Sunday, April 23, 2017

From the Repertory | 4/23/17

New and recent Blu-Ray releases, week of 4/23/17.

ANATAHAN (1953, Kino Lorber)
The final film by the legendary Josef von Sternberg, Anatahan tells the true story of 12 Japanese soldiers who are shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific in the waning days of WWII. Unaware that the war has ended, the men begin to fight a war of their own, torn apart and driven to near madness by their affection for the island's single female inhabitant, the lovely Keiko.

The men refer to her as the "Queen Bee," and to themselves as the "drones," but their devotion soon devolves into jealousy and murder, slowly stripping away the humanity of each of the island's inhabitants. The dialogue is completely in Japanese, without subtitles. The dialogue is interpreted by an unseen narrator, who is one of the castaway soldiers. The effect of the ever-present narrator is somewhat alienating, but it also cements Von Sternberg as a decidedly non-Japanese observer - an outsider looking in.

The film was originally released in censored form in 1953, before Von Sternberg's preferred director's cut finally saw the light of day in 1958. It contains a surprising amount of nudity for a film of the time (more of which is documented in outtakes available on the new Kino Blu-Ray), but it feels natural and even integral to the plot. One can easily see how the men, trapped on the island with only one woman, were driven to madness by their own toxic masculinity. The film itself is both hampered and helped by its omnipresent narration, almost as if we are looking at a great film through a window or a filter. This adds a thematic layer to its structure, but its almost Brechtian alienation effect is at times distracting. Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating formal experience, and a deeply personal project for Von Sternberg.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

BEHIND THE DOOR (1919, Flicker Alley)
"I told him...that if I ever caught him I'd skin him alive; but he died before I finished... Damn him!"

There are few films from the silent era as startling or as darkly gruesome as Irving Willat's Behind the Door, a WWI revenge thriller released only one year after the Great War ended. The film follows Oscar Krug (the extraordinary Hobart Bosworth), an American taxidermist who has the misfortune of having German heritage just as the USA declares war on Germany. Attacked by the neighbors he once called friends, Oscar volunteers for the military, and is made captain of a ship. Distraught, his wife stows away on the ship in order to stay with him during the war. When his ship is torpedoed by a U-Boat, the two are cast adrift in a lifeboat, only to be rescued by an enemy vessel. Rather than save them both, the U-Boat captain takes Oscar's wife, and casts him back out to sea to drown, sending Oscar on a bloody quest for revenge.

Despite the fact that some of the film remains lost, Behind the Door is a harrowing experience. It may tame by today's standards, but it's hard to deny the visceral impact of its horrific climax. Willat pulls no punches when it comes to the horror that awaits the U-Boat captain at Oscar's vengeful hands. The film was something of a sensation at the time, quickly gaining an infamous reputation for its grim subject matter. Yet there is a tenderness underneath its bloody exterior. At its heart, Behind the Door is a love story, one that continues just as strongly after death. Willat stages action sequences with a true master's eye - the scene in which the townspeople attempt to kill Oscar for his German heritage is especially thrilling, illustrating the depth of the suspicion and bigotry that was directed at those of German descent (some things, it seems, never chance). The restoration on the new Flicker Alley Blu-Ray is simply stunning, utilizing illustrated placeholders to take the place of the missing scenes, helping the story continue almost seamlessly. Behind the Door is a forgotten treasure, a haunting tale of love and vengeance that stands as one of the most gruesome and disturbing films of the silent era.

Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)

COMES A HORSEMAN (1978, Twilight Time)
Alan J. Pakula took an archetypal Western scenario and placed it in the latter days of World War II, as two warring land-owners are suddenly faced with a new threat when agents from a major oil company threaten to take their ranches for the natural riches underneath. At first, you almost don't notice that Comes a Horseman takes place in 1945 rather than the 1800's. The characters lead a simpler way of life, fighting over land rights for their cattle. Jane Fonda stars a Ella Connors, a rancher who teams up with a fellow landowner named Frank 'Buck' Athearn (James Caan) after his partner is gunned down by ruthless cattle baron, J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards). Ewing has been after Connors' property (not to mention her hand in marriage) for years, and is determined to live up to his legendary father's accomplishments, and is willing to stoop to any means to get his way. But when the oil company comes knocking, Ewing and Connors find themselves unlikely allies in a battle for their very way of life, even as Ewing seeks to make a deal with the devil.

Comes a Horseman is ultimately a tale of can-do American resilience, even in the face of soulless corporate expansion. While the story is a classic Western structure, Pakula doesn't give us typically defined heroes or villains. We first meet murderous cattle baron Ewing as he is burying his son, who was killed in action in WWII. It is a tender moment, later undercut by his reprehensible actions, yet Pakula is making a point that he is a human too, not some mustache-twirling visage of evil. All the characters are struggling to carve out a living on the American plains (breathtakingly photographed by the great Gordon Willis), and Pakula treats them with all with humanity. They are holdovers from a forgotten way of life, facing obsolescence through encroaching modernity. The film also features a fantastic, Oscar nominated turn by Richard Farnsworth, making the transition from stuntman to character actor, in a quietly towering performance.

The film itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It moves in fits and starts, and the ending, while a stark reminder of the resilience of the American west, comes out of left field. It's undeniably a solidly crafted drama, beautifully shot and acted, but it never quite seems to figure out where it wants to go or what it wants to be, reaching a violent climax that feels strangely unearned, even by the standards of the western archetypes it seeks to emulate.

Grade - ★★½ (out of four)

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966, Twilight Time)
The great William Wyler, never one to get stuck in any one particular genre, tried his hand at the caper film in 1966's How to Steal a Million, an effervescent romantic heist picture starring Peter O'Toole as a charming society burglar and Audrey Hepburn as the uptight daughter of an art forger.  When Hepburn's father loans out one of his forged sculptures to a museum, he soon realizes that the museum plans to have it professionally inspected before it is insured, thereby putting not only his reputation as an art dealer, but his freedom in jeopardy. In order to save her fathers, Hepburn plans a daring heist with the help of O'Toole's charismatic rogue, whom she caught attempting to steal one of her father's forged Van Goghs from their living room.

The two stars a clearly having a grand old time, and the film gets great mileage out of their boundless charm. Wyler wisely allows O'Toole and Hepburn to command the screen, letting How to Steal a Million coast on their combined magnetism and elegance (buoyed along by a sprightly score by John Williams, here credited as "Johnny Williams"). Over the course of his long and storied career, Wyler proved himself a master chameleon, adept at almost any genre he touched. How to Steal Million is no different, a graceful and fleet-footed caper that is light, frothy, and oh-so-delicious.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)


MOBY DICK (1956, Twilight Time)
Gregory Peck stars as the legendary Captain Ahab in John Huston's solid 1956 adaptation of Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick. Perhaps a more straight-foward approach to the story than Melville's more philosophical text, Huston does a remarkable job of capturing a sense of time and place, not to mention the existential dread at the heart of the work. Peck is in fine form as Ahab, while Friedrich von Ledebur is also excellent as the cannibal, Queequeg.

