Saturday, February 21, 2015

When the 2009 Academy Award nominations were announced, Oscar watchers were left scratching their heads at the inclusion of Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore's The Secret of Kells among the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It was a film that wasn't really on anyone's radar before that moment, from a relatively unknown distributor, GKIDS, which specializes in foreign animation.

Since then, GKIDS has racked up five additional Oscar nominations for A Cat in Paris, Chico & Rita, Ernest & Celestine, and two nominations this year for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and Moore's latest film, Song of the Sea. This time, many more Oscar watchers saw Moore coming. While many thought there would only be room for one foreign animated title this year, few thought that both PrincesKaguya and Song of the Sea would make it into the final five, especially at the expense of perceived frontrunner, The LEGO Movie (I had given the edge to the more widely acclaimed Princess Kaguya in my own predictions).

The fact that the Academy found room for both films, however, is heartening, because their nominations ensured a much larger audience than they might otherwise have had. Song of the Sea is an utter delight, a film filled with subtle wonders that continue to reveal themselves upon repeat viewings. It's a deceptively simple story, deeply rooted in Irish folklore, about a young boy named Ben and his mute little sister, Saorise, who turns out to be the the Selkie, an ancient race of seal people who made their home on both land and sea. After their mother, a Selkie herself, had to return to the sea when Saorise was born, their father became determined to save Saorise from a similar fate. Yet Saorise's heart longs for the sea, but as her magic grows weaker from living on land, a powerful witch, determined to rid the world of all feelings to heal an ancient pain, seeks to keep Saorise from returning to the sea, and undoing her spells with her Selkie magic.

It seems simple enough, but the folklore here is actually pretty dense, especially for outsiders not familiar with Irish legends. In fact, at first glance, it seems such a slight confection, but Moore has clearly done his homework. Song of the Sea isn't just a pretty picture. Its hand drawn animation is certainly breathtaking, with Moore's geometric style yielding some of the most beautiful animation to grace the silver screen in recent memory. But beyond the film's glorious style, Song of the Sea is a delicately crafted ode to the power of emotions. In Moore's world, even the most painful of emotions are responsible for who we are, and Song of the Sea embraces them with open arms. While it's essentially a children's story, there's something here for everyone. Adults will certainly marvel at the gorgeous images on display and exploration of Irish legend (I especially appreciated the use of W.B. Yeats' classic poem, "The Stolen Child"). It's still a shame that the Academy couldn't find room for the excellent LEGO Movie among the five nominees for Best Animated Film, I'm glad that Song of the Sea managed to land a nomination. Animation like this what saves us from the increasing homogenization of the computer animated family blockbuster. There is so much artistry at work here, impeccably hand drawn and utterly original. It made me long for the days when films like this were the rule rather than the exception, but coming in 2014, Song of the Sea is a breath of fresh air, as rare and as beautiful as the Selkies it depicts.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SONG OF THE SEA | Directed by Tomm Moore | Voices of Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Friday, February 20, 2015

It would be difficult to argue against 101 Dalmatians (1961) being one of Disney's finest animated films. Walt Disney himself sought out the rights for Dodie Smith's children's book of the same name, and the resulting film is one of the most beloved and enduring films in the Disney canon.

It's certainly a charmer; the dogs are some of Disney's most delightful heroes. But the real star here is Cruella De Vil, one of the mouse house's most wickedly clever creations - a chain smoking, fur obsessed one percenter (before such terms had been coined) who was willing to do anything to turn a pack of dalmatian puppies into a fur coat. Such a dastardly villain (she wants to kill and skin puppies!) certainly cemented the film's place in the Disney canon, but the truly ghastly nature of who and what Cruella is helped ground the film in its more realistic modern setting. That immediacy made Cruella all the more terrifying. She doesn't have supernatural powers, she's just pure evil.

Cruella's evil may be what seared the film into the minds of so many (with the help of George Brun's immortal song), but visually it's one of the most striking Disney films of the classic era, with its almost impressionistic pencil drawings and dazzling use of color. 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney film to utilize xerography in its animation, meaning the individual frames no longer had to be hand traced onto separate cells, leaving behind the stray lines left by animators' pencils. This gives the film a unique look, one that would endure in Disney animation until computers replaced the xeroxing process with 1989's The Little Mermaid.

