Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Fantastic Freaky French Film HOLY MOTORS Now Out On Blu Ray & DVD

Releasing today on Blu ray and DVD:


(Dir. Leos Carax, 2012) *

It seems that we stuffy Americans, set in our movie formulas, need a freaky French film to come along and shake us up every so often, and avant garde film maker Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS definitely fits the bill.

Although it’s as all over the place as it is all over Paris, like something AMELIE and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN director Jean-Pierre Jeunet cinematically vomited, Carax’s über experimental film, his first full-length feature since 1999’s POLA X, is a weird wild piece of work that must be seen to be believe.

But be warned, with its displays of violence, graphic nudity, and its demented sense of humor, many people won’t want to believe it.

Denis Lavant stars as the eccentric Mr. Oscar who we meet riding around Paris in the back of a white limousine, driven by his associate Céline (Édith Scob), that functions as his dressing room, with make-up, mirrors, wigs, props, and a crate of weapons, going from appointment to appointment. The appointments are different scenarios in various locations in which Lavant appears in costume and acts out a scene, often disrupting and baffling passer-bys.

Lavant, who is credited for playing a dozen characters in the film, appears in public as a series of diverse personas including a little old hunchbacked beggar lady, a gold-chain wearing greasy gangster, an ailing elderly man on his deathbed a la Igmar Bergman, an accordion player leading a marching band (one of the most joyous scenes), and a motion-capture artist that engages in simulated sex.

Our chameleon of a protagonist’s job is never outright explained, but bit by bit we gather that Lavant is acting for an unseen audience through cameras that he complains were once bigger than us, but now can’t be seen at all. Each of the vignettes can be seen as representing individual genres, all combined into a grand summation of the state of current day cinema, in which Carax has to somewhat stubbornly deal with the digital age (the film is Carax’s first shot in the digital format).

In one of the film’s strangest scenes, Lavant reprises the role of Monsieur Merde the Troll who appeared in Carax’s short in the 2008 anthology film TOKYO! Lavant crazily menaces tourists and mourners, while munching on floral arrangements, at Père Lachaise cemetery, where amusingly the grave-sites have website addresses instead of the usual inscriptions.

Lavant’s Merde then disturbs a fashion photo-shoot of an expression-less Eva Mendes, who he abducts and takes back to his cave. I won’t tell you what happens next, just that it involves full frontal male nudity and Mendes singing lullabyes. Maybe one day I’ll be able to understand what any of that means, but probably not.

HOLY MOTORS is also connected to Carax’s third film THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (1991) with the appearance of one of that film’s major locations, the La Samaritaine department store, which is sentimentally visited by Lavant (who also starred in the earlier film), and Kylie Minogue as a fellow former co-worker. Minogue enforces the musical genre theme as she helps wrap up the film with a song entitled “Who Were We?” written by Carax and Neil Hannon.

By linking his films together, and blending his motifs with those of influences like Jean-Luc Godard, Alexander Sokurov, and largely imagery from Georges Franju’s 1959 French horror classic EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which was actress Scob’s second film, Carax has made an incredibly spicy surreal feast of a film. It’s certainly not for every taste, but lovers of challenging art who are sick of being spoon fed by the mainstream movie system, will be delighted to take a bite.

Special Features: An almost 50 minute featurette filled with cast/crew interviews (“The Making of ‘Holy Motors”),  a 13 minute interview with Kylie Minogue, and domestic/international theatrical trailers.

* This review originally appeared in the Nov. 15th, 2012 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

More later...

Plainspoken Health Care Doc ESCAPE FIRE Releases Today On DVD

(Dirs. Matthew Heineman & Susan Frömke) *

The national debate over health care can get absurdly heated, but Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke’s documentary, ESCAPE FIRE: THE FIGHT TO RESCUE AMERICAN HEALTHCARE, is a cool, calm and collected inquiry into what has been called by many a badly broken system.

The refreshingly bipartisan (meaning there’s no mention of Obamacare) film takes its title and premise from a method, illustrated by an opening sequence featuring stuntmen and real firemen, of creating an escape route from an approaching wildfire by starting another fire.

Therefore, an “escape fire” is a solution to a life-threatening problem.

After engrossingly detailing the issues, Heineman and Frömke’s thorough thesis gives us those escape fires, those viable solutions, that we didn’t get from such previous docs as SiCKO, Michael Moore’s informative but biased 2007 documentary diatribe about health care.

Actually, maybe they’re just strong-sounding suggestions, concerning lifestyle choices and alternate medical treatments, but when American health care costs are getting up to more than $3 trillion annually, the film makers’ incredibly convincing case – via a sobering array of facts, statistics and compelling anecdotal evidence – that we need to change the conversation is seriously worth considering.

One of the most affecting threads throughout the film is the story of Sgt. Robert Yates, an infantryman who returns home from Afghanistan, depressed, disturbed, and addicted to so many different prescription pills that his attending medics have trouble sorting them out.

Yates, who describes himself as a “redneck, South Louisiana boy, just an ole hillbilly,” admits to being skeptical of Eastern medicine, but is admirably able to kick his addiction by giving healing processes such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga a shot.

