Thursday, April 25, 2013

Blu-ray Review | "A Man Escaped"

There are few films in the history of cinema that can claim to be as suspenseful or as nail-biting as Robert Bresson's 1956 masterpiece, A Man Escaped.

Based on a true story, which Bresson claims not to have embellished or enhanced in any way, A Man Escaped follows the exploits of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a French resistance fighter who is captured and imprisoned by the Nazis in occupied France during World War II. The reality of the story, as it turns out, is somewhat different from what we see on screen (the story of André Devigny, on which the film is based, ends on a less upbeat note), but Bresson indeed pares down the tale to its most essential elements.

Bresson had no use for the cinematic conventions of the time, which he felt created an atmosphere of excess and stifled the film's sense of realism.

François Leterrier as Fontaine in A MAN ESCAPED.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Most of all, Bresson completely rejected the idea of acting, choosing instead to hire non-actors to play the roles. He felt that the very idea of acting was antithetical to cinema, betraying falsehood where the director sought to find truth. In A Man Escaped, Bresson casually observes Fontaine's methodical preparations to escape from prison, free from any cumbersome subplots or unnecessary dialogue. This is perhaps cinema in its purest form, freed from unnecessary accouterments and embellishments, and the result is absolutely riveting. The audience is completely glued to Fontaine's every move, Leterrier's performance is completely unencumbered by the business of acting. He just is, and that is what makes A Man Escaped so thoroughly fascinating.

François Leterrier as Fontaine in A MAN ESCAPED.
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Bresson's sparse style may not work in every setting (I've never been a big fan of The Trial of Joan of Arc), but here it attains an almost spiritual level. Fontaine's preparations for escape are so focused, so deeply driven by a desire for freedom, that it is almost as if he is on a divine quest. That feeling of providence is further reinforced by Fontaine's unwittingly interrupting his new neighbor's suicide attempt as he tries to communicate with him. Bresson has always had a certain fascination with spiritual matters, even when those elements aren't explicitly written on the surface. As such, A Man Escaped becomes a sort of prayer for freedom, a meditation on miracles, and a study of the deep and abiding human desire for freedom.

Criterion's Blu-ray transfer of the film is simply stunning, both crisp and cinematic. There are plenty of supplements celebrating Bresson, featuring iconic devotees like Louis Malle, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Schrader, and Bruno Dumont, as well as analyzation from David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest films ever made, a film both thrilling and meditative, that should serve as a textbook for modern filmmakers on how to create and sustain suspense. It is an essential addition to every cinephile's collection.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

SPECIAL FEATURES INCLUDE:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition 
  • “Bresson: Without a Trace,” a 1965 episode of the television program Cinéastes de notre temps in which the director gives his first on-camera interview 
  • The Road to Bresson, a 1984 documentary featuring interviews with filmmakers Louis Malle, Paul Schrader, and Andrei Tarkovsky 
  • The Essence of Forms, a documentary from 2010 in which collaborators and admirers of Bresson’s, including actor François Leterrier and director Bruno Dumont, share their thoughts about the director and his work 
  • Functions of Film Sound, a new visual essay on the use of sound in A Man Escaped, with text by film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson 
  • Trailer 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo

On "Oblivion"


From The Dispatch:
It all makes for an enthralling visceral experience, but Kosinski delivers more than just summer movie eye-candy. He keeps the audience guessing, delivering twists and turns that actually surprise. This is a modern sci-fi film that flirts with greatness, delivering edge of your seat entertainment without sacrificing good writing and strong concepts. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Theatre Review | "My Fair Lady" at Triad Stage

For most, the mention of My Fair Lady brings to mind images of Audrey Hepburn singing "I Could Have Danced All Night," or drawling "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" to Rex Harrison.

Watching the new production at Greensboro's Triad Stage, however, one might easily forget having ever seen the Academy Award winning film version, as each player slips seamlessly into the iconic roles, making them wholly and completely their own.

The plot is, of course, the stuff of musical theatre legend. Professor Henry Higgins (Michael McKenzie, who recently appeared in the Netflix original series, House of Cards) bets fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering (Bill Raulerson), that he can turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Julia Osborne) into a proper lady in six months time. Eliza's language skills, however, turn out to be more difficult to improve than Henry expected, but over the course of those six months, the two adversaries will forge a much deeper connection than either of them could have ever imagined.

