Thursday, September 25, 2014

From The Dispatch:
It's unlikely that you will see a more gentle or humane film in a theater this year. It lilts along at the pace of life, buoyed along by Chopin's Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat Major and the incredibly lived in performances of Lithgow and Molina. It truly feels as if they have been together for nearly 40 years. Both men have had long, illustrious careers in both film and theatre, but they turn in arguably career best work in “Love is Strange.” Their performances are tender, honest, and fully realized in ways that movie characters rarely are. Even if the film sometimes feels slight or inconsequential, there is always a palpable current of humanity pulsing beneath the surface. It's a wonderful work, one filled with deeply felt observations about life and love. Sachs has crafted something universal and resonant, a bittersweet, funny, and ultimately moving film that shows that even though love may be strange, it's never anything short of beautiful.
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

From The Dispatch:
Gilliam is certainly out there on his own wavelength, but “The Zero Theorem” is a strange animal indeed, a kind of familiar cliché and original vision that never really forms anything cohesive. It feels like the work of a tired filmmaker leaning back on the tropes of their more successful films from the past, ultimately turning in a movie that neglects everything that made those films good in the first place. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

There's a certain amateurish "hey guys let's make a movie" quality to Stuart Murdoch's new musical, God Help the Girl, that is at once organic and charming. Like the titular band its young protagonists are trying to put together, God Help the Girl is loosely structured, scrappy, and oh so very hip.

Yet unlike most things that get slapped with the label "hipster," the film never comes across as ironic or condescending, it's incredibly warm and sincere, bathed in a youthful nostalgia that is hard to resist.

Emily Browning stars as Eve, a teenage girl who has been hospitalized for severe anorexia. But she constantly yearns for life outside her sterile hospital walls, and frequently sneaks out in the dead of night to listen to music and write songs, constantly looking for inspiration. It is on one such excursion where she meets James, a sensitive young life guard who really doesn't know how to talk to girls.

The two become fast friends, and James begins to develop feelings for Eve, but being shy and awkward is unable to articulate them. Eve also has feelings for James, which she can only articulate through song (and he's not always sharp enough to get the point), but finds herself also drawn to a bad boy musician she needs to help her get her demo tape the attention it needs to ignite her career.  Together, Eve and James form a band with Cassie, an aspiring songwriter that James is teaching to play guitar.  They sing, they dance, they contemplate deep questions as they float through life - but Eve has a dream to become a world renowned musician, and begins to realize that perhaps the small time doodlings of her current life might not be enough.

It's all very loose, its structure almost free form and secondary to its music, which takes center stage. Murdoch, of the band Belle & Sebastian, directs with a naturalistic, easy going style that brings to mind Jacques Demy and the French New Wave. He is completely unconcerned with telling a traditional narrative, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. The songs are a bit too on-the-nose at times, their descriptions of the action seem less inspired than when the characters allow their minds to wander. But there is a certain naturalist quality here that is hard to resist. The film looks the best when it switches into the 16mm films shot by James, and it almost made me wish the entire film had been shot like that. Those 16mm segments are the most visually inspired pieces of the entire film.

I'm certain that the film will be viewed as too precious and twee in some circles, and that's fine. Movies like this aren't made for the cynical. This is a film about the cathartic power of music, and by extension, of art itself. God Help the Girl is the very embodiment of that idea. It's the kind of film that requires its audience to be on a very specific cultural wavelength to fully embrace, but its openness and heart should be enough to win over even the most jaded among us.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

GOD HELP THE GIRL | Directed by Stuart Murdoch | Stars Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.
You would be hard pressed to find a coming of age film more disturbing, more disgusting, and more outrageous than David Wnendt's Wetlands. At first it seems like a put-on, a so-gross-this-can't-possibly-be-serious act of deliberate provocation. The reality, however, is somewhat more complex.

For a film about a teenage girl who's obsessed with her own hemorrhoids and bodily fluids, Wetlands is a surprisingly sincere, even moving work. Based on the controversial novel by Charlotte Roche, the movie is intentionally over the top, almost daring the audience to be offended. It wants us to recoil, and it laughs at us for doing so. But there is a lot more to Wetlands than just shock value. This is a cry for attention about a cry for attention, a movie desperate to offend about a young girl also just as desperate to be noticed. In essence, it is the movie its young protagonist would have made about herself if she could have made a movie.