In segments titled “A National Dependency,” and “The Dark Matter of Medicine,” the billion-dollar industry of pharmaceuticals is criticized by industry experts such as integrative medicine proponent (and frequent talk-show regular) Dr. Andrew Weil, noted physician Dr. Dean Ornish, medical journalist Shannon Brownlee and Dr. Steven Nissen, Cleveland Clinic chairman of cardiovascular medicine, who complains that half the commercials on the networks are for pharmaceutical agents.

“The ads always end with the same phrase: ‘Ask your doctor,’ and people do,” Dr. Nissen explains, “and doctors wanting to please their patients will often prescribe it.”

This concept is most troubling in the case, explored in the doc, of a massively marketed drug named Avandia, that in 2006 was the No. 1 selling diabetes drug in the world. Information was withheld that Avandia increased the risk of heart attack by 30 percent, and FDA restrictions were implemented, but it took several years for it to be withdrawn from drugstore shelves.

Mind you, ESCAPE FIRE isn’t against all pharmaceutical drugs; it’s just reasonably concerned with how we’ve become a quick-fix culture that too often disregards the root of ailments.

It’s that kind of thinking that, in another affecting thread, causes primary care physician Dr. Erin Martin to quit her Dalles, Oregon clinic position, because she felt demoralized being paid for the quantity of patients she could see in an hour. Martin goes on to work at Dr. Andrew Weil’s University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, where she can take more time to treat individual patients.

Though mostly thankfully devoid of flashy techniques like pop-song punctuation and “gotcha” journalism, there are some overly familiar touches like ominous music (provided by techno-pop master Moby) embellishing sinister shots of Washington, D.C., and the inevitable “act now” website plug at the end.

Also a downside of this doc is that it deals with a lot of information most folks will already know, as in “we get it – America is the most obese country.”

However, those embellishments don’t hinder the film’s touching optimism and noble notion that a less high-tech, more high-touch world of healing could exist.

Summing up the film’s guiding goal, former Head of Medicare / Medicaid Dr. Don Berwick says, “I don’t blame anybody, they’re just doing what makes sense, and we have to change what makes sense.”

In its plainspoken matter-of-fact moments like that, ESCAPE FIRE makes the most sense.

Special Features: Audio commentary with Directors Susan Frömke and Matthew Heineman, deleted/extended scenes, and the following featurettes: “The Making of ‘Escape Fire’,” “Sgt. Yates: A Year Later,” and “Sundance World Premiere.”

* This review originally appeared in the October 25th, 2012 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

More later...

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD 2/26/13

Yeah, so THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2 is the biggest new release today on Blu ray and DVD, but since I’ve not seen any of the TWILIGHT movies (I think this is the first time I've ever acknowledged their existence on this blog), and doubt I will anytime soon, I’m just going to move on. 

A movie I do care about, Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER is getting a spiffy double disc Blu ray, and a one disc DVD, release today. THE MASTER, which was #1 on my Top 10 of 2012 (my review here), really should’ve been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoneix and Amy Adams were all nominated but lost), but let’s get past that Academy-approval nonsense and dive into Anderson’s magnum opus, now enhanced with 20 minutes of outtakes and additional scenes scored by Johnny Greenwood. 

The Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD’s special features also include an 8 minute short entitled “Unguided Message,” behind the scenes featurettes, theatrical trailers, and John Huston’s landmark documentary about WW-II veterans “Let There Be Light (1946),” cited by Anderson as a huge influence on his film.

Another film from my Top 10 of 2012, Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS, is now available on both one disc Blu ray and DVD editions. This freaky French film stars Denis Levant as a man who dons different outfits and takes on different personas to create strange scenes on the streets of Paris. It’s kind of hard to explain, although I tried in my review, but I bet those seeking challenging movie experiences will more than “get it.” 

Special features include “The Making of ‘Holy Motors,” an almost 50 minute featurette filled with cast/crew interviews, a 13 minute interview with Kylie Minogue, and theatrical trailers.
2012 was such a strong year for documentaries that a solid one like Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke’s ESCAPE FIRE: THE FIGHT TO RESCUE AMERICAN HEALTHCARE got sadly overshadowed. The probing film, which releases today on DVD, is what I described as a “cool, calm, and collected inquiry into what has been called by many a badly broken system” in my review (which you can read here).

ESCAPE FIRE’s special features include a commentary with Directors Susan Frömke and Matthew Heineman, deleted/extended scenes, and the following featurettes: “The Making of ‘Escape Fire’”, “Sgt. Yates: A Year Later,” “Sundance World Premiere.”

Lastly, the Oscar nominated AIDS Activism documentary HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, which has been streaming for the last few weeks on Netflix Instant, is out today on DVD. The extremely worthwhile film is packaged with an audio commentary by director David France and a few ACT UP activists, deleted scenes, and a theatrical trailer.

More later...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscars 2013 Recap!

Now, I wouldn’t say Seth MacFarlane outright bombed in his gig as Oscar host last night, but he sure came close with so many of his jokes being cringe-inducing duds and his song and dance routines being show-stoppers in the worst way.

