Friday, August 24, 2007
In this indie cross-cultural romance meets Sex and the City, Parker Posey is unexpectedly cast as heroine Nora Wilder, a New-Yorker in her thirties with a cynical outlook on life. Since we’re used to seeing Posey play odd-ball, unusual, quirky roles, she adds dimension and edge to Nora’s somewhat generic character. (After countless casual encounters with men — including a self-centered movie star played by Justin Theroux — Nora asks herself the cliché “what’s wrong with me” question regarding her unremitting singleness). We don’t immediately fall in love with this heroine — because we’re not used to falling in love with Parker Posey — but that’s okay. She grows on you. It makes Broken English more than the typical picture-perfect romantic comedy.
The film starts off slow. Whether intentionally or not, the pace parallels the slow drag of Nora’s daily life and routine. Fortunately, this drag is soon interrupted by a mysterious Frenchman, Julien (Melvil Poupaud), who appears in a prop-like cowboy hat: he’s charming, charismatic, cute, funny, sexy. Combined with his persistent pursuit of Nora despite her difficult, cold, and cynical attitude, Julien seems to be Mr. Perfect. She’s the opposite. He’s impulsive, spontaneous; she’s jaded, realistic. That is, until she decides to jump on a plane to France with her best friend Audrey (Drea De Matteo) in search of him.
Throughout the couple’s time together, Nora goes from rude and distant to panic-attacked and paranoid to clingy and crying. It’s hard to understand why European Mr. Perfect is so fond of Nora, who doesn’t seem to like anything about herself or her life. It takes a chat with a kooky old French lady and then a wise old man to give Nora some self-value. Like the Sex and the City characters, she grows on you.
Writer-director Zoe Cassavetes (the latest sibling of John’s to take the directing reigns) makes her debut with this stellar international cast, including her real-life mother (Gena Rowlands) as Nora’s overbearing mom. Though Nora’s life seems familiar, the film has a unique quality and an indie feel. Especially when it follows Nora to France, her demeanor (and that of the film) noticeably brightening as she escapes America’s societal pressures. In addition, the powerful, alternative, sometimes strange music moves the film into genuine territory. Broken English comes to an end in the middle of the traditional romance story, yet it seems to conclude perfectly. The film is now available through Magnolia Home Entertainment for $26.98.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
I'm all for a la carte cable. I would just subscribe to five channels: HBO, Sundance, IFC, FX and Showtime. What more could you need? It's a sad day when television stations are willing to take greater risks then film studios and a show like Dexter is the perfect example. Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay the series focuses on a man who's a forensic blood-specialist by day and a serial-killer hunter by night. That's right, that means he's a serial killer who kills serial killers.
This plot description turned me off at first too, but the tone of the show, bolstered by an amazing performance from Michael C. Hall really catapult this series into being one of the best released this year. The series takes place in Miami, which is looking very anti-Miami Vice and follows the Miami Homicide's efforts to track down "the ice truck" killer. This is a reoccurring character/story arc throughout the first season as the killer becomes more obsessed with Dexter. Every episode also features another serial killer succumbing to Dexter, often operating unnoticed by the police.
The DVDs went on sale this week and if you don't have Showtime like I don't, you should find a way to get your paws on a copy. The DVDs feature a nice HD transfer but little else. There's two audio commentaries and a featurette on a real life blood splatter analyst. It would be nice if Showtime would take the time to include more documentaries and special features on all of their DVD releases actually, but that's how they keep them so cheap. You can own the entire first season for just $29.99.
Normally Filmmaker Magazine doesn't cover television but could you imagine the pitch for this actually surviving anywhere else? Plus, it's visually interesting to see a story sprawled out over twelve episodes. I really hope Showtime and HBO continue this trend of innovative programming, it could be our last resort to see something new.
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Monday, August 20, 2007
Anyone who’s ever been close with a pet will instantly identify with Year of the Dog, a film which plays off the special kind of relationship that can exist between humans and animals.
