Saturday, February 27, 2016

Marcel L'Herbier's oft overlooked silent masterpiece, L'inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman) is one strange animal. A delirious pastiche of cinematic styles, from French Impressionism, to German Expressionism, to Soviet Montage, L'Herbier's film feels like a sweeping portrait of the state of the art in 1924.

The film centers around a wealthy opera singer (real life prima donna Georgette Leblanc), who holds court over a host of suitors vying for her affection. With great relish she teases and torments each man as he throws himself at her feet. One man in particular, a young scientist named Einar (Jaque Catelain), falls so madly in love with her that he commits suicide after she spurns him, leading the town to violently turn its back on the once popular diva. But when the stunning truth at last comes to light, a scientific breakthrough that can allow people to live forever comes to light, and the opera singer soon discovers that it is truly possible to become the "Inhuman Woman" that the public has referred to her as all along.

In some ways, L'inhumaine feels like a precursor to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), with its grand, expressionistic science fiction elements. L'Herbier introduces his film as a romantic drama, one that exudes sexual tension and dread at every turn. The prima donna's lavish parties are attended by servants in grinning masks, rendering them deaf, mute, and perpetually smiling. It's an eerie, haunting, almost dream-like world, and L'Herbier takes us on a journey into the dark depths of romantic obsession before taking a hard turn into science fiction in the film's final third.

The most striking difference between L'inhumaine and Metropolis, however, is their views on technology. Whereas Lang viewed technology as man's ultimate downfall, L'Herbier envisions it as humanity's salvation. It's a remarkably prescient work, imagining a world connected by technology, connecting artists with their public as never before. Rather than take a dystopian view of the future, L'inhumaine takes an almost utopian turn, a striking turn of events after its rather grim view of humanity at the start. Whether or not technology ultimately brought out the best in us, as L'Herbier contends, is up for debate, but it's hard to ignore its uplifting optimism that stands in stark contrast with other science fiction films of the period (and beyond), which envisioned a world of technology run amok. L'Herbier has a tendency to overindulge, letting his sequences of debauchery go on for unusually long periods, but the effect is nothing short of intoxicating. He creates such an indelibly realized world, featuring striking use of deep focus and sweeping cityscape shots, that immerse the audience in his singular vision.

L'inhumaine is the latest silent classic to get the Blu-Ray treatment for the first time from Flicker Alley, who seem to have made it their mission to shine a light on otherwise forgotten masterworks of the period. After dominating the speciality market last year with releases of Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, Man with a Movie Camera and Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film, Flicker Alley has started off 2016 with a bang with L'inhumaine. Bonus features may be sparse, - a 15 minute making-of featurette, a behind the scenes look at the creation of one of the two scores available on the disc, and a booklet detailing the history of the film and L'Herbier's other work - but they make the most out of the features they do have. They provide an illuminating insight into an all but forgotten piece of cinema history - one that managed to unite contemporary artistic giants such as Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Erik Satie, RenĂ© Clair, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound in one key crowd scene. There's really just nothing else out there like it. And now at long last it has received the gorgeous, beautifully restored Blu-Ray release it deserves.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray from Flicker Alley.

Friday, February 19, 2016

GILDA (★★★½)
There are few entrances in all of cinema as iconic as Rita Hayworth's in Gilda, emerging from the bottom of the frame, tossing back her mane of hair, effortlessly sexy and (in 1946) a woman fully in control of her own sexuality.

It's easy to see why Hayworth became such a sensation. Gilda is a strange animal, to say the least. At once a hard boiled film noir and a romantic melodrama, with Hayworth as a sexy ingenue rather than a femme fatale. It feels as if she should be in a musical or a romantic comedy, yet the film around her is a dark tale of betrayal and murder. Layers upon layers of emotion and feeling pile up, leaving the audience both uneasy and at times confused. Director Charles Vidor leaves much of the characters' motivations in the shadows, as if the barely know their own selves, let alone each other. Glenn Ford's grizzled, noir narration even disappears by the film's end, leaving the audience in the dark, much like its characters. Gilda is a film of textures and moods, light and shadow, cast in shades of gray where black and white are merely the colors of the film. Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Benjamin is worried about his future. Fresh out of college, spending his days drifting in his parents' pool, Benjamin has no idea what he wants to do with his life. That is until he is seduced by a family friend, Mrs. Robinson, and begins a mostly passion-less, summer-long affair, before developing feelings for Mrs. Robinson's daughter.

