Archive for category: Review

The Hateful Eight: an SMS review

06 Jan
January 6, 2016

special guest appearance in grey bubbles by McNutt Against the Music
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Blu-ray diary: the BFI’s tasty answer to Criterion’s Rossellini/Bergman box

29 Aug
August 29, 2015

For the 100th anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth—my 100th blog post. Thanks to all my readers and for all the positive feedback I’ve received in the past three years. I just re-upped with my hosting service so I guess you’re in for another year of this…

Rossellini & Bergman Collection (Limited Edition Numbered Blu-ray Box Set)The Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman Collection
(BFI 3x BD)

This is the second three-disc Blu-ray set of Rossellini films from the British Film Institute this year, following on their excellent War Trilogy release. Criterion was of course the first to release a box set of Roberto Rossellini’s films starring Ingrid Bergman, and that release was so brilliant that I proposed it as the best of 2013. That Criterion set is built around three features: Stromboli, Journey to Italy, and Europe ’51, whereas this new BFI box offers Stromboli, Journey to Italy, and Fear.

About Fear. My first impression was that it’s rather fascinating to see Rossellini essentially doing a Hitchcock-style film (if slightly German-expressionism-inflected) starring Ingrid Bergman. But I have to admit that my interest flagged a bit in the second half hour. I’m so attached to Rossellini’s rough-sketch approach to filmmaking that the smoother Hitchcockian feel began to make me sense something missing—until the Big Twist happens an hour in, one that is so emotionally brutal that it feels genuinely dark in a way that the more aestheticized Hitchcock rarely manages to touch. However—hopefully I’m not giving too much away—as with Journey to Italy, the closing scene turns away from that darkness in a way that will feel overly abrupt to viewers not used to Rossellini’s rhythm. My single reservation: with its German cast and aesthetic touches, I would really like to see the German cut of this film, and I imagine I would prefer it to the English. But this restoration is flawless, and the film is unique in the Rossellini oeuvre, so once again, props to the BFI for making it available.

Rossellini directed five feature films starring Bergman—the fifth, Giovanna d’Arco al rogo / Joan of Arc at the Stake, is really a filmed stage play performance and is not included on either box, and in fact was not included in the ten-film “Projetto Rossellini” restoration project that was recently undertaken by the Cineteca di Bologna. You have to concede that Criterion went the extra mile by including Europe ’51 (my personal favourite of the four Rossellini-Bergman feature films I’ve seen) in two restored versions, whereas the BFI has simply included the three films that were restored as part of the Projetto.

So, to double-dip, or not? Does the BFI’s box offer enough additional value to justify a second, overlapping purchase? Apart from Fear, here’s what it offers that the Criterion set does not:

  • The Machine That Kills Bad People (La Macchina ammazzacattivi, 1952). From Rossellini’s Bergman period, but not featuring Bergman, this is, as the box notes promise, a fascinating film. It’s a pleasing special feature for completists—the “Projetto Rossellini” restorations included eight fiction features, and with this inclusion all eight are now available in English-friendly editions—four in each of the two BFI sets.
  • Viaggio in Italia (1954). The alternative, Italian cut of Journey to Italy. Criterion’s box included the Italian cuts of Stromboli and Europe ’51, but, for some reason, not the Italian cut of Journey—though its differences with the English version are perhaps not as substantial as in the other two cases, it is a welcome addition here, and I enjoyed seeing the tighter cut with its mostly-Italian supporting cast speaking in Italian.
  • Bergman & Magnani: The War of the Volcanoes (La guerra dei vulcani, 2012). An entertaining documentary (in Italian, subtitled in English) “charting the scandal of the Magnani-Rossellini-Bergman love triangle” that cleverly tells its story partly by deploying scenes from Rossellini’s and Magnani’s films that mirror, sometimes uncomfortably so, episodes in their real-life relationships.
  • Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre (1981), an interview before an audience, with a Q&A session, that doesn’t perhaps have much to add on the Rossellini years, but is entertaining for other reasons and worth a look for Ingmar Bergman fans (she is hilarious when talking about Casablanca). This was an event organized by The Guardian and hosted at what is now the BFI Southbank.
  • Adrian Martin 2007 commentary on Journey to Italy. The BFI release also brings over the Laura Mulvey commentary (2003) included in the Criterion release. Both are insightful and worth the time.