That he didn’t lapse into his Family Guy character voices like he did in his Saturday Night Live monologue last year is one of the few things I can commend about his performance, but it says a lot that one of the only funny bits he was involved in was a sock puppet production of FLIGHT. 

Other attempts at comedy, like MacFarlane singing a song called “We Saw Your Boobs” (a mock tribute to actresses who’ve done nudity) with the Los Angeles Gay Men's Choir, and an ending number with Kristin Chenoweth dedicated to the losers of the evening, fell horribly flat.

I tweeted that Daniel Day-Lewis joking that he was up for the part of Maggie Thatcher in THE IRON LADY while his Oscar presenter Meryl Streep was up for LINCOLN in his acceptance speech for winning Best Actor was funnier than anything MacFarlane said all night, and I wasn’t kidding.

There were a few genuine highlights - Shirley Bassey singing “Goldfinger” for the 50th anniversary tribute to James Bond being one - but it was a largely forgettable show. The rare tie in one category (ZERO DARK THIRTY and SKYFALL shared the Oscar for Best Sound Editing) will probably be as forgotten as the other five times it happened in the Academy’s history. 

A surprise appearance by Barbara Streisand singing “The Way We Were” in tribute to Marvin Hamlisch as part of the IN MEMORIUM segment brought some much needed gravitas to the proceedings. Points to MacFarlane for not making some rude comment later about it.

But now on to how I did with my predictions that I posted last Friday.

Although up until the broadcast I’ve been referring to the 2013 Oscars as the most unpredictable race in recent memory, I got more of the categories right than I have in over half a decade -18 out of 24. That’s better than the 15 I got right last year, and much better than the 13 I got the previous two years before that.

Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor for DJANGO UNCHAINED, and Ang Lee for Best Director of LIFE OF PI were the big surprises last night. I figured Waltz had won, also for a Tarantino picture, not that long ago so I counted him out.

Spielberg seemed like the safe bet for his direction of LINCOLN, but, despite having picked LIFE OF PI for Score, Cinematography, and Visual Effects I really didn’t think it would win Lee the big Best Director award, and from the other predictions I’ve seen, not many others did either.

Here’s what else I got wrong:

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: I predicted LES MISÉRABLES (Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson), but LINCOLN (Rick Carter, Jim Erickson) got the gold.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: OPEN HEART (Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern) I’ll just chalk this up to the fact that I didn’t see any of the Documentary Shorts, was just guessing, and I’ll leave it at that. I’ll have to seek out the winner - Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s INOCENTE – sometime soon.

MAKEUP: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane). I should’ve known THE HOBBIT wouldn’t win anything. It seems obvious in retrospect that Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell would get it for LES MISÉRABLES, but then a lot of things do.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: LINCOLN (Tony Kushner) I thought playwright Kushner was a shoo-in, but since I’m more of a fan of Chris Terrio’s screenplay for ARGO I wasn’t disappointed to get this one wrong.

I was happy to be right about ARGO winning Best Picture - Affleck got snubbed for a Best Director nomination, but now that's just a future trivia question.

AMOUR's Best Foreign Picture win and LIFE OF PI's mini sweep with four wins were also nice to see. With hope, those moments will linger longer in memory than MacFarlane's lame material.

More later…

Friday, February 22, 2013

Hey Kids - Funtime Oscar Picks 2013!

As Ive said before, the 85th Academy Awards, airing Sunday night on ABC, is looking like one of the most unpredictable Oscars ever. So I bet I get more wrong this time than usual. But it's all in fun so what the Hell!

Here are my picks:


Yep, I'm going with the theory that the Academy will make up for not nominating Ben Affleck for Best Director and give him the gold for his film, which I think deserves to win. LINCOLN looks pretty possible too, and I could see SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK being an upset, but I'm still going with ARGO.

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg for LINCOLN

3. BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis for LINCOLN




And the rest:

7. PRODUCTION DESIGN: LES MISÉRABLES (Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson)




(Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern)

12. FILM EDITING: ARGO (William Goldenberg)

13. MAKEUP: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane)

14. VISUAL EFFECTS: LIFE OF PI (Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott)

15. ORIGINAL SCORE: LIFE OF PI (Mychael Danna)

16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Skyfall” (Adele, Paul Epworth)


18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: CURFEW (Shawn Christensen)


20. SOUND MIXING: LES MISÉRABLES (Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes)



(Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman) What I want to win: WRECK-IT RALPH.

(Dir. Michael Haneke)

Check back Monday morning to see how many I got wrong.

Also, I should again plug my appearance on postmodcast in which I discuss the Oscars with host Kevin Brewer.

More later...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reconsidering CASINO

“‘Casino’? Ca-seen it. The first time, when it was called ‘Goodfellas.’” - David Spade (SNL 1995)

Not long ago I came across Martin Scorsese’s CASINO on the Sundance Channel and found myself re-watching it. It has the distinction of being the only Scorsese movie that I don’t own a copy of. I’ve blown it off over the years for being too much of a retread of GOODFELLAS, but it’s been a bit since I’ve seen it so why not reconsider it? 

To be fair, I have heard that there are people that prefer CASINO, because they like gambling and are fans of casino culture. It does seem like an ideal movie to put on if you’re playing the occasional slots game on an online casino at home come to think of it.

