Tuesday, December 8, 2009
"A dolphin's smile is nature's greatest deception."
That's a line given in the beginning of Louie Psihoyos's gripping documentary, The Cove. And the man who says it, Ric O'Barry, is one of the most intriguing subjects in a doc you'll see this year.
Ric O'Barry captured and trained the five female dolphins that played Flipper in the 1960s TV series. He lived twenty steps from them for close to ten years. But everything changed when Cathy, the lead Flipper, committed suicide in O'Barry's arms. The next day he was arrested for trying to free a dolphin from a marina and has spent the last 35 years trying to destroy the industry that he helped create.
Japan has brought the greatest harm to dolphins and Taiji, Japan is its torture room. This small, unobtrusive town -- that if you glance at it looks like the biggest fan of the mammal -- is, as O'Barry puts it, "the little town with a really big secret." In a tiny lagoon in the town dolphin slaughtering takes place daily.
Caught and dragged into the lagoon by fisherman, the dolphins are paraded for trainers looking for bottlenose dolphins -- looking for Flipper. The ones who aren't sold are killed for their meat. 23,000 dolphins are destroyed yearly for their meat, which in Japan is given out in schools, though they are incredibly high in mercury.
O'Barry has spent decades trying to expose what's going on in Taiji. He's brought out the BBC, London Times, Time Magazine and countless activists, but all have come away empty handed. Bullied and annoyed by fisherman until they are forced to leave, there is still no proof, only speculation of what goes on in the cove.
Psihoyos, who along with being a renowned photographer, created a nonprofit foundation, the Oceanic Preservation Society,met O'Barry and after hearing his story decided to take on the challenge of revealing what really goes on in Taiji. Enlisting a motley crew of thrill seekers and activists, Psihoyos and his team head off to Taiji to discover the truth. Using high tech gadgets, underwater cameras and covert cameras made to look like rocks and bird's nets, we follow the team's mission. Difficult to watch at times, it is visuals everyone should see and will hopefully help the survival of one of the sea's most fascinating creatures.
Lionsgate releases the DVD today. Features include a commentary with Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens. A documentary on the hazards of mercury in fish and a behind the scenes look at how the covert cameras were created.
Read our interview with Louie Psihoyos.
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Monday, November 23, 2009
Matteo Garrone’s masterwork Gomorrah is notable for what it is not. There is no macho camaraderie amongst thugs in social clubs as seen on The Sopranos. And there is nothing romantic about ‘the life’ of mobsters. While American audiences have been accustomed to the portrayal of gangsters having facile access to money, power and women with seeming impunity, they will be treated to a coarser, realistic depiction of the Naples crime syndicate known as the Camorra. Based on the eponymously named novel by Roberto Saviano, Garrone’s film bears more than a passing resemblance to socio-economic and cultural milieu of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados and Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, where squalor, death and hopelessness reign with no end in sight.
Five non-interrelated storylines take place in a colorless, prison-like Neapolitan housing project, itself a fiefdom of rival Camorra gangs. There is Pasquale, the fashion tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo), two young wannabes, Ciro and Marco (Ciro Petrone and Marco Macor), Franco, the waste management specialist (Toni Servillo), Don Ciro, the mob-bagman (Gianfelice Imparato) and Toto, the small associate (Salvatore Abruzzese). Each attempts to get on with their lives, knowing full well, there is no escaping from the tentacles of the Camorra, which influences every single one of their choices. None of the characters will have serendipitous encounters with each other and none can run to the government, which is noticeably absent, as is perhaps God in this part of the world. Each accepts as a fact of life, the Camorra as omnipresent and omnipotent. Either work with evil or be eliminated. Gomorrah focuses on the attempts of the victims to do what they must despite it all. Wider American audiences may not take to the lack of Hollywood flash in the film, but it will give them pause to think. They will think about the social conditions in which so many people live and shame the government into taking decisive action against organized crime.
The most fascinating of the DVD extras is the 60-minute segment entitled Five Stories, providing the behind scenes making of documentary for each of the five storylines. The doc’s camera sits back and records Garrone’s interaction with the cast, many of whom come from the slums depicted in the movie. Behind the camera, we can see Garrone giving many liberties to his actors to improvise both their dialogue and movements and to go with what feels real. Director Garrone cast for people deeply rooted to Naples and even according to their physiological appearances of the parts they played. But it is in casting non-professional actors, some of whom have more than a passing knowledge of organized crime, that gives Gomorrah its power. Take for example the most interesting segment of the Five Stories involving Ciro and Marco, the two young wannabes. They aspire to be like Tony Montana, naively thinking they can be independent of the Camorra and end up stealing a large cache of automatic weapons from one of the local crime factions. The man, from whom they steal, is in fact a real Camorra gangster, played by the boorish Giovanni Venosa, who would later be arrested after the film wrapped. The director reassures Ciro and Marco that the mobsters for the penultimate shot of the film won’t really hurt them. After all, these aren’t just actors.
Other extras include various deleted scenes along with interviews with author Roberto Saviano describing his first hand reporting experiences while living in the northern ghettos of Naples where the stories took place. Now he lives in the Witness Protection Program for having named names. One can only hope someone will take notice of this tragedy.
Gomorrah will be released by Criterion Collection this week.
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For his debut feature Tom Quinn took the hours of footage he shot of family and friends talking about dealing with divorce for a psych class as inspiration to create a touching story that meshes domestic issues with the culture of his native South Philadelphia.
After placing 13th in Philadelphia's Mummers Parade, which is held every New Year's Day where local clubs in elaborate costumes compete for prizes and bragging rights, the South Philadelphia String Band are stuck in a rut as their losing ways have gone on for decades now. For Mike (Andrew Conway) and his son Jack (Greg Lyons) the pain doesn't subside when they head home. Mike and his wife Lisa (MaryAnn McDonald) are separated and Jack and his younger sister Kat (Jennifer Welsh) are just starting to feel the tear in the family.
With a gritty handheld look, shot by Quinn, and great performances by Lyons and Welsh, the film follows a year in the life of the family as they struggle to stay together and Mike and Jack try to bring the string band back to its prominence. Quinn uses real Mummers and engrosses us in their community to create an authentic piece of regional filmmaking.
Along with directing and shooting, Quinn, a 25 New Faces alumni, also wrote the screenplay, edited, and produced the film (along with Steve Beal). Winner of the Grand Prize award at Slamdance in 2008, The New Year Parade was also nominated for our "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" award at the Gotham Independent Film Awards the same year.
Features include Quinn's interviews he conduced of people who have gone through their parents getting divorced, a making-of piece, and a history of the South Philadelphia String Band and the Mummers.
Carnivalesque Films releases the DVD this week.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
As he did in making his debut feature Ballast, Lance Hammer ignored all the conventional rules when he released the film last year. Originally slated to be opened by IFC Films, Hammer -- known best for his work in the visual effects department of Hollywood pictures like the Batman films of the Joel Schumacher era -- rethought his decision and came to the conclusion that it would be better to self distribute the film. Though the attention of his dramatic move led to more ink about the self-distribution/DIY model than any other time in recent memory, it's still hard to determine if it was the best move for Ballast (and this isn't the proper forum to explore that).
The film received instant respect from critics when it played at Sundance in 2008 and walked away with the awards for Director and Cinematography (for the splendid handheld 35mm camera work of d.p. Lol Crawley). It highlighted a different type of Sundance film as Hammer wasn't looking for a meal ticket to bigger-budgeted filmmaking. With no score, using untrained or unknown actors and a European aesthetic influenced by the works of the Dardenne brothers and Robert Bresson, in some ways Ballast is a blueprint of the recession-era filmmaking we're currently in -- a film that can find attention without the backing of the now extinct mini-major distributor.
Exploring the splintered relationship of a family living in the Mississippi Delta, we come into the story at the family's lowest point. Twin brothers, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) and Darrius, are in a rut and Darrius has committed suicide. Lawrence is soon to follow but a neighbor, who has found Darrius, hears the gunshot Lawrence has inflicted on himself and gets him help. Lawrence awakens ten days later to return home alone to a two house property he and his brother shared.