Yet the real star here is cinematographer Oswald Morris (Lolita), who shot the film with a washed-out color scheme that almost looks black and white, evoking paintings of the sea from the 1800's that inspired the overall visual style of the film. It's beautifully capture on Twilight Time's Blu-Ray release, which restores the film's unique color palate for the first time in decades. The film's visual effects also hold up surprisingly well. While the crew frequently struggled with the whale (not unlike the crew of Jaws would nearly two decades later), but the sparing use of the animatronic creature elevates his status as more of a mythic idea than an actual living being. While it ultimately loses some of its narrative drive in the middle section, Huston's take on the Great American Novel is surprisingly light on its feat - a thrilling portrait of single-minded obsession that still resonates today.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971, Twilight Time)
The title of The Panic at Needle Park refers to a time when heroin supplies were running low in New York City's infamous "Needle Park," leading addicts and junkies to turn on one another in order to score their next fix. Al Pacino made his film debut in Jerry Schatzberg's harrowing film, as a heroin addict who introduces his new girlfriend to a dangerous world of drug addiction that threatens to destroy her life. It sounds a bit like an after-school special, with a "don't do drugs, kids" sense of moral propriety, but that's not what this film is at all. There's an almost documentary-like sense of realism at work here. It's raw, gritty, and most of all, painfully honest. It provides no easy answers for its characters, no trite moralizing or judgement. The film simply drops us into these characters' lives, then pulls us back out again without any real sense of resolution.

Of course, there is no real resolution for these characters. They feel completely authentic and the performances are uniformly excellent. It's easy to see why Al Pacino went on to become a major star - he's magnetic here, and totally believable. It's a tough sit, often feeling aimless, which is a result of its verite-like style. And while it sometimes seems to be spinning its wheels in 70's-era miserablism, it's hard to take your eyes of the central performances, and the truly alarming descent into the ugliness of addiction at its core. It feels like something out of a time capsule; a portrait of a specific place and time, capturing the lives of the people of Needle Park in the 1970's in a deeply human, and sometimes heartbreaking, way.

Grade - ★★★ (out of four)


PEYTON PLACE (1957, Twilight Time)
"It's about time you learned that girls wanna do the same things as boys. And they have the right to know how."

Based on the controversial best-seller by Grace Metalious, Peyton Place would go on to become a long-running prime time soap opera. But not before being turned into a sumptuous, Oscar-nominated film, which captured all of the drama, romance, and sordid secrets of the small New England town of Peyton Place. Sure it's sudsy, but what delicious scandal it offers up, examining the lives of a small town in 1941, in the months leading up the outbreak of World War II.

The film doesn't have a single overarching story, choosing instead on focusing on various Peyton Place citizens and their individual stories, as they navigate life in a judgmental, conservative town. Girls fall in love with boys they can't have, a new progressive principal threatens to shake up the school, and gossip nearly ruins lives, as war looms in Europe, far away from their tiny problems. While toned down from the novel, the film explores topics that were pretty hot-button in 1957, from sexual education, to abortion, to rape. Yet despite its heavy subject matter (and 2.5+ hour running time), Peyton Place remains remarkably light on its feet, ingratiating the audience to small town life, and giving each character, no matter how small, a rich life of their own. It makes us feel a part of this charming but old-fashioned community, and it tweaks their close-mindedness in an ultimately warm and loving way. It's not the incisive social commentary of, say, Douglas Sirk, but there's something undeniably enchanting about the stories it tells. Once you fall in love with Peyton Place, you may never want to leave.

Grade - ★★★½ (out of four)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"

Jacques Demy's swooning, brightly colored ode to the bittersweet pain of young love is just as potent, honest, and relatable as it was 53 years ago. Often dismissed as being lightweight (a criticism also lobbed at its recent spiritual successor, La La Land), in reality, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is anything but. It somehow manages to be both sad and joyful at once, a celebration of first love and a sobering dose of reality to counter the starry-eyed fawning that comes with it.

The film made Catherine Deneuve an international star, and it's not difficult to see why. She luminous in this, a bright, wide-eyed young woman who matures over the course of an hour and a half. We can almost see her grow before our very eyes. As Geneviève, the teenage daughter of an umbrella shop owner who falls for Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a young mechanic with few prospects, she practically embodies innocence and naivete. But when their whirlwind romance is interrupted by a military draft, and the requisite promises to wait and write every day, her journey to adulthood begins.


The letters, of course, become less frequent, and new suitors begin arriving on her doorstep. Pregnant with Guy's child, and hounded by her well-meaning mother's insistence that she seek financial security, Geneviève is forced to make difficult choices that will determine the course of both of their lives. When Guy returns from the war and discovers that Geneviève has moved on without him, he finds new love in the most unexpected of places.

Demy paints a picture of a young couple in love, torn apart by circumstance, before eventually drifting apart and finding other people to settle down with and start a family. The fires of passion eventually give way to the comfort of the safe and familiar. And yet, Demy never judges his characters or suggests that they are settling. They are merely growing up, growing apart, creating new lives of which the other cannot be a part. It's a beautifully sad, yet strangely uplifting and hopeful romance, one that has no illusions about the realities of young love, but treats it with dignity anyway.


The influence of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues to be felt, from the films of Wes Anderson to the aforementioned La La Land, to even films like Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Demy's use of color is almost revolutionary (not to mention the fact that every line of dialogue is sung, like an intimately scaled opera) - blossoming with the young lovers, before fading into more muted shades after they grow apart and start families of their own. Beneath its colorful exterior (gorgeously rendered through Criterion's stunning Blu-Ray transfer), there's something painful and almost raw about its emotional frankness. Yet Demy's outlook is never anything less than hopeful, embracing the romantic delirium of first love, while honoring the beauty and the strength of second love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may revel in its own artifice, but it is through that cinematic fakery that it captures the spirit of young love - filled with passion and fire, but never quite grounded in reality. Demy sends his two lovers soaring before bringing them back to earth, and the effect is at once wise, rapturous, and heartrending. It's pure perfection.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criteron Collection.

Special features include:
  • 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD 
  • Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Once Upon a Time . . . “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” a 2008 documentary 
  • Interview from 2014 with film scholar Rodney Hill 
  • French television interview from 1964 featuring director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand discussing the film 
  • Audio recordings of interviews with actor Catherine Deneuve (1983) and Legrand (1991) at the National Film Theatre in London 
  • Restoration demonstration Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Jim Ridley

Monday, April 10, 2017

RiverRun Award Winners 2017

The theaters are closed, the projectors have been shut down, and RiverRun 2017 is a wrap. The festival closed out last night with a screening of James Gray's phenomenal new film, The Lost City of Z, but not before the winners of the 2017 jury awards were announced. I'm glad to see the love for The Ornithologist and Quest, which were my favorite films playing in competition at this year's festival. As always, the winners are an eclectic and diverse group of films, each unique and worthy it its own way. Next year will mark the 20th annual RiverRun Film Festival, but before we put 2017 to bed and look forward to next year's milestone, here is the complete list of this year's winners:

AFTER LOVE


NARRATIVE FEATURES COMPETITION

Best Narrative Feature Award  AFTER LOVE / France / Belgium (Director: Joachim Lafosse) —
The Peter Brunette Award for Best Director – Narrative Feature was presented to: João Pedro Rodrigues, THE ORNITHOLOGIST / Portugal / France / Brazil
Outstanding Performance – Bérénice Bejo (AFTER LOVE)
Best Screenplay – Raja Amari (FOREIGN BODY)
Best Cinematography – Pablo Paniagua (DARK SKULL)
Visionary Award – DAYVEON / USA (Director: Amman Abbasi)
Human Rights Award – WINDOW HORSES / Canada (Director: Ann Marie Flemming)

RiverRun’s 2017 Narrative Features jurors included: Brian Belovarac, Clint Bowie, Lisa Lucas, and Epiphany Huffman.

QUEST

DOCUMENTARY FEATURES COMPETITION

Best Documentary Feature: QUEST / USA (Director: Jonathan Olshefski)

Honorable Mentions — Documentary Features were presented to:

SACRED (Director: Thomas Lennon)
FOREVER PURE / UK / Israel / Russia (Director: Maya Zinshtein)
THE ISLANDS AND THE WHALES / UK / DENMARK (Director: Mike Day)

RiverRun’s 2017 Documentary Features Competition jurors included: Caroline Breder-Watts, Jason Gorber and Dolly Turner.

WAITING FOR HASSANA

SHORTS COMPETITION

Best Documentary Short: WAITING FOR HASSANA / Nigeria (Director: Ifunanya Maduka)
Honorable Mention: SOURTOE: THE STORY OF THE SORRY CANNIBAL / Canada (Director: Daniel Roher)

Best Narrative Short was a tie and presented to:
APOLO81 / Spain (Director: Óscar Bernàcer)
WEG MET WILLEM / Netherlands (Director Willem Bosch)
Best Student Narrative Short: THE DAM / Australia / (Director: Brendon McDonall)

RiverRun’s 2017 Narrative Shorts jurors included: Gregory Von Hausch, James E. Duff, Summer Shelton and Andrew Mirmanesh.

Best Animated Short: LOVE / Hungary / France (Director: Réka Bucsi)
Best Student Animated Short: LETHE / UK (Director: Kat Michaelides)

RiverRun’s 2017 Animated Shorts jurors included: Jake Armstrong, Joy Buran and Noelle Melody.


PURPLE DREAMS

AUDIENCE CHOICE AWARDS
Altered States - 11:55
Documentary - UNREST
Narrative - LITTLE WING
Best Overall Score (with a 4.97 out of 5.0) - PURPLE DREAMS

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Soundtrack Review | "Power Rangers" (Brian Tyler)

The original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers TV series was one of my first introductions to the idea of leitmotifs. I remember being aware that the heroes had a specific theme, the main villains each had their own themes, and even the bullies, Bulk and Skull, had their own specific musical identity. I was keenly aware of these melodies, and used them whenever I would play with my Power Rangers action figures, providing my own soundtrack to whatever story I came up with.

While the music from the original series wasn't anyone's idea of a great score, it made quite an impression on my young mind. Brian Tyler's score for Lionsgate's new reboot is only based around a single new theme for the Rangers, the rousing anthem made me feel like a kid again. That old magic was back.

Tyler's score doesn't have quite the same diversity of motifs as the original series did, but he makes up for it by crafting one humdinger of a main theme, first introduced in the aptly titled "Power Rangers Theme" and revisited frequently throughout the score. The rising chord progressions are a familiar structure for film score fans, but just try not to feel the hair on your arms stand up when Tyler really kicks the theme into high gear in tracks like "Megazord" and "It's Morphing Time!," which also throws in some 80's-style synths reminiscent of Giorgio Morodor, or more recently, Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy. On the whole, the score has a darker tone than the almost sprightly themes of the original series, reflecting the teen angst that permeates the film. Tracks like "Birth of a Legend," "Metamorphosis,"and "The Morphing Grid feature an almost melancholy acoustic sound, but one that never strays to far from optimistic. Power Rangers is certainly more serious than the TV show, but it thankfully never takes itself too seriously.

SABAN'S POWER RANGERS. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
As a result, Tyler plays it mostly straight in the score, even as the film sometimes plants its tongue firmly in its cheek. Tyler helps balance the moments of levity by never allowing them to fall into parody, imbuing the film with a sense of gravity. "Confessions" offers a contemplative version of the main theme, as the five teens finally start to open up to each other about their own painful pasts. The Morodor-style synths return in "Goldar," which is also one of the score's most heart-pumping action tracks, and "The Zords," providing a pulsing bass line rather than taking focus. The villain, Rita Repulsa, also gets her own slithery identity in "Rita," comprised mainly of pulsating strings, before building to a thunderous crescendo.

But the moment everyone is waiting for, of course, is the integration of the original series' catchy theme song, "Go Go Power Rangers," which finally bursts forth triumphantly in "Let's Ride," a moment that was ultimately replaced by the actual vocal version of the song in the film. Tyler uses the theme sparingly, not unlike Ludwig Goransson's score for Creed, holding back the classic theme until just the perfect moment - in this case the emergence of the Zords as the rangers head off to fight the monstrous Goldar. Tyler reprises the original theme in a more complete version in "Go Go Power Rangers - End Credits," but the score's real emotional climax comes in "Hold the Line," which accompanies the moment when the Rangers truly begin to work together as a team, just before uniting to form the Megazord.

The album itself isn't in chronological order, but the arrangement is nevertheless a fully realized and satisfying experience, providing grand scale heroic anthems as well as a nostalgic sense of childhood wonder. It may not break any new ground, musically speaking, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. I loved every minute of it.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available on digital platforms from Varese Sarabande, and available on CD April 21st.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "Being There"

After the death of his beloved employer, known only as "the old man," a simple-minded gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) is thrust out into the world, his only knowledge of life outside his garden coming from the television programs he watches religiously. After her limo accidentally backs into him, he is taken in by Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the wealthy wife of well-connected businessman, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, who won an Oscar for his performance). The Rands mistake Chance's childlike naivete for profound insights into life and politics. Benjamin, who is dying but is a close friend and adviser to the President, introduces Chance to the Commander-in-Chief, and soon his musings are gardening become the cornerstone of the President's economic policy. Chance unwittingly becomes a national celebrity overnight, as his simple outlook on life turns into a refreshingly uncomplicated philosophy in a world obsessed with political intrigue, drama, and detail.

Much like its lead character, Hal Ashby's altogether wonderful Being There, out this month on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection, is something of a blank emotional slate onto which the audience can project its own feelings. Chance is essentially a child, probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, uneducated and illiterate, yet he stumbles into the halls of power almost without question from the powers that be. He becomes a "flavor of the moment," and America becomes willing to give the keys to the kingdom to a man who is wholly unqualified and without the proper understanding of how the government, or the world in general, works. Sound familiar? In that regard, Being There feels eerily prescient (at the time it was interpreted as a comment on the rise of Ronald Reagan...oh how far we've come). It's also a comment on race in America that still rings true today. "It's for sure a white man's world in America." exclaims Louise, the black maid who raised Chance, and is the only one who knows who he really is. "Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want."


There's a lot to be said for Being There's commentary about the ease in which Chance rockets to unwitting (and unearned) political stardom, but he is certainly no Donald Trump. There's no malice in his actions, no intent to deceive or lie to anyone. He simply doesn't understand what's going on around him, while everyone else ascribes whatever they want to his vague pronouncements. There's a kindness and sense of childlike wonder about him that really gives the film its sense of charm. In fact, by the end of the film, Ashby has turned chance into a kind of Christ-like figure, as he literally walks on water in the film's final shot. In that regard, Chance's rise to prominence is not necessarily meant to be a bad thing. He opens people up, and connects them with a simpler, less complicated view of life, which humanity in all its wisdom has turned into a series of neurotic political maneuverings. "Life is a state of mind," goes the final line of the film, and indeed, Being There seems to have little use for those who unnecessarily complicated with needless concerns and made-up human dramas. Therein lies the real beauty of the film - Chance's rise is both positive and negative, bringing out the best and the worst of human nature.

Whether or not his influence is good or bad is never really explored, and ultimately left up to the audience. Ashby wisely places the ball in our court, leaving us to interpret it as we will. It's both a critique of a world that allows such a man to achieve such a prominent role in American leadership (where even the most unqualified of white men is allowed to soar to the top of the food chain), and a celebration of his good-natured, completely non-cynical outlook, standing apart from the high-speed neurosis of modern American life. Being There is, like Chance, whatever we want it to be. It's a beautiful enigma (given life through Caleb Deschanel's evocative cinematography, gorgeously rendered on Blu-Ray), both heartwarming and melancholy - a film that has gone on to influence such films as Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet it has somehow stands apart in its refusal to sentimentalize its story. The result is something magic and otherworldly, a film that closed out the 1970's with a knowing smile, mourning that which was to come, and celebrating an unassuming antidote to the decade's increasing sense of materialism and political polarization. And it feels more essential now than ever.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

From the Repertory | 3/30/17

Capsule reviews of new Blu-Ray releases:

CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER (Twilight Time)
Originally released in 1979 as Head Over Heels, Chilly Scenes of Winter was re-released in 1982 with a new ending and sporting the original title of Ann Beattie's novel on which it was based. Billed as a "romantic comedy," it's actually much more subtle and downbeat than what one would general consider a rom-com. John Heard plays a professional who falls in love with a married woman, who just happens to be having marital troubles with her husband. When she decides to go back to him, however, that sends Heard into an obsessive tail-spin.