Still, right off the bat, the comparisons to GOODFELLAS can’t help but being made. With its cool-as-ice voice-overs, stylish editing, flashy cinematography with sweeping pans, and its dead-on depictions of the highs of a life of crime, we’re definitely in the same world that Scorsese and screenwriter/true crime novelist Nicholas Pileggi put on such vivid display in their 1990 masterpiece GOODFELLAS.

It’s the closest Scorsese has come to making a sequel, and one thing sequels do is try to double-size the original. So CASINO is bigger - there’s a much bigger explosion in the first five minutes, there’s twice as many people getting whacked, there’s a bigger cast, the f-bomb is dropped a 100 more times (literally), there’s two blow-jobs instead of the measly one, I mean, even the soundtrack is a double disc collection.

Robert De Niro, in his last of eight roles in Scorsese’s films, has a much more prominent role than GOODFELLAS as the film’s protagonist, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, who is based on real-life Las Vegas casino mogul and mafia associate Frank Rosenthal

Rothstein's story is one of power and indulgence, perfect for Scorsese’s scope, but although there are a number of top notch sequences, the film never matches GOODFELLA’S go-for-broke spirit which was fueled by improvised dialogue and the sense of first learning about the inner-workings of a shadowy underworld.

As visually stimulating as much of CASINO is, and with cinematographer Robert Richardson’s impeccable eye on the job it can be very visually stimulating, we never feel like we’re learning anything new that we haven’t seen in tons of other movies and TV shows that have thugs skimming money, gamblers getting roughed up, and sleazy hustlers running out of luck (James Woods does nail that last one here though). Seems like the only thing I really learned was that if you're going to murder someone in the desert, make sure you dig a hole for the body in advance.

The way the system works, which should be obvious to anybody who's even just thought about this stuff before, is summed by De Niro via voice-over: “In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I'm watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.”

In its best moments, Scorsese’s eye in-the-sky makes us feel like we’re on the floor with De Niro, Mob enforcer Joe Pesci (again a very similar character to his thick headed violent persona in GOODFELLAS), casino manager Don Rickles, and shift bosses such as Joe Bob Briggs (film critic gets once-in-a-lifetime part in a Scorsese movie! Good for him), as the tension mounts over the game in play.

One element that CASINO sadly doesn’t double down on is humor. A large part of what made GOODFELLAS so great is the comic edge to it all. It had more laughs than most comedies, along with tons of quotable lines. I just watched CASINO, but I can’t remember a single of Pesci’s lines; there’s nothing like “What, do you got me on a fuckin' pay-no-mind list kid?” to speak of.

CASINO doesn’t just echo Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, it also recalls his 1980 classic RAGING BULL in the dysfunctional relationship De Niro has with Sharon Stone as a floozy turned gangster prostitute (fun fact: Sharon Stone auditioned for the part of Vickie La Motta in RAGING BULL). Stone did do some of her most engaging work in CASINO, and earned the film's only Oscar nomination (she lost to Susan Sarandon in DEAD MAN WALKING).

At times CASINO works because of its connection to the invigorating flow of GOODFELLAS, but too often it feels like an artificial extension of the style. It has to be said that David Chase's HBO series The Sopranos was a much better extension of the style.

I was talking to my friend, Kevin Brewer on his postmodcast the other day and caught myself saying some like that if GOODFELLAS didn’t exist, then maybe CASINO would be the awesome epic it’s supposed to be, but that’s just the kind of thing a film geek like me would meaninglessly speculate.

CASINO is a Scorsese film that’s been glossed over in his filmography - the full-length TCM Career Profile on Scorsese that accompanies THE DEPARTED DVD barely mentioned it - and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be completely dismissed. Despite its “been there, done that” shortcomings, it feels like a gamble to double their winnings that Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pileggi had to make.

More later...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD 2/19/13

Just in time for the Oscars comes the Blu ray/DVD release of one of the major contenders: Ben Affleck’s ARGO. The 2-disc Blu ray edition contains such Special Features as a commentary by director Affleck, Feature Length Picture in Picture: Eye Witness Account, and several featurettes including “Rescued from Tehran: We Were There,” “Argo: Absolute Authenticity,” “ARGO: The CIA & Hollywood Connection,” and “Escape From Iran: The Hollywood Option.”

Read my review of ARGO (it was #3 on my Top 10 of 2012 BTW), and check out the movie that should have gotten Affleck a nomination for Best Director (and that I hope will win Best Picture). The Blu ray/DVD combo also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. 

ANNA KARENINA, nominated for four Oscars, also drops today in a Blu ray release with the obligatory DVD, and digital copy add-ons. I was “Anna Karenina”-illiterate when I saw it last December, but appreciated the artsy approach to the material that Joe Wright took, which involved an old theater backdrop that evolved with the production (my review here). Perhaps the best of Wright and Keira Knightley’s literary trilogy, it looks like a shoo-in to win the Best Costume Design Academy Award on Sunday night. 

Special features: Deleted Scenes, commentary with Wright, and a batch of featurettes (“Anna Karenina: An Epic Story About Love,” “Adapting Tolstoy,” “Keira as Anna,” “On the Set with Director Joe Wright,” “Dressing Anna,” and “Anna Karenina: Time-Lapse Photography”).

Another big new release today is the second season of HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones on Blu ray and DVD. My wife and I are about halfway through this new 5 disc box (seems like they only put two or so episodes a disc to make it a more expensive set), and I’m enjoying the war of the Lannisters and Starks families a lot more than in season one. Some of the effects stand out unconvincingly, and I may get a few of the characters confused, but the lavish landscapes, spectacular battles, and wicked wit in the wordplay (especially coming from Peter Dinklage as "The Imp" Tyrion Lannister) more than suffice.

Haven’t explored the exclusive Blu ray features much since we haven’t finished the season, but they include an interactive guide “War of the Five Kings,” Hidden Dragon Eggs, featurettes such as “Histories and Lore,” “Creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay,” “The Religion if Westeros,” 12 audio commentaries, and a roundtable discussion of Game of Thrones’ Inner Circle. The thick book-like Blu ray box also includes DVD copies, and a Digital Copy of the complete season.

A lesser release, in my opinion that is, today is the Ethan Hawke horror movie SINISTER, directed by Scott Derrickson, on Blu ray and DVD. I wasn’t a fan of the film (my review), which has Hawke as a true crime writer who moves his wife and kids in into a house where a family of four was found hanged from a tree in the backyard, but some critics liked it (Ebert gave it 3 stars, Entertainment Weekly named it the best horror film of 2012) so decide for yourself. It’s your funeral. 

SINISTER’S Special Features include a commentary with director Derrickson, and a second one with Derrickson and C.Robery Cargill, a “True Crime Authors” featurette, “Living in a House of Death” featurette, Deleted Scenes (with optional audio commentary with Scott Derrickson), and the theatrical trailer.

More later...

Monday, February 18, 2013

3 Oscar Nominated Documentaries Now Streaming On Netflix Instant

Folks wanting to catch up with Oscar nominated films before the Academy Awards this Sunday night are in luck because three of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature are now streaming on Netlfix Instant: David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, Kirby Dick’s THE INVISIBLE WAR, and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 BROKEN CAMERAS.

If it wasn’t for Malik Bendjelloul’s crowd pleasing SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (available on Blu ray, DVD, and Amazon Instant Video), HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE would be a shoo-in for the award. Journalist and first-time film maker France, via grainy amateur video, TV news footage, and recent interviews, tells us the story of the early days of AIDS activism through the fight of two coalitions, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

A stunning tally of AIDS deaths is given a counter (appearing when the film identifies what year we’re in), that reaches well into the millions well before the film is over. The spirit of the war on homophobic factions of the government not supporting funding for AIDS research and treatment is uplifting when it comes to the many chants at protest rallies throughout: “Out of the bar and into the street!” “AZT is not enough, give us all the other stuff!” “300,000 dead from AIDS, where is George?” (Bush Sr. that is).

But what’s most affecting is the thread of the late Bob Rafsky, of ACT UP, who we witness deteriorating but not so much that he couldn’t heckle Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in ’92.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is essential viewing. Force that loud mouthed homophobic relative to watch it with you. Yeah, that’s a great idea.

Kirby Dick’s THE INVISIBLE WAR, concerning the unbelievably high volume of rape incidents in the military, has plenty of emotional power as well.

It’ll break your heart over and over to hear these women’s (and a few men’s) testimonies about being sexually assaulted, then you’ll get angry at the career-ending repercussions the victims are dealt when trying to get justice. The case of Kori Cioca, who was raped by a commanding officer while serving as a seaman with the U.S. Coast Guard in 2005 is the dominant storyline. Dick’s camera captures Ciorca as she waits for a response from the Veterans Affairs office on her medical claim, as her aggressor had horribly injured her jaw.

Documentarian Dick’s movies have felt a bit incomplete before (THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, I’m looking at you), but the well-lit interview heavy THE INVISIBLE WAR is his most fully realized work. The film may over utilize the effect of how ominous U.S. Marine Corps recruiting films can look in retrospect, but, along with the staggering statistics presented, and the exposure of the anti-rape ad campaign orchestrated by the SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator) program represented by Kate Whitley (who Dick does a bit of snotty Michael Moore-ish interrogating of), all of the material here is worth a close look. 

Just disregard that its wrap-up makes it seem like a big infomercial for a cause with Mary J. Blige doing the Melissa Etheridge duties * for the end credits to boot.

Maybe the most riveting of these nominated documentaries streaming on Netflix is 5 BROKEN CAMERAS

“These are my five cameras, every one is an episode in my life” Palestinian peasant Emad Burnat explains in his intro to this film which covers from 2005 to 2010.

Burnat films the villagers protesting a large Israeli security wall that cuts them off from their land and gets footage that’s more action packed than the latest DIE HARD movie. Gun fire resulting in deaths right in front of Burnat’s lens is frequent, so much so that more than one of his five cameras gets a bullet lodged in it. Burnat speaks of filming as way to make this scary existence have meaning, and he achieves that greatly in the face of military telling him to turn the camera off, and in one striking shot in which he pans swiftly to catch a flock of birds flying over Bil’in in a rare break from turmoil.

