Monday, December 28, 2015

The Top Ten Documentaries of 2015

2015 has been a great year for documentaries. It has given us an embarrassment of riches, from the political, to the historical, to the experimental. They've examined the lives of movie stars, singers, artists, murderers, religious fanatics, and every day, normal people. Documentaries have the power to transport us not just to other worlds, but illuminate the world we live in. They offer unique perspectives into reality where narrative films can't necessarily go. I could easily have listed 10 more documentaries in addition to these, but these are the ten that have stuck with me the most this year.

1
HEART OF A DOG
(Laurie Anderson)

Artist Laurie Anderson uses the life of her beloved dog, Lolabelle, as a lens through which examine the nature of death, love, and the post-9/11 paranoia that changed our world. Heart of a Dog is a rapturous, impressionistic work that is dreamlike and yet hauntingly familiar. Anderson's philosophical musings are funny, sad, profound, and heartbreaking. It feels like she's going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, like a terrier chasing a mouse, yet it remains endlessly engrossing. As a personal testament, as a piece of experimental film, as a work of art, Heart of a Dog is a constant wonder. Anderson's lovely and amazing film is a wholly new kind of a documentary, one that transcends the conventions of its form and captures a rarefied essence of stream-of-consciousness thought. It's like something cooked up in a dream, meandering, slightly delirious, nonsensical yet pregnant with deep and almost unfathomable meaning. It's an incredible film, a heartfelt testament to life and death that manages to pack life's biggest questions and the very essence of the 21st century into a breathtaking 75 minutes.

2
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
(Joshua Oppenheimer)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his explosive documentary, The Act of Killing, with another examination of the cruelty of the military dictatorship of Indonesia through a completely different lens. In Act of Killing, Oppenheimer never directly challenged his murderous subjects, allowing them to tell their stories in their own way, in some cases leading a devastating kind of clarity. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer takes a Indonesian citizen whose brother was brutally murdered by the military junta for being a suspected communist, and follows him as he confronts his brother's murderers face to face. Feels like a natural extension of Act of Killing without being a retread. It dares to stare into the face of evil, and the result is a chilling portrait of human cruelty and the power of self delusion, but also about the cathartic power of forgiveness. Essential stuff.

3
LISTEN TO ME MARLON
(Stevan Riley)

Using hours upon hours of audio recordings made my Marlon Brando, Stevan Riley's new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, pieces together an impressionistic portrait of the enigmatic actor, a man often considered to be the greatest actor of all time. Brando is no less an enigma by the time the film ends, but that is as it should be. Brando's musings on life, on acting, on his career, are both fascinating and obfuscating, managing to simultaneously provide insight into his thought process and worldview, while also muddying the waters just as much. Riley weaves a deeply engaging tapestry of Brando's words into a powerful new work of art, a towering paean to a towering man. Yet it is neither hagiographic nor biographical. Listen to Me Marlon reaches for the essence of the man, and emerges as a beautifully mysterious, maddeningly cryptic, yet endlessly engrossing work of art, not unlike the man himself.

4
IN JACKSON HEIGHTS
(Frederick Wiseman)

In his latest documentary, Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Jackson Heights, a New York neighborhood considered by some to be the most diverse neighborhood in the Unites States. From Churches, synagogues, and mosques, gay pride parades and transgender support groups, wealthy, poor, migrant workers, driving instructors, and ladies' knitting circles, Jackson Heights hums with a vibrant sense of multiculturalism. Here, Wiseman observes citizens coming together to better their community, workers making their daily wage, marginalized groups protesting for their rights, and every day people living out their normal lives in a place that serves as a microcosm of modern America. Wiseman is a master of observation, leaving no detail unexplored, he immerses us in this world so that by the film's end we feel as though we have actually spent a day in Jackson Heights. There's something joyful and even hopeful about In Jackson Heights, as we watch such disparate groups co-existing in such a small place, supporting and helping each other along. This is the heart of America, and in Wiseman's steady hands, it becomes a celebration of our diversity and our strength, showing civic action as the backbone of our democracy. It's refreshing to see such cooperation in our highly divisive, politicized times. Essential stuff.

5
STRAY DOG
(Debra Granik)

Sometimes a film comes along that completely restores your faith in humanity. Debra Granik's warmly observant portrait of Ron "Stray Dog" Hall, a biker and Vietnam veteran, is at once a celebration and examination of the American heartland. It's also a subtle yet disarming indictment of how our veterans are often neglected by our government. Yet Hall and his buddies never forget their own, riding across the country to attend funerals, memorial dedications, and supporting each others' families. You'll find no political grandstanding in Stray Dog, no talking heads or interviews, instead Granik merely observes, creating a powerfully rendered meditation on the American family, no matter what form that may take, and the essential goodness of human beings. This is what great documentary filmmaking is all about.

6
THE PEARL BUTTON
(Patricio Guzmán)

Director Patricio Guzmán uses water as a metaphoric lens through which to tell the story of Chilean natives, whose ancient relationship with the ocean has been all but lost through systematic subjugation by colonial occupation, in a genocide that lasted well into the 20th century. Lyrical and heartbreaking, The Pearl Button is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that is both a celebration of a lost culture (only 20 direct descendants of the Patagonian natives remain), and an elegy for a forgotten genocide that is arguably one of the most ghastly in the history of the world. Yet through Guzmán's unique lens, the history of the natives becomes a kind of ethereal reflection of the universe, irrevocably changed by colonialism and western invasion, moving through the glistening waters of the Chilean coastline like ghosts. Guzmán's placing of the natives' struggles in cosmic perspective makes the film an interesting companion piece for his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light. While the metaphor gets lost in its grandiosity at times, The Pearl Button is nevertheless a deeply moving experience, that tells a story as timeless as the sea itself.

