Film Review: Wish I Was Here

18 July, 2014 (08:39) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Pierce Gagnon, Joey King and Zach Braff

In the long-lived sitcom Scrubs, Zach Braff proved his comic timing and a willingness to be silly. And like so many actors who succeed with comedy, it seems Braff cannot stop wanting to be serious. He wrote and directed the 2004 indie hit Garden State, which captured a moment for millennial viewers. In that one, the funny stuff was funny, and the serious stuff played like someone wanting to be taken seriously.

Braff’s return to directing is Wish I Was Here, and again, comedy is not enough. In this one he stars as Aidan Bloom, an L.A. actor (that is, he auditions for parts he doesn’t get) whose life is frittering away.

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Film Review: ‘As Is It in Heaven’

17 July, 2014 (07:15) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘As It Is in Heaven’

The new spiritual leader of a small religious sect in the American South has received the word. That is, the Word. And the Word is that the group must become purified to be sufficiently prepared for the final days, which—according to their own in-house prophet—will arrive about a month hence. Along with their usual rounds of preaching and praying, this will mean intense fasting. That sacrifice will get them back up to speed for the deliverance to come.

This setup provides not only the countdown structure of As It Is in Heaven but also its style. This low-budget indie is itself purified, stripped bare, and ornament-free.

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Film Review: ‘A Summer’s Tale’

17 July, 2014 (07:13) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Amanda Langlet and Melvil Poupaud

The movie of the summer in 1996 should have been A Summer’s Tale, a wise and bittersweet romance by then-septuagenarian filmmaker (and French New Wave co-founder) Eric Rohmer. But it didn’t get a chance to be. While the film did enjoy a regular release in Europe and was seen at festivals, for some reason it never actually opened in the U.S. for a regular run. This absurd oversight is finally rectified, as the movie is enjoying a proper arthouse go-round at last.

A Summer’s Tale, or Conte d’été, was the third film in Rohmer’s four-seasons cycle. (Somewhat confusingly, Rohmer’s 1986 Le rayon vert was titled Summer for the English-language market.) This one’s about a would-be musician named Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) who travels to the Brittany seaside for a summer break before his grown-up duties beckon.

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Review: ‘Le Secret’

16 July, 2014 (10:50) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?

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Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson gets ‘Under the Skin’

15 July, 2014 (18:08) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

UnderSkinUnder the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.

This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.

Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and VOD at Cinephiled

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Barry Jenkins: Long Story Short

15 July, 2014 (08:45) | by Sean Axmaker, Interviews | By: Sean Axmaker

‘Tall Enough’

Barry Jenkins currently calls San Francisco home but he was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Claxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That’s where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he’s continued to make short films.

“I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “The majority of these films, and I guess it’s how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying ‘Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?’ and me going, ‘Sure, I’ll make something.’ I’m never going to turn down an opportunity to make something.”

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Blu-ray: ‘Sleep My Love’

14 July, 2014 (22:46) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Douglas Sirk, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

A romantic thriller in the Gaslight vein, Sleep, My Love (1948) is a shadowy melodrama with an atmosphere of Gothic thriller by way of high society film noir, and it grabs your attention immediately with a kicker of an opening: a train speeding through the night, Claudette Colbert waking up in a sleeping car with a scream, a panicked run through the passenger cars. Where is she, how did she get on a night train to Washing D.C., what is happening? Colbert is New York heiress Alison Courtland and, back in their Big Apple mansion, Don Ameche is her husband Richard, a man with a plan under his sensitive show of concern. As he patiently explains the police, this isn’t the first incident where she’s been disoriented or confused. And as the police prod him for details, he reluctantly reveals a gunshot wound on his left arm. Yes, he admits, she shot him, but she wasn’t in her right mind.