Hammer then moves his attention to Darrius's widow Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her son James (JimMyron Ross). We learn Marlee was into drugs and might have drove Darrius away. She's now trying to repair her life while in the mean time James is left to fend for himself, spending his time playing video games and hanging with drug dealers.
Darrius's death forces the three to come back together and through time the relationship begins to mend. But Hammer doesn't spoon feed sappy moments or heartfelt apologies. Instead the film (which warrants multiple viewings not just to marvel at the gorgeous visuals, but catch the plot points) gives a tone and mood similar to the season in the Delta. Dreary and cold with the hope of brighter days to come.
Disc includes an essay from Amy Taubin, and a breakdown of the improvisations of some of the key scenes in the film. Sadly, there isn't a director commentary or feature on the film's cinematography. Hopefully that will come in a future version.
Kino releases the DVD today.
Subscribe now for a digital issue to read our interview with Hammer in the Fall 2008 issue.
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Monday, October 26, 2009
With so much press given to Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah in '08 and '09 (and all of it for good reason) it's easy to forget fellow Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo also came out around the same time in both Italy and the U.S. Though not as chilling and much more stylistic and flashy than Garrone's mafioso epic, both films display the diabolical trifecta of politics, religion and organized crime that has plagued Italy for decades.
Il Divo explores the end of the reign of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti (better known in his home papers as the Prince of Darkness, the Black Pope, the Fox, the Sphinx, the Hunchback and Il Divo). A slouchy, bespectacled hermit, he doesn't look like a man who was one of the most powerful politicians in his country, but as the head of the Christian Democratic Party his acts led to the murders of high-level bankers, judges and journalists for decades (he was investigated for his role in the 1979 murder of a journalist who published allegations that Andreotti had ties to the Mafia and the kidnapping of Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro. A court acquitted him in 1999).
Like Gomorrah, if you have knowledge of the events or the main players you will appreciate what's going on a bit more, but Sorrentino does a good job of giving a cliff notes of the issues and events surrounding the 2003 trail accusing Andreotti of having corruption ties to the Vatican and the Mafia -- dubbed the "Trial of the Century" -- which inevitably destroyed the Christian Democratic Party. A prime minister three different times in Italy, and later given the title "Senator of life" (a position he still holds to this day at 90), actor Toni Servillo (yes, he starred in Gommorah) plays Andreotti in a tour-de-force performance.
Most of the film looks inside the lavish lifestyle Andreotti leads, though he is anything but. Rarely showing emotion (outside of a twirling of his fingers), Sorrentino and Servillo depict Andreotti as Italy's Richard Nixon.
With a powerful score and top notch camera work, Sorrentino creates a new form of bio pic that's hip and engaging.
DVD is out this week through MPI Home Video.
Read our interview with Sorrentino here.
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Friday, August 21, 2009
If you never saw Husbands during its brief release in 1970 through Columbia (mostly misunderstood by critics, audiences and even the studio that released it) or bought it on VHS, you've probably only heard of it through discussions people have of John Cassavetes' work or books written on the actor/director.
If you've read about the film, like I have, you're probably excited for this release, as for the first time, Husbands is being released close to how Cassavetes wanted it to be seen. It is one of my favorite chapters in Ray Carney's seminal book on Cassavetes' life and work, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber). In the book Cassavetes describes Husbands as the "...craziest, most painful project that I've ever been involved in."
At the time Cassavetes began thinking about making Husbands it sounds like it was motivated by money. He was still in post on Faces and had huge debts to pay off so he decided to make a film that would be extremely attractive to a studio. He asked his famous friends Lee Marvin and Anthony Quinn to play opposite him in a story about three guys who mourn the loss of their best friend by going on a alcohol fueled trip around the world. Unfortunately, when the three men met to work out the story and characters Marvin and Quinn did not get along, putting Cassavetes back to square one. Having always wanted to work with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, both highly touted at the time, he approached them for the roles and though he didn't have money or a studio for the film yet, showing them Faces sold the actors that they wanted to make a film with Cassavetes. This would be the start of a long collaboration for the two actors in Cassavetes films as Falk would star later in A Woman Under The Influence and Big Trouble and Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night.
Finding money through an Italian financier (there was only enough money for Cassavetes to shoot in New York and London, so the 'round-the-world premise got scaled down to the three husbands gallivanting across the pond for the second half of the film), Husbands finally had a cast, a greenlght and Cassavetes was riding high on the praise for Faces, which was released around the same time (1968).
Writing the script for Husbands through rehearsals Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara did a few months before shooting, like all his films Cassavetes was looking to capture true emotion and eliminate all cinema cliches that he thought plagued Hollywood. Many at the time thought the three actors were just goofing around while the cameras rolled, building the Cassavetes mystique that all his films were heavily improvised. But, as Gazarra states in the featurette on the disc, there were only a few times when they went off page. The singing contest scene, which is one of Cassavetes' most entertaining long scenes out of all his films, was made up on the spot after Cassavetes threw away the original scene of the three husbands sitting at a bar discussing the meaning of life. There are moments when the actors would adlib, but even that quickly crafted scene had a structure that Cassavetes stressed everyone to follow.
Like most of his dealings with studios, this one would be filled with confrontation. Cassavetes and Columbia fought throughout post on the length of the film. In fact, the cleverly created brief opening title card was done through necessity to save every minute for the film. At one point Cassavetes' preferred cut was running at 225 minutes, but got it down to around two-and-a-half-hours for the release. Columbia still wasn't satisfied though, so during the film's release in 1970 it cut 11 minutes out of the prints, though it was in violation of Cassavetes' contract he didn't have the strength or money to fight it. The 11 minutes (the last nine minutes of the singing contest scene and the first two minutes of the vomit scene) are in the film for this release for the first time since Cassavetes showed around his own cut of the film to promote the theatrical release.
The vomit scene is another thing that Colombia (and even some of Cassavetes' crew) hated. It follows the singing contest at the bar where we find Falk and Cassavetes hunched over toilets. You don't see anything, but there are loud vomit and farting sounds throughout the scene.
Cassavetes addresses the vomit scene and its meaning in Cassavetes on Cassavetes.
A lot of people got uptight about the scene in which Peter and I vomit in the men's room of a bar. The characters weren't vomiting just because they happened to be drunk; they got drunk so they could vomit -- vomit for their dead friend. Some people may find that disgusting, but that's their problem. When somebody dies, I want to feel something. I want to be so upset that I could cry, throw up, feel the loss deeply. If that offends some people, then let them be offended. I was watching television one night and the news come on and it said 500 people in Cleveland got up and left the theater, en masse, and the name of the picture was Husbands. [Laughs] I could only laugh at that because I thought, "Jesus, what did that contain that could affect them so?!" I'm such an optimist. I think, isn't that marvelous that you could make a picture that can scare 500 people out of the theater without having a moment of violence, a moment of anything that would be any way near controversial. Just the idea that people behaving in a way that is not acceptable can take 500 people and throw them out of the theater! Now, I've been bored with pictures, so if it's a boring picture I just sit there and at a certain point I say, "Let's go," but I won't get up and leave with 500 people because it's boring, so it must be doing something else to an audience.
Like anything Cassavetes made there was always drama behind the scenes. But what he's left behind is an amazing examination of human interaction and with Husbands we see his take on friendship and the trappings of marriage. The words that appear in the opening title card read "A comedy about life, death and freedom" and regardless if you agree with the husbands' actions in the film or not you have to commend what Cassavetes delivered through a studio, and with its release opening the door for other unconventional titles to come out of Hollywood throughout the next decade.
Disc also includes a featurette on the making of Husbands and commentary by author Marshall Fine. You can purchase here.
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Monday, August 10, 2009
Before there was Momma's Man there was The GoodTimesKid. In Azazel Jacobs's second feature you can see his style beginning to take form, meshing a punk-rock attitude with cinema influences as wide ranging from Chaplin to Jarmusch.
In The GoodTimesKid Jacobs and Drama/Mex director Gerardo Naranjo both play men named Rodolfo Cano. Both men learns of the other when a congratulation letter of enlistment in the Army is sent to the wrong Rodolfo (Naranjo), leading to the other getting drunk and into fights while Rodolfo II gets better acquainted with Rodolfo I's (Jacobs) girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz). Spanning 24 hours in Los Angeles' Echo Park, the film isn't as much a commentary on war as it is a funny look at loneliness and the hunger to find companionship in the world. Jacobs tells the story through small spurts of dialogue while Naranjo's blank looks matched with Jacobs' destructive tendencies make for subtle comedic moments.