Bottom line: If you’re even half as much into Rossellini’s films as I am, you want this—an essential purchase for any serious collection.


Soderbergh’s 2001

26 Jan
January 26, 2015

The biggest film-nerd thrill of this young year came and went in a week. Steven Soderbergh’s unauthorized edit of 2001—shortening it by about 40 minutes, and making several other substantial changes—was posted on his site on January 14 and gone by sometime on the 21st.

“The exercise amounts almost to a new genre: something in between filmmaking and film criticism,” said Stephen Marche, at Esquire, but as much as cinephiles might rush to embrace this budding quasi-genre, its legal status is clearly even more tenuous than its classification niche. If you didn’t download it while it was up, you’ll need to snoop for it in the darker corners of the net, or beg a copy from someone who was faster on the draw with the download.

So it is gone, -ish, but will it be forgotten? If I had to guess I would say that cinephiles will be passing it around and organizing shadow screenings for years to come. Because the Soderbergh edit is not a mere curiosity—it is a bloody brilliant creation on its own terms.

I’m sure that he did not attempt it without some trepidation. “Not only does the film not need my—or anyone else’s—help,” he wrote in the article accompanying his video posting, “but if it’s not THE most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century, then it’s tied for first.” But, he says, “it’s technology’s fault” that he was able to both to spend enough time with the film to begin to consider how it could be restructured, and also that he was able to do that restructuring.

He has cut out roughly half an hour of the film—just about all of those cuts coming before the original intermission point of the film. He has also binned the end titles, so all told about 40 minutes of the original have been dropped.

The Dawn of Man sequence has been trimmed—most notably the first attack of the rival primates has been deleted. All of Heywood Floyd’s meetings and conversations on the space station have been deleted (leaving just the brief moment where he identifies himself to the station security computer), as well just about all of the press conference on the moon.  Gone too is most of the conversation on the shuttle to the monolith dig-out at the moon crater, raising the sense of drama and revelation in the encounter sequence.

When we join the Discovery in deep space after only 32 minutes, 23 minutes faster than the classic cut, the ship’s mission is even more vaguely understood than in the original, though the recorded explanation by Floyd still kicks in after the deactivation of HAL 9000.

There is some more trimming in the mission scenes, but again most of the cuts are to inter-human dialogue scenes, especially the private pod conversation between astronauts Dave and Frank, which Hal memorably lipreads.

Soderbergh further adds to the newfound velocity of the opening acts by changing a couple of music cues, moving Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” forward from the moon-shuttle sequence to add a sense of foreboding to the early moments of the Dawn of Man sequence. The later scene on the moon now features another Ligeti piece, “Harmonies Aus Zwei Etueden Fuer Die Orgel”—a louder, more insistent number not originally heard in the film.

The other change to the film’s sound is the addition of a reverb/echo that has been added to Hal’s voice and other sounds coming from the ship’s communications panels. This somewhat distracting alteration (perhaps the only one that doesn’t quite work for me) is one on the ways in which Soderbergh pushes the otherness and strangeness of artificial intelligence into the foreground.

Hal was always one of the greatest novelties of the film, of course, but it seems to me that, more than narrative pace and focus, Soderbergh is interested in a reconsideration of Hal and, more broadly, the evolving relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity.