There are few more indelible portraits of youthful ennui than The Graduate, with its memorable evocation of Boomer restlessness in a rapidly changing world. Yet as much as the film is a product of the 1960s, it remains somehow timeless, ignoring era-specific references that could have easily dated it. Instead, it focuses on Benjamin, a young man who has no clue what he's supposed to do with his life. It's the ultimate "what now?" movie. It's a question that remains unanswered, which is what continues to make The Graduate still so relevant today. Through Dustin Hoffman's star-making performance, through Simon & Garfunkel's now iconic soundtrack, through Mike Nichols' canny direction, The Graduate captures youth at a crossroads like no other film. And while its ending seems ripped right out of a cheesy romantic comedy, there's a melancholy question mark that continues to hang over the entire film. Five decades later that question mark still haunts, not just because of its uncertainty, but because of how little things have changed. On Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection on Feb. 23.

THE KID (★★★½)
Charlie Chaplin moved into the world of feature films with 1921's The Kid, blending slapstick comedy with sentimental melodrama in a way that would come to be his trademark. Here, his iconic Tramp meets a little boy who was abandoned by his mother after being born out of wedlock, and reluctantly becomes a father. Over the course of five years, the two form an inseparable bond, until a county doctor finds the boy's living conditions unsuitable, ordering him removed from the house,

The Kid remains one of Chaplin's most deeply affecting works. There are few scenes in all cinema as heart-wrenching as the one in which the boy is forcibly removed from his home by the authorities to be carted off to the orphanage. Chaplin's transition from short form comedy to feature length dramedy isn't always a smooth one - the ending remains abrupt and the final dream sequence feels like an unnecessary distraction from the plot, included to fill time rather than progress the story. Still, Chaplin proved himself equally adept at tickling funny bones and pulling heartstrings, and his chemistry with young Jackie Coogan remains one of cinema's great onscreen pairings. The film itself has never looked as good as it does on Criterion's new Blu-Ray, which brings the now 94 year old film look crisp and new. The disc also includes Nice and Friendly, a 1922 short film starring Chaplin and Coogan. Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Woody Allen's loving ode to German Expressionism is perhaps the most visually stunning film of his career, even if the film itself occupies a rather minor place in the director's canon. Drenched in Weimar-era delights, from the Kurt Weill tunes on the soundtrack ("Mack the Knife" has never had such a keen emotional impact), to the fog-laden, backlit streets of Eurpoe, Shadows and Fog creates such an indelibly intoxicating atmosphere that it's hard not to become lost in its more sensual pleasures.

On the other hand, the content of the film is rather thin, despite its take-off on the plot of Fritz Lang's M. Allen stars as a nebbish-y coward who finds himself caught up in a vigilante crusade to find a phantom strangler who is stalking the streets at night, yet despite his seemingly important role in finding the killer, he never actually discovers what his job is supposed to be. Along the way he gets caught up with the police, meets a merry band of man-hating prostitutes, and befriends a sword-swallower on the run from the circus (and her philandering husband). Shadows and Fog features a never-ending litany of cameo performances - Mia Farrow, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, John Malkovich, Donald Pleasance, John Cusack, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, David Ogden Stiers, Wallace Shawn, and Madonna all show up in one capacity or another. It's a consistent joy, but it's also unfocused, showcasing Allen's tendency to get lost in unnecessary subplots. It's all so beautifully done that it's often easy to ignore its faults, but once you get past its breathtaking imagery there's unfortunately not a lot going on here, especially when you have so much material to work with when you're cribbing from the films of Lang, Pabst, and Murnau. Now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Perhaps the most obscure films in any Oscar category, even among the short films, the documentary shorts tend to be a showcase for up and coming talents in the field. Doc shorts allow filmmakers to explore interesting subjects that may not be enough to carry their own feature film, but are nonetheless stories worth telling. In a few cases this year, however, some of these subjects absolutely deserve their own feature, and the shorts leave us wanting more. This year's nominees cover a wide variety of subjects, from Red Cross workers tasked with disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims in Liberia, to arraigned marriages and "honor killings" in Pakistan.