7
GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF
(Alex Gibney)


Alex Gibney's disturbing look inside the Church of Scientology is an explosive expose of the infamous religion's nefarious brain washing tactics. Gibney takes a devastating look at L. Ron Hubbard's brain child, from its origins as a money making scheme for Hubbard to the massive, cult-like phenomenon that it is today. It's hard not to be reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and just how close it was to Hubbard's actual life and the teachings of Scientology. Plus, the revelation of the church's true beliefs about Earth being an alien prison planet where frozen bodies were dropped off into volcanoes by the galactic overlord Xenu, releasing alien spirits into the world that are the source of all human suffering (all of which had been famously detailed by "South Park") seem all the more damning here. Going Clear is a frightening and essential doc about the human need to believe and belong, and the power of denial, even if the face of evil and oppression.

8
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?
(Liz Garbus)

Liz Garbus' deeply incisive portrait of legendary blues singer, Nina Simone, examines her life and career through her own words and through the recollections of the people who knew her best. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fascinating look at a brilliant artist, brought down by her own demons (and a more militant streak during the civil rights movement) and then resurrected from the ashes. Simone's singular voice shines through at every turn, and the film both pays tribute to her genius and highlights her failures by posing the essential question - "what happened?" I found this more compelling and more moving than AMY, which is very similar in both structure and theme. But the many layers of Simone's rise and decline, from political (race, gender, militancy), to personal (abusive relationships, mental illness), I think are far more intriguing, and Garbus' direction strikes a fine tonal balance between reverence and inquisitiveness.

9
BEST OF ENEMIES
(Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)

Riveting documentary chronicles the 1968 debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, as they publicly clashed on ABC during the Republican and Democratic conventions in a heated match of wits and cultures. Best of Enemies presents these debates as a touchstone that eventually led to our current, hyper-partisan culture, where commentating and opinion has replaced reporting and presentation of fact. But even more fascinating, the film is a portrait of two men whose hatred of each other gave them an almost symbiotic relationship, where the identity of each one was inexorably linked to the other. It's compelling stuff, and directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville make it work on multiple levels even with its brief, 85 minute run time.

10
WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE'S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
(Evgeny Afineevsky)

Evgeny Afineevsky's harrowing documentary puts us on the front lines of the 2013 revolution that brought Ukraine back from the brink of Russian control. Using on-the-ground footage taken from the scenes of the riots protesting the Ukranian president's withdraw from promised European Union inclusion, and violent clashes where policemen beat up peaceful protestors, Winter on Fire is a riveting look at democracy (and fascism) in action, as a people fight for their freedom against an oppressive police state. One can't help but draw parallels from Ukraine's struggle to the American "Black Lives Matter" protests, and while the stakes of those protests may be more abstract, one can't help but get a queasy feeling watching the protesters being brutally beaten. Afineevsky treats it like an action thriller, but this is more riveting than any Hollywood action film. This is real - and the blood, sweat, and tears of the Ukrainian patriots runs through every frame. It doesn't always need the dramatic music cues, it's dramatic enough already, but the final result is certainly inspiring, and the fly on the wall footage is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This puts everything Michael Bay has ever made to shame.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Top Ten Scores of 2015

Time to start counting down the best in cinema from 2015, leading up to my list of the top ten films, starting out with my ten best scores of the year.

Movie scores are one of my favorite things, and mostly what I listen to when listening to music, so this is always one of the highlights of the year for me. 2015 was a strong year for scores, featuring new work from old masters and some great new work from previously unknown up-and-comers. My list contains some of both. What did I miss? Which scores would make your own list?

1
CAROL
(Carter Burwell)


2
THE REVENANT
(Ryuichi Sakamoto)


3
STEVE JOBS
(Daniel Pemberton)


4
THE DANISH GIRL
(Alexandre Desplat)


5
BRIDGE OF SPIES
(Thomas Newman)


6
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
(Ennio Morricone)


7
IT FOLLOWS
(Disasterpiece)


8
CREED
(Ludwig Goransson)


9
JURASSIC WORLD
(Michael Giacchino)


10
CRIMSON PEAK
(Fernando Velazquez)

HONORABLE MENTIONS
STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS (John Williams)
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (The Octopus Project)
BROOKLYN (Michael Brook)
WOLF TOTEM (James Horner)
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (Craig Armstrong)
THE 33 (James Horner)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On "The Danish Girl"


From The Dispatch:
There's something to be said for formula executed well, and Hooper takes a vital, necessary story about something that is still very foreign to many people and breathes into it a dynamic energy, using the constraints of a formula that makes an unusual story hauntingly familiar. It's an impressive feat that probably won't get nearly the appreciation that it deserves.
Click here to read my full review.

Blu-Ray Review | "Speedy"

Harold Lloyd's final silent comedy, Speedy, is a zippy, fast paced romp about a young man trying to save the horse drawn carriage business of the father of the girl he loves. As villainous railroad barons conspire to take the cart and take over its tracks, Lloyd leads them on a series of misadventures, including a street brawl and a breakneck chase in a horse drawn carriage through the streets of New York. It's not a coincidence, I think, that Lloyd's final silent film is about a man trying to protect a traditional mode of transportation, only to give in at the end and accept that modernity is inescapable. After all, he was a man facing the end of silent film and the beginning of the sound era.