He signals this interest at the outset by retaining but refashioning the 3-minute overture. In the film’s original release this was simply Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” playing behind a black/blank screen. In later theatre screenings this would have been ditched but it reappeared, eventually, in home video releases of the film. Rather than dropping it, Soderbergh has elected to transform it into an arty flash-forward by intermittently splicing in first the eye of Hal and then the solarized Dave Bowman eye from the through-the-monolith sequence. This nicely sets up the leitmotif of the spliced-in Hal eye that he edits in intermittently through the film, using it both as an editorial stitch and a visual thematic reference point.

Soderbergh’s cut of 2001 can be seen as analogous to his 2002 remake (re-adaptation?) of Solaris. Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of the 1961 Stanisław Lem novel was a heavy-duty, 166 minute affair, and its length was not solely due to the Russian director’s meticulous and meditative (yes, slow-paced) style. It was carrying a second payload, so to speak, in addition to Lem’s theme of the limits of human understanding, and that was Tarkovsky’s bleak-ish Christian existentialism. Soderbergh’s film, some 67 minutes shorter, jettisons the added layer of theology and delivers a focused and efficient rendering of the novel’s philosophical and narrative core.

Kubrick’s 2001, in addition to its philosophical probing of human identity, and our place in the universe, has a parallel mission as well, and that its construction of an imagined human future. This was always Kubrick’s explicit, stated, intention—to do the “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie,” one that would not only probe the implications for humanity of the existence of a greater, alien intelligence, but which would also convincingly depict a future world of commercial space travel and lunar landings and outposts.

I really do get why this cut might feel to many devotees like a ruthless chopping at the film’s essence. But let’s be honest. Those painting-the-future scenes don’t do what they used to do. To state the obvious, we no longer think of 2001‘s future as our future. The imaginary 2001 and the actual 2001 are both in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the red Olivier Mourgue Djinn chairs. I love the zero-G toilet instructions. And so on. (This article about the hit-and-miss nature of Kubrick’s future predictions is itself a hit-and-miss affair, but is a useful list for review.) All that stuff is adorable, and no one is advocating that we burn or abandon the classic cut of the film. These are the scenes that divert and amuse. But they no longer amaze.

Let’s also stipulate, right now, that the dialogue in the film is mostly terrible. It’s long been argued that that’s part of the point of the film, that it’s a deliberate irony that the humans are less interesting than the computer. Fine. But there’s still the fact that they are not interesting, at least in conversation. Have I crossed the line into film blasphemy yet?

You could, of course, advance the argument that these world-building scenes have a role to play in pacing. That the airlock sequence with its building, spring-loaded drama and tension wouldn’t seem as dramatic without the slower passages of the film building up to it. Ok, again I can see how someone might experience the film that way. All I can say is, I just watched the Soderbergh cut, and that scene did what it always does—absorbed 100% of my attention, for the hundredth time.

If you can agree with this school of thought at least partly/grudgingly, maybe you can sense why it’s a tempting prospect to think about cutting away the stuff that no longer grips our imagination, to try to unearth an essence that still grips with contemporary-feeling directness, nearly 50 years on.

Of course, cutting the film on a Philistine “cool”/”not cool” basis is bound to feel more like a mutilation than a refinement. The enduring power of the film is such that there has been a recent spate of attempts to distill the film as a contemporary-feeling trailer, with results ranging from this risible fan-boy attempt, to the rather more sleek and refined BFI 2014 UK re-release promo.

“IF i was finally going to touch it, i’d better have a bigger idea than just trimming or re-scoring,” wrote Soderbergh.

What he has managed to do, especially by inserting Hal’s impassive, iconic eye in scenes where it formerly wasn’t, and isn’t directly part of the action, is a gesture of defamiliarization—making us look afresh at this disembodied character who has become part of our mental furniture.

I think of the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“—the way that the eye of the blackbird is a portal to an other intelligence that the poet cannot know. I think of the ways in which Terrence Malick has often used sudden, interjected images of animals to create a similar effect in cinematic terms, perhaps most memorably in The Thin Red Line.

