Thursday, December 22, 2011

New Reviews

I started reviewing for this British Web site.
Check out my first three reviews here:

L’Enfance-nue is a deeply moving film with a compelling cast of amateur performers, confidently guided by Maurice Pialat. He achieves an understated portrayal of foster care life that has the deep ring of truth that only great art can achieve. Pialat has a lovingly humanist artistic vision, and this series of Masters of Cinema releases showcasing his work invites a well-deserved reconsideration of this great director. Keep your hankies on hand!

La Pointe Courte
A full three years before the French New Wave began, Agnès Varda directed this rarely-seen film on a shoestring budget, edited with the help of Alain Resnais, and now acknowledged as a key stylistic precursor to the New Wave. La Pointe Courte also features Philippe Noiret’s first significant appearance, essentially his debut, in the co-lead role.

Kuroneko is a well-made and exciting sample of the Japanese ghost fable genre – a cultural hallmark everyone should experience at least once. While it may not earn a place in the pantheon of the greatest Japanese films, if you’ve never experienced a film by Kaneto Shindo, you owe it to yourself to give a listen to yet another talented voice from the rich history of Japanese cinema.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Criterion on Hulu+ A Cinephile's Report

Early impressions of Criterion on Hulu+:

The selection, of course, is the major appeal. Not every existing Criterion movie is on there yet, but a huge number are already, and then there are the many titles that they have never released. You can keep a running count of those exclusives here. (go to the last page for the latest updates). Another pleasant surprise is the inclusion of all the major Chaplin feature films, up through the sound era.

So what are the negatives? The Hulu+ interface on your HDTV (a Panasonic Viera was tested in this case) is nowhere near as user-friendly or informative as Netflix's interface—especially for cinephiles. You can create a queue on the Hulu+ Web site. It has various sorting options, including customizing the order, same as Netflix, but that does not translate over to the TV, which jumbles the queue in an order it favors and which cannot be changed. If you add a lot of movies, and want to watch in queue order, you're going to have to scroll through the entire queue on the TV to find them. The next problem is the Hulu+ TV interface does not list the director or the actors. Criterion famously said they were dumping Netflix in favor of Hulu+ because "In short, they get it." Well, they certainly don't get it if they don't list who directed the frigging film!

A final selling point given to us by Criterion was that Hulu+ would add special features, something Netflix was unwilling to do. This has been sporadic. Perhaps one example isn't fair, but along with uploading L'Enfance-nue (1968, Maurice Pialat), it would have been nice if they included his breakout short "L'amour existe" (1960), which is on the DVD. Although it is understandable that that they already have more content on there than any reasonable person could keep up with. The treasure trove aspect basically wins out.

There is one remaining problem. Even at the highest HD streaming speed, the visual experience can be less than stellar. Dark black-and-white films exhibit significant compression artifacts as pixelization in the darkest areas of the frame. If one has Netflix and may gain access to the DVD or rent the blu-ray somewhere (Netflix doesn't carry many Criterion blu-rays unfortunately), it doesn't appeal to sit through a high-profile, artistically significant film with some splotchy pixels dancing around behind the characters' heads just because the scene was shot at night. Bright, color films, however, look perfectly fine—as long as they don't have any night scenes! It's the same with Netflix. This is simply a drawback of the streaming experience in general. If you know a film is shot dark, rent the DVD, or better the blu-ray.

Criterion on Hulu+ is a great way to gain access to the world's biggest library of great art films, but there are a few drawbacks to endure. If you are a bloodthirsty shut-in who has oodles of time to put your exploration of art cinema into overdrive, this is the deal for you. You don't need to wait for any discs, just keep clicking play, watching one film after another all weekend long. But if you are a high-minded snob who has come to enjoy not just the films but the award-winning visual quality of the Criterion Collection, you may find yourself preferring to wait for the discs, especially if your viewing habits are down to only one film a week.

UPDATE 10/28/11: Some other problems worthy of mention:

If you have Hulu+ on your TV, you're not going to watch online. So when you are online, it's usually browsing for things to add to your queue, but when you click a title for more info, it starts playing immediately. This makes for a very irritating shopping experience.

Any non-Criterion titles open a can of worms. 4x3 1.33 material, say an old TV show like Remington Steele or The X Files, displays incorrectly stretched to fill your 16x9 TV. Netflix does not screw this up.

There are commercials before and during every non-Criterion, non-Miramax movie/TV show. One may accept that on the newest episode of Glee, but on the 1999 British TV show Spaced? You would be better to rent the discs from Netflix. Miramax movies seem to be commercial-free, but other than that and Criterion you're facing commercials.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker, Katy Mixon

Take Shelter storms into cinemas buoyed by the strength of Michael Shannon’s sensitive, intimate portrayal of a quiet family man who has frightening visions of devastating storms.

Curtis is a caring family man who sees visions of immense storm clouds that rain an oil-like liquid. His troubles increase when he realizes that no one else can see the visions. He hides it from his wife Samantha and young deaf daughter Hannah.