Remastered beautifully by Benten Films, the disc also inlcudes commentary with Jacobs, Naranjo and Diaz, deleted scenes, Jacobs' short Let's Get Started, his father, Ken Jacobs' short The Whirled, which stars a very young Jack Smith and an essay by critic Glenn Kenny.
Click here to buy the DVD.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009
When a film is labeled controversial on its release, often times with the passage of time things that made it risqué become tamer, leaving the story less effective. Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is not one of those films.
17 years after being released, Ferrara's disturbing look at a dirty cop (played by Harvey Keitel in one of his most powerful performances) running rampant on the streets of New York City is still as gritty, horrifying and powerful as when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1992. Receiving a much needed special edition, out this week through Lions Gate, the film has grown in popularity through the years, as a new generation of filmmakers and film lovers, too young to have seen the film when it first came out, have embraced its honesty and amazing, no-holds-barred filmmaking.
Written by Ferrara and actress Zoe Lund (who stars in the film), the film examines the mortality of man and how power can be one of the most intoxicating vices. But it also explores a New York that no longer exists, as Ferrara calls it in the disc's commentary, "a cowboy, shoot 'em up time."
Guided through the late night New York City streets by LT (Keitel), dazed and confused most of the time, Ferrara's use of sports talk show host "Mad Dog" Russo in the opening credits sets a feel that's as tense and unsettling as the Dog's patented rambling, high-pitched voice.
The film's plot is very basic. LT is on a big case trying to solve who rapped a nun in Spanish Harlem while having a huge debt over his head from a bookie on the Mets/Dodgers League Championship Series (a fictitious event).
But the plot isn't what keeps you glued to the screen. It's Keitel's tour-de-force performance in which he portrays the most despicable anti-hero ever to be put on screen. (In the documentary special feature it notes that Christopher Walken was offered the role of LT first, but quickly bowed out stating he could never play this kind of part.) Like Ferrara's King of New York, some of Bad Lieutenant's best scenes are the ones where nothing is said. Keitel is able to convey everything you need to know in a scene through a blood shot-eyed stare, or stumble down a shady stairwell or bass thumping night club. "It's what you don't write that counts," adds Ferrara in the commentary. But when there is dialogue it's stirring. Like Lund's harrowing line after shooting up: "Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others, we gotta eat away on ourselves."
The commentary alone is definitely worth the purchase. Listening to Ferrara laugh hysterically at the most retched moments of the film is twistingly funny (the film's d.p., Ken Kelsch, also is with Ferrara on the commentary). And Ferrara shares entertaining stories, like getting Mickey Rourke to let them shoot some of the scenes at his suite at the Mayflower Hotel and the time Ferrara was offered to make a sequel to the film with the main character being one of LT's kids from the original film, now in his 20s (no, he never mentions Werner Herzog's remake). And if you ever wonder how they were able to get a crowd to gather around LT's car after being shot in the final scene, Ferrara says he basically yelled out "Hey, I think someone got shot" and had five extras look into the car, everyone else followed.
Disc is available here.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Hands down one of my favorite films of 2007 is this funny yet poignant documentary about a driven San Francisco Pentecostal minister who wants to make films.
Though I will admit I was a little late on the One bandwagon (I didn't see the film until we started screening titles to consider for that year's Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You for the Gotham Awards, which unfortunately, because of the talented crop of titles that year, wasn't nominated for the award), Michael Jacobs's film found a lot of success on the festival circuit, winning awards at SXSW, Silverdocs and screening at New Directors/New Films.
Pastor Richard Gazowsky saw his first film at 40. Soon after, he had a vision that he was to make a film company. In fact, he says he was told by God to "Be the Rolls-Royce of filmmaking." Through donations from his congregation (which totaled in the hundreds of thousands), Gazowsky created the company WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and began production on their first film, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, which the film's producer describes as "Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments."
Jacobs then follows Garzowsky's rag-tag group of unqualified cast and crew (all non union, found on Craigslist or from the church) as they move production to Italy to shoot the film. Soon the naivete of the people behind the production begins to become more apparent, revealing a behind the scenes look of a Christian sci-fi epic that turns into something similar to Lost in La Mancha.
Though Jacobs highlights a lot of absurdity behind the making of Gravity (Gazowsky's hilarious explanation of a bar scene, shooting the film on 65mm, the mystery investors in Germany, to only name a few), he and editor Kyle Henry never look down on Gazowsky and his team, and instead stays as objective as possible, which is the film's true testament.
The disc includes a great commentary by Jacobs, deleted scenes and the only scenes that have ever been shot of Gravity.
To purchase the film, click here.
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Directors Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden highlight the life and work of jazz great Anita O'Day in this beautifully packaged 2-disc DVD release spotlighting one of the last living female greats from the golden era of jazz.
Known as "The Jezebel of Jazz", Day died at 87 soon after the production of this documentary was complete. But as in her prime, Day comes off as a feisty lover of life in the doc, not shy to speak her mind and unapologetic of the mistakes she's made in the past.
Self-described as "not a singer, but a song stylist", Day, who is not as recognized by the layman as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, became known as more than the "girl singer" in the big band era when she went against the stereotypes and moved her body while she sang, along with giving passionate renditions which gave her a hip style that wasn't seen in performers before her but is certainly apparent in many since.
Using archival footage and interviews from friends, musicians, jazz enthusiasts and Day herself, the film chronicles her life through her music. Though she had a long battle with heroin, which included an over dose in 1968, Cavolina and McCrudden focus less on her demons and more on the indelible mark she left on not only jazz, but the arts itself (she's mentioned in Jack Kerouac's On the Road and in 2006 her music was rediscovered by a new generation when John Cameron Mitchell included her song "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" in Shortbus). Most of Days's performances in the film are shown in full, including her rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, which is immortalized in Bert Stern's doc Jazz on a Summer's Day.
If you can't get enough of Day in the doc, disc 2 includes 13 TV performances from Day, and there's a 32-page booklet with essays from author James Gavin and the Wall Street Journal's Will Friedwald. And if that's still not enough, you can get the Deluxe Limited Edition that includes a 144 page coffee table scrap book of many of O'Day's clippings through her career. Learn more about the film and how to purchase here.
If you love jazz, this is a must have.
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Friday, July 17, 2009
The recent release Empires of Tin (100 min, 16mm and DV, 2008) is a document of Jem Cohen’s program of projected films for live music performed on closing night at the Viennale (Vienna Film Festival) in 2007, which was entitled Evening’s Civil Twilight In Empires Of Tin.
Cohen’s images have always resonated in poetic ways, speed-of-time altered views of New York and other ancient cities, harsh but gorgeous B&W night scenes with pulsating light and drifting mist – somehow he makes fog appear everywhere he goes. With his past films, such as the moody Benjamin Smoke, the amazing portrait of Fugazi in Instrument , the wandering lost pet Chain and a big number of shorts, Cohen has carved out a strong following in the art film world in New York and with hip crowds who love the non-traditional film-poems – a format music videos should be dominated by, but only dip in frequently. With Empires Cohen is in full force, capturing buildings in decline, definitely physically, possibly morally, as well as various citizens lost in our modern world.
An all-star musician lineup consisted of Vic Chesnutt, members of Silver Mt. Zion, Guy Picciotto, T.Griffin and Catherine McRae. The music ranges from controlled echoes and the daunting lyrics of Chestnutt to war-inspired noise, an effective orchestra of our times reflecting on timeless images. A narrator reads from one of the inspirations for the piece, Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetsky March, speaking about lost souls and the horrible effects of war, destruction and monarchs.
Images come from present day NYC and from archives of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and WWI. Parallels between that declined world and ours are obvious, but never feel forced. First part of the DVD combines footage of the live performance (shot high quality, with great sound) intercut with the powerful images that were projected above them. The band is captured in a smart way, realizing the musicians as a vivid image, in color in front of the stark B&W. A second part of the film in the middle feels more like a film, color images with some more natural sounds and less images of the orchestra. Jem’s camera catches everyday life moments that resonate, like a strange man behind a chain fence talking to us, but with the sound of a empty street instead of dialogue. Unfinished architecture has its plastic wings whip in the breeze. Cars on freeway aas if they were blood pulsing through city. A third section of the film is like the first, striking city portraits and full accompaniment by the band.
While Cohen’s images are compelling, they don’t stand alone as a film. They feed the band which brings them alive, a true collaboration, which is great. This DVD should get Jem some new fans and re-affirm his consistency of making quality work that is gorgeous to see yet socially relevant.
I found the DVD randomly at a record store, like a lost pet – you can get it for $16 right here.
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Monday, June 15, 2009
If you're not familiar with David Kaplan's work this is a good CliffsNotes on his talents, which caught our eye back in 1999 when we made him one of our 25 New Faces of Independent Film.
With the main focus put on his 1997 Sundance short, Little Red Riding Hood, a black and white-shot adaptation of The Story of Grandmother folk tale, the disc also includes two other shorts, Little Suck-a-Thumb (1992) and The Frog King (1994). Kaplan's Riding Hood telling is a mix between Tim Burton and Guy Maddin with a little toilet humor sprinkled in with narration voiced by Quentin Crisp and stars a then 16-year-old Christina Ricci as a not-so-innocent Red. Along with being a calling card of Kaplan's love for fairytales and his original cinematic eye, the film has turned into a cult classic, even being used as part of the curriculum at Harvard, Oxford and Columbia.
The forklore theme is prevalent in all three works (as well as his first feature, 2007's Year of the Fish, which is a modern-day telling of Cinderella), with Little Suck-a-Thumb playing off one of Heinrich Hoffmann's popular Cautionary Tales that's to prevent kids from sucking their thumbs and The Brothers Grimm's classic The Frog King about a princess who finds a frog who turns into a prince. Along with telling engaging stories, which have many more meanings than the ones described above, Kaplan also uses amazing music in all of the shorts, including "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" in Riding Hood and "A Night on Bald Mountain" as well as "Ave Maria" in Little Suck-a-Thumb.
Mixing childhood curiosity with adult sensibilities, this is a must have for film lovers and filmmakers alike.
Disc includes a commentary by Kaplan and folklore scholar Jack Zipes. Buy the DVD here.
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Sunday, May 17, 2009
Stacy Peralta uses his knack for dissecting counter-cultures to highlight the two most violent gangs in America with Crips and Bloods: Made in America.
Since his breakout Sundance hit Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the iconic skateboarders who revolutionized the sport (Peralta was one of the Z-Boys), Peralta has stayed in the alt-sport realm as his second doc, Riding Giants, looked at the history of surfing (it was also the opening film at 04's Sundance). Now Peralta leaves his comfort zone to look at a world he's not directly a part of.
In telling the story of the Crips and Bloods, Peralta goes back to the Watts riots of 1965 which let out the anger African-Americans were feeling at the time towards not only their status in America but the brutality the police put on them daily. Segueing to the popularity of black power organizations during the time, gangs in South Central L.A. were at an all time low. But gradually long prison sentences or death to most of the positive black leaders by the end of the civil rights movement leads to the creation of the Crips which quickly attracts the disconnected youth. The Bloods quickly followed as a rival gang leading to decades of a blue (Crips) and red (Bloods) turf war in South Central with little intervention from the state on how to clean it up.
Peralta examines the rise of the Crips and Bloods through interviewing former or current members of the gangs, showing moving still photos, ghastly archival footage of murder scenes and speaking to mothers who've lost their children to gang violence. But Made in America, narrated by Forest Whitaker, isn't so much an expose on gang life as it is an optimistic story of hope. Rather than shocking the audience with the access he can get with the gangs or document initiations or drive-bys, Peralta portrays gang life as not a choice but an all-consuming inevitability for young black males in South Central. The sliver lining in all of this is that it seems gang members who are now middle-aged have seen their errors and are trying to portray a better environment for today's youth, but has the gang mentality become too deep-seeded in the neighborhoods? Peralta doesn't have the answers or attempts to act like he does, he lays out the facts in the hope that change can come on the streets as well as making the audience better understand the reasoning behind joining a gang.
In stores this week through Docurama, the disc also includes a making of feature as well as deleted scenes and interviews with gang-friendly rappers Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne.
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Monday, April 27, 2009
There comes a time in every star's career when he or she has to come to terms with the fact that they may not be relevant anymore. Most often actors don't have to come to this career roadblock as quickly as actresses because, frankly, it's a sad fact no one wants to write roles for a 30-plus women, though they have no trouble finding roles men that age -- except if they are action stars.
In the time Jean-Claude Van Damme was roundhouse kicking his way into the worshiping teens in the 90s he was as big a box office draw as Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Willis. But since then half of that quartet moved on (Willis to dramas like The Sixth Sense; Schwarzenegger to politics) while Stallone tried dramas (Copland) and failed which led to him to go back to the action thing (for better or worse) and resurrect his iconic characters Rocky and Rambo. Though for Van Damme drugs and personal problems dropped him off the Hollywood map and onto direct-to-DVD titles or films that only play in Europe or Asia, where he's still a draw.
This forces the now mid-40s Van Damme to assess his relevancy and what the Muscles from Brussels concludes is no one likes anything more than a star with a sense of humor.
Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD is in no way a spoof on Van Damme's career, but instead a study on the world's obsession with celebrity -- those who want to be near it, and those who crave to have it. The film opens with Van Damme being, well, Van Damme. In a beautifully choreographed sequence, he punches, kicks and shoots his way out of insurmountable odds to save the girl. But when the scene is botched by a gaffe by the set department we see how much everyone really cares about being on a Van Damme film when even the director doesn't care what happened. Why does Van Damme go through this abuse? We jump cut to find out he's in a custody battle for his daughter. But his fate his sealed when his daughter takes the stand and says she doesn't want to stay with him because she wants the kids at school to stop making fun of her.
With an agent who doesn't take him seriously anymore and lawyer fees he can't pay, Van Damme returns to Brusels to clear his head and plan his next move. But when he's caught in the middle of a bank heist he's once again thrust into the spotlight.
The plot surrounding the heist and eventual standoff is contrived, but that doesn't really matter, it serves its purpose to thrust us into the mind of a former star still hungry to be back on top. Mechri sprinkles in funny one-liners and a running gag about Steven Seagal taking all Van Damme's roles throughout the film but it's Van Damme's touching performance that is the most memorable. The highlight is his monologue towards the end of the film. Sitting in a chair in a dazed state the camera follows him as he seems to float towards the ceiling and finally settles up in the rafters exposing the set lights. Looking directly at the camera he talks about the highs and lows in his career, breaking down into tears mid way through.
Like the film, it has to be seen to be believed.
DVD on sale this week through Peach Arch Home Entertainment.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
What most fascinated me about this adaptation of Philip Roth's short novel, The Dying Animal, is that it's directed by a woman, Spanish director Isabel Coixet. As Roth is known best for his semi-autobiographical male centered stories with promiscuous themes, Coixet puts a refreshing twist on the womanizing David Kepesh character -- who also appears in two other Roth novels, The Breast and The Professor of Desire.
Not as well recognized as Roth's other main protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, Kepesh is a literature professor who has never had a problem attracting the opposite sex and often times is wooing more than one at a time. In Elegy (meaning a poem of mourning) Ben Kingsley plays Kepesh with equal stoic confidence and debilitating vulnerability.
A man who is going through the motions as a professor at Columbia as well as with his steady fling (Patricia Clarkson), when the beautiful Consuela (Penélope Cruz) enrolls in his class Kepesh is rejuvenated by her youthful (she's supposed to me in her 20s) curiosity of life while at the same time growing a pretty wicked obsession to her. (At one point he follows her and her date to the opera and hangs outside like a sad puppy dog. You get the impression Kepesh twenty years earlier would not have pulled a stunt like that.)
Coixet incorporates some beautiful shots in a film where there's not that much going on. If Kepesh and Consuela are not at his place having deep discussions (or sex), then Kepesh is with his married poet buddy George (Dennis Hopper in one of his better performances in recent memory) who eats up all his friend's juicy stories. There's also the subplot of Kepesh's troubling relationship with his son (Peter Sarsgaard). This here in lies the real man we're following -- one who wants to be young forever with no responsibilities; or any that he can't toss away at a moment's notice.
But who really holds the film together is Cruz. Though she deservedly won the Oscar for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, this is the film that gave her the greatest challenge this past year and is one of her best English speaking performance to date. In the scene following Kepesh's attempt to take the next step in their relationship and meet Consuela's family only to be paralyzed with fear and never show up, Consuela leaves a heart wrenching voicemail on Kepesh's machine. Only seeing his reaction to Consuela's voice on the machine, he crumbles before our eyes as Consuela's vocal daggers stick into him. This is certainly a scene Cruz would not have been confident to pull off a few years ago.
The film is on sale starting today through Sony Pictures, unfortunately special features are non-existent on the disk.
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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Nominated for Best Foreign Film and Best Actress for Kristin Scott Thomas at this year's Golden Globes, Philippe Claudel's debut feature stars Scott Thomas as Juliette, who's recently been released from prison where she's spent the last 15 years for killing her son and now reluctantly begins to rebuild her relationship with her family after her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), volunteers to take her in.
A tender story about redemption and forgiveness, Scott Thomas delivers one of the best performances of her career as a woman jaded by her past but slowly finds that she can make up for it by being a good aunt to Léa's daughters. Lea also must come to terms with the reemergence of her sister, who her parents forced her to forget while growing up and has caused her with a fear of giving birth (her daughters are adopted).
Claudel keeps the camera still and lets the actors tell the story, especially Scott Thomas, who we see transform from a cold ex-convict to a middle-aged woman with hope of a new life through the people who care about her. Though on a sidenote, it is strange to hear Scott Thomas speak in French, seeing she's so well known in her native U.K.
Sony Pictures Classics releases the film on DVD today. Outside of deleted scenes there isn't much in the disc's special features.
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Sunday, February 22, 2009
Unavailable for at least two decades, Eagle Pennell's landmark film has been lost in the conversation of influential American independent films. But with its low-budget filming, engaging yet hapless characters and Pennell's semi-doc handheld shooting of Central Texas, The Whole Shootin' Match is a precursor to almost any indie made today.
The film, shot on B&W 16mm, follows two slacker cowboys who spend their time chasing women and getting drunk while trying to cook up get-rich-quick schemes.
Legend has it when Pennell screened the film at the U.S. Film Festival in 1978, where it won the Audience Award, Robert Redford was so taken by what he saw he founded the Sundance Institute, which then took over the festival, renamed it and, well, you know the rest.
New Line Cinema distributed The Whole Shootin' Match, but unsurprisingly the film didn't do much business in 1979 and was soon forgotten while Pennell dug himself deeper into drugs and alcohol and eventually died penniless in 2002. But what Pennell left behind is a masterwork in low-budget, regional filmmaking. A good ol' boy version of Cassavetes, his influence can be found in films as varying as Return of the Secaucus Seven to Dazed and Confused and countless others.
Watchmaker Films has restored the film from one of the few existing prints in a beautiful package that includes a 48-page booklet with essays on the film and its creator, a bonus soundtrack disc of the film's twangy score by Eagle's brother, Chuck Pinnell, and a documentary on Eagle.
The DVD goes on sale Tuesday. It's certainly a must own.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Oliver Stone is no stranger to mixing presidents and controversy, so his look at the 43rd president in his latest film, W., comes to no one as a surprise.
But unlike JFK or Nixon, decades have not passed in Stone's look at George W. Bush. As time has judged the actions and events depicted in those films long before Stone made them, the wealth of information on Bush's decisions in office and our addiction to have everything instantly has lead to the making of a film that was released while its subject was still in office, and is probably its biggest flaw.
W. is in no way as stylized or provoking as Stone's earlier work (neither have returned to his films since 1999's Any Given Sunday), but with a tour-de-force performance by Josh Brolin as Bush Jr., Stone has arguably created one of his most engaging characters. A study of an underachiever who through tenacity (and a little help from the family name) reaches the heights no one every thought he could achieve, Brolin gives Bush an every-man likability (he is either eating or drinking in almost every scene, showing him as a common man) as opposed to his portrayal in the public-eye as a bully. Brolin is also able to play him convincingly from college to president.
Stone hits all the major moments in Bush's presidency (even some small ones, like the pretzel incident) but what's most engaging is not the heated discussions leading up to the Iraq War -- where Stone portrays Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell as the voice of reason and Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney as the tyrannical war hawk out to stamp the U.S. as the lone superpower -- but Bush's alcohol-fulled past, that's filled with stints in lock up, falling in and out of jobs and his emotional conflict with his father.
Bush's obsession with his father (played by James Cromwell) is the main interest for Stone. Bush Sr. has his middle son, Jeb, primed for the presidency, leaving George, the black sheep in the family, bitter and determined to make something of his life. (Similar in some ways to the Kennedy family.) Stone surmises this as the reason for Bush's blind stubbornness to go to Iraq -- to win the war his father couldn't and to get the man (Saddam Hussein) his father didn't.
Though there is a filmmaker's research and annotations guide in the special features, in the director commentary Stone admits that some of the events depicted in the film didn't happen exactly the way they are shown. He also simplified and condensed many of the key scenes. Regardless of the poetic license (which isn't new to Stone), the director puts the film best in the commentary during the closing credits: "It's got a feel for Bush, it may not be the real George Bush -- who knows who he is -- but it feels like him."
The W. DVD hits stores today through Lionsgate.
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Sunday, November 30, 2008
On Feb. 20, 2005 the grandfather of Gonzo journalism, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, was walking around his snow covered compound in Woody Creek, Colorado when he decided to point the gun he was carrying to his head and pull the trigger. For a man who lived his life with a glass of Wild Turkey in one hand and a hand gun in the other it was a fitting end. Now doc filmmaker Alex Gibney recounts Thompson's roller-coaster life and how his intoxicating prose changed journalism forever with Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Blessed with volumes of letters, photos, tape recordings and videos from the Thompson estate, Gibney holds nothing back as he pieces together Dr. Gonzo's life with the help of Johnny Depp's narration and colorful interviews from people who crossed Thompson's path like Jann Wenner, George McGovern, Jimmy Buffett and Tom Wolfe. Though some of the material covered is repetitive from earlier docs on Thompson's life, Gibney's attention to detail weaves a moving story that is as much enlightening as it is funny.
Some of the most entertaining and revealing footage is from a BBC doc that can be found in its entirety on the Criterion Collection's disc of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Shot in the mid '70s at the height of Thompson's fame we find him tucked away at Woody Creek shooting and snorting. But at a moment of clarity Thompson reveals his disdain for what he's become: a journalist whose gone from covering the story to becoming it. A theme that Gibney weaves throughout the film.
With the success of Hell's Angeles, his expose on the world of the biker gang which ended with them jumping him, followed by his seminal book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where the drawings of Ralph Steadman heighten the bizarre "trip," Thompson becomes a star journalist and Gibney shows Thompson can't handle it as he has to live up to his alter ego from Fear and Loathing, Raoul Duke, ending many relationships, including his first marriage.
When Rolling Stone puts him on the '72 campaign trail he disassembles political coverage and puts in his gonzo traits by starting rumors that get picked up on the wire and becomes a fixture for the candidates interested in getting the youth vote. But by the time he goes out to cover the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in '74 he's lost the fire and hits rock bottom. Floating in a pool with no sense of reality during the climax of one of the greatest fights in history, he returns home with no story.
The third act of the film is Thompson's revival of sorts in the mainstream as a new generation discovers his work, but without that drive he had in the '70s the ride isn't that strange and wonderful anymore and he takes his own life. Gibney lets the facts tell the story and never tries to romanticize or put a poetic twist on it, in many ways Thompson has done that for him.
The good doctor states it best in Hell's Angles:
"The Edge... the only people who know where it is are the ones who've gone over."
On sale now through Magnolia Home Entertainment.
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Monday, November 10, 2008
An intimate portrait of a pair of friends' struggle to get by in a post-9/11 New York, Ilya Chaiken's sophomore effort (her previous feature was Margarita Happy Hour) has an authentic feel of urban life and an impressive story arch that surpasses its low-budget expectations.
The film opens with Derrick (Al Thompson) and Tico (Kareem Saviñon) working on Liberty Island during the day and partying up at night. Though Derrick is more goal oriented than Tico, they both are stuck in the same rut when the Towers come down as they lose their jobs and struggle to find work. Though Derrick continues to stay optimistic about his goal to get out of Brooklyn and go to college, cash is running out and having to provide for his twins he teams with Tico to deal drugs.
The petty drug dealing angle soon runs out and when they get involved in other shady schemes for money the two part ways when Derrick goes to war and Tico goes to prison.
This is often where films in the urban drama genre end, with a message of the streets eating its youth, but Chaiken goes a step further with a surprising third act where the focus is put on Tico, who tries to reunite with Derrick, now back from Iraq with a thousand yard stare and stern outlook on life.
With top notch performances by its leads, especially Thompson who is a raw talent that deserves a break, Chaiken creates a deeply poignant film that leaves a lasting impression.
Out this week on DVD by Kino, features include audio commentary by Chaiken, Thompson and Saviñon, deleted scenes and conversations with Iraq War vets.
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Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The director known as blackANDwhite gives a rare and revealing glimpse into the mind and working habits of David Lynch. Sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre but always entertaining, the film is as experimental and abstract as the filmmaker it covers.
For those who are disappointed never to really get a sense of how Lynch works from the limited extras in his DVD releases, Lynch goes beyond the trademark chain smoking and weird hairdo to show an outgoing, pleasant human being with an insatiable creative drive and a love for Bastille Day. (It will make sense when you see it.)
Shot in black & white and color in different formats over two years, the main thread of the film is Lynch's preparation and filming of Inland Empire. blackANDwhite is there when Lynch announces the project to his devoted davidlynch.com members, through filming as he guides Laura Dern, whose look of excitement and attentiveness while listening to Lynch makes you think she'd go to the ends of the earth for her director.
Some of the best scenes are Lynch just siting at his desk telling stories. There's a series of tales about his time living in Philadelphia, the day as a kid when he came across a dead, bloated cow and tried to puncture it with his pick ax and his dreams (I'll let you imagine what David Lynch dreams about). There's also a great sequence where he oohs and ahs over the photos he's taken in dingy Polish factories.
But like Lynch's films it's the weird details that stick out for me in the doc. The most memorable is when blackANDwhite films Lynch recording the sound of an old record player. With a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth, the ash as long as what he has left of the cigarette, Lynch demands silence, and when he gets it begins turning the hand crank on the side of the player. A grinding sound comes out and after 15-20 seconds blackANDwhite cuts to a shot inside a moving train, a recurring image in the film, but when we've seen the shot previously there wasn't any sound, now he uses the grinding sound to substitute that of a moving train.
A beautiful transition that would make the film's subject proud.
Lynch is currently on sale through Absurda (a.k.a. davidlynch.com for $15.91).
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Sunday, September 7, 2008
Named one of 2007's 25 New Faces of Independent Film, Memphis writer-director Kentucker Audley's debut feature continues the mumblecore tradition of twentysomethings exploring life and love, but set out in the country where things are a little more laid back than the usual metropolitian mumblecore setting, Audley's (who's real name is Andrew Nenninger) tender tale of a young man on the cusp of adulthood is a loose, comedic look at a simple life that grows more complicated by the day.
Also starring as the lead, Audley plays a young musician who spends his days writing songs while lounging in his kiddie pool with his roommate (played hilariously by the film's d.p. Tim Morton) until he runs into Sarah and goes on a road trip with her to Chicago where he falls for her. But will this puppy love last when they get back home?
Our own Nick Dawson writes an essay for the DVD booklet in the Benten Films release. He writes:
Team Picture feels incredibly real and intimate, and much of this stems from Nenninger's ability to be uninhibited yet unpretentious in front of the camera. In the awkward interactions with his family, in the slowly burgeoning romance with the girl he meets next door, Sarah (Amanda Harris), or in the moments he sits silently and sadly alone, the camera is capturing -- but not altering -- his reality. One of Team Picture's great strengths is that it gives the illusion that we're watching people just being themselves. Nenninger's dialouge is scarily familiar, eschewing overly crafted Hollywood patter for the often comical idiosyncrasies of everyday speech. Tentatively signalling to Sarah that he wants to hang out with her, David tells her he has a kiddie pool. "Do you like enjoyment?" he asks, bumblingly. "There's actually room for more than one enjoyer."
Currently on sale, disc also includes director commentary, a new epilogue to the film, a short by Audley and deleted scenes. Cost: $21.95.
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Thursday, August 7, 2008
“The Robert Frank Project” is an ambitious long term publishing program from Steidl which encompasses every bit of images the great Robert Frank created. Known for his photography, primarily with his book “The Americans” (first published in 1958 in Paris and then in 1959 with a text by Jack Kerouac), Frank also made many films, wanting to capture narratives further than he could with stills. Rare and legendary, some of these films reached VHS and the internet trading craze of the 90s. Finally all of his films are being released on DVD.
Volume One may be the most known titles. The experimental short Pull My Daisy (1959), made with Alfred Leslie, is a beat poet freakout, written and narrated by Kerouac, taken from the third act of a stage play he never finished (called Beat Generation). Starring Allen Ginsberg and other notables from the scene, poets question everything as they stay with their railroad worker friend. It results in both frustration and elation, somehow, and succeeds in appearing real and improvised when it was supposed very controlled.
Also on volume one is the undefinable Me and My Brother (1968). Innovative, the cult film holds up to its own myths. Co-written by Sam Shepard, Brother combines films within films, questioning reality and documentary as we follow Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter's brother Julius within a fictional framework. Julius is catatonic schizophrenic, portraying himself in some scenes and by actor Joseph Chaikin in others, who worries that people on the street may think he is Julius. The interaction between real and unreal is pumped up by color and black and white sequences, filming cameras that are filming, and trips to a screening room to discuss the film you are basically watching. It is strange and remarkable, foreseeing today’s hyper-reality world in TV and the net, adding as much mystery as it explores.
The other volumes are great as well, highlights being OK End Here (1963) on volume two, a thoughtfully crafted short about a relationship ending starring Martino La Salle from Bresson’s Pickpocket. The fabled Keep Busy (1975) is on volume three, a short written (with actor improvisation) by Rudy Wurlitzer set in the unpredictable weather and psychosis of a remote island. Also on volume three is eight minutes of silent super-8 footage of the Rolling Stones in 1971, displaying great moments of them and street car washers.
As you would expect from Frank’s photography, the cinematography is strong and beautiful in all the films. Black-and-white, probably 16mm, with evocative lighting and framing. The fiction films are well crafted but keep their sense of realism. The documentaries are flowing, at times haphazard, catching the action with notable lyrical moments.
Also as you would expect from Frank's stills, the subjects are varied characters making up our complex society. Wounded souls of hip youth and a stuffy older generation, neither as strong inside as they are on the outside. There are alienations of individuals (OK End Here, About Me: A Musical) and large movements of motivated groups (Liferaft Earth).
The packaging makes me feel nostalgic for working in a vault, and guilty for renting DVDs instead of buying. The boxes replicate film archive cardboard with a metal can for each DVD. It is that physical experience and bookshelf beauty that all DVD companies should learn from if they are looking for sales – especially with art films and movies once thought lost. These are more expensive than usual for discs, so it will be interesting to see how it goes.
Only jabs: the metal tins left a little mark on the PAL side of the disc, though they all played just fine. In all, the transfers of the films are beautiful and fresh. But a few titles had some video artifact lines, looking like a transfer glitch from PAL to NTSC. The PAL versions did not have this when I checked both sides, so I’m doing the math. Did not ruin my watching experience. Heck, I’ve waited years for these.
Future volumes will number up to 10, featuring every film Frank has made, including the cult classics Cocksucker Blues (1971, about a Rolling Stones tour) and Candy Mountain (1987), and shorts from the last few years.
Published by Steidl and distributed by DAP/Distributed Art Publishers (www.artbook.com) for $125.00 a volume.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The vastly different worlds of Mardi Gras and Chinese factories meet head-on in Mardi Gras: Made in China. Asking the question where do those beads come from, director David Redmon captures the insane atmosphere of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where thousands and thousands of strings of beads are bought and given away to revelers. More common than just handing out beads is the ritual that started in the 70s of women flashing their boobs in exchange for a single string of beads.
