't seem to help either, they take matters into their own hands, but the results may not be the outcome they're looking for. What follows is a gripping exploration of the nature of sin. The Romanian Orthodox church lists 464 possible sins, all of which the sisters force Alina to go through to discover the source of her trouble. Each one as specific and restrictive as the first; no questioning, no thought of one's own. But at what point does individual thought become a crime? The sisters are obsessed to the point of pathology with absolute conformity, completely missing the point of the spiritual and personal nature of their religion, and giving little thought to how to apply it in their every day life.

So concerned with their crusade against the speck in their neighbor's eye, they end up missing the log in their own. And it's a very big log, one that, in the end, they remain quite unaware of. Which leads us back to the policeman's final statement - "when will this winter end?" The members of the convent fail to recognize the evil within in their quest to locate it in others. In the end, Mungiu confronts us, the audience, with the same question posed by the policeman. What good is a strict adherence to rules with no comprehension as to why? And when will the seemingly never ending cycle of blame and fearmongering end? These women are afraid of evil, and afraid of the consequences if they do not obey to their strict set of rules. But rules for the sake of rules without a basis in faith and love over fear and blame ultimately lead to their downfall. Mungiu deftly ratchets up the tension to a fever pitch in a way we've never quite seen from a Romanian film. It combines the sexual tension of Black Narcissus with the religious fervor of Carl Dreyer's Ordet, exploring the nature of modern fundamentalism with the eye of a consummated craftsman. His very specific brand of formalism traps the characters in a theological prison of their own design, and the results are as fascinating to watch as they are painful. Mungiu has established himself as the undisputed master of the Romanian New Wave, and with the release of Beyond the Hills it is clear that Romanian cinema isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BEYOND THE HILLS | Directed by Cristian Mungiu | Stars  Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga | Not rated | In Romanian w/English subtitles | Opens today, March 8, in NYC.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Review | "West of Memphis"

In 1993, three eight year old boys were killed in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. The case gained widespread notoriety after details emerged that cast doubt on the guilt of the three teenagers accused of the heinous crime, two of whom were sentenced to life in prison, and one of whom was sentenced to death.

The case of the West Memphis Three has been widely covered by filmmakers and journalists over the last 20 years, most notably by Joe Berlinger's Paradise Lost films, the last of which, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature just last year.

Coming on the heels of the Paradise Lost trilogy, Amy Berg's West of Memphis feels a bit late to the game. But unlike Berlinger's films, it doesn't have a direct agenda. Paradise Lost and its two sequels were directly advocating for the release of the West Memphis Three, with Purgatory having to tack on an epilogue after its premiere to include the release of the three men after the film had been completed.

Left to Right: Lorri Davis and Damien Echols.
Photo by Olivia Fougeirol, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
As such, West of Memphis has the advantage of being able to examine the case from a more outside perspective, looking back on it with clearer eyes rather than directly being a part of it. It explores some of its more intimate details through the eyes of some of its fiercest advocates, from celebrities to some of the victims' family. While one has to wonder just what kind of expert witness Peter Jackson is, it's interesting to hear from some of the wide variety of famous people who lent time and money to the cause. Unlike the Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis spends more time away from the West Memphis Three, and more time exploring alternate theories as to who actually killed those three boys, most notably one of the boy's stepfathers, Terry Hobbs, who was never actually interviewed by the police.

Ultimately, the film is a scathing portrait of a monumental miscarriage of justice. It runs a bit long at nearly 2.5 hours, but it provides a fascinating overview of the case, standing as a final testament to one of the strangest and most mishandled murder trials in recent memory. Berg takes a hard look at a town swept up in paranoia of Satanic cults, who misidentified post-mortem wounds made by animals for sexually motivated ritualistic mutilation, which started a craze that led to three teenagers who just didn't quite fit in. That fear of the "other" holds a lot of blame in destroying the lives of those young men, and the town has never been the same while a real murderer walks free. Viewers who have seen Berlinger's excellent films may feel like they've been down this road before, but Berg has the luxury of not advocating for their release, an event that finally took place in 2011 after years of rallies, court hearings, concerts, and a justice system that just doesn't seem interested in justice. Filmmakers, thankfully, are. And West of Memphis is a compelling chronicle of true crime, paranoia, and a world where justice no longer holds any meaning.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WEST OF MEMPHIS | Directed by Amy Berg | Rated R for disturbing violent content and some language | Now playing in select cities. Opens Friday, 3/9, at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