Artificial intelligence beyond the human was a theme already foregrounded in Kubrick’s cut of the film. The idea that such artificial intelligence could be in competition with, or at least an alternative to, the next stage of human evolution, was always a latent possibility raised by the film. What Soderbergh’s cut does is to make this latent possibility freshly manifest.

There is a sublimity inherent in the attempt to comprehend the meaning of a nonhuman entity such as Hal perceiving the world that we do, while cognizing it differently. Soderbergh’s edit is an argument, delivered with digital tools, that what is lasting about 2001 is the way it opens up the big questions about humanity’s essence, and our place in the universe.

Iraqi Odyssey (Samir): first look

08 Sep
September 8, 2014

Twelve years on from the 2002 documentary Forget Baghdad—an essential, if not widely known, film about the tragic dismantling of the Jewish community of Iraq—director Samir is back with the story of his own Iraqi family’s global diaspora.

As with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, we have a filmmaker interrogating his own family to ferret out its history. Iraqi Odyssey is far less focused than Polley’s film, describing a rather more diffuse family narrative, but with more political weight. Samir takes a rather meandering route to illuminate the circumstances that forced his family to leave Iraq, and how his uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins came to live in such far-flung places as Auckland, Buffalo, London, Zurich, and Moscow.

Without a clear central thesis the early going of the film is rather slow, so much so that I found myself nodding off briefly at the early avalanche of family-specific anecdotes and factoids. But once the film begins to tell the story of rise and fall of Iraqi Communism, and its eventual co-optation by Ba’athism under Saddam Hussein, we begin to get into some fascinating history—including some remarkable injected archival footage of everything from street scenes to classic Egyptian Arabic cinema—that will likely be largely unknown to Western audiences.

Oddly, perhaps, the choice was made to create the film in 3D, which provides a kind of artificial space in which members of the family talk in the foreground while archival photos and film clips appear and disappear behind and beside them. The studio interviews are the only piece of the film that has actually been shot in 3D.

At one point in the film there are some brief but quite horrifying images of torture that happened under Saddam’s regime; later there is a similarly brief but shocking verbal recounting of torture. The film does not dwell on these topics but the abruptness with which they are interjected clearly caught off-guard some members of the festival audience in Toronto.

At its current running length of 162 minutes it does feel like a 90-100 minute film with all of the DVD extras thrown into the main cut. But that main spine of the film was for me a worthwhile reward for spending the time.

The Face of an Angel (Michael Winterbottom): first look

07 Sep
September 7, 2014

Instead of a theory of what really transpired in the death of Meredith Kercher, and what role if any was played in that by Amanda Knox, The Face of an Angel comes at us as a deconstruction of how the media represents such a story. But it ends up being something much different, and this viewer finds himself gnawing on tricky questions of how men represent women in life, literature, and cinema, rather than anything about the media’s relationship with its readers and audiences.

Centred on a fictional film director’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the story structure is explicitly modelled on Dante’s Divine Comedy. By moving the scene of the crime from Perugia to Siena, a connection is made with visual directness to Dante’s own time and environs. The hell sequences include decontextualized scenes of rough sex between the director (a convincingly obsessive Daniel Brühl) and a journalist (a smoothly professional Kate Beckinsale)—enough to make us wonder whether we are looking at an assault—but with no discussion after the fact between the principals. (Leaving one to wonder—you show me a man inflicting pain on a woman during sex, and we’re to understand it’s the man who’s in hell?)

Our director-protagonist’s next would-be Beatrice is a fresh and spontaneous young university student and waitress (Cara Delevingne, brilliant casting move), and it is through a rather more platonic relationship with her that he has a hope of gaining a more central insight into this story of murder.

Winterbottom has given us a film of layered complexity that ultimately argues that the worst thing about the did-she-didn’t-she debate about Amanda Knox is that it has robbed the real-life victim, Meredith Kercher, of central status in the story. But does this side-on approach to the material risk doing the same thing in a different way? I expect that will be the most debated point as people dissect this film.

first thoughts: Django Unchained

21 Dec
December 21, 2012

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg called Inglorious Basterds “a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis.” From the trailers for Django Unchained I was tempted to think that Quentin Tarantino had simply swapped in a black man for Jews and white slavers for Nazis and more or less made the same film again.