Molly Shannon is Peggy Spade, a socially mal-adjusted secretary who is forced to reexamine her life after the sudden death of her beloved dog, Pencil. Shannon is in fine form, not just as a comedian, but as an actress. For those of you expecting her to portray an annoying SNL-cutout character (a la Mary Katherine Gallagher) will be sorely disappointed.
In fact, most of the laughs come from the rock-solid supporting cast. Regina King is hilarious as her best friend who has a habit of speaking her mind (“Even retarded crippled people get married,” she says to Peggy in an attempt to sympathize over her dismal love life). Then there’s Laura Dern as her sister-in-law who is convinced the nanny is secretly drugging her baby with Benadryl, and neighbor John C. Reilly, an obsessed hunter, who may or may not have inadvertently killed poor Pencil.
Also rounding out the cast is Peter Sarsgaard, who proves his versatility by playing a possible love interest for Peggy as a sensitive man attached to his dogs possibly even more so than her. But just when the plot seems bound for the conventional treatment, the rug gets swept out from underneath and things turn extreme.
Writer/actor Mike White (School of Rock, Nacho Libre, The Good Girl) is behind the camera directing for the first time, and while he’s clearly in command of the subject material, which he also wrote, there is an over-reliance on continuous still-framed shots that contribute to the generally static nature of the film.
Regardless, Year of the Dog is obviously a passion project for all those involved and the film is commendable for absolutely refusing to fall in line with 2007’s stereotypical romantic comedy. However, if you find yourself skeptical of this movie from the get-go, it’s probably not for you…
The DVD, which comes out Tuesday for $29.99, has a surprisingly ample amount of special features for such a small-known movie, including commentary by White and Shannon, three featurettes, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a bunch more.
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Thursday, August 16, 2007
Much has been made of David Lynch's decision to shoot his follow-up to the beloved Mulholland Drive on HD, and then self-distribute his three(!) hour surreal opus. With a promotional campaign involving standing out on freeways with a hand-painted sign and a cow, it's easy to see why many people assumed he'd lost his last marble.
But make no mistake: behind the painfully affected "golly gee-whiz, aren't I just so weird" shtick, hides a shrewd business man. If you don't believe me, just log onto www.davidlynch.com and buy some David Lynch coffee. Or a mug. The line between art and commerce blurs, does it not?
Basking in the warm after-glow of Mulholland Drive's critical success, he knew that if he was ever going to make an unweildy, non-linear narrative film fly, this was the time to experiment. And what an experiment it was.
Inland Empire (Rhino Entertainment, $29.98) explores themes previously touched upon in MD: identity, role-playing, a movie within a movie. Laura Dern stars as a fading actress who has just gotten the plum role in a new movie. Almost immediately, there are bad omens: a creepy neighbor, disturbances on the set, threats.
It seems the script is based on an old cursed Polish folk-tale, and the last attempted film adaptation ended in the deaths of both leads. This hokey premise (related in a talking-head scene that is pure shameless exposition), is treated with deathly seriousness, we never really know if Lynch is kidding or not. 20 minutes in, things fracture and any semblance of narrative is quickly lost. What we get is a series of abstractions and visuals that invite viewers to take away their own interpretation. It works much the way a Rorschach ink blot does, touching upon our deepest desires and fears.
Rhino's DVD is a nice, two-disc set that includes a plethora of extras; from deleted scenes to making-of footage. Best of all, it's a stunning transfer, looking even better that it did in theatres. If you've already seen the film, it's well worth a second look on DVD.
Those looking for more traditional storytelling will be sorely tested, but for those willing to take the ride, Inland Empire has a wealth of ideas, and even beauty, that makes for a rewarding viewing experience.
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Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I went into Disturbia (Dreamworks, $29.98 retail) with reservations, I must admit. A large part of my hesitation was based on it's PG-13 rating, which literally screams "studio sell-out" especially for a horror film. And let's be honest, a little Shia LaBeouf goes a long way.
