Monday, January 28, 2013

GRINDHOUSE FILM FESTIVAL presents CONVENT OF THE SACRED BEAST



While buying a copy of Black Narcissus on blu-ray a few years ago, a couple of snarky clerks working the Barnes & Noble Criterion sale started cracking jokes about nunsploitation.  I doubt they were referring specifically to Noribumi Suzuki's 1974 film Convent of the Sacred Beast (aka School of the Holy Beast), but there's really not a title out there that more fully inhabits that descriptor.  It's a film that piles up such nunsploitation/exploitation traits as s&m (lots o' whipping, sometimes with thorns!), lesbian nuns, dirty old bishops, and various perversions based in Catholic imagery.  So, of course, it was only a matter of time before it showed up at the Hollywood Theatre's monthly Grindhouse Film Festival event.

Here's what the Grindhouse folks have to say about Tuesday night's presentation:

The Grindhouse Film Festival presents the only known 35mm print of the Japanese nunsploitation film Convent of the Sacred Beast. 

Convent of the Sacred Beast (aka School of the Holy Beast) (1974) A young woman enters a convent to investigate the mysterious death of her mother. The convent turns out to be a steaming hotbed of immorality, and the woman must deal with a lesbian mother superior, a sleazy archbishop, and nuns who submit to S&M punishments for their sins. Filled with sex and violence, and filmed with beautiful cinematography, this is an erotic mix of giallo and sexploitation. This is one of a kind, and not to be missed. 

35mm sexploitation trailers before the movie





Convent of the Sacred Beast plays one-night-only at the Hollywood Theatre on Tuesday, January 29th at 7:30pm.  More info available here.


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Saturday, January 19, 2013

MAMA: MAMA NEEDS A BRAND NEW BAG


Mama is a perfect argument for why most short-form films, no matter how strong they may be, don't necessarily need to be developed into 90+ minute features.  There are, of course, exceptions; one could argue for the idea that Benh Zeitlin's astounding feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a repurposing of the themes of his earlier short Glory at Sea, but Zeitlin wisely fleshed out an entirely new scenario for Beasts (it's the setting and tone that remain, not the scenario).  Director Andrés Muschietti turned in a frightening three minute version of Mama back in 2008.  Impressed by the potential within it, Guillermo del Toro decided to throw a bunch of money at it to see if it could be stretched into a movie proper.  Like an overfilled leaky balloon, the result makes a lot of noise, but quickly deflates under the pressure of its expansion.




In the earlier version, Muschietti barely sketched out his characters, which was perfectly appropriate for the length and purpose of his short.  Mama as a three minute piece is barely more than an establishment of mood and two quick scares.  Mama as a full blown film needs a bit more meat on the bone, and Muschietti and his co-writers do attempt to flesh things out.  They do this by creating a backstory involving two young sisters (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) who, after the film's grisly disposal of their father, are raised for five years by a spectre they refer to as Mama.  During this time, the girls are presumed dead by just about everyone outside of their uncle Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who, oddly, also plays their father at the fore of the film) who's been paying a private investigator to track them down since they disappeared.  When the investigation team locates them in a beat down cabin, uncle Jeffrey and his punky/gothy/grungy (ok, non-specific) rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take in the now feral youngsters.



Predictably, Mama is a fierce protector and follows the girls to their new home, quickly putting Jeffrey in the hospital and leaving them in the less than caring arms of Annabel.  Along the way, we get to meet Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), a generically-drawn, psychiatrist with less than pure intentions when helping the girls; his methods betray more interest in the occult and historical hunches concerning Mama's origin than in healing the obvious trauma of those in his care.  When the film does turn to telling Mama's backstory, it's firmly in debt to all things J-horror, trying on the painful loss and accompanying desire for vengeance motif found in Ju-on, Ringu, and Retribution to drive its ghost to do that voodoo that she do(es) so well.  Anyone who went through even a minor love affair with Asian horror of the 90s and 2000s will find Mama incredibly derivative, lacking any new contributions to the way these kinds of films operate.



