Monday, July 23, 2007
Like Zodiac (reviewed below) Tom Tykwer's Perfume is a film that did exceptionally well at the foreign box office but tanked in North America. Unlike Zodiac, it's far more understandable why this film didn't appeal to American audiences.
The film follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) a man possessed with an extra-ordinary sense of smell. It's based on a novel of the same name by Peter Suskind although the book is far more comprehensive and cerebral. In fact, Stanley Kubrick once called it "unadaptable."
After a rough childhood at the mercy of abusive orphanages and labor masters Grenouille, lands an apprenticeship with a renowned Parisian perfumer played by Dustin Hoffman. His fixation is bent on creating the most perfect scent, a scent that will drive people into sheer ecstasy. He believes women (specifically virginal beauties) have the best natural scent and his goal becomes to distill the scent from their bodies, preserving the aroma. Of course this distillation process requires smothering them in animal fat, shaving their hair, then boiling the removed fat, a procedure to which most girls are adverse. Thus, the body count rises as Grenouille's plan edges closer to it's orgasmic climax.
This is a film that's obviously not for everyone. The pacing is slow and sinister and the overall tone is disturbing. The climax will leave some balking while others will look beyond at the metaphorical implications of Grenouille's actions, indeed the whole story itself is a metaphor about hollowness of obsession. Some viewers will be able to sympathize with the Grenouille, whilst others will find him purely repugnant.
The cinematography is the film's strongest suit. Lush fields of jasmine, intricate perfume shops and labyrinthine castles fill the screen. The shots are are very carefully composed and so saturated that the film plays out like a morbid fairy-tale.
The DVD is being released tomorrow retailing at $19.99 and like Zodiac it's pretty bare bones. There's one minor documentary that amounts to something you'd watch on E!, but there's literally nothing else. Unlike Zodiac there's no talk of a special edition coming out in the near future.
Perfume, although distinctly European in flavor, is definitely worth a look and it's possible that this film will garner a small cult following upon the release of the DVD.
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“Time has become unhinged” as stated in this stylistic, artsy feature debut by writer-director Sean Ellis. An extension of Ellis’ 2004 Oscar-nominated short, Cashback (2006) follows Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), an art student who develops insomnia after being dumped by his first real girlfriend. As a result, Ben decides to take a job working the nightshift at a local supermarket; he trades in his time and gets cashback. Among the colorful cast of characters that works the nightshift with him are Barry and Matt, two jokesters each with the mentality of a 16-year-old boy, Brian “Kung-Foo," archetypal-boss Jenkins, and delicate Sharon, who becomes the new subject of Ben’s admiration.
Naturally shifting between reality and imagination, the film is a constant stream of Ben’s consciousness as he masters the “art” of time manipulation. Time speeds up around him, slows down, freezes. He creates for himself a frozen world, safe and untouchable. Between the seconds, Ben is able to admire the beauty of still life, emotion, and the human body. Flashbacks to his childhood throughout the film show his early fascination with the female form. Through Ben’s eyes, even nudity, porn, and stripping are turned into art.
Shot in 20 days and written in seven, the comedy-drama keeps the audience engaged in every second, the element of speed complimenting the film’s steady pace. In spite of the film’s swift execution, it was made with an amazing attention to detail; the cinematography and uniquely interesting shots were carefully matched with the music and storyline for an ultimate artistic and edgy film. At the same time, the film’s dramatic elements—the emotional soundtrack, heavy shadows, and Ben’s broken heart—are lightened up by its witty humor. This story, told and seen through an artist’s eyes, is itself unmistakably a work of art.
Cashback was released by Magnolia Pictures in limited US theatres on July 20th and will be available on DVD for $24.29 on July 24th.
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Zodiac was one of the highest rated films this year and you don't have to take my word for it, just look at rottentomatoes.com. But never underestimate the vapidity of the average American movie-goer as the film didn't even gross 35 million at the North American box office. Instead viewers were drawn to the erudite and socially conscious Wild Hogs the weekend Zodiac premiered which out-grossed David Fincher's penultimate work three-fold.
Maybe it was the two and a half hour running time that dissuaded potential viewers who were saving their attention span for Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Maybe it was the "procedural" nature of the film that shifted focus as the Zodiac investigation progressed. Maybe it was because Brad Pitt, Will Smith or Adam Sandler were nowhere to be found. But for whatever reason, the film tanked.
None-the-less, North America will have a chance to watch the film at their own pace this week as a bare-bones edition of the film hits shelves retailing at a cool $17.99. By bare-bones I mean no commentary, no documentary, no interviews, no nothing. In fact, the only addition besides the film is a preview for a 2-disc "Directors Cut" of Zodiac due out next year. Apparently Fincher is too busy working post for Benjamin Button to be available for special features.
The film centers around the infamous Zodiac killings largely from the point-of-views of the press and police investigators. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Robert Graysmith a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the killer and whose subsequent books the film is based. It also delves into the investigation of two detectives, inspectors Toschi and Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards) whose investigation is severely hindered by sub-par police work and bureaucratic red tape.