You'll find no such thematic weight in Speedy, though. At least not overtly. Lloyd always rejected the sentimentality of Chaplin and the droll cynicism of Keaton. Lloyd just wanted to have fun, and Speedy has it in spades. Lloyd's dynamic set pieces never quite measure up to his more famous contemporaries, but it's hard to deny their technical skill, especially in the white-knuckle climactic chase scene (which, it was recently discovered, led to an actual carriage crash and a cover-up).


Lloyd's "everyman" persona is appealing as always, and he makes the most of it here, sending him through a comedy of errors of a man whose irrepressible spirit can't be dampened, even after mundane mishap after mundane mishap. Lloyd was the comedian of the regular Joe, and Speedy, while not as technically accomplished as Safety Last, is a lively, spirited good time.

Criterion's new Blu-Ray edition comes on the heels of their recent releases of The Freshman and Safety Last, making Grandma's Boy the only major Lloyd film not available on Criterion Blu-Ray. Lloyd fans will find a lot to feast on here, but the real highlight is the inclusion of Bumping into Broadway, another New York centered Lloyd two reeler from 1919 that showcases more of his famous "Glasses Character." Lloyd may not be as revered by cineastes and historians as Chaplin and Keaton, but he has a warm-hearted, easy-going style that stands apart from those giants of silent comedy. The new Criterion Blu-Ray provides a window into his unique genius, revealing why Lloyd deserves a place alongside his more famous contemporaries as an enormous talent with a unique and singular voice.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Special features:

  • New 4K digital restoration from elements preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1992, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray 
  • New audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies director of program production Scott McGee 
  • In the Footsteps of “Speedy,” a new short documentary by Goldstein about the film’s New York shoot 
  • Selection of rare archival footage from UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Hearst Newsreel Collection of baseball legend Babe Ruth, who has a cameo in the film, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts
  • New visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film and narrated by Goldstein 
  • Selection of actor Harold Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd 
  • Bumping into Broadway, a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Phillip Lopate

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review | "Krampus"

Christmas-themed horror films aren't exactly a thriving subgenre, but there have been a few gems here and there across the years. There just seems to be something a little more perverse about setting a horror film during the usually cheerful Christmas season, which could explain why few filmmakers have dared to tackle it. 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night is perhaps the most famous (infamous?) example, along with 1974's Black Christmas (and its 2006 remake). Neither were great hits, although I stand by my assertion that Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of the nastiest yet most psychologically astute slasher films ever made (the less said about its repugnant 1987 sequel, the better). So Michael Dougherty's Krampus is somewhat unique in the history of horror films.

Based on an ancient legend of St. Nicholas' demonic assistant who comes on Christmas Eve to collect naughty children and seek revenge against those who betray the spirit of Christmas, Krampus delves deep into Yuletide lore to deliver something wholly original, making it something of a breath of fresh air for horror aficionados.


The film starts off like many other Christmas films; a dysfunctional family is gathering to celebrate the holidays, everyone's nerves are frazzled, and oversized personalities are starting to clash after being crowded together under one roof. But everyone still loves each other, right? Not according to young Max Engel, who is so frustrated by his family's constant fighting and lack of holiday spirit, that he tears up his selfless letter to Santa and tosses it into the wind. Little does he know that this act will soon bring death and destruction down upon them, and this year instead of a visit from St. Nicholas, the Engel family is about to be visited by Krampus, who has come to spirit the ungrateful family away for their lack of Christmas cheer.

In that regard, Krampus is a spiritual thematic counterpart to director Michael Dougherty's last film, the Halloween cult hit, Trick 'r Treat, an anthology film about a vengeful Halloween sprite who seeks revenge on those who don't keep the spirit of Halloween. Krampus is a devilish good time from start to finish, blending elements of comedy, horror, and Christmas cheer into a slyly satirical look at just how far the modern iteration of Christmas, with its vacuous displays of greed and materialism (not to mention the imagined "War on Christmas"), has strayed not only from its original spirit of giving and goodwill, but from its pagan roots as a celebration of the winter solstice.


What's more, it never takes itself too seriously, yet plays its ridiculousness completely straight, sending out legions of killer toys, evil gingerbread men, and even an evil Christmas tree angel to torment the family at its center (scored with eerily retooled version of familiar Christmas tunes by Douglas Pipes). Krampus himself is an ingenious creation, using practical effects and puppetry rather than relying on CGI, giving the film the feeling of something out of the 1980s. It's refreshing throwback to see a modern horror film that's so creature heavy use CGI so sparing, but it really pays off, making Krampus a much more tangible (and frightening) figure in the film.