Michael McKenzie (as Henry Higgins), Julia Osborne (as Eliza Doolittle) and Bill Raulerson (as Colonel Pickering).
Photo by VanderVeen Photographers.
The leads are all spectacular - Osborne is completely winning as Eliza,d and McKenzie walks the fine line between lovable cad and complete jerk that is required of Henry Higgins. Ultimately, however, the show really belongs to the supporting players, most especially the incomparable Rosie McGuire as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' faithful housekeeper, and Gordon Joseph Weiss in the hilarious dual role of Eliza's father and Henry's mother. Weiss manages to transition between the drunken two-step of Mr. Doolittle to the haughty megalomania of Mrs. Higgins with great comic skill.  Both are Triad Stage regulars, and they shine here again as always, walking away with the scene in their pocket every time they appear onstage. Nick Cartell also brings the house down as Eliza's starry-eyed suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, whose rendition of "On the Street Where You Live" is a show-stopping highlight. Even without the aid of a full orchestra (the actors are accompanied by two pianists), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's immortal score really soars.

The folks at Triad have also pulled out all the stops with the set and costume design. Lindsay McWilliams' costumes are absolutely stunning, especially in the Ascot scene. The ladies' dresses and their complimentary colors (not to mention Eliza's epic hat) are a dream, and the staircase that descends to the stage looks like something out of Gone with the Wind. As a side note, casting director Cindi Rush also worked on Patrick Wang's magnificent film, In the Family, so Triad really isn't kidding around here.

For all the glamour of the sumptuous production, what really makes My Fair Lady shine is the dedication of its cast and crew, and the direction of Bryan Conger. Musical theatre is often very broad and presentational, but this cast manages to find the truth in their roles in a way that is very rare indeed, reminding us that this isn't so much a traditional love story as it is a story of unlikely friendship. It is at the complete opposite of the theatrical spectrum from their production of Tennessee Williams' Kingdom of Earth back in February, but its no less accomplished. In fact, it's an absolute joy to watch. Triad Stage has brought a classic musical to thrilling life, brushing away the cobwebs to deliver a truly dazzling production, and in so doing, cementing their status as one of the premiere highlights of Greensboro's downtown nightlife.

My Fair Lady runs through May 5, 2013 at Triad Stage in Greensboro, with tickets starting at $10. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.triadstage.com or call the box office at 336.272.0160.

Blu-ray Review | "Killing Them Softly"

The 2008 financial crisis has been influencing filmmakers almost since the moment in came to light five years ago. From documentaries like Inside Job and Collapse to narrative films like Arbitrage and Margin Call. In Killing Them Softly, based on George V. Higgins' novel, Cogan's Trade, director Andrew Dominick set out to craft a more symbolic take on the financial crisis, and ended up making perhaps the most blatant of them all.

Brad Pitt stars as Jackie Cogan, a mob enforcer who is called in to hunt down two amateur crooks who rob a mob controlled poker den. Even the mob, it seems, has fallen on hard times, and while the mob leaders behave like corporate committee concerned with public image, Cogan gets down to business. The closer he gets to his goal, however, the messier and more complicated the whole situation gets.


All the while, Dominick laces the scenes with sound bytes from 2008, using the words of Presidents Bush and Obama to draw clear parallels of the 2008 economic crisis with the acts of political thugs and criminals. It's about as subtle as a sledgehammer, with Dominick bashing us over the head with heavy handed political symbolism that's so in your face that it's almost laughable. It's a tough sit, because it feels like Dominick is preaching to us at every turn, constantly reminding us of his central theme without trusting the story to speak for itself. It's interesting that the director of the magnificent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford followed it up with something completely lacking in subtlety, but Killing Them Softly is a cynical, obvious piece of work that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

There are some fine performances here, especially from the supporting cast, which includes Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and Scoot McNairy. The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray release is pretty bare bones, with only a few deleted scenes and a cursory "making of" featurette that offers no insight into the film. The film maintains its grungy darkness in HD, and Dominick's visual flair remains striking, even if the film itself reads more like an angry undergrad poli-sci essay. The craft is there, but the ideas are disappointingly simplistic, painting in broad strokes when it could have been so much more pointed using a finer brush.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

KILLING THEM SOFTLY | Directed by Andrew Dominick | Stars Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Scott Mendelsohn | Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

You Really Do Only Live Once

Two days before he died, Roger Ebert wrote "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review." As it turns out, he never got to. But I was struck by that bittersweet desire to finally have the freedom to only watch the films one wants to watch. And I realized I wanted that too.

