Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

3 April, 2014 (10:28) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Scarlett Johansson

The recent spate of superhero movies all share the same peculiar dynamic. After being dropped from buildings, incinerated, and slammed with high-speed projectiles, their characters invariably end their epic battles with a definitive . . . fistfight. You can’t kill them with incredible punishment, but a bout of pugilism is supposed to settle things. In the end, of course, a black hole or something opens up and withers the villain’s magic skill set. But it says something about these oversized productions that they need to bring everything down to hand-to-hand basics—as though somebody realized how dull a movie can get when the antagonists can’t actually be hurt.

The same outline prevails in the second top-lining film for its old-fashioned superhero. And the first thing to be said about this one is that, unlike 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which existed purely to set up Marvel’s 2012 ensemble summit meeting The Avengers, Winter Soldier is actually a movie: It has a story, a subtext, and a few fun pulp surprises along the way.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol. II’

3 April, 2014 (10:23) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jaimie Bell

Seeing Nymphomaniac Vol. II a couple of weeks after Vol. I is more than just a case of cinema interruptus. It proves how much the opus needs to be seen as a single picture, preferably in one go. So intriguing in its first couple of hours, Nymphomaniac scrambles to get back into gear as Vol. II resumes the story; more nagging still is the feeling that while the material darkens, it doesn’t necessarily deepen.

We return to the room where Joe, a no-longer-young sex addict—though she prefers the term nymphomaniac—is recounting her life story to the intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård).

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Videodrone Classic: ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’

3 April, 2014 (08:38) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah | By: Sean Axmaker

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), one of Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorites of his films (and the rare Peckinpah film not to get reworked by the studio), opens on an idyllic river scene with a pregnant girl soaking her feet in the lazy current with a beatific smile on her face. In his great westerns, the river scenes are the brief escapes from violent lives in his character, reprieves in the middle of the drama before they march back out to meet their fates. This comes before the story even begins and once the spell is broken by the violence of a brutal father, a Mexican crime lord played by Peckinpah regular Emilio Fernández, and a $1 million bounty placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the unborn child, there is little peace or paradise to be found.

Warren Oates stars as Benny, a grubby lounge pianist playing for tourists in a Mexican dive when a couple of American hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) saunter in looking for information on “an old friend.” Benny thinks he’s hit the jackpot—a whopping $10,00 for giving them proof that Alfredo Garcia is dead (yes, they want his head)—but it costs him everything that matters and the tawdry treasure hunt turns into a revenge drama.

It plays like a pulp noir thriller by way of a road movie of the damned, marinated in mescal and left to rot in the desert sun. Benny’s not that smart or savvy but Peckinpah clearly loves this small-timer with his wrinkled white linen suit and clip-on tie and bad cantina sing-along songs. He may be a loser but he truly loves his philandering girl Elita (Isela Vega) and he develops more backbone with every stage of the odyssey. When he’s double crossed, he literally drags himself out of a shallow grave and returns with vengeance on his mind, fueled by rage, tequila, and a perverse loyalty to the rotting head he’s come to talk to like a father confessor. The film opened to scathing, outraged reviews (one notable exception was Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece”) but has since been embraced as a perverse masterpiece, the ultimate cult film in the career of a defiantly confrontational director.

Twilight Time gives the Blu-ray debut of this film more original supplements than any previous release from the label. The 55-minute documentary Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film is a new production from German filmmaker and Peckinpah fan Mike Siegel featuring a wealth of interviews with Peckinpah actors and collaborators. A new commentary track by Peckinpah historian and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman with Alfred Garcia co-writer and executive producer Gordon T. Dawson is paired with a track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman previously recorded for the film’s DVD debut. There’s a new 25-minute video interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, who was on the set of Alfredo Garcia, and a gallery of stills and promotional art, plus Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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Videophiled Essential: Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’

2 April, 2014 (09:04) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.

Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.

Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

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Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Knights of Badassdom’

1 April, 2014 (08:44) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Knights of Badassdom (eOne, Blu-ray, DVD), a modest little horror comedy set in the fantasy gaming LARP (that’s Live Action Role Playing) culture, has a good time sending up its obsessive nerds and cosplay veterans gathered for a weekend championship of stage combat and mock-Shakespearean patter. Then it unleashes a succubus from hell on them. Actually it’s Steve Zahn’s Eric, a mage armed with a really cool ancient tome he bought off Ebay, who summoned up the demon during gameplay. It was an honest mistake but the body count is real enough, especially when his Hail Mary pass of a reversal incantation merely turns the hot succubus into a scaly demon who wades through the would-be warriors like a kid stomping through his toy soldiers.