In the end, however, there's a surprisingly warm heart beating at the film's center, It slyly tweaks Chrismtas movie conventions while in essence being a celebration of the Christmas spirit and the importance of family, with just a hint of wicked gleam in its eye. I walked out of Krampus with a big grin on my face - it's good fun no matter how you look at it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

KRAMPUS | Directed by Michael Dougherty | Stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony | Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens"


From The Dispatch:
"The Force Awakens" hums with the constant energy of a film trying desperately to please, and while it doesn’t always hit every note perfectly (I will be interested to see how they manage to explain the sudden appearance of Luke’s old lightsaber) it hits them with such gusto that it makes up for its faults. It feels good to have "Star Wars" back in the world, and "The Force Awakens" is a joyous return to the innocence and magic of that galaxy far, far away. 
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review | "Carol"

It's hard to do justice to the exquisite longing that courses through the veins of Todd Haynes' Carol. Haynes makes films that must be felt on a gut level, the kinds of films that causes chills that start in your very core and radiate out to the tips of your fingers. As he did in Far From Heaven, Haynes takes the staid structures of the 1950s "women's pictures" and explores the unspoken emotional truths coursing beneath the surface. While Haynes isn't recreating the work of Douglas Sirk here, that same DNA runs deep in Carol, as he explores the forbidden Eisenhower-era romance between an upper middle class housewife and a younger shop clerk.

Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is in the process of going through a divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Carol, it seems has always preferred the company of women to men, most notably her daughter's godmother, Abby (Sarah Paulson); and despite her husband's instance on making things work, she can't change who she is or what she wants. What once seemed to be the picture-perfect 1950s family has been torn apart, leaving their young daughter, Rindy, in the middle.


That is when Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy young shop clerk who dreams of being a photographer. After Carol accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store, Therese returns them, and Carol asks her to dinner to thank her. It is the beginning of a friendship that soon turns into something more. There is never an "aha" moment of realization for Therese. Clearly Carol is a woman more confident in her sexuality, but Therese is young and still trying to understand herself. She's had relationships with men, but couldn't quite understand why they were never fulfilling. Yet there is something about her relationship with Carol that just feels natural, and Haynes creates an mesmerizing drama out of watching it evolve. He doesn't hit us over the head with one dramatic moment or spend any time with Therese struggling with her sexuality, he allows their friendship to become a romance before either of them really know it. When the tension finally breaks, its feels inevitable, natural, almost like fate.

Like the "women's pictures" that were so popular in the 1950s, domestic love stories with female-centric stories, Haynes' films are often filled with surface pleasures - immaculate period design, a haunting, Philip Glass-like score by Carter Burwell; but like Sirk before him, Haynes always takes it one step further, examining the deeper emotions emotions beneath the seemingly flawless veneer. There is always something more going on in each scene than meets the eye. Like its two characters, living out a hidden romance in plain sight of a repressive society, Carol keeps its emotions boiling beneath the surface. More is said in what the characters don't say than what they are able to articulate themselves. That is the kind of directorial restraint that defines Carol. It walks a delicate tightrope of emotions, using its sumptuous design as a thematic facade covering up the inner turmoil beneath.


Carol and Therese come from two different worlds, yet find each other in a society that denies their right to exist. Yet in 2015, a year that gave same-sex couples in America the right to get married nationwide, Carol doesn't feel in any way radical or envelope-pushing. It just feels human. We may be in a time when "morality clauses" were still grounds for taking a mother's children away from her, but Haynes has moved queer cinema out of the closet and into the mainstream in such a way that one has become almost indistinguishable from the other. That's whats so fascinating about his chosen aesthetic here. "Women's pictures" were often the most squeaky clean of genres, little more than glorified soap operas (subverted at times by directors like Sirk), yet Haynes uses them as a vehicle to tell a story that could have never been told then, and it feels almost as if it stepped out of the mists of time, a lost lesbian romance from the 50s finally able to see the light of day.

At the film's center are two luminous performances by two consummate actresses. Blanchett and Mara are both absolute perfection, channeling the deep, repressed emotion of two women whose true feelings can't be adequately expressed in the language of the time. They make us feel every moment in a way that feels strangely personal. The same could be said of the entire film. It's a beautiful work, but more than that, it's a deeply powerful one. Haynes so expertly subverts the formulas in which he dabbles, using them to his advantage to tell a story that runs beneath the surfaces he creates. You don't just watch his films, you feel them on a completely different level. He says so much in the longing glances, the subtle gestures, each contained within an impeccably composed frame. Carol is a sublime love story, one that brims with the fiery passion of first love bulging at the seams of its societal prison. It is a major work by a major filmmaker, working at a level of narrative grace and elegance that is almost unmatched in contemporary cinema. In short - Carol is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

CAROL | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson | Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On "The Assassin"


From The Dispatch:
“The Assassin” is awash in quietude, filled with lyrical long takes and quiet introspection. It is the opposite of everything audiences have come to expect from the genre. Where so many filmmakers (and, let's face it, audience members, too) take such a gung-ho approach to violence, Hou instead takes a reflective stance, moving the action away from the focus of the frame and toward the natural landscape dwarfing them. 
Click here to read my full review.

Review | "Jafar Panahi's Taxi"/"The Pearl Button"

Iranian director Jafar Panahi, barred from making films for 10 years by the Iranian government, has still managed to make three films since his imprisonment on house arrest, each more incredible than the last. In Jafar Panahi's Taxi (aka Taxi Tehran), Panahi poses as a taxi driver in the Iranian capitol of Tehran, picking up various clients, each with their own unique stories. With his trusty camera fixed to his dashboard, Panahi creates an indelible portrait of modern Iran, but perhaps even more surprising, he weaves cinematic gold out of filming himself drive a taxi around for a day.