What director D.J. Caruso (Two For The Money, Taking Lives) ends up delivering is slasher-lite, or Hitchcock for the teen set. We are relentlessly bombarded by shameless product placement, with Apple being the most egregious offender: iPods are flashed across the screen, and there's even a handy tutorial on how to log into your iTunes account. MTV rules the soundtrack which is fine in a movie like Blades of Glory but this is supposed to be scary right? It's well over 40 minutes before something sinister happens, if you don't count the fantastic car accident at the beginning.
Not-so-lovable teen Kale (LaBeouf) is sentenced to house-arrest for slugging a teacher, an act of violence glamorized more than any Eli Roth murder set-piece. Bored and deprived of his Xbox and iTunes (gasp!) he begins to spy on his neighbors, mostly the prerequisite blond hottie (Sarah Roemer) next door. For reasons known only to pure male fantasy, she finds this juvie loser interesting and it isn't long before she joins him in late-night voyeurism sessions. Eventually they turn their attention to the creepy guy across the street, and are well rewarded by witnessing a brutal murder. Dude, that guy like, just killed a chick!
I want to say Disturbia is a bad movie: but it is well-acted and slickly lensed, with a few genuine shocks. What I actually hate is everything it stands for, soulless commercial filmmaking. But then again Hitchcock made commercial films.
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A nice contrast to the summer's bombast of Ocean's Ultimatum and Bourne 13 is this smart directorial debut from Out of Sight scribe Scott Frank. The film grossed shy of 5 million at the US box office despite favorable reviews, so hopefully this DVD will spread the word about this small gem. It's not a cinematic epiphany, but a smart, tight thriller that's an easy pleaser.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a rock-solid performance as Chris Pratt, high-school hockey star and all around popular bloke. Following a crash that would have made James Dean proud, Chris is forced to spend his brain-damaged days constantly writing down reminders of the obvious. Jeff Daniels plays his always watchable self as the blind roommate watching out for his broken friend.
The supporting cast also does an immense job and one can't help but wonder if writers-turned-directors might work better with actors and dialogue rather than directors that come from a visual background. The cinematography doesn't suffer though, Alar Kivilo (The Ice Harvest) lenses the widescreen with bleak, desolate shots of the wintry mid-west.
What I like about this film is that it doesn't pull a Sixth Sense, Memento or even a Basic Instinct. Chris is not a criminal mastermind, sociopath or ghost. The film plays it straight-forward which is both a strength and a weakness. It's nice to see a film not try to bite off more than it can chew, but audiences may feel like they want more.
The Lookout is worth a looksie though, and the DVD hit's stores today retailing at $29.99. The DVD features an interesting commentary with Scott Frank and director of photography Alar Kivilo. Also included are the featurettes "Staging the Lookout" and "Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt" both interesting tidbits.
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Monday, August 13, 2007
The uplifting documentary, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, follows a talented group of Sierra Leonean musicians who cope with the decade-long civil war ragging in their country by forming a band and touring to the neighboring camps to help their fellow West Africans forget their problems.
Directed by Zach Niles and Banker White (and executive produced by Ice Cube), the doc was well received on the fest circuit and was awarded the Documentary Award at the AFI Fest. And last June it aired on PBS' P.O.V.
Through the doc the filmmakers follow the band, who have a Western-influenced R&B/Reggae style with uplifting lyrics that encourage social change, along with hearing the band members' stories of survival. In fact, the villagers they perform for are so loyal to the band that in the film we see the U.N. enlisted the band to spearhead an effort to encourage Sierra Leoneans to return to their homes after word of a piece agreement with the rebels begins to spread. The band takes on the task, but not without many of them questioning if it is the right decision.
Niles and White present a touching look at a group of people who through music bring attention to a part of the world that few Westerners know about. And since the making of the documentary, the band has continued its mission of piece as they've gone on an international tour and currently have an album out.
The doc is on sale today by Docurama for $26.95.
