Friday, December 30, 2011

How I Spent My 2011

Somehow, I put up 154 posts in the Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven...No wonder I'm exhausted.

I don't see enough movies in the theater to justify a Year's Best List, so here's the best films I saw for the first time in 2011, both new releases and on disc. The order is about right; click on the title to read more....

Theatrical Releases


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

12 Angry Men (1957) on Blu-ray from Criterion*****

Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Movies of 2011 - Part 2

Christina Hendricks is irrelevant to this post. But who cares....

More "Best of 2011" lists from all them big smart people...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Spectrum of the Soul: Three Colors on Blu-ray from Criterion (1994)*****

Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy, finally available in HD thanks to a superb Criterion boxed set, is a work that's as mesmerizing today as it was on its initial release 17 years ago. It's ironic that the collection has achieved the timelessness of a true classic, for Three Colors was intended to capture the specific zeitgeist of a unique moment in European history.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vodka Lemon (2003)*****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Oh my goodness, what an enthralling, delightful movie! I can’t think why I didn’t pick up on this quirky little sleeper before. VODKA LEMON is set in the most exotic and unfamiliar setting – a frigid Armenian village, after the Soviet Union has fallen apart – and is peopled with Armenian Kurds in desperate straits. The first big surprise here is the sophisticated and brilliantly stark cinematography, and the perfect pacing. Masterful direction by Hiner Saleem, and the actors, especially Romen Avinian, weave their magic effortlessly

There’s a lot of absolutely deadpan humor, too, often somewhat grim, shared with and embracing some extremely touching moments. And a subtle, hilarious moment, when sheep jostle each other to observe a young woman dressing. The score is terrific, notable for its restraint and variety, and it works just, well, what can I say? It works perfectly! 

What is this film about? It is about Hamo, a poor widower, whose son has emigrated from the snowy land to France. When this son fails to send any money back to his dad, after consulting with his dead wife, Hamo decides to sell the family wardrobe. What follows allows us a peek into the social mores and ethic of this foreign place. And, heartbreakingly, what follows is the sale of the television set. What is this film about? Surprise, surprise! It is a romantic drama, set in a landscape of ineffable snow, where love advances by baby steps in a glacial cemetery and on a country bus. Sexual politics are highlighted, in a small way. Every single action in this film is significant. My only complaint is that the songs were not translated in the subtitles. It is a wonderfully engaging film, highly recommended by Shu Zin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Best Films of 2011 (or so they say)

I'm supposed to make a list of the best films of the year. It's one of the many awesome responsibilities we film bloggers face, along with making sure our beloved readers don't waste two hours on cinematic mediocrities. Well, the local multiplex hasn't seen my shadow in awhile and I've got no clue what's going on out there. So here's some year-end lists compiled by other folks who should know what they're talking about...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Charming and Alarming: West Side Story on Blu-ray

Winner of ten Oscars, 1961’s West Side Story is an iconic and indispensable element of America’s cinematic heritage. Available in an eye-popping new 50th Anniversary blu-ray edition, the film remains a surpassingly well designed and executed example of the Great American Musical. Through a synthesis of styles, the film echoes the great cultural melting pot of urban America post WWII, and uses an array of rousing set pieces to hint at the era’s growing unrest and generational division. Under the feel-good, entertaining veneer of Steven Sondheim’s witty lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ acrobatic choreography is a genuine whiff of the sour xenophobia that plagues the nation to this day. That ugly undercurrent drives a tragic convergence, complete with somber and sobering effects that survive the film’s condescending reductions.

Roughly based on Romeo and Juliet with a book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story was originally produced on Broadway, where it enjoyed a successful, if not spectacular, run. Substituting for Montagues and Capulets are two rival NYC teenage street gangs: The Jets, comprised mainly of European immigrants, and The Sharks, whose membership hails from Puerto Rico. The film version reunited many of the creative principles, including stage director Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, whose operatic, omnipresent score provides the film’s narrative momentum. Robbins, a novice at filmmaking, turned to Hollywood veteran Robert Wise for technical support, and the two men were billed as co-directors.

This proved to be an effective partnership, as the film is no mere stage bound rehash. Robbins and Wise cleverly incorporate gritty Manhattan locations for a sprawling exposition that showcases Robbins’ thrilling choreography and Wise’s finely tuned cinematic blocking. Staging large group precision singing and dancing in actual funk-laden locales was innovative – and highly risky – in 1961, but the superb sequence stands as a monument to flawless planning and obsessive attention to detail. The mesmerizing energy of “The Jets Song” serves as a critical entry point into West Side Story’s surreal universe; a strange yet familiar land where crumbling tenements and rusty chain link fences reverberate with magical possibility.