To call Carla Juri's performance as Helen Memel fearless would be an understatement. She hates hygiene, she loves her hemorrhoids and the smell of her unwashed nether regions, she relishes in languid nudity, and doesn't mind exacerbating a self inflicted anal fissure if it means staying in the hospital with a male nurse that she has taken a liking to. Her relationship with her best friend is so close they often share tampons and smear each other's menstrual blood on their faces. None of this is, by any means, normal behavior. Yet for all of its graphic depravities, Wetlands is a surprisingly sincere film. Its perversions are simply the self conscious affectations of a girl desperate for attention, from her broken family, from her friends, from the man she has unexpectedly come to love. On the outside she is obsessed with sex, but as the film goes on we come to discover what she really is obsessed with is love.

I often found myself wanting to look away from the screen (I'll certainly never look at pizza the same way again), I even found myself feeling nauseous a few times, but something about Helen's story struck a chord. Her story is a universal one, maybe not in regards to her peculiar sexual proclivities, but in her ultimate desire to be loved at all costs. Wnendt cleverly conveys her often troubled mental state without judging or celebrating it. It's a fine tightrope to walk, but he ultimately sticks the landing. That delicate balance between celebration and judgement is why Wetlands works so well, and a film like Lukas Moodyson's We Are the Best never quite jells. They offer two very different visions of teen angst, but Wnendt uses Helen's antisocial nature as a kind of thematic force all its own, and that's what sets it apart.

It would be easy to compare Wetlands to this year's other major film about sexual obsession - Lars Von Trier's epic Nymphomaniac. Both are about strong women who take their sexuality into their own hands, but both have very different approaches and themes. In Nymphomaniac, it is almost a kind of strength; in Wetlands, it is both strength and weakness - a sense of misanthropic independence that that ultimately harms even as it leads her to pleasure.

Yet more than any other emotion, I was fascinated by Wetlands. There's just nothing else out there like it. It is a wholly unique film that, while certainly not for all tastes, is a disarmingly touching film about growing up and finding ones own identity. Few films have ever done that in such a singular and memorable way that is as tender as it is off-putting. It is a film that is always vibrantly alive with a sense of self discovery and even wonder - at the world, at life, at the human body, and it does so without any self consciousness or forced sincerity. You'll never see anything like it again, and you probably won't want to, but one thing is for sure - Wetlands is one of a kind.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

WETLANDS | Directed by David Wnendt | Stars Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Marlen Kruse, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg | Not rated | In German w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC, opens Friday in LA.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

While Alfred Hitchcock wasn't really known for directing comedies, many of his films often contained an element of humor. This is especially true about his early British capers like The Lady Vanishes and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but perhaps most famous of all, in his 1935 espionage thriller, The 39 Steps. While the film isn't a comedy, Hitchcock often displayed a lighter touch in those earlier pictures before turning to darker and more macabre subject matter in his more well known later period. That makes something like The 39 Steps ripe for comedic adaptation, which is just what playwright Patrick Barlow did for his popular stage version of the film.

Opening the 14th season at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC, The 39 Steps is perhaps one of their most immensely likable productions yet. Featuring four actors, 150 characters, and lots of hilarity, The 39 Steps is a high energy farce that will keep audiences in stitches from beginning to end. The plot is much the same as in Hitchcock's original; an innocent man named Richard Hannay (Brian Lee Huynh) gets tangled up in an international espionage plot when he meets a beautiful and seductive secret agent (Laura Woodward) on the run. But when she turns up dead, Hannay finds himself wanted for murder, and sets out to complete her mission before top secret information about Britain's air defenses end up in foreign hands. His adventures will lead him to exotic Scotland, across speeding trains, in the lair of evil Nazis, and beyond, with countless characters deftly played by the immensely talented clowns - Sal Cacchiato and Andy Paterson.

Brian Lee Huynh, Laura Woodward, Sal Cacchiato, and Andy Paterson in The 39 Steps.
Courtesy of Triad Stage.
In fact, the on screen hi-jinks are so sidesplittingly funny one could almost miss the fantastic set design by Timothy R. Mackabee, which feels like a throwback to the grand theaters of old, with its elaborate chandelier and red velvet curtains. As soon as you walk into the theater you are thrust back into a world of femme fatales and dashing heroes with slicked back hair and tumblers of scotch. But even with all tongue-in-cheek suspension of disbelief and self-aware, meta-theatrical humor (not to mention the clever references to other Hitchcock films), director Jen Wineman makes us feel as if we are a part of a very specific, very heightened world, and makes sure that the audience is always in on the jokes.