But it’s not so. Maybe it’s just that the spaghetti-Western justice flows much more convincingly in a spaghetti-Western setting, but this film seems less strained, more organic despite the usual Taratino tonal swerves. In fact I was genuinely surprised, at the end, to discover that two hours and forty-five minutes had rolled by. It seemed like two hours to me.

The director may not be doing much for the preservation of good taste, but when it comes to the preservation of classical storytelling in an age of jump cuts and CGI, he seems like the last old master standing.

You should know going in that there are a whole lot of n-words dropped, there is much racist awfulness to set off the vengeance that ensues, and, yes, there is a black man man being torn apart by dogs, among other atrocities. If sublime excess is Tarantino’s brand, Django delivers on the brand promise in spades.

And indeed, the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion only to launch into a fully-fledged Act Four, including another risible cameo performance by the director himself. It says something for the film that even Tarantino’s lousy Australian accent is not enough to derail it.

That misstep seems inconsquential beside two amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Leo DiCaprio is pretty much note-perfect as well. I would watch this again, something I haven’t done with any of Taratino’s films since Jackie Brown.

review: Barbara (Christian Petzold)

17 Sep
September 17, 2012

Calling this film “quiet” or “restrained” would be factual enough, but somehow it doesn’t do justice to how truly engaging the story is. Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as the eponymous character, managing the tricky task of seeming both put-upon and above it all. Punished for requesting an exit visa from early-1980s East Germany, Barbara is removed from her advanced medical post in East Berlin and sent to a run-down rural hospital. Here she finds herself attracted to a colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld, relentlessly appealing) whom she suspects may be reporting on her to the police, while deciding whether she should try to escape with her West German lover (Mark Waschke).

This was one of the two screenings I took in at TIFF that was projected in 35mm film format, but it felt like a happy throwback for more reasons than that.  If you need convincing that there is still some life in the classical, jump-cut-free style of filmmaking, moving from medium shot to medium shot, out and in again, keeping the medium itself in the background of the story experience, this is the film for you.  Watching this film I felt a real nostalgia for my early art house experiences with international cinema—films that told me stories that had both the verisimilitude to lived experience that Hollywood films lack, and the exotic power of an open window into another country’s culture and history. What a treat to watch a layered, subtly directed story play out, and not to be sure precisely where it will go. Barbara reminds me why I love the movies.

review: The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)

14 Sep
September 14, 2012

A successful Palestinian surgeon (Ali Suliman, in a compellingly restrained performance), respected and honoured by the Jewish Israeli medical establishment, and working in a Tel Aviv hospital, sees his life’s foundation drop out from under him when his wife perpetrates a suicide bombing that kills 17 people, 11 children among them.  Ziad Doueiri’s absolutely remarkable film The Attack surprised me with its nuanced handling of this loaded storyline, adapted from the novel by the pseudonymous author Yasmina Khadra.

Doueiri first came to attention working first assistant camera on several Quentin Tarantino films including Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He made a minor splash of his own with his engaging, semi-autobiographical West Beirut, about growing up in Lebanon in the 1970s. He has made only one film since, and West Beirut remains today as his best-known work.  That is about to change.

The filmic style here feels contemporary without overtly calling attention to itself, in a way reminiscent of the best work of Steven Soderbergh and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Jump-cut edits are very few but skillfully placed; the palette tends to blue without too-dramatic tint.  From the sharply crafted layout of the main titles to the alternately moody and propulsive score by Eric Neveux, the film feels intricately crafted. It further benefits from a script with equally thorough attention to detail.