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Sunday, August 12, 2007
You’re at home, outside, or in the car listening to music when suddenly a song breaks into an awesome riff or killer solo, and without even realizing it, your arms involuntarily begin to mimic the guitarist. Congratulations, you are now playing air guitar, something every rock fan has experienced, yet most are ashamed to admit. That is definitely not the case with the subjects of Alexandra Lipsitz‘s documentary Air Guitar Nation.
With a plotline that oddly resembles the recently-released Broken Lizard-soirée Beerfest, Air Guitar Nation follows the exploits of two air guitarists from New York, David "C-Diddy" Jung and Dan "Bjourn Turoque" Crane, who aspire to represent the United States for the first time at the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland. These guys buy into their artificial personalities so earnestly it’s like watching method actors.
What makes Air Guitar Nation fun to watch is how Lipsitz manages to document these people and their world without condemning the absurdity of what they’re doing. The camera, as an outside observer, follows these “guitarists” as they travel from the first-ever US Air Guitar Tournament in New York, to the National Championship at The Roxy in Los Angeles, and finally to the small town of Oulu in northern Finland. There a crowd of over 5,000 gather to see the world’s most die-hard air guitarists battle for the crown.
Surprisingly, this tournament was first held in 1996 and gets bigger and bigger every year. Now that air guitar has caught on in America, this harmless pastime has turned even more into a sacred cult-phenomenon.
Air Guitar Nation not only covers the prestigious tournament, but also explores the curious background of how this movement was started by college students who believed if everyone in the world carried an air guitar around with them, they wouldn’t be able to hold a gun (yes, we are as puzzled about this statement as you are). Overseas, air guitaring has been around so long that it is now considered to be a pure art form!
So, if you find yourself air guitaring a little more than normal and feel a calling to get on stage and show people what you’ve got, it might be a good idea to check out Air Guitar Nation to learn the ropes.
Air Guitar Nation will be released by Docurama on DVD Tuesday, August 14th with a retail price of $26.95.
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Friday, August 10, 2007
Every now and then, through the magic of DVD, I discover a director who I knew nothing about, but who's films are absolutely astounding. This is the case with Harry Kumel, the Flemish surrealist who directed two masterpieces circa 1971. The first was Daughters of Darkness, a modern take on the Elizabeth Bathory legend starring Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad). The film combined elements of melodrama, surrealism, horror and erotica. It was exquisitely shot and the performances were sublime.
Last week Barrel Entertainment released his other masterpiece, Malpertuis. Based on a novel by fantasy author Jean Ray, the film stars Orson Welles in a typical Wellesian role, but that's the only predictable aspect about the film. The screen is filled with one surreal image after another as if Bunuel and Jodorowsky got together to direct a radical version of The Tempest.
Here's the plot: an old scientist, Cassavius, (Orson Welles) has travelled to an abandoned island where the ancient Greek gods await their ultimate demise. Instead of letting them stay out their fate, however, he decides to entrap them in human bodies, forcing them to live a bourgeois life in his large mansion, Malpertuis. Enter Jan, an cherubic young sailor getting off shore leave who after a bar fight, awakens in this mysterious house only to discover that his uncle Cassavius has been planning his arrival intently.
Many dream-like sequences ensue backed up by bravura camera work from Gerry Fisher. The plot never entirely comes together, but manages not to fall apart. The storyline is secondary anyway to the magnificent sets and camera effects. Another treat is to watch Susan Hampshire portray four roles in a part that was originally intended for Catherine Deneuve.
The fact is they just don't make movies like this anymore (unless you count The Cell). Even recent surreal attempts such as The Fountain and Inland Empire enjoy a harsh public and critical backlash for being "confusing." It appears people want all the answers to enjoy a film these days or they would rather watch grainy videos of mid-twenty somethings surviving the harsh terrain of post-graduation. But for those of us that like interpreting challenging imagery, this film is highly recommended.