Chilly Scenes of Winter covers some pretty dark territory in relationships, although its tone remains mostly light. It's naturalism is perhaps its greatest asset. There's never any malevolence in the characters' actions, but it feels like such an honest exploration of the kind of all-encompassing infatuation and the tricky waters of romantic attraction. Every choice rings true. In fact it feels so normal it almost loses its dramatic thrust, and Heard's occasional fourth-wall-breaking asides seem out-of-place with the rest of the film. There's not a lot to hang on to here, but it is marvelously performed.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

INTERIORS (Twilight Time)
In his first dramatic film, Woody Allen paid homage to one of his greatest cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, every frame of Interiors seems almost haunted by Bergman, from Gordon Willis' chilly cinematography, to the hushed, portentous atmosphere, it certainly feels like a lost Bergman film, even if it often lacks the legendary Swedish director's depth.

The story of three adult sisters whose family is torn apart by their father's sudden abandonment of their controlling mother, Interiors has all of Allen's existential crises without any of his trademark comedy. The result is hit and miss, often as self-consciously somber as it is engrossing. The performances are the highlight here, each one is a standalone highlight, even if Maureen Stapleton is a mid-film shot of adrenaline. It's dramatic elements may feel a bit disjointed, but Allen's mastery of dialogue and character detail keep Interiors from slipping too deeply into self-seriousness.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE LOVE WITCH (Oscilloscope)
Anna Biller's deliriously entertaining ode to the over-the-top erotic horror films of the 1960s, popularized by the likes of Jean Rollin, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava, is one of the most stunning and flawless genre homages I have ever seen. Not even Tarantino has so closely replicated a genre film like this. It feels completely authentic, like something out of a time machine. The Love Witch absolutely nails the atmosphere of those erotic giallo films that were so prominent on the exploitation circuit at the time. From the vibrant colors, to the soft-focus cinematography, to the music, to the framing, to the presentational performance style, everything about The Love Witch hums not only with a reverence for its influences, but with a feminist verve all its own.

While many of these films existed mainly to titillate with the promise of bare female flesh (rarely delivering on their own lurid premises), The Love Witch turns the concept on its head. There is certainly flesh to spare, but Biller isn't letting the audience off the hook here. Her story of a young witch whose desperation for love leads her to develop a sex potion designed to give men what they want, believing if she fulfills their sexual fantasies it will translate into love, resonates with more sophisticated flair than much of its exploitation brethren. Instead of making them fall in love, the potion drives them mad, causing them to commit suicide. It isn't long before the men of the town bring out their figurative torches and pitchforks in an effort to kill the witch. It's an alluring and engaging allegory for modern sexual politics, where women give into the fantasies of men, only to be punished for it later by a society that fears the very sexually liberated women it claims to champion. I loved every minute of this film. As a fan of Rollin and Bava, I was especially impressed by the Biller's fidelity to the genre. She clearly has a strong understanding of what made these exploitation films what they were, and how to use their structure to achieve a greater thematic depth. The Love Witch is a veritable orgy of sinful cinematic tropes, re-purposed and re-imagined for a new time by an artist working at the top of her game.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PINOCCHIO - Signature Collection (Disney)
"Always let your conscience be your guide."

I feel like Pinocchio is often overlooked in the Disney canon. While "When You Wish Upon a Star" has become the de-facto Disney theme song, the film itself almost stands in the shadow of its predecessor, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has the distinction of being the first feature length animated film. Disney had a lot riding on the follow-up, and the result is one of his finest achievements.

It's surprising how dark this thing is. Pinocchio is a warning to children as much as it is a charming piece of entertainment, and the results of Pinocchio's misbehavior are occasionally terrifying (what child didn't grow up thinking lying would make their nose grow?), with nightmarish imagery that makes for some of Disney's darkest moments. While much of this kind of thing wouldn't fly today (the smoking, the drinking), it makes Pinocchio's journey that much more harrowing and his redemption all the more moving. It's a beautifully animated work whose enduring message of simple goodness continues to resonate, anchored by some of the most endearing characters and sidekicks that Disney ever created.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

STANLEY & IRIS (Twilight Time)
I've always felt that John Williams' score for Stanley & Iris is one of his most overlooked gems. It's small scale, unassuming, based only on two simple, straightforward themes, which it repeats for most of its short running time. But that's not unlike the film itself - small, lovely, earnest, never spectacular but always charming. Stanley & Iris, the final film by the great Martin Ritt, is anchored by two graceful performances by Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda as the eponymous duo; Stanley, an illiterate cook, and Iris, a factory worker who decides to help him learn to read.

The film has a kind of quiet dignity about it, as Iris helps Stanley regain his confidence through finally learning to read, a handicap which has held him back his entire life. They fall in love along the way, of course, and the film has very little in the way of conflict or drama. But Ritt explores the crippling impediment of illiteracy without turning it into an "issue drama," quietly crafting a tender and heartfelt love story that coasts along on the strength of its stars magnetic and lived in performances. It's the very definition of a "nice" film, never offending, never offering emotional fireworks, but hitting its notes with Ritt's soft-spoken grace.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review | "Power Rangers"

The original "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" series is one of those pieces of my childhood of which I am under no rose-colored illusions about its quality. A goofy recut of the hit Japanese series, "Super Sentai," managed to turn a single formula (evil alien creates monster, Power Rangers overpower monster, evil alien makes monster grow, power rangers call on Megazord to defeat monster) into an 800+ episode phenomenon. Yet looking back on the series' roots, it's clear what a campy, goofy property this really was. Gritty reboots of 80's and 90's properties are all the rage right now, capitalizing on millennial nostalgia for the movies and shows they grew up with.

As a childhood fan of the show, I approached the remake with trepidation. Would it be a pointlessly gritty retread, the kind of edgy-for-edginess-sake reboot that tries way too hard to appeal to newer, more jaded generation (far too cool for the brightly colored camp of the original)  while capitalizing on millennial nostalgia? Or would it be just a silly as its predecessors?

From L to R: Naomi Scott as "Kimberly," RJ Cyler as "Billy," Dacre Montgomery as "Jason," Ludi Lin as "Zack" and Becky G as "Trini" in SABAN'S POWER RANGERS. Photo credit: Kimberley French.
Interestingly enough, director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) walks a fine line between both scenarios. His Power Rangers is under no illusions about how goofy its premise is, and as a result never takes itself too seriously. It's certainly a more grounded take on the material, without the over-the-top camp that made the original so singularly bizarre. But it it manages to keep its tongue planted firmly in its cheek without being an ironic parody of itself. It knows it's silly, and embraces it; charting a new path and a  new tone without straying too far from the foundations it was built upon. The rangers are still five "teenagers with attitude." In this case, five screw-ups who land themselves in detention before finding themselves in a quarry one night where they discover 5 mysterious power coins that appear to give them super powers. Underneath the quarry, they stumble upon an ancient spaceship, where a robot named Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) has been waiting with an alien named Zordon (Bryan Cranston), who is trapped in the walls of the ship. Zordon tells them that they have been chosen to be the Power Rangers, destined to protect the world from Rita Repulsa (a delightfully over-the-top Elizabeth Banks), a former ranger from Zordon's own prehistoric team, who seeks to resurrect her monster, Goldar, and destroy the world. In order to defeat her, these five teenagers from all different walks of life must rely on each other, because only together as one team can they defeat the evil sorceress and bring peace to the world.