On "Jack the Giant Slayer"


From The Dispatch:
To its great credit, "Jack the Giant Slayer" isn't trying to be edgy or hip — it's just trying to be a good adventure yarn. And even if it isn't a great one, the sheer audaciousness of its own stubborn innocence is enough to carry it over the line. 
Click here to read my full review.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "Wreck-It Ralph"

When Brave's name was called out as the winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, many greeted it as something of a surprise. It's hard to imagine a win by Pixar being an upset, but many (myself included), thought the award would end up with either Tim Burton's Frankenweenie or Wreck-It Ralph.

Strangely enough, Brave was the weakest in an unusually strong field. And while I was pulling for ParaNorman, one of my favorite films from last year, to take home the gold, I would have been perfectly happy to see it end up with Wreck-It Ralph.

All too often, kids movies play paint by numbers with their plots, throwing in just enough goofy pratfalls to keep the kids laughing, but never bothering to actually be a good film in their own right, let alone one that parents can enjoy too. But with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney decided to go for something more, and they succeeded.

RALPH (voice of John C. Reilly) amongst other video game bad guys in WRECK-IT RALPH.
©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
It's an undeniably creative premise - Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), a Donkey Kong-esque video game villain, has grown tired of always being the bad guy, wrecking a building like Sisyphus for 30 years while the game's hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs it and reaps all the glory. Ralph just wants to be the hero for once, so he heads to the new first person shooter game, "Hero's Duty," to win a medal so he will finally be accepted as an equal by his fellow video game denizens. While in the gamer, however, he inadvertently releases a vicious bug, a virus that doesn't know it is in a video game, that could destroy the entire arcade. He ends up in "Sugar Rush," a girly racing game, where he befriends Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a perky racer and fellow misfit, who is an outcast in her game for a glitch that causes her to dematerialize at random.

The two of them form an unlikely bond after Vanellope swipes his medal to use as an entry fee into the race. Ralph vows to help her build a go-cart so she can fulfill her dream of becoming a racer in her own game. But someone doesn't want her to enter the race - someone who is willing to do anything to suppress Vanellope and hide an explosive secret that could change the entire game. And if you die outside your own game, you don't get another life.

RALPH and VANELLOPE VON SCHWEETZ in the video game world of Sugar Rush in WRECK-IT RALPH.
©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
What makes Wreck-It Ralph such a unique pleasure is its evocation of classic arcade games, making its behind-the-scenes tour of the arcade's inner workings a kind of Toy Story of video games. It's a treat, especially for those who grew up with these video games to see cameos by classic characters from "Pacman," "Sonic the Hedgehog," and "Street Fighter." But it also puts Ralph in the middle of a very real identity crisis, going beyond the usual "anyone can achieve anything" platitudes of kids movies and striking a balance between achieving one's goals and accepting one's own identity. There's a surprising amount of thematic meat here, some of which might go over kids' heads, but its an important lesson nonetheless. Director Rich Moore, whose previous directorial efforts have all been on television, never bludgeons over the head with the message either, instead giving us a smartly crafted and highly entertaining film that is as pleasing for children as it is for adults.

Disney's Blu-ray presentation conforms to their usual high standards, although it's a bit disappointing to discover that the 4 discs of the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" are held on only two knobs, two discs per knob, which seems like it could increase the potential for damage to the disc. The best extra is, of course, this Oscar winning animated short film, Paperman, which played in front of the film in theaters last Fall. It's a cute film, not as strong as some of the other nominees, perhaps (most notably Adam and Dog), but its charm is irresistible nonetheless. Being a computer animated film, it looks even more jaw-dropping in HD, and the often breathtaking detail comes to life here as never before. A requisite behind the scenes featurette fills out the features, along with a Disney Intermission feature that takes viewers on a deeper look into the making of the film when you hit pause, which will probably be of most interest to the grown ups in the audience. If you have kids, or enjoyed this film in theaters, picking this one up is a no-brainer. It's a strong presentation of an equally strong film.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WRECK-IT RALPH | Directed by Rich Moore | Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Dennis Haysbert | Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence | Available tomorrow, March 5, on 4-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack, 2-Disc Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD, SD Digital and On-Demand

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "The Master"

No other film from 2012 has stuck with me, haunted me, or frustrated me quite like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. It is the kind of film that one walks away from on first viewing convinced they've seen a masterpiece, even if they're not quite sure why. It is certainly a film that opens up upon repeat viewings, its Rorschach blot structure coming into clearer focus after multiple visits. It is not an easy text to approach, it's a challenging, often maddening film very much by design.