Like with all the other categories, this Oscar race is looking like the hardest one to predict in recent memory. That won’t stop me from trying to predict though (check back here later this week for predictions). THE GATEKEEPERS, which is the only doc of those nominated that I haven’t seen, looks pretty spectacular too (check out this trailer), but again, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (which is way worthy BTW) looks like the best bet of docs.

But in the meantime, the currently streaming HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, THE INVISIBLE WAR, and 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, are possible Oscar upsets that Film Babble Blog followers who are fans of documentaries (all 2-3 of you), should definitely take not of.

I also touched on the Best Documentary Feature of 2013 in my appearance chatting with Kevin Brewer on postmodcast last evening, which you can hear here.

* Etheridge won the Oscar for her end credits song contribution “I Need to Wake Up” to Davis Guggenheim’s AN INCONVIENENT TRUTH in 2006.

More later…

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Now, This Is Sad: Cary's The Galaxy Cinema Awaiting Demolition

Triangle area film fans should all be aware that the Galaxy Cinema in Cary closed for business last November, but the building still stands and it's a very sad sight:

The weather today made it look even bleaker, but it looked like it's been closed for years not just months. Here's a few more depressing shots (click on the images for bigger pics):

I went to see a lot of movies at the Galaxy over the years, and I remember going there when it was the Imperial Cinemas VI back in the '80s (I saw BEETLEJUICE there!). 

I hear that soon the bulldozers will come and the structure will be razed to make way for, uh, a grocery store? New office buildings? I dunno - I can't find anything recent online about it. If you know anything, please let me know.

Back in the world of still thriving art houses, the Colony Theater has some notable upcoming revival screenings coming up, including tonight's Cinema Overdrive screening of THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR that I'm checking out. Read more here.

More later...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

New Releases On Blu Ray & DVD 2/12/13

The triumphant return to form for 007 that was Sam Mende’s SKYFALL comes out today on Blu ray and DVD. The film, the 23rd in the James Bond series and the 3rd to star Daniel Craig, is available in a deluxe edition (including a DVD and a digital copy) on Blu ray, and a stand alone DVD version. Read my review from its original theatrical release here.

Special features include a couple of commentaries – one with Mendes, the other with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and Production Designer Dennis Gassner, a bunch of ‘making of’ featurettes, a segment on the Royal World Premeire of the film at the Royal Albert Hall (you know, with the Queen!), and a promo for the soundtrack.

Stephen Chbosky’s PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER also drops today on Blu ray and DVD. It’s a movie I enjoyed (read my review), but not as much as my wife who adored it, saying that it captured her teenaged high school years beautifully. Both the Blu ray and DVD contain deleted scenes, a few featurettes, and a commentary with Chbosky, who adapted the film from his own young adult novel, and members of the cast including Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller. That sounds like a commentary I might want to check out.

Despite the work of a solid cast headed by John Hawkes, who talks in a nasal voice that often sounds like Norm McDonald, I was not a fan of Ben Lewins’ THE SESSIONS, which is now available on Blu ray and DVD. The film, about poet Mark O’Brien who was paralyzed from the neck down, was a hit with audiences, and the Academy as it garnered a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Helen Hunt, but I found it to be too cutesy, especially for its subject matter, and felt that all it had to say was ‘paraplegics need to have sex too.’ Both Blu ray and DVD versions contain deleted scenes and several featurettes.

Jake Schreier’s ROBOT & FRANK, also out today but only on DVD, is a movie that I liked a lot better. It’s a silly story, about an aging jewel thief who takes on a helper robot as a partner in crime, but Frank Langella gives it a pleasing gravitas. As I wrote in my review last September, “the charming camaraderie between Frank and his robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) make this a breezily enjoyable 89 minutes.” The only special feature is a commentary with Jake Schreier and Writer Christopher D. Ford.

An acclaimed film that I’m ashamed I haven’t seen yet gets the Criterion Collection treatment today: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s 2011 drama THE KID WITH A BIKE. The set boasts a new digital transfer supervised by director of photography Alain Marcoen, featurettes including a conversation between film critic Kent Jones and directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, interviews with actors Cécile de France and Thomas Doret, a half-hour documentary, “Return to Seraing,” and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew, but who am I kidding? I’ll be watching it on Netflix Instant where it’ll be available until December 2015 (according to instantwatcher.com). Maybe I’ll like it so much that I’ll want to see the bonus stuff one day. Nice to know the Criterion Collection one is out there in any case.

Finally, a movie I was profoundly disappointed by gets a Blu ray and DVD release: Bill Jones and Jeff Simpson's A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN. Chapman’s life and comedic legacy aren’t done justice by this misguided adaptation of his autobiography, which he recorded a sort of “book on tape” version of shortly before his death in 1989.

In the faux documentary, those recordings are illustrated by a range of different animation styles, very few of which are appealing, with guest voices by ex-Monty Python members John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones, along with Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud. Yep. Except for the few instances of actual footage that pops up (“The Spanish Inquisition” sketch, Cleese’s overplayed yet still hilarious eulogy at Chapman’s funeral) it all falls flat. But if you’re a hardcore Python fan that has to see everything, take note: this is also available on Netflix Instant (until Oct. 2017!).