I've been writing professionally as a film critic for nine years, and have been running From the Front Row for nearly seven. During that time, I have written roughly 450 printed reviews for The Dispatch (approximately 225,000 words), and 2,454 blog posts. What started out as a hobby borne out of my love of film has become my life.

While I minored in film studies in college and always dreamed of becoming a film critic, it wasn't my only dream. And what was once something I did for fun has become, well, work. I do get paid for my print work for The Dispatch, but as of yet From the Front Row does not bring in any money, even though I treat it like it does. I have been a one man staff here at my site, and despite a guest post here and there from some of my wonderful correspondents, I have tried to review everything myself. Every screening, every screener, everything that comes across my desk I genuinely try to carve out time to review. And I just can't do that anymore.

As I watched Francois Ozon's In the House tonight, a teacher played by Fabrice Luchini admonishes his students to "make time for books." I want to make time for books. I want to take the time to watch classics I've never had time for. I want to lay in the grass with my girlfriend and read Shakespeare. I want to explore the Criterion Collection. I want to cook. I want to act more. I want to spend time with friends. I want to travel. I want to cut back on writing about other people's art and create my own. And I want to focus on returning to school. In short, I want to take a step back from reviewing.

I've realized I don't have to watch every new release. I don't need to stay on top of every film that gets the slightest bit of acclaim. From now on, I only want to review films I really want to see. Life is too short to waste time on a lot of the drivel I've wasted time on. I will continue my weekly reviews for The Dispatch, and I will continue to cover Blu-ray and DVD releases of old and current films that interest me, but you will see a significant reduction in reviews of new films at From the Front Row. There will be enough new content here to maintain my status with the various critics groups I belong to, but I want to take some time to watch films I don't have to write about later. And if the notion strikes me, I may write about them. Or I may not. The bottom line is I've been stressing out to keep From the Front Row current all by myself for far too long, and the pressure has been completely self inflected. So I'm going to take a step back and live my life away from a screen for a while.

I'm not abandoning my pet project completely. From the Front Row is not dead - far from it. But I want this to become a passion project again, not an obligation. I will be choosier about what I review - and I want to reconnect with why I fell in love with film in the first place. I will still log capsule reviews of every film I watch on my Letterboxd account, so I'll never be too far away. But Ebert's death has reminded that life really is short, and I don't want to miss out on any of it. Thank you all for all of your support over the years, and I hope you'll stick with me as From the Front Row enters this new phase of existence.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to read.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Review | "Evil Dead"

It has become somewhat of a trend for modern horror films to try and out-shock each other. From the Saw series to Hostel, it is almost as if filmmakers are trying to one-up each other in the gore department.

It's a shame that, in the process, many have forgotten what it actually means to be scary. Evil Dead is being advertised as "the most terrifying film you will ever experience." And it isn't, not by a longshot. But it might be the most disgusting.

Even that is pushing it. There have been far more disturbing films before - Cannibal Holocaust, A Serbian Film, I Spit on Your Grave, The Human Centipede II, just to name a few. But with the exception of The Human Centipede II, all of those films managed to achieve something that Evil Dead does not - they were truly terrifying. And while they remain controversial even today for their shockingly graphic nature, they have endured because the filmmakers weren't just grossing you out, they were getting under your skin in a way few films ever have.


As someone who wasn't a fan of Sam Raimi's original 1981 cult hit, I wasn't particularly offended by the idea of a remake. The cardinal sin of Evil Dead isn't that it's a remake, it's that ultimately it's pretty dull. The plot is still the same, five twenty somethings comverge on an old cabin out in the woods to stage an intervention for a friend who nearly overdosed on cocaine. Once there, they discover the Book of the Dead in the basement, and after reading it unleash demons who begin to systematically possess and destroy them one by one. Coming on the heels of Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead seems almost goofy in comparison now, after its cliches have been so thoroughly deconstructed.