As the visions get weirder—his dog attacks him in one—he quietly decides to heed them as true premonitions. He starts by building a backyard enclosure to sequester his dog, which irks Samantha. At the same time, owing to his mother’s history of mental illness, he hedges his bets by seeking medical and psychiatric help, but nothing works.

To his wife’s horror, he takes out a high-risk loan in order to build an elaborate underground shelter by burying a shipping container in the backyard. He borrows a digger from his construction job and enlists the help of his best friend and coworker Dewart, who early in the film had told Curtis “Youve got a good life,” something that Curtis now seems to be endangering.

The tensions climax when Hannah’s cochlear implant is jeopardized by Curtis losing his job and health insurance, due to his increasingly paranoid preventive actions. An outburst at a community gathering finally isolates the family completely. Despite everything, Samantha draws closer to Curtis over his deep love for Hannah. The family must now face Curtis’s frightening visions together.

The film is simultaneously an intense and understated drama. There’s a carefully nuanced rendering of all events, but not much along the lines of dramatic plot developments. The slow-moving story is explored in minute details, with a rigorous singularity of purpose by the director Jeff Nichols. The performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are incredibly well realized, both actors clearly capable of the highest echelon of roles. Shannon plays a taciturn, troubled man, but you can read huge emotion in the slightest facial movements. Even the lines on his face seem to ooze with depth.

The problem is the film is of that typical American indie ilk which only has one idea to communicate. It explores the idea thoroughly, and the revelations at the end are satisfying when we eventually get to them, but along the way there is not much else to stimulate the intellectually curious viewer. This is a cinema of emotion—an actor’s cinema. The filmmaker’s big idea is metaphorical, but the idea is so single-minded that it becomes a one-note metaphor, so you must really like that note to enjoy the film. To be fair, the full concept is not revealed until the end of the film, and even then it is somewhat ambiguous, so you actually are asked to think. But unlike a potboiler, the mystery is: What is this metaphorical film getting at? This results in a more satisfying time contemplating the movie afterwards than actually watching it.

Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed it, has a highly personalized take on family life, and life in general, that perhaps will not ring true with everyone. Things are bleak, although not without hope. As a metaphorical work, it may not have the universality that the director seems to feel it does: His film has a noticeably ponderous weight to it, arising from the snail-pace and carefully composed look. The film is so carefully framed and color-corrected that it loses a bit of the looseness that a more natural look, allowing in a few imperfections, might have provided. Despite the insularity of the filmmaker’s vision, the film achieves some powerful realizations in these characters’ lives which may please some viewers. But the audience is still left wondering why the world in this film so gloomy, and in the end the film may not have a good enough answer.

Take Shelter is worth watching for the deeply observed and nuanced performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, but it is a film with only one metaphorical idea behind it all. A bit of an oppressive night at the cinema, but if you let Michael Shannon pull you into his deeply troubled world, you may come away provoked and encouraged by the unexpected conclusion.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Subtitled Online

Here's a cool new Web site about film:

The founder Darren Howells has been trying to spread the word, and I think this is a rare case that deserves some attention.

Firstly, their mission statement is awesome. While my initial reaction was that it was a bit arbitrary to focus solely on subtitled films, I realized it is a great way to simplify a film site and give it a very clear direction (it's also very anti-Hollywood), and thus is kind of a brilliant idea. You know when you are in that particular mood for a subtitled film!

Lastly, there seem to be FREQUENT contests to win free DVDs/blu-rays of good artsy films!! With really easy questions to answer...! Spread the word on that at least...! :-)


Here's the cool mission statement:

Just what the world needs, another film website, right? Actually, in this case, right…

Whilst the World Wide Web has opened up innumerable possibilities to explore different countries, peoples and cultures, the reality is most people continue to submerge themselves in the narrow reality of their own lives – or the emptiness of the rich and famous’ lives.

Movie websites are perfectly indicative of that fact – there’s a countless number of movie websites and blogs, yet the majority cover the same ground, i.e. the latest Hollywood blockbuster or star-vehicle. Throwaway films, given throwaway coverage, via what is increasingly becoming a throwaway medium.

With everything geared towards making money quick, and obsessing about grossly overpaid celebrities, with little care for anything else, it’s understandable that America dominates British media, that magazines and websites would rather concentrate on continually repeating the same inconsequential gossip related to an attractive star’s personal life than give exposure to genuine talent or celebrate creativity that challenges and offers them less personal gain.

The standard defence is that, whilst films produced outside of Hollywood are frequently superior (you only have to consider the number of remakes, and so quickly after an original’s release, to back-up that statement), film fans don’t want to read their movies. However, given most of our time is spent reading, whether it be our phones, computers screens, or whatever the latest en vogue gadget is, that argument is hollow. The truth is whilst the thought of ‘reading your movie’ may be off-putting in theory, once you start watching these films, you just stop noticing. You only have to look at the success of films like Amelie and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to see that when films of originality are given even the slightest column inch, subtitled or not, fans seek them out, and are subsequently affected in ways Hollywood rarely attempts to.