Power Rangers' theme feels especially timely. It was certainly always there (if a bit on the nose in its color assignments), but in the 2017 take there's a very blatant theme of strength through unity, where people of every color and creed must put aside their differences and come together for the common good to become something much better than themselves. The team is nothing without any single one of its members. The plot is pure superhero pulp, of course, but Israelite has a clear love for this material. Zordon, Alpha, Rita, Goldar, and the Rangers may only bear passing resemblance to their Clinton-era counterparts, but the un-pretentious spirit of the original series is alive and well - only new and improved.

Trini (Becky G, left) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, right) in POWER RANGERS. Photo Credit: Kimberley French
Sure, it's got more dutch-angles than you can shake a stick at, to let us know how edgy and new it is, and the 5 rangers are mostly bland and anonymous (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl scene-stealer RJ Cyler is the only real standout as the autistic Blue Ranger Billy Cranston), but there's just something so refreshingly un-ironic about it. Sure, it's a major visual departure from the TV series, but it really needed to be to be taken seriously. It's also practically a feature length advertisement for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, but the product placement is so hilariously random and winking that it works in spite of itself.

That's part of what makes Power Rangers so deeply entertaining - its refusal to be a gritty, serious-minded take on something so ridiculous, and its equally admirable refusal to condescend to that same material. Israelite is fully aware of how aggressively un-cool the original show is to modern sensibilities, but he doesn't leave its sense of humor behind. Those who didn't grow up with the show may find it a bit silly, but you almost have to admire the gleeful abandon with which it dives into this universe. It's a somewhat radical re-imagining, but it just works, managing to pay homage to its roots while crafting a new version of the familiar mythology. It's a wildly entertaining piece of fan service that has no illusions about what it is or what it's doing, embracing its inherent ridiculousness with an infectious sense of fun and excitement. It's a kids' movie for children of the 90's, and fans really couldn't have asked for more. This critic, for one, loved every minute of it.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

POWER RANGERS | Directed by Dean Israelite | Stars Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader | Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor | Opens today in theaters nationwide.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Soundtrack Review | "Logan"

James Mangold's Logan is not your typical superhero movie. While my review of the film itself will appear in Thursday's print edition of The Dispatch, I wanted to highlight one of the film's strongest elements on its own - Marco Beltrami's unconventional score.

The character of Wolverine has never had a strong thematic identity to carry him through the eight X-Men films in which he has appeared, and while Beltrami also scored Mangold's The Wolverine in 2013, he starts with a clean slate here. Right away it is clear that this will not be a typical superhero score. Beltrami starts things off with a simple piano motif in Main Titles, it's minor chord progressions reflecting Logan's loneliness. The introduction of a wailing harmonica at around the 1:30 mark announces the film's western influences, recalling the spaghetti western scores of Ennio Morricone.

Much of the score dwells in the background. Laura has an eerie kind of ambiance to it (recalling the quieter moments of Beltrami's western score, The Homesman), while The Grim Reavers and Old Man Logan have a more dissonant sound. Old Man Logan brings back Logan's piano theme from the main titles, establishing the melody as the grizzled Wolverine's primary musical identity. Alternate Route to Mexico really kicks the score into high gear, with a suspenseful string line that accompanies Logan's attempts to evade detection by mysterious agents who are looking for mutants.


Beltrami does fall back into some generic sounding action material, as heard in bass-heavy tracks like That's Not a Choo-Choo, X-24, and Farm Aid that rely on synths and pulsing rhythms, not unlike Beltrami's work on Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma. Things get interesting, however, in El Limo-nator, which introduces a honky-tonk piano into the action, reinforcing the score's western flair . The thematic material for Laura, Logan's young charge, begins to take greater shape in Gabriella's Video, as Logan discover's Laura's true identity. Minimalism is the name of the game here, with its use of ambient synths and wind-chimes, but the effect is lovely. It reappears in Goodnight Moon, grounding the score in a kind of quiet humanity.

It's interesting that Beltrami chose to anchor the score with a piano, especially as Logan's main identity. There's something familiar about the piano that speaks of home and family, and Beltrami uses that to his advantage here, giving us a haunting melodic texture (rather than a hummable theme) to represent the grizzled old hero. The piano motif reappears in You Can't Break the Mould and Up to Eden, before bringing the score to a heartrendingly restrained finale in Don't Be What They Made You. Without a recognizable thematic identity from the past, Beltrami chooses instead to bid farewell to Wolverine with a quiet and aching piano solo, before rounding out the score with a full presentation of Laura's theme in Eternum, with its western piano and harmonica accents. The album is closed out by three meandering bonus tracks that are intriguing from an orchestration standpoint, but ultimately add little to the album.

Superhero scores tend to be defined by their action music. And while there are some strong action tracks here - Forest Fight is the closest the score gets to grand-scale action scoring, before slipping back into the atonal suspense of Logan vs. X-24, the quiet moments are what really define Logan. Don't come to this score expecting larger than life heroics. Like the film itself, it is a dark and introspective score. But it's also one of the most unconventional and effective superhero scores  to come along in a long time. It may not always be an easy listen, but Beltrami wisely chose to give the character a harsh and gritty musical identity, whose rough exterior belies a tender heart. It never overstates its purpose, but the effect resonates long after the credits roll.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

Now available for digital download. On CD March 31.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Blu-Ray Review | "The General"/"Three Ages"

While all of Buster Keaton's feature length silent films are already on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, the distributor as partnered with Lobster Films to bring newly restored editions of Keaton's classic works complete with brand new special features. Even if you already have the original releases, these are worth picking up for any fans of Keaton's work (The General is worth the purchase for Joe Hisaishi's new score alone).

I'm not sure there's another comedy out there more perfect than Buster Keaton's The General. Keaton stars as a southern train engineer who is rejected from the military due to his unique skills. His girlfriend tells him she will never marry him until she sees him in uniform. But when she is kidnapped by Northern spies who hijack her train, Keaton sets out to save her and his beloved engine, the General, from enemy hands.

The General is both a comedy and a war movie, managing to be both hilarious and thrilling at the same time. It is the pinnacle of Keaton's genius for physical gags, providing him the grandest scale of his career. This is one of those films that never fails to make my jaw drop, no matter how many times I've seen it. Keaton's prowess for stunts and deadpan physical comedy is on full display here. What he manages to do with that train simply boggles the mind. Without the aid of models or CGI, Keaton rides on the cowcatcher of a real train, frantically moving discarded railroad ties out of the way. He holds train cars together. Trains run into each other and fall through burning bridges.  The General flies from one marvelous set-piece to another, barely stopping to catch it breath. Yet it never feels overly busy or overstuffed. Keaton was never better than he was here, combining popular melodramatic structure of the time with his own brand of slapstick in brilliant ways, all the while maintaining his trademark deadpan stone face. It's not just one of the greatest films of the silent period, but of all time, and arguably the greatest comedy ever made.


Buster Keaton's first feature (if you don't count The Saphead, which was neither conceived nor directed by Keaton), Three Ages is an ambitious parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, following three different love stories over three different eras. Keaton plays three different unlucky-in-love saps; a caveman, a Roman centurian, and a modern man, all trying to woo women in spite of her family's preference for a wealthier, stronger man.

I love the little details of this thing. The roman numeral license plate and spare wheel on the back of Keaton's chariot, for example. While Three Ages is not Keaton's best feature (it often feels like three short films stitched together), it's filled with such wonderful visual wit. Many of Keaton's best gags are of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. The film itself is not in the best shape, even in Kino's new Blu-Ray edition, but the film has its charms, nevertheless. Keaton had pretty much perfected the short comedy by this point, and while he isn't quite able to sustain the jokes over the course of a feature yet, especially when they are essentially repeated three times across the film, but his eye for comedic detail remains unparalleled.