And then there's the gore. Evil Dead is absolutely soaked in it, somehow believing that grossing out an audience is the same thing as scaring them. The film is consistently trying to top itself - needles are stabbed through eyeballs, arms are cut off with electric knives, tongues sliced in half, limbs broken and twisted off, but for what purpose? It's as if director Fede Alvarez is standing behind the camera saying "oh you think that's sick? Watch this!" But it lacks the scare factor to back up its brazen display of grotesque imagery. Every "scare" is underlined with an outrageously overwrought music cue, as if Alvarez doesn't trust himself enough to be scare the audience, so he overemphasizes every moment to the point of silliness. Its sadism isn't even backed up by any real teeth like the work of Alexandre Aja, it's just gross rather than horrifying. Throw in some bizarrely offbeat performances that almost seem to be straight out of a horror movie parody, and you have the mess that is Evil Dead. Gore aficionados will certainly find a lot to enjoy here, but if you like a little meat with your blood, you'll find it to be a bit empty. It's not even bad or campy enough to be enjoyable B-grade horror. It's just another bland gore-fest that plays like the reheated remains of far better films that have come before.

GRADE - ★½ (out of four)

EVIL DEAD | Directed by Fede Alvarez | Stars Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore | Rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, some sexual content and language | Opens today, 4/5, in theaters nationwide.

Review | "Upstream Color"

I see a lot of movies in my line of work, far more than I ever get a chance to review here. But out of the thousands upon thousands of films I've seen, I've never seen one quite like Shane Carruth's Upstream Color.

2013 has been a banner year for filmmakers crafting intensely singular, uncompromising works of art, such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, and Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan. It is easy to slip into hyperbole when discussing these films, but sometimes words fail. Which may be a hoary cliche when discussing film, I don't know how many times I've rolled my eyes at another breathless declaration that "you've never seen anything like this before," when in all actuality we've seen it far too often. But in the case of a film like Upstream Color, words really do fail.

Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth in a scene from UPSTREAM COLOR, an erbp release.
Photo courtesy of erbp.
The beauty of it is that I think Carruth (Primer) actually designed it that way. You'll find very little dialogue in the film, at least of the variety that drives a typical plot. This is a film of textures, of sounds and feelings; any attempt to force or discern a plotline will only result in a headache. It's not that kind of film, and it wasn't meant to be.

The plot synopsis is the most simple of outlines - "A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the lifecycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives." You'll find no further explanation for the film from Carruth beyond those two sentences. But in the tradition of the early avant-garde filmakers like Bunuel, Kirsanoff, and Dulac, Carruth wants us to feel the film. As Bunuel once said, "film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream." And never has that been as true as it here. Upstream Color feels like a dream, or at the very least, a fevered hallucination. The kind that, as it begins to fade upon waking, leaves you wondering if you had actually seen what you thought you saw, even as you struggle to hold on to its finer details.

A scene from UPSTREAM COLOR, an erbp release.
Photo courtesy of erbp.
There are pigs, there are mind controlling worms, there is Thoreau's "Walden," all surrounding two lost souls who are inexorably bound by shared trauma. As they try to piece their lives back together after a seemingly random attack, memories of the past seem to collide with infinite possibility, refracting into multiple outcomes of the same scenario. The results are haunting, disorienting, and engrossing, at equal turns romantic and horrific. Even the simple act of making gromits becomes something strangely transcendent. As I mentioned before, the use of double exposures, along with its overall tone, make it a direct descendant of the early surrealists, with a dash of Lynch and Malick thrown in for good measure.

But Carruth has a voice all his own. Not only did he write, direct, and star in the film, he also composed its lovely, enthralling score as well. Upstream Color is a singular beauty of a film, a work that I have a feeling critics and film historians will be discussing and writing about for years to come. It's a gorgeous, utterly intoxicating Möbius strip, a wholly original work of art that defies simple categorization and achieves something few modern films ever do - a true sense of cinematic discovery.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

UPSTREAM COLOR | Directed by Shane Carruth | Stars Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz | Not rated | Opens today, 4/5, in NYC.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

On "Jurassic Park 3D"


From The Dispatch:
Even for those who, like me, don't particularly care for 3D, seeing "Jurassic Park" on the big screen again is worth it. The t-rex is louder than ever, the brachiosaurs more graceful, the velociraptors more terrifying – and now the film will be able to be discovered by a whole new generation of wide-eyed children who never got to experience it the way it was meant to be seen — sitting in a darkened theater, watching in wonder as all their childhood dreams come to life on the big screen. 
Click here to read my full review.