More later...

Friday, February 08, 2013

Michael Haneke’s AMOUR Earns Its Accolades

This Oscar nominated French film opens today in Raleigh at the Colony Theater and the Grande 16:

AMOUR (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2012)

The set-up is so simple and the story so spare, that initially many movie-goers may wonder why this was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Picture Academy Awards for 2012.

But as they come to know Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as a long-time married couple in their 80s, and how their retirement has gotten less comfortable after Riva suffers a debilitating stroke, very few will question why this film is getting such accolades.

Trintignant and Riva, former music teachers, live in a fairly spacious apartment in Paris, which you’ll get to know almost every inch of as the movie almost completely takes place there (we first meet the French couple in a great long shot of the audience at a concert of one of Riva’s former pupils, but after that…).

Early in the film, Riva, also worthy of her nomination for a Best Actress Oscar, stops speaking mid-sentence and goes while sitting at breakfast. Trintignant panics after failing to get her attention, and as he is about call for help, she snaps out of it. This is her first stroke, and shortly after, Trintignant takes her in for surgery, but complications make her condition worse.

Riva, now paralyzed on one side and confined to a wheelchair, makes Trintignant promise he won’t put her in the hospital again. The worried Trintignant does what he can to tend to his ailing wife, but he knows that she’s in heavy decline and that her days are numbered. Nurses (Carole Franck and Dinara Droukarova) help out, and their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) also checks in.

AMOUR is a very quiet film - there’s no score; the only music present is when Trintignant puts on CDs of Schubert and Beethoven, and a visiting star student (Alexandre Tharaud) plays a piece on piano for the couple.

Tharaud sends Trintignant and Riva a note after his visit, in which he writes that seeing them was “beautiful, but sad.”

That sums up the movie succinctly, but the emotional power present is much more overwhelming than that simple sentiment suggests. Previously, director/writer Michael Haneke’s filmography (FUNNY GAMES, CACHE, THE WHITE RIBBON) has left me a bit cold, but the warm feeling that he has for these two lovely characters is felt in every frame, and the delicate room-length distance he gives his subjects pays proper respect.

The French film icon Trintignant (AND GOD CREATED WOMAN, Z, THE CONFORMIST), who wasn’t nominated for an Oscar but picked up a European Film Award for Best Actor, puts in an affectingly relatable performance as the stressed out yet still endlessly devoted husband.

Riva, best known for her starring role in Alain Resnais’ HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959), is incredibly and disturbingly convincing in her fearless performance of a woman losing her fight with life. It’s nearly impossible not to tear up at times when witnessing her helpless pain.

It would indeed be satisfying to see Riva, the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, take home the gold on February 24th.

More later...

The Soon To Be Forgotten Off Season Folly Of IDENTITY THIEF

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

IDENTITY THIEF (Dir. Seth Gordon, 2013) 

Jason Bateman, in his standard exasperated everyman role, takes on Melissa McCarthy as a con artist who’s racked up a huge debt in his name in this uninspired comedy that deserves to be dumped into this sorry season.

Bateman plays Denver-based accountant Sandy Patterson - a name that could be a woman’s name which, of course, equals lotsa laughs - a straight laced family man married to the suitably bland Amanda Peet, who travels to Florida to confront McCarthy, and bring her back to confess her identity theft to Bateman’s boss (HAROLD & KUMAR’s John Cho) so that he won’t lose his job.

In what’s largely a PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (minus the trains) or DUE DATE-type road movie, Bateman and McCarthy are pursued by drug dealers (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) and a skuzzy bounty hunter (Robert Patrick), as they go through by-the numbers car chases, gay panic jokes, and even a night in the woods in which Bateman tangles with a seven foot snake.

With her tacky hair, gaudy fashions, hideous makeup, and constant inappropriate innuendo McCarthy is a broadly drawn archetype that never feels fully fleshed out. Craig Mazan’s (SCARY MOVIES 3 & 4, THE HANGOVER PARTS II & III) screenplay exploits McCarthy’s BRIDESMAIDS persona, but in a manner that’s too sketchy for the character to have any depth.

This makes for a distinct lack of emotional pull and an overriding emptiness when the movie gives up trying to make us laugh, and piles on the sentiment.

Only one moment, set in a cheap hotel room, involving Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet as a rich good ol’ boy who falls for McCarthy has any weight to it.

Otherwise, despite Bateman tossing off a few dry one-liners, and a running gag involving McCarthy's defense mechanism of punching people in the throat, there is very little that even slightly resembles humor here.

It’s also way too long at 112 minutes, something that makes its lack of laughs even more noticeable. The in and outs of its tedious narrative so lost my interest, that I can’t remember what the significance of Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks’ prisoner character was in the rest of this mess.

McCarthy, who has proven her considerable comic talent in BRIDESMAIDS and a stint hosting SNL (I’ve never watched Mike and Molly), will undoubtedly get better chances to bring the funny in future films, so this will soon be a forgotten off season folly that won’t be much of a black mark on her resume.

As for Bateman, the much anticipated Arrested Development reunion reboot can’t come soon enough.

More later...

