Saturday, March 22, 2014

Of the 5 nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008, Japan's Departures was not the best (Waltz with Bashir and Revanche are both superior films). But I don't begrudge it its win at all. It's a profoundly moving film, and Joe Hisaishi's score gets me every time. Listen to this and tell me you don't feel something.

Friday, March 14, 2014

As I watched Penn and Teller's new documentary, Tim's Vermeer, I was reminded of the quote from Pixar's The Incredibles - "if everyone's super, no one will be."

Implied or not, that is the undercurrent running through the entire film, in which Tim Jenison, an amiable inventor and jack of all trades, who sets out to discover the secret behind Johannes Vermeer's photorealistic paintings. How did Vermeer capture light with such a keen, photographers eye centuries before the invention of the camera?

Convinced that Vermeer must have have used some sort of aid beyond the Camera Obscura that is generally attributed to him, Jenison sets out to discover the true method behind Vermeer's genius, and once he does, to recreate it himself.

Is a non-painter claiming he can paint a Vermeer the ultimate act of hubris? Or the eccentric musings of a man with a passion for learning? A little of both, it turns out. Jenison isn't a braggart or an egoist, he seems like a pretty down to earth kind of guy who is doing this out of sheer curiosity than to prove any sort of point. And the final results are pretty surprising, although they are sure to infuriate art purists.

Tim Jenison (right) demonstrates his first painting experiment to his friend, producer Penn Jillette (right). Photo by Carlo Villarreal, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
It's an undeniably fascinating premise, however, and the results even more so. Here is Jenison, a man who has never picked up a paintbrush before, but is able to recreate the look and feel of a real Vermeer with the help of an inegenious mirror device that, in all liklihood, is what Vermeer once used to create his masterpiece.

So is Jenison an artist on the level of Vermeer? Or was Vermeer a hack, doings something that literally anyone could do if they put forth the time? Unfortunately, the film never quite delves into those questions, choosing instead to focus on the process of Jenison's experiment rather than the philosophical questions it raises. When the film does touch on those questions, it does so almost flippantly, as if the why doesn't matter as much as the how. The result is a film that feels more like an episode of "Mythbusters" than a feature documentary. The narration by Penn Jillette is almost too jovial for a film with real philosophical underpinnings, and while the filmmakers were clearly going for a more lighthearted tone at times, it often seems at odds with what's actually going on. Tim's Vermeer comes across like a television special, a middle of the road documentary about an interesting concept that would have done just as well with a documentary short. As is, there's just not enough here to justify a full length documentary, filling in gaps with long stretches of Jenison painting and building his sets; time which could have been better used by examining the implications of Jenison's work that are so blithely glossed over.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

TIM'S VERMEER | Directed by Teller | Featuring Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette | Rated PG-13 for some strong language | Opens today at the Manor Twin in Charlotte, NC.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Much has been written over the years about 1939 being the greatest year in the history of cinema. And it's certainly a hard theory to argue with. After all, 1939 was the year that gave us The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Rules of the Game, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, you would be hard pressed to find a year as jam packed with bona-fide classics and masterpieces.

While John Ford's seminal Stagecoach is perhaps his best remembered film from that year, Ford also released his very first Technicolor picture, Drums Along the Mohawk, later in the year. Its success at the Academy Awards was muted in the shadow of Stagecoach (and an MGM sweep by Gone with the Wind), it only managed to garner a Supporting Actress nomination for Edna May Oliver (she lost to Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel).

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
While Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are often regarded as the standard bearers of Technicolor photography, it's hard to fathom why Drums Along the Mohawk isn't mentioned right alongside them. Here is a film from a man who would give us the sweeping Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers 17 years later, flexing his considerable Technicolor muscles for the time, and the results are absolutely stunning.