This is a fantastically shot, incredibly detailed, and superbly executed film, I recommend everyone who didn't see it in the theatres to get to the video store or rearrange your queue because this really was one of the best films of the year. I can't in good conscience endorse the purchase of this particular DVD as you'll want to hold out for the special edition that's on the way.
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Friday, July 20, 2007
"I think that concepts such as intellectual cinema and intellectual montage have no future. Cinema will remain an emotional area, and one must film what one has experienced, felt, suffered, and not what one has constructed."
The poetic gaze of Andrei Tarkovsky's camera has tugged at the heart's of film connoisseurs for generations. It's unfortunate, however, that his debut film Ivan's Childhood has been unavailable on DVD until this Tuesday. The film is certainly the most accessible out of Tarkovsky's canon and even viewers who found Solaris and Stalker oppressive should still easily enjoy this cinematic masterpiece.
The story centers around the titular character who acts as a spy on the Russian front during the German invasion. We learn that his family has been killed and that Ivan feels an obligation to exact vengeance. The film moves along over the course of two days where Ivan has returned from a reconnaissance mission and is in an argument with the commanding officers over whether or not he is to be sent back to the country for military school. Before a decision can be reached Ivan is needed to go through the German lines, a mission which he eagerly accepts.
The film is full of lush dream sequences that are presentiment of Tarkovsky's later work. Scenes of birch trees, horses, water, rain, and dimly lit barracks propel the viewer into Ivan's world and it's hard not to feel right next to him. The ingenious cinematography is also one of the films major attributes. Shot in glorious monochrome the film is chocked full of one unforgettable composition after the next.
This is a film that's aged well and kudos to Criterion for giving it the treatment it deserves. The digital transfer is absolutely flawless and I'm not exaggerating in the least, this is one of the best transfers Criterion has ever done. There's not one scratch or grainy image to be found and the film has a startling clarity as if it were a fresh print out of the tin. I saw this on a regular television so I can't even imagine how good it must look on HD.
The extras are spare but there's plenty of Tarkovsky goodies on other DVD's anyway (Andrei Rublev, Solaris). The disc includes a video interview with Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson and new interviews with Nikolai Burlyaev (Ivan) and cinematographer Vadim Yusov. The liner notes also contain two interesting essays, one by scholar Dina Iordanova and one by Tarkovsky himself.
The price listing is 29.95 which isn't bad for a light Criterion disc and it's definitely a film collectors will want on their shelves.
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I admit it, I'm obsessed with Severin Films' DVD ouput as of late. Their recent releases include titles by cult maestros Walerian Borowczyk, Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci; their website list of upcoming releases is a mouthwatering roster of 70s Euro rarities.
Out now is a forgotten gem called Laure ($29.95), touted as being written and directed by (and starring) Emmanuelle Arsan: author of the now-infamous book Emmanuelle. This is and isn't exactly true, but I'll let the bonus features on the disc explain the whole story.
Laure is a soft-focus little gem starring Annie Belle as the title character, a free-spirited female who encounters hunky Al Cliver (of Zombi 2 fame) on the way to hear her Professor dad speak at a local university in Manila. Immediately smitten, she brings him along and soon he's caught up in her world of intellectual, libertine friends and lovers. As our sexy cast heads into the jungle to find the lost Mara tribe (reknowned for their enlightened sexual philosophy) every taboo is broken.
If it all sounds a bit like the plot of a lost Emmanuelle movie, well, it basically is (It even was released as Forever Emmanuelle in some territories). Belle proves as ideal and likeable a heroine as needed to pull this sort of thing off, and Cliver is game enough to match her. A kick-ass score of groovy lounge/psychedelica heightens the mood.
Sexy, stylish and good-natured fun, Laure is an ideal choice for your next swinging singles cocktail party.
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Monday, July 16, 2007
One of the more unusual DVD notices that crossed my desk recently was a press release for 1985-1986, the DIY animation by Evan Jacobs. Released by his Anhedenia Films this week and available at Amazon as both a DVD and digital download the pic is described as "Charles Schulz meets Larry Clark" and is Jacobs' attempt to make some sense out of his childhood years while paying homage to the great youth movies of the era.
From the press release:
"I knew absolutely nothing about animation when I got started, I just wanted to document a portion of my life growing up in Orange County, California." Jacobs states. "I'd written this script when I was on tour in 1997 and I just wanted to see it made. Due to budget constraints animation was the only way."
Visit Jacobs' website, linked above, for more info on the film, or search for it this week on Amazon.
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On July 24th you can own Korea’s highest grossing film ever, Joon-ho Bong’s The Host (Magnolia). The plot centers on a family of misfits who must band together after the youngest member is taken away by a mutant creature that’s been terrorizing citizens near the Hang River. The creature is a result of American chemical dumping and although this gives the film a socio-political veneer, it’s the amazing camerawork and inventive incorporation of CGI that really land this film among the best released this year.
Much critical praise has been heaped on the film for not following the general suspense convention of keeping the monster hidden until the third act. This, plus the inclusion of generous amounts of comedy provide a truly original film going experience. The Host reinvents a genre riddled with clichés and bombast and the DVD is a must own for any cinema connoisseur.
