Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Home Movies - September

Originally published on In Review Online.

Wizard of Oz
(1939) by Victor Fleming [Warner Bothers]
If this column were solely geared towards the collector, this gem would be at the top of the list. Throw a Blu-Ray of a new film on and it usually looks pretty darn good. However, if you throw on a Blu-Ray of an older film that has become iconic through television and inconsistent 35mm screenings—providing it has been properly restored—you are likely to feel like you are seeing a new film. With its elaborate sets and Technicolor surrealism, The Wizard of Oz is the kind of production that begs for Blu-Ray magic. Although I can’t vouch for the perfection of the Blu-Ray transfer myself—as it is not in my hot little hands yet—you won’t have to look hard to find glowing reviews from people who have far better credentials than me. The 70th anniversary 4-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition is no joke: contains 16 hours of enhanced content, four of which are brand new, including new documentaries and featurettes; 52-page production history book, Behind the Curtain; exclusive 70th anniversary watch with genuine crystals; reproduction of the original film budget; 1939 Campaign Book; exclusive 6-hour MGM documentary When the Lion Roars. The Wizard of Oz is a tried and true classic and Warner has set a new Blu-Ray standard by which all other re-issues will be judged.

That Hamilton Woman
(1941) by Alexander Korda [Criterion]
If you’ve ever wondered what Winston Churchill’s favorite movie was, this is it. (He claimed to have seen it over 80 times!) A bit of British propaganda with a large dash of romance was apparently just what Sir Winston needed in those dark days of 1941 and the years that followed. Director Alexander Korda recruited the newly married lovebirds Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier to tell this war-torn melodrama of a scandalous affair between Lady Hamilton and British Navy officer Horatio Nelson. With the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, this lavish film takes up arms for the honor of true love and the righteousness of colonial victory. It is hard to ague the magnetism between the two leads, but it would be nothing without the visual work of Korda and cinematographer Rudolph Maté. With a film of this age, it is the preserved picture that is the biggest feature, but the DVD also includes a commentary by film historian Ian Christie, and a new interview with Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew.

Wagon Master (1950) by John Ford [Warner Brothers]
Right smack in the middle of John Ford’s very prolific career is the understated Wagon Master that Ford counted as one of his favorite. The scaled back tone and lack of notable stars perhaps made it a personal memento for Ford, but these are the exact same attributes that have pushed it from the spotlight. Monochromatic enthusiasts will revel in the beauty and cowboy connoisseurs will savor the simplicity. Elder is the leader of a desperate group of Mormons heading west in hopes of escaping religious persecution. They make a deal with a couple upstanding horse traders who “don’t do no drinkin’ and don’t do no chawin’” to guide them to the San Juan Valley where they hope to start anew. Along the way there are predictable episodes of action, adventure and romance—all with an air of authenticity—but the film often gives way to mood setting song and Moab’s majestic vistas. Wagon Master may not eclipse Ford’s masterpieces but it stands out as a piece of Western high art that Ford often eschewed. The DVD offers a restored version of the feature as well as an audio commentary by scholar Peter Bogdanovich, who provides recordings of Ford from interviews he did in 1966, and actor Harry Carey Jr., who plays one of the cowpokes.

The Human Condition (1959-61) by Masaki Kobayashi [Criterion]
At nine-and-a-half hours, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is not exactly the kind of film your local theater is going to screen, I don’t care how ‘alternative’ they are. Good luck in getting people to sit for three hours, and even more luck in getting people to sit for three hours for three sessions. But due to the power of this film, that is the exact tenacity that a handful of theaters had this spring. Newly struck prints of The Human Condition adorned the screen around the country, and for those of us living in the hinterlands, Criterion is now releasing the work in the form of a 4-disc set. Although they are now presented together, the films were released separately in three parts between 1959 and 1961. Like most directors working in post-War Japan, Kobayashi’s work was guided by his experience in WWII. Recruited into the army in 1942, Kobayashi was sent to Manchuria and then later captured and held as a POW. Motivated by the release of Junpei Gomikawa’s autobiographical novel, The Human Condition, Kobayashi was moved to give voice to his traumatizing experience and ‘unpatriotic’ views though an epic film. The story of Kaji mirrors that of Kobayashi, a young man sucked into the malaise of the Imperial Army whose naïveté and idealism slowly but very certainly turns into bitterness and dissolution. The scope of the film is a testament to Kobayashi’s conviction. Criterion has done film enthusiasts a huge favor by restoring this film and presenting it on a four DVD set with ample extras, but I am dumbfounded why they wouldn’t also release this (and everything else, from here-on-out) on Blu-Ray.

Homicide (1991) by David Mamet [Criterion]
Only David Mamet could deliver such eloquence in vulgarity. Mamet wields words like a ninja employs throwing stars, with skill and intent. His 1991 slow-burning Homicide has been resurrected by Criterion. Not that it had been forgotten, but it has languished, only available on VHS, for the past fifteen years. I remember seeing this film in the theater and literally walking out feeling like I had been physically assaulted. My skin is much thicker now, and it’s not the brashness that stands out, but rather the uncompromising ingenuity of his dialogue and his directing. Joe Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a police detective in an unnamed large city. Bobby’s a tough guy who gets caught up in the murder of an elderly Jewish woman. The investigation, however, turns out to be one of a more personal nature as he is forced to examine his Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitism he has absorbed into his psyche. Mamet brilliantly weaves a psychological thriller like nothing else I have ever seen. Hopefully the new ‘director approved’ edition has forced Mamet to revisit his more potent days as a socio-political director and we can put Redbelt behind us. The DVD includes an audio commentary by Mamet and William H. Macy (who plays Bobby’s partner) and interviews with recurring Mamet actors Steven Goldstein, Ricky Jay, J. J. Johnston, Joe Mantegna, and Jack Wallace. There’s an unlikely gag reel also included that is a nice release from this very dark and tense film.

(2007) by Peter Askin [Magnolia]
For those who think blacklisting was just a product of the dark, fear driven days of the late 40s and early 50s needn’t look far out the window to find similarly audacious uses of slander and bigotry to mold public minds in US politics. Dalton Trumbo was at the heart of a witch-hunt investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities into communist activities within Hollywood. Part of the Hollywood Ten, his blacklisting and refusal to budge from his First Amendment rights cost him 11 months in prison and his career as a screenwriter. Although he returned to Hollywood and screenwriting, he never shook the stagnancy caused by the slander. Peter Askin creates a rich documentary on Trumbo’s life written by Dalton Trumbo’s son, Christopher, who had originally written much of the material for on off-Broadway play of the same name. Drawing from archive footage and interviews, Trumbo is not a portrayal of a fallen man, but one of a fervent and artful linguist whose talents were forcefully displaced. Askin assembles an impressive cast (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Josh Lucas, and Donald Sutherland) to read from Trumbo’s impassioned letters that he wrote between 1942 and 1962 (also found in the book Additional Dialogue.) The DVD unfortunately skimps on extras, providing only two extra reading (from Giamatti and Danny Glover) cut from the film and a photo gallery. (Sorry, but a photo gallery is not an extra.) There is no doubt a whole mound of material that could have accompanied this riveting documentary.

Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas [Vivendi]
If you were to watch all three of Carlos Reygadas’ feature films in a row—hypothetically, of course; I don’t actually recommend it—it is much easier to see him as a formal troubadour rather than the overbearing disciplinarian that his films might singularly suggest. That suggestion is very much present during the opening of Silent Light, a very long still shot of a sunrise. Slow and methodical throughout, it is part morality tale and part visual tome set in the idiosyncratic Mennonite community in Chihuahua. Stifled emotions and misogynistic oppression rule the family of Johan and Esther and their brood of children. But Johan has a dirty little secret in the form of welling passion for another woman. But don’t hold your breath tumultuous emoting as the characters maintain a tempered state defined by petulant silences. A thematic riff off of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, Silent Light studies the powerful effects of faith, beauty and love, all with devastating resonances. The DVD includes a making-of, an interview with Cornelio Wall (who plays Johan), and deleted scenes.

Tulpan (2008) by Sergey Dvortsevoy [Zeitgeist]
In defying my preconceived expectations, Tulpan left me with the misconstrued feeling of disappointment. Rather than a gentle and quirky drama speckled with cultural insights, Tulpan is an unrelenting testimony to the harsh physical realities of life on the steppe in southern Kazakhstan. Asa is a young man who is full of tall-tales and modest dreams. Fresh off the boat from serving in the Navy, he has returned home to find a wife and start his own herd of sheep and herd of kids (in that order.) But things are not so easy. Most of the young people have abandoned this severe landscape where the wind never breaks and the dust never settles for the more prosperous city. An attempt to arrange a marriage with an unseen woman named Tulpan fails, but Asa resolves not to give up, committing his heart and energy to win her over. In the meantime, he must help his sister and brother-in-law maintain their own herd of sheep that seems curse with only baring stillborn lambs. Although Tulpan is not without its charms, it is a story of hardship and reality where death and drudgery have a gritty physicality. Tulpan is a stunning film that is more bitter than sweet. The DVD is spare in the way of extras only including an interview published in Cinema Scope last year.

Treeless Mountain
(2008) by So Yong Kim [Oscilloscope]
So Yong Kim's second feature film emits self-assurance without losing the simplicity of her unique first feature, In Between Days. Treeless Mountain is a pared-down portrait of two young sisters forced to deal with a world being turned inside out. Directed with clarity and intimacy, the film places all its trust in the subtleties of the amazing performances from the two young leads—and to great effect. Abandoned by their mother, Jin and Bin are left with their preoccupied Aunt and the heartbreaking promise that their mother will return for them. The more their situation deteriorates, the more the girls long for their mother. In spats of maturation and regression, the girls are forced to deal with their reality on a day-to-day basis. The fragility of childhood is painfully on display in Treeless Mountain with no irony and no clichés. The DVD includes a commentary with Kim and producer Bradley Rust Gray, a recorded post-screening Q&A, and a short interview with the two young actors.

Sugar (2008) by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck [Sony]
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had the spotlight a few months ago with the opening of their film Sugar, but it all faded so fast. Coming off the moderate success of their debut Half Nelson, the indie-directing duo seemed poised for a hit. But Sugar came and went so fast, you could almost here the ump saying “steeee-rike.” Sugar only pulled in about half of what Half Nelson made, which confounds all logic: Sugar is a far more engaging and enriching film; they fielded interviews and articles in all the right places at all the right times; and, of all things, it’s about baseball! I’ll admit that baseball is only a subtext, but any fan would be able to look at their favorite major or minor league team and find a character that is not too far from Miguel Santos. Miguel, who goes by "Sugar,” is a pitcher from the Dominican Republic whose hopes of making it big in baseball seem to be coming true when he is called up for spring training. Sugar is not Bull Durham (by a long shot) but they both have a grounded specificity for the organization of baseball that is rare. Although you won’t find an obligatory triumphant final game worthy of a baseball rally cry in Sugar, you will find a very smart and moving portrait that falls outside of sport film platitudes. This release comes at the end of baseball season with a potential of finding a better audience at home than it did in theaters. Personally, I would much rather watch this film than see the Twins lose to the Tigers. The DVD includes a making-of, a short documentary about baseball in the Dominican Republic, and a casting interview with the amazing Algenis Pérez Soto who plays Sugar.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009) by Steven Soderbergh [Magnolia]
Steven Soderbergh is one crazy bastard. I think it is safe to say that he is one of the most skilled filmmakers working today, but who is this guy? He is attracted to projects involving revolutionaries, whistle-blowers, Egyptian pharaohs, double-crossers, and, in this slick film, high priced prostitutes. With each successive Soderbergh film I try to find where they all connect and with The Girlfriend Experience I think I have found the perfect analogy: Steven Soderbergh is the skilled prostitute, able to provide his own kind of girlfriend experience to us—the film fan and the unsuspecting audience. We know we are being duped and slightly manipulated by our inherent attraction to the superficial, but, if we relax a little bit, we sure can have a good time. Sasha Grey is Chelsea, a very expensive escort who is willing to be your girlfriend, and whatever that entails, for an hourly rate. Of course, under the very polished façade of The Girlfriend Experience is an off-the-cuff commentary on the economic crisis perfectly juxtaposed with the cost of ‘companionship’ (or, in the case of Chelsea’s boyfriend Chris who is a personal trainer, the cost of self-esteem.) Grey doesn’t necessarily extend herself as an actress but certainly holds her own with poise and beauty. The DVD contains a commentary track with Grey and Soderbergh and an alternative cut that is only titillating referred to as “unrated” only because it never had to pass through the hands of the ratings board.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Programmer Rick Hansen talks Sound Unseen 10

Fall inevitably means better offerings in the theaters and right now you don't have to look far to find interesting film choices in the Twin Cities. But next week the 10th edition of Minneapolis' own Sound Unseen kicks off and will far outweigh the other distractions in town. Half music, half film and all fun, Sound Unseen starts Monday with nothing other than Rock n' Bowl at Memory Lanes. It's your chance to get a team together and show your skills against local bands such as Switzerlind, Magic Castles, Total Babe, Lucy Michelle and The Velvet Lapelles, So It Goes, Poor Weather Club, Look Book, Communist Daughter and more. What follows is six days of films, music and parties hosted at various venues around town (Cedar Cultural Center, The Trylon, Oak Street, Walker Art Center, Kitty Cat Club and MacPhail Center for Music) that is sure to sooth any culture vulture's soul.

I will probably find myself sitting in a theater all day, living off soda, popcorn and candy and maybe even burning some midnight oil in order to catch some of these films. (I can't really miss a midnight screening of a documentary about black metal, now can I?) Presenting 11 features and two shorts programs, the films are as thematically diverse as they are stylistically divergent. Although most festivals are likely to boast about the variety of their films, Sound Unseen takes a narrow range—film connected to music—and explores the far reaches of that definition. Beyond the obvious entertainment value, as a voracious music consumer I look forward to learning about artists I know nothing about, specifically Trimpin (Friday, October 2, 7pm at the Trylon) and Ed Thigpen (Sunday, October 4, 1pm at the Oak Street.)

For the inside scoop, program coordinator and ultimate Sound Unseen insider Rick Hansen was kind enough to answer a few questions of this inquiring mind to share with other inquiring minds:

Q: How long have you been programming for Sound Unseen?

A: This is my second year as Director of the festival, but I've had involvement almost right from the beginning.

Do you coordinate the live music as well as the movies?

I've got an outstanding (predominately) volunteer staff who help me with each aspect of the festival. It's strange how things happen, as sometimes it's me who gets excited to book a band or a film, and other times staff members like Music Coordinator Karrie Vrabel gets things going, or Director of Programming Jim Brunzell sees a cool film at Sundance or Seattle, of maybe SU fest producer Vilay Dethluxay has a great angle on something fun...we all just kind of coalesce into one big good idea after another, then everyone takes responsibility for that idea's execution. That's a long answer to a simple question, so yes, I do coordinate all aspects of the festival, but it's not without the help and the bright ideas of the others around me.

There are a couple big buzz films in the line-up, specifically the world premier of R.E.M: This is Not a Show (Tuesday, September 29, 7pm at the Cedar) and the local premier of Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public (Sunday, October 4, 7:30pm at the Cedar). Was there a lot of blood, sweat and tears getting these two lined up?

This is a fun question, because it has a funny answer...One of the films you mentioned was the easiest booking we ever had and the other has been the hardest. I'll let you wonder which one was which!

I can safely tell you though that each of the films and events takes a great deal of research, persistence, luck, and flat out hustle to get into the line-up. Jim Brunzell and Steve Holmgren, our two film programmers this year, have literally trotted the globe to see films for the festival. I went to Berlinale this year, saw a number of films that I wanted and came back entirely empty handed as far as film titles that landed in the fest. I've been clocking a film that I absolutely must have for more than 2 years now...still not sure if I will get it. Not everything is that tough, but we've got our film feelers out at spots around the world.

I've been pouring over the synopses of all the films trying to prioritize. Can you give us some of the highlights of the more under-the-radar films that you've chosen?

For sure. Guy and Madeline On A Park Bench (Saturday, October 3, 6:45pm at the Trylon) is probably my personal favorite. It just absolutely represents the type of filmmaking I enjoy most. Simple, beautiful, smart, elegant, quiet with very unique execution. I'm not the only person to think that way either. Amy Taubin wrote a glowing review of the film in Film Comment, and the film screened at the very prestigious Tribeca Film Fest earlier this year.

I also love Non-Stop: Gogol Bordello (Sunday, October 4, 3pm at the Cedar) because it really gives you insight into this great band's mojo. I love them and their live show is a mind blower, and the film does an excellent job capturing that. Plus a bunch of the live shots were taken when they were at The Cabooze outdoor stage a couple of years back, so it's fun to recognize a local place in an international film.

Stingray Sam (Friday, October 2, 9:30pm at the Oak Street) is another of my favorites. Mostly because I love the way Cory McAbee, who will be present for almost the entire extent of the fest and accepting an award from us, makes films. His way. Period. And really well. Easily the most innovative and interesting filmmakers in America today. Plus it makes me laugh EVERY time I see a man get slapped in the face by another man.

The subject matter of the films are all over the map. The narratives and documentaries touch upon almost every corner of the musical universe! Is it your intention to keep it diverse or do things just sort of fall in place that way?

We want to cover that wide range, always. But the range changes from year to year depending on what's out there and what's available and compelling. We've made it our mission to always try to come in with some things that we know are unique and may not be the most familiar or even comfortable types of musical styles, but we think it's important to screen these types of films for all the right reasons. For this year's fest I've made the joke that we've got titles from Beethoven to Black Metal. We got a little Jazz push this year, because I'm personally very into what is going on with that on the the local music level. I genuinely believe that there are Jazz musicians in town who are completely and totally pushing the bounds of that music genre into some incredible new places...and the world is going to find out about our scene here very soon.

How did Sound Unseen start? What's some of the folklore?!

10 years ago a very smart and hard working young man named Nate Johnson founded the festival. He and I worked together a bit at U Film Society. He approached me about maybe co-producing it even way back then..I ended up going in a different direction, but Nate got it off to an incredible start with some really great programming and smart events. I looked back really closely to our history as it is our 10 year anniversary and I wanted to understand where we've been and I could not believe some of the things I missed. Name anyone of the now Major Label bands that have risen out of Minneapolis and they have been on the Sound Unseen roster in one way shape or form. No joke..Atmosphere, Tapes N Tapes, Solid Gold, DOSH, Doomtree, what used to be Lifter Puller...I could go on and on..all had some sort of relationship with Sound Unseen. 10 years at the heart of the Minneapolis music scene! Are you kidding me? Legends were born in SU's past. That's folklore.

Okay, so I have to ask: can you give us any other hints on the secret screening other than the two letters M and J?

(coyly) mmnn..i don't know..? MICHAEL JACKSON! ...or something...and you ain't seen it before.

As in "like you've never seen him before".....? I guess we will just have to wait and see!

Check out the full program and events to map out your week at I'll see you there!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Health: Live at The 7th St Entry

Originally published on In Review Online.

I probably wouldn’t have considered myself a big Health fan until I fell in love with their recent sophomore release Get Color. Their self-titled debut from 2007 was loud and eclectic, but failed to leave enough of an impression for me to return to it. Get Color is far more cohesive and accessible, that is if you like a little noise with your dance rock. Like a much louder Battles, Health makes it clear that volume matters—the first line on the inside jacket of the CD is “This record should be played at a minimum of 90db.” I couldn’t have been more excited when I read that they were going to play with Health re-mixer and label-mate Pictureplane, at The 7th Street Entry. This is my kind of show: small, loud and energetic.

I approach The Entry glad that I am on my bike, because traffic is not moving. As I get closer, I realize that the snarl’s epicenter is right outside The Entry and the adjoining First Avenue. Cop cars surround First Ave as a mass of people, most with their faces painted in black and white, pour out on to the street screaming things I clearly do not understand. For the first time, The Entry acted as a sanctuary away from the chaos. “What the hell is going on?” Without an ounce of amusement, the woman at the ticket window said, “All ages Insane Clown Posse show.” Wow. My first contact with the famed Juggalos and Juggalettes! I had often heard about the rabid and dedicated following that ICP has developed, but it all existed outside of my circles. No longer. The cops were busy monitoring the crowd of largely under-age fans and the approaching 10:00pm curfew. Thankfully, I do not have to worry about any of that.

The Entry’s ambiance is much more mellow compared to the street riot brewing outside. Opened to accompany the much larger First Avenue, The 7th Street Entry is the fabled cavern of The Replacements and the so-called Minneapolis sound of the early 80s. Over the past 30 years, just about every band of humble beginnings has played here. Its modest capacity makes it one of the best places to see live acts and I am here to testify that I have seen some of the best shows of my life in this small little room.