It's telling that Triad Stage has chosen to kick off their 14th season in such a high spirited and entertaining way - it sets a very fun and accessible tone for the season to come, which will certainly feature plenty of more serious fare. But The 39 Steps has something for everyone, and is the kind of show for which many people go to the theatre in the first place. Here's hoping this is a harbinger of things to come - a hugely enjoyable kickoff to another great season of theatre in the Triad.

THE 39 STEPS runs from August 31 to September 28 at the Pyrle Theater in downtown Greensboro. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Thursday, September 04, 2014

From The Dispatch:
Director John Michael McDonagh never offers any clear or simple answers, but instead finds a strange sort of redemptive peace amidst impossible darkness. "Calvary" is a sharply written, beautifully rendered film of faith of a truly introspective and spiritual kind; one that acknowledges the darkness and deeply rooted faults of humanity and the Church and forgives them with a full and loving heart. This is truly something special. 
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Bob Fosse's All That Jazz is perhaps the quintessential showbiz movie, up there with Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Floyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade.

Fosse was already a renowned theatre director when he made his film debut, 1969's Sweet Charity. And his theatre work is most likely what still defines him in the minds of many today. He won an Oscar for his direction of Cabaret in 1972 (beating out Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather), which went on to win eight Academy Awards and is arguably his most popular film.

But all of that was just a build up to his 1979 masterpiece, All That Jazz. He would make just one more film, Star 80, in 1983, before his death at age 60 in 1987. But All That Jazz was clearly his most personal work. While not explicitly autobiographical, the parallels are clear. It was, in many ways, a vibrant and visceral assertion of what it meant to be Bob Fosse.

More than that, it's a full throated exclamation of what it means to be an artist. Anyone who has ever worked in show business in any capacity, be it theatre, film, or dance, will find something they recognize here. Fosse's cinematic proxy, the hard drinking, pill popping, womanizing director, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, in a career best performance), is a man consumed by the theatre. He lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, and drinks it. His passion is palpable, but it's also completely all-encompassing, and dangerously so. But as Moira Shearer's Victoria Page once observed in The Red Shoes when asked "why do you want to dance" by choreography Boris Lermontov, "why do you want to live?" To which Lermontov responded, "Well I don't know exactly why, but I must."

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
That is Gideon's, and by extension Fosse's, answer too. He is completely consumed by the desire to create, almost involuntarily. All That Jazz is a testament to that zeal. You can feel the energy pulsating off this thing from every frame, each musical number springing forth from Gideon's fertile imagination decades before Rob Marshall borrowed the technique for his Oscar winning Chicago. That The Criterion Collection chose to add this film to their impressive roster should come as no surprise - it's a modern masterpiece, a pinnacle of perhaps the greatest decade for American film, where artists almost routinely explored the boundaries of their medium in ways that had not been seen since the silent era. All That Jazz was never a particularly colorful film, Fosse tended to prefer a more muted color palate filled with blacks and silvers, and on Criterion's lovely new Blu-Ray it sparkles brighter than ever. Fans of Fosse will find lots to feast upon here, with several documentaries and interviews focusing on the director's career, including the 2007 documentary, Portrait of a Choreographer. It allows us to go deeper inside a movie that was so much more than just another musical, it is a window into the soul of an artist, and as a piece of cinematic history, that makes All That Jazz wholly indispensable.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary featuring editor Alan Heim 
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by actor Roy Scheider 
  • New interviews with Heim and Fosse biographer Sam Wasson 
  • New conversation between actors Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi 
  • Episode of the talk show Tomorrow from 1980, featuring director Bob Fosse and choreographer Agnes de Mille 
  • Interviews with Fosse from 1981 and 1986 
  • On-set footage 
  • Portrait of a Choreographer, a 2007 documentary on Fosse 
  • The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards, a 2007 documentary about the film’s music 
  • Interview with George Benson from 2007, about his song “On Broadway,” which opens the film 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Hilton Als