The DVD is available is either a one-disc ($26.98) or a two-disc collectors edition ($29.98). Both editions include deleted scenes and a brief retrospective by Joon-ho Bong. Both also include a mediocre commentary weakened by the fact that it’s in English (which Mr. Bong doesn’t completely have command of) and by an annoying British interviewer who has the uncanny ability to make one of the most exciting films of the year appear mundane. The two-disc edition also includes The Making of The Host featurette, Designing the Creature featurette, storyboards, Puppet Animatronix featurette, a Memories of the Sewer featurette, and a gag reel. The video and audio transfers are both top notch and both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats are available.
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Sunday, July 15, 2007
Watching Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, which has been beautifully re-mastered by Criterion in a 2-disc package ($39.95) available this week, two things come to mind: 1) How forward thinking Wilder was and 2) how the movie ever got released.
Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a despicable newspaper reporter who stumbles upon a man trapped inside an old Indian burial cavern in Albuquerque, N.M. and creates a sideshow out of it. Though Tatum has a nose for scoops, his ego and determination to escape the desert and get back to the big city causes him to destroy everything in his path and inevitably himself.
In fact, from the first frame you instantly hate Tatum. Getting towed into town in the opening scene, which is up there as one of the most pride swallowing entrances in film, Tatum has the look of a man on the raise as he pulls right up to the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin as if he were being chauffeured. Shouting to the tow truck driver to stay put, he waltzes through the hallway with a condescending “How” to a Native American as he passes by. Tatum is hardly the kind of character we remember Kirk Douglas playing (though before Ace In The Hole, he wasn’t quite nice as Midge Kelly in Champion, either), but Tatum is a treat to watch. With the Oscar nominated script by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman combined with Douglas’s over-the-top performance, you get a film that’s part noir, part commentary on the soon-to-be American media circus.
That’s the forward thinking of Wilder. Though Ace In The Hole wasn’t appreciated at the time of its 1951 release, Wilder’s look at the Tabloid hungry public holds true today as 24-hour news channels make three-ring circuses (Ace In The Hole was once titled The Big Carnival) out of kidnappings, mine disasters or a certain heiress going to jail. One of my favorite shots in the film is after Tatum convinces the rescue team to ditch the practical (and quicker) option of re-securing the cave walls with beams to rescue Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) for the riskier (and longer) choice of drilling through the cave, the camera pans from the drilling to the once barren land around the cave which is now full of people and rows upon rows of cars who’ve come to be part of the “festivities.”
And it’s hard to believe the stuff Wilder got away with in 1951. Armed with the motto, “bad news sells best because good news is no news,” Tatum never thinks twice as he connives his way into the heart of Leo, the poor sap suffocating in the cave. While at the same time using his callous wife (Jan Sterling) to keep playing the victim, though all she wants is to finally get away from her husband (Tatum keeps her there by slapping her, and in another scene chocking her, which begins our anti-hero’s downfall). And then there’s the sheriff (Ray Teal), who Tatum uses to ward off the rival reporters with promises of re-election. There are no do-gooders here. Even the family who drives in to see what they’ve been reading in the papers has to brag that they were the first to show up after the news hit.
The supplements include an audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard, a documentary by film critic Michel Ciment on the life of Billy Wilder, which if you don’t know much about the director is somewhat informative, a 1984 interview with Kirk Douglas that doesn’t reveal much and an entertaining afterword by Spike Lee. Who reveals that he used the final shot from Ace In The Hole in Malcolm X.
But supplements shouldn't be the draw for this. The biggest treat is seeing arguably Billy Wilder's most controversial work that’s been hidden for the most part since its release.
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Saturday, July 14, 2007
The archetypal image of the clown or buffoon is one that has been with us through the ages, since at least the days of the medieval court jester. Fittingly, his history in cinema has been a rich and vital one, clowns being referenced by filmmakers as diverse as Fellini, Lynch, and Jean Rollins. On television, shows like The Simpsons and Garfield have clowns as popular recurring characters.
Over the last 20 years os so, it's become de rigueur to detest or fear clowns, this concept perhaps realizing it's ultimate incarnation in Stephen King's insipid It, and the painfully pedestrian mini-series that was based on the novel. In this age of post-modern, hipster irony, it seems the painted funny man has no place other than one of derision and mockery.
But if we're talking clowns, the granddaddy of them all would have to be Bozo, that nostalgic breath of Americana that ruled children's programming from 1949 to the 80s. Physically imposing and in complete control, he was nonetheless a clown we felt was on our side, and who understood what kids really liked. Originally played by Pinto Colvig, the character would go on to huge success Stateside and internationally, thanks mostly to Larry Harmon, perhaps the best-known Bozo. An actor with a a flair for marketing, he was savvy enough to buy the rights to the character and expand the popular local TV broadcasts to foreign markets.
Infinity Entertainment's brand new DVD, Bozo: The World's Most Famous Clown ($39.98), is a four-disc set that brings us a wealth of Bozo goodness, from prime vintage episodes to bonus animated shorts. As kids' entertainment, it still works. For adults, it's a fascinating, almost surreal look at an innocent time when a clown was still a child's best friend.
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