Saturday, December 19, 2009

MFA moves to St Anthony Main

As the Minnesota Film Arts attempts to warm the cockles of our hearts for the holidays with its annual screening of Ronia, the Robber's Daughter, the real news is that it will more than likely be the last film screened at the Oak Street Cinema. As announced in an e-mail newsletter that went out to MFA members on Friday as well as an article in the Star Tribune, MFA is moving to St Anthony Main. They have relocated their offices to 125 SE Main Street (right next to the Theater) in anticipation that they will program at least one screen in the theater starting mid-January. No word on programming specifics at this point, but in the Star Tribune piece MFA board member Tim Grady implied that they intend on filling the gaps of first run features that don't get picked up by Landmark.

I, for one, sincerely hope that is the case. As much as I love repertory cinema, it is a crime how many high profile, mostly international, first run films never make it to the Twin Cities. If you need examples, two films that are sure to top many end of the year lists (including my own) that never had a chance in the Twin Cities were 35 Shots of Rum and The Headless Woman.(Coincidentally both female directors...?) In my very humble movie going opinion, this is the one area where our fair city truly lacks. Although the Walker fills in many of the important gaps, other than Landmark, no one else consistently covers the arthouse/international/independent film scene.

Ticket pricing and convenient parking at St Anthony Main Theater will apply to all shows and MFA members will still enjoy $5 ticket prices across the board. Until then, close out the year with Ronia and say goodbye to the Oak. Although no one is saying demolition in so many words, if you drive by (Lotus closed? Tsunami close?), it doesn't look good.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Home Movies - December (aka All I want for Christmas is a pile of DVDs)

Here's my best take on the best DVDs for the gift giving season. Lots of the choices below are Blu-Ray editions, so the number one gift for the movie hoarder is, if they don’t already have one, a Blu-Ray player. What remains is a list of (mostly) 2009 releases that are (mostly) available on Blu-Ray and hopefully covers just about any niche and budget you might have on your Christmas list. (For those keeping track, or dying to give me a Christmas gift, I've listed these how they appear on my priority list.)

AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa [Criterion]
If there is one set that is likely to be on every cinephile’s Christmas list this season, it is Criterion’s “AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa.” In celebration of the centenary of Kurosawa-san’s birth, Criterion has released a comprehensive a stylish set spanning 50 years of his career. Housed in an orange linen box, the set includes twenty-five films and a 96-page book with essays from Stephen Prince and Donald Richie. As one might expect, the bulk of the films are the Kurosawa Criterion classics that we all know and love, but it also includes four rare gems previously unreleased in the US: Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (1945), The Most Beautiful (1944) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945). All four were made in the very tender time at the end of the War and the beginning of Kurosawa work as a director. All of the films share Criterion’s high standard of quality, but contain no extras. (So hang on to all those Kurosawa two-disc sets.) The set may cost more than your average holiday gift—around $280—but it is sure to make that special someone very very happy.

Ray Harryhausen Collection [Sony]
The godfather of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen brought the impossible to life with his intricate models and keen sense of motion. The tactility of his creatures simply has no match. I grew up watching these films on TV, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there nostalgic about seeing Cyclopes, skeletons and dinosaurs come to life on the big screen. This four-disc Blu-Ray set includes four of Harryhausen’s most iconic films from the 1950s: It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucer (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Because shooting in black and white was always a budgetary constraint that Harryhausen regretted, Sony has taken the time, under Harryhausen’s supervision, to colorize the first three films and offering them in their original black and white or in vibrant color. Care has also gone into compiling almost 12 hours of extra material spread out over the four discs, including new commentaries for each film with Harryhausen and a special effects artist working in the industry today. This set came out late last year, but on the eve of the Clash of the Titans remake, its time to show the kids what special effects are all about.

Walden (1970) Directed by Jonas Mekas [Microcinema]
For the cineaste with more eccentric taste, there is Jonas Mekas’ film diary Walden, an invaluable attribute to American avant-garde filmmaking. Released last month and available for the first time, Walden is a lyrical three-hour portrait of the New York underground film scene. Mekas was at the very heart of a vital film scene that has now become as iconic as Andy Warhol’s Factory. Shot between 1964-68, Walden is nothing less than a visual poem documenting the time, place and people in contemporary art’s fragile history. The two DVD set is accompanied by a foldout poster and a 150-page book with annotations on every scene by Mekas and a host of other people involved with the film. The price tag may seem a bit steep, but for the right person on your list, this set is a treasure.

Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set [Fox]
Yet another set from 2008, but this massively important set of previously unavailable F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage films bears mentioning again and again. The box includes six silent films (two from Murnau and four from Borzage) and six early talkies from Borzage in the very early years of William Fox’s film studio. Murnau may seem under-represented in the set, but his influence looms large, especially on Borzage. Watching these films today, even the talkies, highlights the lost art of visual storytelling. The main extra feature is the 90-minute documentary from which the set gets its name that tells the financial and artistic story of these three men. (Note: Murnau’s Sunrise, probably the highlight of this set, is available in a region free 2-disc Blu-Ray set from the UK, well worth those expensive British pounds.)

North by Northwest (50th Anniversary) (1959) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Warner]
Who wouldn’t want this pristine 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition of North by Northwest? Warner reportedly spent $1 million on a digital restoration meant to convince everyone, even the most resolute digital curmudgeon, that classics can look awesome on Blu-Ray. Arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, North by Northwest has it all: action, romance, mystery and unmatched style with the aid of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The Blu-Ray comes packed in the Digibook case with 43-pages of photos, factoids and analysis. Warner has carried over some of the special features from the 2000 DVD including an audio commentary by late screenwriter Ernest Lehman and a behind-the-scenes documentary, but they also pony up with some brand new features: an hour-long documentary titled The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style and a half-hour featurette North by Northwest: One for the Ages.

Essential Art House, Vol. 1-4 [Criterion]
Criterion continues to release portions of its behemoth 50 Years of Janus Films set for those of us with more modest means. (The original, still available, is a whopping 50 DVD set for $650.) Starting late last year, the films have been portioned out singly and in eclectic groups of six—the sets playfully juxtapose Kurosawa with Truffaut, Wajda with Fellini and Polanski with Cocteau, just to name a few. Billed as the “must-own fundamentals” of film, the Essential Art House offers a perfect introduction or a faithful memento to some of the greatest films ever made.

The Samuel Fuller Collection [Sony]
Sam Fuller was above all an accomplished director, but Sony’s seven–disc collection sets out to celebrate Fuller the writer, who had a knack for capturing characters filled with American idealism and bravado. The box set, released in October, includes two films that Fuller directed—The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld USA (1961)—two that he scripted—It Happened in Hollywood (1937) and Shockproof (1949)—and three based on his stories—Adventure in Sahara (1938), The Power of the Press (1943), and Scandal Sheet (1952). Although most have heard of those first two films, the other five fall well below the radar. Like a brilliantly curated series juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure, the set is bound to contain some discoveries regarding one of the most iconoclastic American directors. Put this under the tree with Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller and you are on your way to turning someone into a Fuller film scholar.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) Directed by Quentin Tarantino [Universal]
Sure to top year-end lists around the globe, the 2-disc release of this revisionist, cinematic magnum opus is a no-brainer gift. Released this month, the set is chock full of odd and interesting extras, but nothing nearly as meaty as the film itself. Quentin Tarantino has proved me wrong and outdone himself by perfectly balancing his bloated ego with indelible scripting, perceptive casting and encyclopedic knowledge of film. A pastiche masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, with or without the Academy, is the film of 2009.

: Director’s Cut and The Ultimate Cut (2009) Directed by Zack Snyder [Warner]
If there is a Watchmen fan on your list, there are two Blu-Ray versions of this niche film to choose from: the 2 disc “Director’s Cut” released earlier this year and the 5 disc “Ultimate Cut” released last month. Although the two sets have some overlap in special features, they each contain enough unique material to justify both. The Director’s Cut package includes Zack Snyder’s 186-minute version of the film and a behind-the-scenes tour and commentary of the film called "Maximum Movie Mode." Snyder enthusiastically leads you through scenes and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world big-budget special effects. The Ultimate Cut is a 215-minute version of the film that incorporates portions of the animated story The Black Freighter with the director’s cut making it a very long-winded for-fans-only epic. New extra features to be found on the Ultimate Cut include separate commentaries from Snyder and Dave Gibbons and a two disc animated version of the graphic novel. For the geek we know and love.

Up (4 Disc Combo Pack) (2009) Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson [Disney]
Speaking of films of the year, Up is likely to be the animated film of the year both in the hearts of the masses and the academy. Disney understands that most kids will have a Blu-Ray player, a laptop or DVD player in the car and a PSP, and they package this set with every possible format that they would need. To make the deal even more sweet, there is also a disc packed with extras that will keep kids and adults alike busy for hours.

Other sets perfect for gift-giving that have been covered in previous columns: The Wizard of Oz and The Human Condition (September), Icons of Screwball Comedy and Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection (August), Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (May) and damn near anything you can find on the Criterion Collection website.

(Originally published on In Review Online.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Friendly Fires w/ The xx: Live @ The Triple Rock

November 30, 2009

When it comes to new bands, spontaneous ticket buying hasn’t always worked to my advantage. Somewhere between compulsion and reality, a band’s stock can drop like a rock either on a personal level or in the eyes of the masses. So back in August when Sam C. Mac at In Review Online was going on about sliced bread and a new band called The xx, I noticed that said band had just been booked for the end of November with The Friendly Fires at the Triple Rock. I picked up a ticket (and the album) only to get distracted and forget all about it. When the show was announced as sold out, and I initially cursed myself for not buying a ticket only to realize that my spontaneity had paid off this time. Almost behind my back, The xx blew up into one of the hottest tickets around, flooding the indie rock music scene with warm fuzzy excitement as well as tongue-clicking controversy when, after reportedly playing “approximately” 300 gigs at CMJ, they canceled some shows and lost a member due to “exhaustion.”

The Triple Rock is a small catchall club that hosts just about any kind of band that fits under the broad label of rock. It’s a self-service joint where you stand alongside band members at the bar buying cheap PBR before they scurry on stage to facilitate breakdown and set up of their own equipment. I show up shortly after doors opened ready to see a line formed outside the door for the highly anticipated opening band. The first surprise as I rounded the corner is there is no line, but my second surprise is the two massive tour buses parked outside that stretch far beyond the length of the club. Once inside, I noticed that stage right (near an exit door where the buses hummed) had been taped off for “staff only.” It was clear that The xx had no intention of making use of the Triple Rock’s modest facilities or cheap PBRs and planned on staying on their bus until show time. Most of the equipment for both bands had been set up: The xx gear crowded to one side of the stage and the Friendly Fires on the other side, partially covered with a tarp.

Set times were listed as 9pm for The xx and 10pm for The Friendly Fires, and as the clock edges closer to launch, the club fills. One of the band’s crew puts out set lists and tunes the guitars and a freelance photographer for Spin works possible angles behind me. Finally, the lights came down and the trio takes the stage with no fanfare of their own. Decked out in all black, The xx, visibly serious and focused, are not so much somber as they are low-key, with very little expression or acknowledgment of the audience. Given their age and the chaos that has surrounded them in the past few months, it is hard not to read into their subdued character. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim take the front of the stage with Jamie Smith situated just behind them with his synthesizer and keyboard set up on two box stands with a lit up “x” on each one. The lighting at the Triple Rock is pretty rudimentary, but this was absurd: whether by accident or design, the three members are almost entirely in the dark except when Sim moves up to the mic and catches the edge of a spotlight.

The xx don’t exactly have a sound that is new, but it is undeniably fresh. The atmospheric music and the languid vocals traded between Crofts and Sims has a dreamy, if not a little bittersweet, nostalgia that pulls you in. They roll into “Intro” and then straight into “VCR,” the first two tracks off their album. There is an added layer of irony when Croft sings “I think we’re superstars,” but she gives little notice to it, irreverent in what I read as concentration, not apathy. Listening to the songs live, I realize how openly they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves—“Shelter” nearly breaks your heart with its candidness. Four songs into their set I am surprised at how good they sound for a band that recently lost one member. That thought no more than crossed my mind when Sim steps up to the mic, addressing the audience for the first time, and says, “We only recently became a three piece, so we might fuck this one up.” The song he is talking about is “Crystalised,” one that prominently showcases what was probably the duel guitars of Croft and now x-member Baria Qureshi. Sure enough, they start the song only to stop and have to restart. There is no improvising here, but once they get started it sounds better than most live renditions of songs. They float through eight songs ending their very short 40-minute set with “Infinity” and a finale that includes Sims grabbing some drumsticks and working a personal moment of catharsis on the one symbol they have set up in front of Smith. And then, poof! They were gone. Back on the bus, probably looking at the map for the next gig.

About a third of the crowd leaves while The Friendly Fires set up the rest of their gear and spreading out onto the entire stage. My introduction to The Friendly Fires had only come a couple hours ago as I lingered on their MySpace page and listened to the songs they had to offer. The dance rock songs sounded good to me, and I am ready to stick around and give them a listen. What I am not ready for is the band coming on stage like a crazed three-man party. As soon as drummer Jack Savidge starts banging out the beats, lead singer Ed MacFarlane starts gyrating, cutting a rug like nobody’s business. For a moment, everyone, who had just been lulled into a state of tranquility by The xx, is in shock. MacFarlane is shaking his money-maker like no other performer I have seen, with Savidge and guitarist Edd Gibson exerting their own rabid energy into their instruments. I couldn’t find much compulsion to move myself, nor could most of the audience and MacFarlane chides us for it: “Come on! It’s like a library out there.” Despite the fact that there are some very enthusiast fans willing to please, no one in the house is going to win a dance off against MacFarlane. A bass, a sax and a horn fills out their raucous melodies. At one point, Gibson picks up what I think is a blender and uses it on his guitar. The Friendly Fires finish their set, barely going longer than The xx, but they cap it off with a lively encore.