Richard seems too good to be true as the concerned, protective husband trying to cover for his wife’s mental slips, in part thanks to Ameche’s overly-earnest performance and theatrically soft-spoken response to every crisis. And he is, as we discover early in the drama. The train trip and public breakdown is part of an elaborate scheme, a piece of theater stage managed by the sinister-looking Charles Vernay (Orson Welles veteran George Coulouris). He’s a co-conspirator, pulling strings while Richard plays the nurturing husband, and he even endures the unwanted presence of Richard’s sexy mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who lounges about Charles’s photography studio between romantic assignations.

Continuing the Gaslight comparison, with Colbert in the Bergman role of the heiress being driven crazy and Ameche as the husband playing the mind-games, Robert Cummings would be her Joseph Cotten, in this case incarnated as handsome bachelor Bruce Elcott.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

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Review: ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’

14 July, 2014 (11:34) | by Ken Eisler, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Movietone News contributor

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Brian Clemens did some of the funniest, spiffiest episodes of the delightful British TV series The Avengers. In this first feature film, an intermittently serious, Hammer-produced exploration of horror flick conventions, he tracks and pans through the woods, around carefully lit and furnished interiors, like an old pro. Mise-wise, it’s all really more than satisfactory; but whaddaya do when it’s sendup time and you look around and you got no ineffable Lady Peel (Diana Rigg), no stylish John Steed (Patrick MacNee)—just this chesty, übermenschy blond leading man (Horst Janson) and this chesty brunette love interest (Caroline Munro), neither of them exactly lighter-than-air in the comedy department? Well, you win a few and you lose a few, is what you do. You put your Aryan master swordsman on top of a hill and have him attacked by a small mob of angry, lumpen townspeople; have him kill everybody in no time flat, doing lots of fancy foot- and swordwork; have him grin and flash gay Douglas Fairbanks looks at Miss Munro, stationed at the bottom of the hill, laughing maniacally, during the carnage. Throw her a wink. It’s a lead balloon. But then, eclectic British technician that you are, you decide to stage another action scene, in the middle of a horror movie, as an irreverent homage not to the horror genre itself, but to Westerns. And for some reason, it works.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Nutty Professor’ 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

12 July, 2014 (17:18) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.

Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.

Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.

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DVD: ‘The People vs. Paul Crump’

12 July, 2014 (13:16) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Paul Crump, an African American Chicago man convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a meatpacking plant and sentenced to death in 1953, had faced 14 stays of execution when William Friedkin, a young television producer, took on his story. The People vs. Paul Crump became his directorial debut, a documentary that eschews any pretense of balance and instead makes Crump’s case directly to the viewers. This is documentary as advocacy, championing a cause with passionate and persuasive filmmaking, and the filmmaking is indeed provocative and compelling. The first shot of the film, an evocative shot of Crump leaning against the prison bars of his cell while another inmate blows a harmonica, comes right out of a social drama of injustice, immediately putting our sympathies with Crump.

It starts conventionally enough, with newspaper reporter John Justin Smith narrating in hardboiled newsman mode as he outlines Crump’s case with a mix of historical fact and personal connection. Smith introduces us the man behind the story in an interview that plays out like an old movie, with Smith hammering questions at Crump like a tough but committed investigative reporter grilling an indicted politician, skeptical but moved by the testimony and the compromised evidence against him. Crump comes off calm and measured in his responses and his confessions of other crimes and failings give the ring to truth to his account of events. Then Friedkin jumps from the static new newsreel interview style to a stylized recreation of the crime with actors playing out the robbery on the actual locations. Friedkin shoots it with a mobile handheld camera, a cinema verité style by way of a B-movie crime thriller or hard-hitting exploitation exposé.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of July 11

11 July, 2014 (09:32) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

‘The Big Racket’

After a sensible warning against film critics drawing too many real-world implications they barely understand from movies that maybe have politics less on the brains than they’d like, Nick Pinkerton proceeds to a fine analysis of 1970s Italian politics based on Anthology Film Archives series The Italian Connection: Poliziotteschi and Other Italo-Crime Films of the 1960s and 70s.