All of this is fascinatingly detailed in the special features on the new Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, which thankfully includes all the features from the Platinum Edition DVD, as well as some mostly minor new extras. It seems as if Disney learned their lesson after the underwhelming Diamond Edition of Sleeping Beauty failed to include any of the old special features from previous editions, and replaced them with some rather lame kid oriented bonus content. While many of the old special features provide history lessons for grown ups, the highlight of the new content is "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt," which follows the heroic western canine that so enthralled the puppies on TV in the film. While it's unfortunately short lived, it's fun to see more of Thunderbolt. A feature hosted by Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce is mostly perfunctory, but a 1961 featurette called "The Best Doggone Dog in the World" hosted by Walt Disney himself makes for an entertaining time capsule. It provides some insight into what made 101 Dalmatians so special for him. And clearly this was a labor of love, you can feel it in every aspect of the production. While it was remade into a live action version in 1996 starring Glenn Close (a film that, for all its Home Alone style antics, was surprisingly good), nothing can ever beat the original. As always, these Blu-Rays are limited editions, and will be heading back into the infamous Disney vault before you know it, and this is definitely one that belongs in any true Disney fan's collection.

GRADE  - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jean Renoir may have left his 1936 film, A Day in the Country unfinished, abandoning it to work on 1937's Grand Illusion after a run of bad weather caused a delay in production, but even in its incomplete form it somehow still feels like a complete and satisfying work. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father, painter Auguste Renoir), A Day in the Country, deftly combines his father's idyllic view of country living with de Maupassant's darker fatalism.

It's the story of a bourgeois Parisian family heading out to the country for an afternoon getaway (a pastime of the French upper crust that greatly annoys the provincial locals). Once there, the mother and her lovely daughter (who is engaged to a clueless buffoon at the behest of her family) become the object of admiration for country folk, two of whom invite the ladies for a canoe trip down the river. Along the way, the daughter finds herself drawn to her mustachioed suitor, who will give her an encounter she will remember for the rest of her life.

Renoir masterfully suggests not only the loss of the daughter's innocence (in a truly haunting closeup in which she looks directly into the camera), but also the wistful melancholy of the chance encounters of youth as time inevitably marches on. It may only be 40 minutes long, but Renoir is in top form here. It's hard to imagine this as a longer film, but one can't help but wonder - if A Day in the Country is this good in its truncated form, how major would it have been if Renoir had completed it? It's almost as big a "what if?" as the central question of the film, reflecting on what life could have been when those idyllic moments of the past are gone and cold, hard reality takes their place. We get a glimpse at the film that might have been on the Blu-Ray, which offers Criterion's usual wealth of extras, including outtakes that are longer than the film itself, as well as an insightful interview with Renoir scholar, Christopher Faulkner.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
The new transfer beautifully captures Renoir's lyrical imagery, which in turn evokes the landscape paintings of his father, Auguste. The images are still soft, as one would expect from a film from this time period, but they seem more focused, more robust. The softer focus employed here almost makes the film seem more painterly, as if Renoir were bringing the paintings of his father to life on screen, while delicately skewering their romantic idealism. Renoir's lovely mise-en-scene, and in turn the countryside itself, almost becomes its own character, just as important to the thematic integrity of the film as the characters themselves (if not more so). Here, Renoir is both romantic and realist, incorporating the ideals of both de Maupassant and his father, Auguste, looking with wistful longing at the bygone days of youthful abandon and the often aching reality that follows. It's one of Renoir's most bittersweet works, a film that, just like the country life it depicts, feels beautifully, perfectly incomplete.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Introduction by director Jean Renoir from 1962 
  • The Road to “A Day in the Country,” a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner about the film’s production 
  • Renoir at Work, a new video essay by Faulkner on Renoir’s methods 
  • Un tournage à la campagne, an eighty-nine-minute 1994 compilation of outtakes from the film 
  • Interview with producer Pierre Braunberger from 1979 Screen tests 
  • New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez
Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

While mainstream audiences are likely to flock to Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine's Day, this year, the thinking man's superior alternative is currently playing in limited release in select cities.

Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy is the story of two women, whose unusual relationship is slowly revealed over the course of the film. When we are first introduced to them, they could be a maid and her employee, or they could be something more. But when your film begins with a woman punishing a disobedient maid by urinating in her mouth, you know you're in for something unusual. Unlike E.L. James' inexplicably popular series of erotic novels, however, everything about The Duke of Burgundy is surprisingly tasteful.

Strickland isn't interested in the sexuality of their relationship, in fact there is no nudity at all anywhere in the film. It feels surprisingly non-exploitative given the subject matter. For a film this bold and gutsy, it's unexpectedly tender and measured in its depictions of sadomasochism.

Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), the younger of the two women is the submissive in the relationship, slave to the objectified whims of her dominant, the schoolmarm-like dominatrix, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Their lives are filled with role playing, a series of commands, tasks, and punishments punctuated by moments of real intimacy when the games are over. Or at least that's the way it seems on the surface. Outside their world of S&;M, Cynthia is a mild mannered naturalist who spends her time studying butterflies and moths, while Evelyn spends her days planning ever more elaborate role playing games and punishments for Cynthia to dole out to her, essentially directing her own domination.

Which begs the question; who is the real dominant here? As Cynthia longs for a more loving, more traditional relationships, Evelyn's demands become more and more extreme, causing Cynthia to become more and more disconnected. It's a riveting and remarkable character study that culminates in a moment of such erotic emotional power that the performance that the performances by Knudsen and D'Anna seem to shake the very ground they stand on. Knudsen's performance is especially affecting, reflecting both deep pain and deep love in a performance of great power and grace as she transitions between the woman she really is and the woman her lover is forcing her to be.

Fifty Shades of Grey has come under fire for being misogynist, a strange criticism given that it was both written and directed by women. But The Duke of Burgundy is the very definition of a feminist film. Featuring a cast of entirely made up of women, there is nary a man in sight with a speaking role. Strickland chooses instead to focus on women, their feelings, their desires, their faces, and ultimately, their sexuality. There hasn't been a film in recent memory to so thoroughly focus on female sexuality, especially two women who really take control of their own pleasure, and don't need men to do it for them. Yet that control is what makes this film so fascinating. Strickland confronts us with questions of sexual power, asking whether we really ever know who is really in control. Do love and desire truly intertwine? Can love built on unequal power truly last?

For a film about sexuality, sex is almost beside the point. Strickland is more interested in sex as power, and by taking men completely out of the equation, he delivers something almost unheard of in modern cinema. The Duke of Burgundy feels like something from another era (Strickland was clearly influenced by Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour), Strickland's directorial style feels both timeless and innovative, aesthetically thrilling and psychologically daring. It plays with our expectations, of character, of relationships, of sexuality, and gives us a thriller of surprising and unusual depth. There are many layers at work here in The Duke of Burgundy, each more gripping and exciting to contemplate than the last, as it deftly deconstructs the endlessly complex nature of love.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY | Directed by Peter Strickland | Stars Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

My review of this year's Oscar nominated short films was published in The Dispatch today. They're a mixed bag, as usual, but there are some real gems here. Check them out!

Best Animated Short

"Never quite reaches the level of dark humor mixed with pathos that it seems to want to achieve. (C)"

"It is an evocatively rendered and deeply felt work that aims straight for the heart, and hits an unforgettable bullseye. (A)"

"An adorable tale of animal love and devotion, looking at human life through the eyes of the pets that love us the most. (B+)"

"Nothing really new here, but Kove's drolly evocative style elevates the material. (B-)"

"Surprisingly dark, but brutally funny, "A Single Life" may not be the strongest nominee, but its originality is hard to dismiss. (B)"

Best Documentary Short


"An essential testament to the men and women who are fighting to save the men and women who saved us. (A-)"

"A deeply felt and emotionally honest work of art. (A)"

"Strangely mundane given the subject matter, "Our Curse" attempts to examine how the couple copes with the stress, but the static shots of them on a couch grind the film to a halt and offer little insight into the situation. (C-)"

"There are moments of strange beauty, but it just doesn't reach the philosophical heights that it seems to be striving for. (C)"

"Beautifully shot, even if the 19 minute running time hampers the film from hashing out its more interesting ideas. (C+)"

Best Live Action Short

"The final result feels underwhelming, with the character motivations feeling underdeveloped. (C)"

"A short, sweet, and completely winning tale of friendship and the things parents will do for the love of their children that is charming in every way. (B+)"

"An oddly affecting critique of a culture that has become too obsessed with falsehood at the expense of engaging with the real world around us. (A)"

"It's a pretty straightforward film, handsomely shot, but the real star here is Nissa Kashani's soulful performance as Parvaneh. (B)"

"Kirkby keeps the film about the performances, making the most out of Hawkins' face, allowing the subtleties of her performance to carry what could have been a very static film. But he overplays his hand in the end, undercutting the film's haunting denouement with a song choice that just doesn't work. (C+)"

Click here to read my full review in The Dispatch.