The Friendly Fires’ energy is somewhat lost on me as someone not familiar with their songs, and they just leave me feeling worn out, but I am left with a lasting impression of The xx. It is hard to guess what the future hold for this young band and their short but solid set yielded few clues, but I hardly see them burning out or fading away any time soon. One thing is clear if you have looked at The xx’s tour schedule for the next few months: the three members left are not daunted by exhaustion. Literally hours before the sold out show at the Triple Rock, it was announced that The xx would be back in the Twin Cities in April, at a slightly larger and nicer venue, as headliners with jj—yet another ticket that will be hard to pass up.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Adrián Biniez's GIGANTE (2009)

There is something patronizing about the categorical term “festival film”—it immediately pigeonholes the film as one with very limited audience appeal. Festival films are usually from countries with little or no film industry and they are almost always slow moving character driven dramas. In other words, a “festival film” is the antithesis of a “Hollywood film,” and that's not such a bad thing. Gigante, a small film from Uruguay, is just such a film. It is as unsurprising as it is charming, and will never find a fair playing field in a world where blockbusters, no matter how bad they are, rule. But just imagine if, for every two big budget blockbuster, there was one international indie in your local Cineplex. In my perfect world it wouldn’t be either or; in my perfect world a film like Gigante would play right next to 2012. Together both of these films would seem fresh, but tossed in a box with their own breed they lose their individuality. Argentinean director Adrián Biniez is resolute in giving Gigante individuality through subtlety and sensitivity in an otherwise predictable film.

Jara is a universal stereotype of a misunderstood gentle giant—far smarter and kinder than he looks. He works the nightshift as a security guard in a large supermarket. He is uninterested in the nominal pastimes of his co-workers, preferring to keep to himself with a book or a crossword puzzle. As if subconsciously aware that his mundane life threatens to suffocate him, Jara takes note of a cleaning woman working at the supermarket. His interest turns to obsession as watches her on the closed-circuit security cameras and eventually starts following her outside of work. Her unique hobbies—karate, horror films, heavy metal—fascinate Jara, but the one-sided relationship teeters on the edge of possessive, unhealthy and, yes, a little creepy. Once his jealousy takes hold, Jara becomes a man that even he does not recognize.

Mountains will not be moved by this film, but its humanistic foundation should not be underestimated. Jara, thoughtfully played by Horacio Camandule, is a sympathetic anti-hero that we identify with immediately. Shot entirely from his perspective, Gigante forces us to walk in his shoes. The object of his obsession, Julia, is as much a mystery to us as she is to him. Although the film is slow paced, it is also very short. When things start to go awry, it is thankfully not drawn out into melodramatic overkill or nauseating fairytale. The simplistic moral to the story: if there is someone you like, don't fret, just say ‘hi.’

(This review was originally publish on In Review Online. Gigante opened in NYC a couple weeks ago and is available through Film Movement.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Alexander Sokurov's THE SUN

(Although Alexander Sokurov's The Sun (2004) has made the rounds at a handful of North American film festivals, it is only now receiving a far overdue short run in NYC. It came out on DVD in the UK over three years ago and, by converting my hard earned dollars into expensive British pounds, I had the opportunity to see this film at that time. In preparation to review the film for In Review Online, I recently rewatched The Sun (about the exonerated Japanese Emperor Hirohito) coincidentally coinciding with the closing arguments in the trial of Kaing Guek Eav. Better known as Comrade Duch, he ran the Khmer Rouge's horrific Tuol Sleng prison where thousands died and thousands more were tortured. The specifics of Hirohito and Duch's cases are not comparable for many reasons, but I couldn't help thinking about Hirohito when I listened to Duch docile testimony before the court. Hirohito ambiguous complicity in the film will be felt more by some than by others, but is, without a doubt a looming cloud over the sublime The Sun.)

Few films can boast agile simplicity in the same breath as opulent complexity, but it is something Alexander Sokurov has a knack for and it comes to a full crescendo in his film The Sun. Sokurov, best known for his one shot wonder Russian Ark, draws an intimate portrait of controversial an eccentric Emperor Hirohito in the waning days of World War II. Emperor Hirohito (more accurately referred to as Emperor Showa) reigned longer than any other Japanese emperor and did so during what was arguably the most tumultuous time in Japanese history, with WWII right at the heart of it. His dubious involvement in decision-making before and during the War is still a matter that is hotly debated. The fact that the Hirohito emerges from the War relatively unscathed due to His Majesty the Emperor’s cunning adaptability is a trait that Sokurov seizes upon with ironic sympathy. Illusively caught between guilt and innocence, Emperor Hirohito’s complicity is a puzzle that not only troubled MacArthur and the Allies, but also continues to draw contention in almost every corner of the discussion today.

The third film in Sokurov’s trilogy 'on the corrupting effects of power' (Moloch on Hitler and Taurus on Lenin being the first and second), the film’s title alludes to the mythology that the Emperor is a descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Situated in those few days between the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the eventual surrender speech by the Emperor, The Sun vividly portrays the pensive Emperor’s fall from grace within the peaceful eye of the storm. Equal parts speculation and documented fact, the film stays sequestered with the Emperor in his palace as he is given the luxury analyze defeat through fanciful means of botany and poetry. Over the 110-minute duration of the film, the steady hand that holds imperial tradition slowly falls away as the end of the War (and Hirohito’s circumstantial transformation from god to man) becomes nothing less than inevitable. After being ceremoniously served breakfast down in his bunker, the Emperor is presented with his leisurely daily schedule. In a response that is neither bitter nor anxious but tinged with sarcastic humor, Hirohito says, “And if the Americans should show up here, what will happen to the day’s schedule? Will you make some changes, or leave it as it is?” The servants shrink from his question. The Americans do show up, of course, and Hirohito’s schedule was changed in the course of Japanese history. In a series of meetings with General MacArthur that were instrumental in Hirohito’s exoneration, Hirohito approaches the task of defeat with the seriousness of an intellectual but a curiosity of a child.

In a reality where an individual need not think about such perfunctory things as buttoning a shirt or opening a door, Sokurov postulates the resulting personality born into Hirohito—one with little or no connection to hardship, let alone war or the fervent patriotism and mass destruction that the entire population of Japan was toiling with. Sokurov takes license to imagine how Hirohito’s protected intellect would distill the violence of the fire-bombings of Tokyo into a vision of fantasy where flying fish inhabit the blaze-ridden airspace as bombers. The nightmare serves as a compare and contrast with a later scene where Hirohito is escorted by car to his first meeting with MacArthur through the heart of bombed out Tokyo that is almost as surreal as Hirohito’s dream.

Sokurov is less interested in history than it is the context, both past and present, of the central character. In more of a study than a critique, The Sun has the audacity to feign judgment of Hirohito (normally characterized as demon or puppet), and allows Hirohito to make his argument, quite literally, that he is human like everyone else. Stage actor Issey Ogata, who plays Hirohito, has the impossible task of portraying a man caught physically and emotionally in a realm that is not occupied by mere mortals. His portrayal of the Emperor is laden with oddities and ticks that are so strange that have to be based in fact. His mouth twitches and purses almost obscenely and he caries himself in such a way that makes him seem almost otherworldly. Ogata’s performance may be one of the most sublime physical feats ever to be put to film. The quiet moments where people patiently wait for the Emperor speak or finish a thought under the eerie auspices of Ogata’s guise and Andrey Sigle’s sound design—which alternates between sounding like cicadas, white noise, and strings—creates an undulating tension with little or no release.