The central question to which the the film and the protagonist are seeking answers is how a vivacious, attractive woman with such a comfortable life could turn into a suicidal/homicidal fanatic.  The way in which the possible answers are considered in turn opens up a space of unknowability that is remarkable for such an apparently straightforward plot.  To put it another way, the film is so polished in a conventional way that I was unprepared for the degree of doubt and paradox that it embraces.  This is a film that deals with the thorniest issues in a way that is faithful to their inherent complexity and contradictions.

Word is that The Attack has obtained American distribution; it will be interesting to see what degree of controversy and indeed protest that it might attract.

Side note: watch for a quick appearance by Abdallah El Akal, Stephen Dorff’s photogenic young co-star in Zaytoun.

review: Far From Afghanistan (John Gianvito with Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, Minda Martin, Soon-Mi Yoo)

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

This is a very quick-hit review of a complex film project that is explicated far more thoroughly by Cinema Scope, so I will just focus on a few key points.

I think I have a very clear bias when it comes to films about war, and that is that I like them better the more that they tell me about people’s direct experiences of it.  And there is plenty of footage from Afghanistan here—some moments of it intense and/or gory enough to merit a warning I’d say—but the strange fact here is that this seems to have been gathered by Afghan videographers separately from the five Western films of the omnibus, and then inserted as context.  For me it is far more powerful than anything contributed by the filmmakers themselves.

Gianvito’s own segment is somehow simultaneously too offbase and too heavyhanded, with its images of indulgent, lazy Westerners contrasted pedantically with audio accounts of civilian deaths and injuries in the war.  Jon Jost’s “Empire’s Cross” impressed me with its nerve, putting the faces and names of the 9/11 terrorist attackers on screen, but then devolving into an audio/video mashup of Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech with war imagery.  Soon-Mi Yoo’s “Afghanistan: The Next Generation” mixing archival documentary footage from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with fresh scenes of contemporary Afghan life, focusing on youth.  Somehow this juxtaposition did little for me, although both sets of footage are interesting on their own terms.  Minda Martin’s “The Long Distance Operator” is a rather weak fiction about the implications of remotely-conducted warfare.  It tries to achieve authenticity by casting actual vets, but this can’t hide weak writing and acting.  Travis Wilkerson’s “Fragments of Dissolution” risks taking the entire film off the rails by telling 4 stories of poverty and suicide among American war vets; a tragic subject that no doubt merits a film of its own, but risks undercutting the main thrust of this project with its super-dramatic black-and-white aesthetic and grief-wracked interview subjects.

I say all this and yet, with the except of the last segment I was constantly engaged by this film.  But it is one thing to protest the fact that in 2011 only 2% of news media coverage focused on the war, even as the American and Afghan casualty counts were at an all-time high.  It is another thing to try successfully to tell the stories that aren’t being told. In that respect this attempt, well-intended as it is, falls a bit short.

review: Zaytoun (Eran Riklis)

12 Sep
September 12, 2012

Some quick thoughts about Zaytoun. Criticizing this film feels like kicking a puppy. How can you not enjoy what is possibly the unlikeliest buddy-road-movie pairing ever, when an orphaned Palestinian boy (Abdallah El Akal, who could not be more loved by the camera) and a shackled, captured Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff, basically smirk-free for the entire movie) make their way across Lebanon’s DMZ south to Israel, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon circa 1982? And yes, hilarity, pratfalls, the Bee Gees, the World Cup of soccer, and some death & injury are involved. On one level you have to admire the sheer bravura of trying to make a feel-good movie featuring Israeli-aligned Phalangists shooting down a child in cold blood. But if you remember the Seinfeld “no hugging, no learning” rule, after it becomes clear that there is going to be some learning, you know that the hugging is well and truly inevitable.

It’s pretty clear that the film, written by Nader Rizq, a Palestinian living in the U.S., and directed by the Israeli Eran Riklis, has no intention other than to put a human face on both sides of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as it is so awkwardly if commonly called. If that sounds like a good use of two hours of your time, you could most certainly do worse than this rather entertaining film. But if it’s understanding or insight you seek, best to look elsewhere.