A team of Red Cross workers are tasked with removing and disposing of the bodies of Ebola victims in Liberia during the disastrous outbreak of 2014 in David Darg's Oscar nominated documentary short. It's fascinating to see how the crew interacts with the families of the victims, many of who refuse to let them remove the body, thereby putting others at risk of infection. The problem is that it's almost too short. At only 13 minutes, we barely get the time to get to know the subjects, much less the families of the victims. There's a strong story here waiting to be explored, but BODY TEAM 12 merely scratches the surface.

A young, aspiring Vietnamese artist struggling to overcome his birth defects as a result of Agent Orange is the subject of Chau, Beyond the Lines, a short documentary that chronicles his journey from a special hospital, to striking out on his own to pursue his dream. Chau is an interesting subject, but I found myself more drawn to the broader plight of the millions of Vietnamese children still being born with major birth defects due to the United States' use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.  I think there is a larger story to tell here, of which Chau plays a vital role, about the continuing fallout from the Vietnam War, and the grotesque exploitation of Agent Orange hospitals as tourist attractions for people to come and gawk at deformed children. Director Courtney Marsh shows these things, but never really explores them, focusing instead on Chau alone, when it feels like the focus should be much broader. There is a feature documentary waiting to be made here, and a much bigger story that deserves to be told.

More of a portrait of an artist than an appreciation of his work,Claude Lanzmann: Specters of the Shoah examines the toll of filming the monumental, years in the making, 10 hour long documentary, Shoah, on its director. Begins with some brief accolades of the film by critics and filmmakers, but mostly focuses on Lanzmann and how he remains haunted by a work that almost drove him to suicide. Feels a bit like a DVD supplement, and while the beginning of the film seems a bit extraneous (and even perfunctory) given the film's main focus, Lanzmann's own remembrances are chilling stuff, reminding us of the seemingly neverending ripple effect of Hitler's final solution, and the enduring power of art.

A young Pakistani woman is shot in the face and left for dead in the river by her own father and uncle in a self described "honor killing," after she ran away from home to marry the man she loved against her father's wishes. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's harrowing documentary takes a hard look at a patriarchal society that condones such honor killings, as the young woman's quest for justice is continually blocked by men in her community who strong-arm her into forgiving her would-be murderers in order to preserve the honor of her family. It's a difficulty and frustrating watch, and with good reason. We watch, completely helpless, as a young woman is forced to give up her agency to appease a society dominated by men and their fragile sense of masculinity. A tough but surprisingly fair minded film that examines both sides of the issue, interviewing both the accused and the accusers, and comes away with a quiet sense of righteous rage.

Heartbreaking animated documentary examines the case of a Vietnam veteran executed for murder, despite overwhelming evidence that it was a PTSD flashback episode that lead to his crime. Told from the point of view of the man's brother, who remains haunted by the fact that he turned his own brother into the police after discovering evidence of the crime, Last Day of Freedom is a powerful look at the American justice system, and how it failed one of its own soldiers, who was just as much of a victim as the woman he killed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From The Dispatch:
"Hail, Caesar!,” is a great, big love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood manages not only to showcase a plethora of old Hollywood genres, but also be all of them at once. Part film noir, part musical, part costume drama, part historical epic, “Hail, Caesar!” is a relative smorgasbord of old Hollywood delights. The Coens manage to satirize the confines of the system while also paying homage to it. 
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The animation branch of the Academy tends to be the most adventurous branch, routinely nominating challenging and obscure fare often overlooked by everyone else. The nominees for Best Animated Feature this year make up perhaps the strongest category at the Oscars this year. While the nominees for Best Animated Short aren't quite as strong, the category does boast one of the best films nominated for an Oscar in any category this year - Don Hertzfeldt's masterful World of Tomorrow.

After being kidnapped by the circus and separated from his family, a bear will stop at nothing to escape and reunite with his loved ones, and continues to tell his story on street corners through an automated marionette. Bear Story is the most blatantly heart-tugging of the 2016 nominees for Best Animated Short, and is therefore probably the greatest threat to Pixar's high profile Sanjay's Super Team. It never quite achieves the kind of wistful melancholy for which it strives, but it's undeniably moving. It's the most obviously charming of the Oscar nominated shorts, which is both to its credit and its detriment.