The Sun is an uncharacteristic look at a historical juggernaut that uses contradictions to cast an idiosyncratic spell. Taking its substance from the dimly lit inertia of a bunker, the film builds a world of mysterious ambiguities where a man can be a god and a demon and a human. Sokurov works as both director and cinematographer and gives The Sun a bleached out antiquity that visually accentuates the dimness of the interiors as well as the searing light of sun. Near the end of the film, it seems as though Sokurov is going to allow for a finale with a small note of tenderness. Empress Kojun joins Emperor Hirohito shortly after his unconditional surrender of Japan’s military forces. The Emperor immediately relaxes in the presence of his wife, a person who understands him and the unpredictable situation, and the two share the film’s only warm recognition of joy and sadness. Just as quickly however, this ‘happy ending’ comes to a close when it is revealed that the man who taped the Emperor’s surrender speech has committed suicide under the shame of defeat. This is the where the film depressively sinks to a brilliant non-conformist end with innuendos lingering on the faces of the Emperor, Empress and servant like an albatross of an unknown future.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Home Movies - November

Buckets of good stuff for November and quite a few that didn't make this list: Up, Wings of Desire, North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary, Food Inc., Lake Tahoe and Evangelion 1.01: You Are (Not) Alone. Here's the nine that did make the list along with my arguments/persuasions for each:

The Golden Age of Television [Criterion]
There is quite a bit of talk these days regarding the quality of contemporary television. God knows, we have never had so many choices, ranging from the low-cost high-revenue of reality shows to top-notch drama that truly gives theatrical features a run for its money. If you think you have seen everything when it comes to television, maybe it’s time to check the archives. Criterion proves that there might be something to learn from television when it was in its infancy in “The Golden Age of Television.” Collecting eight “live American television plays” that originally aired in the 50s (and later presented on PBS in the early 80s), ‘The Golden Age’ is peppered with nostalgia, yet still feels innovative today. Each episode is stocked with actors who were then up-and-coming but who are now icons of both the big-screen and small-screen. Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Montgomery, Andy Griffith, Paul Newman, Jack Palance, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris and Piper Laurie are just a few of the fresh, and very familiar, faces. Housed on three DVDs, ‘The Golden Age’ also includes director commentaries on six of the eight episodes as well as interviews from the influential cast. With eight hours of content, this set is perfect for a snow day.

Gomorrah (2008) Directed by Matteo Garrone [Criterion]
Usually it is pretty easy to distinguish a narrative film from a non-narrative, but there are those rare exceptions that fall somewhere between the predictable and the experimental. “Gomorrah” is just such a film, unreeling violent action with little or no context. Even attempting to find continuity with characters is a dead end because their motives are random and incomprehensible and they are more than likely to end up dead in the next five minutes. Such is life in the Naples crime syndicate, the Camorra. Unlike most films that are adapted from books, Gomorrah takes a completely different approach to the material presented in Roberto Saviano’s bestseller of the same name. Saviano’s shocking personal account of the Camorra is a mind-boggling whirlwind of facts and details. Matteo Garrone takes the facts and creates raw visual with no grounding, almost as if to say that the literal facts really don’t matter. Although Criterion’s release does not have the Garrone/Saviano commentary I had been hoping for, it does include interviews with Garrone and Saviano, as well as actor Tony Servillo.

The Exiles (1961) Directed by Kent Mackenzie [Milestone]
The Exiles is no Killer of Sheep (both products of Milestone Film’s hard work), but it is an artful document of a time and place that received a long overdue theatrical release last year. Set in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles shortly before it was razed, The Exiles is a gritty realistic portrait of modern Native American life. Director Kent Mackenzie shot the film in collaboration with his nonprofessional actors, which resulted in an immediate, street-wise feel. This night-in-the-life captures the aimlessness, celebration and sadness of the moment and never collapses into melodrama. Beautifully shot, the film has been restored to perfection with the velvety shadows and sparkling lights of 1960 LA coming to life. Milestone spared no detail in the release of the two-disc set, collecting all relevant artifacts in one package. This DVD is more of a resource than a rental, filled with short films, interviews, a commentary and even downloadable PDF files.

Ballast (2008) Directed by Lance Hammer [Kino]
One of the big buzz films of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Ballast was unable to maintain the high and slowly faded from the forefront. Although it received great critical acclaim, it was unable to draw upon the average moviegoer. Lance Hammer builds a powerful character driven drama about life on the margins from a cast of non-professional actors. Lawrence is a middle-aged man internally struggling with the recent suicide of his brother. As life goes on, almost against Lawrence’s will, he is jarred from his depression by his 12-year-old nephew who is teetering on the edge of a life of violence. Set in the Mississippi Delta, Ballast is a subtle film focusing on the quiet details of human nature that never feels forced or contrived. It is unfortunate that Ballast did not get a more fair shake in the movie marketplace, because it was easily one of the best films of 2008.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008) Directed by Gini Reticker [Passion River]
Hardly a week passes without hearing about yet another devastating account of how the idealistic notion that people have the power is quashed by the tyranny of government (even our own.) But Pray the Devil Back to Hell restores some faith. After years of civil unrest in Liberia, ordinary women from all walks of life bravely stood up to the type of forces that could have totally wiped them out. Committed to peace, these women stood up to reigning warlord Charles Taylor (and his child army) to eventually change the course of history, leading to Taylor’s exile and election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Perhaps aware of the extraordinary nature of the story, director Gini Reticker takes the most conventional approach possible to this documentary. Allowing the interviewees and archive footage speak for themselves, Reticker thankfully sees no need to embellish themes or drama in a portrait that is already crystal clear and unbelievably inspiring.

Thirst (2009) Directed by Park Chan-wook [Focus]
Park Chan-wook, no stranger to controversy, has once again divided audiences. But this time he does so, not with violence or divisive content—even though that is very much present—but with structured chaos: one person’s convoluted mess is another person’s brilliant design. I’m unwilling to commit to either one, but I will say that the structure is very unique. It spirals, generally in one direction, like the wire binder in your notebook only stretched out beyond the normal length. Minor plot motifs loop around with some resolution only to engage in another minor storyline. Themes and analogies are left dangling as the film moves at a swift and mysterious pace. Thirst is a vampire movie, but said vampire is a priest, his ‘vampirism’ is contracted in Africa from a blood transfusion, and his lines of morality continually shift. Park’s biggest failure is giving us too much to chew on and far too much to digest in one sitting. If you are a fan of the film, it might be best to wait for the Korean import. Focus puts zero effort into the Thirst DVD, which is too bad because they probably could have recouped some of their investment in a smartly packaged DVD. Proving just how schizophrenic US studios are, Park’s films have garnered elaborate 3-disc sets (Oldboy) to no release at all (I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay) to an early but nonetheless bare bones Thirst DVD.

The Limits of Control (2009) Directed by Jim Jarmusch [Focus]
Jim Jarmusch’s latest offering may be more style than substance, but it is a style worth celebrating. The Limits of Control is brilliantly surreal within the very rational boundaries of cinematic iconography: an action film with no action; a mystery with no answer; a means with no ends. Isaach De Bankolé, a nameless man for hire, does not so much play a character in the film more than he acts as a vessel—for ideas and curiosities of the world, but more importantly for cinematic ideals and the very practical application of creativity and the imagination. The eclectic cast lights up what would otherwise seem esoteric and rudimentary including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt and Alex Descas. The Limits may not be one of the best films of the year, but it is certainly one of the more interesting ones. The DVD includes a 50-minute documentary shot while filming The Limits of Control titled Behind Jim Jarmusch full of tidbits like: “When you work with Chris Doyle, you carry a gun, and you feel like using it every other shot.” It includes many such off-the-cuff remarks from Jarmusch, random comments from cast and many scenes characterizing the mundane moments of making movie magic. There is also a mesmerizing four-minute montage of clips not used in the film called Untitled Landscapes.

Three Monkeys (2008) Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan [Zeitgeist]
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s sixth film and his third to have a relatively wide international release, Three Monkeys, proves that Ceylan is a chameleon within his own aesthetic. Far from the laconic poetry of Distant and the formal emoting of Climates, Three Monkeys cuts loose to explore more conventional tropes and brilliantly treads the edge of genre filmmaking. An accidental death sets in motion the upheaval of an already troubled family. Although Ceylan’s allusion to the Three Wise Monkeys clearly refers to the three members of the family, it is open ended to a more ironic interpretation. A certain amount of doom is felt in the foreboding but picturesque lighting where the grays seem to hang as heavy as the clouds. Taut and incredibly suspenseful, Three Monkeys vibrates from the energy of the performances, cinematography and Ceylan’s own incredible sense of timing. The DVD is nothing to get worked up about if you saw the film on the big screen; extras include an interview with Ceylan in the liner notes and trailers for Three Monkeys and Climates.

Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954 [Kino]
Kino devotedly keeps toiling away at the thankless but invaluable job of gathering innovative films that rarely have homes outside museum archives and specialty screenings. If Volume 1 and 2 in this series (release in 2005 and 2007 respectively) taught us anything, it was not to underestimate these innovative and relatively unknown filmmakers as experimentalists for experimental sake. “Avant-Garde 3” continues on that same path. These artists pushed the boundaries of the time-motion format that continues to challenge the conventions of film today. With over five hours of material spread over two DVDs, it presents 18 films from the collections of the George Eastman House and Raymond Rohauer that can thankfully play at a couch near you.

(Originally published on In Review Online.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

This turkey was not pardoned.

I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday weekend.
And for those who were involved in this turkey's demise, thanks for a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sufjan Stevens' THE BQE with DM Stith and Osso

(Originally published on In Review Online. The BQE screened in the Twin Cities on October 29 at the beautiful Southern Theater.)

Sufjan Stevens has recently broken out of his Brooklyn shell, and taken his show on the road in true cult art hero form. Playing a handful of very small shows (the one locally sold out in under three minutes online) stocked with new material, Stevens seems to be preparing to unveil something new. But not just yet. His second order of business is to wheel out his 2007 multimedia project, The BQE, in the form of a new CD release and a 13-city music film event. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE is a film meditation on the chaos and beauty of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The pre-packaged tour and release lacks some of the ceremony and the sight-specific context it has in Brooklyn, but is nonetheless a testament of what popular art can be.

Fortunately I had more than three minutes to buy tickets for the BQE stop in Minneapolis, but the show, with Stevens present to introduce the film, was sure to sell out. The three part show—including Asthmatic Kitty label mates DM Stith and Osso as well as a screening of The BQE—makes its stop at the Southern Theater, a 100 year old, 200 seat theater that hosts an eclectic mix of dance, performance and music. I get to the theater to pick up my tickets at will call having no idea what to expect from the evening. My first surprise is that I must have been ahead of the curve on ticket buying because my assigned seat is row three, front and center. DM Stith takes the stage first in his pink stocking feet backed by the string quartet Osso. Stith, who has a unique voice that pleasantly reminds me of Mercury Rev front man David Baker, alternates between his acoustic guitar and baby grand piano to deliver delicate yet somewhat eerie vocally driven songs.

After a brief intermission (to allow people to buy more beer and wine in the lobby no doubt) Osso strolls back on stage followed by Sufjan Stevens to introduce the band. Unbeknownst to me, Stevens and Osso have been working together to transcribe his mostly electronic songs from Enjoy Your Rabbit, which has now manifested itself into a release of its own, Run Rabbit Run. Stevens describes the personal nature of the songs and acknowledges how great it was to transform them with Osso, all the while wearing what looked like kid’s snow gloves. (I am totally distracted by the fact that he is compulsively taking them off and putting them back on only to take off one then the other, then put one back on, then both off… Anyway, his intro is rambling and my mind is wandering.) Osso is made up of two violins, one viola and one cello. Although I am not familiar with their music, I have had my moment of Sufjan love and bought everything the man made and am very familiar with Enjoy Your Rabbit. Hearing the songs filtered through the string quartet’s hands is lovely and almost dream-like since I haven’t listened to the CD in a few years. Cellist Marie Bella Jeffers takes it upon herself to introduce the songs. Unwilling to stop at just telling us the titles, she rambles—even more than Stevens—between every song and by the end it gets a bit old.

Yet another intermission (beer and wine) and time for the headlining act. Stevens comes back onstage (sans snow gloves) to give some background to The BQE. He explained how he was fascinated by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a hodge-podge of poor urban planning and a demonstration of the irrepressible human condition to move from one place to another. When the BAM commission came his way, he knew immediately that it would be about the BQE. After the screening in Brooklyn, the project took on a life of its own resulting in a comic book and a nice reel for a Viewmaster. He admits a sort of obsession; barrowing cars just to drive it back and forth. His introduction is a kind of ah-shucks admission to his creative compulsion that feels a little too self-consciousness. Ironically I had just spent some time in New York staying with a friend in Queens. My friend had complained about absurd subway projects in Manhattan when what the city really needed was a line between Brooklyn and Queens, and as a result I had a more political context for The BQE in the back of my head. All of that fell away when the images hit the screen. A beautiful confluence of image and sound, The BQE is not unlike those exhilarating collaborations between Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass but from a more local and, dare I say it, more important perspective. Even though that local frame of reference is lost on an audience who primarily live in Minnesota, it’s an amazing celebration of place in all of its messiness and splendor. The three framesets, originally projected from three projectors, has been transferred into one, making the image size from the DVD essentially 12x3. I wondered how hard it could have been to drag a few 16mm or 8mm projectors into the space and sync the soundtrack, but was willing to accept the logistics would have been, not impossible, but more complicated.

The show, lasting over three hours, met my lofty expectations and I grab the CD release for a cool 15 bucks without even realizing that I was getting a CD, a DVD, a photo/intro booklet, and the "Super Teenage Hooper Heroes" Viewmaster reel with images from the comic book. Half of the booklet is an essay by Stevens ruminating on the BQE and the far-flung connection to the Hula Hoop. It’s an interesting read with enlightening expositions such as, “To drive on the BQE is to embrace the anarchy of an amusement theme park. Interminable roadwork, for one, heedlessly confines and divides traffic into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome Existential Odyssey of the Mind. There are no rules, except to stay alive.” His obessiveness of the roadway becomes very clear in the eight-page, small type dissertation. The DVD is barebones with no menu and just the film in triptych form exactly how it was projected at the show. The soundtrack easily takes a back seat to the images, but the music on its own should not be underestimated. It is a magnificent symphony that has no problems challenging grandeur with a pop sensibility. The entire BQE package is impressive and a smack in the face to the digital download zeitgeist. Hidden from the limelight, it would seem that Sufjan Stevens’ populist wave has past, but, with his recently flurry of events, he may just be building up to his next tsunami.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


(Originally published on In Review Online. You have one more day to see New York, I Love You in Minneapolis, and I'm afraid this review will not give you a compelling reason to run out and see it.)

Directorial collaborations are notoriously uneven and almost always judged by the parts while ignoring the sum. A successful portmanteau relies on either a galvanizing theme (11”9’01) a very specific style (Fears of the Dark) or enough time to gain a sense of nostalgia or film history (Six in Paris 1965, Love in the City 1953.) In almost all cases, however, the shorts feel like half-baked thumbnail sketches from great directors on assignment. Even though New York, I Love You attempts to break out of the slums of omnibus filmmaking by branding itself as “a collective feature film,” it is no different. The film flows in a continuous free-form 103-minute feature without title cards or overt transitions. It may be harder to dissect, but New York is no less uneven. The highs and the lows blur together and it averages out somewhere around mediocre.