I arrive slightly late, missing opening act Juiceboxx, a punk hip-hop hybrid from Milwaukee, and one-man band Pictureplane is setting up his gear, not on the stage, but down on the floor with people crowded around him. Even though it is a bit of a lull, people are getting their groove on to R. Kelly that is playing in between sets. Jupiter Keyes from Health is running the merch table and admonishing himself for not knowing how much stuff costs. “I should know how much stuff is, but I don’t normally… John will be back in a second.” He sold me by simply being sweet and self-effacing.

Picturplane’s modest setup amounts to a couple of effects boxes, a small keyboard, a mixer, a mic, two sets of colored lights, and most importantly, his iPod nano—replete with crinkly shiny paper hanging from his x stand. He requests that R. Kelly be turned down so he can test his equipment, and shortly thereafter, cues up the beats and starts rocking. Live, his electronic house music is less gloss and more fuzz. Initially he had people hopping, but by the end of the set most had gone listless to the pumping beats. Blame it on the homogeneity of the songs, or the lack of interest in the actual performance, or the fact that he was dancing harder than anyone else in the audience, but somewhere between R. Kelly and iPod fiddling, Pictureplane loses this very-ready-to-dance crowd.

Once the floor has been cleared. People start mashing towards the front. I hadn’t noticed, but The Entry is quickly filling up. I find a spot literally on top of a large speaker (large enough to share it with one other person) at the very front left corner of the triangular stage. The four members of Health are coming on stage, all business. Since Pictureplane was down on the floor, there is really not much set up. I’m not sure what it is all about, but they all have a lot of tape on their guitars. Modifications? I have no idea. They all do a quick test of their guitars, gadgets, drums, mics and they seem to be ready. But then singer-guitar player Jake Duzsik says, with no humor, “We’re not supposed to play until 11:30, so were not just hanging around.” And they leave the stage. The bar no doubt wants to pilfer our money for another overpriced beer, but those 15 minutes seem to last forever.

They reappear, 11:30 on the spot, and like mad animals rip into “Death+.” John Famiglietti, who plays bass and runs a whole mass of effects equipment, is thrashing around like a mad man, and everyone in the audience can’t help but follow his lead. All four members are a torrent of energy that is being channeled through their various instruments, and they barely stopped for applause. The crowd is eating it up. I am sort of perched above it all, but occasionally it became too much for my fellow speaker-sitter and he would leap head first into the crowd. There hardly seems to be the mass needed to catch him, but he emerges unscathed and scrambles back up beside me only to do it again five minutes later. Jupiter and John both have equipment and instruments set up on the floor, instead of on stands, in front of them, and at one point both of them are crawling around on the floor—Jupiter playing keyboard and John running effects. Burly drummer BJ Miller is equally kinetic, but never leaves his seat. During “Nice Girls,” Jupiter picks up a couple drumsticks and pounds out the beats with BJ on a drum of his own, and he looks like someone getting ready for war.

The energy in the room is completely contagious, as if the members of Health, the audience and the music are molecularly resonating at the same velocity. Although they play nearly every song off Get Color—I think—the set is disappointingly short. People beg for another song, and they deliver almost immediately. When I go outside and see them taking a breather by the back door, I reassess the very short (but satisfying) set. Health’s show was a rare display of a band willing to perform an exhilarating 45-minute sprint instead of an uninspiring 1½ hour walk—a classic case of quality not quantity.

Check out their video for "Die Slow" from Get Color.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shane Acker's 9

Originally published on In Review Online.

Adaptation is the medium of our time. For better or worse, appropriation has devolved from oxymoronic theories of postmodernism into a more practical mode of replication. I keep wondering, specifically with films in mind, when, if ever, this market driven habit of re-mining used material will run aground. The most confounding examples are the films that get remade by the same director. Hideo Nakata’s US remake of his own film, Ring, was probably more lucrative for him and exposed more people to his work, but critically speaking added nothing to the original. The same could be said for Michael Haneke’s arrogant remake of his arrogant film Funny Games—a point-for-point slap in the face that did not expose Haneke to anyone new. (Tempting Naomi Watts digression denied.) But how do we categorize Shane Acker’s remake? Acker’s visionary award winning and Academy Award nominated 11-minute short 9 deservedly wowed everyone with its sensitivity to visual and emotional detail. Bring directors Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted) and no-need-for-introduction Tim Burton to the table as producers and somewhere along the line, Acker is convinced to turn his short into a feature length film. Or maybe this was his goal all along. Visually 9 flourishes on the larger canvas, but narratively it languishes under the heavy hand of the script and storybook contrivances.

9 is the lead character in an animated fable about the rise of a different kind of machine. Emblazoned with the numeral 9 on the back of his sock monkey body, he is the product of an innovative scientist and of resources limited by a diminishing and hostile world. His prophetic numeral emblem is, at least on the surface, his identification number within a small but heroic team. Jolted to life in a Frankenstein-like fashion, 9 wakes to an apocalyptic wasteland where his creator is dead. Motivated by unknown forces, he picks up a strange glowing medallion and he strikes out on his own into a land aptly called The Emptiness. Little does he know, but he has eight siblings that came before him. When he stumbles upon 2, his joy in finding a companion does little to lift the dark ambiance and simply accentuates the inherent loneliness of the barren landscape. And no sooner does 9 find a friend than he loses him. Stalked by a much more sinister form of artificial intelligence, referred to as “the beast,” 2 is captured and taken away. Of more importance to the beast is the small medallion that 9 harbored inside his zippered body. The beast snatches the medallion as well as 2 and runs off toward a foreboding smokestack clad castle.

The spectacle in 9 is the absolute breathtaking detail that is given to every square inch of the screen. It is the precision and subtlety that lend sympathy and emotion to these very unlikely heroes. Even before 9 could speak, his physicality gave him personality that supersedes anything Elijah Woods brings his identity. His stitched together burlap skin edges on the freakish, but everything else intones gentleness and vulnerability that is immediately identifiable. The zipper that runs the length of his torso acts more of a pocket than a vital orifice. Open, the zipper pull hangs like genitalia and closed it hangs below his chin like a manmade wattle. The eyes, enclosed in a rigid lens, contain the most delicate and expressive diaphragm apertures that open and close as meaningfully as any human’s eye. Moving away from the most typical character design, their lumpy potato sack form accentuates an anthropomorphic dowdiness. Each one of the ragamuffin team has varying attributes of individuality within the group: 1 has crude metal hands and a belted waist; 2 is tied up with a shoelace; twins 3 and 4 are smaller, hooded and voiceless; 5 is a buttoned and patched warrior; the crazed 6 is pinstriped and mop-topped; 7 is the smooth-skinned female that seems an obvious homage to Princess Mononoke; and 8 is the burly and thuggish Stay Puft Marshmallow Man version of the species. Their vivid tactility moderates the actors’ solid performances. Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly bring a humanness to the two leads, 9 and 7, but it is really Christopher Plummer as the ego-driven 1, Martin Landau as the exploratory and aging 2, and John C. Reilly as the timid 5 that accentuate their computer modeled characters with their performances. Crispin Glover plays the rambling 6, but his part is sadly very small.

9 unfortunately takes two minor missteps that diminish the film exponentially specifically with an unfulfilling narrative arc and a confounding over-orchestrated score. The short had an air of mystery and an aura or loneliness and revenge. The feature attempts to flesh out a background, build in an adventure and edge ever-so-close to a love story, but it all feels very forced in a very abbreviated 79 minutes (and God knows 10 of those minutes are probably credits.) The script relies too heavily on convention and reduces these enigmatic characters into ethos that is patronizingly superficial. Acker’s work clearly thinks outside of this box, but the screenplay does not follow. The same could be said about the soundtrack that screams summer action blockbuster. The first full length trailer for 9 had hints of clever contemporary choices for music, employing a song from electronic wunderkinds The Knife and salt of the earth prog rockers Coheed and Cambria. It was a complete tease; 9 uses button-down action/adventure orchestration that is too overpowering.

The medallion contraption that was stolen from 9 was far more potent than imagined. It awakens a maniacal assembly machine that is able to create weapons out of found materials. In the midst of war, it was the ultimate defense, but now that war is over and all the humans are dead, the only adversaries are 9 and his friends. Ironically, they were made by the same hand. Like so many historical examples, the scientist’s greatest invention was used as a tool for power. The aging scientist, seeing his folly, created his smaller and much more delicate machines in his own image under the hope that, even in this brave new world, the meek would be able to inherit the earth. Acker draws from influences that he readily acknowledges, most notably the Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmajer. The quintessential Quay doll head find its way into 9 a couple times, the most memorable in the form of a demon spider machine. The dark and apocalyptic aesthetic is a mirror not only of Svankmajer and the Quays, but an atmosphere that has its origins in films—such as Blade Runner or Se7en—only to be canonized in contemporary sci-fi video games. The look is somewhat ubiquitous, but unique for a film billed as a PG-13 family film like 9. Acker’s visual ingenuity is a force to be reckoned with, but the watered down script and simplistic cause-and-effect plotting of 9 comes across as being micromanaged by industry types—and all poetry is lost to The Emptiness.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late Night Horror Series at the Oak Street

The Oak Street is up and running with a full slate of films which includes a late night horror film series every Thursday and Friday at 9:30 with a different film every week. So far they seem to have a great line up of the good, the bad and the campy, but most importantly they are offering up films on the big screen that no one else was going to show. The series kicked off last night with I Sell the Dead, and here are a few others on the schedule:

September 17 and 18, 9:30pm
I Sell the Dead (2008) directed by Glenn McQuaid
Starring Dominic Monaghan (Charlie from "Lost"), Ron Pearlman, and Larry Fessenden (director of Wendigo and The Last Winter)
"18th century justice catches up with a pair of grave robbers. With only a few hours to go before his date with the guillotine, Arthur Blake (Monaghan) tells his life story to Father Francis Duffy (Ron Perlman). Before long, Arthur spills the beans on how he got started in the grim corpse peddling business with seasoned ghoul Willie Grimes (Fessenden)"
Review in the Star Tribune.

September 24 - 26, 9:30pm
Pontypool (2008) directed by Bruce McDonald
Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, and Georgina Reilly
"Bruce McDonald, critically acclaimed director of The Tracey Fragments, teams with author Tony Burgess to adapt Burgess' own novel about a small town in the grip of a mysterious frenzy. It may be Valentine's Day, but for caustic radio personality Grant Mazzy (McHattie) that's just another reason to be miserable. Mazzy used to be a certified radio superstar, but working in Pontypool is a far shot from working in the big city. Today, however, as Mazzy prepares for his regular routine of reading the weather, updating school closings, and pleading his case for a little on-air controversy to producer Sydney Bryer (Houle), the appearance of an unexpected figure signals the beginning of a disturbing phenomenon in the small town of Pontypool. Heading to work, Mazzy is nearly run over by a distraught woman who seems to have lost her grip on reality. Later, reports of a shoot-out between provincial police and a group of local ice fishers are made even more bizarre by the revelation that they were all screaming gibberish, running around nude, and missing body parts. By the time a riot breaks out in Dr. Mendez's (Hrant Alianak) office, it's obvious to Mazzy that the residents of Pontypool are suffering from a strange form of contagious dementia, but what has caused this bizarre outbreak and, more importantly, how can it be stopped?"
Article on Pontypool in Cinema Scope 36.
Pretty mixed reviews here on Metacritic.

October 8 - 10, 9:30pm
Dead Snow (2009) directed by Tommy Wirkola
"Eight medical students on a ski trip to Norway discover that Hitler's horrors live on when they come face to face with a battalion of undead Nazi soldiers intent on devouring anyone unfortunate enough to wander into the remote mountains where they were once sent to die. It's Easter vacation, and what better way to spend the break than skiing down the isolated hills just outside of Øksfjord, Norway? After packing their cars with enough beer and ski equipment to ensure that a good time will be had by all, the students set out for their destination and prepare for a relaxing snowbound getaway. Shortly after arriving at their remote cabin, however, the students receive an unexpected visit from a rather suspicious hiker. According to their shady visitor, the Nazis occupied this territory during World War II. In the aftermath of their brutal raping and pillaging, the locals revolted, driving the few surviving Nazi soldiers -- including their iron-fisted leader, Colonol Herzog -- deep into the hills. Neither the soldiers nor their leader were ever seen again. Everyone in town assumed that they simply froze to death. But there's something stirring out there in the trees, and it won't be long until the unsuspecting students discover how the story really ends."
Reviews overall not bad here on Metacritic.
Admittedly this looks bad. Bad good or just bad bad, I don't know.

Check out the Oak Street's calendar for more information.


The Beaches of Agnès played at the Walker this spring during Women With Vision, and opens today at the Edina Cinema for one week only! Do not miss it! This review was originally published on In Review Online.

Agnès Varda takes center stage in her self-proclaimed last film as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative, telling her life story.” If this opening statement doesn’t reveal the humble ego of one of the most important Left Bank filmmakers, then the purely allegorical introduction—mirrors precariously set up on the beach as objective eyes to the world—reiterates Varda’s rare self-effacing approach to filmmaking and the world.

Although more closely aligned with the Left Bank movement, Varda is often cited as directing the first French New Wave film. Before the swaggers and the tit-for-tat philosophical disputes ever surfaced in the nouvelle vague, Agnès Varda made her first film, La Pointe Courte (1956), exploring many of the techniques and themes later exploited by the French New Wave. Varda followed her own creative path resulting in a lower historical profile than her more famous friends and colleagues—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, to name a few.

Masquerading as an autobiography, The Beaches of Agnès is really an homage to her creative inspirations and all the people who have touched her life. Varda starts with her childhood in Belgium and guides us through her life using archive photos and footage, interviews, reenactments, staged vignettes, and Varda herself revisiting the landscapes of her past. The narrative, as it is, pleasantly drifts from one subject to the next, weaving chronologically through her personal and professional life.

If Varda's films are experimental, so is her life: continually exploring and expanding her creative impulses. Sometimes that means dressing up as a potato during a photo exhibition, and sometimes that means running an electrical cord from your house through the neighborhood so you can shoot your film in a nearby café. In the context of The Beaches of Agnès, it means bringing dreams and memories to life. Cleverly staged moments have an edge of surrealism, such as the acrobatic troupe on the beach simply to indulge a youthful dream. Likewise, to visually demonstrate how she would maneuver her first car back and forth (a minimum of 13 times) to make the tight turn down her alley, she sits behind a cardboard cutout of a car on a dolly pushing herself back and forth with her feet. You won’t find anything that is so delightfully representative yet so devoid of irony.

The thing that makes The Beaches of Agnès so remarkable is Varda’s playful openness and unapologetic tenderness. The film is just as much about life as it is the absence of life, as Varda reminisces about friends who have passed away, especially Jacques Demy. Varda married Demy in 1962 and they shared a loving bond in life and creativity until Demy’s death in 1990. The open sentimentality as she talks about Demy and his death, her kids, her friends and even her work is incredibly moving. The kind of candor that allows Varda to dance in front of colorful beach accoutrements with equal grace as she talks about her innermost feelings is completely astounding.

After seeing The Beaches of Agnès there is no question where the character of Mona in Vagabond comes from. A rebel and free spirit, from past to present, Agnès Varda’s vigor for life is only matched by her sense of humor and curiosity. The film closes with Varda’s 80th birthday, replete with 80 brooms she received as gifts (“broom” in French slang means “year.”) Instead of dwelling on her age, she gleefully counts all the brooms, including four toilet brushes and one sent via e-mail from Chris Marker. Agnès Varda exudes whimsy even as she enters the twilight years of her life, and her film is that much more enjoyable for it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Call me crazy but this sounds kind of interesting to me. Some of the best film experiences are the ones where you have no idea what is going to happen. This may or may not be one of them. Check out this article: Roger Beebe loses control at Eyedrum.

Films for One to Eight Projectors: multi-projector experimental shorts by Roger Beebe
Thursday, September 17, 7pm at the Trylon Microcinema $8

"Renowned experimental filmmaker Roger Beebe, whose films have shown around the globe from Sundance to the Museum of Modern Art and from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to the CBS Jumbotron in Times Square, takes to the Heartland in September and October to present a program of his recent mutli-projector films as part of a 6-week US tour. In his recent films, Beebe explores the possibilities of using multiple projectors —running as many as 8 projectors simultaneously—not for a free-form VJ-type experience, but for the creation of discrete works of “expanded cinema.” The show builds from the relatively straightforward two-projector films The Strip Mall Trilogy and TB TX DANCE to the more elaborate three-projector meditation on Las Vegas, Money Changes Everything, and on finally to the eight-projector meditation on the mysteries of space Last Light of a Dying Star. These films are simultaneously performance films (as they can only be screened with Beebe actually running the projectors—and running from projector to projector), technological demonstrations (with a parade of different modes of image making and presentation—16mm and super 8mm film alongside video and digital formats), and significant aesthetic works in their own right."

Here's an excerpt from Roger Beebe's Strip Mall Trilogy:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mike Judge's EXTRACT

Originally published on In Review Online:

It is with bitter irony that Mike Judge’s most mediocre offering gets the widest release. The man who made ‘TPS report’ and ‘Ow! My balls!’ common household phrases took his ten-years-in-the-making cult status and turned in a dud. The cynical and often mean spirited social commentaries of Office Space and Idiocracy were dumped in favor of mainstream appeal with more acceptable forms of stereotyping and ridicule. Judge has gained notoriety for pulling no punches when it comes to criticizing herd-like mentality of corporate consumer America, and this is why his new by-the-numbers comedy Extract is such a disappointment—not because there are no laughs, but because the biting satire is almost completely gone.

Jason Bateman is Joel, a self-made man. From his humble beginnings as a geeky chemical engineer, Joel has relied on his intellect and common sense to build his business, Reynolds Extract, into a success. But flavor extract is not very sexy and running a manufacturing operation is not very exciting. Compounded by the fact that he cannot make it to his gated-community home in his BMW by the time his wife puts on her sweatpants like a chastity belt, Joel is feeling the mid-life blues. His solution? To wallow in his apathy by spending evenings in a hotel bar where his brother Dean (Ben Affleck) works. Over a night of whisky, Special K and soul searching, Dean convinces Joel that he needs to hire a gigolo to seduce his wife in order to alleviate his guilt for wanting to cheat on her.

Already, I was not on board for this film. Like Jerri Blank in Strangers With Candy, Mike Judge “goes with what he knows” and in this case it is the plight of the upper-middle class white guy. And while Office Space similarly asked us to identify with Peter, and Idiocracy with Joe, these characters were given a vivid context that allowed for more space than their reductive personas. These films don’t have a cult following because of their lead characters, but because of the bigger picture in which they exist. But Extract doesn’t offer much more than the unsympathetic Joel. Judge might be expanding his audience short term, but he is also alienating his fans.

Much mayhem ensues in the life of Joel including an unfortunate industrial accident at the extract factory leading to testicular loses and the arrival of a hot new temporary worker who has taken an unnatural interest in Joel. Despite the fact that we couldn’t give two rat’s tails about Joel’s heartwarming final revelations about his wife and his work, there are a half a dozen supporting roles that give the film an entertaining boost. Ben Affleck’s Dean is just one step away from Jeff Bridges’ The Dude and easily steals the show from Jason Bateman with only a quarter of the screen time. A content bartender, Dean is a workingman’s fixer who could get you just about anything you want without judgment or bias. In a nutshell, Dean is likeable. On the blue collar front at Reynolds Extract is crotchety line manager Mary, vibrantly played by Beth Grant, and heavy metal geek Rory who spends his time driving forklift and passing out flyers for his band, God’s Cock. Their believable characters represent two generations of entry-level warehouse employment who punch the clock for completely different reasons. And, in a stroke of brilliant casting, Gene Simmons (that’s right, The Demon) plays an ambulance-chasing lawyer whose “Idiocracy”-like advertisements exclaim “Sue! Sue! Sue!” He takes on the case of the poor sap who lost a portion of his manhood at Reynolds Extract, hoping to squeeze the company for all it’s got. Simmons’ acting leaves a lot to be desired, but his scenes merely rely on his amazing presence (and recognition) to be effective and funny.

However, there is little that can help propel Extract in a logical or entertaining direction. Even some of the small character skits operate as dead weight, bringing the film to an uninteresting halt. For every inspired caricature, there is an unoriginal exaggeration that we have either seen before in Judge’s films or a half dozen others. Brad the gigolo is so unbelievably stupid it’s hard to understand how he gets his pants on in the morning. Nathan the irrepressible neighbor is the guy who no one wants to talk to but talks to everyone ad nauseam. Brad is dumb for the sake of being dumb, and Nathan is irritating for the sake of being irritating. Both of these characters are cardboard cutouts and neither add an ounce of dimension to the film.

Mike Judge has formed a reconciliation with his own cynicism and Extract has an incongruous aura of encouragement in spite of its snarkiness. But the warm and fuzzy backslapping ending feels vacuous and disingenuous. The story is an afterthought and the satire is lukewarm. The latent displays of misogyny, racism and homophobia lack enough irony to be considered critiques, and as a result prove more abrasive than the overt tactics of Borat or Brüno. The few laughs Extract does garner fails to be a means to a worthwhile whole.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lightning Dust's "Infinite Light"

(Originally published on In Review Online. Lightning Dust plays tonight at the 400 Bar.)

If you have seen or heard Black Mountain, you immediately take note of Amber Webber. She lends lead vocals to less than half of their songs, but does so in stark contrast to Stephen McBean solid but uninspiring vocals. Competing with burly riffs and keyboard space jams may not be every vocalist dream, but Webber’s ability to send her powerful warble just about the fray is amazing. Her searing voice adds a haunting depth to their critically acclaimed Into the Future, which was categorized by lyrics about witchery, nightmares, demons and blood that is scrawled on the wall.

During a break, Webber and Black Mountain percussionist and pianist Joshua Wells decided to casually pursue some other interests. What began as a few cassette tapes for friends under the moniker Amber and Josh, eventually turned into a full-blown release and a much better name. Although their self-title 2007 debut arrived with little fanfare, the mellow and keyboard-heavy alt-country sound of Lightning Dust put Webber’s voice in the deserved spotlight. Ghostly and sparse, their first release has a unique but slightly underwhelming sound, and, unfortunately, the allure of the paired-down ensemble wears off after multiple spins.

Two years later Weber and Wells are still pursuing these ‘other interests’ in the form of a new full length, Infinite Light. Webber’s vocals are just as mesmerizing, but the musical accompaniment no longer seems to be just a backdrop. The trick, however, is to find the balance between Weber’s spontaneous showboating voice and a compelling texture for it to mesh with. Fortunately, it is a trick that Wells seems up for. Finding his stride, Wells pumps the songs on Infinite Light with even amounts of fuzzy keyboards and ebullient piano. Compared to their beautifully dour yet even-toned first release, the rollicking piano boogie “The Times” almost comes as a shock. Heart pounding piano backed by the rhythm of bongos would almost have been unthinkable two years ago. Lightning Dust has beefed up their instrumentation, most notably adding percussion to the mix. The drive is much more powerful, even in the slower songs.

Gone are the demons and the blood as Webber focuses her lyrical energies on life, love and the pursuit of sentimentality. Despite their newfound buoyancy, Lightning Dust has not left all things melancholic behind and some of the best tracks revel in nostalgic sorrow. Love songs to locales and memoirs to moments are the ambiance of Infinite Light. “Never Seen” is melodrama that is waiting to be exposed. Webber’s vibrato quavers and Wells works the Casio effects to create an emotional resonance. Opening track “Antonia Jane” uses the same beautiful machinations to pull you into their musical theatrics. But, much like their debut, too many of the songs slide from memory all too soon. The unvarying qualities of the later half of the CD is pleasant without being engaging. Lightning Dust has staked out some very interesting ground revealing more possibility than limitations, and Infinite Light’s moments of anticlimax are only disappointing compared to their moments of perfection.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Home Movies - August

Originally published on In Review Online:

There is absolutely no fat on this list of August DVD picks that I painfully trimmed down to eleven. A handful of worthy and interesting new releases (Duplicity, Tyson, The Soloist, Rudo y Cursi, Surveillance, Katyn) did not make the cut in favor of five stellar new releases and six inspiring reissues. August was a jaw-dropping month for older films that were released either for the first time in the US (Jeanne Dielman, Icons of Screwball Comedy, Nikkatsu Noir) or as they have never been seen before (Husbands, Icons of Sci-Fi.) If my pockets were deeper, here is the order in which I would theoretically fill up my cart:

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
(1975) by Chantal Akerman [Criterion]
If there is one director who seems routinely ignored in the world of US DVD releases, it is Chantal Ackerman. Okay, maybe not the only director routinely ignored, but take a long look at the list of films made by this French auteur and then count the number available domestically. (I'll save you the trouble, Jeanne Dielman is only the forth.) It is with this kind of excitement that I greet Criterion’s release of Akerman’s 1975, 3 hour and 20 minute Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I like long films and I especially like long films where ‘nothing happens.’ The film chronicles Jeanne Dielman who cooks and cleans and occasionally sells her body to support herself. Considered Akerman’s masterpiece, there are few films that I look forward to seeing more. The laundry list of extras included on this two-disc set are: a 69-minute documentary, a new interview with Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte, an excerpt from a 1997 French television show “Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman,” an interview with Akerman’s mother (!), a television interview excerpt featuring Akerman and star Delphine Seyrig, and Saute ma ville (1968), Akerman’s first film.

Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir [Eclipse]
Dug out from the vaults by Mark Schilling for a retrospective presented at the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2005, Nikkatsu Noir from Eclipse presents five of the 16 films he originally screened. During the late 50s and early 60s, Japanese film studios were turning the reigns over to untested directors in a last ditch effort to drag people into the theaters and away from their TV sets. The result was not only the Japanese New Wave, but also the freewheeling, shoot-from-the-hip action that flourished at Nikkatsu Studio. Caught between the past and the future, the War and Westernization, Japan was on the brink of something and so were these films that borrow as much from Hollywood as they do from Japanese culture. For fans, these five films represent the tip of the iceberg with eleven more prints from the retrospective subtitled and ready to go, not to mention the others that have never seen on these shores. The best buy of the month includes nothing but the most pristine transfers of: I Am Waiting (1957) directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, Rusty Knife (1958) directed by Toshio Masuda, Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) directed by one of my favs Seijun Suzuki, Cruel Gun Story (1964) directed by Takumi Furukawa, and A Colt is My Passport (1967) directed by Takashi Nomura.

Trouble the Water (2008) by Carl Dean and Tia Lessin [Zeitgeist]
Adding a much needed and very personal commentary to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, Trouble the Water tells the unbelievable story of Kimberly River Roberts and her 9th Ward neighbors who rode out Hurricane Katrina. Armed with a video camera, Roberts, who has no car and no money to comply with evacuation, keeps the camera rolling for as long as the batteries hold out. She and her husband do everything they can to help other people stranded while help is nowhere to be found. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin assemble this raw first-person footage into an overwhelming documentary that follows the Roberts for two years. As the bureaucrats point fingers, the Roberts and everyone they know struggle to carry on. Trouble the Water should be mandatory viewing, and a required addendum to Naomi Klein’s "The Shock Doctrine." The DVD supplements the information with deleted and extended scenes, conversations with the directors, subjects, film critic Richard Roeper and executive producer Danny Glover, and how Trouble the Water played out at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection [Sony]
No self-respecting kaiju fan would pass this set up, even if they do have other versions sitting on their shelves. Sony takes three sci-fi wonders from director Ishiro Honda and cleverly offers them in their original Japanese versions with subtitled and their American Saturday matinee versions complete with head-scratching cuts and cheesy dubs. All three of these films come on the heels of Honda’s international hit Godzilla, but show that he continued to be an innovator of the fantastic. The H-Man (1958) was blamed for ripping off The Blob (1958) even though it is chronologically impossible. Radioactivity, a constant evil in Honda’s films, has transformed six men into man-eating blobs. Detectives, thugs, scientists and a sexy nightclub singer find themselves knee-deep in a green ghostly mystery. In Battle in Outer Space (1959), the title says it all. The US and Japan join forces to battle the evil aliens called Natalians. Kaiju experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski offer an audio commentary. Mothra (1961) is probably the most well known film of the set. A moral tale that will make you think twice about kidnapping small fairies from uncharted islands, Mothra is a special effects masterpiece. Rifle and Godziszewski contribute a commentary on Mothra as well. Sony obviously does not understand fanboys. Three discs housed in one keep case with pretty bad cover art obviously misses to boat on design and the opportunity to charge a little more money.

Goodbye Solo
(2008) by Ramin Bahrani [Lionsgate]
Goodbye Solo may go down in history as the film that spawned the lame term ‘Neo Neo-Realism’ which would be really unfortunate. A.O. Scott’s New York Times article espousing the virtues of American-made low-budget features about people on the margins focused heavily on Ramin Bahrani and coincided with the opening of this film. In a catfight that only salaried critics could appreciate, Richard Brody used his claws and A.O Scott bristled about semantics and the quiet films were lost amongst the fur. Goodbye Solo seems to be a natural progression from the street-wise real-life meditations of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. While those first two films are set in NYC—where the tranquility is hidden within the storm—Goodbye Solo takes Bahrani back to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina—where Bahrani’s storm is hidden within the silences. Goodbye Solo is an unconventional buddy tale that matches an immigrant’s unwavering optimism with an older man’s resolute fatalism. More open to allegorical interpretation, Goodbye Solo is (in agreement with Scott) a film that lives inside of you for a long time after the lights go up. Having the opportunity to hear Bahrani speak, I know that the director’s commentary will be worth the price of the DVD.

Husbands (1970) by John Cassavettes [Sony]
Unless you have a good rep theater nearby or were around in 1970 when this film was release, chances are you have not seen John Cassavettes Husbands. Long unavailable, even on VHS, Sony restores the film to the original edit of 140 minutes that was paired down to two hours for its theatrical release. Archie (Peter Falk), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Gus (Cassavettes) are three middle-aged buddies who decide on ‘celebrating’ their friend’s death by going on an extended bender that includes some mid-life crisis purging. The three actors give the kind of messy emotive performances that Cassavettes usually reserved for Gena Rowlands. Made between Faces (1968) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), Husbands is a self-indulgent misogynistic romp that is unforgettable. Sony’s DVD includes a making-of and a commentary by Marshall Fine who wrote the book "Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film."

The Window (2008) by Carlos Sorín [Film Movement]
Argentinean director Carlos Sorín may be best know for his 2002 award winning film Intimate Stories, and, although he has hardly been idle, US distribution is a fickle thing. The Window has been making the festival rounds since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and has fortunately been picked up by DVD-of-the-month club Film Movement. The Window is full of big screen moments of silent beauty. With an aesthetic that is summed up in its quietude, horizons, stillness and elegance, it tells the simple story about Don Antonio in the waning hours of his life. Bedridden from illness, he waits for the arrival of his son, a famous pianist living in Europe. His preparations are less for his son than they are for himself. Taking inspiration from Wild Strawberries, a film Sorín fell in love with 40 years ago, he creates a film that is nothing less than a poem. As with all of Film Movement’s DVDs, the extras are sparse, but it includes a slightly disturbing short film from Spain entitled “Seventy.”

The Class (2008) by Laurent Cantet [Sony]
Although I know plenty of teachers (and many who have taught in some of the most difficult circumstances), my insistence that they see this film was met with the same response across the board: why would I go to see a movie about teaching? In some respects, I think Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning The Class reveals why they wouldn’t want to see it. Although extremely enlightening to me, it probably just reiterates the frustrations they face on a daily basis. The cast of non-actors (the teacher is played by a teacher and the students are played by students) lends this film an unequivocal sense of authenticity. Set in a multiethnic school in Paris, the film follows a class for one school year. The push-pull relationship of authority and pupil has never been so delicately portrayed, or if it has, I haven’t seen it. The DVD includes a 42-minute making-of and a commentary for selected scenes by director Cantet and actor/writer François Bégaudeau.

(2008) by Erick Zonca [Magnolia]
Tilda Swinton does her best award-garnering crazy lady in a film that is likely to be overshadowed by her over-the-top performance. Playing the character for which the film is named, Swinton is a middle-aged alcoholic who is dragging along rock bottom. The only thing worse than a drunk is a desperate drunk, which is exactly what Julia is—desperate for companionship and, after being fired and up to her ears in debt, desperate for money. With one wrong choice after another, Julia digs her hole so deep she herself can’t see her way out. Her solution? To blindly keep hurtling forward. As Julia’s character improvises, Tilda Swinton does the most incredible shape-shifting job of her career. The DVD includes 26 minutes of deleted scenes that convinced me that the lengthy 2 hour and 20 minute runtime was too short.

Icons of Screwball Comedy, Vol. 1 & 2 [Sony]
Although these eight films may have been icons of the moment, they have long since lost that status as Sony pulls films from Columbia’s vault of long-forgotten/never-heard-of films. And that is probably the best reason as any to cherish this two volume, four DVD, eight film set. Even if you don’t recognize the films, some of the stars will certainly ring a bell: Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Rosalind Russel, Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Loretta Young, and Ray Milland were all huge stars of their time. Here’s what’s included on the no-frills sets: Vol 1, If Only You Could Cook (1935), Too Many Husbands (1940), My Sister Eileen (1942), She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945); Vol 2, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), A Night to Remember (1942), Together Again (1944).

The Last Days of Disco (1998) by Whit Stillman [Criterion]
In a surprising move, Criterion releases Whit Stillman’s much debate and hated Last Days of Disco. If watching a pair of superficial friends navigate the New York City disco scene seems annoying, well, it is. But it is also funny and backed by an amazing soundtrack that takes me back to my childhood. Fortunately I was not in the clubs and certainly not in NYC in the early 80s, but change the fashions and change the songs and the vacant dialog could be overheard at a club near you. Chloe Sevigny makes her break from the Larry Clark and Harmony Korine slums in her passive but persuasive role as Alice. The DVD contains what you might expect from Criterion: essay, behind-the-scenes, deleted scenes with commentary and an audio recording of Stillman reading from his book of the same name. Naysayers beware!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

MnDialog: Twin Cities Film Log: A look into the near future!

Twin Cities Film Log: A look into the near future!

In this case, the future in now. Watching The Warriors last night at the Trylon was damn near perfect and that is just the tip of the iceberg. September and October look to be very good months for your inner film fan. Opportunities abound at the Trylon, Walker, The Heights, and even the Oak Street. I'm a shameless pimp for all four venues. Go over to MNDialog for the highlights.

Check out the upcoming stuffs here:

Trylon Microcinema
The Heights
Walker Art Center
Oak Street Cinema
Revolution Reel at Intermedia
Sound Unseen 10
Landmark Theater