  
Mama's biggest failure, though, is in its inability to flesh out its characters.  Every single one, including Chastain's at first ridiculously moody then instantly maternal Annabel, is a two-dimensional cutout functioning more in terms of the needs of plot mechanics than as an organic, reasonably believable human being.  Mama expects the viewer to recognize how such characters are supposed to act within horror flicks, rendering them in a lazy fill-in-the-blanks fashion.  It's as if Muschietti forgot (or perhaps never understood) the division of labor within the director/author to audience relationship.  Maybe ol' moneybags Del Toro should have reminded him that those of us staring up at the screen aren't the ones responsible for telling the story.  As it stands, Mama's a muted, ho-hum slog to the bottom of the heap.  Mama needs a brand new bag.




Mama opens at the Portland area theaters on Friday, January 18th.  More info available here.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

THE BEST OF 2012: THE TOP 5



#5 Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax):



Wiry French character actor Denis Lavant has been on my radar ever since his impressive contribution to Claire Denis' masterpiece Beau Travail.  His work in Holy Motors, overseen by long time collaborator/director Leos Carax, has yielded one of his best performance to date, as well as what might be the oddest film since David Lynch last made a feature (count 'em, six long years ago)Lavant plays Monsieur Oscar, an actor of sorts driven around Paris as he prepares to play various roles in the back of white limousine.  At the end of each stage of his journey, Oscar emerges an entirely different beast, ranging from a cold killer to a bag lady, a deranged caveman, and beyond.  

Throughout Holy Motors, there are clues and reflexive statements aligning the seemingly random journey to a larger commentary on film as a technologically-based medium going through what is either a growth spurt or the beginnings of a death rattle.  At the same time, one can easily read the same cues as a statement on identity.  Carax has designed a film that is open to competing interpretations and even enjoyable if no attempts at analysis are made at all.  Has there been a more interesting and weird use of motion capture technology this year (or ever)?  I think not.  To quote a woman who saw the same screening I attended: "can anybody explain to me what THAT was about?"




Holy Motors is currently still in theaters.  Hit up Mr. Movie Times for details of when and where.


#4 The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson):


Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't usually swim in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to story.  But with The Master, he's produced a film that barely seems interested in its own plot, choosing to devote excessive amounts of time to being present with its characters while slowly abandoning thread after thread of story they inhabit.  Luckily, Anderson's provided the audience with two of the more interesting characters he's ever drawn in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  The static created between these two men says more about what The Master truly is than any piece of exposition or connect-the-dots plotting ever could.  They are the story.

Read my review of The Master here.





The Master is scheduled for release on DVD & Blu-ray on February 26th.


#3 Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold):



Here's the rare costume drama that never feels stodgy in the least.  Still, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights may test the patience of many viewers with its stubborn (or is it thrilling?) insistence on depicting a world without modern distractions.  However, those willing to wait it out 'til the bitter end will be amply rewarded with an exquisitely rendered take on timeless themes found both within and outside of the source material.  Wuthering Heights only furthers the suspicion that Arnold will eventually be counted as one of our greatest filmmakers.
 
Read my review of Wuthering Heights here.




Wuthering Heights is currently unavailable on DVD & Blu-ray in Region 1.  It will presumably be release on home video sometime in 2013 in the U.S.


#2 5 Broken Cameras (dir. Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi):



Back in April, I wrote that, "I don't think I've seen a more affecting documentary this year than Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi's 5 Broken Cameras."  It's still true.  There hasn't been a week all year that I haven't thought about this film at least once.  I could say a lot more about it, but, really, everyone should just watch it instead.


Read my review of 5 Broken Cameras here.




5 Broken Cameras is scheduled for release on DVD on January 15th.


#1 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan):



I viewed Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia just before it screened at last year's Portland International Film Festival.  I knew that night that there was little chance that I'd encounter another film that could top it in 2012, despite there being ten months left in the yearWhen writing about it later, I hinted that the plot of the movie is a diversion from what the film is actually about.  Most films about a search for a body at night wouldn't stray far from the urgency of that charge.  Ceylan's film turns the floodlights directly on the men carrying out the search.   

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia tells us more about those men than anything related to the crime being investigated.  A completely original, utterly patient, and truly satisfying tale.  It's a stone-cold masterpiece; one for the ages.
 
Read my review of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia here. 




Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

THE BEST OF 2012: #6-10



#10 In the Family (dir. Patrick Wang):



This tiny, little indie that could slowly toured the country, gathering up word of mouth and positive critical notices wherever it played in 2012.  Still, In the Family is a film I've not a single soul reference all year, betraying I think more about what happens when films don't have the luxury of a proper marketing push, festival wins, or distribution than anything to do with the quality of the film.  Actor/director Patrick Wang's work here deserves a large audience.  In the Family is the smallest, most honest film I saw in 2012.

Read my review of In the Family here.




In the Family is currently still touring the country in limited engagements.  Check the website for more details.


#9 Amour (dir. Michael Haneke):



Michael Haneke's work tends to focus on the brutal truths of society; in this regard, he is one of modern cinema's most reliable truth tellers.  His latest work, Amour, dodges applying that characteristic to larger social phenomena.  Instead, this uneasy honesty is aimed entirely at a naked examination of mortality, fidelity, and the limitations of love.  The brutality is still there, but it's present in the way the film is edited.  In one quick cut after another, Haneke abruptly moves his characters further to the brink of their shared personal disaster, and it's crushing to apprehend the state of unraveling portrayed onscreen.  Oh, and if that wasn't enough, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva turn in the two best performances of 2012.




Amour is currently still in theaters.  Hit up Mr. Movie Times for details of when and where.


#8 Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin):



Benh Zeitlin could walk away from filmmaking altogether and have made his mark with his debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  A joyous, tragic coming of age narrative that hits up more than a few indie tropes and techniques, but never resembles anything other than its own magical self.   
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a disaster lived through the eyes of a child, untouched by the strains of dominant culture and codified knowledge.  In Beasts, we finally have something along the lines of what I'd hoped for from Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Mitch Cullin's Tideland (absolutely worth a read, but skip the film).

Read my review of Beasts of the Southern Wild here.




Beasts of the Southern Wild is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.


#7 Oslo, August 31st (dir. Joachim Trier):



Oslo, August 31st is a difficult film to talk about with those who require a ray of sunshine present in the films they watch.  It's all about a guy who wants to die from a self-administered overdose.  We know this because early in the film he lets a friend in on his plans.  From that point on, we're made to watch as he makes his way through the day, unsure as to whether or not he'll actually go through with it.  Crazily enough, the film is incredibly life-affirming, both in the way that the reasons for living pile up (despite our protagonist's inability to acknowledge them) and because Oslo, August 31st is one hell of a film, and (c'mon, movie nerds) what's more life-affirming than that?

Read my review of Oslo, August 31st here.



Oslo, August 31st is currently available on DVD and can be streamed via Netflix.


#6 Dark Horse (dir. Todd Solondz):


Maybe you're one of the many out there who thinks Todd Solondz is past his prime, a relic of the oh-so-cynical 90s.  And you'd be forgiven for thinking this way; after all, Storytelling was a huge misstep after the triumphs that were Happiness and Welcome to the DollhousePalindromes only further alienated audiences, enough so that many might not have noticed that Life During Wartime was actually pretty good.

So it's kind of unfortunate that with Dark Horse, his strongest work since the late 90s, most of his audience has already walked away.  Trust me, I kinda like what Solondz does on a regular basis, but even I didn't expect him to produce the funniest film of 2012.  Sure, it's probably unbearable if you can't deal with humor borne from misery, but that's kind of what Solondz is all about, right?  Oh, and it features the best/worst music of any film this year, outside of the re-released 80s cult treat Miami Connection.

Read my review of Dark Horse here. 




Dark Horse is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

THE BEST OF 2012: #11-15


#15 Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino):


It's really difficult to pick a favorite Tarantino flick , but, as far as I'm concerned, Django Unchained is absolutely a contender to the throne.  With it and, to a slightly lesser extent, 2009's Inglorious Basterds, Q.T.'s moved from merely referencing the films he loves to a place where he's fully operating within the genres he worships.  With this shift, he's traversed the distance between throwing knowing winks up on the screen and perpetrating full-blown homages to some of the greatest and lurid works of the past.  The latter path ends up being so much more satisfying, cohesive, and mature.  

There's still plenty of dark humor and energetic, bizarro fun to be had here; Tarantino's still Tarantino, after all, but it's also much easier to be lost in Django Unchained as a proper film than it was with the (still massively impressive) Kill Bill films.  For my money, this is the best thing he's made since Jackie Brown.  And I'm still having a hard time believing how good Jamie Foxx and Leo D-Cap are in this film.   