THE GENERAL -★★★★ (out of four)
THREE AGES - ★★½ (out of four)

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

Blu-Ray Review | "Mildred Pierce"

Joan Crawford earned her first and only Oscar for Michael Curtiz's towering film noir, in which she plays a mother determined to give her spoiled daughter the lavish lifestyle she demands at all costs. Mildred Pierce takes the classic Hollywood women's picture and turns it into a dark, noirish melodrama, examining issues of class and feminine ambition.

Shot during WWII but released after the war ended, the film was made at a time when women were joining the workforce in record numbers. Pierce's daughter, Veda, is embarrassed by her hardworking mother, even when her success gives her the means to give Veda (Ann Blythe) the high class life she craves. Veda is cruel, manipulative, and vain. Mildred is tough and hardworking, willing to trade in her dignity in order to provide for her children. The men in the film skirt around the periphery, especially the three men in Mildred's life - Wally (Jack Carson), a well-meaning lawyer whose naked affection for Mildred makes him the perfect patsy for her ambitions; Bert (Bruce Bennett), her first husband, who sees Veda for what she really is; and then there's Monte (Zachary Scott), a penniless heir from a wealthy family whose duplicitousness threatens to tear mother and daughter apart.


Mildred Pierce is above all a tale of just how far a parent will go to protect and provide for their children, but more than that, its an examination of class prejudice and society's disdain for working women, even successful ones. It was a film ahead of its time, taking the melodrama of the novel and turning it into a hardboiled, female-led noir, where the women aren't femme fatales but working stiffs willing to do what it takes to achieve the American dream. While Crawford is never really believable as a working girl, her magisterial presence in her severely squared off fur coat anchors the film with a kind of raw anguish that is hard to shake.

The film looks glorious on Blu-Ray, its inky-black shadows creeping in on Mildred like her daughter's unchecked evil. With her every whim catered to, Veda is cinema's ultimate spoiled child, an ungrateful wretch who can't even see the irony of her own degradation as a showgirl, which she sees as perfectly acceptable over her mother's restaurant business. In that regard, Mildred Pierce is a cautionary tale for parents, where overprotected children become monsters and the hard work parents put into raising their children goes unappreciated. It remains one of Hollywood's great melodramas, a rich and psychologically astute work whose power still resonates today.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Special features include:
  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito
  • Excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show featuring actor Joan Crawford
  • Joan Craw­ford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a 2002 feature-length documentary
  • Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, presented by Marc Huestis and conducted by film historian Eddie Muller at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco
  • Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith

Monday, January 23, 2017

From the Repertory - 1/23/17

9 TO 5 (Twilight Time)

Three women fantasize about getting revenge on their sexist pig of a boss, only to accidentally find themselves getting actual revenge. Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton make a fantastic team (and Dolly's title tune is one of her most infectious works). In fact their chemistry is so terrific it's easy to forgive the film's occasional faults and lulls in pacing. There's something remarkably progressive about a Reagan-era comedy being so pointedly feminist, but it's also a little depressing seeing just how much of it remains timely even 36 years later.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BLACK GIRL (The Criterion Collection)

Ousmane Sembene's feature debut, Black Girl (La Noire De...), put African cinema on the map in 1966, introducing the world to an often neglected and misunderstood continent. Sembene told storied from an African perspective in a way that European and American audiences had never seen, and the thematic core of Black Girl is a shocking jolt to the system.

Based on one of Sembene's own short stories, Black Girl follows Diouana (the striking Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a Senegalese seamstress who takes a job for a white French family, and heads back to France with them to take care of their children. She soon discovers, however, that the family and their friends views her as more of an exotic curiosity than a person, and that the job isn't the job she thought she was accepting. Hundreds of miles away from home, in a foreign country, and trapped in the drudgery of a maid's life, she begins to slip further and further into depression.

Sembene's direction is sparse, anchored by Diouana's inner musings, and scored with music so incongruously upbeat that it almost becomes grating (I was reminded of Djibril Diop Mambéty's Touki Bouki, for which Black Girl was a likely inspiration, and its use of "Paris, Paris"). Yet it wisely makes the audience feel as alienated from its surroundings as Diouana. Sembene himself was a product of colonialism, having grown up in French Senegal, and Black Girl is a stinging condemnation of its effect on every day African citizens. It's all symbolized by the mask that Diouana presents to her employer after she is hired, which becomes the mask all Africans are forced to wear in the presence of white people. Here, Sembene forcefully reclaims that African identity by tearing away the mask, both figuratively and literally (in the film's haunting final shot). He would go on to make stronger films, but in the course of only an hour, Black Girl announced to the world that Africa would be silent no more. And the results were both groundbreaking and deeply moving.

The Criterion Blu-Ray also includes Sembene's debut short film, Borom Sarrett (The Waggoner).  Sembene may have gone to film school in the Soviet Union, but his directorial style more resembles Italian Neorealism and the films of Vittorio De Sica. Yet the social realism that informs his debut film, Borom Sarrett is distinctly Soviet, with its focus on the plight of the common man, and his desire to rise above his station and take his place among the bourgeoise, even at the expense of fellow proletarians.

Borom Sarrett follows the day in the life of a cart driver in Senegal as he carries his passengers to and from their destination. Beggars ask him for money, rich passengers abuse him, and all the while he enslaves himself in order to put food on his family's table each day, if he's even able to do that. Many of the techniques that Sembene uses here would reappear in his 1966 debut feature, BLACK GIRL, but it was Borom Sarrett that first heralded the arrival of a powerful voice in cinema, one who would lend that voice to people who had yet to be heard.

Available 1/24/17 from The Criterion Collection.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

STARDUST MEMORIES (Twilight Time)
Woody Allen channels Federico Fellini (with just a dash of Preston Sturges) in this disarmingly probing riff on 8 1/2, which follows a filmmaker's quest for meaning at a retrospective of his own work, opening a window into the inspirations for each of his films. Allen's meta-textual musings are as fascinating as they are funny, diving not only into the character's psyche, but Allen's own as well. The director's trademark neuroses have arguably never felt so natural as they do here, as Allen explores their sources both through the films he makes and the stories that inspired them.

He also plays a filmmaker known for making lighthearted comedies, who wants to be taken seriously by making dramatic, experimental films. In the process, he ends up making  a more personal, philosophical film while maintaining his own unique sense of humor. That's part of what makes Stardust Memories so remarkable. This is Allen exploring his own artistic identity. And while he may borrow heavily from Fellini to do it (the whole style of the film has a very 1960's European art-house feel), with the aid of cinematographer Gordon Willis and the peerless Charlotte Rampling as his female lead, Allen dives deeper into his own persona than in any of his films before or sense. Rampling's long take, in which Allen holds the camera in medium close-up as she goes through an entire spectrum of emotions, might be the single most stunning shot in any Allen film.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Soundtrack Review | "Po"

Legendary composer Burt Bacharach hasn't really been very active since the 1990s, so his new score for Po has generated quite a bit of excitement among the composer's fans. Bacharach, who is best known for films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Arthur (as well as their respective theme songs, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" and "Arthur's Theme [Best that You Can Do]") has written his fair share of classic tunes in his long, if not exactly prolific, career as a film composer.

The film, which follows a gifted young autistic boy who is unable to cope with the loss of his mother, barely registered with audiences or critics. Since songwriting is arguably what he is best known for, much of the hype surrounding Po has been for the film's theme song, "Dancing with Your Shadow," which incidentally is the weakest aspect of the album. The song, as performed by Sheryl Crow, opens the album, before segueing into Bacharach's instrumental score. The melody is lovely, and serves as the film's main theme throughout the score, but it's lyrically simplistic and ultimately not very memorable. The saccharine lyrics have a Hallmark card quality that undermine the beauty of the composition.