Barrel Entertaiment went all out with a 2-disc set of the film which retails at $29.95. The first disc includes a newly restored, high-definition director's cut with optional commentary by Kumel. It also includes some interesting outtakes with Orson Welles and interviews with Susan Hampshire. The second disc includes the Cannes cut of the film which runs some twenty minutes shorter (as ordered by the studio) and features an english dub. The second disc also includes a career-length interview with Kumel and a small documentary on Jean Ray. The liner notes are also worthy of a look with an interesting piece by Kumel expert David del Valle.
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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Pierre and Jean are two pilgrims who journey from Paris to Santiago de Campostella in Spain to visit the religious shrine of Saint James. What ostensibly begins as a religious road trip becomes a scathing critique of Catholicism as told through the surreal eyes of Luis Buñuel. The Milky Way is as strong today as it was when first released in 1969 and the newly released Criterion Collection DVD will divide film viewers into two camps: those who see it as hysterical satire or those who will view it as hateful anti-clericalism and indeed, the film is filled with images bound to shock both sides.
The two poverty stricken Pilgrims are shunned away as if they were homeless bums by the same people who profess their love of Christianity. But they bear witness to anarchists who shoot the Pope, a priest who extols the virtues of Christ only to be hustled off to an insane asylum. They watch a nun crucified for heresy. They observe Jesus preparing to give himself a morning shave and many more. Buñuel marries hard hitting satire with Lynchian imagery that will undoubtedly upset the sensibilities of traditional middle-class society, expose its hypocrisy as well as the evils of those who hold religion as dogma. I can only wonder how such a 21st century Buñuel would fare if the object of his anti-clerical satire were directed against Islam.
As part of its many extras, screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere discusses how he concocted the story with Buñuel and decided that the film would be saturated with religion and one would be hard pressed to locate a scene where it isn't discussed. Whether it a wealthy, bourgeoisie restaurateur discussing the validity of the Holy Trinity or the Marquis De Sade rationally explaining the evils of Christianity while torturing a girl, Buñuel packs the film in such a way that leaves one inevitably shaken and provoked by the baseness of people. I particularly liked the extra on the DVD which include a interview with British film historian Ian Christie which is worthy of a university philosophy discussion. The Milky Way DVD becomes available in stores August 21 for $29.95.
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Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Paul Fox's indie-comedy Everything's Gone Green has it's share of highs and lows but if you're looking for something to see with buds this weekend, it's not a bad joint. The problems come when the film tries to imply that it's something more then another comedy about white, post-graduate, pot-heads having quarter-life crises. It does have it's good share of laughs though and the direction is surprisingly acute.
Zach Braff clone Paulo Costanzo plays Ryan, a skinny, dorky, slacker who within the first twenty minutes loses his house, his job and a healthy lottery inheritance he momentarily thought he would acquire. But a saccharine scene in which a whale beaches itself against an emo-laden soundtrack helps propel the film into two more acts of coincidental occurrences, middle school humor and frat-house music.
The biggest joke has to be the tagline which bills this as "a new sort of comedy." The film couldn't be any more predictable as Ryan takes a new job for the lottery company, quickly develops a scheme to get money from it, but by the end realizes his mistakes and discovers what really matters in life. All the ingenuity of an episode of Scrubs with a like-minded soundtrack to boot.
So why bother with this? A lot of the scenes actually do wind up being quite funny as far as slapstick is concerned and it's alright to allow yourself a movie like this every once in awhile. Don't go into it with any high expectations but pack the bong, throw it on with some friends and see if you don't find yourself rolling on the floor at several hilarious points.
The unrated DVD (which I didn't notice any difference from the Sundance cut) will hit stores July 31st and retails for a modest $24.99. The transfer is crystal clear which highlights the films solid cinematography. Extras include a commentary by the writer and director, galleries, some pop-up scenes, a soundtrack listing, the trailer and a special brownie recipe.
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DEXTER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
YEAR OF THE DOG
SIERRA LEONE'S REFUGEE ALL STARS
AIR GUITAR NATION
CRITERION: THE MILKY WAY
EVERYTHING'S GONE GREEN