The doc gives a down-to-earth view of a Chinese factory that makes the beads, showing the ins and outs of the workers’ daily lives, struggling at work. The factory owner is interviewed quite extensively as well, proudly stating how happy the workers are and that they don’t mind doing overtime or being penalized for failing to meet superhuman quotas or talking. Yes, talking. The film also shows he is full of shit.
Director Redmon does a great job dispelling that annoying myth that “oh its okay, ten cents an hour over there is a lot.” The factory is making millions as the workers (ironically, all female) plan strikes to be treated better and have the more apt saying, “its very hard to make a living.”
What I didn’t expect was a humanizing of the revelers – Redmon pulls a great move as he shows footage of the Chinese factory to the people partying on the street. While many partiers “don’t know, don’t care” where the beads come from, many realize the disparity of the two worlds. When the Chinese workers see photos of the New Orleans streets, they have a great reaction you should see for yourself. The doc is modest and straight forward, and all the more powerful for it.
The DVD also contains a 48-minute educational version of the film that is appropriate for PG audiences. A booklet contains a short diary from one of the factory workers. Deleted scenes add even more poignancy to the workers, as well as footage of the revelers you love to hate.
DVD is available from the filmmaker through carnivalesquefilms.com at $24.00 for individuals and $305.00 for educational institutions – the latter version contains many more extras, including commentary by David Redmon and Assistant Producer Ashley Sabin and additional interviews with Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt, Saskia Sassen, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Mike Presdee; and more....
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Saturday, July 26, 2008
With word that Quentin Tarantino has FINALLY begun work on a remake of Italian director Enzo G. Castellari's EuroCult classic The Inglorious Bastards, Severin Films has put together a remastered three-disc release of the original, the first time it's been available in the States (though there have been numerous incarnations -- you may recall Deadly Mission and G.I. Bro).
An homage to war films before it like The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes and Peckinpah's Cross of Iron but with a little more edge and a Spagheti Western feel (not to mention one of the best film titles ever created), Bo Svenson and Blaxploitation icon Fred "The Hammer" Williamson star as part of a rag-tag group of U.S. military convicts who are sent off to prison until an air raid gives them the opportunity to escape. But in their trek to freedom in Switzerland they find themselves thrust back into the war when they agree to take on a mission to hijack a train.
All the testosterone-filled '70s war film touchstones are there -- outcasts and loose canons who turn out to be the best solders America has, a no-way-out finale and violence in slo-mo.
I mean, the tagline says it all: "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did, THEY DO IT DIRTIER!"
Features include Tarantino interviewing Castellari, which has a fun back-and-forth on Taratino's hopes for the remake and Castellari explains how he had to get creative in some of the scenes after the Italian government confiscated all the guns in the production in fear that they would get into the hands of the Red Brigades (what they would do with prop guns is anyone's guess). There's also a featurette on the making of the film that includes all the principles and another where Castellari goes back to some of the memorable locations from the film (like the waterfall where the men come across a group of naked, gun-toting, female Nazis). The third disc only has the film's soundtrack.
In stores this week, the 3-disc goes for $29.95, and the single disc is available for $19.95.
This is an essential for your Grindhouse library.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
I gotta admit, I had no clue who Daft Punk was when I got a DVD of their first film, Electroma, in the mail. Now, I did vaguely recall the title because people were telling me that it was a bore (it premiered at Cannes in 2006). But after watching it I strongly disagree.
A beautifully shot, intimate story with no dialogue, Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter & Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) creates a touching commentary on life and the loneliness of being an outcast. In Electroma, we follow two robots -- decked out in matching jumpsuits with "Daft Punk" spelled out in rhinestones on their backs -- as they roar down the endless desert highway in a '87 Ferrari (almost a twisted homage to the video for "I Can't Drive 55") in search of being human...
What's the deal with the robots? Here's some backstory for those, like me, are Daft Punk novices: Legend has it that Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were in their studio on 9/9/99 when an explosion occurred at exactly 9:09 a.m. and when they gained consciousness they were robots. Now, back to the film...
Though most of it is just straight up bizarre, the imagery is gorgeous and at times plays with your mind. In one of the most meorable scenes, the robots walk down a long dark corridor and when they appear in a white room, everyone else inside has the identical white tone and the only time we can see them is when they walk in front of the dark clothed robots.
This is where the robots are turned into "humans," which doesn't work out well as once they get outside they're chased back into the desert. Then there's the conclusion, a disturbing yet touching finale of the robots fate that was all the more haunting by the piece of music they use to close with: the Jackson C. Frank song "Dialogue," one of the few times words are spoken in the film.
Electroma certainly has the makings of a Midnight Movie classic, and in no way is this a self-serving venture to build the Daft Punk brand. In fact, none of their music appears in the film and they aren't even the ones in the robot suits.
I'm excited to see what Bangalter (who also shot the film) and de Homem-Christo come up with for their next film. But in the mean time there's a lot to digest with Electroma. And I don't mean just the film. Currently on shelves through Vice Films (which brought us Heavy Metal in Baghdad) for $17 (on Amazon), there's a 40 page booklet of film stills. Talk about going all out on your first project.
You can read more about the film in our interview with Daft Punk.
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Monday, July 21, 2008
A town waits for two exiles to come home. The two (con-)men were leaders of a sort in the old days, then a social experiment of a farming community. Now abandoned, the townsfolk are almost ghosts, wandering through their daily lives. A bar offers some insanity to them. Even the children are harshly treated by the world. Upon their return the men have lofty ideas.
In the world of film, there are those titles that carry sixteen tons of weight when spoken about out loud. Sometimes it’s about the visuals. Sometimes an extreme run time. Or an even more extreme story or intense scenes. Bela Tarr's Satantango is legend for all these attributes.
Get past the geek factors of long single takes and a 7-hour running time – Satantango is a stunning film, in its visuals, in its story, and with its actors, all taking the audience on a unique ride. A shot of the men walking down a windy alley is breathtaking. An interrogation scene of the two con-men is deadpan funny. A bar dance is taken so far that you start to feel drunk. A teenage girl dealing with the world is gut-wrenching, but you cant look away.
Of course, if you really want to experience the film, you will need to watch the first 2 hours, then take a 15-minute break, then the middle 2 hours, then eat a quick meal, then the last 3 hours. In a recent screening in Los Angeles, hundreds of folks braved the day with the film. I’m used to seeing a bunch of films in a row at a film festival – but the effect of seeing a single film over a day is incredible. The scenes are longer than average, so in essence you are not barraged with a longer story or more events in a film than “normal.” Rather, you spend more time with the characters.
Tarr is a master - establishing characters within the strict style of long takes. You laugh by some scenes as much as you are completely shocked by others. The atmosphere is thick but realistic, that kind of poetic feeling you get walking through new cities and landscapes. Although whatever city this is, their tourism board is closed. Fans of Bresson, Cassavetes and Tarkovsky should definitely come knocking. Sociology/political majors and anyone in the mood for a new film experience will be thrilled as well.
Satantango is the rare film that stands up to its big expectations.
The booklet for the DVD unfortunately does not have an interview with Tarr. But it does have a great discussion about Tarr from three of the best writers around, David Bordwell, Scott Foundas and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Three discs for the film with an extra disc, which contains an hourlong television version of MacBeth that Tarr directed – consisting of only two shots; Journey on the Plain, a nice video of main actor and composer Mihaly Vig returning to the film’s locations (in color), and the short film Prologue, a beautiful piece Tarr made for the film Visions of Europe.
Available from Facets Video for $79.95.
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Friday, July 18, 2008
Nominated as one of the "Best Films Not Playing at a Theater Near You" at last year's Gotham Awards, Jeremy & Randy Stulberg's Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa examines a group of people who have given up the amenities we all take for granted to live an existence that includes little food, water and no electricity.
In the middle of the barren prairies of New Mexico, a small community of war vets, hippies and runaways live "off the grid" in what they believe is the last strand of the American Dream, but the Stulbergs find it more often resembles the Wild West. After getting over the sensationalism of these people's lives the directors delve into the society they have created with elders settling disputes and Marshall law deciding the rest (one resident puts it bluntly: "We don't dial 911, we dial 357... 357 Magnum."). Residents trade stories of being harassed by cops, or giving the reasons why they're living there, and though halfway through the film you're just thankful you have running water and an AC to help cool down, by its finale it changes to a respect for these people who are capable to live off the land and want nothing in return but to be left alone.
Disc includes deleted scenes, interviews with the film's subjects and director commentary. DVD is available through Indiepix for $24.95.
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Knee Deep tells the story of Josh Osborne, who has put his entire life into the family farm. Not just philosophically – he stopped school after 6th grade, he’s never taken a vacation, he has never been to a doctor. So after his Father dies he is shocked that his Mother wants to sell the farm and move on. With a cooperative girlfriend and friends with suggestions, he considers killing his Mother and taking the farm back. Odd thing is, much of the local community supports the idea. Even odder – someone does try to kill her. Now Josh is in the middle of a huge court case to figure out if he really did it.
Here’s the real kicker for the mystery film: Knee Deep is a documentary, not fiction. Balancing honest, first person interviews with Josh and everyone involved (except the Mother), director Michael Chandler tells the incredible story with an unobtrusive style. All the viewpoints are presented, and although the hard-to-believe facts are occasionally shown with some humor, each person is treated as a human being.
It’s just that the story is so incredible at points. Josh's girlfriend fell for him when she is 4 months pregnant with someone else's baby. Josh admits all along that he wants to kill his Mother, and most people support him. Yet someone else might have shot her. When the Mother shows up during the court case she sends it in a whole new direction.
Director Chandler also wrote and edited the Academy Award-nominated Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter’s Journey, the Emmy Award-winning Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven, and directed episodes of PBS’ Frontline. Knee Deep is as entertaining as any film noir, equal parts humorous and humanistic. It captures family pride and commitments as well as the crime story. Errol Morris and Herzog would be big fans.
DVD available from the official website, www.kneedeepthedoc.com for $24.95.
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Saturday, June 14, 2008
Highlighted in The New York Times as well as our magazine during it's impressive run through the festival circuit that included Toronto, Berlin and SXSW, Eddy Moretti and Vice magazine creator Suroosh Alvi's documentary on the only heavy metal band in Iraq is a gripping account of survival and the escape that music can bring.
The band, Acrassicauda (English translation: Black Scorpion), is comprised of a group of twentysomethings who learned how to speak English through watching Hollywood movies and listening to bootleg tapes of Metallica and Slayer. Moretti and Alvi first heard of the band soon after the fall of the Saddam regime when MTV's Gideon Yago went to Baghdad and came across Acrassicauda practicing. He would later write about them in Vice. The filmmakers stayed in touch with them and went to Baghdad a few years later to see if they were still alive. They were and what they captured would be their final performance in their homeland.
The film then hop scotches from Baghdad to Syria where a majority of Iraq refuges are moving to as we see the band members survive in a world that doesn't want them. And not because they play loud music. It's also filled with surreal moments in Baghdad that you won't find on the evening news like an interview poolside at a hotel next to a man swimming laps, but in the background there's constant gunfire.
Acrassicauda leaves their families in Baghdad and reunite in Damascus. There they put together a concert at an Internet cafe, the first time they've played since the final Baghdad gig. The reaction they get from the crowd, and the support of Vice magazine, motivates them to record three songs in hopes to get a record deal.
The film concludes with the band looking at some of the footage Moretti and Alvi shot in Baghdad and leads to an explosion of emotion from the group when they see their old rehearsal spot in rubble from a U.S. airstrike.
The strengths of Heavy Metal In Baghdad (which is executive produced by Spike Jonze) is its unflinching pursuit to not only highlight the remarkable drive the band has to charge on in light all the obstocles, including not being able to get visas because they're from Iraq, but while in Baghdad they shoot in areas that Western audiences have rarily seen, showing the city in a real, unfiltered light.
DVD is currently on sale through Arts Alliance America for $19.95. Disc includes a featurette picking up where Baghdad ends, deleted scenes, 3 live performances and an 8-page booklet including the Yago piece on the band.
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Monday, May 5, 2008
Winner of the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 followed by an impressive festival circuit run, Mexican director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's moving debut feature follows the events that occur during one day in New York City to a former soccer star turned Mexican restaurant cook (Eduardo Verástegui) and a fired waitress (Tammy Blanchard), who recently learned she's pregnant. The two take a trip to the burbs that reveals how the events of the past have made them who they are today.
A spotlight on Mexican family and commentary on Latino stereotypes as much as a touching drama on redemption, the film has many emotional moments, mostly during flashback sequences during the leads' monologues of their troubled pasts. But mostly the film is heartfelt and goodnatured, two refreshing elements that are often not found in the bitter, jaded world of indie films.
DVD also includes commentary by the director as well as a featurette on the grassroots journey the film took to find distribution.
On sale tomorrow from Lionsgate for $27.98.
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Sunday, March 23, 2008
A feminist voice, maverick filmmaker, or just an egomaniac? Filmmaker Henry Jaglom has been called many things and all of them are explored in Henry-Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman's brief (only 58 minutes) but entertaining documentary.
Armed with his trademark hat, loose tongue and nonstop-running camera, Jaglom explores the inner psyche of his actors and the audience by filming the "reality" of the moment in his films, no matter how damaging it may become to who he's filming. This style has led to comparisons to Cassavetes or Godard, and to some, a hack filmmaker with no talent.
Using archival footage (mostly shot by Jaglom), on-set visits of Jaglom's film Last Summer In The Hamptons (1995), and clips from his other films like Always, Venice/Venice and Someone to Love, Rubin and Workman shot interviews with people who've worked or admired him including Dennis Hopper, Candice Bergen and John Landis in the mid-90s. The doc originally aired on PBS in 1997.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is Jaglom's relationship with Orson Welles at the end of his life. Welles starred in Somone to Love and the two became close, talking often on set and off. This lead to a prickly moment in their relationship as Welles learned Jaglom taped many of the conversations they had (Jaglom says Welles knew they were taped). But this is just one incident in a career filled with weird motivations and incidents.
As we watch Jaglom from the set of Someone to Love, barking orders to his actors, trying to find the truth of the moment (no script in sight) to use for the film, moments later Jaglom listens back to some of his Welles tapes and comes across him saying, "I don't think the camera ever photographs the whole truth," which is interesting as it seems for most of Jaglom's life he's been searching for a truth through his.
Special feature includes Who Isn't Henry Jaglom?, a 30-minute interview with Jaglom looking back on the doc and his portrayal in it.
Released by First Run Features this week for $24.95.
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Saturday, March 15, 2008
Inspired by true events, director Ti West (The Roost) throws out the typical elements and traps of the horror genre to create what he calls an "experimental horror." Shot with one HD camera, West uses sparse dialogue, long takes and a haunting score to tell the story of three friends who travel from New York City to the woods of Delaware to hunt deer. Similar to films like Deliverance, The Decent or Open Water -- ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances -- the hunters become the hunted when a sniper begins to shoot them down one by one. But instead of focusing on the horrific event, West directs our attention on the inner struggle of the final hunter, Reggie (Reggie Cunningham), who rather than hauling ass out of the woods has a breakdown, which then leads to others getting killed when he searches for help. Reggie finally realizes he must hunt the sniper to get his life back.
Produced by Larry Fessenden, who also has a cameo, West creates a low budget psychologicall horror that if you stay with it has a payoff in the end.
Extras include a Q&A from the LA Film Festival. The main highlight is West explaining why a no budget movie with guns is a bad combination.
Kino releases the DVD tomorrow for $24.95.
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THE NEW YEAR PARADE
BAD LIEUTENANT: SPECIAL EDITION
AUDIENCE OF ONE
ANITA O'DAY: THE LIFE OF A JAZZ SINGER
EMPIRES OF TIN
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD
CRIPS AND BLOODS: MADE IN AMERICA
I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
THE WHOLE SHOOTIN' MATCH
ROBERT FRANK'S FILMS
MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA
THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS
OFF THE GRID
HEAVY METAL IN BAGHDAD
WHO IS HENRY JAGLOM?