Panahi is a master craftsman who continues to make bricks without straw, turning his punishment into some of the most essential cinema of the decade. Each film he makes is not only a thumb in the eye of tyranny, but a testament to the spirit of human creativity, and the overwhelming desire to create art even when one is barred from doing so. It's joyous, warm, funny, and moving in equal turns, finding humanity in each of his passengers and their own particular missions and world views. As one of Panahi's passengers tells him as she lays a flower by the camera - "This is for the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can always be relied on."  Yes they can, and Panahi is a living testament to the fact that tyrants can muzzle a man, but they can never silence art.


In The Pearl Button, Director Patricio Guzmán uses water as a metaphoric lens through which to tell the story of Chilean natives, whose ancient relationship with the ocean has been all but lost through systematic subjugation by colonial occupation, in a genocide that lasted well into the 20th century. Lyrical and heartbreaking, The Pearl Button is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that is both a celebration of a lost culture (only 20 direct descendants of the Patagonian natives remain), and an elegy for a forgotten genocide that is arguably one of the most ghastly in the history of the world.

Yet through Guzmán's unique lens, the history of the natives becomes a kind of ethereal reflection of the universe, irrevocably changed by colonialism and western invasion, moving through the glistening waters of the Chilean coastline like ghosts. Guzmán's placing of the natives' struggles in cosmic perspective makes the film an interesting companion piece for his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light. While the metaphor gets lost in its grandiosity at times, The Pearl Button is nevertheless a deeply moving experience, that tells a story as timeless as the sea itself.

JAFAR PANAHI'S TAXI - ★★★★ (out of four)
THE PEARL BUTTON - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review | "The Forbidden Room"

The Forbidden Room is proof positive that the scraps from Guy Maddin's cutting room floor are better than the footage that makes it into the films of pretty much everyone else. Comprised of unused footage cobbled together from other projects, The Forbidden Room is like a trip down the rabbit hole of Maddin's singular psyche. Here he introduces us to a lost submarine crew faced with an impossible decision, a logger tasked with rescuing a maiden from a tribe of primitives, a surgeon who falls in love with his beautiful patient, only to be kidnapped by skeletal insurance defrauders, a man whose obsession with women's bottoms leads him to get a lobotomy (arguably the film's most indelible interlude), and a man who gets turned into a banana because of an ancient curse. And that's just scratching the surface of this delirious, mad, altogether beautiful work of art.

Maddin's work has always been deeply rooted in silent avant-garde, and it's great fun watching him play with the medium in so many different ways. The Forbidden Room showcases Maddin at his most experimental and playful (who else would bookends a film with an instructional video on how to take a bath?).


Each frame is a fantasia of oversaturated color, jump cuts, missing frames, and grainy, damaged footage. The film feels deteriorated, like a relic from another time. Yet there is something warm and familiar about it, even at its most alien. Maddin clearly loves film, and The Forbidden Room is a celebration of the artificiality of the medium. Nothing about it feels real, as Maddin embraces the sheer movie-ness of it. Natives dance around a papier-mâché volcano, characters walk in front of obviously painted backdrops, it embraces its fakery and uses it as a deliberate style choice rather than a crutch.

It only seems natural, given Maddin's obsession with lost films, that he would one day create a "lost" film of his own. It's surprising just how well these disparate fragments all fit together, yet they seem to create one cohesive whole. At least as cohesive as a Maddin film can be. Maddin thinks in abstracts, he makes films that you feel rather than "understand," and The Forbidden Room evokes a forgotten aesthetic that feels as if we have unearthed a buried treasure. Only Maddin could create something that looks like a relic yet feels so fresh and new. It's a tour through Maddin's favorite predilections, a darkly hilarious, thrilling, and strangely moving amalgam of some of his previously lost ideas, resurrected here with fiery new life.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM | Directed by Guy Maddin | Stars Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Almaric, Louis Negin | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On "Spectre"


From The Dispatch:
It's a bigger, louder, and more indulgent, leading to a somewhat bloated running time and a middle section that lags somewhat. While Mendes is clearly enjoying himself, the film almost becomes too ridiculous for its own good. On the other hand, the action set pieces are uniformly phenomenal (the opening sequence is especially outstanding), and Waltz is really the perfect Bond villain. Mendes may work a little too hard to tie all the previous Craig Bond films together, but the idea that everything we've seen before has been building up to this gives the film a kind of grandeur, even if it can't beat the elegant gut-punch that was “Skyfall.” 
Click here to read my full review.

Blu-Ray Review | "Mulholland Dr."

I was probably 14 or 15 the first time I saw David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR. It was the first time I had been exposed to cinema that lay outside the typical narrative conventions, and I haven't been the same sense. When I think of the first decade of this century, there are three films that come to mind as the top of the pantheon of great cinema - Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, and this. Revisiting the film now, 15 years older and more familiar with the world of surrealist filmmaking (and Lynch's oeuvre in general), I am still floored at the sheer power of Lynch's masterpiece.

When I first saw the film as a teen, I didn't really understand it, but I knew I had seen something special, something brilliant, something that operated on a completely different level that anything I had ever seen before. I was able to follow its mysteries of Lynch's beautiful puzzle box better than I had before.


It's a haunting, disturbing tale of doomed love, jealousy, and faded dreams in the city of light. Naomi Watts is a plucky young starlet looking to realize her dream of becoming an actress (and in the process gives one of the all time great performances). Laura Harring is a troubled amnesiac who is trying to discover her true identity after a car accident robber her of her memory. For the first two hours, we think we're watching two women search for one's identity. Then Lynch unlocks the blue box and plunges us down the rabbit hole, pulling the rug out from under us and upending everything we've already seen.