In my original review I wrote:
While "The Master's" fractured narrative can be an often maddening experience, it is clear that what we are watching is something special indeed. So staggering is Anderson's vision that there is no way a single viewing could ever yield its full riches, and I'm confident that this is a film that critics and historians will discuss for years to come. It's a searing portrait of post-war ennui through the eyes of a man whose fierce individualism comes into direct conflict with his innate need to be led. Quell craves guidance, but he also wants to forge his own path.
Revisiting The Master on Blu-ray is a somewhat different experience. Anderson's gorgeous, 70 mm images (courtesy of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who should have been nominated for an Oscar) take on a more intimate hue when viewed on a smaller screen. The processing scenes between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Master and Joaquin Phoenix' Freddie Quell become even more gripping and personal. There is something especially alluring about the closeness of them. On the big screen they are larger than life, on the small screen they are in our living room, and the depth of these two electrifying performances is all the more apparent.


Upon first viewing, it is easy to get lost just trying to make sense of the whole thing. But revisiting on Blu-ray allows the viewer more time to digest and dissect it, to experience it anew. There's something more easily digestible about it the second go-round. And while I'm convinced that it is the sort of film that will continue to yield fresh rewards each time it is watched, the scope of its achievement is readily apparent. The HD transfer on the Blu-ray is stunning, but the special features are perhaps even more obfusticating than the film. The deleted scenes almost feel like their own short film when strung together and scored by Jonny Greenwood, they become their own sort of separate narrative that actually illuminates some points from the film. In typical Anderson fashion, however, they also raise new questions. The behind the scenes featurette, on the other hand, doesn't really shed any light on anything, featuring a series of clips filmed by crew members between takes that seem to show a whole lot of nothing going on. Perhaps of most interest is John Huston's 1946 documentary, Let There Be Light, which illuminates the troubles of soldiers returning from World War II suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a fascinating change of pace from the usual jingoistic military docs of the time, and offers some chilling insight into an often overlooked problem.

As for the film itself, it's hard to imagine it looking any better than it does here, the 1080p presentation making a gorgeous film even more impressive. It's not a film for everyone, nor was it meant to be. But it's a mesmerizing experience nonetheless. I ended my original review by saying:
It's also very clearly a major work, a film filled with ideas of such thematic grandeur that one must step back from it in order to truly view the full picture. Its prismatic structure looks at its subject as though through the lens of a diamond, splitting into fragments and congealing into a brilliant but fractured whole. It is left to us to reassemble the pieces. Such a work is bound to leave many audience members cold, and it's not difficult to see why. But it's also fascinating to contemplate. It is a film that is impossible to ignore; a bold, towering work that is as infuriating as it is masterful.
I stand by every word, perhaps now even more so. This is a film to be revisited, reflected upon, and remembered. There's a lot to explore beneath its surface, and now on Blu-ray it can truly be appreciated in its best possible presentation.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

THE MASTER | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Blu-ray Review | "A Simple Life"

The beauty of Ann Hui's A Simple Life lies in, you guessed it, its simplicity. In the year when Michael Haneke's Amour garnered critical accolades left and right, culminating in a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards and a win for Best Foreign Language Film, another, much warmer film about aging slipped quietly under the radar.

A Simple Life is not on the same level as Amour. But after Haneke's much more austere, bleak vision of old age, A Simple Life feels like a warm hug. Rather than depicting the horrors of old age, it focuses instead on the potential for joy and friendship at life's end after a dedicated life. Beauty can be found even in the darkest of situations, and Hui's more upbeast, optimistic take on aging is something to be cherished. Like its title suggests, it revels in the simple pleasures of life for a woman who asks for nothing but deserves everything.