Django Unchained is currently still in theaters.  Hit up Mr. Movie Times to find out when and where.


#14 The Fairy (dir. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, & Bruno Romy):


A wonderful surprise of a film, completely magical and moving, if you allow yourself to be swept away by it.  It's silly, surreal, and visually reminiscent of the best work of Robby Müller.  I've seen it twice now and it still holds up on a second viewing.  The Fairy is one of those films that I feel like I could recommend to anyone, regardless of taste.

Read my review of The Fairy here





The Fairy is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.


#13 Looper (dir. Rian Johnson):


There's never enough intelligent sci-fi released in any given year.  For every Primer, there's a dozen duds like Johnny Mnemonic.   Looper wasn't just the 2012's best foray into the genre, it's the best science fiction release since 2009's Moon.  Director Rian Johnson built a film out of various spare parts borrowed from other classic entries (Blade Runner, La Jetée, Akira), and he's smart enough to layer and sequence those influences into a clever and mostly unpredictable script that reminds the viewer why, despite the tons of poorly orchestrated sci-fi that fans have had to put up with in their lifetimes, we still go and see these kinds of film, holding out hope that every once in a while we'll stumble upon one of them that is actually kind of great.  Looper is one that justifies such patient optimism.




Looper is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.


#12 Café de Flore (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée):


Here's a film I nearly skipped out on seeing all together because every single synopsis out there (including the one in the PIFF 35 catalog or even the tagline of the poster) made it sound middling at best.  It starts out as a story about a narcissistic dj (Kevin Parent) who's abandoned his family for a hot chick.  Trust me, that's the awful part, but it's not what the film's about at all.  There's another story thread featuring Vanessa Paradis, which soon gains equal footing with all that rotten dj nonsense.  It's when the stories begin to influence and creep into each others space that things get really interesting. 

Unfortunately, Jean-Marc Vallée's (The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y.) film never really got the word of mouth or audience it deserved here in the U.S.  It's currently in distribution limbo and, thus, difficult to see.  If you are able to track down a screening or import dvd, I'd recommend going into it without much knowledge of plot, since it's the twists that count in this film.

Read my review of Café de Flore here.




Café de Flore is currently unavailable in Region 1 on DVD & Blu-ray.  There are import dvd options out there, but you'll want to make sure you can play discs from outside your region before importing.


#11 The Turin Horse (dir. Béla Tarr):


If Béla Tarr is truly stepping away from making films, The Turin Horse is one hell of a way to do it.  The film feels like both like a farewell to the medium and Tarr's interest in communicating with humanity.  From the first long tracking shot on, it's apparent that we're in the hands of a world master, and that the Hungarian auteur intends to make us aware of what we're losing with each moment of this final, funereal masterpiece.

Read my review of The Turin Horse here. 




The Turin Horse is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

THE BEST OF 2012: #16-20


#20 Sleepwalk with Me (dir. Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish):




Mike Birbiglia tells the film-going public the same long, rambling anecdote that he shared with the This American Life cult back in 2008 and, surprisingly, it doesn't feel like an old story.  With the help of This American Life guru Ira Glass and co-director Seth Barrish, Birbiglia's given birth to 2012's best substitution for a decent Woody Allen film.  Oh, and nobody seems to be mentioning Lauren Ambrose when writing about this movie, so let me correct that by ending this sentence with the following statement: she's very good in it.




Sleepwalk with Me is available on DVD & Blu-ray and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.


#19 Compliance (dir. Craig Zobel):




Did I already say that Snowtown was the most disturbing film I saw in 2012 in that last chunk of my best of 2012 list?  Okay, it was, but, if that's the case, Craig Zobel's (The Great World of Sound) Compliance makes it in as a close second place holder.  Zobel's characters display actions that are so questionable that there were multiple times during the film that I completely lost track of the idea that the film is based on true events.  No, I did not feel good about myself or humanity after watching this film, but I couldn't shake it from memory, either.

Read my review of Compliance here




Compliance is scheduled for release on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 8th.