The second in a series on ‘the cities of love’ which started with the much more enticing Paris, J’taime and supposedly will head off to Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Jerusalem and Mumbai for successive installments. Given two days to shoot, one week to edit and an eight-minute time limit, ten directors pontificate love in the City of Lights. New York starts with a grift triangle by Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep) and ends with a sweet shuffle off to Coney Island by Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) with a predictable mixed bag in between. On the eve of his potential blockbuster The Book of Eli, Allen Hughes turns in the most compelling short starring Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo. From different parts of the city, the two depart to a second meeting together after a one-night-stand. With Matteo on the subway and Cooper walking on the streets, they are both buried in their own internal monologue: reliving their first meeting and doggedly refusing to be optimistic about their second meeting. Hughes successfully captures the electric and intimate energy of being alone in a crowd. In addition, Yvan Attal’s simple one-on-one sequence is perfectly pitched as the ultimate pick-up artist (Ethan Hawke) is served a large plate of crow by a none too naïve woman (Maggie Q.) Randall Balsmeyer, primarily a visual effects person, is given the impossible task of connecting the stories and admirably does so with vignettes that occasionally connect characters from separate stories to give a small-world-after-all feeling.

The biggest disappointment is how little New York invokes a sense of place. It wields its secret weapon—The Big Apple, The City that Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot—like an uninspired wet noodle. Although each segment is contained within a specific neighborhood, it unfortunately never translates on screen. I’ve never seen New York City look so boring, and, well, so Anglo and straight. Irrfan Khan, Shu Qi, Uğur Yücel, Carlos Acosta and I guess Shia LaBeouf (who plays an immigrant) are the only ethnic representations of the most culturally diverse city in the world. It is hard to believe that the creative muscle behind this film—which includes the aforementioned directors as well as Fatih Akin, Shunji Iwai, Mira Nair and Shekhar Kapur—could only muster a tepid mish-mash that has no spark. New York, I Love You serves best as dramatized runway for the actors where the audience, completely unengaged in the plot, can have a simple moment of excitement as the film doles out the multigenerational stars one at a time. It says a lot when the most exciting moment in the film was when someone behind me said, “Oh my God! It’s Christina Ricci!”

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lars Von Trier's MEDEA (1988)

(Originally published on In Review Online as a part of their ambitious look at Lars Von Trier's films "The Genius and Misanthropy of Lars Von Trier." Antichrist, if you dare, opens today in the Twin Cities.)

Unequivocally beautiful and brutal, Medea—Lars Von Trier’s made-for-TV movie freely adapted from a Carl Theodore Dreyer script—was prophetic to the films that would follow from this egocentric visionary. Based on the Greek tragedy from Euripides, Von Trier successfully turns this proto-feminist doctrine into a backhanded credo of female martyrdom and suffering. With barely two features to his name, he not only picks an unfilmed script from one of the greatest directors in the world, but also proclaimed to be in “constant telepathic communication” with Carl Th. Dreyer while filming. Pompous as that may sound, seeing Medea is the first step to believing. Intentionally grainy and slightly overexposed allowing the light to swallow up certain forms, you can almost feel the hand of Dreyer.

Taken from her homeland by her husband Jason, Medea is cast aside when King Creon offers Jason his beautiful young daughter, Glauce. Fearing revenge from the scorned Medea, King Creon orders her exiled. Medea is seen as an oracle in her own country, but is a feared foreign heretic in Greece. Medea, set on revenge, persuades King Creon to give her one more day, for the sake of her children. Dark foreshadowing looms as Medea sends her children to Glauce with a gift that is secretly poisoned. Set upon destroying Jason completely, she further resolves to take the lives of his two heirs, her own two children, in a painful exhibition of filicide.

Von Trier’s laconic interpretation of this classic draws on his powerful and impressionistic mise en scène. The interior scenes are dramatically choreographed sets of chiaroscuro where the shadows in the flickering light play a more prominent role than the characters. Jason and Glauce’s newlywed chamber is completely housed in a maze of white cloth, dramatically backlit so silhouettes float back and forth. When Glauce tells Jason that she will not sleep with him until Medea is no longer in the country, Jason is forced to lie next to the shadow of Glauce that is cast on the translucent fabric that separates them. The exterior shots, some perhaps set pieces as well, glow with an unearthly light. The most notable and surreal is when King Creon goes to Medea to tell her she must leave the country. Medea is wading though knee-deep water of a swamp methodically gathering seeds from the plants growing above the water. The fog literally blankets the screen as Medea, the King and his servants fade in and out of view. The entire 75 minutes is filled with charged moments of sharp visual elegance. Every composition is specific, theatrically illustrating every character.

Medea is a very measured feminist doctrine, portraying Medea as equal parts demon and suffragist. Medea ponders aloud, “Why must women bear so much? Wordlessly submissive in body and deed. What rights have women?” And for a brief moment, it seems the film might actually be concerned with these questions. A woman’s right to revenge, however, supersedes, as Medea’s first victim (or martyr, depending on how you look at it) is none other than one of these women without rights. Dressed in a full-length black dress and black hat that fits tightly over her head concealing her hair, Medea has the look of a somber widow. More handsome than beautiful, Medea, as Lars Von Trier has depicted her, is the antithesis of atypical femininity. Glauce’s power, on the other hand, is in her beauty, innocence and youth—all attributes that Medea has lost touch of.

Medea eventually flees. Having successfully poisoned Glauce and murdered her own children, Medea leaves Jason in a state of madness. The camera is trained on Medea and her emotionless face, not so much in judgment than in observation, as she sits at the front of a wooden ship. As the sail is dropped, it briefly flaps in front of the camera, obscuring Medea from the screen. When the curtain pulls back, it reveals Medea, as we have never seen her before: hat off with her long hair falling over her shoulders and her emotions completely exposing her vulnerability. Von Trier makes the most of drawing out the most painful scenes in Medea which is why the suddenness of seeing Medea, sobbing and feminized, comes as such a shock. Hints of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and even Antichrists are contained not only in this scene but also throughout Medea. Thanks to the ancient Greeks and Carl Theodore Dreyer, Lars Von Trier found some perfect food for fonder, sunk in his teeth and has never let go.

Monday, November 9, 2009


(Originally published on In Review Online.)

From the very start it is clear that no expense was spared and no detail neglected in Tony Jaa’s magnum opus actioneer, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. The credits brighten and fade in ghostly elegance against the backdrop of aestheticized weapons and idols, opening to a chase on horseback that is visually antiquated in sepia but adored with the lush green of the jungle. The arrows sail and the hooves fly in adrenaline inducing beauty. Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 never rallies any deeper than this type of superficial gloss and physical spectacle for mild but very muddled entertainment.

The film opens in 1421 during a familial struggle for power in the newly formed Ayutthaya Kingdom. Young Tien watches as his mother and father are assassinated and escapes through the jungle only to be captured by slave traders. When the stubborn youngster refuses to cooperate, he is thrown into a pit with an alligator in an impossible fight to the death. As one might expect, the spirited youth kills the alligator with the help of a knife tossed into the pit by a by standing admirer Chernang. Chernang, king of all the bandits, sees potential in Tien and takes him on as his adopted son. With the passage of time comes the obligatory martial arts student montage dipicting the journey from young novice to adult master. Eventually succeeding his adoptive father as bandit king, Tien slowly gains his thirst to avenge his father in an all out army of one battle against a (not so) mysterious enemy.