Bacharach performs much of the score himself, driving it forward through solo piano and the occasional use of ambient electronic sound, mostly thanks to co-composer, Joseph Bauer, who provides weaker tracks like "The Land of Color," "Detached," and "Lost" (which veers into a more dissonant atmosphere of suspense). The theme for Po's mother, Amelia, is first introduced on piano in "Amelia Says Goodbye," and is reprised on guitar in "Amelia," "Fishtank," and "Magic Garden" without too much variation. It's a lovely theme, but doesn't quite leave the same impression as the main "Dancing with Your Shadow" melody, which is introduced in the score during "Nurse's Office," and pops up again in "Family Time," "Goodbye Dad," "Pier," "Dad Packing," "Airport Kiss," "Rainbow on the Wall," and concludes in "Supermarket Love." Yet as beautiful as the melody is, it almost begins to overstay its welcome, since it is so often played with minimal variation in structure or tempo.

The score's highlights are a ravishing piano fantasia that is introduced in "The Pirate" and returns in "Sherwood Forest," representing Po's inner life, breaking away from the score's otherwise staid manner into something soaring. But the very best moment on the whole album comes thanks to Bauer. "Through the Door" combines Bauer's electronics and Bacharach's piano in a truly gorgeous way. It almost makes you wish the entire score had this kind of haunting emotional personality. While the melodies are pleasing to the ear, there's just not enough variation in them to create a satisfying whole. It almost reminded me of Clint Eastwood's Grace is Gone, which featured a similarly strong melody that was played over and over again with little to no change whatsoever.

Po ends with a piano solo version of "Dancing with Your Shadow," which is the best performance of the tune on the album, almost taking on the air of romantic jazz (John Williams' Sabrina springs to mind), even throwing in some strings for added personality. It's enough to make you wish the theme had been treated with such lush beauty the whole time. It's a pleasant listen, one that is easy to recommend based on its laid-back atmosphere, but one can't help but feel that it never quite reaches the heights it could have with a more varied arrangement.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of five)

Now available via digital download from Varese Sarabande.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Ten Best Animated Films of 2016

Say what you want about 2016, it was a fantastic year for animation. I was continually impressed by the quality of the animated films this year, with several contending for ten best films of the year, period. Here are the ten that stuck with me the most.

1
KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
(Laika)

Every now and then, a film comes along that restores your faith in the art of filmmaking itself. After a long, dreary slog of a summer movie season, along comes KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, a breath of fresh air that isn't just the best animated film 2016 has produced so far, it's one of the finest films of the year, period. Produced by Laika studios (which also gave us such fantastic films as CORALINE and PARANORMAN), there have been few mainstream, widely released films this year that have been so thrillingly original, so wondrously crafted, or so deeply engaging as KUBO.

It often feels as if a legend is being born before our eyes, as young Kubo, a boy with only one eye, is sent on a quest for three pieces of sacred armor - a quest on which his father died many years before. Pursued by his two evil aunts and his diabolical grandfather, the Moon King, and with only a cursed beetle warrior and a talking monkey for company, Kubo must rely on his wits and his skill with magical origami to stop his evil family from stealing his one good eye, and returning him to their celestial kingdom, where he will be blind to the suffering of the world.

You'll find no instantly dated pop culture references, bodily humor, or current pop songs here, as are so often present in many contemporary animated films. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS focuses on storytelling and character, crafting an epic tale like no other. It also has a depth that few children's films ever touch. Kubo's grandfather is a god-like creature who has deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering of the world, writing it off as a dark and terrible place, insisting this his family remove themselves from it, forbidding all emotional involvement. In that way, KUBO is one of the most indelible rebukes of Trump-ian cynicism and isolationism that I've seen in a long time. While not a political film by any means, it is a celebration of a beautifully flawed world, of hope, family, and that which unites us, as well as a repudiation of negativity, division, and fear. It is a film that feels timeless, but one with a message that resonates in our current political climate with a loud and clear cry for optimism. You'll find no trace of cynicism or irony here. Instead, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is a warm-hearted and throughly entertaining surprise, a rollicking adventure that is one of the most unique and creative animated films to come along in a very long time.

2
YOUR NAME
(Funimation)

When a once-in-a-millennium comet passes by the Earth, a young man and a young woman who have never met awake one morning to find that they are trading lives in their dreams. As they live each other's lives, improving them as they go, they begin to fall in love, until a cosmic tragedy threatens to tear them apart forever.

Makoto Shinkai's YOUR NAME is a dazzling, heart-stopping, altogether wonderful film. It is a love story like no other, a breathtakingly animated tale of two seemingly unconnected people who have been searching for each other without ever knowing it. Shinkai's take on dreams, destiny, and the mysterious nature of love is a unique vision all its own, one that never loses sight of its emotional core even as its time-jumping plot becomes more and more complex. YOUR NAME is like a dream, a rapturous, haunting dream from which I never wanted to wake. Say what you want about 2016 - it was an incredible year for animation.

3
MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI
(GKIDS)

MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI may have an unusual title, but it might be the most unexpectedly emotionally devastating film I've seen this year.  It's the story of a boy nicknamed Zucchini, who is sent to an orphanage after the accidental death of his abusive mother. Teased and alone at first, he soon finds himself ingratiating himself to the other children, each the product of neglect, abuse, and broken homes. Everything changes, however, when a girl shows up at the orphanage, whose abusive aunt is determined to adopt her in order to receive a stipend from the state. 

It's all very serious subject matter for an animated film, but it is all handled so beautifully by director Claude Barras. The screenplay absolutely nails the children's dialogue and worldview, even though the children have seen such horrors, they remain absolutely authentic. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI tackles the horrors head-on, but with a sense of child-like innocence that never feels fake or heavy-handed. It is a story about growing up in an imperfect world filled with pain, but finds a beautiful silver lining in a dark, dark cloud. A sensitive, astute, and wholly disarming, MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI is a marvelous work of art, a portrait of broken childhood that is as heartbreaking as it is uplifting. Bring a tissue. On second thought, bring a whole box.

4
THE RED TURTLE
(Studio Ghibli)

A castaway who finds himself on a deserted island with only fiddler crabs for company, is suddenly visited by a mysterious red turtle who thwarts his attempts to escape the island. Enraged, he kills the turtle, only to have it turn into a beautiful woman, whom he marries and builds a life on their tiny little island at the edge of the world.

Evocatively animated and dialogue-free, Studio Ghibli's THE RED TURTLE is pure magic, a deeply moving fable about the beauty of a life well lived. It occasionally feels like a short film that has been dragged out a bit too long, but it soon recovers and delivers a truly moving emotional sucker punch. There is just something about its painterly images, combined with the lush score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, that makes the film such a mystical wonder. It's almost as if we're watching a life flash before someone's eyes, a series of moments in a young family's life, filled with laughter, pain, and most of all, love. That may sound a bit hokey, but there is nothing hokey about THE RED TURTLE, a rich and deeply moving work of art that stands as one of the year's finest pieces of animation.

5
ZOOTOPIA
(Disney)

Disney tackles racism and prejudice in a surprisingly smart way in their latest animated feature, ZOOTOPIA, which follows a provincial rabbit named Judy Hopps who dreams of being the first rabbit to ever become a big city cop in Zootopia - a city where predators and prey now live in harmony, having overcome their historic differences. Raised with a mistrust of foxes, she goes on to accidentally befriend a streetwise hustler named Nick Wild, who also just so happens to be a fox. Tasked with solving a recent rash of disappearances, Judy inadvertently stokes a fear of predators into a city that is predominantly prey. When she uncovers a plot to demonize predators and sew fear in the hearts of the majority, only she and her new friend, Nick, can set things right.