#18 The Miners' Hymns (dir. Bill Morrison):




Bill Morrison's work can be located at the intersection of the experimental and the just plain cool.  General audiences probably aren't ready for anything he's produced, but, keep in mind, such viewers are to blame for the sequels to National Treasure and Night at the Museum (yeah, you buy into that crap, and someone's always going to line up to shovel more down your throat).  Having said that, this is probably his most accessible film to date; it's the one you could watch with your dad.  With The Miners' Hymns, Morrison weaves imagery drawn from history into a mesmerizing gaze back at a time and place that's nearly unrecognizable from the present.

Read my review of The Miners' Hymns here



The Miners' Hymns is available on DVD and can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video.


#17 Beauty is Embarrassing (dir. Neil Berkeley):




Wayne White calls 'em like he sees 'em and, in Neil Berkeley's documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, the puppeteer turned multidisciplinary artist doesn't hold back at all, especially when it comes to talking about his experiences in Hollywood.  White is funny, unpredictable, and, best of all, completely committed to the act of creation and telling others that they can to do the same.  I probably saw 10 times as many documentaries as I did features in 2012; Beauty is Embarrassing was the one that made me feel the most inspired.

Read my review of Beauty is Embarrassing here.




Beauty is Embarrassing will be released on DVD on January 22nd and currently can be streamed via Amazon Instant Video.


#16 Buoy (dir. Steve Doughton):



Buoy takes an action that would, at the most, fill a couple of minutes in any other movie and stretches it out to feature length.  Outside of its first 10 minutes, the entire film is centered around a woman (Tina Holmes) talking to her brother (Matthew Del Negro, who never appears on camera) on the phone.  In the hands of writer/director Steve Doughton, it's compelling, emotional, and, above all, compulsively watchable.  Who knew that eavesdropping on the conversations of others could be so cathartic?  Buoy proves that, in the right hands, less can definitely be more.  Seeing is believing and I'd highly recommend seeking this one out when it becomes more widely available.



Buoy is currently unavailable on home video, though plans are being made for an eventual release.  For now, you can check out the film's website.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

56 UP: STILL COMPELLING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS


It's been seven years since 49 Up and, like clockwork, director Michael Apted returns with 56 Up the latest installment in his groundbreaking Up series.  Checking in with the lives its English subjects every seven years since they were young schoolchildren, this series of made-for-television documentaries has yielded an amazingly emotional look at ordinary lives lived; their failures and triumphs aired for all the world to witness.  It's one thing to appreciate the idea that informs these films, but watching them is an entirely different experience, as it's possible to be drawn into the otherwise private details of the lives of complete strangers.



If this sounds roughly like the effect of watching a season of reality tv, it's probably due to the undeniable influence that the Up series has had on that genre; Apted's initial chapter in the series predates An American Family, PBS' 1971 experiment in reality-based television, by seven years.  The difference between the Up series and, say, Jersey Shore, is profound; whereas most reality television takes on a leering gaze, the Up series has always had more anthropological aims in mind.  In Apted's hands, the 14 subjects who have taken part in the series have been less representatives of themselves than of the universal experience that is living life and gathering stories along the way.



As we pick up once again with the familiar faces in 56 Up, many of them are beginning to evaluate where they are in their lives, often within the context of the series and how it has and has not fairly represented them.  Some complain that it has offered the public a sense of identification that isn't earned, and, surely, being repeatedly approached by complete strangers who want to commiserate with you over the private details of your life must be exhausting.  Neil Hughes, whose past struggles with homelessness made him the subject that most viewers worried about in prior chapters, has found stability and is probably the most vocal in his protests that people don't know how he feels just because they've seen small slices of his life on the telly every seven years.



All in all, 56 Up isn't going to surprise viewers, whether or not they've checked in with the series before.  But it does offer the same comforts as the past few chapters, mainly the possibility of transformation over time, as many of the "characters" found within have achieved some form of peace with the way their lives have unfolded.  Like previous installments, 56 Up betrays its roots in television, especially how each person's story remains a discrete section of the larger whole; Apted doesn't cut between the tales as he might were he presenting a feature documentary, so, even if we're seeing it in theaters in the U.S., the overall style is that of the small screen.  This should in no way dissuade anyone from checking in with it, though, as this latest chunk of the Up series retains its fascinating power to pull viewers into the lives of its subjects.

Highly recommended.




56 Up premieres at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, January 4th.  It opens locally at Cinema 21 on January 25th.  More info available here.

 

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