After the moderate but formidable international success of Ong Bak (aka Muay Thai Warrior) and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector), it seemed that Thailand might have its very own Jackie Chan. With amazing physical talent and creative muster, Jaa was poised to bring Thai film to a broad based international audience. When he signed on to make his directorial debut with the prequel to Ong Bak, sparks were already flying. The media couldn’t help but manifest public anticipation for the film by blowing production problems way out of proportion. When Jaa slunked off into the jungle, literally, and disappeared for two months, you could hardly blame him. When he returned, a cloud of doubt hung over the entire project, and for good reason.

Most martial arts films can survive and even thrive on a very simple, if not predictable story as long as the fighting remains inspired and the actors charismatic. This is exactly how Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the numerous actors before them preserved long and successful careers. Ong Bak 2 is certainly simple and the hand-to-hand combat is plentiful, but Tony Jaa fails to carry the film as an actor or director. Littered with obtuse flashbacks and incongruent plotting, it is a perplexing mess of themes and tones. The result is a rambling series of vignettes and absurd representations of warrior bravado that never engages the audience from one scene to the next. Taming a herd of elephants, fighting a tiger demon lady, and displaying various styles of martial arts feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking.

If you are looking for specific continuity between Ong Bak (set in the present) and Ong Bak 2, you may have to wait until Ong Bak 3—already announced—for clarification. That is, if anyone has the patience for a third installment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Home Movies - October

(Originally published on In Review Online. Check out InRO for a couple extra post-Halloween DVD picks.)

Drag Me to Hell (2008) Directed by Sam Raimi [Universal]
Much has been made about Sam Raimi's journey from horror cult hero to blockbuster salary man, but Raimi marches to his own drum whether it is huge or small, great or schlocky. Ironically, Drag Me to Hell seems to be the amalgamation of all those things in the best possible way. If Drag Me feels like a return to Evil Dead, it’s because the balance between scary, funny and completely offensive is perfect. Raimi, fully aware of genre expectations, throws the handbook out the window. While most horror films these days get by on gore, torture, nihilism or some combination of the three, Raimi does more with good old-fashioned mucus, maggots and nose bleeds than Eli Roth can shake baseball bat at. Throw in a good curse, a kitten sacrifice, a girl fight and an old woman with a penchant for biting without her dentures and you have one of the most fun horror films of the year.

Fear(s) of the Dark (2006) Directed by Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire and Pierre di Sciullo [MPI]
The most frightening things are those propelled by an active imagination. The animated French omnibus Fear(s) of the Dark pulls together six artists who clearly understand the fantastical and personal nature of fear. Opting for psychological scares instead of physiological thrills, Fear(s) is composed of five shorts directed by world-renowned graphic artists Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire, all linked together by the drawings of Pierre di Sciullo. The film is effective in maintaining cohesion between the individual stories through its monochromatic style and eerie soundtrack. Sinister and mesmerizing, Fear(s) lingers in the dark recesses of your mind long after the lights go up.

Orphan (2009) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra [Warner]
If Paranormal Activity hadn’t popped up out of nowhere, I would have crowned Orphan as the smartest horror film of the year. But where Paranormal excels in low-budget creativity, Orphan exceeds in clever storytelling and solid filmmaking. When the Colemans adopt 9-year-old Esther as the third child into their family, they get more than they bargain for. Inexplicitly wise beyond her years, Esther is a child psychologist’s nightmare and the audience’s puzzle. Orphan is expertly paced and brilliantly acted, especially by the three kids in the cast. But don’t get the idea that this film takes itself too seriously—the last fifteen minutes is nothing but classic horror film fodder that has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with adrenaline. Horror films tend to be throwaway money machines that are hardly ever allowed the space to be crafty without being overtly crass. Orphan belongs in a class with Them (aka Ils) and The Descent that offers a brain-powered punch.

Munyurangabo (2007) Directed by Lee Isaac Chung [Film Movement]
Definitely in the running for one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Munyurangabo is a powerful visual tome that gains its power through silent intensity and honest emotions. It contemplates the collective history of the Rwandan genocide ten years after and the very powerful effects on individuals. The film chronicles a journey made by two friends (one a Hutu and one a Tutsi) on the verge of adulthood. Representative of the collective unconscious, both seek resolution to a personal restlessness. Lee Isaac Chung makes the most out of a budget in his first feature film, tapping the natural talents of his Rwandan film students in an 11-day shoot. Chung spends over an hour pulling back his bow and finally lets his arrow fly in the form of a powerful 7-minute poem that will leave you stunned. For Film Movement subscribers this DVD was delivered months ago, but made publicly available this month.

Black Rain (1989) Directed by Shohei Imamura [AnimEigo]
Shohei Imamura’s sobering 1989 Black Rain receives an its-about-fuckin-time DVD release courtesy of the unlikely heroes at AnimEigo. Based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel of the same name, this luminescent black and white film finds Imumura returning to the family drama motifs of his teacher Yasujiro Ozu. Although the film recalls the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—with surreal and shrewd detail—the majority of the drama takes place in 1950 when the more subtle effects of the war and the bomb have taken a firm hold on the daily lives of the robust but world-weary characters. As the entire country tries to train their eyes toward the future, so does Yasuko who hopes to find a husband despite the fact that she has been turned down three times due to her exposure to the bomb’s ‘black rain’ fallout. Handled with sensitivity and restraint, Black Rain is less of a pointed accusation that it is a humanitarian document that falls perfectly in line with Imamura’s oeuvre. The DVD includes an alternate color ending and interviews with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director on the film, Takashi Miike.

Fados (2007) Directed by Carlos Saura [Zeitgeist]
This formal yet enthralling celebration of the melodramatic musical tradition of fado is less about education that it is enjoyment. Fados is Carlos Saura’s final installment to his musical trilogy that also included Flamenco (1995) and Tango. Fado is Portuguese soul music, born on the streets of Lisbon in the 19th century. Saura lends a keen cinematic eye to the musical set pieces in the film, but ultimately puts his trust in the power of the performers of fados, or fadistas, to carry the documentary to a place where only music can go. “Fados” features performances by Amália Rodrigues, Mariza, Camané, Maria de Nazaré, Vicente da Camara, Carmo Rebelo de Andrade, Pedro Moutinho, Toni Garrido, Ricardo Ribeiro, Ricardo Rocha, Miguel Poveda, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Ana Sofia Varela, Lura and Lila Downs, and each interpretation adds a new dimension of passion and melancholia.

Il Divo (2008) Directed by Paolo Sorrentino [MPI]
Yet another one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Il Divo is not what you expect from a political biopic. Director Paolo Sorrentino takes the story of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—a notorious political figurehead elected seven times to Parliament who welded unbelievable power despite his impish physicality—and turns it into a dazzling, fast-paced analytical thriller. Actor Tony Servillo plays Andreotti with physical specificity and emotional guile that is unsurpassed. Regardless of your knowledge of Italian politics, this film is thoroughly engrossing and highly entertaining.

Z (1969) Directed by Costa-Gavras [Criterion]
Costa-Gavras’ Z may not have the same impact it had when it premiered in 1969, but, like “The Battle of Algiers, it is a testament not only to the political times but to the burgeoning power of filmmaking. Based on the 1963 assassination of Greek left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis, Z was a very personal for of protest for Costa-Garvas against what was happening in his country. Armed with nouvelle vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Z has a street-level immediacy that is hard not to get caught up in. Criterion offers a restored version of the film as well as a handful of special features including new interviews with Costa-Garvras and Coutard.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Buckminster Fuller's Biosphère

Because I'm tired of seeing that Grizzly Bear review, here's a picture of the Biosphère in Montreal designed by Buckminster Fuller for Expo '67. Although it used to be covered with white panels, they were damaged in a fire and never replaced. Someone no doubt recognized that the armature is quite beautiful. Located on Sainte-Hélène Island just across the St Lawrence river from downtown, the trees were at their height of fall colors.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Grizzly Bear w/ Beach House: Live @ First Avenue

From a couple of weeks ago. Originally published on In Review Online.

When I first heard that Beach House would be opening for Grizzly Bear at First Avenue, my immediate response was, “Ooo, dreamy!” Representing two less than mainstream stands of melodic pop music, they are a perfect match for each other. Grizzly Bear was in town a few months ago, a mere week after the release of their critically acclaimed new CD and tickets sold out faster than you could even attempt to say Veckatimest. But the show got mixed reviews, employing words such as ‘boring’ and ‘sloppy.’ Ouch! I had seen Grizzly Bear a couple years back, opening for TV on the Radio, and although their performance has faded from memory, I certainly would have remembered sloppy. I chalked it up to heightened expectations and got a ticket so I could see for myself. I was as smitten with Veckatimest almost as much as everyone else and I was very eager to see Beach House, who’s 2007 Devotion swept me off my feet.

Ultimately, the First Ave show did sell out, but not until the night of the show. As I confirm my drinking age to the man at the door, I notice that tickets are still being sold at the door. The crowd is sparse and I easily find a spot near the front. Either people aren’t as excited Beach House as I am, or they are really laid back. They are playing Blade Runner on the large screen that drops down in front of the stage until the band is ready. I am lost in thought about the surreal unicorn scene when the screen comes up and Beach House comes up on stage. A percussionist joins Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally on stage, as the three of them squish into the very small space allotted to them among Grizzly Bear’s accoutrements—instruments and a plethora of funky bell jar lights hanging from poles. Beach House has tried to establish their own space on stage by placing a large white triangle center stage behind Victoria and her keyboards as Alex hunkers down on a chair to her right with his guitar and his Saturday Night Fever white sports coat.

I’m a lazy music fan. I listen without much investigation. So when Beach House opens with “You Came to Me” and Alex’s head is drooped over his guitar—far from available microphone—my blind assumptions about the band are off. Victoria does the vocals, not Alex. It’s like the optical illusion of the old woman/young woman: you’re brain immediately sees one and locks in on it, and seeing the second is a huge discovery. As I stand and watch her sing, I wonder how I could have ever inferred otherwise. Incredibly compelling, Victoria has a way of drawing out her voice that is similar to Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, another lower than average female vocalist. My intuition was correct: this is dreamy. Their rendition of “Gila” is thoroughly swoon-worthy. Alex’s gentle plucking emerges sugary sweet from his guitar. They employ some iPod accompaniment in the way of beats that gives them a fuller sound.

Victoria’s face is covered by bangs too long to be called bangs so it is hard to see her expressions during the random banter. They insist that the next song is perfect for making out, but then Victoria gets stuck on what day it is. “Is today Monday? Monday is perfect for making out. Is it Monday? It’s Wednesday? Oh. Well, okay, it’s not Monday, but it is hump day, if you know what I mean…” The idea of making out or humping at First Ave is almost nauseating, but Beach House seems like the best option for a soundtrack, venue notwithstanding. They pulled the plug after a very short hour. The set included mostly songs from Devotion, but also a handful of exciting new songs that set me heading for the merch table in hopes of finding a new EP or full length. Not yet. Beach House signed a deal with Sub Pop and will have a new release early 2010.

Milling around, I realize how crowded it has gotten since I arrived. I have given up my front and center spot for a more subdued back-by-the-bar position. Grizzly Bear promptly takes the stage at 10:30 and they shoot straight into “Southern Point.” The opening song to Veckatimest is a stunning song and pulls you in for the remaining 11 tracks. They attempt to do the same thing live, although I’ve always thought there has been value in the common logic of burying the show-stopping songs mid-set—the best for last mentality—but I am all for instant gratification, and that is exactly what “Southern Point” offers. Spotlighting Daniel Rossen’s unique vocals (that remind me more and more of Stephen Stills, the most underappreciated letter in CSNY) and the delicate crescendo and harmonies. They settle back and reel out some of their best songs from Veckatimest and Yellow House including a version of “Knife” that emitted a glow from the chorus that was absent the rest of the show. The wired Bell Jars that titivate the stage with more clutter than decoration flicker in random waves with the music.

Self-conscious rock stars that they are, the four piece visibly perked up when Victoria from Beach House came up on stage to lend vocals on two songs. Her presence on “Two Weeks” seems so natural, I make a mental note to check the liner notes on Veckatimest to see if she on the recorded version. (She is.) Ed Drost who has been irrepressibly focused the entire show is breaking into a smile as the two join forces on “Slow Life,” a song on the upcoming Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. (No joke.) It’s a fantastic song. Someone involved in the Twilight film is doing a very good job of introducing the tweens to artists that they might normally not be exposed to. (In addition to Grizzly Bear and Beach House, the soundtrack includes songs from Thom Yorke, Lykke Li, Killers, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sea Wolf, Ok Go and more.) Victoria’s more organic present as a performer is a marked contrast to the studious workmanship of the Grizzly Bear guys, and I’m sorry to see her leave the stage after two songs.

The fact that Grizzly Bear can’t match the perfection of their recordings is more a compliment to their studio skills than a criticism toward their live prowess. Much of the layering and intricacies are lost in the show—which is to be expected—but the fact that they seem hesitant to commit to a live persona, either harmonizing folk powerhouse ala Fleet Foxes or unrestrained experimental romp ala Animal Collective, leaves them tossing off a pseudo rock show that fails to highlight their strengths. I recently saw Jonathan Caouette’s documentary/montage All Tomorrow’s Parties which celebrates the freeform UK music festival through ten years of footage. At the end of the film there is a scene where Daniel, Ed and Chris of Grizzly Bear, armed only with an acoustic guitar, sing a song on the beach. It was beautiful. Why aren’t they doing any of that? I couldn’t help but think that this snippet was better than anything I had seen tonight.

Chris Taylor shyly speaks up and says, “I know you guys probably hear this a lot…” Yes we do. Everyone loves Purple Rain and Prince, and this is what First Ave represents to most visiting acts. But Prince hasn’t played here in years and probably never will again. The band seems to lumber to the home stretch, closing out with a sweet “On a Neck, On a Spit.” It is a bouncy lullaby that the whole crowd is into, causing obligatory protest of cheers as they leave the stage. They send us home with “Fix It,” a song from the early days of Grizzly Bear. Far from the melodramatic aura of Purple Rain, First Ave is far more grounded in solid, satisfying music tonight. Beach House rocked my world enough that I could forgive the minor lapses in Grizzly Bear’s performance. If the magic is in Grizzly Bear’s recordings, then most fans are going to more than happy to see an apparition of the same brilliance, myself included.