Starring Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin and Claudette Colbert as his new wife Lana, Drums Along the Mohawk is the tale of a young farmer who takes his city-bred new wife out to the Western frontier in the days leading up to the American Revolution. Things aren't as idyllic as he'd hoped, however, as Tory sympathizers recruit local indians to raid settlers' homesteads and wage war on a new front. When their new home is destroyed, the Martins are forced to move in with a sassy, no nonsense old widow named Mrs. McKlennar (Oliver), who brings them in as hired help. But as the raids become more frequent and more fierce, Martin is called up as part of the militia, and soon the war has followed them to the frontier, where they must make one last stand in the name of freedom.

Still courtesy of DVD Beaver.
Drums Along the Mohawk deals with many themes that Ford would continue to revisit throughout his career, most notably the relations between settlers and Native Americans. Here, Ford takes a Western plot and relocates it to era of the American Revolution and away from the post-Civil War era the genre often occupies. Ford never quite demonizes his indian antagonists the way many films of the time did (he also gives Fonda a native best friend), but he doesn't explore that as deeply as he would in his later films. Here they are seen as an arm of the British, and part of a greater fight for American independence, rather than an obstacle to American expansion, which is a key distinction. While the film does indulge in some stereotyping (the drunken indians who attack Widow McKlennar are especially cringe-worthy in a modern context), it does so with a surprisingly light touch.

In fact Ford peppers the entire film with a warm sense of humor to balance the gravity of the plot (and the deaths of several heroic characters). His attention to detail is extraordinary, and the film isn't just a thrilling period adventure, it's a fascinating portrait of frontier life. What really sets it apart, though, is that gorgeous cinematography by frequent Ford collaborator Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan. The recent Blu-ray release by Twilight Time (which is only available in a limited, 3,000 copy pressing) makes the brilliant colors really pop, rivaling even the Warner Brothers Blu-ray of Gone With the Wind. Pay close attention to the scene where Fonda is running to get reinforcements, a band of indians at his back, his silhouetted image against a fiery red and orange sky behind him. These are the images of a consummate filmmaker, and this is Twilight Time's most impressive package in an already pretty impressive lineup, as they continue to distinguish themselves as one of the top specialty Blu-ray labels on the market. Here, they have given their all to one of Ford's lesser known masterpieces (along with comprehensive documentary, Becoming John Ford), and given it the beautiful HD presentation it deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

As I child, I had pretty much every Disney movie on VHS. We had a whole shelf full of those big plastic cases, and I would watch them frequently.

Oddly enough, one of the ones I watched the least was The Jungle Book, and revisiting it now on Disney's latest Diamond Edition Blu-ray, I was reminded of why.

The Jungle Book is most notable for being the last animated feature to get Walt Disney's personal touch before his death in 1966. It has become something of a classic thanks to its catchy Sherman brothers songs like"Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You,"  but seeing it again after all these years, I was surprised just how uneventful it was.

Mowgli the "man-cub" was raised by wolves, but upon the return of the tiger Shere-Khan, Mowgli must be returned to the man village or face death by the vengeful tiger.

And that's pretty much it. Mowgli is escorted to the man village by Bagheera the panther, and meets an array of colorful characters, from Baloo the bear to Kaa the snake to King Louie the ape, each helping or hindering his journey in some way. But that's really all the movie is, an episodic collection of vignettes that moves along at a surprisingly meandering pace. On the other hand, its characters are some of the most enduring in the Disney canon, which makes The Jungle Book something of an odd bird indeed. It's hard not to be charmed by it, and it has clearly endured for some reason. It doesn't have the strong plotline or classical structure of some of its predecessors, but something about it works in spite of itself. It's essentially a rambling collection of songs, but its characters and their relationships make it work.

As usual, Disney has gone all out on their latest Diamond Edition Blu-ray release, although it's strange that The Jungle Book was chosen as a worthy candidate for deluxe treatment while superior films like Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland were only given standard edition releases. Still, the presentation is impressive. I had never noticed before just what a beautiful film it is, and the Blu-ray upgrade certainly pops, even if the automatic "Jungle Karaoke" feature that pops up when you pause the film is a bit annoying. Disney has demonstrated their continuing commitment to their catalogue classics, and The Jungle Book has received an impressive sprucing up that will no doubt please fans and Disney enthusiasts. It may be one of their lesser classics, but there is a reason why it has endured for so long.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)