The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), a street-wise punk whose dazzling dance moves are matched only by his caustic mouth. His turf is threatened by the emergence of The Sharks, relative newcomers whose suave leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) dresses as sharply as the steel of his switchblade knife. As tensions build between the two factions, Riff seeks the council of his predecessor Tony (Richard Beymer), a legendary street tough who has said goodbye to all that and, in an early example of movie product placement, now delivers Coca-Cola. Tony resists Riff’s efforts to lure him back into gang life, having found quiet legitimacy and steady paychecks to his liking. That night at a community center dance – watch for John Astin in a hilarious turn as an inept social worker – Tony spots a beautiful wallflower named Maria (Natalie Wood). Through a few Saul Bass designed opticals we see that the pair has been smitten with love at first sight. But Maria is the sister of Bernardo, sworn enemy of Tony and his friends, setting the table for West Side Story’s tragic path forward.

But along the way there’s plenty of fabulous production numbers, including the extraordinary “America”, featuring the great Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita. Riff and Anita counterbalance Tony and Maria respectively, providing the dark sexual energy the script forbids the romantic leads. Beymer and Wood must remain pure as the driven snow, while Moreno and Tamblyn have all the fun. Especially Moreno, who comes very close to stealing the film and her charisma energizes the proceedings whenever the pace briefly lags. She and Chikiris figure prominently in the film’s most interesting photographic moment, as Wise shoots their staircase love scene in silhouette; no doubt in homage to his mentor Orson Welles.

In many ways, Wood and Beymer are the film’s weakest links and their love scenes often feel contrived and empty headed. Their duet “Tonight” still manages to be a show stopper, thanks to the strength of the original Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration. The singing of both actors is dubbed, with Wood’s voice supplanted by operatic soprano Marni Nixon. In fairness, Beymer is largely successful at being hunkily sincere while Wood’s evocation of a Hispanic accent is strong, and her line reading sparkle with consistency and conviction.

Natalie Wood has always been something of a special case and a problematic assessment. Her penetrating, doe-eyed beauty was often more distracting than supportive, and her performances at times seemed shallow and unfocused. In general, her persona seemed better suited to the old studio system of glamorous actresses – indeed, she began her career as a contract player to Warner Brothers – than the independent, anarchic Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s. It was a square peg issue that would dog her career in later years. In her last film Brainstorm (1983), she seems like an anachronism, as out of place opposite Christopher Walken as Greer Garson. Still, Wood was the first talent to receive three Oscar nominations by the age of 25, an achievement that has yet to be equaled, and her work in West Side Story is as impressive for its bravery as its skill.

As West Side Story pursues its predetermined path to conclusion, a couple of undeniable facts emerge. For one, just about all the good songs are in the film’s first half, rendering the final reels with an unrelenting shadowy gloom. And, to paraphrase a recent Presidential candidate, the film is just too damn long. An extraction of about twenty minutes would not have damaged coherency in the slightest. How many shots of athletic young men shimmying up wire fences does one really need? But in the tradition of Grand Opera, West Side Story is a larger than life production with sheer bulk considered a necessary component by its creators. To the distracted, multi-tasking audience of today, the film’s lugubrious final act will likely be a squirm inducer and an impediment to its full appreciation as a priceless bit of Americana.

Disc Review

Recently, Fox has been producing some of the best blu-ray burns in the business and West Side Story continues the hot streak. Simply stated, the disc looks amazing. Colorful and sharp as one of Bernardo’s razors, the images achieve a depth that rivals 3-D. Of course, there was superb source material to work with, as West Side Story was filmed in the old Todd-AO format, creating a 65mm negative with an aspect 2.20:1.

One of the film’s many Oscars went to veteran DP Donald Fapp for cinematography – back when color was a separate category – and I’m sure the late Mr. Fapp would approve of the presentation here. The Koyaanisqatsi style aerial views of Manhattan that open the film are so graphically real you’ll get a few tummy butterflies, while the colorful graffiti that adorns the gray walls and streets pops with vividness. The night scenes, and there are a lot of them, buzz with neon-cued shimmer. Theatrically lit, every scene offers a full range of values, but the blacks retain detail and purity while the brightly colored wardrobes create tremendous separation. Even those who aren’t particularly enamored with the musical genre will find the disc an enjoyable and sumptuous visual feast; its impeccable quality worthy of an American classic.

The track is no slouch either, despite internet rumors of short cuts taken in its creation. Presented in DTS-HD 7.1, the blu-ray sounds as impressive as it looks. Bernstein’s score is a study in sonic contrasts, ranging from stark whistles and finger snaps to lushly layered orchestration, and viewers will feel fully immersed in each note. The track possesses an extraordinary liveness, with exceptional soundstage and hair-raising power. Frankly, I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of my investment in expensive Paradigm speakers last year, but the sonic detail of this disc has wholly restored my confidence.

This deluxe edition contains three discs: The film in HD, the film in SD, and a disc of bonus material.

Play Movie in "Pow! The Dances of West Side Story" Mode

With this mode engaged, the dance sequences are interspersed with expert commentary from Susan Stroman, Adam Shankman, Chita Rivera and several other choreographers and performers. This feature will be primarily of interest to those already highly familiar with the film.

Song Specific Commentary by Stephen Sondheim

This valuable supplement features the witty and insightful recollections of Sondheim. He discusses his constant struggle to simplify his lyrics and offers surprisingly self-deprecating assessments of his work. Sondheim’s comments are sharp, articulate and full of advice young writers and composers would do well to heed. Highly recommended.

Music Machine

Available only on the SD disc, this jukebox style interface allows instant access to every song in the movie.

A Place For Us: West Side Story's Legacy

This 30 minute collection of interview snippets attempts to place West Side Story in historical context. We hear from Stephan Sondheim, Debbie Allen, Lin-Manuel Mirada, Mikhail Baryshnikov and a host of luminaries on how the production has influenced them personally and professionally. Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jaime describes how excited her father was to compose Latin-inspired music, while conceding that the original Broadway show was too much a of downer for the audiences of 1957. Allen describes the racism faced by the touring company, and how the show was considered too controversial for her hometown in Texas. The show’s continuing influence is cited by one of the producers of Glee, and the piece overall makes a compelling case for West Side Story’s enduring relevance. Recommended.

West Side Memories

This hour-long documentary is a thorough and detailed analysis of the genesis of West Side Story ; both the play and the movie. Archival audio from Jerome Robbins discusses the challenges of assembling the high profile production team, and the many false starts and blind alleys pursued along the way. Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents go in-depth on the new approaches in storytelling that evolved during the creation of the show, as West Side Story was designed more as an opera than a traditional musical. Film buffs will enjoy the discussion of the division of labor practiced by Robbins and Wise on the set, and the visual ideas that resulted from their unique collaboration. Rita Moreno gives an amusing account of the challenges Bernstein’s eccentric time signatures posed for the dancers and offers intriguing insight into Robbin’s unconventional methods of choreography. In total, this documentary gets a bit deep in the weeds for casual viewers, but stage and film professionals will find it fascinating.

Storyboard to Film Comparison Montage

As the title suggests, this 5 minute supplement is a selection of drawings by storyboard artist Maurie Zuberano, followed by the pertinent scenes from the film. Zuberano’s free flowing, impressionistic style was a bit unusual for this type of assignment, but clearly his visualizations were closely followed by the filmmakers and set designers.


Four trailers are included. Two are fairly traditional assemblies, featuring some of the film’s most exciting scenes. Another deals with the film’s worldwide acclaim and contains footage of gala opening nights in Hollywood and London, with red carpet shots of Queen Elizabeth, James Garner and Pat Boone, of all people. The fourth is the most interesting of the lot; an animated, music only teaser presumably intended for non-English speaking audiences. All are standard definition from rather rough prints, and will increase your appreciation of the main feature’s skillful blu-ray transfer.

Final Thoughts

West Side Story is such a densely packed entertainment viewers of every taste and inclination will find something laudable and involving within its multiple levels. Adrenaline junkies will delight in its crackling energy and raging momentum. More reflective viewers will find the film a fascinating look at a time when even nascent racism was laced with gee-whiz innocence. And diehard romantics will be swept away by its story of passion and ill fated love. Indeed, it’s the seamless melding of these attributes that makes West Side Story a true American classic, and an enduring part of the Nation’s cultural legacy. It is a film that offers its viewers the opportunity to deeply explore or the freedom to simply enjoy. Just like life in A-Merry-Ca.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Friday, December 9, 2011

Briefly Noted: Comedy Tonight!

The Band's Visit (2007)****

A touring musical group comprised of Egyptian policemen take the wrong bus and end up in an isolated Israeli backwater in Eran Kolirin's amusing tale of low voltage culture shock. The band members are stranded with little more than the powder blue uniforms on their backs but, through the intercession of a kind hearted cafe owner (Ronit Elkabetz), the men are dispersed to various local households for food and accommodations. What follows is an evening of small revelations, as the musicians and their hosts learn all about each other and, in small ways, begin to bridge their great historical and cultural divides. In all, a charming and well intentioned film that never seems forced or sappy. And don't be surprised if it restores a little bit of your faith in humanity.