This is David Lynch's Persona, a pyscho-sexual exploration of memory and identity that is clearly the work of an artist working at the height of his creative powers. Mulholland Dr. represents a singular vision in service of a seemingly straightforward film noir, warped through Lynch's own unique psyche. Sometimes words don't quite suffice. This is a film that needs to be experienced. Lynch's films are something you feel in the pit of you stomach, in the raised hair on your arms, in the depths of your soul. This is one for the ages, and the Criterion Blu-Ray is a godsend for Lynch fans and cinephiles in general. Lynch has long been underrepresented on Blu-Ray, and having his most beautiful film in high definition is a dream. If you're looking for more answers to the film's questions you may be disappointed, as the in-depth interview with Lynch excerpted from Chris Rodley's book, Lynch on Lynch, really only serves to muddy the waters. But that's always been Lynch's intention. His films are many things to many people, and he's never been one to take that experience away from us. What we are left with a beautiful mystery, one that isn't quite as impenetrable as its reputation suggests, perhaps, but one with so many layers and questions that we may never fully answer and explore them all. It's easily one of the year's must-own discs.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Director approved edition special features include:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director David Lynch and director of photography Peter Deming, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interviews with Lynch; Deming; actors Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring; composer Angelo Badalamenti; production designer Jack Fisk; and casting director Johanna Ray On-set footage 
  • Deleted scene 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an interview with Lynch from the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch

Review | "He Named Me Malala"

Malala Yousefzai is perhaps one of the most inspirational figures of the decade. The girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to pursue an education, and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of girls and women everywhere, remains a compelling and magnetic figure. She is a true hero, a symbol of peaceful resistance against tyranny who has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

It's a shame, then, that Davis Guggenheim's bland documentary celebrating her feels like such a lifeless and obligatory affair. Guggenheim, who is best known for directing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (for which he won an Oscar), works best when allows his subjects just to be themselves. Gore showed a passion and a charisma in An Inconvenient Truth that somehow eluded him during the presidential election in 2000. In He Named Me Malala, the girl who has become a modern day saint gets to be just a normal girl, giggling over girlhood crushes on the internet, complaining about homework, teasing her brothers.


That's the film's real charm, I think, is that takes an internationally lionized figure and humanizes, hammering home the idea of a normal girl being made great by being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. William Shakespeare once said "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." Malala is clearly the latter, a girl who just wanted to go to school in a place where it is forbidden for girls to do so, and she was shot for her efforts. Yet like a phoenix from the ashes, Malala arose to fight back against oppression.

Guggenheim tries desperately to paint her as the former - one who was born great. And that may very well be true, Malala is clearly an extraordinary human being. But the film spends so much time trying to connect the modern day Malala to the Malala of Afghan legend, that it almost misses the point of what makes her so extraordinary to begin with. It is her very ordinariness that makes her so incredible. When Guggenheim gets out of the way and lets Malala be Malala, the film soars. Yet when he steps in her way, trying to hammer home points she has already so eloquently made, the film becomes maudlin, and routine, going through the sentimental, hagiographic motions instead of creating an interesting portrait of one of the most fascinating and inspirational figures of the 21st century. Unfortunately, animated flourishes can't really cover up the fact that the film feels more like an extended advertisement for Malala the Brand rather than Malala the Person.  Personally, I could sit and listen to Malala talk for hours. I think she's an incredible, beautiful spirit. Her capacity to forgive, to fight for what is right, and above all, to learn, is truly inspirational. That's why it's so disappointing to see her saddled with such a perfunctory, trite, and gushing tribute that barely scratches the surface of this remarkable woman.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

HE NAMED ME MALALA | Directed by Davis Guggenheim | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Blu-Ray Review | "Diary of a Lost Girl"

Has there ever been a movie star with the same luminosity as Louise Brooks? Her darkly seductive features make up the expressive core of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece, Diary of a Lost Girl, a tragic tale of a young woman who is sent off to boarding school after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. After escaping boarding school to find her child, she ends up working as a high class prostitute before returning to upend the society that shunned her.

Brooks is perhaps best known for her role in Pabst's previous film, Pandora's Box, but her work here is somehow more subtle and more heartbreaking. Brooks plays the vamp well, but here she nails the innocence of young Thymian, making her fall from grace all the more tragic. Even after she becomes a fallen woman, Brooks never really plays the sexpot, instead, she plays the heartbreak at her core. Pabst isn't exploiting Brooks for her looks (although promotional materials from the time reveal Brooks with her nipples peeking out from her dress), he's exploring the pain and heartbreak beneath the surface of an exploited woman.


One could even make an argument that Pabst was an early feminist filmmaker, critiquing the patriarchal world that forced Thymian into this life - done wrong by the men in her life and forced into a life of sexual slavery. Eventually, she returns to upend the very society that nearly destroyed her, and she does so under her own power. Thymian's agency is remarkable, especially for 1959, and it's a curious thing that this film is 86 years old and still feels lightyears ahead of many modern films in terms of its portrayal of women.

One of the things that makes the film so striking today is just how startlingly contemporary it feels. Pabst's fluid camera movements, the lingering close-ups, the masterful compositions, it's a gorgeous film. Based on the novel by Margarete Böhme, the DNA of Diary of a Lost Girl is very much rooted in the theatrical melodramas of the 19th century, where tragedy and misfortune happen so frequently that it threatens to become laughable. However, Pabst handles the material with such a gentle hand that it transcends its pulpy source material with a kind of delicate lyricism. He isn't content in allowing Thymian to be a mere damsel in distress, waiting on a man to come rescue her. No, she rescues herself, and takes on the establishment all by herself.