The producers line up a low-budget cast with high genre cred and they too seem to have a good time: Ryan Kwanten (the spacey Jason of True Blood) as the aspiring black-metal star reluctantly dragged along by his buddies, Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as the stoner who preps by downing a bag of shrooms, and Summer Glau (Firefly) as the warrior babe all too used to the geek boys hitting on her. Jimmi Simpson and Danny Pudi (Community) are well cast in supporting roles. They don’t play caricatures of gaming obsessives so much as overly enthusiastic fans carried away with the theatrics of it all. The film was reportedly recut without the participation of director Joe Lynch and the result looks a little like something tamed down for a general audience, but the attitude and energy keep it going through the familiar rhythms of the story. And refreshingly for an R-rated comedy, this is geek-girl friendly, with Glau shrugging off the advances and outbattling everyone with hearty high spirits and wit. No gratuitous nudity here but plenty of over-the-top stage gore, the kind of goopy excess that makes demons-versus-mortals violence less rather than more realistic.

The most substantial supplement is the Comic Con panel with director Joe Lynch and six stars of the film (all the major cast members apart from Zahn). There’s a seven-minute interview with Lynch and a handful of brief cast interviews and featurettes, all less than two minutes apiece.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

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DVD: ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’

31 March, 2014 (15:59) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The title of the The Broken Circle Breakdown, a major hit in its native Belgium and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in the U.S., is a riff on the American country spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is the story of a great love and a devastating loss, and it indeed confronts a breakdown, both figurative and literal, in the family circle. The song opens the film, performed by a bluegrass band in Belgium fronted by Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a one-time punk rocker who fell in love with American roots music. He learned to play the banjo because it’s the closest instrument to the wail of the rock guitar. At least that’s how he explains it to Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who has turned her own body into a canvas for her work, on their first date.

That first date comes later in the film. Our introduction to Didier and Elise is in 2006 as they await results from a test that their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), named for Maybelle Carter of course, is undergoing. They are trying to hold it together to give their little girl all the strength and optimism they can muster. As this present-day drama unfolds, we slip back seven years to the early, heady days of their romance. It’s practically love at first sight and they form an instant connection; the way the flashbacks jump through their life together, it looks like she moves in the next day. Their personal harmony is picked up in the band, where she joins the ensemble in duets with Didier, then as a lead singer and guitar player. His stunned, defensive reaction to the news that she’s pregnant is the only sour note of their love song and he quickly recovers by starting a verse.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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Blu-ray: ‘Dead Kids’ (aka ‘Strange Behavior’)

31 March, 2014 (06:57) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.

Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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DVD: ‘Young America’

30 March, 2014 (06:58) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 depression-era drama as Jack Doray, a hardware store owner with the wise-guy manner of a mug and the high-society lifestyle of an industry magnate, but Young America is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon). Art is a hard-luck saint among the kids of neighborhood, a good boy with bad judgment, and Conlon, a child actor in his first major role, plays him with the spunky spark of a well-meaning kid with a quick temper, a can-do attitude, and a weakness for taking unattended cars on impromptu joy rides.

Based on a play by John Frederick Ballard, Young America is a script built on clichés and contrivances to give us a kid whose generosity of spirit and loyalty to defenseless friends, notably skinny little creative genius Nutty Beamish (Raymond Borzage, no relation to the director), constantly lands him in trouble. “This boy has the reputation of being the worst boy in town,” says the old Irish cop of his neighborhood to juvenile court Judge Blake (Ralph Bellamy), one of those paternal authority figures who mixes compassion with tough love. Art gets his compassion, but it only gets him so far when his latest “good deed” gets him arrested for robbing Jack Doray’s pharmacy (to get medicine for Nutty’s sweet but frail grandmother, of course).

Frank Borzage makes good use of Tracy, who was a busy actor for the Fox Film Corporation in the early 1930s but not yet a major movie star. His Jack is both a street-smart businessman and an arrogant high-society gent whose time is too valuable to waste on a minor legal manner that drags him into juvenile court.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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Film Review: ‘Sabotage’

29 March, 2014 (11:20) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Joe Manganiello and Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’ve seen enough TV pharmaceutical commercials to diagnose symptoms when I see them. And I can confidently say that no one involved with Sabotage is suffering from “low T.” This is a very high-testosterone movie. The female characters score especially strong on that scale.