Deanie Yip and Andy Lau in Ann Hui's A SIMPLE LIFE.
Courtesy of Well Go Entertainment.
For the past 60 years, Ah Tao (Deanie Yip) has taken care of Roger's (Andy Lau) family. As both maid and nanny, she has run the house, prepared their meals, and raised their children. Roger is the 3rd generation, and a successful movie producer with little time for home or family. Now well into her 70s, Ah Tao has a stroke, and it becomes clear that she can no longer take care of Roger the way she once did. So Roger makes a difficult and courageous decision - he decides to put his career on the back burner and care for Ah Tao himself. What happens is a unique and touching reversal of roles, in which Roger becomes the caretaker for Ah Tao. Her unassuming and modest ways lead her to refuse him paying for anything, but when she moves into a retirement facility for senior citizens much more incontinent than she, Roger begins to devote his life solely to her, in much the same way she devoted her entire life for caring for him.

A Simple Life is a lovely and tender film, and while its premise is rife with potential for sentimentality it remains remarkably restrained, as unassuming as Ah Tao, avoiding maudlin cliche with a wise and even hand. The lead performances by Deanie Yip and Andy Lau are both terrific, never going for obvious emotions, keeping their feelings close to the chest. Ah Tao and Roger never need to vocalize their feelings for each other - they simply know. By the end, they have not only become each other's closest friend, but each other's closest family, and Roger is the son she never had. Like Amour, it is a film about the people who will be with us when the time comes, but rather than focusing on the pain of love, it focuses on the beauty. The Blu-ray presentation by Well Go Entertainment is bare bones, but really no special features are needed here. The film speaks for itself, and it's one of the most criminally overlooked gems of 2012.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A SIMPLE LIFE | Directed by Ann Hui | Stars Deanie Yip, Andy Lau | Not rated | In Cantonese w/English subtitles | Now on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go Entertainment.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Review | "Koch"

It is strangely fitting that former New York mayor Ed Koch passed away on the day that Neil Barsky's admiring documentary, Koch, was released in NYC on February 1st. After all, Koch was a man who was both fiercely protective of and invested in his legacy.

Of course Koch's legacy will reverberate beyond this documentary, but there is a certain elegiac quality to Koch that feels as if it was finished after he was already gone.  If the film is any indication, then the former mayor has nothing to worry about - his legacy is in good hands.

Naturally that legacy isn't without controversy, and Koch admirably explores the thoughts of some of his detractors as well. Koch has been in the spotlight quite a bit lately, making appearances in the documentaries The Central Park Five and most memorably, How to Survive a Plague just this past year.

Ed Koch in the office of his campaign manager, David Garth, September 1977. As seen in KOCH, a film by Neil Barsky.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo: The New York Post
Koch actually rebuffs some the accusations that he ignored the AIDS crisis leveled at him by members of ACT UP in How to Survive a Plague, by painting him as an early champion of gay rights, actually running on some gay rights platforms at a time when such things were almost unheard of. Koch's sexuality was long a topic of speculation even during his initial mayoral campaign against Mario Cuomo in 1979, which lead to many in the gay community feeling betrayed by him as AIDS ravaged the gay male population during the 1980s. If Koch was gay, he remains defiantly in the closet here with a brusque "none of your fucking business." Even in his twilight years, Koch was a firebrand, yet still takes the time to detail the steps he took to try and curtail the spread of AIDS at the height of the epidemic. It's interesting watching Koch on the heels of the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, and noting the different approaches taken by their respective filmmakers. Barsky takes a much more even handed approach than Plague's David France, who turned the film into an angry polemic that refused to examine the negative effects of the members of ACT UP.