That's what sets it apart from many other films of its day (and today, for that matter). This is a film about a strong woman learning, at long last, that she doesn't need anyone to take care of her, all she needed was the confidence to do it herself.  It's incredible, really, that it came out in 1929, but here it is. Pabst knew how to use Brooks better than anyone, and she was never more breathtaking than she was here. There's so much going on in her performance, there's a vulnerability, a vivaciousness, a sexiness to her that seems to reach through the ages. Even amid the scratches and grain of old film stock (lovingly cleaned up by Kino Lorber for this Blu-Ray release), Brooks' performances shines. Heavily censored upon its original release, Diary of a Lost Girl has been restored to its original glory as intended by Pabst. It is a masterpiece of the silent era, and a showcase for one of the silver screen's greatest stars. Yet it is also a reminder that great roles for women do exist. And it makes one wonder, if they could do this in 1929, why can't they do it now?

GRADE -★★★★

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

On "Steve Jobs"


From The Dispatch:
The entire cast makes Sorkin’s often dense writing sing, while Boyle (who makes each time period look and feel like it was shot on film from the era), conducts it all like a symphony that always feels like it is on the verge of descending into an unintelligible cacophony, yet rises into something transcendent.
Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On "Bridge of Spies"


From The Dispatch:
Like “Lincoln” before it, “Bridge of Spies” takes an extraordinary time in our nation’s history and boils it down to its essence. Spielberg has been known to over simplify things sometimes, and that may be the case here, but his incredible formalism and mastery of his cinematic craft have created a classically minded work that recalls the best of Capra’s American optimism in the face of great darkness. Spielberg has shown more restraint in his work over the last decade (“War Horse” being the notable exception), and it has been fascinating to watch him grow not only as a filmmaker, but as a political chronicler of modern American life. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review | "Breathe"

Mélanie Laurent is perhaps best known to American audiences as Shoshonna, the Jewish girl who burns the Nazi high command alive in her theater from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. But after Breathe, her sophomore effort behind the camera, she has established herself as quite an accomplished director as well.

Based on the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, Breathe has the sheen of your typical coming of age high school film. You have your quiet high school senior named Charlie (Joséphine Japy), who becomes infatuated with the free spirited new girl in school, Sarah (Lou de Laâge). Over the course of a weekend at the lake, Charlie and Sarah become fast friends, completely inseparable, to the point that you never see one without the other.

After their return to reality, however, things begin to change for Charlie and Sarah, and they slowly begin to grow apart. Sarah's troubled home life threatens to catch up with her, and Charlie's intense obsession with her begins to push her away.

On the other hand, Sarah begins spending more time with another friend, leaving Charlie behind. Yet Charlie still feels an intense attraction to Sarah, even though it becomes increasingly apparent those affections are not returned. Charlie soon finds herself an outcast at school, a constant target of Sarah's mean-spirited bullying. It comes down to Charlie to decide how deep her love for her former friend runs, and just how much abuse her selfless devotion can take.



Breathe is not your typical coming of age melodrama. There's something unusually incisive at work here. It is neither a love story nor a tale of platonic friendship, instead it exists somewhere in that confusing gray area in which teenage friendships often exist. It begins passionately, the kind of immediate attraction that bonds them together with a shared intensity, and then flames out just as quickly. Such is the nature of high school relationships, but Charlie just isn't ready to let go, and Sarah means so much more to her than she means to Sarah. Sarah is the alpha female, the cool girl, who isn't afraid to cast Charlie aside when it becomes convenient to her social advancement. Laurent displays a keen understanding of teenage friendships - of the intense emotions and the painful inevitability of growing apart. She directs in languid long takes, to the point that the camera feels as if it is a part of the action. It feels as if it were captured live rather than directed, a testament to Laurent's considerable skills. Even when the actions of the protagonists don't quite make sense, we are reminded that the actions of teenagers don't always make sense. They're volatile, finnicky, and emotionally unstable. Breathe delves deep into that, and doesn't pull punches. Its emotional timbre rings of truth at every turn.

This is a painfully honest examination of young love and the sometimes predatory nature of friendship, that tests how far even the deepest devotion can be tested. Like The Tree of Life's "way of grace" and "way of nature" pitted against each other, it is an assured coming of age tale that takes us down dark and unexpected paths, into testing the very fabric of human relationships.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

BREATHE | Directed by Mélanie Laurent | Stars Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge | In French w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC, opens today in Los Angeles.

On "Black Mass"


From The Dispatch:
Through it all, Depp retains his icy calm, the seething rage always lurking just below the surface. It’s a terrifying performance for the ages, one that reminds us once and for all why Depp is one of our finest actors. He manages to be charming and horrifying all at once, both magnetic and repulsive, while the film skirts the usual cliches of its genre with a nimble and sure hand. 
Click here to read my full review.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

From the Repertory - 8/27/15

It's been a while since I've dug into the latest classic Blu-ray and DVD releases, and there have been quite a few goodies to catch up, so let's dig right in.