Greeks and Spartans engage in brutal warfare in this beautifully animated, Oscar nominated short film. The pencil drawings are lovely, but give a shockingly violent and raw depiction of war. There's not much else going on here beyond a brief animated battle scene (and the subsequent horrific aftermath), but its animation is undeniably stellar.

How many mainstream films have there been about a Indian boy finding common ground between his love of superheroes and his father's religious devotion to Hinduism? This is fantastic stuff, a surreal and lovingly rendered tale of family and the importance of embracing traditions while exploring your own interests. Clearly a deeply personal work for director Sanjay Patel, Sanjay's Super Team is a groundbreaking and essential showcase of Indian culture for a broad audience.

Two best friends who have always been inseparable, become cosmonauts and dream of going into space together. Even when one gets to go into space and one has to stay behind, their bond remains unbreakable. It's a wistful, bittersweet animated short that ultimately feels a bit calculated. It's heartfelt, certainly, but something about it seems disconnected and distant, so much so that the final emotional payoff rings hollow.

Is there any filmmaker who can imbue stick figures with such deep humanity as Don Hertzfeldt? Like his masterful 2012 feature, It's Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow is a fully realized wonder (and his first to be digitally animated) - 16 minutes of pure philosophical animated bliss, in which a clone from the future contacts her original source as a little girl hundreds of years in the past. A beautifully melancholy treatise on the often fleeting rapture and sadness of memory, World of Tomorrow recalls Chris Marker's seminal sci-fi short, La Jetee, delivering so much in so little time. This is the best short film to come along since Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World, and another brazen step forward for one of the most thrilling talents in animation.

Once again, thanks to the folks at Shorts International, the Oscars' short film categories (once the most obscure categories of the awards), are being released for a wide audience. As usual, the films a mixed bag, showcasing filmmakers from around the world, including Germany, Kosovo, Palestine, the UK, and the USA.

"Everything will be OK" is what all the adults tells 8 year old Lea, but we know it won't be, it can't be. Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be OK) is a film about a little girl whose estranged father attempts to kidnap her after her mother seeks to block him from seeing her. But more than that, it's about the platitudes and lies we tell children in order to gloss over much deeper problems. It's a wrenching reality (and a haunting final shot), as adults continue to try to placate a clearly traumatized Lea, when we know nothing will ever be OK again. Devastating.

A Jewish family has an accident outside a remote Christian monastery on the eve of Shabbat, where the Jews' refusal to do any work on the Sabbath runs afoul of the nuns' vow of silence. There's a lot of comedy to be mined from this clash of cultures, but unfortunately the film never really mines it. There's a brief spat over who can and can't dial a telephone, but otherwise the film's central conflict is resolved a little too quickly, leaving much comedic territory unexplored. It's a charming little film, but one with a lot more potential than its brief running time can fulfill.

On her first day on the job, an interpreter for the US Army finds herself thrust into an extraordinary situation as the wife of suspected terrorist goes into labor. It's harrowing stuff, but beyond its viscerally shocking situation, what is so impressive about Day One is how simply and elegantly it turns such a gruesome thing into a deeply emotional moment. It moves beyond enemy combatants and finds common humanity in a truly beautiful way. It never feels as inauthentic or manipulative, it's simply a powerful tale of beginnings, both for its main character, and for the young life she brings into a broken world. The best of the 2016 Oscar nominated live action shorts.

The requisite "childhood friendship against the backdrop of war" film among the 2016 nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, Shok follows two Albanian boys whose dealings with the Serbian army in Kosovo eventually lead to tragedy. We know where this is heading from the beginning, but this true story feels like something we've seen many times before. It doesn't help that the opening scene basically gives the whole thing away. It's beautifully shot, but also baldly manipulative, leaving little room for subtlety or a chance to really settle into the world of the story.

A man whose speech impediment betrays his rich and eloquent inner life is faced with his greatest challenge yet - meeting a romantic interest he has only known online. Sweet and endearing without being cloying, Stutterer is a story about connection and shattering appearances that has a strong inner life of its own. A simple beauty.