The AIDS crisis is not the focus here, however, but it is interesting to note the difference in the two films. Barsky is clearly in Koch's corner, but this is not a one sided adulation. Barsky gives voice to Koch's critics, examining the most important moments of his time in office from all sides. Perhaps his most lasting legacy will be his housing projects that distinguished him as one of New York's most progressive mayors, despite accusations of racism that popped up early in his career. The older Koch waves off such talk with his usual bluster. A principled and outspoken man to the last, Koch always called it like he saw it, with his typical no nonsense chutzpah. Koch may follow a pretty typical structure for a biographical documentary, but Barsky handles it well, balancing the story of Koch's mayoral career with modern reflections from the man in winter. It isn't really any more illuminating beyond the history we already know, but it humanizes the man in a way rarely seen in the national media. Love or hate the man, he is a fascinating figure. In Koch, he gets the chance to defend himself. You may not like what he has to say, but you can't help but respect the zeal and conviction with which he says it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KOCH | Directed by Neil Barsky | Not rated | Now playing in select cities. Opens today, 3/1, in Los Angeles.

Review | "Leviathan"

Every now and then a film comes along that changes our perception of cinema itself; that expands the definition of what a film can be. A film that pushes boundaries, that makes its own rules, that rewrites the cinematic language in such daring and thrilling ways as to completely redefine what it means to be a film.

Such is the case with Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's extraordinary documentary, Leviathan. However, to call it a documentary is almost a misnomer. In fact there's really no label for it that quite fits, because no other film quite compares to it. It's an incredible work of nonfiction filmmaking, to be sure. But it also casts aside traditional form and structure in favor of something entirely its own. You'll find no interviews, talking heads, or even dialogue here, just the story of the New England fishing industry as captured through a series of unforgettable imagery on cameras manned by the filmmakers, by the fishermen, and even attached to tethers and tossed overboard.

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's LEVIATHAN.
 Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
To call Leviathan's spatial sensibility unique would be an understatement. There are times when the camera doesn't even seem to be attached to anything, but a free-floating entity all its own, rolling with the waves and moving up and down with the boat's seemingly endless machinery. There is no music in the film; the clinking chains, groaning pulleys, surging waves, and cawing gulls make up their own symphony of the seas to accompany the weirdly gorgeous imagery. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor (who also directed the lovely sheep-herding documentary, Sweetgrass) manage to get their cameras into places one would never think possible. The effect is equal parts disorienting and mesmerizing, creating an abstract portrait of an industry as old as humanity itself, that has provided mankind with a reliable food source since the beginning of recorded history. It is that timeless and almost ancient quality that drives Leviathan, the sense that we are watching a process that has been repeated over and over throughout the ages. While the technology may have changed, the essence of the task remains the same.

The film is dedicated to the memory of fishing vessels that have been lost off the coast of New England, a sobering reminder of the dangers of the job. And indeed, at times the film's dark, grainy beauty can be deeply unsettling. The use of digital video rather than actual film gives it a sense of gritty mystery, both beautiful and oddly sinister, as if potential danger lurks just around every corner. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's use of editing to create narrative momentum out of seemingly disconnected images is simply incredible, almost evoking a kind of Soviet Montage aesthetic that crafts a nearly wordless narrative; the rhythmic cuts coupling with the indelible images to stunning effect.

A scene from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's LEVIATHAN.
 Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Near the end of the film, in one of its most jaw dropping sequences, the camera is tossed overboard on a tether, skipping along on the waves, plunging into the sea before being yanked up again. Sky becomes water, water becomes sky, until one becomes indistinguishable from the other. It is a breathtaking melding of the elements, and in a way, it sums up the entire film. Even the men who populate the fishing boat somehow become part of the landscape, everything works in perfect symmetry, sunup to sundown, creating the natural ebb and flow of life at sea. In this collision of man and nature, the line becomes hauntingly blurred. Despite the fact that we never really hear from these men outside of occasionally barking orders at each other, it's strangely intimate and alluring, up close and personal in an unexpected way. It is as if we are there on that ship, experiencing it all as if in a dream. There's simply nothing else out there like it, and its timeless, almost supernatural urgency is truly spectacular.

Leviathan is a bracing aesthetic achievement, bar none, brilliant in both construction and execution. There is something deeply primal about what Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have achieved here, the kind of film one walks away from realizing they have witnessed something truly special. It is a wholly original sensory experience, a once in a lifetime documentary that transcends the medium and revolutionizes the form. It may be a tough sell for those expecting something more traditional, but what great work of art isn't? Come prepared to surrender to one of the most singular and astonishing films in years, because there has never been anything quite like this before.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

LEVIATHAN | Directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor | Not rated | Opens today, 3/1, in NYC. Other cities coming soon.