The Valet (2006)***1/2

This peppy romantic comedy from France will please even the grumpiest folks at your house. The great Daniel Auteuil plays a zillionaire CEO so desperate to hide his affair with dazzling supermodel Alice Taglioni that he launches a byzantine cover-up so convoluted with lawyers and private detectives that the viewer wonders who is spying on who. Kirstin Scott Thomas is very good as the long suffering wife who realizes she is in for a big payday and decides to just enjoy the ride. I predict you will too. This comedy is quite prescient, and we doubly enjoy Auteuil's predicament in these days when most of us would like to see robber-CEOs dragged through the streets. In fact, the film's pacing and direction feel much more like an American film than a French one. I wouldn't be surprised if some Hollywood producer is currently planning to remake this film for the American audience. It would be an easy adaptation.

Galaxy Quest (1999)*****

A ripping good time movie that lays waste to every Star Trek cliche, then finds the enduring nobility underneath them. Galaxy Quest is literally filled with famous actors who are simply fun to watch, and they all appear to be having a grand time. But part of the fun is spotting the "before they were famous" cast members (Rainn Wilson is one of the aliens and a pubescent Justin Long is hysterical as a true-believing geek). When you want to relax and indulge in silliness and belly laughs, this space opera send-up is just the ticket.

Monday, December 5, 2011

And I Will Make a Nation of the Son of the Slave Woman: Of Gods and Men (2010)****1/2

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, Of Gods and Men is a film made with such sincerity and attention to detail that not a single moment feels false or contrived. Based on actual events, the story offers an explanation for the mysterious disappearance of a group of French monks from an Algerian monastery in 1996; an explanation that’s become all too believable and commonplace in the 15 years hence. It’s a tragedy foreshadowed from the film’s opening sequences, yet audiences are held spellbound as the divine and the brutal converge on a slow motion collision course.

As the monks, director Xavier Beauvois has assembled a wonderful cast of veteran French character actors – no household names but familiar faces to followers of European cinema – and these talents deliver performances of quiet conviction and refined control hewn by decades of experience. As the monks go about their daily tasks, a grinding mix of spiritual enlightenment and drudgery, Beauvois quickly establishes the demanding routine of monastic life, and the selfless nature of its adherents. Michael Lonsdale is extraordinary as Brother Luc, a former doctor who now dispenses both medicine and kindness to his Islamic neighbors as a hybrid Mother Teresa and Santa Claus. His practice is overseen by Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), the monastery’s abbot and chief executive, who has devoted his life to a careful balance of the sublime with the practical. 

When the monks venture into the nearby village, their interactions with the impoverished Algerians reveal a mutual respect based more on humanism than the rigors of religious doctrine. But this peaceful, indeed joyous, coexistence is threatened by a dark new force in the world, as a radical Islamist sect begins a campaign of violence against foreigners. Soon the atrocities envelope the village and the monastery in an air of impending doom. The monks begin a protracted debate on whether they should flee to the safety of France or remain steadfast in their mission, despite the near certainty of a grim and bloody extinction.

The barbarism faced by the monks is a degree of malevolence wholly beyond their experience. Beauvois gives near equal narrative weight to each man as he grapples with his decision in icy solitude. Their weathered, haggard faces register innocent dismay and disbelief as their minds process the imminent evil. The monastery’s daily routine continues, but the monks appear to exist in an emotional netherworld, stunned but oddly intrigued by this new and deadly challenge to their faith. In these reflective passages, the film creates a hypnotic sense of the stoppage of time, as each man begins an unspoken galvanizing of his soul in preparation for the answering of humanity’s ultimate question.

In a risky sequence set to music from Swan Lake, Beauvois embarks on a series of dolly shots that grow ever tighter on the faces of his beleaguered monks; each man remembering the individual triumphs and defeats of his life in solemn, heartbreaking reverie. A lesser director would not have placed such trust in his actors, and instead inserted flashbacks or monologues to convey this pivotal moment. But Beavois’ approach is all the more powerful for its refusal to spill every detail, reinforcing the ultimate loneliness of death, even to those who have devoted their lives to collective Godly service.

Like the monks’ harmonious chants, the film’s Bergman-esque conclusion strikes an elegant yet simple chord, and almost seems anti-climactic. For these humble ascetics, any connection to this world was always tenuous at best, and the film resolves their story with whispered notes of mystery and mercy. Through perfectly grooved performances and an irresistible editorial rhythm, Of Gods and Men creates its own higher plane of existence, and transubstantiates a mere movie into food for the soul.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Gone With The Fuzzy-Wuzzys: The Four Feathers from Criterion (1939)**1/2

While it’s inherently unfair to apply today’s standards to a screenplay of this vintage, even the most tolerant appraisal would have to conclude that, despite its historical basis, this Four Feathers is guilty of excessive condescension and aggressive pandering. The film’s storyline simply isn’t believable, and its three acts range from sentimental to melodramatic to outright preposterous.