“What makes Landis the artist tolerable is the sense that on some level Landis the moralist sees what he has done and will not let himself off the hook, even if the world (and Landis the survivalist) have managed to do just that.” Steve Johnson may be straining a bit to read Burke & Hare as a confessional from its director, then again, as he points out, there’s always been a slippery relation between genre and personal expression in Landis’s films, and if any director has some confessing to do he’s the one.

English highlights from the new issue of the bilingual journal desistfilm include Claudia Siefen tracing Kore-Eda’s humanistic lens back to his documentaries, patiently observed encounters with schoolchildren and sufferers of AIDS and amnesia; Adrian Martin, as part of a dossier on diary films, praising the ground broken by David Holzman’s Diary and the delicate absence of the filmmaker in Naomi Kawase’s Like Air/Embracing; and Craig Baldwin, interviewed by Mónica Delgado, talking about the many ways outsider perspectives get homogenized. (“Not only the commercial world, but also the academy, and the Art world itself, try to “recuperate” and co-opt many of these alternative gestures, and so it is difficult to stay out of the vortex that draws Difference and Otherness into the black hole of their illusion.”) Via David Hudson.

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Film Review: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

11 July, 2014 (08:49) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Robert Horton

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

After much adversity, Caesar — the leader of the simian takeover of Earth — must admit a hard truth. His bickering, backstabbing ape brethren are much more like humans than they’d care to admit.

Ouch. Caesar’s grunted insight comes as no surprise as we’re watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: the human population is not behaving admirably in the wake of the health apocalypse that killed off most of the population. In the time since the collapse, the apes have only gotten stronger. As you no doubt recall from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the successful 2011 reboot of a dormant franchise, the renegade primates got new brain power from an experimental drug and are just beginning to talk.

The best thing about Dawn is the opening 20 minutes or so, spent entirely with non-humans.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

10 July, 2014 (07:38) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor

The problems of squishing down a novel to fit a two-hour movie are familiar; when a complicated historical setting is added to the mix, things really get thorny. Half of a Yellow Sun tackles a decade or so in Nigeria’s tortured chronology, from its early years of independence to the disastrous Biafran war that divided the country in 1967–1970. The pattern is cut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s prize-winning 2006 novel, and pattern is about all you can discern in the film’s dutiful but sketchy treatment.

The early scenes in post-colonial Nigeria are vivid and saucy. We meet two sisters, Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Dreamgirls dynamo Anika Noni Rose), who’ve been raised in wealth and educated abroad.

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Film Review: ‘Venus in Fur’

10 July, 2014 (07:35) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric

In this adaptation of the 2010 stage play by David Ives, Roman Polanski casts his wife in the main role and makes his leading man look as much like himself as possible. As tempting as it is to read autobiographical intention into these decisions, I think it’s probably wise to take them as sardonic jokes. It’s much better to simply watch the French-language Venus in Fur as an extended and often hilarious riff on power plays and erotic gamesmanship, both of which are offered here in ripe-flowering abundance.

Venus in Fur features just two people on a single set. The conceit is that a stage director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is caught at the end of a day of auditions by an obnoxious, gum-chewing actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). He’s casting the lead in an adaptation of the notorious 19th-century novel Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—you know, the guy who put the Masoch into masochism.

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Film Review: ‘Third Person’

10 July, 2014 (07:31) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Olivia Wilde

Paul Haggis has had such a curious career, it’s no wonder he seems to make movies with no regard for fashion or demographics. The Canadian-born filmmaker labored for years as a TV writer/producer before scripting two successive Best Picture Oscar winners, Million Dollar Baby and Crash (he also directed the latter). He then co-wrote a couple of James Bond pictures and the somber Iraq War movie In the Valley of Elah, and caused a rumpus in 2011 by loudly resigning his longtime membership in Scientology.

Someone with a resume like this—did we mention he also created Walker, Texas Ranger?—likely has little left to prove. That might explain the untethered quality of Third Person, which Haggis wrote and directed.

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