Films that fans can treasure are not produced on the Hollywood conveyor belt. The likes of Let The Right One In and [REC] have been remade virtually scene for scene because there’s little time for creativity when making a buck is king, and any Hollywood film that could even be considered above average in recent years (think Russel Crowe’s The Next Three Days) has usually been lifted straight from Europe or Asia. Even America’s most revered directors have had their greatest commercial and critical successes remaking or heavily borrowing from world cinema (Martin Scorsese a prime example – a director who was heavily rewarded with The Departed, a far inferior version of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs – whilst Quentin Tarantino would never have produced the works he did without the ideas, scenarios, and even scenes lifted straight from Asian cinema).

Whilst the aforementioned foreign films may have squeezed a little editorial from your standard mainstream film site or magazine, this is only scratching the surface. Whilst Adam Sandler confounds everybody in continuing to line his pocket with his latest unfunny, there are countless intelligent and insightful releases that are simply being missed. Our website has been set up to bring exposure to these movies. Unlike other websites, we don’t just review a handful of the latest big-name/star-vehicle releases each week and spend the rest of our time regurgitating gossip that fills most newspapers and daytime TV shows already.

We have a clear editorial policy that we only cover films (and television) produced outside of the UK and USA (unless they have co-productions credits, or the film’s been produced not-in-the-English-language), with the main focus being on titles that are being released or shown in the UK. These don’t necessarily have to be new titles either. We are building a vast catalogue of informative reviews, of films old and new, covering all genres of filmmaking, from every country across the globe.

Our website is updated daily with news, reviews, competitions, articles, listings and much more. We are creating a community for film fans equally disenchanted with the tired and formulaic nature of the dominant Hollywood moneymaking machine, offering a one-stop-source of information for an increasingly diverse British audience, which is equally relevant to film fans worldwide (given the ease with which the internet has made it for fans to order and even watch online films that have not been released in their own country as yet).

We aren’t here to say everything that is produced outside of the UK and USA is faultless. Films are reviewed on merit, and whilst we have been wowed by many offerings from a country like South Korea, for example, the likes of which Hollywood would never allow, we’ve equally lost many painful hours to duds we’d like to help you avoid.

We love films that are helmed by true auteurs, who are willing (or perhaps more importantly allowed) to push boundaries (successfully or not); we are interested in receiving insight into unfamiliar cultures; and we hope by sharing our passion for international filmmaking (coined as world cinema or foreign film), we can also offer the opportunity to the uninitiated to discover original and challenging movies, the likes of which you’ll never have seen before.

Ultimately, we are far more than just a film website. As esteemed critic Mark Kermode said when interviewed by our website: “If you want to learn something about a country’s culture then I’d say spend a little time in their national cinema.” We are giving exposure to films that will undoubtedly educate a viewer to an unfamiliar country’s national history, their customs and traditions, their beliefs and all the nuances of the different elements of their society. This is an opportunity to bring better cross-cultural appreciation.

Remember to get behind and support this website. Check out the films and events we are giving exposure to, interact with each other (comment on articles!), tell your friends, use social networking and bookmarking sites – let’s ensure world cinema gets the critical coverage it deserves!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Savage Innocents (1960, Nicholas Ray)

Hot tip: Nicholas Ray's excellent The Savage Innocents (1960) is currently available for streaming on Netflix...

It's not the best way to see it, as it was originally in the 2.35 aspect ratio, shot in Technirama,
and the Netflix is panned-and-scanned 1.33 (although it's mostly frame-locked, no jarring video pans). That sucks, but as far as supreme classic films buried in the Netflix instant watch service, it's a keeper for me. The brilliance of the performances and Ray's intense interest in the most primitive nature of man blazes through the presentation limitations.

This treasure is hardly buried as there are numerous reviews, but I wanted to give a heads-up to the discerning cinephiles out there. Ray's portrayal of the Eskimos is pilloried in the Netflix reviews, but I think he's roughly used the setting, however inaccurately, to spur a philosophical study of the nature of man and society/civilization, and as such the film is immensely satisfying.

There was this bizarre Peter O'Toole lookalike in it towards the end, and I wondered how dissatisfying it must have been to make a career as a backup actor for productions unable to cast O'Toole himself-- until I found out it really was Peter O'Toole...! He is overdubbed with a bad American accent.

As a sometime actor I have had my voice slightly altered once (pitched higher). I was horrified, and it sowed seeds of doubt, but if someone as great as Peter O'Toole can bounce back...!

Here is the cover art of the UK-released Masters of Cinema DVD (out of print), which I wish I had looked into and rented from Cinefile or Videotheque to watch in proper widescreen.

However, I think there is something to be said for breaking free of slavishness to exact correct presentation and delving into pan&scan land in the interest of watching, say, more films by an interesting director, instead of having your choices driven by what's new from Fox et al in pristine widescreen. Sometimes your explorations of the actual content may be far more satisfying and lead you down different paths....

Searching about the movie also led me to this recently released book on Nicholas Ray which looks interesting: