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.)