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Few DVD Reviews & More Awards Season Whatnot

As it's Awards season, there's no lack of lists and polls, or bitchin' about the results of said lists and polls going on. 

So I thought I'd mention that I voted in the 2012 Muriel Awards, the results of which are being posted starting today. Check them out here. Be sure to keep checking back as they will be trickled out over the next few weeks.

I just submitted my 2012 movie rankings to The LAMB (the Large Association of Movie Blogs). I'll let you know when those are posted.

And I wrote about the Oscar nominated shorts in last Friday's Raleigh N & O“Oscar short film nominees offer a lot of entertainment” (Feb. 1st, 2013)

Now for a few reviews of movies from last year I'm catching up with:

THE WATCH (Dir. Akiva Schaffer, 2012)

There are more CGI effects than there are laughs, or even attempts at laughs, in last summer’s flop comedy THE WATCH, which I just watched on DVD. Ben Stiller, in his standard uptight goody two shoes role, stars as a Costco manager who starts a neighborhood watch with Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade to get to the bottom of the mysterious murder of one of Stiller's Costco security guards (Joseph A. Nunez).

For a while it doesn’t even feel like the movie has a screenplay as it largely consist of the four leads riffing on top of the flimsy material, and once it gets to its major set pieces involving invading aliens, the gags are almost non-existent.

Schaffer, one-third of the SNL Digital Shorts masterminds/musical satirists The Lonely Island (the other members, Adam Sanberg and Jorma Taccone put in a cameo in an orgy scene), competently stitches together what Jared Stern, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg supposedly wrote down, but it never amounts to anything more than half-assed humor. Schaffer’s previous film, HOT ROD, was actually laugh out loud funny, you're lucky to get a few mild chuckles out of this.

Rosemarie DeWitt, a familiar face from quite a few recent indie films, plays Stiller's wife in what's mainly a sideline role, but she gets to run around with the guys during the Costco-set climatic battle, so at least she gets out of the house. Vaughn's wife (Erinn Hayes) isn't so lucky as she's only in one scene and doesn't even have a line.

I almost snickered a little when Will Forte (SNL, MACGRUBER) as a snarky cop who ridicules Stiller and crew would pop up, and some of Vaughn’s motor-mouthed character’s banter who see himself as a “cool dad” made me come close to smiling, and occasionally got close to giggling at Ayoade, who though strongly underutilized, is a welcome fresh face among the other’s overly familiar shtick, but I just couldn’t get down with the dick joke mentality and the sloppy plotting. So another less than stellar Ben Stiller vehicle that wasn’t a smash, what else is new?

COMPLIANCE (Dir. Craig Zobel, 2012)

There are parts of this film that made me so uncomfortable I felt like leaving the room, but I knew I’d still be looking back at the screen through the doorway if I did. Screenwriter/director Zobel based his film, his second after GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, on a real life scenario that’s has surprisingly happened many times - a prank call that leads to sexual assault.

At a fictional Chickwich fast food restaurant, in Ohio (Ohio again!), the manager (Ann Dowd) gets a call from a man claiming to be a police officer who has been in touch with the chain’s regional manager. The man, who we only hear as a disembodied voice for the first third of the film, tells Dowd that one of her employees, a 19-year old blonde cashier, has stolen money from a customer, and that this is part of a larger investigation.

Dowd brings the girl (Dreama Walker) to the backroom office and questions her about the theft following the man’s instructions. Walker denies taking the money, and Dowd can’t find it in her pockets or purse. The man then instructs Dowd to perform a strip search. With another supervisor (Ashlie Atkinson) present, Walker takes off all her clothes, including her underwear, and we know that phony voice of authority is going to take this twisted gag as far as he can go.

By this time, we have gotten random shots of the man, played by Pat Healy, who is obviously not a cop, at his home with a bunch of store bought calling cards. Healy lounges around as he gives orders on the phone, makes a sandwich, waters plants, etc. all the while putting these poor people through humiliating sexual situations of his own devising. 

A co-worker of comparable age to Walker, who spends most of her role naked with only a Chickwich apron covering her, Philip Ettinger, refuses to go along with what Healy tells him to do, but Dowd’s boyfriend (Bill Camp), called in from a night drinking, is more susceptible. The restaurant is slammed while this is all going on, so Dowd is torn away to serve customers up front and is majorly oblivious to how crazy-go-nuts it gets.

As if to remind us that it's an art film, Zobel intersperses close-ups of fries sizzling in grease, grimy floors, and other mundane bits of the restaurant’s unappealing décor throughout the film, so you fully get the closed-in vibe of this messed-up material. What I couldn’t stop thinking was, are these people really that stupid to not question that anybody could just call and identify themselves as police? Then I had to remind myself that this has happened, and that, yes, people can get that horribly manipulated.

Although it can come across as exploitive speculation on the premise of the strip search prank call scam, COMPLIANCE is cringe-inducing cinema at is most involving. It falters in its last 10-15 minutes when it becomes a procedural crack down on the caller, and then gives us an un-insightful scene of Dowd being interviewed on a magazine style news show about the ordeal, but for a large compelling chunk of its running time, it’s one of 2012’s best, and oddest, thrillers.

More later...