In the early going, the hyperactive macho joshing and intense gun-fondling threaten to wreck Sabotage completely. But writer-director David Ayer builds something sneaky along the way, and the movie turns into a smarter action flick than it first seems.

The obnoxious idiots at the center of the action are, I’m sorry to say, on our side.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Blu-ray: ‘The Prey’

29 March, 2014 (08:39) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

France has been resetting the yardstick on international action cinema for over a decade, thanks largely to a successful slate of mid-budget action films from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp featuring the likes of Jason Statham, Jet Li, David Belle, and Liam Neeson, but that brand of slick, sleek, colorful continental thriller is not the only flavor coming from France. Eric Valette’s The Prey goes for rough-and-tumble grit over slick Luc Besson spectacle with mixed results. It’s a clever idea – a bank robber has to escape prison when he learns that his former cellmate is actually a serial killer who has targeted his wife and child – sustained largely on momentum and stunts that practically leave bruises on the screen. It’s the sloppy scripting that trips it up.

Albert Dupontel has an appropriately scuffed-up quality as Franck, a hard-luck bank robber serving out the last months of a sentence for a successful hold-up so he can walk out a free man and retrieve the hidden haul. He doesn’t trust anyone (he keeps the location of the stolen money a secret from his fellow gang members) but makes the mistake of asking his cellmate Jean-Louis (Stéphane Debac), a seemingly meek religious-fanatic whose claim of innocence seems born out when the case is overturned, to reach out to his wife. Once he learns the truth from an obsessed police detective (Sergi López) he turns a prison beat-down into an escape opportunity and the manhunt is on.

Alice Taglioni is the beautiful and tough-as-nails Detective Claire Linné, the kind of female cop who goes undercover as a hooker so she can break out in badass mode while dressed like a tart.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of March 28

28 March, 2014 (08:56) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Marcello and Federico

Among the highlights of the new Senses of Cinema, an excerpt from the expanded and freshly translated Fare un film (released in English as Fellini on Fellini) has the director explaining how his intimidation at becoming a director, fostered by the sight of Blasetti, imperious on a crane with “shiny leather boots, an Indian silk scarf around his neck, a helmet on his head, and three or four megaphones with twenty or so whistles around his neck,” evaporated once he toured the Italian countryside filming with Rossellini; Susan E. Linville on the complexities of the “squaw man” western, whose ‘50s variations, with their tendency to “counter the dominant image of the Western celluloid hero as a self-reliant, self-sufficient loner with images of cross-racial connection and interdependence, images that nudge legend a bit closer to history,” prove more progressive than their fatalistically anti-establishment descendants in the ‘70s and beyond; and Tom Ryan on three adaptations—from Stahl, Sirk, and Kevin Billington—of Cain’s The Root of His Evil, the looseness of the phrase adaptation in the context of Hollywood suggested by Sirk’s apparent misunderstanding

The Bowery is a trampling, brawling, insensitive film, but there can never be any doubt that Walsh loves this scene, guys with names like “Googy Cochran from Joisey City” and “Mumbo,” German brewers speaking Katzenjammer Kids patois, and everything else that composes what Bill calls the ‘fine American mess.’” That’d be Gangs of New York’s Bill the Butcher, of course, and Nick Pinkerton, prompted by a BAMcinématek pairing, finds plenty to link the “gleefully offensive” films, with Fuller’s Park Row providing intermediating spackle.

Read more »

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Film Review: ‘Noah’

28 March, 2014 (08:08) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe

There has always been something a little Old Testament about Darren Aronofsky’s films, so maybe it makes sense that he’s going back to the source for his new movie. The director of Black Swan and The Wrestler is on board with the original disaster epic: Noah and the flood. Armed with the latest in computer-generated effects, Aronofsky is quite serious about this telling of the biblical tale — even grim, you might say. Noah, played by a glowering Russell Crowe, is a man convinced that his Creator plans to drown the world.

Curiously, Aronofsky shrugs off a couple of staples of the Sunday-school rendition of the story: Noah’s social ostracizing for believing in the flood (and the resulting gotcha when all the nonbelievers get soaked), and the majesty of the animals heading two-by-two into the ark. This Noah focuses on a moral fable.

Continue reading at The Herald

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From Animals to Arks, How ‘Noah’ the Movie Compares to the Bible

28 March, 2014 (07:58) | by Sean Axmaker, Interviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The new movie Noah, director Darren Aronofsky’s $130 million epic retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, carries this advisory: “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.”

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’

Noah has been banned in some Middle Eastern countries, and attacked by some Christian critics for taking liberties with scripture. Aronofksy told the New Yorker that “Noah” is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” hardly the kind of comment to calm the faithful

Fair disclaimer, but it’s likely not one that will reach all filmgoers who see “Noah” with the expectation that the Aronofsky’s version will closely mirror the biblical series of events. For a little scriptural background and film fact-checking, Steven D. Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register and his own website, Decent Films, and a Bible student at the Archdiocese of Newark viewed the film before its release. The experts’ general verdict: there’s a lot that closely mimics the epic story, but some liberties are taken. Warning: Spoilers for the film obviously follow.

Is the word God missing from the film as some critics have charged?

No, says Greydanus. “For the most part, God is referred to in the film as ‘the Creator’ and this is a creative choice that I think does a lot for the film. It helps to defamiliarize the language somewhat, it makes the figure of God a little more mysterious to us.” But His name is clearly spoken when Ham, second son of Noah, says to Tubal-cain: “My father says there can be no king. The Creator is God.”

Continue reading at NBCNews.com

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Film Review: ‘The Face of Love’

27 March, 2014 (06:48) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Ed Harris and Annette Bening

From its impossible title to its tortured plot, The Face of Love sounds like a good candidate for a “Lifetime Movies That Were Never Actually Made” category. A woman sees her late husband’s exact double, starts a romance without telling the new man about the resemblance, and causes woe to all concerned. Because—let’s just note this for the record again—she doesn’t tell him about the resemblance. Tortured.

However. While The Face of Love might well be a failure because of its delayed-revelation contrivance, there is something in this movie that haunts. For one thing, the two actors at the center of its story are well above the level of a cable-TV production and visibly eager for this kind of meaty emotional material.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Videophiled: Asghar Farhadi’s ‘The Past’ and Bruno Dumont’s ‘Camille Claudel 1915′

26 March, 2014 (12:47) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

PastThe Past (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Digital, On Demand), Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning A Separation, relocates from Iran to Paris to tell an equally nuanced story of the complications of marriage, romance, family, and communication. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris from Iran to finalize a divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and steps into a family drama involving his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new man (Tahar Rahim), their angry and resentful kids, and a mystery that is really none of his business, which he investigates with a gentle remove that allows him to gloss over his own baggage until he, too, must confront his own issues and failings.

Like A Separation, The Past is a beautifully observed portrait of people who fail to communicate and the assumptions that accrue in the void of understanding, and a sympathetic presentation of flawed people who don’t always make the right decisions and aren’t even always honest with themselves, and he takes his time weaving defining details through the fabric of their lives. Bérénice Bejo, so bubbly and bright in The Artist, is remarkable as Marie, struggling to work through her own resentments after four years of separation with Ahmad.

In French and Farsi with English subtitles. The Blu-ray+DVD release features both formats in a single case plus commentary by director / writer Asghar Farhadi, a filmmaker Q&A from a screening at the Directors Guild of America and the featurette “Making The Past.”

Camille11915Juliette Binoche stars in Camille Claudel 1915 (Kino Lorber, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), Bruno Dumont’s portrait of the artist during her imprisonment in an insane asylum and based on her correspondence with her brother Paul Claudel, a poet and Christian mystic whose compassion for his fellow man appears more theoretical than practiced. As Camille, famed sculptor and one-time lover of August Rodin, she is an anxious storm of anger and loss, racked with paranoia (she’s convinced that Rodin and his cronies are engineering her imprisonment and trying to poison her). But her greatest loss is not freedom but the ability to express her artistic drive and she is lucid compared to the other, seriously mentally challenged inmates. Her expression reveals an instinctive revulsion for these fellow patients, no doubt in part for the implicit suggestion that she is one of them, but also a compassion when she faces not the patient but the vulnerable human in need of help. The staff sees it in her too and they trust her to look after one or another of the patients at times. The savage duality of so many of Dumont’s characters and cultural collusions from previous films are seen here, but there’s also caring and compassion, at least until the film shifts to her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent) and the insufferable piety that commits service to God at the expense of those on earth. French with English subtitles.

More new releases on disc and digital, including The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Beauty, and The Punk Singer, are at Cinephiled

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