BEYOND ZERO: 1914-1918 (Bill Morrison, 2014, Icarus)

Bill Morrison turns history into the stuff of dreams. Or maybe, in this case, nightmares. Using original, decaying nitrate footage from WWI, Morrison stitches together a portrait of human folly with an eerie score by Aleksandra Vrebalov, performed by the Kronos Quartet. The footage may be distorted, but it's imperfections give it a haunting, dream-like quality, as if we are watching the very decay of the human race. Beyond Zero presents never before seen images from World War I, and while the very idea of watching images from the front lines is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, as if we are watching history unfold before our very eyes, Morrison lends it a kind of terrifying beauty. It's a mesmerizing, chilling portrait of a nearly forgotten war, through images degenerated almost beyond repair, that despite their degradation are just as immediate and just as powerful as ever.

HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR (Alain Resnais, 1959, Criterion Collection)

There is a special and unique beauty about Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a landmark of the French New Wave and the film that put the legendary director on the map. Set in post-war Japan, the film is a love story between a French woman and a Japanese man with very different perspectives on the war. Resnais splinters the narrative with an almost Rashomon, disregard for time and truth, capturing the essence of a foreign love affair with a delicacy that recalls David Lean's Brief Encounter. But unlike that film, Resnais experiments with the form (some refer to the film as the first modern sound film), incorporating the theories of Sergei Eisenstein into something that feels thrillingly contemporary even today. Resnais uses the setting of Hiroshima, now a commercialized tourist destination a mere 14 years after it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb, as a hub for the disorienting collision of tradition and modernity, love and war, peace and chaos, to deliver a jarring yet strangely familiar narrative of deep, passionate longing.

JAUJA (Lisandro Alonso, 2015, Cinema Guild)

Lisandro Alonso's enigmatic Jauja plays like an Argentinian art house re-imaging of John Ford's The Searchers, starring Viggo Mortensen as a Danish military man traveling in a foreign desert with his daughter, searching for the mythical paradise of Jauja, a land many have tried to find, but all have been lost. When his daughter runs away with a young soldier, he sets off to find her, only to become lost himself in a world that seems to exist completely outside of time and civilization. A haunting existential work, often obfuscating, always fascinating, Jauja is a dazzling experiment that never fully reveals itself, always hiding its meanings and ideas behind long takes and metaphors, but the result is undeniably mesmerizing, and Mortensen is tremendous in the lead role.

The new Cinema Guild Blu-Ray also includes to equally fascinating short films by Alonso (who also directed the unmissable Liverpool), as well as a top notch essay by Quintin.


MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (Dziga Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley)

"This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature."

So begins Dziga Vertov's pioneering work of documentary cinema, Man with a Movie Camera, which chronicles Vertov's journey across the Soviet Union armed with his trusty movie camera. A wildly kinetic, experimental work that captures the pulsing rhythms of the city and championing the ideas of the Soviet Montage movement pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein, Man with a Movie Camera remains one of the most astonishing works of art in cinematic history. It's a shame that the score it is most often presented with, composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra (based on notes by Vertov), often feels too modern and grating, which distracts from Vertov's stunning imagery. Still, it's hard to deny Vertov's genius, and even with the grating score it still shines through, capturing the humming city and progress of technology in often glorious fashion.

Flicker Alley's typically excellent Blu-Ray presentation actually improves on their stellar Landmarks of Early Soviet Film box set, as it also presents gloriously restored prints of other Vertov films such as Kino-Eye, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, and Three Songs About Lenin. Essential stuff.

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (Arnold Laven, 1957, Kino)

I'm a sucker for old B-movies like this, and while The Monster that Challenged the World is very much of the "1950s nuclear scare" vein of sci-fi monster films that were so prevalent during the decade (ie Godzilla, Them!, and Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman), it's also better than many of its brethren. It's a pretty standard premise - nuclear testing awakens prehistoric snails (!) from and underground cave who proceed to wreak havoc near a military base at the Salton Sea. So while the monstrous mollusks don't exactly "challenge the world," they leave a nice little slimy trail of destruction in their wake. Director Arnold Laven manages to create quite a bit of tension, largely due to the fact that we rarely see the creatures (which actually look pretty good for the time, but are still pretty goofy). It's not Godzilla level, but it's still an entertaining slice of 50s sci-fi cheese that understood the maxim that less is definitely more.

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (Louis Malle, 1981, Criterion Collection)

Louis Malle's classic (infamous?) chronicle of a dinner between two colleagues is almost anti-cinematic. Two playwrights sitting at a table discussing theatre, philosophy, religion, and politics for two hours doesn't necessarily sound like riveting cinema. And while it is visually rather flat (a fact that even the new Criterion Blu-Ray can't really help), Malle nevertheless turns a dinner conversation into riveting cinema. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory keep the conversation lively and engaging, and somewhere amid the seemingly humdrum motions of sharing a meal, Malle discovers something deeply profound in the stripped down simplicity, as two men search for authenticity in a world filled with dishonesty.

PLACES IN THE HEART (Robert Benson, 1984, Twilight Time)

It's pretty remarkable that Robert Benson's semi-autobiographical film about growing up poor in the rural south turned out to be so spare and unsentimental. It's an unblinking yet tender look at race relations during the Depression that packs a pretty powerful punch, mostly due to the strong central performance by Sally Field (for which she won her second Oscar - "you like me! You really like me!"), and Benson's subtle directorial restraint. Leaves lots of ends untied, but then, that is life. The film refuses to tack on unearned resolution, instead leaving us with the sense that the struggle will continue. It's a beautiful, deliberately paced work that still resonates today. Limited edition of 3,000 units.