It's a heavy topic for a film aimed at kids, but it treats it with a surprising about of dignity and respect. ZOOTOPIA is also Disney's most charming, non-Pixar film since TANGLED (sorry FROZEN). It presents us with a world that mirrors our own, and one can't help but hear the rhetoric of Donald Trump echoing through the goals of the ultimate villain (who I won't reveal here), trying to stoke fear of "otherness" in order to inflame and unite the majority. No other major animated film has so indelibly and directly tackled racism as ZOOTOPIA, and it does so without feeling like a finger wagging lecture. This is a movie with heart, a movie with brains, a clever and incisive piece of entertainment that presents a striking portrait of our own world in ways that are easily digestible for children without being patronizing. It's a real winner.

6
FINDING DORY
(Disney/Pixar)

There are few animated films that have reached the popular and cultural heights of Disney/Pixar's FINDING NEMO. The breakaway star of that film was, of course, Ellen Degeneres' forgetful blue tang fish, Dory, whose mantra "just keep swimming" went on to become an iconic catchphrase.

It's surprising, then, that it has taken 13 years for Pixar to deliver a sequel, especially considering there have been a third sequel to TOY STORY, a MONSTERS, INC. sequel, and one much maligned CARS sequel in the time since FINDING NEMO was released. 

Thankfully, the long-awaited follow-up, FINDING DORY, turned out to be worth the wait. The new film shifts its focus from clown fish Nemo and his dad, Marlin, and onto everyone's favorite sufferer of short-term memory loss. Dory is one of those rare comic supporting characters capable of headlining her own film, never wearing out her welcome or descending into mere shtick. In fact, through FINDING DORY, Dory becomes an even more fully developed character in her own right.

The film introduces us to young Dory, perhaps the most adorable baby fish this side of the Great Barrier Reef, whose forgetful nature leads her to wander away from home, then forget that her parents ever existed. Prompted by her adventures with Nemo and Marlin, she begins to remember parts of her roots, and heads off on a journey across the ocean to put together the pieces. Along the way, she meets a nearly blind whale named Destiny, a grumpy (and stunningly animated) octopus named Hank, who just wants to get to Cleveland and be left alone, and a host of other sea critters who help her on her quest to rediscover her roots, and remember who she really is.

Like FINDING NEMO before it, FINDING DORY heavily explores the idea of home and what that means to different people. Ultimately, it's not just Dory's family who represents home, but Marlin and Nemo as well. Home is where we belong; our chosen family, not just our blood family, and FINDING DORY manages to take those themes that were first explored in FINDING NEMO and give them an even deeper resonance. That's the hallmark of a great sequel - it expands, rather than repeat itself, it goes deeper, rather than merely treading water. It's also every bit as funny as the original, even if it doesn't quite hit the same emotional highs. Still, while it might not be a ten hankie weepie the way some Pixar films are, it's still a crackerjack sequel that doesn't rely simply on nostalgia for its meaning. Even Thomas Newman's score mostly ignores the iconic piano melody from the first film, replacing it with lovely new thematic material representing Dory's adventure. 

Degeneres is as charming as ever as the beloved Dory, giving the film an energetic yet emotionally grounded center that remains one of Pixar's most indelible creations. FINDING DORY is a worthy follow-up to FINDING NEMO, a warm, big-hearted sequel that takes everything we loved about its predecessor, and crafts a fresh new adventure that feels every bit as spirited and beguiling as its predecessor did 13 years ago.

7
MOANA
(Disney)

Based on Polynesian mythology, MOANA is the tale of the daughter of an island chieftain who sets out on a quest to save her people by finding the lost demigod, Maui, in order to restore the heart of an ancient island, whose disappearance has put a curse on the local tribes. 

Under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker, MOANA becomes one of Disney's strongest animated musicals in years, thanks to glorious new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina. They may not be as readily hummable as some of the studio's classics, but they're easily some of the most lyrically graceful in the entire Disney canon. It's also one of the most stunningly animated films  the studios has ever made, coming alive with vibrant color at every turn. 

It's interesting that Disney has moved away from tales featuring conventional villains, often taking a less black and white view of the world. From BRAVE to MALEFICENT to FROZEN, Disney continues to showcase strong women without the need for a love interest or a conventionally evil force. The "villains" of Disney's contemporary works are less evil and more misunderstood, people and beings who are just misguided or suffering in ways that the hero needs to understand. It's a more complex view of the world, but one that I think strengthens its young viewers world views, even if I miss the great Disney villains of old.

8
SAUSAGE PARTY
(Columbia)

Seth Rogen and team take on Pixar in this bawdy, profane, and altogether riotous animated comic satire about foodstuffs whose ideas of life after the grocery store ("the great beyond") are shattered when they discover their true purpose. SAUSAGE PARTY is a gleefully blasphemous allegorical take on faith, organized religion, and the search for meaning, as the characters discover that their belief in an afterlife was created to assuage their fear of death. 

Bitingly funny and unrepentantly vulgar, SAUSAGE PARTY is a wildly original and irreverent work of animated anarchy that has a surprisingly layered take on issues of faith and fact (and the sometimes inherent need for both). It often becomes enamored with its own obscenity, but when the satire is this sharp, and Alan Menken's self-parodic music is so good, it's hard to ignore the intelligence at the heart of its crudeness.

9
MISS HOKUSAI
(GKIDS)

An animated biopic of O-Ei Hokusai, daughter of legendary artist Tetsuzo Hokusai, MISS HOKUSAI is a gorgeously rendered tale of a woman who struggled to make her own living as an artist in the shadow of her famous father, often painting works under his name without credit. 

While the supernatural elements that skirt the edges of the film never really come together in a satisfying way, it's hard to ignore the elegant beauty of this film, and its lovely blending of modern and classical sensibilities. Yet those elements are an important part of its exploration of an artist's vision, and the importance of creating a complete work of art. Director Keiichi Hara uses abstraction to take us inside Hokusai's mind, allowing us to see the artistic process from beginning to end, separating great art from the poseurs. At times, it almost feels like an animated Mizoguchi film in its portrayal of a strong woman's societal plight. It may not have a strong plot, but Hara seems content to focus on character details. It honestly feels like no other animated film I've ever seen, taking its beats and cues with a laid back sense of time and place, revealing in the small moments rather than the big picture. It's a small scale, quietly powerful triumph.

10
KUNG FU PANDA 3
(Dreamworks)

Po is back, and this time facing a supernatural threat from the spirit world - a former partner of Master Oogway who has returned from beyond the grave to take the Chi from all the kung fu masters in revenge for an ancient grudge.

While not quite as good as its predecessors (what threequel ever is?), KUNG FU PANDA 3 is still a surprisingly strong and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At first it feels like its back tracking on the lessons Po learned in KUNG FU PANDA 2, but it soon becomes a moving exploration on identity, and what it means to be a family. Director Jennifer Yuh has done a fantastic job of steering this franchise into emotionally grounded territory, rather than rely on overly self-reflexive or pop culture references for humor. 

In KUNG FU PANDA 2, Po learned that he didn't need to rely on his past for his identity. Now that Po has found his panda family, it allows Yuh to explore themes of recognizing culture and tradition while forging your own identity. These are surprisingly strong, but incredibly relevant themes for a kids movie, and Yuh continues to relay them with humor and grace. KUNG FU PANDA 3 lets kids know that it's OK if your family doesn't look like the traditional model - that your family is what you make it. It's OK to have two dads, even if one of them is a goose. There are a lot going on in these films, and even if some of the jokes are beginning to feel tired in their third iteration, there's enough here to keep things fresh and bring the series to an entertaining and heartwarming conclusion.

Also strong, but just missed the top ten:
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS